Tuesday, March 26, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) - Good/Bad Voice Over

[Quick Summary: In the Cajun shanty district, six year old Hushpuppy and her father Wink face floods after a hurricane.]

Voice over (V.O.) is a cheat.

Rule #1: Don't use it.
Rule #2: If you have to use it, hide it.
Rule #3: If you can't hide it, see Rule #1.

In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the writers use V.O. often for Hushpuppy.

(Perhaps it was the only way to explain how this six year old thinks?)

I thought the V.O. was effective when it was hid exposition (rule #2):

ex. "If Daddy don't get home soon, it's gonna be time for me to start eating my pets."   
- The V.O. focuses us on Hushpuppy's hunger.  It sinks in later that Wink is not home yet. 

I did not like it as much when V.O. was used as commentary.  

ex.  "It [refugee camp] didn't look like a prison, it looked like a fish tank with no water.
This V.O. explains Hushpuppy's first impressions of a building. 
-  I like this, but feel like it's "telling, not showing" me.

ex. Post-flood, Hushpuppy watches a weak Wink hammer nails.
 "It didn't matter that the water was gone. Sometimes, you can break something so bad, that it can't get put back together."
- This V.O. tells us that she is aware of pain, i.e., she is maturing. 
-  Again, it's telling me she's becoming wiser.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Less voice over is always more in my book.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Based on the stage play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Argo (2012) - How to Introduce Action Characters

[Quick Summary:  CIA operative to get Americans out of Tehran, Iran in 1980.]

Action scripts need to mooooooooove.

Unfortunately, many scripts have a slow pace and rhythm, beginning with the initial character introductions.

ex. JOE, 25, a mild mannered mechanic with nunchucks in his back pocket, washes windows.

Do we really need to know Joe has a weapon? Can you see "mild mannered"?  

But Argo shows a new trend on how to keep the pace up:

- The character's initial introduction is at a bare minimum.
- The character is then fleshed out later by his/her actions.
ex. TONY MENDEZ, 40, asleep in his clothes from the day before.

ex.  JOHN CHAMBERS, Hollywood's first Oscar winner for makeup, walks onto set carrying a fishing tackle box of supplies.

ex. TOM AHERN, 48, the CIA station chief here.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  I like this trend because it gets the reader to the action faster.

Argo (2012)
by Chris Terrio

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Zero Dark Thirty (2012) - Three Layered Dialogue

[Quick Summary: Maya, a CIA targeter, hunts and finds Osama bin Laden.]

I was fully to prepared to skip this script.

The controversial topic and hype just became too much.

After I read it to complete the list of Oscar scripts, I was glad I did because it is exceptionally well-crafted.

Yes, it's a heavy topic (and I'm not sure I'd want to get in that head space again.)

But I'd recommend this script, if only for the dialogue.

On a first glance, it may seem to be all exposition.  But if you look closely, the dialogue almost always has three layers:  

- Layer 1:  Basic exposition
JESSICA: How's the needle in the haystack?
MAYA: Fine. [You know Maya is still looking for something.]

- Layer 2: Subtext
JESSICA: Facilitators come and go, but one thing you can count on in life is that everyone wants money.
MAYA (smiling): You're assuming that Al Qaeda members are motivated by financial rewards. They're radicals.  [Subtext is that these are competitors.]

- Layer 3: Moves the script forward
JESSICA (bigger smile): Correct. You're assuming that greed won't override ideology in some of the weaker members.
MAYA: Money for walk-ins worked great in the cold war, I'll give you that. [Twist; has Maya made a concession?]
JESSICA: Thank you.
MAYA: Just not sure those tactics are applicable to the Middle East. [Pushes us forward to the next scene where Maya tries harder.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  It wasn't obvious to me at first, but Maya uses dialogue as a weapon.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
by Mark Boal

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - My Two Rules About Ensembles

[Quick Summary: A 12 yr. old Kahki Scout and his girlfriend run away together, in hot pursuit by parents, and a scout troop.]
I'm not a big fan of Wes Anderson films, but I do like this script.

It abides by (then stretches) my two rules of ensembles:

1)  Even in an ensemble, there are 1-2 lead characters. *

Here, Sam and Suzy Bishop (the kids) are clearly the leads.

They easily could have been overshadowed by four very active adult characters, but the script is careful to keep the focus on the children.
2) Multiple subplots are fine, but they must SUPPORT the main character's story. 

Scout Master Ward, Captain Sharp, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop each have their subplots.  That's right - there are FOUR additional arcs.

However, the reader never forgets about Sam and Suzy.

How did the writers do it?

The supporting characters have separate subplot arcs, but each one supports the main plot.

ex. Scout Master Ward loses his status --> rescuing the kids restores his honor.

ex. Captain Sharp loses the woman he loves --> rescuing the kids gives his life new meaning.

ex. Mr. and Mrs. Bishop have a troubled marriage --> rescuing the kids brings them together.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Strong ensembles have strong (but not overpowering) subplots.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
(The above link has an interactive script, plus a separate PDF.)
by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola

*If you insist on multiple main characters, please read my post on The Best Years of Our Lives (three main characters face the same problem).

Those types of stories need much more structure to keep the story clear and unified. 
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