Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook
June 14, 2016 5:32 pm
Following my breakdown of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, I have set out to write up beat sheets of other fascinating dramatic horror movies with a psychological and emotional message about the human condition. Interestingly, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook also happens to be about processing grief and sorrow – powerful emotions which evidently provide a great foundation for cinematically depicting our deepest fears about death and loss.
Take a look at my interpretation of The Babadook’s story beats as inspiration for your own screenplay-in-progress. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions, ideas and suggestions for which scripts you’d like to see analyzed in this blog. Enjoy!
Amelia (Essie Davis) relives the experience of the horrific car accident that killed her husband – the event that is the basis of her trauma and the seed for the emergence of Babadook, the monster.
Early in the movie there are two moments that thematically paint a picture of the story we are about to watch. First is when Amelia’s at work at an old people’s home. She tells her co-worker Robbie (Daniel Henshall) that she has to get to the dementia ward and Robbie says, ‘It’s a few more years before you end up there, isn’t it?’ Disguised as a joke, it feels like a warning for Amelia to take care of her sanity – a foreshadowing, somewhat eerie message that signals that things will not go all that well for her. This line sets a tone and theme where Amelia’s sanity will be discussed.
Second moment is when Amelia’s 6-year-old son Sam (Noah Wiseman) tells another mother shopping at a grocery store that his dad was killed in a car accident on the way to the hospital for his birth. Shocked and uncomfortable, the mother awkwardly tells Sam, “Your mother is very lucky to have you”. The story is now clearly established to be about not only Amelia’s struggle to come to terms with her husband’s death while raising the son whose birth brought about the disaster, but also about her capacity to love Sam. Is she really lucky to have him, or quite the contrary, would she have been luckier and happier if it wasn’t for him?
In a double-stated theme, we are about to explore the possibilities of a mother’s ability to hold onto her sanity while processing her grief and to learn to accept her son as a blessing rather than a curse.
Amelia is portrayed as a meek, compassionate mother, if somewhat on edge. Sam is a sleepless and highly imaginative child, clearly soaking up every gesture and mood of his one point of contact for love, affection and communication – his mother. They are both scarred by the same event: Amelia, by her husband’s untimely and brutal death; Sam, by his mother’s distant, vacuous and ever-shifting tone and presence with him as a result of their shared loss.
The mother and son’s home, a typical night and day of their life, Amelia’s work place, Sam’s school, their kind neighbor, and the relationship dynamics between Amelia and Sam are quickly and economically introduced in the first 20 minutes or so. In terms of plot, two major things happen within this section. One, Sam is in trouble for bringing dangerous instruments to school to ward off monsters, and Amelia’s natural and motherly response is to take him off school to find better care for him. Second, Amelia’s sister, Claire (Hayley McElhinney), is the only relative and friend to Amelia and she represents a much different world of conventional family life. Her function for the story is to mark Amelia’s true loneliness and otherness. Sam’s extreme behavior at an innocent playdate with Amelia, Claire and Claire’s daughter Ruby further clarifies that our mother and son couple are deeply isolated and tinged by their unfortunate life circumstance.
The mother and son’s difficult day out in the strange world wraps up by a cozy reading time in bed. Sam picks a ‘new’ book that neither of them knows how it got to their home. The mysterious character of Mister Babadook in this unusual pop-up picture book prophesizes that once the reader has become aware of its existence, the torment shall begin. This fires up Sam’s already inflamed monster obsession and deeply disturbs the emotionally fragile Amelia.
So the central dramatic problem for our characters has arisen. Where did the book come from? What does it mean? Is there really such a monster, a demon with a power to plague their house and their minds? What is it and what does it want from them? Sam’s fears of being attacked by monsters become focused on this one clear threat. Amelia, although upset and confused, is mostly troubled by her son’s difficulty in managing his psyche. She doesn’t know how to help him.
Unaware of and unwilling to acknowledge her part in the impending horror, there is the overarching question for Amelia: Is it this brand new monster that’s the threat or is it her son himself?
Break into Two
Earlier in the story it is established that the basement is kept locked and off-limits to Sam. Following the haunting reading of Mister Babadook Sam is playing in the basement, pretending to be telling his dad that he will keep his mum safe from the Babadook. Sam’s entry into the basement violates the dead husband’s dwellings, and by default the sacred bed of Amelia’s grief, fear and sorrow. When she follows Sam into the basement, it feels like she hadn’t dared go in there for a very long time; the memory of her husband floods her.
Now we are in the realm of the Babadook – the embodiment of her unprocessed grief and loss, the home for her trauma as a mother.
B Story is clearly the love story between mother and son. They are both trying to reach out to each other in some way. Amelia is trying her best to keep her own demons at bay and truly love her son (a feat that all mothers who feel like their life is hijacked by their children do face) and Sam is trying to protect his mother from the monsters – meaning, from anything that might draw her away from him (a role that all children who deeply feel their mother’s vulnerability and emotional wreckage do take on).
The mother and son’s evolving and shape-shifting relationship is the core of the story where the theme is discussed: the idea of Amelia being lucky to have Sam is tested, and so is her sanity.
Fun and Games
The basement scene opens the Pandora’s box and now the real nightmare begins ever-tightening its grip on Amelia. She finds broken glass in her soup and her suspicion is solidified: does the evil presence really exist, or is it her son trying to harm her to prove that the Babadook is real. It is hard to say which one would be worse: a supernatural monster, or your own flesh and blood turning against you. And that’s the fascinating conflict that drives the first half of the story. Amelia responds by tearing the book into pieces and throwing it out.
At Claire’s daughter Ruby’s birthday party, Amelia loses her cool against Claire’s friends. Their problems and worries are reminders of all the could-have-beens of her own life. What’s worse, Sam pushes Ruby off a tree house giving both mothers a big scare. Is Sam possessed? What kind of a monster did Amelia raise? On their way home Amelia’s limits are pushed and Sam has a seizure. At the hospital the question keeps escalating: what is wrong with Sam? A desperate Amelia begs for sleeping pills to effectively knock her son out for the sake of them both. Sam finally sleeps.
Following their one night of much-needed sleep, Mister Babadook the book turns up at their doorstep, neatly bandaged back together. Convinced that it couldn’t have been Sam that did this, and realizing the true threat that they may be facing, Amelia calls her sister. Claire has clearly had enough of Amelia and Sam and refuses to extend help or comfort. Amelia goes to the police to report the event, but the police treat her as if she were insane. When Amelia returns home, she knows she is alone with her son and her demon the Babadook.
Bad Guys Close in
The home that Amelia now knows is plagued by a monster is also infested with cockroaches. A roach infestation is the ultimate sign of loss of safety and comfort. Her home is suddenly rendered invaded, dangerous, alien. As she is engaged in the impossible task of burrowing into her rotten walls to severe the root of the roach colony, community services arrive to question her about Sam’s school absence. What could be worse than an already troubled mother in the midst of a battle with roaches facing officials who will judge herself, her son and her home, and potentially make the decision to take her son away from her? On top of that, Sam comes out and says the drugs he is on are making him nauseous. Amelia is distraught and dysfunctional; the house is in bad shape; her kid is on drugs… BUT, there is still room for worse.
As Sam sleeps next to her, the Babadook makes an actual appearance – it is clearly after Amelia with a vengeance. Amelia loses not only sleep over her frequent visitor, but also her shifts at work. She is further confined to her evil home with no sleep or comfort in sight. She begins to turn against her son, suggesting that the Babadook is successfully taking hold of her body and mind. Amelia begins her descent from a mother in terror to a terrorizing threat against her son. Now, the question is not about Sam being possessed, but Amelia embodying the Babadook. Sam stops taking his pills and tries to call their neighbor to no avail. Amelia, sporting a horrific groan and a butcher’s knife, becomes the ultimate terror. Our emerging fear for Sam’s safety is much worse than our earlier fear for Amelia’s safety. Sam is far more defenseless and powerless against his towering and blood-curdling mother.
A basement scene where Amelia and her dead husband unite in a loving gesture illustrates that she is under a spell – a spell of her love and loss and, if kept untended, it will destroy herself and her son.
All is Lost
Amelia kills their dog, her first innocent victim. Now, more than ever, it feels like Mister Babadook’s prophecy is in full swing.
Dark Night of the Soul
Amelia’s now fully under the influence. The Babadook has embodied her and their next victim is Sam. But, Sam stabs Amelia’s thigh and ties her up in the basement, incapacitating his monster-mum. Amelia’s shocked and furious reaction to Sam’s betrayal makes us feel the weight of her trauma once again. Could Sam be the cause of all this? Is it his arrival in her life that created all the suffering? Is she finally driven insane because of him? What is the source of her venom? In a powerfully metaphorical ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ moment, Amelia vomits volumes of blood, symbolizing a long-neglected well of pain gushing out of her like a raging river. She is purified.
Break into Three
Instead of denying it or escaping from it, a transformed Amelia confronts the Babadook. She takes Sam’s side for the first time and protects him from the evil of her own sorrow. She is finally able to look at her pain straight in the eye and accept Sam as her son. A and B stories cross as she is empowered by a motherly strength.
Finally the day breaks. Amelia is back at work. Sam is safe with their neighbor and due to begin school again. Life has returned to them both. Amelia speaks out about their collective loss for the first time, when she explains to the community services what happened to Sam’s father and why they have never celebrated his birthday on the actual day until now. Sam’s birthday is no longer a day of mourning but a celebration.
Amelia plants in their backyard and Sam collects earthworms. Amelia takes the bowl of worms to the basement to feed the Babadook who still resides there. The Babadook symbolizes her grief and fear of loss after all; it cannot be escaped but it can be nourished and made benign. Amelia learns to heal her demon with love.
Amelia holds Sam in her lap as if cradling an infant – a gesture she has possibly never experienced before. She tells him, ‘Happy birthday sweetheart,’ finally at peace and content.
Ingmar Bergman’s Elusive Persona and its Wordless Secrets
May 27, 2016 3:06 pm
One of the most academically and critically acclaimed films of all times, Persona is a precious jewel in the history of world cinema. Its creator Ingmar Bergman had relentlessly stretched the boundaries of what we call cinema today throughout his career, but never before (or since) as significantly as he did with Persona. Many brilliant critics and academics have analyzed the bottomless depths of Persona. Here, I will concentrate on a few points that personally resonate with me every time I watch it.
The famous actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) is admitted to a psychiatric hospital for her sudden self-inflicted silence. Her doctor discloses her diagnosis of Elisabet’s so-called ‘disease’ as if it’s Bergman explaining to the audience the source of all dread that he himself suffers from: ‘…the chasm between what you are to others and what you are to yourself.’
The word ‘persona’, Latin meaning of which is ‘mask’, is central to Elisabet’s life in the theatre, where the pretense of taking on different identities, or masks, is the name of the game. Elisabet drops this pretense in the middle of a performance like dropping a mask that has long been unbearable. Her silence on the other hand becomes just another mask to hide behind in order to escape the demand for confessions and deliberations. Elisabet’s safely established new ‘role’ as a sick woman shields her fears and social discomfort behind a veil of silence.
However, Bergman himself often talks about silence as having the quality of containing ‘the only truth’. This duality behind the experience of silence on the part of the troubled soul is interesting: Is silence the only way out of the insufferable ‘chasm’ or is it simply not possible to avoid this chasm no matter how and how much you try to remove yourself from responsibility of expression.
Enters Alma (Bibi Andersson), a young nurse, innocent of all self-doubt and questioning. Her future is laid out in front of her and despite her mild insecurity and impulsiveness, she is perfectly capable of nursing Elisabet back to health with her casual ease and pleasant demeanor.
Secluded in a summer home on an island, the two women forge an odd friendship, where Elisabet is the silent, compassionate observer and Alma, seemingly the patient lying on the psychiatrist’s couch, confessing all her sins. Alma finds a rare opportunity to open up and process her own existential angst to Elisabet, whose contrasting purpose is to be relieved from her extraverted existence. As Elisabet turns more and more inward, Alma exercises her multiple identities, suggesting that, if given the opportunity to release them, we all have a multitude of masks to potentially play out.
When Alma feels betrayed by Elisabet, her dormant rage blossoms violently, making her transformation all the more fascinating. Alma, now interchangeably viewing Elisabet as confidant and traitor, goes on to challenge Elisabet’s sense of self by suggesting, almost revealing, that there may not be a ‘self’ behind all of Elisabet’s masks. In their hideout, the two women not only exchange their identities, but also begin to present a case in which they share one identity, or embody two sides of the same personality. Bergman slowly but surely blurs our narrative perception: are these women one and the same, perhaps living out a schizophrenic episode? Or are they the thesis and anti-thesis of one persona getting painfully enmeshed in one odd summer together?
Bergman’s audacity in tackling one of the fundamental questions of existence is noteworthy. Don’t we all carry this self-doubt: Am I who I think I am, or who I seem like I am? If I were to remove myself from my world permanently and begin participating in a reality altogether different and, to top it all, if I were relieved from expressing my ‘self’, what would that ‘self’ turn out to be? And from Alma’s point of view, if I had the chance of being listened to without questions or judgment, what emotions and personalities would I have access to? Which demons would I be compelled to bring out?
Bergman takes our experience of observing the collision of these two identities one step further by stressing the idea of the audience as active observers of the dream-like phenomenon that is Persona. From the ignition of a projector through to film cracking and burning on Bibi Andersson’s frozen face, we are reminded that cinema itself is a mask that’s forever hiding its meanings and intentions. Perhaps Bergman is suggesting there is no meaning and intention behind his complex narrative and perplexing images at all!
Though Bergman himself refrained from explaining what he meant by Persona, he also wrote that, in Persona, he ‘touched wordless secrets that only cinema can discover’. Ironically, words are truly not enough to express what the elusive and marvelous Persona means to me. It is up to the audience to perceive and make meaning out of those wordless secrets for themselves and themselves alone.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on May 23, 2016
Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation
April 15, 2016 3:22 pm
Karyn Kusama’s mystery/suspense drama The Invitation opened last week to great reviews. I had the opportunity to see it in its opening night and found its approach to storytelling and specifically its style of acting, rhythm and tone refreshing.
In Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay, the hero’s perfectly implausible suspicions about a dinner party slowly turn out to be worse than anything he could have imagined. The film is neither glossy in its approach to revealing thrills, nor solely concerned with art-house aesthetics. It’s unusually naturalistic in its portrayal of an awkward gathering and the unexpected events that follow.
Considering Kusama’s distinctly non-Hollywood way of handling her material, I thought it might be interesting to take a deeper look at the script’s story structure and explore how it fits with the universal language of storytelling. I used Blake Snyder’s much celebrated Beat Sheet method to dig out the story points of The Invitation. Check out Snyder’s Save the Cat! for more information about his screenwriting methodology.
Please be sure to read on AFTER you watch the film, which is unfortunately on limited release. Enjoy!
Our hero Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are on their way to a dinner party. The invitation is from Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new partner David (Michiel Huisman). It’s established that the event will be a hard one for Will to stomach and he’s already questioning the motives behind throwing such a party.
The invitation for the party itself is the catalyst for the story, and in this case, thanks to its no-nonsense title, it hits the audience before they even see the opening.
Will and Kira accidentally hit a coyote on the way to the house. Will takes pity on the whimpering coyote and clubs the animal to death to put him out of his misery. Will’s decision to choose death over suffering for the coyote will be a running theme throughout the picture: is death more desirable than a life in pain?
It quickly becomes clear that Will not only has to face Eden after two years of losing contact with her, but also he’ll be returning to the same home where they lived as husband and wife along with their son, Ty, who accidentally died in that same house.
When Will and Kira enter the house, the psycho-emotional dynamics of the dinner party begin to unravel. Will sees the first image of his son upon entry to the house – a boy playing with his toys alone in a room. Will and Eden are clearly moved to see each other again, whereas there is clear tension, if not subtle hostility, between Will and David. We get to know their close group of friends who also fell apart after Ty’s tragic death. With every passing minute, Will’s unprocessed grief over his son and his struggle to accept ‘time heals all wounds’ seem to float to the surface with growing urgency.
From the very moment Will enters the house, he, and us too, have an eerie feeling that something is not right about the house and its occupants. He soon notices that the windows are all blocked and the house seems cold and sterile in spite of its warm colors and lighting. Despite appearances of excited and welcoming hugs, there’s something phony and forced about the whole gathering. And of course, it is the hosts who are the oddest with their overly friendly and exuberant tones. There are awkward silences and emotional holes between them all. Though they don’t seem wholly uncomfortable, they all seem on edge about something unspoken and heavy.
Eden and David’s mysterious housemate Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and David’s perfectly unlikeable friend Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) do nothing to ease Will’s discomfort. Will notices David locking the house and confronts him about it, managing to settle with leaving the key on the door. Upon further observing the hosts’ pushy attempts to soften the tension by offering uber-expensive vintage wine, Will knows something is seriously wrong. But what? Should he accuse Eden and David of something? But of what? What CAN be happening, let alone what IS happening?
Break Into Two
Eden and David screen a video of a group they’ve been involved with in their travels to Mexico. At first, it seems like a cheesy retreat, promising lightness and happiness amidst all the pain and suffering we all live with in our lives. Death, according to the cult leader, is simply a shedding of the burden of being in our bodies and a happy passage into something bigger and better than ourselves. A young cancer patient’s peaceful and well-supported suicide is shown at the end of the intro – death seeps into the picture. Will’s unfounded suspicions begin to find some grounding.
Along with the developments of the second act, Will begins to reconnect with his dead son as he walks around the house alone, revisiting his memories and slowly saying goodbye to him. His private moments with the memories of his son become points of the story where the theme is further discussed: would you choose death over life, simply because the pain of loss is so unbearable?
Fun & Games
Fun & Games begins with a literal game of ‘I Want’, inviting the ‘you only live once, carpe diem’ philosophy of life. The apparent aim to relieve the tension caused by the morbid suicide video fails miserably when Pruitt goes on to tell the guests how he accidentally killed his beloved wife. Eventually Claire (Marieh Delfino) feels unsettled enough to decide to leave the party. David and Eden’s efforts to make her stay alarm Will to defend Claire’s exit. As Will watches intently, Pruitt moves his car to let Claire go, but then disappears out of sight, presumably, to say something to Claire, at which point David interjects and confronts Will about his suspicions.
Will continues to explore unsettling details about the party as he spies on Eden taking pills, rejects Sadie’s offer to sleep with him and finally gets a cell phone signal to receive a voice message from the only guest who couldn’t yet make it to the party. Apparently, Choi (Karl Yune) has already been to the house and had to leave to run a quick errand. So, how come he’s still not around? Suddenly Will’s ludicrous suspicion that ‘nobody can leave this house alive’ seems significantly more warranted.
Will accuses Eden and David of inviting them for a brainwashing session for their weird cult project and having clearly done something to Choi. As Will demands explanations, to his great embarrassment, Choi enters unexpectedly with an excuse – a moment of false defeat that not only throws Will’s balance and confidence, but also puts him in the position of the wounded guy who can’t handle his grief and doubt.
Bad Guys Close in
Will has now lost the little credibility that he did have. Even Kira suggests they should leave to avoid further embarrassment. His attack has failed miserably and Eden and David came out looking like the sane and together people Will intuits they aren’t. Accepting his defeat and almost beginning to doubt his own sanity, Will asks to visit Ty’s old bedroom before he presumably leaves the house with some dignity. Will and Ty share a smile in Ty’s bed – a heart-breaking father and son moment.
Will then explores the room that’s been turned into a study and finds the cult leader’s video in Eden and David’s laptop. His suspicions that something is seriously off are renewed but his confusion is at its height. Through the window, Will watches David light a red lantern in the garden.
When Will returns to the table, his friends are celebrating a birthday with a cake and pink-colored liquor brought in especially for dessert. Just as everyone raises their drinks, Will knocks off everyone’s glasses, claiming that they’re all about to be poisoned. Sadie pounces on Will, accusing him of ruining everything. Will pushes her off, which causes Sadie to knock her head and collapse, echoing Pruitt’s story about killing his wife. Sadie still has pulse, but Will is thought to have gone way too far, when…
All is Lost
Gina (Michelle Krusiec), who apparently was the only one who took a sip of the drink, is discovered to be foaming at the mouth, unconscious. To everyone’s horror, Will turns out to be right: they were all meant to be dead by now.
Dark Night of the Soul
It’s a Dark Night of the Soul for everyone, as they all begin to witness the aftermath of what was meant to be a mass (forced) suicide.
Break into Three
People scatter in horror to no avail; Pruitt quickly shoots a couple of the guests. Will and Kira manage to momentarily hide, as they acknowledge their fate: they’re locked in the house with a death sentence and the only way out is either a miraculous escape plan or to kill off the cult members. They overhear David trying to convince a distraught Eden to keep going with their plan to kill everyone – it is the only way they’ll be freed from their pain.
As they scramble to find a way out, Pruitt confronts Will and Kira, and Kira manages to kill Pruitt. Eden shoots Will on the shoulder and then shoots herself in the stomach to put an end to her own insanity.
Finally the villains are dead and Eden is drifting away. She asks to be taken out to the garden where their son died and takes her last breath. Eden’s death feels like a choice to let go of the burden of life, whereas Will holds onto life, when he is the one still openly hurting from their loss.
Will stands up from Eden’s lifeless body to notice there are a many number of houses with red lanterns in their backyards. Sounds of gunshots and sirens wail in the night, suggesting many others are carrying out plans of the same nature. Suicide cult has clearly resonated with many, all suffering from their own version of grief and pain.
Will and Kira hold hands at the sight of a horror that swarms LA. No matter how unbearable life may continue to be, they are united in the goal of living over succumbing to death.
Revisiting Fritz Lang’s Film Noir Classic: Ministry of Fear
March 9, 2016 3:05 pm
When Ministry of Fear’s hero Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) steps out of the mental asylum in the middle of the night to confront his new life, we already have a sense that things are not going to look all that bright for him. As he promises his doctor that he’ll stay out of trouble and live a quiet life, we’re already dreading what awaits. We owe this feeling to director Fritz Lang’s eerie setting, lighting and pacing. As expected, Lang does not waste any time before he turns his hero’s life upside down.
Lang’s cinema always asks us to question what’s expected and prevalent. Only few answers are provided as more and more questions pile on, taking us –and the hero– farther and farther away from innocence. Stephen’s inevitable nightmarish life outside is set up in the most innocent way possible. Upon winning a cake at a contest in a lively fair, he finds that his little welcoming gift into his life as a free man may just be the thing that will hold him captive. A festive and delicious cake turns out to be delivering a secret message to the Nazis in World War II England and Stephen happens to be the lawful man who is in the way. He is yet to experience mystifying deaths, disappearances, accusations, secret hidings and deliveries gone wrong. The more Stephen searches for answers the deeper he goes into the depths of a labyrinth of crime.
As it is common in Lang’s cinema and in contrast to the spy thrillers of the era, Ministry of Fear presents a world of characters where the heroes and the villains are not clearly defined. Even the Scotland Yard inspector is aesthetically portrayed as a Nazi agent until we get to see his real identity. In Ministry of Fear, everyone is suspect until proven innocent, and even then we are led to ask, ‘Can we really be sure?’
The reasons for Stephen’s asylum stay reveal a dark side to his past, but this new information quickly morphs into functioning as a way to establish him as wronged and victimized rather than guilty. Contradicting his questionable past, Stephen’s soft and giddy demeanor adds yet another unusual dimension to the movie. The common themes of paranoia, uncertainty and fear of the unknown are contrasted with a concerned but determined hero, who’s peculiarly not so much scared as intrigued.
Stephen’s eagerness and joy to begin his new life at the start of the movie sets him up as a hero who’s determined to enjoy life no matter what. And even in the face of clear threats to his life and freedom, he seems to cling to the task at hand and keep following the thread of events with sincerity and good intentions. The one weak point of the story is Stephen’s lack of understandable motivation to pursue the mystery of the cake and keep getting sucked into the dark affairs of the Nazi spy ring, but his indomitable curiosity and enthusiasm keep us on board with him.
As Stephen’s innocence slowly becomes contaminated, a love story flourishes between him and Carla (Marjorie Reynolds), the Austrian refugee who runs the organization that delivered the cake to Stephen by mistake. Carla also gets her fair share of scrutiny as Stephen suspects that her organization may be a front for the Nazis. Stephen’s good-natured belief in Carla and Carla’s immediate trust in Stephen paint this idyllic picture in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty. Carla will end up committing the toughest social transgression and her action will link the two characters in a complex bond of guilt and innocence.
Ministry of Fear has an air of romance and melodrama despite the mounting plot of action and relentless suspicion. The dominant mood of paranoia is mostly delivered via the atmosphere, set designs and lighting as opposed to acting and dialogues. The expressionistic high-contrast lighting, the way characters are framed in the sets and the choice of objects that appear in complex compositions all work to prepare the audience for a mood that is called for in the narrative. The creepy atmosphere is accompanied by a touch of Hollywood glamour, especially in the style of acting, light-hearted romance scenes and particularly the finale.
Ministry of Fear is an especially important piece of cinema because of its stylish atmosphere, interesting direction of acting and captivating narrative. Made in 1944 among many other Nazi propaganda movies, spy thrillers and numerous examples of Film Noir, it captures Fritz Lang’s unique approach to the genre and distinctive cinematic style.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on March 8, 2016
Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Emma Donoghue’s Room
February 18, 2016 10:21 pm
Since my Ex Machina beat sheet, I’ve found it hard to come across a screenplay captivating enough to deconstruct. I think Emma Donoghue’s Oscar nominated screenplay for Room (dir. Lenny Abrahamson) is a gem of a study of human psychology in the face of hardship. It reflects a child’s perspective on life so purely that I found its sincerity and simplicity contagious. Room stands as a hopeful sign for the possibility of making small-scale movies that touch on refreshingly grand ideas. Hermione Lee’s description of Penelope Fitzgerald’s stories fits nicely with Donoghue’s Room: “[it] inhabits a small space, but seems, magically, to reach out beyond it.”
I hope you enjoy my interpretation of the story beats for Room and let it inspire your writing. I use Blake Snyder’s beat sheet method as a guide for story structure and highly recommend his acclaimed Save the Cat! for further study.
As a boy and his mother wake up to a new day, we discover their little world in Room. Jack (Jacob Tremblay) greets their few belongings with childish vigor, ‘Morning lamp, morning rug, morning wardrobe…’
As Jack and Ma (Brie Larson) eat their breakfast, Ma winces with toothache. She reminds concerned Jack, ‘Mind over matter.’ Jack chants their slogan: ‘If we don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’ We get the sense that this is their survival strategy: we have the power to overcome our problems. Through their journey we will witness this battle of mind over matter – personal strength over circumstance.
Jack and Ma’s daily routine. Just like a regular mother and son, they eat breakfast, do activities, talk, take a bath, read stories and go to sleep, except they have to do all of this in a tiny space, clearly closed in for a long a time and resigned to the fact. We find out it’s Jack’s 5th birthday – a growing boy with growing needs and demands. With Old Nick’s (Sean Bridgers) visit, we are also introduced to their captor. Ma and Old Nick have a deal: he is not allowed to see or touch Jack in exchange for Ma’s full cooperation. Now we get a full picture of what life is like for Jack: what he knows and what he doesn’t know; how Ma is able to keep him deluded enough to live without too many difficult questions and occupied and active enough to give him something that resembles a regular childhood.
Jack encounters a mouse in Room – the first living visitor other than Old Nick. Suddenly the seed for a new set of questions is implanted in Jack’s imaginative yet purposefully restricted mind: Where does mouse live? Where does he come from and where will he go? Are there really other alive things in the world? Could the world be more than Room? Jack doesn’t yet ask these questions, but now there is tangible evidence of something other than the reality as he knows it. Ma distracts Jack’s train of thought, but she also begins to see that if Jack is able to question his reality he may be able to understand it too.
Is Jack old enough to understand and accept that there is an ‘outside’ and that’s where they should be? Will he believe Ma’s story about being captured and kept in Room and that the world isn’t just TV things but real things? Will he then be able to help Ma with an escape strategy? Ma uses mouse as a doorway to introduce the idea of ‘outside’ to Jack and, despite his initial resistance, Jack begins to understand what is real and what is not real, and that Old Nick needs to be tricked for them to regain their freedom and discover the world. When they are punished with a power cut in the middle of winter, Ma uses this opportunity to first fake an emergency sickness for Jack, so he can be taken into ER and deliver a message to save them, and when that fails she fakes Jack’s death, so he can be taken out of Room and then escape. Ma takes a huge risk by relying on a five-year-old’s ability to go out there and speak with people for the first time, but then again what have they got to lose?
Break into Two
Jack not only manages to escape from Old Nick’s truck but also raises enough suspicion outside for Old Nick to abandon him. He even gives sufficient information to the police to save Ma and they are soon happily reunited. A new life in the outside world awaits mother and son now.
Jack discovering the outside world and building relationships with people other than Ma is the B Story of the film. Jack’s bond with Ma also takes on a new form now that there is so much space and people between them. Jack slowly comes into his power to live the life he was supposed to live. What he learned from Ma now becomes his fuel to remind her that mind wins over matter.
Fun & Games
At first Jack and Ma enjoy their freedom in the outside world. Jack is not only in awe of his new surroundings, but also extremely timid to connect with anyone and anything other than his familiar Ma. Ma reunites with his parents and gets to go home. They seem to have all the protection and freedom in the world, but also a growing void between them now that the intimacy of Room is gone.
Ma’s father’s (William H. Macy) inability to acknowledge what happened to his daughter and accept Jack as a grandson is the first indicator that life outside is not going to be as easy for them as one might think. Ma seems to have only dreamed of getting out and wasn’t able to imagine anything beyond that. Now that they are out, she begins to realize that as far as the world sees it Jack is the son of a psychopath and the product of her suffering and abuse. If her dad can’t accept her and her misfortune, who will? How can she ever feel and be ‘normal’ again?
Bad Guys Close in
Grandpa, clearly unable to come to terms with what happened to his daughter, leaves. The family’s lawyer and the media put increasing pressure on them to act or give statements. It feels like Jack and Ma may not be in Room anymore, but they are still in confinement with much more complex problems. Realizing the years she lost and how she may never be able to have a normal life again, Ma grows more distant and unavailable to Jack. As the hole in Ma’s heart deepens, Jack opens up to his new world and the people in it. She projects her own frustrations on Jack and worries he’s not adjusting well when it’s really herself who is angry, fearful and haunted. Ma has a breakdown with her mother and ally Nancy (Joan Allen), blaming her for what happened. When she’s questioned at a TV interview about why she didn’t let go of her son earlier, in other words when she finds herself accused of being selfish, it is the final blow to her identity as a devoted mother and survivor.
All is Lost
Ma attempts suicide and is discovered by Jack. To Jack’s horror, Ma is taken away indefinitely. Her sudden disappearance from Jack’s life is a classic ‘whiff of death’ moment.
Dark Night of the Soul
Jack mourns Ma’s absence holding onto her bad tooth – ‘a bit of Ma’. He wisely observes: The world is so big and in a hurry. So Ma hurried to go to heaven, but forgot Jack. Jack gathers his superpowers to bring Ma back to him.
Break into Three
First act break happened because Ma ‘picked for both of them’ and made the decision to escape – a terrifying ordeal for Jack. Now, Jack tells Ma on the phone that he picks for both of them: Ma has to get better and come back to Jack.
As Jack patiently waits for Ma’s recovery, he begins doing normal things kids his age do like getting groceries and baking cupcakes with Grandma. He reveals the true essence of childhood while he expertly beats the eggs: Room was a good place for him, it stretched out infinitely and Ma was always there – a poignant revelation that children are blessed with a boundless imagination and resilience as long as they are loved. Now he returns this love and affection toward his mother by sending her ‘a bit of him’ – his hair that he calls his ‘strong’. Jack’s sacrifice brings Ma back and they are once again united. Ma admits she wasn’t a good enough Ma, but Jack is quick to remind her she is Ma and that’s what matters. Their world is now enlarged to include beaches and dogs and burgers. They are finally truly free to start life all over again.
Upon Jack’s request, they return to Room. Mirroring the opening images, Jack says his goodbyes to their old belongings – what he formerly knew as the extent of life. Having finally escaped Room and its haunting grasp, they are now not only free, but also happy.
How Mustang and Full Metal Jacket are really the same movie
January 24, 2016 4:23 am
Finally I’m inspired to write about Blake Snyder’s much debated genre system. I am currently working on a script, the Snyder-genre of which is the wonderful and truly complicated Institutionalized. Because of this particular genre’s obvious challenges, such as working with an ensemble cast and voicing several standpoints on the merits of one Institution, I was in need of exploring the genre more deeply using worthy specimens that represent it in interesting ways. And what better specimens than Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee Mustang (2015) and Stanley Kubrick’s Best Screenplay Oscar nominee Full Metal Jacket (1987). As you’ll see, comparing an unlikely pair of movies for the task will be more beneficial in order to fully understand the possibilities this genre offers.
The first of the three rules of the Institutionalized genre is that there needs to be a Group, an ensemble or multiple stories working for or against an establishment. There is a question of this establishment’s rules and ethics, and the possibility of breaking loyalty with it. Mustang’s five sisters and Full Metal Jacket’s marines are the Groups that are set against the cultural/traditional family institution in Mustang and the military institution in Full Metal Jacket.
Even though both stories are primarily about a group of people, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have heroes, through whose eyes the audience is invited to discover the storyworld and the ins and outs of the Institution the Groups are operating under. In Mustang the hero is the youngest sister, Lale (Güneş Şensoy), who has the most courage and wisdom to see through the system the girls are imprisoned by. She rebels against their grandmother by breaking a chair in the backyard in one of the opening scenes, setting the tone of the story to follow.
Similarly, Full Metal Jacket’s hero, Private Joker (Matthew Modine), demonstrates the most rebellious spirit in the Group by making his first ‘joke’ directed at the Institution representative Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) in the opening scene. Both heroes are transparent and outrageous in their honesty and show the audience there will be no limits to what they can do.
Second rule of the Institutionalized genre is that there must be a Choice that tests whether the hero will stick with the group or quit – the main dramatic conflict of the story. In Mustang, as we watch the girls being married off one after another, we are left to wonder if Lale is going to submit to her destiny too, or will she put an end to the unjust system that reduces women to mere cattle. As the girls keep disappearing out of the cage they live in (presumably to move onto their next cage), the need for the Choice becomes more urgent and the resources to make it increasingly narrowed. After the third sister in line to join the institution commits suicide (a powerful All is Lost moment for the Group), things look more desperate than ever, making the potential prospects of the Choice even more hopeless.
In Full Metal Jacket, the Group, including Joker, is deeply entrenched in the system, practically trained to be mindless killing machines. But, there’s still the question of whether Joker too will become one of them, or will he hold onto his spirit and sustain his humane stance in the face of a war that seems to make no sense to even those who fight for it. As the Group finds itself face to face with a ruthless sniper with no back up to protect them, Joker has to come to terms with his best friend’s death – a similar All is Lost moment for the Group and particularly for the hero, who must now decide whether he will choose the Institution and take revenge or stand by his principles and symbolically destroy the Institution embedded in his heart.
The third rule of the Institutionalized genre is Sacrifice. Who is going to be the winner of this battle? Them or me? Will the hero surrender his/her individuality or beat the Institution, dismantling it, rendering it powerless, and most importantly, proving it was less than it was advertised to be all along.
In Mustang the Sacrifice is the security and the predictability of home and family. The last two sisters turn their back on everything they have and they know, possibly severing their bond with the older sisters. They risk their lives by attempting to go to Istanbul relying only on the hope that Lale’s teacher will help them out. It is the ‘inner spirit’ Snyder talks about that helps the hero make this tough decision of letting go of the Institution.
Full Metal Jacket portrays a more complex Sacrifice scene. For Joker the Sacrifice is that human capacity ‘to refuse to kill’, which is what originally set him apart from the rest of the Group. In contrast to Mustang, the hero of Full Metal Jacket seemingly chooses the Institution by killing the Vietnamese sniper face to face. This could be interpreted as Joker turning into one of the Group’s heartless killers, but it could also be interpreted as Joker choosing to put the sniper out of her misery and therefore not letting her suffer any longer as the Group suggests they should initially do. Joker emerges as a killer but one who has fully digested the tragic weight of such an act.
According to Snyder, there are three characters who are often featured in the Institutionalized genre. First is Company Man, who is rooted in the system and who has taken on its values as his/her own. In Mustang the grandmother is the Company Man. She clearly loves the sisters but she has learned the rules of the game and believes them as her own. Other elderly women who go along with the program represent how deeply and widely the system is accepted. Full Metal Jacket’s Sergeant Hartman and other soldiers who don’t question the system and even delight in being in the trenches are examples to Company Men.
Naif is another typical character found in Institutionalized movies. This is the ‘new guy’ who knows nothing of the rules and the person with whom the audience identifies and through whose eyes finds out about the system. Naif is often the hero. In Mustang it is Lale and in Full Metal Jacket it is Joker, who are yet to become institutionalized.
Brando is another must-have character for the Institutionalized genre and can also be the hero. It is the wild guy who is by nature opposed to the system and reveals its flaws. I think dramatically Brando is an essential ingredient that powerfully demonstrates the evils of the Institution. The heroes of Mustang and Full Metal Jacket both carry the Brando energy but I feel the real Brandos are the ones who take the most extreme measures to rebel against the establishment. In Mustang it is the third sister Ece (Elit İşcan), who quietly suffers and subtly revolts for most of the film, and finally commits suicide. Her suicide is so sudden and unexpected that its execution feels like a slap in the face of the system.
Full Metal Jacket’s Brando is almost identical in its behavior and impact on the audience. Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) has a smile on his face in the opening scene and is severely punished for it. That smile gets thoroughly extinguished, but he continues to be the bad apple of the Group to the point where the Group itself turns against him. Pyle’s loneliness is palpable. Even after he’s discovered to be one of the best gunmen and therefore becomes an accepted member of the Group, his despair keeps brewing. Like with Ece, we watch Pyle’s individuality exterminated and punished much more explicitly than others. Only when the marines are announced to have completed their training, meaning just when you think the torture is over, Pyle unexpectedly shoots Sergeant Hartman dead and puts a bullet in his own head. Like the one in Mustang, this is another suicide that comes out of nowhere and hits the audience with great impact. In both films, the sudden suicides leave the remaining characters and the audience dumbfounded – now fully aware of the depths of hell the Institution has prepared for them.
Mustang and Full Metal Jacket are set in different eras and geographies; they are about the oppression of different sexes; they represent different cultures with different historical backdrops and so on. And yet, in their essence they both tell the same story: a story about people who suffer within the confines of an Institution that is imposed upon them. They are surrounded, oppressed, limited, forced, denied freedom to be, to act, to choose, to express oneself, to have opinions and feelings of their own. No matter what the Institution is and who its victims are, from a mythological perspective, they are stories of imprisonment and the urge to break out.
Mustang and Full Metal Jacket coming together under one common genre provides a reason to celebrate the unchanging core of what stories are and how diverse and individually potent they have the potential to be.
The Genius of Blood Simple as the Forerunner of a Certain Coen Genre
January 11, 2016 2:45 pm
The Coen Brothers’ debut film Blood Simple leaves the audience speechless at its fade out. It sets the tone for a specific genre of Coen movies about ‘life getting ridiculously complicated for the silliest reasons’. As brilliantly articulated by J. K. Simmons’s character in the finale of Burn After Reading (another incarnation of the same Coen genre), ‘What did we learn here?’ echoes in our tickled minds. What did we just experience and why?
All we really know about the characters in Blood Simple is their motivation and very little else. Not much at all about how they met, what they are like, what kind of a childhood they might have had, how they feel about life and even each other. What we do know is the basics: the nature of their relationship with each other, what they want and what they don’t want. The first few scenes establish this simple information with economical grace, then the characters’ goals naturally fall into place and conflict alone drives the rest of the way to fade out.
This almost childlike simplicity of Blood Simple is what leaves us dumbfounded in the end. Seasoned viewers might say ‘but movies are supposed to establish backstory, deliver a message, and include several subtexts from which we learn something new about life; above all, movies are supposed to have depth and purpose!’ This is partially true; the more complex and furnished with substance and dimension movies are the more intrigued and satisfied we tend to be with the outcome. However, it is precisely its straightforward approach that reveals the movie’s essential mission and the source of its delight.
The genius of Blood Simple is in its non-hesitant way of only giving us the story’s bare essentials: motivation, conflict, goals, setbacks and resolution. In fact, if Blood Simple does only one thing well, it is to remind us that these five points are all you really need to tell a story. Contrary to all the complex storylines and character development found in many great movies, Blood Simple dares us to see stories for what they primarily are: vehicles for entertaining unusual situations from the points of view of interesting characters with specific desires and idiosyncrasies.
When we are able to go past the story’s seeming pointlessness, we arrive at quite a fundamental point the movie inadvertently makes about humanity. Blood Simple thrives on a primary fear that we all share: losing control. The characters are in the dark about what’s happening throughout the picture and they continually miss the pieces of the puzzle which would help them make sound decisions. It is in a sense a parody of what happens when you have no grasp of what’s going on and when you are stuck in a downward spiral of wrong information resulting in wrong decisions culminating in more ignorance and more stupidity.
An advanced version of this same hilariously annoying downward spiral is found in Fargo, where characters are painfully misinformed and acting foolishly. Along with other variations of this particular Coen genre such as Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou and Burn After Reading, Blood Simple and Fargo draw from a rare combination of humor and tension born out of the fear of loss of control.
A prominent reason for Blood Simple’s appeal to the audience is its realistic persisting problem: killing ain’t easy. We relate to all four central characters who at some point in the story try to kill another. Killing turns out to be such a difficult ordeal that we instantly bond with the characters and their plight. They are all innocent and guilty at the same time in their own ways; they all honestly struggle for understandable reasons and as a result we root for them. The fact of their inability to foresee potential consequences of their actions makes them all the more loveable and real.
Similar to its successors, Blood Simple’s setting adds a crucial dimension to the story. The characters live in a town that feels abandoned by and disconnected from the rest of the world. It’s scarcely populated by people whose actions feel ineffectual in regards to everything and everybody else. It’s as if we are examining a cage in a zoo where improbable mishaps are common occurrence. Blood Simple’s setting has a twofold effect as it supports a sense of realism because it feels so common and bland, but at the same time it makes the ludicrousness of the action probable and even likely because of its strange and neglected atmosphere.
In the finale, Frances McDormand’s character Abby singlehandedly ends the vicious cycle of violence. She sheds her fear of having no grasp and control of what’s going on and surrenders her doubts about her ability to take charge. We are satisfied that she makes it through, but equally confused about how things have gotten so bad. And again, what did we learn here? Nothing really, but we did find ourselves in the shoes of four people who somehow made sense to us and we entertained a strange set of situations which demonstrated a delicious combination of tension and humor. Most importantly, we witnessed the first specimen of an irresistible genre of Coen movies we have since come to love.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on January 8, 2016
New Year’s Recommendation for Screenwriters
December 31, 2015 10:25 pm
“When asked how [the illiterate Sixth Patriarch of Zen] could understand the truth of the Buddhist texts if he couldn’t read the words, the Sixth Patriarch raised his arm and pointed to the moon. Truth is like the moon in the sky. Words are like a finger. A finger can point to the moon’s location, but it is not the moon. To see the moon, you must look past the finger. To look for the truth in books, the Sixth Patriarch was saying, is like mistaking the finger for the moon.”
This little Zen koan I came across in Ruth Ozeki’s wonderful novel ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ reminded me of a classic issue in screenwriting. Let’s think of the moon in this Zen koan as an analogy for a good story and the finger as the methods that supposedly point to how to write one. There are a great many people, including myself, who study screenwriting methods to find more effective ways to write better-resonating stories, just like there are many people who study the Buddhist texts to understand and practice Buddhism and attain enlightenment. I wonder though, if someone who is illiterate in the methodology of screenwriting couldn’t look past the methods to directly experience and deliver the essence of a good story. If a ‘good story’ is the truth we all are striving to arrive at in screenwriting, can we be mistaking the ideas on screenwriting for the truth in it?
While I am a true believer in studying, analyzing, reflection, comparison, methodology and so on, I also feel that theory in general may create grounds for a trap where our writing minds and our written words are suffocated with all the knowledge, ideas and limitations that come from over-preparation. We should be careful not to let the theory get in the way of the creative power of the practice of writing. A free mind is a lively imagination’s best friend. It’s surely important to furnish that free mind with a great big library of inspiring inhabitants, but it’s equally important not to restrict it with preconceived notions of what it should eventually produce.
Methodology can also become a trap as it encourages procrastination. Long after a writing project is ripened with enough ideas and enthusiasm, we can be inclined to come up with endless material to read and more interesting methods to apply that we may be risking losing the passion required to dive into it. Sometimes, the more we dwell the more we lose focus and drive.
Having read quite a few screenplays, I feel that there is a drought of creative juice and courageous daring in scripts. There is also a huge lacking in form and method – the essentials for the craft. Whether it be your ‘practice’ or your ‘theory’, be sure to nourish them just the right amount and avoid being limited by either of them. Take care to always look for the ‘truth’ of a good story within the madhouse of your imagination and make sure not to get bogged down by the finger while searching for the moon.
I wish you the moon in the New Year!
Practice of NOT Writing
December 7, 2015 4:01 pm
If you’re in the dangerous habit of reading tips for screenwriters, you will see that the most common advice for screenwriters (and writers in general) is to write, write, write… Keep writing! Don’t ever give up! The more you write the better a writer you will be! This message must have resonated with many, since I see an awful lot of screenwriters (mostly beginning writers, in my experience) churning out new scripts incessantly, seemingly a dozen a year, or may be more. Well, my humble advice is: STOP WRITING!
For one, there is a fine line between when is a good time to quit trying to become a screenwriter altogether and when you should be fuelled with a stronger desire to keep going. I think the writers who succeed as screenwriters are not the ones who don’t give up, but those who CANNOT give up. If there is nothing else that makes sense for you to do, then you don’t have to worry about whether you should go on or not; you just have to keep doing what you gotta do. For those who can think of other things that they would like to do and are good at, may be it’s better to move on sooner rather than later. Most important thing to do is be intelligent about how you look at your work and listen to your gut feeling.
Second, I will bet for every million people who are writers or wannabe writers, there are about a thousand who are good writers. Out of that thousand, I would guess only a hundred would be consistently producing good material fast. Talented and prolific writers like Stephen King would be on that list of rare species. For the rest of us, simply writing a lot doesn’t make us better writers but only gives us more examples of bad-to-mediocre writing. Writing a lot will no doubt make a good writer a brilliant one, but writing LESS may be a much better remedy for bad writing. You may be one of the thousand good writers out of those million die-hards, but I am writing this letter to the 999,000 of us out there.
I have taken up the strange profession of spotting and solving screenwriting problems. I think I have done this partly because I have an academic background in filmmaking and consider myself more academic than creative, and partly as a way to avoid my own bad writing. I have been fortunate to read more scripts than usual recently and it led me to wonder why so many people write so much. Every script does have some interesting aspects that could be developed, reformed and evolved into good stories, this is true. However, I often notice how quickly and carelessly stories are (or feel like they are) put together. How easy it is for most to transform half-baked ideas into less than half-baked stories. Why? Why keep on writing when you have never seen anything like what you’ve written on the big screen; when your script doesn’t resemble any movie that you love?
Before you even begin to compare your work with others, ask: Why do you love the movies that you love? What is it about those stories and characters that touch your core? Study those stories that are so great, find out why they are good, and then find out how they got to be good. After that, you can look back at your script and compare your findings in both. Why oh why yours is not as good as ‘that’ and how you can make it that good. Spot the differences; write down those differences, and again, figure out what in your writing and life experience may be missing that you weren’t able to write that good.
Do you really think the difference between the two comes from writing like a maniac without stopping to question whether it is any good? May be, but not necessarily. Do you think it’s because those great writers were born with the good writing gene? May be, but not necessarily. I think the most obvious difference is that good writers are first and foremost better at living than writing. Living and observing the act of living is the main resource for any writer. Writers can be socially awkward and dysfunctional in real life, but it is in the observing of it all that makes the difference. It doesn’t matter what you and your life are like, it matters how you understand and process it.
A gift for imagination probably comes next and I don’t think that’s necessarily God-given either. I think the gift of imagination is bestowed due to having gathered so much observation and emotional experience that you are able to empathize with a door handle. You can empathize with people and things so much and so well that you can make anything up and still feel your way into the veins of the story that is living in it. For your imagination to grow, don’t just watch movies because the process of watching a feature-length movie is so quick; you follow the plot but you hardly notice the details. In addition to watching movies, read books. When you read, places, people, settings, objects, feelings, moments germinate and flourish in your imagination. The more of those you digest in your mind and heart the bigger a library of stuff you will have to draw from in your own writing. This is how you grow imagination: by imagining more stuff, slowly and thoughtfully.
Probably only the third trick to good writing would be the actual practice of writing. NOT the practice of writing for the sake of writing, but the practice of intelligent writing that comes from intelligent living and observing. I think there is a secret for the practice of writing and it’s hidden in the sacred times in between writing spurts, meaning when you DON’T write, meaning when you live and breathe and do your laundry and wash the dishes and walk your kid to school. It is in these ordinary moments that you are a potential protagonist rather than a writer who orchestrates uninteresting characters that don’t feel real. YOU are real when you’re doing your laundry and thinking about the fight you had with your wife last night and fearing that she might bring it up again or sulk all day and how you should compose yourself so you can survive this last storm. Watch yourself while you pour the detergent and purse your lips at the thought of last night’s quarrel and how your heart skips a beat when you momentarily reminisce a time when you never had fights.
There is a story emerging, developing and ending in your act of living every day. You can project the same sensibility that is required for watching that story unfold inside you onto any character you might think up and what you will end up with is a story with conflict, motivation, goals and desires, risks, tension, obstacles, stakes, lessons and resolution. YOU ARE SKIPPING THE ONGOING STORY YOU’RE LIVING AS YOU CONTINUE TO WRITE STUFF THAT DON’T REALLY HAPPEN QUITE THAT WAY, STUFF THAT DON’T MATTER, STUFF THAT ISN’T MEANINGFUL OR IMPORTANT. So, stop the writing and concentrate on the living, and observing that living. Pay attention to the intricacies of your thoughts and emotions for there is no screenwriting book or advice column that could be more useful to you than what you already have going on in you and around you.
Of course, don’t stop writing altogether and spend your time staring at walls playing with your hair. Be aware of your act of living first. Then be aware of your writing and what’s not working with it. Figure out why. Don’t fool yourself. Write less and read more. Do less and notice more. Look less and see more. Worry less and feel more. Try less and listen more. Write less and live more. Live more and pay attention more. Then… write what you know and feel about life and how that life works. How people in that life work. How you, as the unique representative of all of mankind, live and function in this life that is nothing but a story. See that story and write that story.
In any case, this is what I tell myself as I tumble through my own ordinary life and my advice doesn’t really matter. Susan Sontag says “a novel worth reading [or, a story worth telling] is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.” My question to you is: how would you create inwardness without stopping to go inward?
— Excerpt from The Paris Review interview with Susan Sontag, The Art of Fiction No. 143. Read full interview by Edward Hirsch here.
The Great Beauty – Paolo Sorrentino’s Masterful Musings on Life and its Meaning
November 18, 2015 4:24 pm
The Great Beauty presents the quintessential European perspective on life and cinema. The contrast between European and American traditions of not only movie-making but living couldn’t have been more stark than in Paolo Sorrentino’s take on life, its meaning and its cinematic representation.
How do you make a movie about nothing – a spiritual nothingness that is the most painful kind to feel and to narrate. The Great Beauty tells a story that can hardly be described in conventional storytelling jargon. By not even attempting a progression of loosely tied events, Sorrentino does what many filmmakers would understandably shy away from doing (let alone devoting an epic 2.5 hours of screen time), namely a portrait of life with all its disappointments, resentments, pointlessness, hopelessness and lifelessness. This is not exactly entertaining material, nor is it an easy subject matter to tackle. And yet, Sorrentino does it like the masters of Italian cinema did it beautifully in the past. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ and Antonioni’s La Notte are a few of the Italian masterpieces that are evoked by this modern incarnation.
Similar to its predecessors, in The Great Beauty, Rome’s wealthy, intellectual, emotionally exhausted class of socialites suffers from an unbearable existential torment. As the historical and religious heart center of Europe, Rome and its eternal prisoners are buried under the weight of their own past. A perfect representative of the old and jaded breed of a European intellectual is Jep Gambardella – a successful journalist who had faded as a writer after his award-winning first book. Jep possesses the wisdom of someone who got so bitter that he has fostered the ability to see things from a higher perspective – the perspective of a sage who no longer struggles but simply accepts and flows with what life has to offer.
It is striking that historically and culturally the European hero is the polar opposite of the American hero: old vs. young, hopeless vs. hopeful, unmotivated vs. enthusiastic, resentful vs. genial, aimless vs. goal-oriented, consumed vs. consuming, slow and ponderous vs. fast and buoyant; over-thinking and over-talking vs. relentlessly doing, doing, doing.
In the same way, aesthetics of European cinema sharply opposes its American counterpart. If you watch The Great Beauty after watching a hundred American movies, it comes as a shock to the mind and the senses. The structure feels warped, the speed is confusing if not mind-numbing; you begin to feel, hear, and see all kinds of details that you never had the freedom to explore.
You can feel the Roman cobblestones under your feet, smell the night air with its coolness and perfume, hear the night bugs forever chiming, notice the water trickling down the marble, feel yourself lost in the buzz and mist of a throbbing nightlife… Just like Jep, you feel like a wildlife observer in the city-bound wilderness of humanity. All without a story to crack open and consume to satisfy your insatiable mind.
Sorrentino’s uncanny ability to completely ignore a cut-and-dried way of storytelling is remarkable and it is also typically European. His camera’s carefree, aimless, fluid, bee-like movement from moment to moment gives us time to see, enjoy and digest endless material without the interference of our rational minds constantly asking questions and seeking connection and meaning. The structure is more vertical than horizontal – a bird’s eye view of chunks of story; it feels like any given sequence could be isolated from the others, placed anywhere in the storyline and it would all still make sense. It is not a story per se, but a panorama, like a scientific micro-examination of certain cells representing the giant organism they belong to. All the stuff that makes European cinema, or art cinema, a tough audio-visual experience is handled so expertly that one is able to shake off the frown and the yawn and experience (rather than passively observe) life as it happens.
Having devoured, studied and admired American cinema for so long, watching The Great Beauty took me back to my university days when I immersed myself in European cinema and thoroughly enjoyed Italian masters like De Sica, Rosellini, Fellini, Antonioni, Pasolini and so many others. (I confess I fast-forwarded my first screening of L’Avventura.) Having lived in Europe and in America, The Great Beauty reminded me how differently people can live life and express it through the movies. The fact that history and culture are so tightly ingrained in filmmaking is in itself a compassionate salute to humanity.
The Great Beauty is evidence to how European it is to project human emptiness and misery on screen without much in the way of action; how European it is to talk about the importance of roots and “the embarrassment of being in this world”; how European it is to resort to numbness in the face of existential tragedy – “it’s just a trick”. The Great Beauty is a jolt to a conformist way of living, filmmaking and film-viewing. The simple honesty of talking about life as it is is the most energetic, refreshing and positive message to give a contemporary audience. It is so truthful and unapologetic that it is impossible to walk out of The Great Beauty and feel like you haven’t found ‘the great beauty’. But then again, Jep would be quick to remind us, it’s all just a trick.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on November 17, 2015