Monday, February 20, 2017

My Favorite Films of 2016

Awards season is upon us. As such, I've assembled my annual list of top films of the past year. These are films that represent a perfect storm of exquisite writing, nuanced acting, strong directing, thoughtful cinematography, and purposeful editing. Have you seen them? What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let me know!

In no particular order:

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC
Written and Directed by Matt Ross

Viggo Mortensen's turn as Ben, a bereaved father of six with the unorthodox plot goal of interfering with a funeral, shines as an imaginative take on how to be a better parent. Every child is a unique personality (of special note is the conflicted eldest - George MacKay as Bo) and the viewer spends enough time with each to fall in love with the entire family. Just the right amount of silly, heartfelt, and believable, Fantastic is the year's strongest meditation on parenthood, its responsibilities, its joys, and its ability to bring out the best - and worst - in parents, grandparents, and children. Every scene not only reveals more about character but simultaneously lays bare the glue that holds the family together as well as the inevitable cracks that grow into schisms. While being a better father might be the biggest challenge of Ben's life, the viewer roots for him the entire ride.


HELL OR HIGH WATER

Directed by David Mackenzie
Written by Taylor Sheridan

Terrifying in its portrayal of utter desperation yet chock full of enough courage to sink a rusty pickup under the rapids of the Colorado River, High Water is about brotherhood - both between Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) as well as their relentless pursuers, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Deputy Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). When hard financial truths force the Howards to rob the very banks that mean to foreclose on the family farm, we're all too glad to cheer for the outlaws. But the beauty of the film lies in its shades of grey: we're rooting for both sides because they're both on the losing end of a larger war. But while one side is ultimately content to accept their place in the machinery of the state, the other is an upstart that can claim, at best, a pyrrhic victory. No spoils come for free, and every player in this film has to pay up.


MOONLIGHT

Written and Directed by Barry Jenkins

Heartbreaking, horrifying, and ultimately redemptive, Moonlight is a tense, introspective, and thoughtful meditation on growing up impoverished, Black, and gay. Every performance shines bright to the point of blinding the viewer to the fact that they're watching a film at all. A film in three parts, we seamlessly follow Chiron from boyhood (Alex Hibbert), adolescence (Ashton Sanders), and adulthood (Trevante Rhodes) as he navigates an external world including a warm but self-contradictory mentor (a charismatic Mahershala Ali), a tormented and tormenting mother (an astonishing Naomie Harris) a bevy of school bullies, and an internal struggle between "being the man," "looking tough," and love itself. What does it mean to be a man? Are we defined by how the world sees us or who we secretly are within? The film captures well the loneliness of being a child - and indeed the fundamental aloneness of existing in the first place.



ZOOTOPIA

Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush
Written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston

The filmmakers behind Zootopia didn't just create an engaging, lovable protagonist in Officer Judy Hopps - they created an entire world. The first 10 minutes alone are a master class in establishing character, story, and stakes. Engrossing from start to finish, Zootopia is about tolerance, the dangers of ignorance, and the nuances of law and order, but at its heart it remains true to the hopes and desires of its clever main character. Judy wants to make the world a better place but must learn that she herself - as well as those around her - can only be at their best when they rise above their animal instincts and listen to each other. For in doing so, the world truly becomes better.



ARRIVAL

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Eric Heisserer

Based on a short story by Ted Chiang, the story of how the film was adapted and made is almost worthy of a film in and of itself. At first glance it'a a story about visiting aliens but at its core it remains a tale about an impossible choice and the cyclical nature of existence. A stunning Amy Adams (in the best role of her career) as linguist Dr. Louise Banks is the key to deciphering the intents of our enigmatic otherworldly visitors... but is there something more at stake? Do we need their help or do they need ours? And what will it take to make the international community cooperate on anything? Does every opportunity come again? And if you know what's coming, would you do anything differently? Questions for the philosophers, yes, but somehow cobbled into a film with a strong story and stronger characters. Just the right amounts of mystery are dripped to the audience and we're left with a strong sense of accomplishment by the journey's end.



KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

Directed by Travis Knight
Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler

Exhaustively and meticulously conceptualized, written, and stop-motion animated over a period of five years, Kubo is that rarest of animals: an original fantasy story with global appeal. While Matthew McConaughey as a samurai might be cringeworthy, the clear writing, integrated storytelling, and astonishing visuals (in service to the story) more than make up for it. Kubo is a yarn (pun intended) about a young man's journey to be the good man his parents wanted him to be while avoiding the temptations of an inhuman immortality. Effectively funny and honest in its emotional portrayals, Kubo is a dark tale that enraptures the viewer among its simple, cleverly-written plot threads and unique, memorable characters. If we are who we've been, Kubo is a story that proves that we can be who we want to be.


Honorable Mentions:

Fences
Directed by Denzel Washington off of a screenplay by playwright August Wilson (based on his play by the same name), this film contains, on a whole, the best acting performances of the year. Viola Davis especially, as Rose Maxson, exceeds every high bar in her turn as a mother to a frustrated son and wife to a frustrating husband. This was clearly a labor of love for Denzel Washington, who turns in yet another career-defining performance as Troy Maxson, a middle-aged garbageman who missed integration in the major leagues (and a likely turn as a baseball great) by only that much. Every personality shines through and the subtext is thick. Every character is clearly defined and has an opportunity to be a viewer's favorite. However, like Doubt before it, this film reminds the viewer that it began as a stage play, and its scenes are dialogue heavy and can drag. Regardless, every actor turns in their A-game and the film unspools as an organic, character driven story.

Manchester by the Sea
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester is possibly the year's biggest gut punch. Devastating in its portrayal of a young father with nothing left to lose, Casey Affleck turns in a wrenching performance as Lee Chandler, who is tasked with raising his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after the unexpected death of Lee's brother Joe (played by Kyle Chandler). A formidable and relatable meditation on loss, Manchester is perhaps the year's most stirring reminder that when there's life, there's hope. The film's ending, while abrupt, gives just the right amount of light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

Hidden Figures
As topical today as it was when it actually happened, Hidden Figures reminds us of progress made and work still to be done. Directed by Theodore Melfi and written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi off of a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Figures is both comic and thoughtful in its treatment of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson (respectively and expertly played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe), three African-American mathematicians who were integral members of the team that launched John Glen into space. Their frustrations and mistreatment is tangible at every turn - not just without - but within as well.

Awards season is arguably the most wonderful time of the year for film buffs. How many of these have you seen? Thoughts?

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Jared teaches screenwriting in the Lehigh Valley. He has also taught at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Well Met By Moonlight

Barry Jenkins's Moonlight is a stunner. Presented in three parts, the film follows the coming-of-age of Chiron (played respectively at age nine, adolescence, and adulthood by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes - frictionless performances by all three) as he navigates a broken home, school bullying, and the stigma against his homosexuality. The story presents a simple, clear transition as he emerges as a leader with a single true desire that keeps the viewer mesmerized from start to finish. The final third of the film slows down a bit and could present us with more information about the man Chiron has become. However, as the first two parts of the film are kinetic masterpieces, it's a welcome break in the pacing and it reflects Chiron becoming someone who can finally live life not at the mercy of others but on his own measured terms. It feels earned.

When we first meet young Chiron (nicknamed "Little"), it's evident that there's something special about him. He's precocious, understands that there's something wrong with his living situation (his mother, Paula, is a neglectful, emotionally abusive addict - a terrific performance by Naomie Harris), and that he's well aware of his attraction to other boys. He forges a compelling relationship with local drug dealer Juan (a warm and charismatic Mahershala Ali) who connects to Chiron's awful home life in an organic and unexpected way. We see in Juan the man that indirectly perpetuates Chiron's living situation but also, ironically, the free man Chiron wants to become - free from his greedy mother, his ferocious classmates, and ultimately from shame.

Shame is a pervasive theme in Moonlight. Whether it's Juan the dealer, Paula the negligent mother, Kevin the best friend with a secret, or even Chiron himself, redemption is the film's rallying cry. Everyone has a secret, everyone builds walls, and everyone eventually lets someone in - for good or ill. When adolescent Chiron comes out to Kevin (thoughtfully and introspectively played at different ages by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland), it's a beautiful moment of liberation. James Laxton's cinematography shines in such a way as to make the moment as magical to us as if we had lived it, ourselves.

Each of the film's three parts is named after an aspect of Chiron, a name. Color imagery is pervasive. Juan's nickname is "Blue" and Chiron's later given the nickname "Black." Juan teaches Chiron that being honest with who you are is a full-time job but is also the surest path to achieving your desire even if your desire seems well out of reach. It's an honest lesson and organically shown, especially in a film that could (but never does) call upon stereotypes to carry the story.

Colors of light, colors of love.
Chiron's transition into adulthood is turbulent but clear. As an adult, he barely resembles the tiny, frightened child he used to be. As such, he could have been shown to be a more active character. When a certain figure from his past contacts him and initiates the film's final sequence, it might have been more effective if Chiron himself had been the one to reach out and connect, even as a tentative step. After all, this is the story of a young man changing from passive to active, and his chief motivating desire has never left him. Further, as nearly every story thread in the film had a coda, it might have been a strong choice to have seen a final story beat involving Terrel (Patrick Decile), adolescent Chiron's chief antagonist. Their final scene together was one of the most satisfying and horrifying moments in film over the past year, and as it set the stage for the remainder of the story, the story might have done well to include a final reckoning between the two as adults.

The film's music by Nicholas Britell is soft, subtle, and effective. I like to think of music as the language in which the characters think - a way to externalize the internal for the benefit of the audience. The music reinforces suspense and the soundtrack (including tunes by Mozart and Aretha Franklin) clearly exhibits a thoughtful selection on Jenkins's part.

Moonlight is one of the best films of the year. It is hard to watch, heartbreaking, and ultimately liberating. Chiron will earn your love and respect at the same time that he earns his own. Moonlight challenges Chiron - and the viewer - to shine compassion into our darkest places. When we let others in, even moonlight itself can blaze bright.

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Jared teaches screenwriting in the Lehigh Valley. He has also taught at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Lay of the La La Land

Damien Chazelle's La La Land is two different films. Its first half is a pure, safe homage to the grand Hollywood musicals of yesteryear (Singin' in the Rain, Hello, Dolly!). It' s a film you've seen before and if you liked that film, you won't be disappointed. Mia (the as-usual pitch-perfect Emma Stone - someone give her an Oscar already) moves to Hollywood with a dream to be an actress. A few (rather contrived) coincidences later, she connects to charming jazz musician Sebastian (a Ryan Gosling with solid comic timing), who hopes to open his own music club. They dance (in a literal and prolonged sense) into each other's hearts as they power forward to realize their aspirations. As mentioned, you've seen the first half of this film already and as such it plods. Its long takes are breathtaking at first but tend to wear on one's patience (how many wide shots of people dancing until it ceases to be a novelty? Not many).

Its second half is a different film entirely and likely worth the wait. The evolution of Mia and Sebastian's relationship waltzes from a string of song-and-dance numbers (it occasionally sticks a noncommittal toe into fanciful Moulin Rouge territory without Moulin Rouge's imagination) into an honest assessment of weighing one's dreams against love. The film's true pivot point (and likely its strongest scene) is a dinner at their apartment that presents in painful detail the fault lines in their romantic trajectory. For the first time in over an hour, these two stop being hopeful-actress and dreamy-jazz-musician stereotypes and become actual flesh-and-blood characters. And thankfully, the remainder of the film reinforces the two as complex people with deep psychologies. But an hour's a long time to wait to establish the characters as such in the narrative.

The emotional simmer erupts in a heartbreaking, effective (if long) final montage of what-ifs reminiscent of the parallel life storyline of Peter Howitt's Sliding Doors. Oddly enough, it also calls back to Ang Lee's Life of Pi in so much that it delves into the nature of not just the story we just experienced but the nature of storytelling in and of itself. Life of Pi asked us, "What story do you prefer?" but both narratives in La La Land strengthen the truth that both chasing a dream - and giving up on one - comes with costs.

Jazz and blues.
The film's songs (composed by Justin Hurwitz) are cleverly conceived, but City of Stars is its true breakout. A melancholy love letter to dreams and their dreamers, it'll play in your head long after the end credits roll. John Legend's Start a Fire is a show-stopping electronica take on jazz (written into the narrative to introduce a younger generation to the "dying" genre) that might make purists cringe but guaranteed it'll otherwise make your foot tap along with it. Gosling and Stone have genuine (if untrained) voices that indicate the actors' deep connection to why they sing what they sing.

There are some contrivances that challenge an audience's suspension of disbelief too much (Sebastian has an unexpected obligation and has to skip seeing Mia - so he can't text/call her ahead of time to let her know?) and a lot of the dialogue is devoid of subtext (i.e., lines are on-the-nose without any dimensionality to what is said versus what is meant). However, the film shines brightest in its moments of melancholy of which there are many. There's a thread of sadness and endings that runs throughout the piece and La La Land is at its best when said thread blossoms into character action.

Perhaps the film's first half may have done better to exhibit more internal conflict - how the entire lives of Mia and Sebastian might have been tugs-of-war between love and dreams and how their decisions on that front landed them squarely in each other's paths. In any event, there's probably something for everyone to like in La La Land although it may not be everything for everyone at every moment. Rather like dreams, themselves.

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Jared teaches screenwriting in the Lehigh Valley. He has also taught at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Rogue Side of History

Rogue One is the tale of how the first Death Star’s plans were stolen and delivered to Princess Leia. Have you been hoping to finally find out how many bothans died to secure this precious information? Hope on, as bothan spies were used to steal the plans for the second Death Star, space ace.

The film has an impressive cast in top form. Of particular note are Felicity Jones’s conflicted Jyn Erso (our protagonist), Forest Whitaker's grizzled warrior Saw Gerrera, Donnie Yen's spiritual badass Chirrut Imwee, Jiang Wen’s guns-blazing badass Baze Malbus, Ben Mendelsohn's villainous Orson Krennic, and Alan Tudyk’s voice-over work for the film’s exquisite comic relief, the droid K-2SO. It’s an ensemble piece and while each character is interesting from the moment we first see them, the sheer number of them prevents any real connection to their individual plights, much less learn why they join the rebellion in the first place. At one point, pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) presses Jyn, “You think you’re the only one who’s lost something?” but the film never delivers on this clear set-up. But this is not a parallel case to the trip-ups of the prequel trilogy. Overall, Rogue One’s acting and dialogue fit the bill for its story of the beleaguered rebellion.

And it is indeed a desperate rebellion. The film’s underlying strength is its establishment of a world with a real sense for how eleventh-hour the situation is for the alliance. Throughout, a series of decisions at the individual level often mean the difference between a slim rebellion victory or utter annihilation. Suspense increases in every scene and we’re constantly reminded of the stakes as well as the ever-thinning thread on which the alliance hangs.

The real standout performance belongs to an actor deceased for over 20 years. The CGI return of Peter Cushing’s Governor Tarkin (created with the permission of his estate and with actor Guy Henry as a stand-in) marks a standard in cinema visual effects on the level of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs (incidentally both made by Industrial Light and Magic). This is an astonishing and nearly seamless leap forward in the capabilities of computer-assisted storytelling. While the technology’s promise is tremendous (have a wish list of deceased actors to cast in your film and a huge pile of money? Poof! Cinematic resurrection!), the danger exists to overuse it to the point of it becoming showy for its own sake - the very sarlacc pit that befouled the prequels.

"Who used red Sharpie? My board clearly says 'Dry erase only!'"
Thankfully, Darth Vader wears a mask and anyone of appropriate height and a tolerance for black latex can play him (but James Earl Jones? I hope you’re with us forever). When it comes to how and when the film presents the Sith lord, you’ll be thrilled. In finite screen time, he’s that very merciless, one-man legion of unstoppable fury that haunted your space opera nightmares - perhaps even more so. In Rogue One he’s more than just some dude in scary armor with a red lightsaber - he is the Dark Side incarnate.

The nods to diehard fans did not go unnoticed and were just the right amount of classy. Bring your Star Wars trivia friend along to live-annotate, otherwise the occasional gasps from those around you will indicate that certain characters’ brief appearances mean more than mere faces in the crowd. It was also a delight to see Jimmy Smits’s Bail Organa (don’t go back to Alderaan!) in what’s likely to be his sign-off appearance for the series. It was a smart tie-in to one of the prequels' stronger elements.

Ultimately the film falters is in its connection to a genuine human element - the characters are terrific at first glance but we never learn enough about them to understand them personally. Similar to Argo, this is more a film about the procedure and less about those who undertake it. More about the how, less about the who. The scales of laser battles, death, and destruction are off the charts, even by Star Wars standards. That alone isn’t damning, but we simply don’t learn enough about our ragtag band to care very much (much less be able to name all of them) by the conclusion. It’s a satisfying film, but we have a bit longer to wait for the next The Empire Strikes Back.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Deus Ex Moana

A very wet adventure that's well worth your time.
Disney's Moana is a beautiful watch and a terrific listen. This is Disney doing what Disney does best, and you're in for a treat. However, despite the explosively expressive songs by Opetaia Foa'i and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the mythic story by screenwriter Jared Bush and story gurus Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams, Don Hall, Pamela Ribon, Aaron Kandell, and Jordan Kandell, and one of the best antihero characters of the current century (a glib, smooth-talking, pitch-perfect Dwayne Johnson as Maui), all is not sunshine and palm trees on the sparkling blue horizon.

The main story beats are paint-by-numbers and easy to follow. Moana's a young woman who dreams of more than her simple village life. A dark force from outside threatens all she holds dear, and soon she's in way over her head, having to return a sacred artifact to the goddess from whom it was stolen. The songs are well-placed and occasionally possess the rare distinction of advancing the plot in addition to externalizing the characters' inner voices and self-doubts. Voiced by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho, Moana's believable, strong, and lovable. We've also seen her exasperation with her hometown (home-island?) before in films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. UCLA's Hal Ackerman says, "A character who has to get something is more effective than a character who needs to give something." Moana herself is definitely in the latter category, and take from that what you will. Overall, she's relatable even though it would've been an unusual and perhaps more rewarding choice to see a character who was cut from a different cloth.

Where Moana really shines is with its secondary characters. Hei Hei is a dimwitted (and that's being extraordinarily kind) chicken who owns the lion's share of the film's laughs. Its stupidity is stark and hilarious, although it becomes a bit one-note after the first dozen times he smashes his face against something.

We needed way more of this guy.
Pua is an adorable pig who features in plenty of marketing materials even though he's barely in the film. When it comes to adorable pigs, I'm on the side of the fence that believes that films need more of them.

Finally, we're brought to Dwayne Johnson's Maui - the film's Han Solo. A scoundrel, a trickster, and an ultimately redeemable rapscallion. I'd sit through a film just about him. He's shockingly vulnerable and sensitive, making him a solid axis around which the film can rotate - to a point at which he overshadows Moana, herself. Maui alone is worth the price of admission and his transition might be the most sharply defined in the film as a whole.

My biggest gripe is with another secondary character who we're introduced to early on. The ocean is a character in the film. It moves, acts, and reacts - as in a bona fide character. It explicitly (if wordlessly) communicates with Moana while looking like the liquid spear visions from Donnie Darko or the water creature from The Abyss. While a clever motif at first, the ocean saves her life so often and points the way every several minutes and becomes such a huge help to Moana's quest that one must wonder why the ocean itself doesn't take the quest into its own hands and complete it on its own. It's a story that takes place on an ocean, yes. But perhaps more of the time dedicated to the ocean as a character would've been better spent focusing on the characters traversing it.

Further, at the point at which Moana doubts herself, her place in the world, and her quest, another supernatural helping of deus ex machina comes in to save the day and give her self-esteem a boost. She's a strong character - she'd have to be to sail out alone over open ocean - but when you have a character alone on a sailboat, there are only so many options for conflict and character development if you don't have Life of Pi's Richard Parker at the ready. And that's clear in this film.

Overall, Moana is a jewel, though not a flawless one. It's worth your time, and the songs will be in your head (and you'll like that a lot) long after you leave the theater.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

2016 Austin Film Festival Notes

Greetings! I had two scripts in the second round of this year's Austin Film Festival (including Are You With Me) and so I traveled to the sunny Lone Star State to meet and greet as many fellow writing geeks as I could. I encountered some great folks and attended bucketfuls of panels. Here's the lowdown:

The first panel I attended was with the talented folks behind Internet series behemoth Rooster Teeth. Panelists included Burnie Burns (Chief Creative Officer/Co-Founder), Doreen Copeland (Supervising Producer), Chris Demarais (Head Writer Live Action), Andrew Disney (writer/director Crunch Time), and Matt Hullum (CEO/Co-Founder).

Some of the best tenets they shared regarded the value of engaging with your audience as a content creator. "Learn a lot from what the community has to say. Have it inform the process. Not dictate it." Further, "Lots of online content is personality driven. vs. brand driven. Audiences respond to personality over brand."

Regarding the "release the entire season at once" model of Netflix, Rooster Teeth said, "There are more opportunities to engage your audience when all the episodes are not released at once."

Then I attended a panel on how to take a meeting. The panelists included the insightful Morgan Long (International Consultant for The Gersh Agency), Amanda Verdon (Manager of Scripted Programming AMC, SundanceTV), and Perrin Chiles (CEO/co-founder Adaptive Studios; executive producer Project Greenlight, The Runner, Coin Heist).

Perrin advised, "During a meeting, I'm asking myself, 'Can we work together?' It's less about the ideas and more about if we like the person pitching."

Morgan suggested, "Know who you're pitching to: what they've done, what they're looking for, what they're developing."

Amanda said, "When pitching a series, how do you see the show sustaining itself? How sustainable will the series be?" She went on to advise, "You'd live ideally in NY or LA but be flexible in ability to move should a job become available."

I then attended a panel on showrunners that included Carter Bays (co-creator/executive producer How I Met Your Mother; writer American Dad!, Late Show with David Letterman), Stephen Falk (creator/executive producer/showrunner You're The Worst co-executive producer Orange is the New Black, co-executive producer Weeds), Phil Rosenthal (creator/executive producer/host I'll Have What Phil's Having, Everybody Loves Raymond; writer/director Exporting Raymond), and James Wong (writer/executive producer American Horror Story, The Others, Rosemary's Baby (2014); writer/director/co-executive producer The X-Files; writer/director Final Destination).

Phil recommended, "Get a writing partner. That's like two for one. It's a good way in. You don't feel so stupid and alone. Plus, if something's bad it's his fault!"

Stephen mentioned, "No one will read you unless there's evidence that others like you. Competitions are important."

Carter said, "Get over the preciousness of your work. Be ruthless about whether or not a joke works. How I Met Your Mother became a sustainable series because we had to hold ourselves to the standard: can we write 100 of these? What's episode three? 50? Do you have a long page of story ideas?" He went on to say, "Approach every decision like you're just making something you'll be happy with three years from now. Don't make the show you think they want to see. Make something you'd be excited to show people even if the rest of America doesn't get to see it."

James Hart! Writer of Hook,
Contact, and Bram Stoker's Dracula.
During a roundtable with writers, producers, agents, and managers, the wise Adam Kolbrenner at Madhouse Entertainment said, "The industry has a filtration system. The great material finds its way to the top. The includes competitions like the Blacklist and the Austin Film Festival. Develop your network of people you know. Put your material out there. If it makes it to us we'll read the idea and tell you if it's something we can work with. We're looking for super-unique voices."

Rick Dugdale from Enderby Entertainment said, "I want to hear images. Tease. Visual. Compare your premise to two other films (i.e., Memento meets Mrs. Doubtfire). If it works that way."

I then visited a panel about research and development at Disney and Pixar. The panelists were Erika Schmidt (Creative Development Associate Pixar Animation Studios) and Bryan Davidson (Creative Executive for Walt Disney Animation Studios). Some clever tidbits include:

"Plot out character development with eight key scenes. Where does the scene start and where does it end? Trace the character's inner journey in every key scene."

"A world is a dynamic environment that puts your character into conflict."

"Do you have the right main character? Whose arc is the most compelling?"

"Establish a complex world with rules. 1. Set up the rules of the world. 2. Introduce a character. 3. Where are the cracks in that world? Dominant values of the world? These need to be stated. Pressure and antagonism presses the character into conflict."

With regards to stakes, "There are the internal: feelings, emotions, the intangible. A character's emotional journey. All about healing. Then there are the external - something tangible that the character wants, something achievable. The plot stakes/goal. Then there are the philosophical - a worldview in a universe that is dominant vs an underdog value. A character changes their own world and the world around them."

As a background performer in Ghostbusters (2016), I was thrilled to attend a Ghostbusters panel with Katie Dippold (writer The Heat, Ghostbusters (2016), Parks and Recreation) and director Paul Feig (Ghostbusters, Spy, Bridesmaids, Freaks and Geeks). Insights included:

"What's the emotional core of the story for these characters?"

"We shoot as many jokes as we can, try them all out. Put together the funniest script, get alternate jokes when necessary. You never know what an audience will like."

"Casting is so important. If the actor brings a personality to it, we'd rather change the script to fit that person. Improv sessions help. We want them completely comfortable to slip into who they are."

The next panel included Lindsay Doran (producer Stranger Than Fiction, Sense and Sensibility, Nanny McPhee, Dead Again; executive producer The Firm, Sabrina; former president/COO of United Artists), Jennifer Howell (Head of Feature Development at Dreamworks Animation), Mark Johnson (Gran Via Productions; executive producer Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, Halt & Catch Fire, Rectify; producer Downsizing, Rain Man, A Little Princess, Galaxy Quest, The Notebook, The Chronicles of Narnia franchise).

Jennifer said, "Writers must be persistent: write and write and write some more. That same persistence has to go into finding representation. Be willing to give it to people who will give you honest feedback until it's really great. Rewrite rewrite rewrite. Take the criticism."

Lindsey advised, "The advice in What Color Is Your Parachute? is resonant: your vocation should be the place where your gladness meets the world's deep hunger. The something you love should have something to do with something people tell you you're good at and something you can make money from."

Mark said, "Producing has everything to do with writers. Read everything you can, as a producer. Find the good writers, befriend them, help them develop their script, help their work be seen, become indispensable to that writer. If you find a really good script that someone wants to make then you are already the producer of that. You can learn producing as you go. Experience doesn't count for much. Every film is different. Actors, equipment, crew, all different - be resourceful and imaginative. Be able to identify good scripts, work with good writers, be indispensable. Read read read."

I then attended a panel about using social media as a screenwriter. Panelists included Stephen Falk, Tess Morris (writer Man Up), and Marianne Wibberley (writer National Treasure, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle).

Stephen said, "When you reach out to us, be original or funny. Say something specific. A specific line or something like that. We just want to be loved. We're easy to flatter. Quote what we've written. We definitely look at social media profiles before we hire."

"Be sane and normal," Tess advised, "It's a relationship."

Marianne (from whom I won a bottle of Proseco for correctly answering a trivia question) said, "Take acting and improv classes. Learn to roll with things and don't overthink. Read every script you can."

My friend (and fellow second-rounder) Nick took notes at the panel on turning failure into success. The panelists included Malcolm Spellman (writer/producer Empire; writer Our Family Wedding), John Turman (Writer Hulk, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Ben 10: Alien Swarm, Crow; Stairway to Heaven (TV) Macgyver (TV)), Cormac Wibberley (writer National Treasure, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), and Marianne Wibberley. Insights shared included:

"The career does not carry you: you must carry it."

"It will be nothing but failure/success/failure/success. The only way out is to keep writing."

"At some point, let the old story go. Start working on the next."

Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Mud, Loving) said, "Have an emotionally palpable base. What can you keep referring to that the audience can relate to? Further, know what your emotional, gut-wrenching moment is going to be before you start writing. That's what the movie will ultimately be about. Build everything up to that moment."

In the panel on writing the script that producers want, it was advised, "There are four key things producers look for: character, theme, tone, and voice."

And finally, in the panel on contracts and options, it was said that, "If you're getting paid, your work will be changing. Nobody changes a poet's work but the poet gets paid nothing. No matter the collaboration, get the agreement in writing."

I hope this gives you even a small fraction of the creative recharge that Austin gave me. Keep up the great work. Write on!

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Jared teaches screenwriting in the Lehigh Valley. He has also taught at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Five Ways to Make Your Characters Pop

"Seriously, guys: feet are the next big thing."
I've seen a decent number of films this year. Some have characters that are instantly forgettable (as in I've forgotten the protagonist's name by the time the end credits roll) and some have astonishingly witty, clever, and fascinating characters. Whether you're writing a script, short story, or a novel, despite a stunningly original plot concept, you are not guaranteed exciting, relatable, and inspiring characters. In fact, they're hard to write!

Pixar's Andrew Stanton mentions that a prime storytelling commandment is to make the audience care. The best visual effects, sound design, and cinematography in the world won't matter unless your audience feels as though they have a stake in the outcome of the protagonist's journey. We're happy when your protagonist succeeds. We cry when your protagonist fails. We feel alongside the best-written characters. And what a tall order that is! In a feature screenplay, within two hours, you need to introduce your character, throw them into hot water, and make your audience feel so strongly about the outcome that they simply must rush out and tell their friends and family to also go experience your work.

How do you do that?

1. Stakes

"Where is the plot to this film? Tell me!"
Care for the outcome won't amount to a hill of beans unless your protagonist is racing to protect that which she loves at every moment of your story. The first few pages of your screenplay or the first chapter or two of your novel must show us what your character loves and why. In The Social Network, the stakes are established in the very first shot and the very first scene. Erica is the only person who wants to spend time with Mark in a romantic sense. When we see how his status-seeking personality drives people away, that makes her even more precious and rare. So when he loses her, it gives the story the jet fuel that powers the rest of the film. In Star Trek: Beyond, Captain Kirk is faced with the loss of his ship, his crew, and a space station population of millions. Everything and everyone for whom he cares is in direct and immediate danger throughout the film (as it should be in your story - that which the protagonist loves must be under constant threat). And despite it all, when he's tempted with a cushy, sedentary promotion, he turns it down. He realizes that pushing against the frontier is not only what he's good at, but also what the galaxy needs him to do.


2. Uniqueness

"What? The unicorn t-shirt store is closed!?"
Tim Albaugh at UCLA and Hollins University calls this "larger than life." But what does it mean to be larger than life? Your character needs to be the best at something, the worst at something, or both. But he can't be neither. Your character needs a skill that only he can do, by virtue of being who he is. In Central Intelligence, Dwayne Johnson plays Bob Stone, an incredible fighter and CIA agent - arguably the best. But he's also extremely sensitive and his feelings are easily hurt. What a terrific irony! A big tough CIA agent with the soul of a kitten (he wears a unicorn shirt that says "Always be you." Aww). He's one of the most fun characters of the year and it has everything to do with what makes him himself.


3. Desires/Dreams

"We love each other even if this metal step really digs into our butts."
In Beauty and the Beast, Belle sings, "There must be more than this provincial life!" In Willow, Willow Ufgood dreams of being a great sorcerer. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy the wrongly imprisoned inmate dreams of freedom. In The Secret Life of Pets, Max the dog dreams of a happy life in which his owner Katie never leaves and especially never brings home a new dog. What are your character's hopes and dreams? There's a reason why this is one of the first questions we ask of anyone we consider for a significant other. We want to relate to them and to learn what drives them. What's a relatable goal for your protagonist? The first part of your story is about placing us squarely in her mindset. Let us see the world the way that she does.


4. Fear

"We hit pay dirt at the unicorn t-shirt store."
Fear is mythic. Ingrained. Ancient. The prime antagonist, the one we all have in common. It even transcends species. Remember the boggart in Harry Potter? It was a creature that takes the form of whatever terrifies the observer the most. The question is simple: what does your protagonist fear? The answer is not always as easy. But here's a hint: your answer must be a tangible element. Indiana Jones fears snakes, but he actually braves snake pits because there's something he fears more: Nazi dominance. Fear is tied to stakes, as the protagonist will quite likely experience what he fears the most if he fails in his task. In Matt Ross's amazing Captain Fantastic, Viggo Mortensen's character Ben has six children that he educates and raises in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. He fears to lose them to such a degree that he has rehearsed actual scenarios with them to trick and manipulate their way out of almost any situation that could threaten their family unit. What's in common to all fears is the idea of loss. Loss of a loved one, a way of life, health, or a prized object. What does your character describe as freedom? Or as home? It is the fear of loss of whatever or whomever that may be that forces him on his journey.


5. Flaw

"What do you mean, 'No returns on hoodies'?"
Flaws are inborn. We are who we are because of them and because of our struggle to overcome them (or our struggle not to). Flaws lead to misunderstandings and all conflict comes from misunderstandings. Conflict tells us more about character and shoves us deeper into the story. So when I say that flaws are the fundamental drivers of a character-driven story, it's really to ask (as any audience should about your story), "How will this character, out of all others, be the one to accomplish the task laid out before her?" Here's another big clue: ideally, your protagonist should face a challenge that will require her to overcome her flaw in order to win. The best protagonists fall into trouble of their own making as a direct result of their flaw. And the only way to extricate themselves is to overcome said flaw by whatever means necessary. The trick is to not allow your protagonist to realize that all at once. After all, if they become acutely aware of their problem too early, then your story might be over before it ever has a chance to begin. In Taika Waititi's charming Hunt for the Wilderpeople, we have a pair of flawed characters: young Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a rebellious hooligan, used to being unwanted, who bounces from foster home to foster home. Hector (Sam Neill) is a misanthropic ex-con who's given up on the world. These are two flawed characters who want nothing to do with each other. But pack them up and ship them into the New Zealand wilderness? It's a veritable flaw-fest! They're at each other's throats throughout the ordeal. But you know something? They just might save each other. Ricky's devil-may-care attitude might be just what Hec needs to loosen up, and Hec's serious nature might help Ricky grow into a better man. They need each other, their flaws compliment each other, and their arcs shine bright, even (and especially) in the film's darkest moments.

Ideally, you'll have an idea as to what (or who) your character loves, what makes him unique, what he desires and dreams of, what he fears, and what his flaw is before you begin page one. The more complex your character, the more we'll want to know all about him. And the more we want to know about him, the more of your work we'll want to read, watch, and buy. Write on.

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Jared teaches screenwriting in the Lehigh Valley. He has also taught at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.



Friday, April 29, 2016

Charles Randolph at Emerson College

One of my favorite films of 2015 was The Big Short, based on the Michael Lewis book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. So when half of the Academy Award-winning co-writing team visited Emerson for a screening and a Q&A, I simply had to be there.

A guest of Emerson's SPEC student screenwriting group, Charles Randolph was open, personable, and forthcoming about the writing process and working with co-writer/director Adam McKay.

I asked the first question, which was how much of the film is based on the actual people and how much is dramatized?

He replied, "It varies from character to character. There are some that are closer to the real people and others that are further away. All the actors met the real people and Adam is very collaborative, so we tried to incorporate the notes of the real people. In the character of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), you have an unreliable narrator who happens to be telling the truth. It’s a mix. The actors brought a lot to it. Christian Bale’s performance isn’t something you can really write. When it works well, writers can claim a certain amount of credit. But if you don’t start the journey in the right place, the actor will never make it there."

When he was asked what had drawn him to the project, he said, "Two things: Michael Lewis’s book is very good and I’m a huge fan. I marveled at his ability to explain the world and the concepts to us. Also, as a white male of a certain age, I didn’t fully appreciate how much our system is biased towards the wealthy. What was revelatory about 2008 is how many of us now realize that. It’s anger-making and part of it was that I was really pissed off about what happened. Michael Lewis took us through this world and he showed us the most interesting people in it."

Late in the film, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers is dramatized, the two characters Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) gain access to the Lehman Brothers building and find it in a state of complete disarray, complete with retreating employees carrying out boxes of belongings. One of them turns to the other and says, "I thought there would be grown ups here.” What was the significance of that?

Charles responded, "What does each character want? What drives them? Those two guys were outside. They didn’t get to go to New York. They weren't allowed a place at the table. And so they felt it was a function of their youth, a completion of their journey, to enter. They go inside thinking that they were going to find gravitas and dignity, which we expect from banks. Banks have historically a very precise social meaning for us - we trust banks to tell us what proper behavior is in terms of economic management. That’s why banks, if you’re not paying attention, can run up the fees so dramatically. You’re relying on your bank to tell you what you can do with your money. We trusted them to be the great arbiters of best practices in terms of economic management and the fact they were utterly playing us was really interesting. They thought the banks were the grown ups. They thought someone was minding the store. And nobody was. Everyone was pursuing their own self interest and was incapable of transcending that. When bankers can no longer transcend their immediate self interest, you are screwed."

And what of Charles's adaptation of the source material and his professional relationships with the actual people on whom the book was based? Charles said, "I don’t like to meet the real people on whom the story is based. If I have a personal relationship with them then they’re in my head and I worry about what I write about them - am I trying to make them happy?"

The film was also known for being self-referential and breaking the narrative in jarring yet effective moments in which characters would speak directly to the audience. Charles said, "That was Adam's idea. My sense of humor is satirical and smart-alecky. His moments are bigger and more directly farcical. It really works. What’s important is that the device or the trope serves a necessary function in the film and you cannot do it without them. It wouldn’t have gotten made without the ability to stop and tell you what’s going on. It gives you a breather and reminds you of what you’ve learned and reminds you what is true."

Speaking to the creative process at large, Charles explained, "The page does not get any less blank when there’s an Oscar on the mantle. The process of writing is still lonely and painful and implementing strategies of procrastination. The process hasn’t changed much. You get a little more efficient, a little less panicked, and a bit more about getting yourself into it. Doris Lessing said that all writers have two parts: the part that throws things down on the page and an editor on their shoulder, the watcher at the gate - a necessity to cut down on what you do. The biggest thing as you get better is that you learn when you can ignore the editorial consciousness and then come back and use it a bit later. My process has not changed a great deal. You get a little more open and you realize that the key is to get something down. You cannot write in your head. Get something down even if it’s utterly horrible. At least you have a place to start the next day. You become better at living in the mediocrity of the middle for as long as possible. The end result will be better."

How about what the actors themselves brought to the table? "So much about what’s great in this film is not in the script. Our actors all brought their A game. When directors bring such a collaborative, improv experience to the process, everyone wants to play. It ups everybody’s game. Everyone contributes. It only makes the director’s work better."

Did Charles and Adam sit down together to write? "Adam and I never write together. What Adam added to it that launched it over the commercial hump was that the voice of the film becomes a character in the film itself and it’s the voice you start to trust the most. Who do we like in this movie? You like the movie itself. He did his thing, I gave him notes, I did my thing, he gave me notes. Adam and I have different humor sensibilities. You needed both comedy styles for the film to work. One comedy style attached you to the characters and their emotional journey and the other attached you to the information. Adam didn’t care where an idea came from: if it was good, he’d put it in there."

Charles studied philosophy and was a philosophy professor. Had this background affected his writing? "I got really good at bullshit. I’m naturally hostile to jargon. What are you hiding from me, why are you trying to keep me out?"

As for a final bit of trivia, Charles noted, "Many of the actors wore wigs. It was about giving them an off look, making them outsiders. Like they weren’t polished, not natural to their world."

Plenty to think about from a true professional. If you haven't already, go check out The Big Short! Better yet, go write!

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Jared teaches screenwriting at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Fade Into Character

Heavy meta.
In undergrad, I used Microsoft Word for all of my screenwriting needs. Having committed each screenplay element's formatting rules and margins to memory, I could simply hit return, go up to paragraph settings, change the margin for a character name, return to the document, type in the character's name, then hit return, go back to paragraph settings, change the margins for dialogue, then return to the document to write the dialogue that I had completely forgotten by that point due to the cumbersome process. Oh, well. At least it was a workflow.

Fast-forward to grad school. I had heard of Final Draft (FD) but wondered if it was really that much better. It was. I was astounded to find software that worked as fast as I thought. It seemed to know the element I wanted before I did, myself. Creepily fantastic, I threw myself into script after script with trusty Final Draft by my side. Together, we could tackle anything.

Anything, save for Final Draft 8's own propensity for crashes in El Capitan.

I ran FD8 on a Mac with El Capitan, which Final Draft's own website states is just fine (Mac OS X v10.4.11 or later). I'm an obsessive document saver, frequently saving my document at least three times a minute. This issue began shortly after upgrading to OS X 10.11. It would happen like this: I'd write some dialogue or an action/description block, then hit save. No problem. I'd repeat the process, hit save, and Final Draft would crash. I'd head back into the document, and nothing had been saved from my last successful, non-crashy save. This is a problem, as I prefer it when my work is saved. This occurred every dozen or so saves.

Like the very protagonists about whom I wrote, Final Draft was doomed by a flaw from within.

I contacted Final Draft tech support with the full Apple-generated crash report. Final Draft's advice was to upgrade to FD9 for $99. I didn't think it was fair to pay for new software when the older software is marketed to play well with my current operating system. So I went on the hunt for alternatives.

And that brought me to Fade In.

Programmed by Kent Tessman, Fade In is spectacular. It imports from Final Draft, Fountain, Scrivener, Adobe Story, and Celtx. By default, it exports in its own proprietary format but it can be exported as a PDF, EPUB, or as a Final Draft file. If you're familiar with Final Draft's interface, then there's little to no learning curve to Fade In. It's minimalist, intuitive, and easy to use.

Best of all? I just completed a feature script with it and it crashed precisely zero times. It's cheaper than Final Draft ($49.95), more reliable, and packs in some amazing features that even Final Draft lacks, such as the amazing Dialogue Tuner, which isolates a character's full dialogue from your script, enabling you to edit that character's dialogue all at once - a great feature for ensuring a consistent character voice and point of view.

Check out the Fade In feature list and feature comparisons against Final Draft. Writing is challenging enough and any software that can make it easier to climb over roadblocks deserves a place on your machine. Download a trial and give Fade In a spin. It'll make you feel like even more of a pro than you already are.

That said, there are hundreds of screenplay contests out there, and Final Draft runs a spectacular screenwriting competition that's among the nine or 10 I strongly endorse. Check it out!

I have not been paid or otherwise gifted to endorse Fade In. I'm just a fan and I think that everyone ought to know about it.

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In one of my recent Emerson screenwriting classes, we had a discussion about writing a relatable protagonist. How do you hook an audience with your character within the first five to 10 minutes of a feature? Or the first page, if you're writing a short?

While this is a question with multiple insightful answers (none of which are bite-sized), I'd posit that a question (among many) you ought to ask is: how has my character suffered? What has wounded them? Better yet, show us the wound as it occurs! Like an injured baby bird, we'll be drawn to your character and cheer for them to rise. By virtue of being who he or she is, what causes him or her to be the recipient of gross injustice? We want to see wrongs righted. Give us what we want!

Write on.

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Jared teaches screenwriting at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My Favorite Films of 2015

Perhaps it's just me, but 2015 seemed to have double the usual crop of worthy awards-season hopefuls. From tightly-written dramas to compelling comedic fare, 2015 is the sort of year about which a cinephile can truly dream. From the astonishingly brutal bear attack of The Revenant to the gutsy portrayal of NWA's origins in Straight Outta Compton to Inside Out's voyage into the mind, the very best films teach us as much about ourselves as the characters they portray. They are archetypal and they take us on fantastic journeys that are well worth the price of admission.

Each of these films explores power and its consequences. Does foreknowledge of a tragedy change how you act? Or do you act at all? Do you serve those who rely on you or are they subject to your whims? Are you responsible with the power you have been given? The very best films of the year universally examined how those on top could be brought low by their own actions or the actions of others. In no particular order, my top picks:

THE BIG SHORT
Directed by Adam McKay
Written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay
Based on the book by Michael Lewis

It's an accomplishment to make the financial world a place of high-stakes drama and nail-biting storytelling. Still more so if the characters are engaging, clever, funny, and damn interesting. And that's what we have in The Big Short. Set in the lead-up to the subprime mortgage crisis, the film pokes fun at greed while taking a sobering look at its darkest consequences. Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and the rest of the ensemble cast turns in spectacular, nuanced performances that are both exciting and tragic to watch, much like the events the film itself chronicles. It pays to be right, but at what cost? When you see what's coming, is it your responsibility to warn people or to take advantage of their ignorance? The biggest accomplishment of The Big Short is that it humanizes an often demonized world and holds up a mirror when asked to define greed. For every winner there is a loser - but so many lost who weren't even on the playing field. How far does complicity go? From deft humor to a shattering ending, The Big Short jumps into these quandaries with both feet.


INSIDE OUT
Directed by Pete Docter
Co-directed by Ronnie Del Carmen
Original story by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen
Written by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley

Exhaustively imagined and flawlessly executed, Pixar adds another top-shelf entry to its impressive roster. A tale about growing up for growing-ups and grown-ups alike, Inside Out explores how in the pursuit of joy, we only become adults through experiencing, processing, and surviving sadness. While we don't seek it out, its experience is necessary. As the command console in Riley's brain expands and her memories become complexities and combinations of emotion, we grow to understand how the simple wants and needs of a younger mind can grow into the complicated psychologies of adulthood. Saying goodbye to one thing might mean saying hello to another, but the memory of that which has faded into the past will assuredly make us into who we are in the present. Joy might consider herself the leader of Riley's mind, but it's only in sharing power that Riley will grow up to be the woman she needs to be.


MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Directed by George Miller
Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris

Like Inside Out but with flamethrowers, Mad Max is a feat of storytelling and action that is rarely seen in today's cinema fare. A dirt-simple story with a refreshingly girl-power core, Mad Max is a stunt-heavy explosion that never loses its humanity. When a tyrant turns his subjects into property, his underestimation of them proves his undoing. The courageous Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) rescues the capable wives of the despotic Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne)... but Max (Tom Hardy) forces her to confront the question of whether this is enough. When you escape, is it your responsibility to keep running or to turn back to fight for those you left behind? In a world gone mad, does he/she with the maddest plan win? And what is the difference between surviving and living? On the surface, Mad Max is stunts, explosions, and action. But all of it serves character desire. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? See this film and find out.


ANOMALISA
Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman
Written by Charlie Kaufman (based on his play)

The top can be a lonely place. Just ask Michael Stone (David Thewlis), customer service guru and bestselling author with a house, a wife, a son... and a profoundly empty life. In many ways a spiritual successor to Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anomalisa further explores the concept of what love turns into after it has sat in the sun a little too long. Kaufman has created quite likely the most complicated characters of the year, all painstakingly stop-motion animated and tear-jerkingly believable. While the slow collision of Stone and Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a Cincinnati hotel is simultaneously awkward, painful, and sad, it possesses the clearest explanation of any film in recent memory of why we fall in love in the first place. A masterwork.


STEVE JOBS
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Based on the book by Walter Isaacson

As mentioned, the top can be a lonely place. Steve Jobs asks the same question as Sorkin's The Social Network: is it possible to be simultaneously decent and gifted? While Jobs has a more definitive (and hopeful) answer, the film is about the journey there - as shown by the career-best performances of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Katherine Waterston. How can a man driven to create the perfect machine be such a lackluster father? What happens when a child who was never part of the plan becomes the only plan that matters? Steve Jobs is like a father quest in reverse. We see the titular character at three major product launches ("The two most significant events of the twentieth century: the Allies win the war, and this.") as each time, he inches closer and closer to being accessible to the one who matters the most. Jobs might have a master plan for his technological vision, but what is the act of creation and how does what we create in turn define the best part of ourselves? Bold questions. Steve Jobs delivers.


ROOM
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Written by Emma Donoghue (based on her novel)

Ambitious and impressively acted by Brie Larson and newcomer Jacob Tremblay (he was eight at the time of filming), Room explores safety, motherly love, and confinement in a method that is at once terrifying and liberating. How is one person's freedom another's prison? Confined to a room with her son for years, Ma tells her child that the room in which they're kept is the entire world. But when the opportunity comes to escape, young Jack must leave behind the only place he's ever felt safe - which is ironically a place of dread for his mother - and suddenly bear the weight of the outside world that he never knew existed. Freedom for Ma, but fear for Jack. How deep does their bond go? How fragile is the trust of a child? Is safety - and home - a place? Or a person? Room is full of compassion but is never overly sentimental. Despite the tight space in which Jack grows up, the space in his mother's heart is truly limitless. Beautifully done.


Honorable Mentions:

Macbeth
Amazing performances by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Terrific cinematography (Adam Arkapaw) and a clever interpretation of Shakespeare's text by director Justin Kurzel and writers Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso. It's a familiar story told in an unfamiliar way, and its true strength lies in grasping at Macbeth's own guilt and compassion. The tears he cries are real, and they are those of a man who both hates and loves himself and what he has done.

Trumbo
Solid ensemble cast led by the pitch-perfect Bryan Cranston. A film that definitely picks a side, it'll make you smile even as it dramatizes a dark period of American history. When you are a Communist and the country is against Communists, do you give up who you are and capitulate for peace and comfort? Or do you fight, even if it means losing who you hold most dear? When you're told that you can't do the one act that defines who you are, what does that make you? What does that mean for a role model? A husband? A father? Of special note is a compelling performance by Louis C. K. as Arlen Hird, a fictional amalgamation of several of Dalton Trumbo's real-life compatriots.

Brooklyn
Great soundtrack and quite likely the best female performance of the year, by Saoirse Ronan as Eilis. That said, the film took its time (sometimes too much) as it artfully delved into homesickness, family, and love. Is home where you're from? Wherever you are? Or wherever love lives? A young woman, thousands of miles from her family, must draw strength from those around her and choose between the past and moving forward. Convincingly and effectively acted and directed, even if it took a little too long to arrive there.

Bridge of Spies
American lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) travels into the core of Cold War political intrigue to facilitate a spy exchange between a twitchy America and a labyrinthine, bureaucratic Soviet Russia. The stakes couldn't be higher. But is he nervous? "Would it help?" deadpans Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (a magnificent Mark Rylance). Spies is a man's quest to do the right thing while both sides hope to play him to their advantage. By keeping his eyes on the bigger picture and remaining a stedfast pillar of decency while the world around him collapses, Donovan guides the story through to its final, nail-chomping conclusion. Another feather in Spielberg's cap. He's going to need a bigger cap.

Straight Outta Compton
The origin story of NWA, Compton delivers a layer cake of amazing editing and thick irony through its three leads, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr.). Tracing the group from first beats to phenomenon, it plays an impressive ping-pong game, keeping multiple balls in the air in the form of the evolving relationships of the core group. Pressure from without from law enforcement and the media are but shadows on the wall compared to the demons that tear the group apart from within. When you're on top, do you remember where you came from? Does the oppressed become the oppressor? Does money and power make you into who you really are? Director F. Gary Gray does a deft job of tracing each character's arc and making each journey unique even if each character's ending forces a bend or a breaking of their dreams.

Creed
A worthy entry to the Rocky mythos, and one of its strongest efforts. Creed follows Adonis Johnson (an impressive Michael B. Jordan) as he trains under Rocky's (Sylvester Stallone) tutelage at first to escape and then ultimately to embrace his father's legacy. The power of a name - its inheritance and apotheosis - are strong themes that the film explores far more often outside the boxing ring than within. The nature of strength - we see Rocky at his most frail - and fatherhood are combined in a theme that posits that true strength doesn't come from weightlifting of the physical sort.

The Revenant
Unexpectedly spiritual and the most gorgeous cinematography of the year (Emmanuel Lubezki). Lots of Oscar buzz around DiCaprio - and he was good - but just because he was cold (see Titanic) and ate raw bison shouldn't automatically qualify him for the top acting award. Far more compelling from this viewer's perspective was the journey of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (Will Poulter) as they struggled back to civilization. A true battle for Bridger's soul is fought in the far west wilds, and the conflict between him and the pitiless Fitzgerald made for some of the most memorable scenes of the film. I would likely qualify The Revenant as the most brutal film that I've ever seen. When the grizzly bear attacks, every moment of a horrific, longest-five-minutes-ever bear mauling is shown on screen and nothing is left to the imagination. But of true special note is the brutality inherent in two men who want to survive by any means necessary - one of whom is driven by self-interest, the other, revenge.

The Danish Girl
The acting contest between Fassbender's Steve Jobs and Eddie Redmayne's transgendered Lili Elbe is truly a toss-up. How do you make a call between two near-flawless performances? While the film was too long, the chemistry between Redmayne and Alicia Vikander's Gerda Wegener was a pleasure to watch. A convincing love story set amidst early 20th-century cultural and medical misunderstandings of what it meant to be transgendered, The Danish Girl is at once heartbreaking and uplifting. What are the limits of love? If it's love, by definition, does it have limits?

99 Homes
In many ways a companion piece to The Big Short, Homes opens on a victimized homeowner who loses everything in the financial collapse. He turns to his victimizer for a hand up - and ultimately becomes a victimizer, himself. Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern turn in their expected solid performances, but the film's true focus belongs to a sinister Michael Shannon, who plays Rick Carver, a shady real estate broker who has his own reasons for taking advantage of the disadvantaged. Swimming through legal loopholes like Shamu jumps through rings, Carver might very well be the most well-developed, relatable antagonist among this year's releases. Painful to watch with a downer ending, Homes is nonetheless a strong, archetypal tale of the millions who we hear about but never see in a film like The Big Short. When a victim is given power, is it used or abused? Is it right to game the system that gamed you? By the film's end, more than a mortgage is in risk of default.


It's a great time to be a film fan. It's an even greater time to be a filmmaker or a writer. There are so many terrific, current examples to show how it's done right. You have no excuse to delay making something. So make something!

Write on.

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Jared teaches screenwriting at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Untitled?

"It's yours if you tell me what a Shawshank Redemption is."
Of all the devilry that bedevils the writer, perhaps none is so great a beast to tame than that of the title. It's one word - or short phrase - that must accomplish a lot.

It's the cover letter to a creative portfolio. The flagship of the fleet. The apex of the pyramid. Quite often it's the very first indication that a certain piece of art might be worth our attention. It's blasted across posters, billboards, subway ads, TV commercials, clothes, action figures, bedsheets, shoelaces, and ancillary merchandise. It's synonymous with your story. It is your story.

But not all titles are created equal. Some capture the theme and tone of the film in short order and make you want to know more. Others... not so much.

Some I'd call great would include American Beauty, Up, Inside Out, 12 Years a Slave, Jurassic Park, The Phantom of the Opera, Groundhog Day, and The Last Emperor.

Some that could use some work would include The Shawshank Redemption, Arlington Road, Crazy Stupid Love, Octopussy, and Life as a House. If you knew nothing else about them (and perhaps you don't, if it's release weekend and you're deciding whether or not to buy a ticket), then would you be able to accurately tell any meaningful information about them?

Screenwriter Blake Snyder pointed to For Love or Money as an example of an unworthy title. To paraphrase Snyder, nearly any film's title can be For Love or Money. Ocean's Eleven could've had that title. So could The Social Network. So could American Beauty. For that matter, the ancient tale of King Midas could've had that title. Heck, your own life might well bear it. The themes of love and money are so pervasive that a title naming such themes isn't likely to excite an audience. An audience pays money to see something that isn't everywhere. That's what your title must promise them. The unique.

Here's a method I use: your story begins with a theme - a personal point of view to be explored. Examples:

1. Hope conquers all. (The Shawshank Redemption)
2. Sometimes, love means letting go. (Finding Nemo, Up)
3. Compassion conquers hate. (Les Miserables)
4. One life of compassion over isolated, inhuman immortality. (Harry Potter)
5. We must feel sadness to feel human. (Inside Out)
6. Selflessness above all. (Jurassic Park)
7. There are thousands more.

Write out your theme. Then use fewer words. Then fewer. Then use a visual metaphor specific to your story for the word or words you have left. That can land you your title.

Other viable methods can involve answering the following questions:

What’s the film about? (Finding Nemo, Jurassic Park)
Where does the protagonist want to be? (Up)
What does the protagonist (want to) do? (Saving Private Ryan, Kissing Jessica Stein)
What’s the goal? (Everest, The Walk)
Who's it about? (Forrest Gump, Barry Lyndon, Steve Jobs)
What’s a metaphor for protagonist desire? (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
What is the state of things? (As Good as it Gets, Cast Away)
What are we fighting against? (The Matrix, Labyrinth)
What are we fighting for? (The Dark Crystal, Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Where does it take place? (Jurassic Park, The Rock)
What’s the question with which the protagonist struggles? (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
What's a visual metaphor for the story? (American Beauty - itself an actual type of rose)
How is your protagonist confined? How do they attempt to free themselves?

Titles are the first experience an audience has with your story. Picking a good one is an art. Take the time. Embrace the challenge. It's worth it.

Write on.

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Jared teaches screenwriting at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Aaron Sorkin in New York

Daniels, Winslet, Fassbender, Boyle, and the moderator
In the past week, I attended a screening of Steve Jobs in Manhattan. After the film, there was a Q&A with director Danny Boyle, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and actors Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston and Michael Stuhlbarg.

The film was terrific. In many ways, it completes the story of The Social Network in its exploration of drive and genius and if/how compassion fits into the equation. "It's not binary," Seth Rogan's Steve Wozniak says, "You can be decent and gifted at the same time." Does one preclude the other? How can a character so brilliant but narrow-minded ever hope to demonstrate empathy? Who is selected? Who is rejected? Steve Jobs gives us an answer that's both more complete and more complicated than that of The Social Network. It's less about the iMan and iMyth and more about a mortal who needs to become a better father. A solid arc, and well-traced.

Each panelist had a chance to speak at length about the process of bringing the story of a household name into the movie theater. Sorkin himself had several wise words to share. "Don't judge your characters," he said. The motivation of every character - protagonist, antagonist, and everyone in between - should be relatable. We should understand why a character feels they have to do what they do. Even if desperate circumstances shove them into tragic action, they must feel as though their every action is justified - as eloquently and passionately as possible. "I write them as if they're defending themselves to God," Sorkin said.

Jeff Daniels had an insightful take on Sorkin's script: "Even the supporting characters have a beginning, middle, and end."

Sorkin agreed with Daniels's take, saying, "I always considered it an ensemble movie." Subplots carry the emotional threads of the story, and subplots are relationships. As such, as subplots evolve, so too does the emotional journey of the protagonist.

Sorkin also discussed the importance of creating flawed, relatable characters. "To me, Hercules, Zeus, any godlike figure doesn't interest me. Humans are much more inspiring. To know that someone is just like us - all of these flaws in Steve aside, to know that these people are capable of frankly much more than I'm capable of, I find very inspiring. I often if not always write about people who are smarter than I am, and it's my way of spending time in a world of great accomplishment."

A quick note to aspiring directors: The day before I went to NY, I was in a theater to see The Martian. I overheard a family discussing Steve Jobs and a child piped up, "Is that the one with the guy who looks nothing like Steve Jobs?"

It's a common first-time director's mistake to cast an actor based on how they match your vision's physical expectations. However, when it comes to casting and directing, you want an actor who emotionally embodies the character more than one who looks like your ideal. For reference, I point to the example of Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In the Ken Kesey novel, Nurse Ratched was elderly, obese, and unattractive. Louise Fletcher was none of those things, but she still embodied a monstrous character so chilling that the emotional temperature dropped 50 degrees every time she strolled into the room. And she won an Academy Award! Looks are important, but your primary casting consideration is emotional intelligence - not physical attributes. At the Q&A, Fassbender himself said, "Danny told me he didn't want to go down the avenue of physical resemblance: he wanted to find the essence." Danny Boyle did it right. See this film.

Write on.

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Jared teaches screenwriting at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.