Monday 31 October 2011

"T is for Toilet"

Written, directed and animated by Lee Hardcastle, T is for Toilet is a claymation horror short. It's not a film for children, but it does show what you can do with a few bits of plasticine.

The film is part of the ABCs of Death short film competition which ends today. There were at least four entries from Australia, but I responded to this one from the UK. It shows creativity, imagination and a feeling for the fears of childhood. 

Saturday 29 October 2011

Three-act structure?

It was laid out for the general public in Syd Field's book Screenplay and, like most aspiring screenwriters, I ran into three-act theory early on.

To be honest, I couldn't see it at all. 

I read Linda Seger's book, Making a Good Script Great, which repeats Field's demand that a screenplay consist of 120 pages, divided into thirty pages of act 1, sixty pages of act 2, and thirty pages of act 3. 

Then she talked about a Midpoint, which divides act 2 into 2A and 2B. I thought, "Doesn't that make for a four-act structure?"  But things got worse, because the Midpoint scene can be stretched out into a sequence or, dare I say it, an Act in its own right, giving us a five act structure.

Oh, and by the way, don't most of Shakespeare's plays consist of five acts? 

An opening frame from the Irish movie, The Actors.
Some movies publish the fact that they were designed as a five-act play. One such is the Michael Caine movie, The Actors (2006). [Good movie, a personal favourite. Check it out.] The fact is explicitly stated on a screen which says, A Film In Five Acts... Then each act is introduced with its own title card.

Click on this page
In the old days, movies were written with an explicit five-act structure. You don't need to be some kind of genius to know that; it was shown clearly on the page. If you look at the scripts of some of the great movies from the 1940s and '50s, such as Double Indemnity (1944) or Sunset Blvd. (1950), you will see that the scenes aren't numbered 1, 2, 3, etc., but rather A-1, A-2, A-3, and so on. A=Act 1. The scenes in Act 2 are numbered B-1, B-2, B-3, etc. And on and on up to scenes numbered E-1, E-2, E-3, etc.

'A' to 'E', that's FIVE acts. (I've included a page sample from Double Indemnity to the right,)

To this day, both Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter have the capacity to label scenes with that same alpha-numeric designation. 

In addition to these complications, there are also the made-for-television movies, known as "Movie Of the Week" (MOW) in the US. They consist of seven acts (the commercial breaks are written into the screenplay). 

The bulk of the gurus tramping the I'll-teach-you-how-to-to-write-a-hit-movie circuit (who have, themselves, never written a hit movie) talk about three-act structure. Occasionally you will come across a commentator who tells a different story. One such is John Truby. In his book, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, he says: 
"... three act structure, albeit a lot easier to understand than Aristotle, is hopelessly simplistic and in many ways just plain wrong. ... Three-act structure is a mechanical device superimposed on the story and has nothing to do with its internal logicwhere the story should or should not go."
Another is William Froug. Read his book Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade. He says:
It is not valuable to recommend that new screenwriters write by the numbers.
He goes on to tell the following story.
I attended a seminar of "Film and Literature" at Key West this past winter. One of the panelists remarked, surprisingly, that all movie stories are told in three acts, to which fellow-panelist screenwriter William Goldman replied, "Really? I didn't know that." I began to think of three of Goldman's best screenplays: Marathon Man (based on his novel), A Bridge Too Far, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. None of them follow the conventional three act structure.
William Froug adds a quote from Daniel Pyne, writer of numerous TV shows and feature films:
I completely eschew the formula of first, second, and third acts. I've run into too many writers who get lost in that old formula. They know where the first act ends, and they know where the second act ends, but their entire script is treading water because they're just writing from point to point.
Howard Suber well said: With regard to any specific movie, everyone will agree on where the first act begins and where the third act ends, but there is often no agreement about where the second act begins and endseven among the people who make the film.

In his book Hollywood Animal, Joe Eszterhas explains how he wrote the movie Basic Instinct
I had written ... movies where men manipulated the women who loved them. I thought it would be fun to flip the dynamic: to do a movie about a man being manipulated by a woman who is brilliant, omnisexual and evil. ... The piece wrote itself. I improvised all the way through. I made no notes for myself, no outline. I simply put the things down which the characters said to me. Three weeks from the time I started thinking about it, I finished the piece.
Basic Instinct is not structured with three acts. Instead it is a narrative punctuated by reference to books: the one Catherine wrote describing the murder; the one she wrote about the boy killing his parents "to see if he could get away with it"; the one she is writing, which when finished results in her telling Nick it's all over; and the one Nick says he's writing, with its impossibly happy ending, which will guarantee his eventual demise at Catherine's hands.

There are those who claim that a film must have a three-act structure, and they often claim that Aristotle gave this "rule" to us. In fact, there were no acts as we define the term today in Greek drama, and Aristotle did not talk about acts at all because the plays he analyzed were all presented in a single continuous performance.
The three-act structure that so many people ascribe to Aristotle was, in fact, invented more than two thousand years later when Ibsen and other nineteenth-century dramatists found that their audiencesunlike the drama groupies of Periclean Athens—were unable to sit still for the entire duration of a full-length play.
A movie has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and eventually finish. As Jean-Luc Goddard famously said, A film should have a beginning, a middle and an end. But not necessarily in that order. Structure is necessary and good, but beware of approaching it from a fixed POV. 

Jokes have structure, but only one rule: the punchline comes last. The rest can be told in whatever order suits you, but once the punchline appears anywhere but at the end, it stops being a joke and becomes something else. One of the best illustrations of this fact is the documentary The Aristocrats (2005), which consists of a hundred comedians telling just one joke. They tell it in a hundred different ways, but the punchline stays the same, and it always comes at the end. (I have to warn you it should be R-rated for the language.) 

I think every wannabe screenwriter should study the various theories of structure until they understand them, then they should set it all aside and focus on writing their story the best way they can. The problem with embracing three-act structure as an article of faith is that you end up being able to see only what you expect to see, rather than what's actually there, and you may find yourself artificially imposing a structure on your story that won't do it justice.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Terry Rossio, "Seven Samurai" and "Star Wars"

Back in the mid-90s, when I first became interested in screenwriting, the one source of information I stumbled across was Terry Rossio's Wordplay columns. At the time, I worked in desktop publishing for the Department of Defence at DSTO, Salisbury. I spent all day, every day, working with PageMaker. So it was natural for me to copy the Wordplay columns into PageMaker and turn them into a convenient-sized book. 

I lugged that homemade paperback around with me for ages, read it cover-to-cover at least three times, and was inspired, exhilarated and intimidated. [I went looking for it a few weeks ago, but couldn't find it. Probably the victim of some well-intentioned clean-up.]

I would like to take this opportunity to give a big shout-out of gratitude to Terry Rossio. Man, your columns kept me going. I grew up in a Housing Commission estate in the bush, a place where no one expected us to do much more than the occasional stint in prison. I avoided that option, but (until I moved far away) never hinted to anyone that I wanted to write. So, thank you for your encouragement. I am indebted.

I'm also indebted to a bunch of other wonderful people who share their knowledge on the internet. You can see their blogs listed on the side of this page. Take some time today to check them out; I'm sure you'll learn something.                                                                                                          
Anyway, back to Wordplay. The column I read most often, the one that intimidated me most, was Column 34, Throw in the Towel. It includes a section on "Knowledge," meaning knowledge of the film industry. Terry snaps out a series of questions designed to make the point that most people have, at best, a superficial knowledge of the movies. One of his questions was: 

Quick, George Lucas just asked you to name your favorite Kurosawa film.
That shook me. At the time, I knew zip about Akira Kurosawa, but I was determined to learn. A few weeks later Seven Samurai (1954) played at an art house in the city and I was there. Ran (1985), Rashomon (1950), Yojimbo (1961), High and Low (1963), and Dersu Uzala (1975) followed.                                                                                                    
To answer George's question, while I have a sentimental fondness for Seven Samurai (as the first Kurosawa film I ever watched), my real favourite is Yojimbo. I think it's also Hollywood's favourite. It was referenced in The Bodyguard (1992) and Rising Sun (1993), remade with Clint Eastwood as A Fistful of Dollars (1964), remade with Bruce Willis as Last Man Standing(1996), then remade again, with a major remix of the key elements by the Coen Brothers, as Miller's Crossing (1990). It's probably due for another remake about now.

Akira Kurosawa had a big impact on George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. They watched all his movies and later presented him with an honorary Academy Award in 1990. You can watch the presentation here on YouTube. 

One of the things about rewatching old Japanese movies is, you start to notice little details. This is especially true if you're familiar with the adage to "steal like an artist." The following frames are taken from Seven Samurai (1954) and the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

On the left we have Gisaku, the wise old man, who teaches the villagers to use hungry samurai to defeat the bandits. 

On the right we have Yoda, the wise old Jedi, who teaches Luke Skywalker to use the force to defeat Darth Vader. 

If you learn to steal like an artist, you're going to find yourself in good company.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Dario Russo, "Italian Spiderman" and "Danger 5"

One of the earliest Australian webseries was Italian Spiderman. Conceived by Dario Russo as a parody of Italian action films of the 1970s, he made the first episode here in Adelaide and uploaded it to YouTube in late 2007.

Russo secured funding for ten more shorts, which reached 3.5 million views for the trailer, and up to one million for each of the episodes. Then, due to issues within the production team, the project fell over.

Dario, and his writing partner David Ashby, moved on to making Danger 5, a comedy set in an alternate world in which World War II is taking place in the 60s, and a group of international spies is on a mission to kill Hitler. There are hopes this series will be broadcast on national television.

Here's the trailer for Italian Spiderman.

                                   Facebook    Wikipedia    YouTube

And when you've done with that, here's the trailer for Danger 5.

                                        Facebook    IMDb    SBS

For more information about the eventual release of Danger 5, see here.

Monday 24 October 2011

Larceny vs Inspiration

In his excellent book, Acting in Film, Michael Caine says this about acting:
When becoming a character, you have to steal.  Steal whatever you see. You can even steal from other actors' characterizations; but if you do, only steal from the best. If you see Vivian Leigh do something, or Marlon Brando, or Robert de Niro or Meryl Streep do something that fits your character, steal it. Because what you're seeing them do, they stole.
In the Time magazine article, 10 Questions for Woody Allen, on January 28, 2008, Woody Allen said this:
I've stolen from the best. I've stolen from Bergman. I've stolen from Groucho, from Chaplin, from Keaton, from Martha Graham, from Fellini.       I mean I'm a shameless thief.
Austin Kleon
In the famous post, How to Steal Like an Artist, on his eponymous blog, Austin Kleon says this:
Here's what artists understand. It's a three-word sentence that fills me with hope every time I read it. Nothing is original. It says it right there in the Bible. Ecclesiastes: That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun.
It doesn't matter one bit how often your story has been told before; you must retell it better, with a fresh and different approach. When you tell an old story in a new way, it becomes a new story.
Michael Ferris said this in Script magazine on August 30, 2011:
When Travis Beacham (Clash of the Titans, Pacific Rim) was just an aspiring writer, he ... said to me “there’s no such thing as an original story – to approach writing a new script thinking you’re going to write a story that’s unique and original and No One Else Has Ever Seen is a fool’s errand. Man has been writing for thousands of years – every story that will ever be told has been done.”
I (sent) out his script The Gloaming to my contacts in order to try to help him sell it.  The script was getting immediate and overwhelmingly positive reaction, and people were calling it “creative,” “inventive,” “amazing,” etc. it looked like he was going to get a great manager, agent, and soon – a sale. After a couple months, it had a new title courtesy of Arnold Kopelson (Killing on Carnival Row) and was sold to New Line Cinema.
Now, this script was a steampunk fantasy about a city with fairies, werewolves, etc., and a human detective who is trying to find and catch a serial killer who is terrorizing the Fairy Quarter. It was a startling, exciting, unique storyworld, and instantly captured people’s attention. People were falling over themselves to call it “fresh” and “original,” but here’s the thing – the story is basically The Fugitive. Travis took the story and structure of The Fugitive, and put it in a freaky, cool, interesting, unique world with suitably unique matching dialogue and characters.
He was hailed as original, not because he was reinventing the wheel when it came to story, but because he took a simple story, and gave it interesting, complex, unique layers.
Austin Kleon wrote another post called 25 Quotes to Help You Steal Like an Artist. I stole a few of them for here:
A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.  — T.S.Eliot
Every idea is a juxtaposition. That’s it. A juxtaposition of existing concepts. Steven Grant
If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.  — Wilson Mizner
All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard. What else?  — William S. Burroughs
It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to. Jean-Luc Godard
Plagiarism is basic to all culture. — Pete Seeger
Bad artists copy, good artists steal. — Pablo Picasso
Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new at all. — Abraham Lincoln
Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing. — Salvador Dali
So what are you waiting for? Go on, steal... like an artist.