L of Amph
There is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.

- Stephen King, "On Writing"

London Screenwriters Festival, sequences & me

Barton FinkThe London Screenwriters Festival may well be the biggest and best conference for screenwriters on Earth right now. There used to be a plethora of L.A.-based writerfests – I’ve been to a lot of them – with William Goldman and Syd Field dropping in for a chat, with pitch fests and panels, with lawyers and agents trying to get you damn kids to wise up and patchoulied practitioners of The Artists Way imploring you not to quit five minutes before the miracle. Last month’s Story Expo in Los Angeles is one of the remainders of that legacy and had some great guests (like Syd Field). But the 21st century home of the screenwriter convocations seems to be London.

Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I?

And not just because I’m a screenwriter living in London.

Or because I’m going to be speaking at the London Screenwriters Festival.

“Oh, Neal, are really you going to be speaking at the London Screenwriters Festival?”

“I am. As you well know.”

I’ll be doing a talk called “8 Sequence Structure: The Screenwriter’s Ultimate Weapon”. I know, I know. It’s a bit flashy, but people are always more likely to attend a talk if they feel like they’re going to get a weapon out of it. You just can’t have too many weapons nowadays.

I’ll be going over the importance of the sequence is story structure – and the 8 sequence paradigm specifically – as taught by Frank Daniel, one of the great screenwriting teachers of the 20th century. Using sequences in screenwriting will get you a lot farther then trying to put together a story with 3 Acts. Relying on a 3 Act Structure to get you through writing a movie is a bit like relying on your knowledge of the alphabet to get you through the writing a novel, or relying on your knowledge of swimming to get you safely back to shore when your boat has capsized in a hurricane, or relying on your knowledge of the Force to hit an exhaust port only two meters wide with your dad trying to kill you. I guess “inadequate” is the word I’m looking for.

I’ll be going into depth – or as much depth as one hour allows – into what a sequence is, how it functions in the story, and the competing theories on why feature films have eight of them. And I’ll try to pass on some of Frank Daniel’s nuggets of wisdom too, as well as some of my own experience using sequence structure to in the Hollywood trenches.

It happens Sunday, 27 October, 2pm in Tuke Hall, Regent’s School of Drama, Film & Media. See you there!

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Introduction To Sequence Structure

(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website
Twelvepoint.com, March 2010)

I always pat myself on the back for having written a great scene, but writing a great scene doesn’t help you tell a great story any more than getting a great shot helps you make a great film. What makes a shot “great” is what’s on either side of it, its relationship to the larger assemblage of shots. What makes a scene great is how it plays against the scenes before and after it. A scene, no matter how I feel about it, is only useful insofar as it contributes to a larger whole, and that whole is its big brother, the ‘sequence’.

If you’ve never heard of sequences and are now feeling a bit disoriented in the story anatomy hierarchy, just remember: shots make up scenes; scenes make up sequences; sequences make up acts and acts, as we all know, make up movies.

Of all those building blocks, I would argue that it’s the sequence, not the scene or the revered act, which is the most important one in the screenwriter’s toolkit, and the one he or she must come to understand completely and intuitively. Yet sequences are not well understood by most writers, beyond a vague sense that a sequence is a few scenes stitched together for some kind of common purpose.

What’s a good definition of a sequence? Here’s mine: A sequence is a unit of story structure composed of a series of scenes with a coherent dramatic spine. It begins when a character is placed in a state of uncertainty or imbalance – i.e., when the hero has a big problem. It ends when that problem is resolved and – and here’s the key – the solution to that problem creates another, further problem that then begins a new sequence.

So a sequence begins when a character is confronted with a crisis – and a crisis is any situation in which you can’t say, ‘Let’s just forget the whole thing’ – and it concludes when that crisis is resolved in favour of a new crisis. When a sequence completely resolves or eliminates the central problem that began the whole story, then the movie is over.

A master storyteller is one who leads us to believe that each sequence will be the one that will finally resolve or defuse the main conflict of the story, that will solve all the character’s problems, and then surprises us, frustrates us, thrills us, by delivering the complete opposite: an even greater complication that draws us into a new sequence.

Each sequence has a beginning, a middle and an end. Or to frame it in writer’s language, an inciting incident, a rising action and a climax. You can even think of each sequence as having its own mini-story arc. LA-based screenwriting teacher, Chris Soth, calls his seminars on sequence structure, the ‘mini-movie method’ and encourages students to treat each sequence as if it were a short movie unto itself – not a bad suggestion if you don’t take it too literally.

Some screenwriters will construct a ‘beat sheet’, a kind of outline, for their scripts and often what they’re doing, though most amateur writers wouldn’t think of it in this way, is flailing around in the dark trying to find what the sequences are.

When there are troubles with a screenplay’s act structure, the real fault can often be found in its sequence structure. In my own writing, when the story feels adrift and vague – or when Act II just isn’t working – the cause is almost always a lack of clarity in the sequences that make up the film. I run into the trap of overconcentrating on individual scenes, stringing them together like a child’s bead project, without noting how they contribute to making up a larger sequence, and time and time again I have to look at the bigger picture.

Many screenwriters who are aware of and consciously manage sequence structure in their work have been influenced by the teachings of Frantisek ‘Frank’ Daniel who was Dean of the School Of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s. This is where I learned about sequence structure, alongside many other media creatives whose names are more familiar to you than mine. Frank Daniel delighted packed lecture halls with his analyses of a wide range of films in terms of their sequence structures and many of us undergraduates would sneak into the back of his graduate level courses in order to learn something we knew was invaluable for our craft.

Frank insisted that every complete film story has exactly eight sequences, usually two sequences in the first act, four in the second, and two in the third act. Some say the origin of this eight-sequence template is the division of early feature length movies into reels, physical reels of film, usually around ten minutes long. Reels, typically with two projectors operating side by side, would have to be switched during a showing, and writing films in ten-minute, cohesive sequences then helped keep each dramatic beat of the story contained within its own reel. I have my doubts about this. I tend to think it worked the other way around. I think the reason a ten-minute reel was used in the first place was becausse that was – due to some mysterious quirk of the human emotional makeup – a satisfying length for a single dramatic beat to be introduced and progress to a climax. I believe the storytelling element came first and the technology followed.

I do not have the courage to say that every feature film always has eight sequences, although Frank Daniel used to amaze us by somehow making every film fit the structure. Sticking to a strict eight-sequence feature film model though can be very helpful in trouble-shooting. It encourages us to look more deeply when a story appears to have too few sequences, or to compress or cut when confronted by a plethora of sequences. The world is not literally divided into lines of latitude and longitude but it helps to pretend that it is.

Generally speaking, the better written a movie is, the clearer its sequence structure will be, and vice versa, the clearer your sequence structure is, the better your story will probably be. Films dominated by strong physical action, adventure movies and musicals, tend to have a more transparent sequence structure and lend themselves to easier analysis. Both action movies and musicals will often have set pieces at the climax of each sequence.

Solid sequences and the writer’s facility with them are what make some three-hour movies seem to fly by and some 80-minute movies last eons. Dances with Wolves (1990) is the second longest movie to win the Best Picture Oscar yet it flies by largely because of its rock-solid sequences, each with a clearly-defined tension that leads into the next sequence. On the other side of the coin, loose or vague sequence structure is usually to blame in that bizarre, yet frequent, phenomenon of a movie that is packed with action but is utterly boring and exhausting.

Ask a friend to list their favorite movies and you’ll get a diverse set of responses but it’s a good bet that most of the choices will have in common clear, strong sequence structure, and the very best will have sequences that keep surprising us and keep us guessing, and play in contrast or in sympathy with each other like find symphonic music.

I am an on again/off again David Lynch fan. I can never make up my mind whether I love his work or not. One thing that keeps me coming back though is his solid sequence structure. I may not like what he’s doing on the screen all the time but it’s always presented in a structurally rock-solid, coherent way if you look at the skeleton under the strange and fearsome flesh he puts on top of it. Imagine my surprise – lack of surprise, it should be – to learn when researching this article that David Lynch was a devoted student of Frank Daniel.

How a story is dissected into sequences may depend very much on the analyst’s point of view. Like an isolated, non-technical civilisation that doesn’t distinguish yellow from orange, for example, one analyst might see one large sequence where another sees two shorter sequences.

I’ve included below a simplified outline of the sequence structure of Star Wars: Episode IV (1977), indicating the problem that begins each sequence, and the resolution that ends it and launches us into the next sequence. You might disagree with my breakdown, which is good. Do your own analyses of as many films as you can and don’t worry too much about trying to force a movie into eight sequences. The key is to locate exactly where each new dramatic tension begins, note how the character tries to solve that tension, and then to find exactly where that tension is replaced by a new one.

STAR WARS 8 SEQUENCE BREAKDOWN

SEQUENCE 1

  • Problem: The Empire is about to retrieve the Death Star plans, capture the Princess and send R2D2 and C3PO to the spice mines of Kessel – in short, the movie is about to be over.
  • Complicated by: the droids are captured by Jawas.
  • Resolution: The droids find safety with Owen Lars and his nephew Luke.

SEQUENCE 2

  • Problem: Luke find a mysterious message from an important person begging for help from someone he might know.
  • Complicated by: R2D2 runs away.
  • Resolution: Luke decides to go with Ben Kenobi to Alderaan.

SEQUENCE 3

  • Problem: Luke and Ben have to find a way to get to Alderaan at Mos Eisley Spaceport.
  • Complicated by: Imperial forces are searching the city for them.
  • Resolution: The Millennium Falcon escapes Mos Eisley and heads for Alderaan.

SEQUENCE 4

  • Problem: Fly the droids and the plans safely to Alderaan.
  • Complicated by: Alderaan is destroyed.
  • Resolution: Our heroes are captured by the Death Star.

SEQUENCE 5

  • Problem: They discover the Princess is aboard the Death Star.
  • Complicated by: The Princess is scheduled to be terminated.
  • Resolution: The Princess is rescued.

SEQUENCE 6

  • Problem: They must take the most important person in the galaxy to safety, starting from the bottom of a garbage masher.
  • Complicated by: Legions of single-minded fanatics are trying to kill them.
  • Resolution: They escape the Death Star and the Death Star’s sentry ships.

SEQUENCE 7

  • Problem: The Death star is following the heroes to the Rebel Base.
  • Complicated by: Han is abandoning them.
  • Resolution: Luke and the rebels fly out to destroy the Death Star.

SEQUENCE 8

  • Problem: The Death Star is going to destroy the Rebel Base and end the rebellion forever.
  • Complicated by: Darth Vader engages the rebel pilots in his own ship.
  • Resolution: Luke destroys the Death Star and becomes the hero of the galaxy.
Seq. 8 - fighters approach the Death Star

Sequence 8 begins.

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The Camera Is Mightier Than The Gun

Walking home from dropping my daughter off at school today, I was treated to the sight and sound of a driver shrieking obscenities at another man as he crossed the street carrying his two year old. I missed what sparked the driver’s outrage. I suppose it was something having to do with the father’s not stepping into or across the road according to the driver’s master plan. I’d like to imagine the driver was still drunk from the night before – nursing a crippling hangover – or maybe he was feeling hopeless and broken-hearted about the implosion of capitalist civilization and the destruction of the ecosystem, both of which will result in the deaths of many millions over the next few decades. Whichever, it was a verbal outburst seething with violence and the driver didn’t give a flying fuck how many school kids were within earshot. The Rage

But the interesting bit was when the dad, two year old cradled in his arm, charged back to the car, chased it out into the street as it pulled away, and punched it. Maybe he was still drunk from the night before too, or perhaps his honor and dignity – and that of his child – had been irreparably damaged. Or maybe he was too out of sorts about that whole end of civilization routine.

I really wondered if the two men were going to go for it there in front of the school, the driver leaping out, letting his car coast off down the hill into someone’s front yard, and the father swinging his two year old like a mace, clubbing in the driver’s head, with the boy’s blinky-light shoes flashing. And I found my own anger boiling up with theirs, spontaneously, sympathetically. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later Rage is real and very contagious. I wondered what I would do if/when they started going at it. Would I jump in and try to stop a fight? Would I thrill to kicking in the head of the bad guy? Would I take the two year old in the midst of his being wielded to inflict the fatal blow and pull him aside and tutor him the way of all righteousness?

No. I would start shooting.

I would start shooting. I would pull out my phone and start recording it. That seems to be what I do. I would want a record of it, something that the cops could be shown maybe, should the event precipitate arrests. I would want a record of it anyway.

If you’re a writer, a thing doesn’t really seem to exist until you write it. If you’re a filmmaker, a thing doesn’t really seem to exist until you shoot it. I know that sounds pretentious, but it seems to be true for so many of us. Maybe because we’re so saturated in a world of electronic illusion and fantasy that intimate moments, moments of real human interaction, positive or negative, have to be passed through our chosen medium before we’re able to perceive them as being real. I know this happens on a large scale with news and media and that dreadful succubus The TV. In our world, nothing is real until the screens say it is real. A thing can be half real, mostly real, but it will never be a real boy until the screens say it is.

Yes, I would start shooting.

I visited the Occupy London camp in front of St. Paul’s last year. One time when I was there, a young German man – perhaps a bright, up & coming intern at Barclays or RBS – burst into the Encampment’s Welcome Tent, iPhone camera blazing, trying to get the Occupiers at the desk to admit that because they accepted anonymous donations, they might be laundering money. I felt a bit sorry for the German. He was deep in enemy territory and was just a corporatist footsoldier following orders. But he was there to make mischief. And this is war.

As I watched him doing his level best to generate anti-populist propaganda, I felt that anger rising – The Rage.

So I started shooting back. We faced off in an iPhone triangle, a social media intoxicated Quentin Tarentino tableau, each capturing the photons bouncing of the other, each accusing the other of villainy and more villainy, with the cameras confirming the reality of it all.

Is the pen/camera really mightier than the sword? History still can’t make up its mind on that one. But bullets and fists and guns are inevitably vectors for The Rage, the pen and the camera vectors for truth. Maybe. But we do have a choice.

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The Colorado Movie Shootings and The American Dream

I wanted to put down a few thoughts on this week’s shooting spree in Colorado at the screening of The Dark Knight Rises. I’ll try to put them down freely, without my usual self-obsessed care. But I’ll fail at that. I’m a self-obsessed man from a self-obsessed culture.

In the wake of this tragedy – ha, we know the drill, don’t we? We reflexively use the requisite sound bites: “in the wake of this tragedy”. The cliches come pouring out. Even the accounts of the victims become cliches: “I heard a popping sound”, “He just started shooting”, “I tried to get behind — “, “I saw someone lying on the ground”. It all paints the same spine-tingling picture, a kind of sentimental poetry of violence. But in the wake of this tragedy, the search for answers begins, the national debate begins, and we’ve heard it all before and done it all before. It’s as if the entire country is on autopilot, moving step by step by step through a predetermined media pseudo-grief drill. Attractive people on television will moderate discussions on gun control, on media violence. They will be moving through the same hypnotized routine, repeating scripts, emphasizing talking points. And each player in this mass, nationwide psychodrama will be using the mass murder to further his or her own agenda. There will be talk of “Why?”, “How did it happen?” But that will all be secondary to the pushing of agendas. Silence would be most appropriate, I guess – not a minute of silence, but days of it, a month of silence – a month of contemplation and grief.

We do this, we Americans. We go on sprees. We go on shopping sprees. We go on dieting sprees. We go on exercise sprees. One of the great inaugural American sprees was the mass murder by Charles Whitman, a student at University Of Texas at Austin, not terribly far from my birthplace. In 1966, Whitman killed 16 and wounded 32 more, with a rifle from the top of the university’s bell tower. “Ladybird” Johnson, wife of Lyndon Johnson, President at the time, graduated from the university, as did former First Lady Laura Bush and Mostafa Chamran, a Defense Minister of Iran.
the tv that wouldn't die

I like violent stories. I write violent stories. I like Macbeth and Clive Barker and the history of medieval torture. I like Lawrence Of Arabia and The Wild Bunch and Dawn Of The Dead and Tom And Jerry. Being immersed in the violent action, then somehow surviving it, surmounting it, analyzing it, seems to give my animal brain a sense of power. And power, or the illusion of power, is what that animal brain craves most of all. To the animal brain, power means all the food, all the sex, and all the years that ever were or could be. The animal brain doesn’t know that these things are impossible to have. The animal brain believes it’s possible to have everything and an infinite supply of everything. The animal brain has faith.

America was founded on this idea that there was an infinite amount of everything and it could all be yours. European settlers arrived in a completely uninhabited land – not a human soul on the whole continent – no, not a single one. The only thing that stood in your way was Mother Nature. And through the power of your own will, vision, courage, faith, you could have anything and everything you wanted. It was all there in front of you in raw form. If you had the talent to shape it, there was nothing that you couldn’t have.

“I can make the world in my own image” is the American Dream. This is the American Tragedy too – the certainty that I am separate from the world. This belief is the prime motivator behind all American civilization. It’s the thing that got Charles Whitman to kill his wife and mother, then head up to the top of the belltower.

This separation of self from the world – the separation of me from nature, separation of me from the spirit, separation of me from my fellow human, separation of me from my self – is what has made America great. You can’t have a world empire without believing that you are separate from the world – superior, or worse maybe, than others. Or that your God is different from other Gods. The American success story is built on two ideas: Glorification of self and objectification of the other.

If I can objectify you, then I can conquer you, I can buy and sell you, I can blow second hand smoke in your face or believe that Likeing your Facebook status is meaningful contact, I can kill, I can ignore science and reason, I can disbelieve my eyes, I can destroy the future of my children, and more with no sense of any consequences. I can believe there is an infinite amount of what I want and that I can have all of it. Any crime becomes possible. And history has shown over and over that objectification of the other goes hand in hand with atrocity whether you’re shooting American Bison from a train, drawing up plans for gas ovens, drone warfare and human enslavemet. Or firing bullets into human-shaped targets in a movie theater.

Japan has for years had a far more violent media culture than the US. Japan brought us “Battle Royale”. In “Battle Royale”, school kids fight to the death on a remote island while the world watches, yet there have been no “Battle Royale” copycat killings. We know that violence in media is not the cause of random acts of senseless violence. We know it’s not the availability of guns either. Truye, Americans own more guns per capita than any other country, but Switzerland and Finland also have a high gun ownership. What Japan, Switzerland and Finland lack is a 300 year old culture celebrating the triumph of the self over its environment. Although this culture, the culture of narcissism, is America’s biggest export and it has begun to deform other cultures, reshaping them  in its image.

I do not own a gun and do not ever plan to. But it just doesn’t stack up that the source of American violence is the number of firearms available. I think it’s rather the other way around. The obsession with the inviolable “Me” and dread of “The Other” stokes the desire for guns – and for money, for food, for entertainment, for guarantees of absolute safety, for immortality, for super-heroes who will kill and die in your name – and the more you cling to security and protection, the more insecure and vulnerable you feel.

Already, various special interests are using this latest Colorado shooting to promote their own agendas – as I am probably doing here. It’s unnerving – the stampede to again find enemies, to again and again point to a problem outside the self, the elimination of which will solve everything. As Einstein famously said, “You cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it.”

But there is no desire to solve the problem. The media conversation that will judder on over the coming weeks will resemble that of a confronted narcissist – heavy on self-justification and blame and really slick sounding. Seeking personal humility and self-honesty and striving for the unity of ourselves with our fellow creatures, our world, our own futures would mean an assault on the fabric of American Civilization – of Western Civilization. And this civilization is well-armed and obsessed and will not be stopped.

Orwell, as usual, describes our situation with pinpoint accuracy. From 1984:

“A world of fear and treachery in torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy, everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. “

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X-Women and Hollow Men

In 2001, I wrote the below piece, “X-Women and Hollow Men”, for The Hollywood Reporter, about the explosion of female action heroes at the turn of the 21st century. I post it again here because it’s not available elsewhere online and to add to the discussion of the future of the female action hero. See Social Creature’s post, for example: The Next 21st Centry Superhero Will Be A Chick.

When the article was written, I was convinced we were on the verge of seeing a new generation of female heroes. The first decade of the 21st century, of course, marked a radical shift to a revolutionary conservatism that embraced hierarchy, violence, and a dismantling of law that has always shoved women into the background as property or, at best, as a type of technology for keeping the social structure intact.

I write female heroes, so this issue is important to me. And I have a four year old girl. I want to write a hero for my daughter to be inspired by that’s not just a boy put into a girl’s body. We can be deceived into thinking we’re seeing female heroes – onscreen and in print – and in real life too – when in fact we’re just seeing women playing the parts of men, and receiving great rewards for it. Kathryn Bigelow winning the Best Director Academy Award for “The Hurt Locker”, a movie just as easily made by Ridley Scott or Jerry Bruckheimer, is as clear an indicator of where we are as anything. Jane Campion or Julie Taymor are just not going to win Best Director. Not in this decade anyway. It is a man’s world. The game of success, whether in the entertainment industry or international poltics, is played according to masculine rules and there doesn’t seem to be too much getting around that for the time being. That global cultural truth affects then what stories we will hear. And it seems now to be resulting in that old chestnut of the female action hero who when you get to the heart of it, really is teenage boy’s transgender fantasy.

So here’s the Reporter piece, in full. Have things changed since 2001?

“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” So said John Wayne, epitome of the tough, indomitable Hollywood hero, over fifty years ago. It might have been the rallying cry of the action hero of this past year. The difference being that the new icons of unapologetic toughness are not cowboys or cavalry captains, they are women.

Past decades have given us female action stars, but only sporadically, and when women in movies have had physical prowess equal to a man’s, they have always had to sacrifice something for it. The Bond films have for 35 years featured dangerous female characters–Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), May Day (Grace Jones), all the way back to spike-toed Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya). Each one gave the tuxedoed spy a run for his money, and each one was required to die before fade out–usually while suffering a wry Bond quip. Bond kept the power, the women were only borrowing it. Likewise, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Linda Hunt’s Sarah Connor were icons of level-headedness and determination, but at the price of being outcasts, the only sane figures in disintegrating worlds. Female actors have always been prepared and equipped to bring the formidable roles to the screen, but either the audience or the industry–or both–have not.

But in 1999, a leather-clad Carrie Ann Moss, as Trinity, leapt into the air and defied gravity in the opening sequence of “The Matrix”. When she finally landed, kicking the asses of several men in the process, there was nothing in the movies that a guy could do that a girl could not.  Trinity was a character equal in all respects to the male hero. More importantly, the film felt no need to explain why she was so or to apologize for it. Neither did the audience. The floodgates opened and the year 2000 has brought a plethora of films featuring physically powerful and unapologetically dangerous women.

One of the first, and most unlikely, films to bring us a new breed of female action star was “Chicken Run” with a cast that was virtually all-female–as well as all-chicken and all-clay. The stop-motion action-adventure of barnyard hens trying to escape becoming chicken pot pies was a feminist remake of that most masculine of WWII classics, “The Great Escape”. Julia Sawahla,  Jane Horrocks, and Miranda Richardson, who lent their voices to the film’s principle characters, are all alumnae of the British comedy hit “Absolutely Fabulous”, which set its own feminist standard by celebrating female disfunction as enthusiastically as “Chicken Run” did female adroitness.

Unlike “The Great Escape”, “Chicken Run” allowed some sexual equity by providing three male characters–Mrs. Tweedy’s ineffectual husband, subservient to her that we assume he’s Mrs. Tweedy’s farm hand for the first half of the movie. The second is an old war hero Rooster, lost in memories–or delusions–of past glory. The third–token male romantic lead and token American–is Rocky Rhodes who is a coward and scam artist, played by Mel Gibson at his irresponsible, mercurial best. With feminine support, these men are dragged kicking and screaming into mature action and manage not to disgrace themselves too thoroughly.

“Charlie’s Angels”, an action film about women, by women, and for everybody, has a knockout opening tracking shot that sums up the new place of women in the movies. Moving through a crowded airliner, we are shown the gamut of female roles–a mother, a nun, a little girl, a woman leading a boyfriend into the lavoratory for an encounter, etc. We finally come to rest on a bad-ass L.L. Cool J, who, we learn, is also a woman–the Angel Dylan (Drew Barrymore) in disguise. “Charlie’s Angels” says 1. “A woman can be anything she wants,” and 2. “If you aren’t a girl, you can’t play this game.”

One of the masterstrokes of “Charlie’s Angels” is the casting of its men, which further underscores the power of the three female leads. The male leads are devoid of any macho mythology. Tim Curry is, after all, the world’s most famous transvestite, and Bill Murray played gay performer Bunny Breckinridge in “Ed Wood”. Crispin Glover gave the world Marty McFly’s ineffectual pop in “Back to the Future” and Andy Warhol in “The Doors”. Tom Green is irrepressible in his determination to look like an idiot at all costs. It was precisely this type of casting that let audiences be a part of the game of “Charlie’s Angels”, making it one of the highest grossers of the year. Men enjoyed the joke as much as women. The audience is not just willing to see a world where women take power, they will not settle for less.

In “X-Men”, the dark sister-film of “Charlie’s Angels”, women match the men super-power for super-power and then some. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the terrifying embodiment of masculine rage is presented with a partner in Rogue (Anna Paquin) who, though a mere girl, is equally, perhaps even more dangerous. As in “Charlie’s Angels”, the men are crippled, their power unstable. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) may be the mastermind, but he is also bound to a wheelchair, and his nemesis Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan) is brilliant, but twisted by hate. Cyclops (James Marsden), in ruby-quartz glasses day or night, gives the impression of a blind man, and Wolverine is an alcoholic, and bad guy Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) is a pre-verbal barbarian. The X-Women have no such handicaps. Jane Gray (Famke Janssen) has intelligence and the power to move matter, Storm (Halle Berry) is the power of nature, and Rogue steals power from those who would lay a hand on her–which in terms of the story, are men. Shapeshifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijin-Stamos) not only refuses to behave like a nice girl, she can, literally, be whoever she wants to be. With it’s most powerful male in a wheelchair, and it’s most powerful female still a teen, the “X-Men” paints a world of men on the way down, while their female counterparts are just getting started.

While the woman-warrior is new to Hollywood movies, in Asia she has been a staple for decades. Since the 1960s Chinese martial arts films have allowed women to retain grace and beauty and while giving them the ability to vanquish scores of foes, male or female, single-handedly. Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” reveals a new world of female action characters by revisiting something very old. “Crouching Tiger” is an entirely female action movie, an epic adventure about a brilliant young woman fighter who seeks greater power by stealing a magical sword. This young genius, Jen (Ziyi Zhang), is caught between the friendship of master swordswoman Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and the evil influence of the witch Jade Fox (played by Chinese action diva Pei-pei Cheng). The two males in the story are essentially supporting characters. One is the love interest, a young warrior who falls for Jen because of her martial prowess. The other is the martial arts master Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) whose new dedication to a spiritual life keeps him remote from the central action. The women in “Crouching Tiger” are center the story, and the battles they fight are among the most thrilling ever filmed.

Even a year ago, the prevaling wisdom was that it was difficult for women to carry an entire picture. This year, they seem to have carried most of them single-handedly. In Rod Lurie’s political drama, “The Contender”, Senator Laine (Joan Allen) will not dignify with a response the accusations of the men trying to destroy her reputation. She refuses to play by any rules but her own. Women may not yet feel so empowered in the real world, but perhaps the new brand of movie hero will give them a start.

 

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The Death Of Guy Fawkes

The Death Of Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes, 1605, plotted to blow up
Parliament -
his reasons were religious or something -
he was Catholic – or Protestant -
malcontent – psychopath –
anti-what-we’re-trying-to-do-here
(in truth, his grievances are lost to history
or even if they’re not, they’re quite irrelevant to this case) -
and he was guilty found.

How in hell did Fawkes haul two tonnes of gunpowder
into the basement of Parliament without anyone knowing??
I suspect a conspiracy.

King James I, who gave us The Bible,
forbade torture,
but had the power to bend the rule ad hoc in extremis
and so did.
James recommended the “gentler tortours” be applied first,
and then, well, you know, after that do what you have to do.
Fawkes signed his confession dutifully
with a line like a child’s drawing of waves.

The trial dragged on for a couple days.
Fawkes’ co-conspirators – a bunch of
stupid fucks with no names -
cried out their innocence,
even up to the commencement of hanging, drawing, and quartering.

A mighty throng – throng so mighty! -
assailed Parliament to behold the swelling scene!
So many young men and women of England,
so strong in body, so wise in their simplicity,
so generous with their goods,
so fearful of god,
so devoted to their king,
grown men wept to behold the assembled
pure stock vouchsafing England’s future. Amen.

They cheered as each conspirator was hoisted,
and, kicking, opened up like a hog,
their sausages removed in bulk,
the craftsman-torturer heaving on the guts
like a man trying to pull a boy out of a well,
clipping a strip of white connective veil,
here and there, to make the whole thing
come out neat.
Sure, some stayed living for quite some minutes
and all that jazz you know.

Later they would cut the cocks off and toy
with them, stick them in each others faces
and say, “Oh, you make me so horny, give sucky sucky please?”
Obviously, they daren’t do such a thing
in front of Parliament. Or ladies.
But back at barracks, they could unwind a bit.

The arms and legs were separated publicly.
This was part of the ritual.
People expected it,
and they cheered like hell as each limb came loose.
When one executioner clowned with the right leg
of Robert Keyes conspirator,
the groundlings laughed.
But a conservative MP fumed
and said a mockery was being made of justice,
and he would make the saucy fellow pay for it
and maybe he would think twice next time.

Fawkes was left till last.
They wanted him first to watch it,
then after he watched it, he would mount
the scaffold it was going to be so great!
He ascended slowly,
like a grandmother afeared of a fall, hips
and shoulders barely holding true after weeks on the rack.

The rope -
limp, sleeping, and really thick too -
was looped over his neck,
and the crowd giggling glee,
stood tiptoe
to see it all
(Some ladies later reported to their maids that, well…
“A queer feeling, as like I would nurse a babe or – or – ”),
and Guy Fawkes, finally at the top, was heard to say,
“Fuck this.”

So he took the plunge, a big jump forward, and out -
the hangman slapping his ass as he went,
saying “You go, girl!!” -
a jump enough to snap Fawkes’ neck and kill him. Ha!

The crowd had been robbed of the pleasure
of seeing the live body writhe
under the torturer-craftsman’s tools.
But they cheered anyway.
And then cheered when Fawkes steaming dead man’s guts
were exhumed.
And then cheered as each limb
came clear.
And the head too,
gray-faced and gray-bearded,
looking like the face of a man in prayer or on the verge of orgasm,
they cheered at that, when the head came off.
And when it was displayed to all
like the next item up for auction,
they cheered.

Eyewitnesses wrote the crowd felt “joy”.

And we watched the whole thing on tv, didn’t we?

We were there.

And there.

And there too.
And we were in there,
and in there.
Every part of that meat was ours.
And we cheered too to know it was accomplished.
We squeezed each other so tightly round the neck,
we came in our pants.

 

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An #OccupyWallStreet Film Festival

Occupy Wall Street is almost certainly the most important democratic movement of the 21st century. It has inspired everyone across the political spectrum (Oh, come on. Yes, it has. Don’t be shy, you conservatives. Come on out. You can hate corporate corruption too).

Movies entertain, sure – and entertainment is very important, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – but movies also encourage, spark debate, instruct, inform, and invite us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. You might not have know this. It’s a carefully guarded secret.

Here’s a proposed film festival for Occupy Wall Street protestors around the world and for those inspired by them and even for those not sure yet what side of the fence they’re on – maybe especially for them. Just a few suggestions for your rental queue or your local indy cinema from my list of  favorites.

What films would you add? What films help you to envision the world you want to live in? Or warn you away from the one you don’t?

 

A Man For All Seasons (1966)

Network (1976)

Gandhi (1982)

(watch the full movie on YouTube)

How To Get Ahead In Advertising (1989)

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Free Webinar – Social Media for Business Development

Neal Romanek on the webPepper Stark, premier consultants for the stock photography industry, have invited me to give a free 30-minute webinar this Thursday, June 30 at 3pm GMT, about how & why businesses should be using social media. The talk will be geared primarily toward the creative industries, but it’s applicable to any business trying to reach the whole world on a shoestring budget.

Info & sign-up for this Thursday’s free sample webinar:

http://www.pepperstark.com/news/news-details/article/63/social-media.html

Then in two weeks, on Tuesday, July 12, 3pm GMT, Pepper Stark and I will be serving up a full two-hour webinar, entitled “Social Media For Business Development”, that will get into the specifics of developing a social media presence. I won’t just be giving the usual patter about how Twitter and Facebook are indispensible to your marketing strategy, etc. I’ll be helping participants understand the core social principles behind social media, so they’ll be able to adapt to and exploit whatever new web-based wonderland lies just over the horizon. In this talk I’ll also discuss using transmedia techniques for enhancing your business presence. The cost of this full 2-hour version is only ₤49 (about $78) and spaces are limited, so sign up early.

Info & sign-up for the full July 12 webinar, “Social Media For Business Development”:

http://www.pepperstark.com/training/seminars/article/63/leveraging-s.html

Looking forward to seeing you at both events – and your Friends!

 

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Transmedia Next and the Passion of Anita Ondine

Next month, London will host two key media industry conferences – the venerable London Book Fair and the second outing of Transmedia Next. Storytelling professionals happy to stay in the world of business-as-usual will be attending the London Book Fair. But those who have discovered that business-as-usual doesn’t cut it in the 21st century – who want to stay at the cutting edge of media production – those people will be hitting Transmedia Next.

Transmedia Next is a three-day series of seminars, workshops and exercises aimed at training storytelling professionals in the theory and practice of transmedia storytelling. It is hosted by Seize The Media, with the support of the EU MEDIA Programme. Lance Weiler, Seize The Media’s creative director and chief story architect, unnerved attendees of the Sundance Film Festival with the short film his short film “Pandemic 41.410806, -75.654259”. The film played in conjunction with a transmedia experience accessible to people on the streets of Park City too, and the Sundance crowd got a peek into Weiler’s compelling and intricate storyworld, “Pandemic 1.0” (www.hopeismissing.com).


Lance Weiler’s Pandemic 1.0 short film, shown at Sundance

I spoke with Anita Ondine, transmedia producer and CEO of Seize The Media about transmedia and Transmedia Next. Anita is passionate about educating creatives and producers in the method and vocabulary of transmedia production. She grew up in Australia surrounded by artists and creatives. Her later years took her to law school and then to a series of positions tackling legal issues of technology and intellectual property for major firms. She was a Senior VP at Lehman Brothers in London until 2006 when she decided to pursue filmmaking full time. For her, the transition from finance to film was perfectly natural. She has always been a storyteller, a communicator, and her practical experience in the no-nonsense arena of The City gave her the perfect toolkit to becoming a 21st century producer.

The term “transmedia” is thrown around with ever-increasing frequency, but surprisingly few people, even those in the media industries, have a solid grasp of what it exactly is. “Transmedia” is often confused the old-school term, “multi-media”. Multi-media is the presentation of a story in multiple formats – often repeating the same story in a book version, then a film version, then a game version, etc. Ondine explains that transmedia is a type of storytelling in which the story exists independently of the media used to present it. The story exists before and beyond its appearance in a specific form and each media experience is a limited window onto that larger story. “There are gaps in the storytelling,” Ondine says, “where the audience – or participants as I like to call them – fill in their own experience, through their own imaginations or by supplying content themselves or by actually physically taking part in the story.”

Anita Ondine, Transmedia Producer

Anita Ondine, Transmedia Producer

Lance Weiler’s “Pandemic” short, which Ondine produced, is only one viewpoint into the Pandemic storyworld. An web of online and real-world content, carefully architected, allows participants to interact with the Pandemic 1.0 storyworld in a variety of ways. It is that careful structuring of the storyworld parameters – its characters, timeline, rules, narrative style – and the orchestrating of the venues by which participants can access it that makes transmedia such a challenging and exciting storytelling arena.

Developing a transmedia storyworld requires forethought and vision. The development and production of a computer game might be a comparable endeavour, but a highly complex transmedia story might have a computer game embedded in it as only one of the numerous experiences available to the participant. And how each of these different experiences interacts with each other and with the ever-evolving participant can be unpredictable. In a transmedia experience, the participants or audience might begin contributing more to the story, changing things in real time, introducing complications and story twists of their own. The story architects must be meticulous in their preparation of the underlying narrative and technological structures supporting the storyworld. Transmedia Next emphasises the preproduction of a transmedia story is as important as the storytelling itself. Though some of the well-tested workflows of 20th century media production still apply, new ways of building a story and offering it to an audience have had to be introduced, often through an R&D process that continues beyond deployment of the story. The world of transmedia storytelling is still in its infancy, a “Wild West” where methods and techniques are still being pioneered and experimentation is the name of the game.

Transmedia Next is a gathering of professionals who already have a solid grounding in their own creative arenas – design, writing, finance, production, and this is one of its features that most excites Anita Ondine. The conversation that develops among these gathered professionals can be as enlightening as the seminars themselves. Transmedia Next participants are reminded that they are as vital a part of the learning process as Ondine and the rest of the seminar leaders. Characteristic of a transmedia experience, attendees move out of the realm of passive observer to active participant, discovering insights and methods that a single artist might have never arrived at on his or her own.

Ondine is eager to help people discover how transmedia stories can both creatively financed and produce profits. Because transmedia has such a wide reach in terms of the demographic of its participants, as well as a variety of venues in which it might be encountered, it has a potential for many different kinds of revenue streams. Typical of the digital age, revenue generated by transmedia projects tends to be non-linear with multiple types of revenue potential, from the old media model of volume and unit selling to a whole salad of options including subscriptions, sponsorship, ad sales, and franchises. Ondine says, “Transmedia is about the experience. That’s what makes it unique. You’re not restricted to moving units. The income can come from selling experiences.” And certainly, there is no limit to what can be experienced. The transmedia income model calls for as much creative vision as the transmedia story architecture.

This year’s Transmedia Next will again feature Anita Ondine and Lance Weiler. Joining them again this year will be Inga von Staden, Berlin-based media architect, educator for 21st century media creatives. She has published and lectured widely on technology-enhanced media and brings an intellectual rigor and years of experience to the seminars. New on the Transmedia Next team this year is Jonathan Marshall, who has been a lead technical strategist for the BBC’s interactive TV initiatives and is CTO of Social Television at SlipStream. His work for the BBC also won him a BAFTA.

Transmedia Next takes place 12th – 14th April, 2011 in London. For more information go to TransmediaNext.com or email sam [at] transmedianext.com.

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The Valley Of Gwangi (1969), The Dinosaur Is The Father Of The Man

(article originally written for Mark Deniz’s
“Monster Appreciation Month”)

I first saw The Valley Of Gwangi in 1973 or 1974, well after its 1969 release. I was about 5 or 6. It remained my absolute favourite film of all time until I saw Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975) a year or two later.

I went on a summer afternoon. My older brother took me. Sean was my advisor in all things marvellous and adventuresome, and it’s possible that, were it not for his influence, I’d be an accountant at some fertilizer company, rather than day-in, day-out trying to build castles in the sky – or outer space – and make a living in them.

We lived in Minot, North Dakota then, Minot Air Force Base, a main base for the Strategic Air Command’s B-52 deterrent. A cold, cold place in a cold, cold war. My dad’s day job was to fly in the belly of a B-52 across the Pacific Ocean to the Soviet Union, say hi, hang a louie, and then return home – ideally without receiving orders to continue into the Asian continent toward targets whose names were conveniently located in the seatback pocket in front of him (a seatback pocket with a couple padlocks on it, of course). Yes, just like in Dr. Strangelove (1964). In those days, the USSR and the USA had both made a commitment to send the planet back to the prehistoric era, providing certain eventualities came into being.

While my dad plowed the skies in a bomber heavy with thermonuclear weapons, I was hitting the peak of dino-fever. Dino-fever is like chicken pox – almost every child catches it. If you don’t manage to catch it until you’re an adult, well, it can be quite dangerous and cause you to develop weirdness. I caught it early, but have never recovered from it. The world of the early 1970′s conspired to make my dinosaur baptism vivid and indelible. It was at this same time that National Geographic published a set of four high-quality hardback children’s books. One of them was simply called “Dinosaurs” – the others in the set were about killer whales or spiders or some stupid thing. The book featured dramatic prose descriptions of Mesozoic life, illustrated by paintings done by National Geographic veterans. It was the time of the Sinclair Oil dinosaur – ubiquitous in the American prairie states. And it seemed so marvellous to me at 5 years old that something as serious and grown-up as gasoline station should fly high a brontosaurus mascot. And it was the time – oh, most marvellously – of Aurora’s “Prehistoric Scenes” model kits. Aurora’s scarlet-plastic Pteranodon model, featuring an optional torn wing for super-realistic dino-combat, was the first of many of those kits that I longed for and collected and fussed over and played with until they were plastic shrapnel.

auroraprehistoricscenescomicad

Comic book ad for the drool-worthy Prehistoric Scenes model kits

I suppose the screening must have been a special kids show at the base theatre. We walked there over baked brown grass under a sky cross-hatched with vapour trails and punctuated with sonic booms. I insisted on calling the movie “The Valley of THE Gwangi”. He wasn’t just any Gwangi, he was THE Gwangi. And maybe I thought it scanned better than “The Valley Of Gwangi”. Kids make music naturally, and dinosaur movie titles have always been the best playground for the poetic alchemy of childhood – “The VAL-ley OF the GWAN-gi”. Gwangi was majestic and eternal – he deserved poetry. I think I called it “The Valley Of The Gwangi” until I was confronted with seeing the original movie poster in my mid-20′s and just couldn’t for the life of me find a second article in there.

Cowboys and dinosaurs. There could have been no better movie experience in heaven or earth. When you’re very young, you’re inclined to swallow everything you see onscreen, but Ray Harryhausen’s prehistoric beasts seemed to me – even at that young age – TRUE. I had the thought “Yes. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly the way dinosaurs are supposed to look and move and sound.” Of course, in reality, it’s not. Harryhausen’s dinosaurs don’t really even match the paleontological knowledge of the day. In fact, during production, there was even a certain amount of vagueness over whether Gwangi was a Tyrannosaurus Rex or an Allosaurus. But the dinosaurs in Gwangi seemed to correspond to what was in my imagination, and that is always the most important thing in filmmaking – reality not as it really is, but how we deeply believe it is. Ray Harryhausen’s creations weren’t lumbering, walnut-brained juggernauts. They lived, they burned. They were hungry. Even the choice of making Gwangi’s skin color a deep indigo gave him an extra edge, a uniqueness, a personality.

Gwangi CU

That The Valley Of Gwangi appears to be a remake of King Kong (1933) should be no surprise considering the film was originally a project by Ray Harryhausen’s spiritual forerunner, the special effects genius Willis O’Brien, who created all the ground-breaking effect for King Kong. Willis’s original idea had cowboys finding dinosaurs in the Grand Canyon, rather than the semi-mythical Mexican wasteland in the final film. Willis O’Brien didn’t live to see the completion of Gwangi.

The Valley Of Gwangi was filmed in Spain and a certain European flavour rubbed off on the movie. The old gypsy crone and her dwarf son are elements out of the Old World, quite bizarre in a Mexican setting and Gwangi’s appearance in a bull-ring carnival show, which also features an elephant, definitely doesn’t feel like Mexico.

Gwangi in the churchThe film’s conclusion, featuring Gwangi hunting down our heroes inside a cathedral – not to mention the finale of his spectacular, operatic demise by fire – is among the best endings of any monster movie ever made. And the symbolism of the church against an ancient dragon certainly comes out of Old World Catholicism.

The Valley Of Gwangi was THE dinosaur film until Spielberg’s monster-masterpiece Jurassic Park (1993). Perversely, I avoided Jurassic Park when it was released. I finally saw it projected, almost a year later, at the New Beverly Cinema in L.A. The New Beverly is beloved. It’s a beautiful old temple. But state-of-the-art viewing experience is not what comes to mind when you think about filmgoing at the New Bev. I was knocked out by Jurassic Park, even on the coke-splashed screen at the New Bev, with its inferior sound system and seats like something out of a WWII-era cargo plane. But I bought the deluxe CAV laserdisc set soon after and watched the movie relentlessly.

Spielberg directly lifts Gwangi’s introductory scene moment for moment in Jurassic Park. In The Valley Of Gwangi, the cowboy explorers are chasing an Ornitholestes – indistinguishable, in movie terms, from Jurassic Park’s Gallimimus – and suddenly the film’s eponymous carnivore pops out of nowhere and snatches the fleet-footed animal up in its jaws. Our first daylight glimpse of Jurassic Park’s Tyrannosaurus Rex mimics the moment beautifully, with the T. Rex bursting into the open and snatching up a Gallimimus.

What perverse inner quirk – like a chip on my shoulder – kept me from seeing Jurassic Park when it came out? That movie had been made for me and there was no doubt that it was going to deliver the Mesozoic goods. I can only guess that I couldn’t bring myself to let go of Gwangi, my first great love.

One last “Gwangi” confession: When I was a teen, and a rabid gamer, I ran a Boot Hill “Valley Of Gwangi” adventure. Boot Hill was TSR’s Wild West pen & paper role playing game. I firmly believe I am the only person alive to have run a Boot Hill “Valley Of The Gwangi” RPG adventure.

Tyrannosaurus attacking Gallimimus

Spielberg's homage to The Valley Of Gwangi in Jurassic Park

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Dialogue Is Just Another Sound Effect

(article originally appeared on screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, September 2010)

When a civilian meets a screenwriter, usually the second thing they say is, “Oh, so you write all the dialogue then?” (first thing is “Have you written anything I would’ve seen?”) .

James Goldman (who can write circles around his brother William as far as I’m concerned) notes in his introduction to the published script of Robin and Marian (1976) that most people suppose that the actors and director make the movie up as they go and that, at best, a writer offers them the occasional choice zinger. They don’t know that a movie is written, that before anything else happens, a movie must be written – even if it’s Mike Leigh improvising and devising a film from the ground up – it iswritten.

Dialogue is the poster child of screenplay writing. It is literally the first thing people look at in a screenplay. No matter how well your scenes are constructed, no matter how electrifying your transitions, no matter how artful your conflicts, hand anyone a finished screenplay and they will always, always flip through to glance at the dialogue.

If there long great chunks of dialogue they may even hand it back to you and say, “I’m sorry, Mr Tarantino. It’s too talky.”

If there’s no dialogue on the page at all, if you’ve written a masterpiece of pure cinema, their shoulders will sag and the script will fall from their hands as they lose all hope, anticipating the African Queen-style slog ahead in which they actually have to imagine what is happening, rather than being able to speed along through pages of fluffy white dialogue like some agent skiing down the slopes at Vale – or if the reader is European, wherever European agents go skiing.

Do European agents go skiing?

Dialogue in a script, on the page, is very different from dialogue onscreen. In fact, they are two distinctly different animals involving entirely different sets of brain functions both in the creation and in the reception. Just as “He blows out the match / CUT TO / The sun rises.” will never convey the visceral effect of the famous sequence transition in  Lawrence of Arabia (1962), reading their exchanges on paper about foot massages and their boss’s girlfriend just isn’t going to have the same effect as seeing the whole scene play out in real time in Pulp Fiction (1994).

Dialogue is just one more co-equivalent element of scene construction. Because we are all “doing dialogue” with each other every day, using it as our principle means of communication, the importance of dialogue for the screenwriter is always in danger of being underestimated.

When we step back and look at it coolly and honestly – and in the context of actual filmmaking, not as a type of writing on a script page - it is only another sound effect onscreen.

I hear some of you clearing throats uncomfortably, others grunting suspiciously, others saying “Get stuffed” aggressively, but I say again, dialogue is only another sound effect onscreen. The words we write in screenplay dialogue formatting are only notations for trained technicians, actors, to produce the proper sound effects to convey meaning to the audience. We have to be reminded – at least I do – that dialogue is far from essential in the telling of a film story. Brando could say more with a grunt than most other actors could with a page of dialogue. In fact, in  On the Waterfront (1954) Kazan obliterates the dialogue in a pivotal scene between Brando and Eva Marie Saint with a deafening steam whistle effect. We see his lips moving and her horrified reaction but hear only the shriek of the whistle – far more effective than if we had heard the dialogue, even from one of the greatest actors in the world.

Dialogue – or verbally-manufactured sound design (okay, okay, you get it) – is the least efficient way of conveying information in a scene but it is easy and plays on the page much more effectively than a series of shots and transitions which, at least at most writers’ skill levels, are hard to make as effective. Dialogue on a page communicates directly with the reader; they can hear it in their head without having to do any imaginative translation. So what do we do? Write for the reader or write for the movie we’re trying to make?

How we write dialogue – the pace of it, the style, the punctuation – and how we use it to get a script made or even represented, is unique to each writer’s ear and aesthetic preferences. That is one of the great delights of reading/hearing good dialogue when one can really taste the unique flavour of each writer’s voice as it manifests itself in a character.

I try to stick to, cling to, the idea that dialogue is just another sound effect. I try to tell a story only with moving images, for which the sound track is just a means of providing depth and weight. I will sometimes try to write a scene forbidding myself dialogue of any kind and am often then forced – after long descriptions of the scenery and props and costume – into moving characters into action rather than blowing it all with yet another dialogue exchange over a dinner table.

Of course, I’m very lazy and have ended up being notorious for extremely long dialogue scenes and – worse – long monologues. I have only a limited ability to practice what I preach, it would seem.

There are no unbreakable rules for writing dialogue. Playing the “less is more” card is a cop out. Some of my favourite movies are saturated with heavy dialogue. However, treating dialogue as “just one more sound effect” can help force you to ask why exactly you are putting dialogue in a scene and ‘to hear these two characters sing a beautiful duet’ is a perfectly good reason, as far as I’m concerned.

When you study the Quentin Tarantino arias, for example, you quickly realize that they are not about gangsters saying witty things. In fact, they are gorgeous polished gems of suspense in which dialogue plays only a supporting role. The most important part of the long Jules/Vincent opening conversation in Pulp Fiction is a single line of dialogue: ‘We should have shotguns for this kind of deal.’ After that ominous set up Quentin’s characters can go on and on about anything they want. Danger is clearly communicated, and so we are hooked, and we will listen to anything he throws at us until that danger is resolved. The secret to his dialogue is not contained in the dialogue tab of his screenplay. It’s in the structure of the scene, the planting and payoff. It’s so clear and threatening that a rock-solid platform is built for him to then write all the virtuoso dialogue he wants.

All the embarrassing imitations that Tarantino has inspired would do well to remember that dialogue is just another sound effect, and that it is the other elements of a scene and how they fit together that determine whether that sound will be music or just more noise.

I heard a rumor – and I always believe rumors – about the cab scene in On The Waterfront, one of the greatest dialogue scenes in movies. The original script called for Brando’s Terry to respond to his brother’s threats with a substantial chunk of dialogue. But in the end, Brando just said: “Wow.”

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