Friday 17 December 2010

Life Outside These Walls?

Looking forward to catching up with some of my old screenwriting friends this evening for some pre-Christmas drinks.

Writing is a horribly solitary activity, as many others have said before me. I'm not necessarily the most outgoing person there is (some might call that a whopper of understatement but I can have moments of irritatingly loud behaviour) but working alone, with almost no feedback, makes it seem like I'm floundering in the dark and wasting my time. Talking face to face with other sufferers of this affliction know as "the writer" reminds you that you're not alone and there just might be a point to what you're doing.

And talking movies with other self-confessed film geeks is just about my favourite type of conversation.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Snow Day Means Movies

Being pretty much snowed in and therefore having more time on my hands, that old chestnut called "discipline" rears its head and I realise how little I apply the practice. As much as I prefer to write in the evening, I need to do it when any time is available. So instead I sat and watched three films in a row on TV yesterday. But the positive is that I was consciously aware of analysing them as I watched them. Not just whether I liked the film or not, but applied screenwriting techniques to what I was seeing. It got tougher as the day went on, though, as the films seemed to almost descend in quality as I watched them.

At least movie posters have moved on from the 80's Photoshop style. Yes?

The Pick Up Artist (1987, James Toback) was mostly enjoyable. It started well - from the word go we are int he protagonist's world and scenes serve on more than one level, which is something I'm trying to get right myself. In the first 10 minutes of a film we need to know as much as we can about the person whose eyes we are are seeing this new world through and Robert Downey Jr's Jack Jericho (awful name which sounds like it should be a villain in a Tango & Cash sequel) is a surprisingly likeable character, even though he could so easily be an asshole due to his overt attempts to womanize. But what we also see are the other aspects of his life; he lives with and looks after his grandmother and he is a good teacher and very popular with his kids (nice little cameo from Robert Towne as his Principal).

But I felt it fell to pieces towards the end. There are too many scenes of him chasing Molly Ringwald (although my 80's self would have done the same...) while the stakes are rising, as though the Toback is forgetting about why the characters are there in the first place (gambling debt's owed to Harvey Keitel's mobster pimp). Downey Jr keeps chasing the girl while folks could are in danger of getting whacked.

Next up was Sea Wife (1957). Again, it started out not bad but descended into silliness and repetition, especially Richard Burton's constant cries of, "I love you, Sea Wife". Joan Collin's keeping the fact she was a nun secret from Burton made very little sense and since that was a major driving force for much of the conflict between her and Burton, it made me far less patient with the film than I could have been. "Get on with it!" is the internal cry I heard in my head the most. Basil Sydney's racist Bulldog was pretty flat and predictably villainous (but without much obvious moustache twirling) and Cy Grant's Number Four tried to fill in a few gaps, privy to Collins' secret and siding with the audience in our frustration at her decision. I'm not sure how brave the film was in its depiction of racism at the time of production but at least it tried.

But once the I reached the end of the film the whole endeavour seemed rather pointless. I wasn't sure what the film was really about and neither did the filmmakers, I suspect. Folks stuck in a life raft at sea has obviously been done before (it would be remiss not to mention Hitchcock's Life Boat) and while it might have been tempting to imitate Hitchcock's rising tension between his characters, there was very little suspense to be had here, with very little effort put into the tensions between our trapped four in this case. It could have been a lot more believeable given the qualities given to each character without having to go the same route as Hitchcock.

I ended on Party Girl (1958) which, it turns out, is the first Nicholas Ray film I've seen end to end. While it looked lovely (even if FilmFour did seem to cut the CinemaScope aspect ratio, even on a widescreen TV. Give us the full frame, you numpties!) the story was so hum drum and "seen it all before" I had trouble giving a toss. Set in the 1930's prohibition era but obviously filmed in the 50's (the women's hairdo's seemed pretty much of the time), Robert Taylor's mob lawyer (but with a heart, you understand) falls for dancing girl Cyd Charisse while trying to get away from crime boss Lee J. Cobb (masticating his scenes with all the manners of Henry VIII). A rogue young punk wiseguy causes all sorts of problems when he conveniently appears (almost out of nowhere) in the middle of the film and Taylor has to choose between helping Cobb again or dealing with Cyd's lovely features being spoiled by a bottle of acid. All the stuff of by the numbers melodrama but trying to be a Noir (and a damn colourful noir at that). In fact this is the only "noir" I can think of where the action seems to stop for not one but two dance numbers, allowing Ms Charisse to show off the reason why she was famous in the first place. It reminded me of a Marx Brothers film where everything stopped for a big stage number or where the hero serenaded his girl.

By the end either Taylor & Charisse will cop it or Cobb will but Taylor is so stiff and uncomfortable in defending these thugs we know which way it'll go (another example of crime never being allowed to be seen to pay off by the Hollywood moral standard bearers). And the climax is heralded by an explosion of machine gunfire that Cagney or Muni would have been proud of, but instead of falling to the hail of lead, Cobb somehow manages to pour the acid on his own face - seriously, he stands by a pillar and raises the bottle over his face, almost deliberately, as though seized by a sudden desire for suicide and then tumbles out of the window.

Taylor and Charisse live happily ever after and I wonder how come it took me almost 3 hours to watch the 100 minute film.

But, a rule of mine is to take as much as I can from a film positively, no matter the quality (but there are a few exceptions...) so yesterday was by no means a waste of time.

Monday 6 December 2010

White Shit

It's everywhere. Scotland is snowed in. I'd say the UK but some places only have a light dusting. I lost almost an entire week's worth of wages last week due to the weather (at my temp evening job) and am now going to miss the whole of this week as well. It's Christmas in less than 3 weeks. Fun.

I should add, however, that I utterly hate my evening job which doesn't pay very much at all and eats into time due to the distance and useless public transport involved. So, the positive has to be (and I force myself to do this instead of wallowing) that I have more time to write in the evenings, which is when I can be arsed the most.

At least our dogs love it. It's almost 2 and a half feet deep in the park and it's fun to see them almost swimming in the snow.

I did have a dream, last night, that it rained overnight and all the snow was gone. I woke up, looked outside and one word popped into my head:


Skip to the End

Act 2. Still posing me problems. But I know what happens in act 3. I know where and how the hero winds up in act 3 so I'm remembering a little advice a few screenwriting teachers and gurus have offered before and that's to start writing backwards, from the points I know about. Odd, I know, but it makes sense.

The destination is all ready and I know exactly how things end. It's just getting him to the points where he will have to act on his previous experience and where everything is a consequence of what has come before. These are the themes and ideas resolved. It's like writing an essay when you are asked to explain an idea or theory and have to read up and learn about how these things occur.

The big fear is that act 2 will be boring. I need to create situations where the hero is tested further while not testing the audience's patience. I need to keep an old phrase in mind through all of it: What will happen next?

So everything in the second act will have to play a part in creating the climax while still maintaining excitement and keep steadily building the odds.

Thursday 2 December 2010

That Old Act 2 Thing

Completely re-writing act 2. What a nightmare. But you know what I'd almost forgotten? I wasn't making things hard enough for my protagonist.

He's in a situation where he thinks he's in control. Due to his inexperience and surrounding forces, he's not. Well, not as much as he thinks he is. Conflicting ideas and people are gathering around him in such a way as to make his quest damn near impossible. And these are the elements which spark further change in him. Qualities he already possesses deep down, unbeknownst to him, will come to the surface and overtake his outward appearance. His petulance and impetuousness, which he regards as positive in the first half of the story, will be smashed by the very characters he is trying to impress and/or help. Good thing too as their own behaviour will prove to be their undoing as they make the protagonist stronger by underestimating the hero and bringing his better qualities to the surface.

So I need to make it harder for him. Disappointment, realisation of hard facts and eventually an extraordinary calamity have to make him the man he will be. He wants to be a man; he just doesn't realise what it takes to really become one in the world he lives in.

But there is always a cost, or should be in some way, I feel. Possibly losing some kind of attachment, be it a friend, lover or object. I think a protagonist, in this traditional sense at least, should be able to find some kind of balance at the end of a story, finding their way by shedding certain elements of their life, voluntarily or not. Luke Skywalker might rescue Princess Leia, blow up the Death Star and become a hero of the Rebel Alliance but he still loses his family (Owen and Beru), best friend (Biggs) and mentor (Obi Wan) to the enemy.

Loss of innocence is a good one, I think, especially in this instance. What I'm writing isn't just a historical epic or period adventure or a love story. While it's all three of the above, at it's heart it's a coming of age tale, all centred around a boy who is finding the world is not what he was taught it really was and that not everyone is who they claim to be. It's got to be seen through the eyes of one person so the audience can learn about the complicated world as the hero does, experience those changes and emotions as he does, without getting bogged down in the horrid exposition that plagued the previous draft.

I know what the protagonist has to lose to find his way in this story. It's getting to those parts which is the task at hand. But how much of a shit can I be to my character?

Taking this on board, it's back to act 2 and hopefully something resembling a finished draft.


George Lucas created Star Wars. You perfected it.

Thank you, Mr Kershner. And sleep well.