Monday, March 20, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Lion (2016) - After the "All is Lost" Moment; Coincidence

[Quick Summary: Twenty five years after being lost in an Indian railway station, Saroo, who now lives in Australia, struggles to identify his small Indian hometown and family.]

Q: How does one EARN an "all is lost" moment?

A: A character tries, and tries, and tries, but cannot accomplish a goal --> He/she falls into despair, depression, discouragement, i.e., "All is Lost" (AIL).

Q: But then how does he/she RECOVER (or NOT) from it?

A: A few suggestions:

- First, recognize that AIL is a turning point. Now life will either get better (something positive happens) or worse (something negative).

- Second, after the AIL moment, the recovery (or not) moment needs to be truthful.

It does not have to be big, drastic, or unusual.

It's even ok if it seems coincidental because it does happen in life.

In this script, Saroo tries, and tries --> All is Lost --> The recovery seems to happen by coincidence, by chance...but it's the truth!

ex. "INT. LIVING ROOM, BEACH HOUSE - NIGHT

....Saroo slumps down on the couch. End of the road. He has to move on too.

Over on the Wall: that mess he's just made. [Here begins the All is Lost moment.]

The laptop sits open on the couch. He leans across, places his finger on the trackpad, follows a train line -

- then starts to flick the track pad, faster. So that before the station has time to reach full resolution -

- he flicks again, carelessly, without method.  [He's mad that all his efforts have failed. He is careless, which is a natural reaction to failure.]

And suddenly - it's a kind of goodbye - he veers off the rail line completely - out over land - and more land -  [He's on a destructive spree.]

- doing on the SCREEN what he just did on the WALL -

- random shifts, here, there, left, right. Jerky. EVERYTHING starts cascading in his psyche, as his memories make their final fight for life. So we see MAD SNIPPETS and FLASHES:

GUDDU - COAL THEFT - DAM - JOY - UNDERPASS - STREETS - WATERMELON ACCIDENT - HIDE AND SEEK WITH SHEKILA AND KAMLA.

- and on and on it goes - interwoven with the Google Earth search on screen, as Saroo carelessly continues flicking the cursor, saying goodbye to the search as his past and his memories disintegrate into fragments -  [More images that equate to a middle finger, "burn it all down" mentality.]

He stops. Exhausted. His face perfectly blank. Equally randomly now, he tap-tap-taps on that "Zoom Out" minus sign. 

He ZOOMS OUT, higher. Higher. We're now staring down on a good chunk of India.

Scrolling, Saroo flicks quite a distance left. Still just random moves. We are now way outside the search perimeter.

Nothing maters. Flick, flick. Who cares? [He's exhausted. All is Lost moment ends.]

And then: something stops him. He tilts his head - [The recovery begins here. Hope?]

ON THE SCREEN: an expanse of ochre fields.

He pulls the laptop onto his thighs. Something about that COLOR. Still as the Sphinx, he stares at the screen."  [On the one hand, it seems like coincidence. On the other, it follows naturally from the destructive behavior. Like a phoenix rising from ashes.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The AIL moment is a turning point.

The recovery (or not) moment after AIL can be wild or "coincidental", but must be truthful.

Lion (2016) 
by Luke Davies
Based on the book A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley

Monday, March 13, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Hidden Figures (2016) - Style (Showy) vs. Substance (Story)

[Quick Summary: Katherine Goble/Johnson works through the mathematics and politics of a 1962 workplace to help put an American into space.]

**clapping**

Three Reasons I Applaud This Script:

1) This is probably the fastest that I've read an Oscar script.

2) It totally sucked me into another place and time (so rare).

3) Some scripts are a pain to read because style (showy) wins over substance (story).

This script was a pleasure to read because style was always in service of story.

For example, the story opens on Katherine as a child. She is above average smart. 

How would you have shown how smart she is?

Does another child mock her? Does she get an award? Show off? Spout off?

The writers chose a less showy, but more effective way that keeps us on track.  (Also, I feel this probably reflects more truly of who the real Katherine is):

ex. "In darkness, the voice of a little girl. Counting.

LITTLE GIRL (V.O.): 14, 15, 16...prime. 18, prime.  [A little girl knows what a prime number is?!]

EXT. TREE LINED PATH - DAY

A pair of little feet navigates down a gravel path. Kicking a pine cone.

LITTLE GIRL (O.S.): 20, 21, 22, prime, 24, 25, 26... [I didn't know what prime numbers were until high school. And here, she's counting...for fun.]

Pulling up, we reveal: KATHERINE COLEMAN (8), a peculiar, quiet, mouse of a child, wearing glasses bigger than her bookish face. Counting to herself. 

A VOICE (her Mother's) in the distance hollers out:

JOYLETTE COLEMAN (O.S.): Katherine! Come on now!

Katherine looks up. Sees a car stopped at the end of the path. She runs off. Counting all the way."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I liked that the writers did not try to shoehorn the characters into outlandish situations (showy). 

Instead, they got out of the way and allowed the characters' traits to surface, and that created conflicts more organically.

ex. Katherine thrived on data, but Man #2 withheld data, claiming she didn't have 'clearance' --> She figured it out anyway and left Man #2 with egg on his face.

Hidden Figures (2016)
by Allison Schroeder and Ted Melfi
Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly

Monday, March 6, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Fences (2016) - When a Play Format Works in a Screenplay

[Quick Summary: Troy and Rose, a black couple in 1957, struggle with life's disappointments and unexpected curve balls.]

I used to be a self-righteous script snob: "You can't do...", "You shouldn't do..."

I say "self-righteous" because I'd read a lot of books on writing scripts and listened to a lot of podcasts about scriptwriting, but had not actually READ a lot of scripts.

Then I read and studied a lot of scripts. A lot, a lot, a lot. It took longer than I'd liked.

This screenplay, Fences, is in play format.*

My former self would've screeched, "That's wrong formatting!"

But my wiser self today says: "Who says it's wrong? It works here. That's smart."

This script was written this director and cast, some of whom had done the play.

It delivered what was needed to tell the story (characters, tone, mood, etc.), and little of what is not (ex. details on the house).

Note how the writer lays out the essentials (character, conflict), i.e., Rose's contradictions let us know that Troy is a unreliable narrator.  All else is imagination.

ex. "ROSE: I told him if he wasn't the marrying kind, then move out they way so the marrying kind could find me.

TROY: That's what she told me. "Nigger, you in my way. You blocking the view! Move out the way so I can find me a husband." I though it over two or three days. Come back -

ROSE: Ain't no two or three days nothing. You was back the same night.

TROY: Come back, told her... "Okay, baby...but I'm gonna buy me a banty rooster and put him out there in the backyard...and when he see a stranger come, he'll flap his wings and crow..." Look here, Bono, I could watch the front door by myself...it was that back door I was worried about.

ROSE: Troy, you ought not talk like that. Troy ain't doing nothing but telling a lie.

TROY: Only thing is...when we first got married...forget the rooster...we ain't had no yard!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Forget "rules." Use whatever works to convey your story.

(Ok, ok, there are guidelines that might help, but I don't like calling them 'rules.')

Fences (2016)
by August Wilson
Based on his play

* Fences was originally a stage play, and was adapted into a screenplay by the playwright.

Monday, February 27, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Arrival (2016) - What They Don't Tell You About Transitions, i.e., Linking

[Quick Summary: A linguist establishes contact with 12 alien "shells" to find out why they have come to Earth.]

I scoff that I once thought transitions were easy.

It is just "getting in and out of scenes," right?! Nope. There's more.

I liked what Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer, and a hoot on Twitter) tweeted:
TODAY'S CHALLENGE: Transitions. Remove the slug lines (INT./EXT.) and examine scene relationships. 
When I don't have a slug line announcing a new scene for readers, it forces me to forge a cinematic link between them.  I start to think about why and when I'm leaving one scene, and how it connects to the visual or audio of the next one. But the stronger you bind one scene to the next, the more you protect them from unnecessary changes later. More and more, I'm learning that great storytelling is about the relationship: of two shots, of two scenes, of two characters, etc. (1/30/17)
Transitions are what link a scene(s) together.

Without those links, the reader will: 1) not get your vision, and/or 2) stop reading.

Let's try to identify the links in this scene:

ex. "INT. BARRACKS - MORNING

ON A LAPTOP SCREEN: Aerial footage of the Shell appears. Back from a safe distance. The Shell looks, as always, intimidating.

But now with the footage is a SINISTER SCORE added by shock-jock radio host RICHARD RILEY, who emphasizes words -- [This scene opens on tv footage on a laptop screen.]

[For brevity, I cut out Riley's dialogue here.]

REVEAL the LAPTOP is in:

The military barracks. And PRIVATE LASKY listens intently to it. Nodding. Glancing out the open flaps of the barracks tent toward the giant Shell in the distance.

[We see we are in military barracks.  This establishes our location.]
[The 1st POV is Lasky, who agrees with the shock jock.]

Three bunks over, a group of SCIENTISTS watch a news program on a separate TV, following riots somewhere. Could be Prague, could be Detroit. One SCIENTIST shakes his head in disgust. Outside, Louise walks past the barracks, on her way to --"

[The 2nd POV are the scientists, who are concerned about the rioting.]
[We glimpse a 3rd POV, Louise.]
[Note how this one scene shows three distinct POVs, without any dialogue. This links them AND contrasts how each one feels about the present events.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I liked the idea that the stronger my transitions, i.e., linking scenes, the bigger the chance that they will stay in the final draft.

Arrival (2016)
by Eric Heisserer
Based on the story, "Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang

Monday, February 20, 2017

2017 OSCARS: 20th Century Women (2016) - Conveying Uncertainty and Vulnerability

[Quick Summary: Dorothea (55), her son Jamie (15), the renter upstairs, Abbie (28), and Julie (17) try to make sense of life in the 1979.]

In this script, Dorothea tries to connect with her son, but it's awkward and imperfect, as real life parenting often is.

To me, this script really stands out because it conveys the day-to-day uncertainty and vulnerability of life so well as a parent, a child, or just a person.

I liked how each character continues to pursue their needs in the face of uncertainty.

I liked that the writer allows the characters to be hurt and vulnerable, i.e., human.

For example, in the scene below:
- Dorothea (mom) wants to connect with Jamie (son)
- Jamie wants to be cool and grown up and doesn't know how
- Abbie wants to "jam on" and forget her present life

ex. "INT. ABBIE'S ROOM - NIGHT

Jamie  and Abbie sit together, listening to The Raincoats - Fairytale In The Supermarket.  Abbie's looking at the cover, Jamie's looking through her other records.

Dorothea appears in the doorway, observing her son, and his obvious love of this. She enters, sits down and listens with them, an awkward moment.

DOROTHEA: What is that?

ABBIE: It's The Raincoats.

She nods awkwardly to the beat, trying to relate.

DOROTHEA: Can't things just be pretty?

JAMIE: "Pretty" music's used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.

DOROTHEA: Ah, okay so... they're not very good, and they know that, right?

He just looks at her - 'why're you still here' - she looks at him confused by his pushing her away. Seriously curious.

ABBIE: Yea, it's like they've got this feeling, and they don't have any skill, and they don't want skill, because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw. Isn't it great?

CU on Dorothea feeling like an outsider, lost."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: For me, the gateway into these characters were their uncertainties and vulnerabilities.

I connected because they didn't have all the answers, but kept trying.

20th Century Women (2016)
by Mike Mills

Monday, February 13, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Manchester by the Sea (2016) - Flashbacks that Expand Present State of Mind

[Quick Summary: After his brother dies, a building custodian goes back to his hometown as his nephew's guardian, and faces the ghosts that haunt him.]

I did not expect to like this script as much as I did.

(A very reliable friend had told me, "Great dialogue. Too slow.")

Though I haven't seen the film yet, I found it deeply moving on the page. 

Two thoughts:

1) It reads extremely fast.  Always double points!

2) It is an unusual use of flashbacks to peer into the main character's (Lee) present state of mind.  He experienced trauma a few years ago, but it is still raw.

His emotional state then = His emotional state now.

In the scene below, Lee makes a positive statement about Dr. Betheny --> The flashback expands on his POV of Dr. Betheny, but it is not an "information dump."

ex. "INT. HOSPITAL ELEVATOR

Dr. Muller and Lee ride down very slowly.

LEE: How is Dr. Betheny?

DR. MULLER: Oh, she's doing very well. She just had twin girls.

LEE: Oh yeah. Irene told me.

DR. MULLER: Apparently weigh about eleven pounds apiece. So she's gonna have her hands full for a while...I'll call her this afternoon and tell her what happened.

LEE: She was very good to him.

DR. MULLER: Yes she was.

EIGHT YEARS AGO --

INT. JOE CHANDLER'S HOSPITAL ROOM. DAY.

JOE CHANDLER, Lee's older brother by five years, is lying in the hospital bed. There's a close resemblance between them.

ELISE, Joe's wife, the same age as Joe, pretty, anxious and high-strung -- stands near to STANLEY CHANDLER -- Lee and Joe's father, 70s. He sits in one chair. LEE sits in another.

They are all listening to DR. BETHENY, 30s. She is small, intense, very serious and focused and level-headed, but thoroughly well-meaning and decent. The bed area is curtained off from the other patients in the room.

DR. BETHENY: The disease is commonly referred to as congestive heart failure --

ELISE: Oh my God!

DR. BETHENY: Are you familiar with it?

ELISE: No...!

JOE: Then what are you sayin' "oh my God" for?

ELISE: Because what is it?

JOE: She's tryin' to explain it to us, honey. I'm sorry, Dr. Beth...uh...

DR. BETHENY: Betheny

JOE: I'm sorry. I can never get it right.

DR. BETHENY: Don't worry about it. Not a problem."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Flashbacks are interesting when used to show a stuck character's present state of mind.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)
by Kenneth Lonergan

Monday, February 6, 2017

2017 OSCARS: La La Land (2016) - Seduction & the Slippery Slope

[Quick Summary: In modern L.A., an actress and jazz musician struggle with making compromises while chasing their dreams.]

BAD NEWS: I liked it, but didn't love it.

GOOD NEWS: There's a lot going for it.  It's focused, full of emotion, and hope.

I especially liked how it shows:
- Success as a slippery slope.
- Seduction is the first step on that slope, and it often is a small, innocent step.

In this story, the main character (Sebastian) wants to open an old school jazz bar of his own.  He has resisted modern elements, and is scraping by.

When a modern jazz band offers him big bucks, he reluctantly agrees to meet.

Watch below how success with this band pulls him further from his dream: 

ex. "KEITH: Let's play, see how it feels.

He pulls out a guitar. Cole starts on drums. Keith joins in. Malcolm and Tom follow suit. Sebastian listens. It sounds like modern jazz - electronic in feel, but still jazz...

Sebastian approaches the keyboard. Joins --slowly, one step at a time. Then begins playing out a bit more, his fingers starting to race. Malcolm gives Keith a look: "Damn.". Keith gives Malcolm a look back: "I told you so." Bit by bit, Sebastian eases into the groove. This isn't so bad...

Then -- Keith move to a LAPTOP. Introduces a DRUM-MACHINE SAMPLE.

Sebastian, into the music, is caught off-guard. Uneasy now. This isn't him...

Keith plays a riff on his guitar. Tom echoes it on bass, then Malcolm on trumpet. Now it's Sebastian's turn. He hesitates. And then -- finally -- he plays the riff...

It doesn't feel so bad. The guys build on the riff. Sebastian keeps up with them, trying to let go of his presuppositions. [This bolded line is my emphasis. This is why seduction works. How can this small step be harmful?!]

After all --these guys can play ..."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Seduction down the slippery slope often begins with one small innocent step...and then another...

La La Land (2016)
by Damien Chazelle

Monday, January 30, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Hell or High Water (2016) - Showing What the Character is Thinking

[Quick Summary: Two brothers go on a spree robbing banks to save their family ranch, while two Texas Rangers track them down.]

What a beautifully written script! Spare, economical, and bristling with energy.

It suits the story, which is about two brothers who survive on their wits and nerves.

The script stays lean by often "showing, not telling" what the characters thought.

In the scene below, how do we know Marcus does not want to retire?

ex. "INT. TEXAS RANGER'S OFFICE -- ABILENE, TEXAS -- DAY

MARCUS HAMILTON, two weeks shy of 70, thick silver mustache, sits at his desk. A large Texas flag tacked to the wall behind him.

He looks over a LETTER from the DPS HEADQUARTERS in Austin. The heading says it all: Mandatory Retirement Referendum.

The letter is worn at the edges -- Marcus has spent a fair amount of time looking it over. [Clue #1: Well worn retirement letter = He's been studying it. This is the setup.]

Marcus packs a can of Copenhagen with fifty year's worth of skill, and sticks a pinch inside his lip.

A younger Ranger, and by younger I mean 50, walks in. His name is ALBERTO PARKER, and aside from his olive skin, he looks almost identical to Marcus: thick mustache, beer belly, gold star on a starched white shirt, bone colored Stetson hat.

PARKER: You hear about these bank robberies?
MARCUS: Why you always dress like me? [Clue #2: He prolongs things. Why?]

Beat.

PARKER: This is our uniform.
MARCUS: We ain't got no uniform. You can wear any color shirt you choose. You just keep choosing mine.
PARKER: Texas Ranger regs say white, blue, or tan dress shirt. Stands to reason every so often we gonna end up dressed the same.
MARCUS: Well, they say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, Alberto. Did you know that?

Alberto is half Comanche and half Latino, though his twang is as pronounced as any cowboy.

PARKER: Wanna hear about these bank robberies or just sit there and let Alzheimer's run its course?
MARCUS: Where at?
PARKER: First Texas in Archer City and First Texas in Olney.
MARCUS: FBI looking for an assist?
PARKER: Ain't theirs. First Texas ain't got branches outside the state. Not interstate commerce.

A flicker of fire ignites in Marcus's eyes. [Clue #3: The hunt stirs him.]

PARKER (cont'd): You may get to have some fun before they send you to the rocking chair yet.

Marcus's chair squeaks as he leans back.

MARCUS: ... I may have one hunt left in me." [Clue #4: He admits what he wants. This is the payoff from earlier.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  How do I know if the reader will catch on to the 2 +2 that I crafted? Simplest is best.

Here, the scene was crafted so that:
the letter (setup) + idiom in the dialogue (payoff) = He doesn't want to retire.

Hell or High Water (2016)
by Taylor Sheridan

Monday, January 23, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Little Women (1933) - Change of Pace = Change of Progress

[Quick Summary: Four sisters come of age during the American Civil War.] 

Two thoughts:

1) I hate the bland description "coming of age", but it's the best I can do here.

2) The pacing is absolutely killer, and among the best I've ever seen.*

The introduction to the script describes it this way:
The adaptors made use of a large variety of episodes, with sudden changes of pace within the individual scenes. These contrasts increase the drama and add to the suspense, because, in effect, they advance or retard the aims of the main character. Even the most casual events are so arranged as to emphasize these contrasts. For instance, the gay spirit that pervades the Christmas breakfast scene is suddenly changed to one of sympathy for the plight of a more unfortunate family...p. 214.
There's no formula, but the writers varied the pacing FOR SPECIFIC REASONS:

➤Sometimes they wanted the uncertainty first (fast; What will the party be like?)
--> Quiet moment in the middle (slow; Will Beth get over her shyness?)
--> Then a happy note at the end (fast; We're all friends now!)

➤Sometimes they had a happy scene (fast; Jo and Laurie) --> Then end on a somber note (slow; Jo leaves for the city).

➤Sometimes the writers wanted to stretch the tension (slow-slow) --> Then suddenly release the tension (fast-fast).   Note the stretch below with Amy and Mr. Davis --> then release after leaving Mr. Davis.

ex. "SCHOOLROOM - CLOSE SHOT. Amy is sobbing. Davis turns over the slate which has cartoons of himself on one side of it.

DAVIS (angrily): I can see there's nothing for me to do but stop by and show your mother how, instead of doing your sums, you cover your slate with sketches -

INSERT: SLATE with sketches of spectacled teacher, and legend: "Young ladies, my eyes are upon you."

DAVIS: -- most uncomplimentary sketches.

SCHOOLROOM - MED. CLOSE-UP DAVIS, looking down, sternly. Amy is heard sobbing.

CLOSE-UP AMY looking up in his direction, sobbing as she pleads:

AMY: Oh, please, Mr. Davis. I'll never do it again, sir. And she'd be so disappointed in me. Please -

MED. CLOSE-UP DAVIS looking odwn in Amy's direction. He relents.

DAVIS: Well I should hate to spoil her Christmas and for that reason alone, young lady, I shall overlook it.

CLOSE-UP AMY looking up in his direction, delightedly.

AMY: Oh, thank you, Mr. Davis!

MED. CLOSE-UP DAVIS looking down.

DAVIS (sternly): You may go!

CLOSE SHOT as Amy speaks gratefully:

AMY: Oh, thank you, Mr. Davis.

He exits as CAMERA FOLLOWS HER as she backs away toward the cloakroom, still speaking.

AMY: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you, sir. (She starts to open door.)

HALL CLOAKROOM - CLOSE SHOT. The girls are standing about waiting in excited speculation as to Amy's fate. Amy enters, drying her tears. The girls close the doors and swoop down on her, all talking at once and asking: "What did he do?" "What did he say?"

AMY (with lofty disdain): I just said that if I ever told my mother the way he treated me, she'd take me out of his old school. She's never been reconciliated anyway, since my father lost his money, and she's had to suffer the degarradation of me being thrown with a lot of ill-mannered girls -- (she turns at the door, drops some of her elegance, and gives it to them straight:) -- who stick their noses into refined people's business! (She leaves them flat. They look after her, then turn to each other and murmur indistinctly.)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Change of pace = Changes as the protagonist advances/retards his/her progress. 

It's also invisible, like rhythm, but very much felt by the reader.

Little Women (1949)
by Sarah Y. Mason & Victor Heerman
Adapted from the novel by Louisa May Alcott

* After all, this was written for George Cukor and Katherine Hepburn.

Monday, January 16, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: 12 Monkeys (1995) - Cues & Repetition (Transition Helpers)

[Quick Summary: A prisoner from the future travels back in time to prevent the mutation of an epidemic virus, but everyone thinks he's a lunatic.]

This script is crazy.  It circles back and eats itself (in a good way).

I applaud the writers for attempting this fractured time line and keeping it clear.

It's as if they took 4 photographs (A, B, C, D) and sliced it into pieces.  They then reassembled them, but still moving story forward (ex. A1, C1, B1, A2, D1, B2, etc.)

I was so impressed at the clear transitions (my most elusive nemesis!)

I discovered two more helpful tips for smoother ones:

1) Cues
2) Repetition

ex. "INT. CONCOURSE/AIRPORT - DAY

...YOUNG COLE turns back toward the Security Check Point just as TRAVELERS scatter madly, some diving to the floor, others running. A TERRIFIED TRAVELER, hitting the floor close by, loos up at YOUNG COLE with panicky eyes, and asks... [Repetition of a recurring dream]

TERRIFIED TRAVELER:  Just exactly why did you volunteer?

INT. ENGINEERING OFFICE/FUTURE WORLD - (ETERNAL NIGHT)

COLE comes abruptly awake. [Cue that Cole has been dreaming.] Seated now, he's facing the SCIENTISTS. [Cue that reorients the reader to the present.]

ASTROPHYSICIST: Wake up, Cole.

COLE: Uh, I didn't hear the...

MICROBIOLOGIST: (tapping a pencil on the table) I asked you, why did you volunteer? [Repetition from above]

COLE: Well, the guard woke me up. He told me I volunteered. [Repetition from earlier scene]

The SCIENTISTS react, whispering urgently among themselves."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When you need to reorient the reader to multiple times and places, cues and repetition are your friends.

12 Monkeys (1995) 
by David Peoples & Janet Peoples
Inspired by LA JETEE, a Chris Marker Film