Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Journey Makes the Hero

My good friend, jazz critic Jonathan Widran, appeared on a podcast last week for a wide-ranging discussion that included a dash of politics. A liberal Democrat, Jonathan weighed in on Bernie Sanders’s recent surge in the polls, noting that, “Even if Hillary [Clinton] is ultimately the [Democratic party’s] nominee, it sharpens her in the debate. She has to be on her game. She has to fight for this. It’s not just like a coronation.”
Jonathan Widran, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders
l-r: Widran, Clinton, Sanders
What Jonathon is touching on is the crux of the hero’s journey. By losing the nomination to Barack Obama eight years ago, Hillary was forced to go on a journey, as Secretary of State, that made her a stronger candidate in 2016. Were it not for her opponent, she might have become president sooner, but a less experienced one. Now armed with sharper skills and fiercer determination, she’s ready to square off against Sanders, and then her real enemy, the as-yet-to-be-determined Republican candidate. A battle-scarred Hillary Clinton who survives these gauntlets would certainly be a better president than one who had a victory handed to her more easily.

This is classic storytelling. Things are never easy for our screen heroes. If they were, their movies would be boring. Screenplays are about characters facing and overcoming obstacles.

At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy learns she had the power to go home all the time. Glinda could have told her so right from the start, but apparently there’s no such thing as a good witch. Instead, she sends Dorothy on a journey to the Emerald City. The heroine learns about reason, compassion, and courage from a trio of new friends she meets along the way. But when she arrives at her destination, the wizard doesn’t solve her problems as promised. Instead, he sends her on a second journey to face and kill her sworn enemy.
Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale and Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ
With the Scarecrow on fire, Dorothy thinks fast to bravely save her friend by dowsing him with water. A single act of brains, heart, and courage that (Spoiler!) turns the villain into collateral damage. Now, when Glinda finally fesses up and tells Dorothy how to get home, she will return to Kansas stronger than the scared little nuisance we met in the opening scene.

In the 1978 film Superman, Lex Luthor understands this intrinsically when he revels in the ill-timed arrival of of his rival, saying, “To commit the crime of the century, one would naturally want to face the challenge of the century.” Luthor is the villain, but like all well-developed villains, he behaves as though he is the hero in his own story. But he applies the same principle to the movie’s real hero, presenting him with the challenge of keeping the West Coast from falling into the ocean while simultaneously preventing a disaster of similar scope on the opposite end of the country. Oh, and before he can perform either of those heroic acts, he must break free from the deadly chunk of Kryptonite chained to his neck—while underwater.
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor in SUPERMAN (1978): To commit the crime of the century, a man would just naturally want to face the challenge of the century."
Even with all those obstacles, the writers realized that Superman repairing a quake-damaged dam might look spectacular but lacked an emotionally satisfying conclusion to his arc. While already in production, they decided to (Spoiler!) kill Lois Lane, presenting the hero with his greatest challenge ever.
Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Christopher Reeve as Superman in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978)
Only the emotional devastation of losing the woman he loves can push him to disregard his father’s strictest law forbidding him to change human history. Now he emerges from his journey no longer the boy who was powerless to save his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent, but instead the hero who has fulfilled Jor-El’s prophecy from the beginning of the movie: “The son becomes the father.”

The same is true if you’re writing a small indie movie. In Winter’s Bone, the hero, Ree Dolly, is ultimately handed the solution to her problem. As in The Wizard of Oz, the sisters could have saved her a lot of time and suffering by taking Ree to her father’s secret resting place up front. Instead, they force her on a journey. One by one, she tracks down and confronts her father’s associates, each one scarier than the last, until she stands face-to-face with the top dog. Only then, after navigating her version of the nine circles of hell, has she proven her perseverance and earned her enemy’s trust. Now when she’s given her prize, she is more prepared take on the hand she’s been dealt as the new head of her family.
Jennifer Lawrence (center) stars as Ree Dolly in WINTER'S BONE

ScripTipps TIP: Nothing ever comes easy to the hero.

ScripTipps TIP: The greater the challenge a hero faces, the more he deserves the reward.

ScripTipps TIP: Send your hero on a journey that prepares him to solve the problem that initially seemed hopeless.

ScripTipps TIP: A well-developed villain behaves as though he were the hero in his own story.

For a further deconstruction of the screenplays for Superman: The Movie and its sequel, with hundreds more screenwriting tips, read ScripTipps: Superman & Superman II.

Friday, January 22, 2016

REVIEW: Toxic Feedback

Every script is perfect until someone else reads it. It’s important to put your script in front of your peers to see what they say about it. Writers groups are a useful tool for that, but keep in mind that most of the other writers in your group haven't sold any screenplays either. In fact, you’re likely to learn more about how to improve your writing by seeing the mistakes in their screenplays than from the notes they give you on yours.

That's partly because most people don't know how to give useful feedback, or how to process the feedback they receive. Focusing equally on both sides of the equation, Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive by Joni Cole solves that problem. Although written with prose authors in mind, the book’s revelations also apply to screenwriting groups.
What does Cole mean by “toxic” feedback? If you tell a person they’re a bad driver, they probably won’t agonize about whether to turn in their driver’s license. But tell someone their writing just isn’t there yet and they may abandon the project you read, or even quit writing altogether. Writers care what people think of their writing. Providing feedback is very powerful.

Cole gives great examples of common types of criticism, followed by tips on how to turn negative feedback into teachable moments. But the bigger eye-opener of this book is the advice on interpreting feedback.

According to Cole, 14% of all feedback is dead-on. You know it in your gut the minute you hear it. You were probably thinking it subconsciously already and you just needed to hear it out loud.

Another 18% percent of the feedback you receive is “from another planet.” It could be because of the feedback provider’s personal bias; they insist on a happy boy-gets-girl ending even though the author’s clear intent was boy-gets-boy. Or they insist you follow some obscure formatting rule that you know is antiquated. These notes can be disregarded without another thought.

The remaining 68% fall somewhere in between. You'll consider each of these notes on a case-by-case basis, weigh them heavier if there was a consensus from the group, and make the decision whether to make the change or leave it alone.

It’s important to note that Cole’s theories leave you empowered with that decision. You’re the boss of your story, not the feedback provider. Try out the suggestions, but go with your gut about whether the change makes your script better or worse. Don’t simply go down the list and make every revision proposed to try to make everyone like it, because writing by committee won’t work.

And if you decide not to take a note, it doesn’t make you any more stubborn than the feedback provider who stubbornly holds that their notes were “right.”

Whether you give or receive, if you’re involved in the writing-feedback process, reading Toxic Feedback is highly recommended.

(A version of this post was first published on Five Sprockets on June 25, 2012.)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

2016 Oscar Nominations: Best Screenplay

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominees this morning for the 88th annual Academy Awards. Here's a look at their picks for their two screenwriting categories.


Logline: Four outsiders in the world of high finance predict the credit and housing bubble collapse of 2007 and bet everything they have against big banks in hopes of making a fortune.

Screenplay by Adam McKay (Anchorman, Ant-Man, SNL) and Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs), based on the book by Michael Lewis.

Other nominations: Best Picture, Director (McKay), Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), Editing.

Logline: In 1952, a young Irish woman immigrates to Brooklyn and finds romance, but when a family emergency forces her to return to Ireland, she must choose between two lives and two homes.

Screenplay by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, Wild), based on the novel by Colm Tóibín.

Other nominations: Best Picture, Actress (Saoirse Ronan). Hornby was previously nominated for adapting An Education (2009).

Logline: In 1952, a young Manhattan shopgirl stuck in an unhappy engagement begins an affair with a married woman going through a difficult divorce.

Screenplay by Phyllis Nagy (Mrs. Harris), based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train). Directed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven).

Other nominations: Best Actress (Cate Blanchette), Supporting Actress (Rooney Mara), Cinematography, Costumes, Score. Previously, Anthony Minghella was nominated in 1999 for adapting Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Logline: Apollo 13 meets Cast Away, on Mars.

Screenplay by Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, Cabin in the Woods, World War Z), based on the self-published novel by Andy Weir.

Other nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Matt Damon), Production Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects. The space survival drama previously won two Golden Globes for Best Picture - Comedy or Musical, and Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical.

Logline: An abducted woman and her five-year-old son, fathered by her captor, escape and struggle to adjust to life outside the room in which they were held captive for seven years.

Screenplay by Emma Donoghue, based on her debut novel. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson.

Other nominations: Best Picture, Actress (Brie Larson), Director.

SOURCE MATERIAL BREAKDOWN: This year, four of the five adapted screenplays nominated are based on novels. The fifth is based on a true story (sourced from a non-fiction book). Last year, three were true stories/non-fiction books, one was a novel, and one was actually an original screenplay but was considered adapted from a short film made as a demo to raise funds for the feature. In 2014, four of the adapted screenplays nominated were non-fiction, while the fifth nominee was a sequel (based on characters from its predecessors).

SURPRISING OMISSIONS: The writers branch failed to recognize TRUMBO, the true story of Hollywood's highest paid screenwriter in the late 1940s who was blacklisted but continued to write under pseudonyms and still managed to win two Academy Awards. Also missing from the list is surprising box office disappointment STEVE JOBS, one of the most uniquely structured biopics since I'm Not There (2007). Equally shocking is the snub for Ridley Scott (The Martian) in the directing category.


Logline: In 1960, a lawyer must negotiate the release of a pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in exchange for a captive Soviet spy held by the U.S.

Screenplay by Matt Charman (Suite Française) and the Coen Brothers. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Other nominations: Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Mark Rylance), Production Design, Score, Sound Mixing. The Coens previously won twice for their screenplays Fargo (original) and No Country For Old Men (adapted).

Logline: When a young programmer is challenged to test a beautiful new android for self awareness, humanity is in danger of being overtaken by artificial intelligence.

Written and directed by Alex Garland (28 Days Later).

Other nominations: Best Visual Effects.

Logline: Inside the mind of a young girl, her emotions—Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness—must work together to find a way to help her cope with the trauma of moving to a new city and school.

Screenplay by Pete Docter (Toy Story 2), Meg LaFauve (The Good Dinosaur), Josh Cooley (Toy Story 4). Directed by Docter. Co-story and co-directed by Ronnie Del Carmen. Directed by Docter.

Other nominations: Best Animated Feature, for which it previously won the Golden Globe. Docter previously won in that same category for Up and was nominated for the screenplays for Up (shared with Tom McCarthy, his competition in this category this year), WALL-E, and Toy Story.

Logline: An elite team of investigative reporters uncovers a massive child molestation scandal and cover-up within Boston's Catholic Archdiocese.

Screenplay by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) & Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate). Directed by McCarthy.

Other nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Supporting Actress (Rachel McAdams), Editing. McCarthy was previously nominated for his contribution to the screenplay Up, a nomination he shared with his competition this year, Peter Docter.

Logline: In the mid-1980s, a rap group from Compton achieves stardom and revolutionizes hip-hop culture with their music, but in-fighting over money tears the band apart.

Screenplay by Jonathan Herman (first produced credit), Andrea Berloff (World Trade Center). Story by Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge (first feature writing credit), Alan Wenkus (Private Resort).

Other nominations: None.

ANALYSIS: While true stories mostly took an unusual hiatus in the adapted category, three of the original screenplay honorees are based on real-life events, leaving room for only two original stories on the list.

SURPRISING OMISSIONS: After a winning streak in the category for his last two screenplays, Quentin Tarantino sits out this year not only in the screenplay race, but is also out of luck in Best Picture and Best Director, with THE HATEFUL EIGHT nabbing only three nominations (Best Supporting Actress - Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Best Cinematography, and Best Score). Also surprisingly sidelined in the directing race is Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies).

WGA COMPARISON: Three of the Oscar-nominated screenplays in each category were also nominated for WGA awards. The four that weren't (Brooklyn, Carol, Ex Machina, and Inside Out) were all ineligible for WGA awards. Instead, the WGA went with Sicario and Trainwreck (original) and Steve Jobs and Trumbo (adapted).

ADAPTATIONS VS. ORIGINALS: Overall, the Academy favored adaptations over movies based on original material written directly for the screen. Five and a half of the eight Best Picture nominations were for adaptations (The Reverenant's screenplay, which was not nominated, was credited as being based "in part" on a novel, which was also inspired by a true story). Four of the five films nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay were also nominated for Best Picture. The only two Best Picture nominees coming from original scripts also saw those original scripts nominated, both of which were based on true stories.

Which screenplays will, or should, win? Which should (or should not) have been nominated? Leave a comment.

The Academy Awards will be presented on February 28, 2016.