Monday, January 25, 2016

2016 OSCARS: Ex Machina (2015) - Freeing Yourself from Too Much Back Story

[Quick Summary: A computer programmer goes encounters new artificial intelligence on a remote island.]

I like that this script is quite light on its feet, even though it's a four-hander.*

I suspect one reason might be something writer/director Alex Garland mentioned in passing (here).

In this interview, he talks about his how his first idea for Caleb (protagonist) was that he was a university professor specializing in consciousness, and married.

However, Garland found that explaining Caleb's back story took time away from what interested him, i.e., the relationships between the four main characters.

He changed Caleb to a computer programmer, single, no family.

This seemed have to freed him up to focus more on the present than the past. 

ex. "CALEB: Some believe language exists in the brain from birth, and what is learned is the ability to attach words and structure to the latent ability.

Beat.

CALEB (cont'd): Would you agree?

AVA: ...I don't know. I have no opinion on that.

Beat.

AVA (cont'd): I like to draw.

CALEB says nothing.

Just watches AVA. Again, lets the non-sequitur sit.

AVA (cont'd): I don't have any of my pictures with me now, but I can show you them tomorrow.

CALEB: That sounds good. I'd like to see them.

AVA: Yes.

Beat.

AVA (cont'd): Will you come back tomorrow, Caleb?

CALEB smiles slightly.

CALEB: Yeah. Definitely.

AVA also smiles.

And suddenly -

- there is a strong sense of something very human there. In the way the smile lights up her face.

AVA: Good."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Sometime heavy back story is necessary. Sometimes it's not (here). Use the right tool for the right situation.

Ex Machina (2015)
by Alex Garland

*Four (main/important) characters

Monday, January 18, 2016

2016 OSCARS: Bridge of Spies (2015) - Theme; Pushing Characters into Tight Corners

[Quick Summary: In 1957, a U.S. insurance lawyer is asked to defend an alleged Russian spy in court, then negotiate for a mutual spy exchange.]

Once again, we've entered Oscar season.

Once again, I have no idea what makes a script "Oscar worthy."

I do agree, though, that this script deserved a nomination.

- It's a smooth, smooth read.
- There is no fat, i.e., extraneous scenes.
- Each scene is crystal clear about intent, yet still very interesting.

However, I was most impressed how every scene showcased the theme, i.e., having the courage to make unpopular decisions.

The protagonist, Jim Donovan, is all alone in defending a Russian spy in court, and then negotiating an unprecedented prisoner exchange. He only has his conscience.

How do you show courage?  Here, the writers pushed Donovan into tight corners to:

1) Isolate him (requiring courage), and
2) Force him into making decisions, even if unpopular.

ex. "LOBBY OF COURTHOUSE

Tom Watters, Donovan in the middle, Mary on the other side.

WATTERS: Jim, you did a great job. You fulfilled your mandate, and then some. But the man is a spy, and the verdict is correct, and there's no reason to appeal it.

DONOVAN: There's ample procedural reason. We know the search is tainted, and the Fourth Amendment issues are always going to weigh more heavily in an appellate forum -- we've got a good shot.

WATTERS: What the goddamn hell are you talking about -- We were supposed to show that he had a capable defense which we did, why are you citing the goddamn Constitution at me?

DONOVAN: Tom, if you look me in the eye and tell me we don't have grounds for an appeal. I'll drop it right now.

WATTERS: I'm not saying that. You know what I'm saying.

MARY: Tom is saying there's a cost to these things, Jim.

WATTERS: That's right!

MARY: A cost to both your family and your firm.

Donovan gives a helpless look at her."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I liked how the scene above ends.  It's very clear Donovan must decide, but even he doesn't know what to do. This keeps me turning the pages.

Bridge of Spies (2015)
by Matt Charman, and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Monday, January 11, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Lifeboat (1944) - To Attract a Star

[Quick Summary: Americans shipwrecked on a lifeboat are suspicious of the lone German in their midst.]

I feel that I should've liked this script more.

- The concept had real stakes (10 people stranded in a boat).

- The opening was bold and interesting (written for Tallulah Bankhead).

- Hitchcock's intent was controversial but understandable ("We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction.")

Yet I still lost interest along the way.  Why? I still don't know.

So as I continue to ponder, I will leave you this:

Hitchcock needed someone dramatic for the role of Mrs. Connie Porter, a famous, rich, female journalist who was lost at sea. 

Who better than the famous actress Tallulah Bankhead?

I love the juicy character descriptions that would entice Ms. Bankhead to sign on:

ex.  "Connie is crowding forty, but Helena Rubenstein and her own dauntless efforts have created a camouflage that makes her get away with thirty, when she's had a good night's sleep. Right now she might be thirty-two." [i.e., She is unconcerned that she now sits in a lifeboat.]

ex. "Her mink coat is Revillon Freres. Her suit is Hattie Carnegie. On the seat at her side is a de luxe model 16 mm movie camera."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Characters are terribly attractive when they're in unusual circumstances, with something they need to say, and something they need to do.

Lifeboat (1944)
by Jo Swerling
Original story and novella by John Steinbeck

Monday, January 4, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Shadow of a Doubt (1943) - The Art of the Slow Burn

[Quick Summary: After her uncle arrives from out of town, a niece suspects he is a murderer.]

Uncle Charlie travels out west to visit his sister.

His niece and namesake, Young Charlie, is thrilled...until she suspects that Uncle Charlie may/may not be running from the law. 

Unfortunately, she only has a few circumstantial stories, i.e., no hard evidence.

What does she do next? Tell the cops? Set a trap for Uncle?

If I were the writer of this story, this would be my first instinct.  I would want to jump to proving Young Charlie is right.  

But any quick resolution would immediately kill the suspense. (Oops.)

Here, the writers were more clever and inserted a mix of:
- emotional obstacles (Young Charlie is terribly conflicted: She idolizes Uncle Charlie. Also she doesn't want to humiliate her mother with a public reveal.)
- genuine obstacles (Nosy plainclothes detectives.  Interruptions during the bar scene).

Nothing can be forced into a quick fix.

You must wait until the game is played out before reaching a resolution.

This is the good kind of suspense, i.e., a slow burn.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I really admire how the obstacles are so truthful to the characters and not tacked on as plot devices.

ex. Young Charlie goes to the library to find out what newspaper article that Uncle Charlie cut out.  This causes her to face who Uncle Charlie is, and not what he says.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, & Alma Reville
Story by Gordon McDonell