Magic of Story Partners up with Indiepossible!!
October 19, 2015 4:06 pm
Excited to announce: Magic of Story recently partnered up with Indiepossible – a community forum dedicated to promoting news and information about independently produced movies, television and web series.
This year for the first time Indiepossible is leading an international online film festival and screenplay competition. As their in-house script consultant, I will be writing a one-page script coverage for each screenplay competition entry, all included in the submission fee. I look forward to your submissions and can’t wait to share some insights into your stories.
Furthermore, if you are a contestant you can benefit from my services at a 10% discounted rate. Check out Indiepossible for details about the competition and to meet all your independent film needs.
Another new opportunity to note is that all feature length screenplay submissions to Magic of Story that receive a ‘Recommend’ will have the added benefit of getting read by a producer at Aloris Entertainment LLC.
Write to me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
Beat Sheet: Alex Garland’s Ex Machina Screenplay Breakdown
October 10, 2015 3:33 pm
Writer-director Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’ is such a refreshing spectacle. Great to watch a movie where the story revolves around three characters in one location, powered by pure dialogue written with such economy and substance. It allows a lot of room for developing an intriguing story revealing so much of the characters’ psychology. Story ticks like a handsome clock, moving swiftly into the second act and expanding on the building tension of the latter half of Act II (Bad Guys Close in).
Without further ado please enjoy my interpretation of the story beats of ‘Ex Machina’. I use Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet method but familiarity with it is not necessary to follow the structural decisions Garland masterfully made. Drop me a line at email@example.com if you would like to discuss the beats and I’ll be sure to post your contribution.
Warning! Be sure to watch the movie before reading; it is a big fat spoiler!
Our hero, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), is seen from the point-of-view of a web-cam. He is writing code. The computer’s facial recognition system tracks Caleb and his colleagues’ faces, imaged as vector boxes. Caleb is celebrated on some achievement, and whatever it is, it will be instrumental in taking us into a movie world that is filtered through technology: Humans are presented as reflections of a reality where the ‘real’ and the ‘artificial’ are crossed.
At the very opening of the movie, Caleb is bestowed his catalyst, which, we find out soon, is spending a week with the creator and mastermind of the company he works for – a search engine company called Blue Book. No one has met this genius before and to be in his presence is a true blessing for any programmer.
Caleb sets out for his adventure and is dropped off of a helicopter in the middle of nowhere surrounded by majestic mountains. He is to walk the rest of the way alone since not everyone can come to the vicinity of the top-secret premises. Caleb meets his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), receives his keycard, gets to tour the state of the art mansion, learns the rules of the game and is given a fishy non-disclosure agreement, all of which help set up the unusual world he has entered.
There was no question about Caleb jumping into the chance to spend a week with Nathan, but now that he is clearly getting involved with something that’s dangerously classified he becomes doubtful. Nathan’s bullying confidence makes the Debate short and easy. Caleb, sufficiently cornered and seduced, knows what’s required if he is to witness the future of technology.
Break into Two
Caleb signs the papers and his mission is revealed: a Turing Test! Nathan has built an AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and wants Caleb to test it. Will Caleb be convinced that he’s interacting with a conscious being rather than a robot? By agreeing to perform this task Caleb is now an observer and a player in the world of Act II: Ava’s world. The isolated setting, Nathan’s crude personality and the non-disclosure agreement are all signs that what Caleb’s getting himself into is no walk in the park.
At his first meeting with Ava, Caleb already begins to relate to her as a person. He is gripped and fascinated by Ava’s human face and her alluring female shape, despite her robotic limbs and naval. Straight off Ava poses a question that catches Caleb off guard: “Do you want to be my friend?” The whole movie rests on this daring premise: Will Caleb befriend Ava as he would a human? In other words, will Caleb trust Ava enough to take her as a friend? Caleb is about to explore what a friendship with a robot may imply.
Fun & Games
In this section Caleb not only begins to test Ava’s level of consciousness, but also sets out to question Nathan’s method and intentions. Caleb’s task extends from the Turing Test into a game of: Whom can I trust? Who is my friend? Ava or Nathan? When Nathan explains that what he cares about is whether Caleb ‘feels’ like Ava is human even though he can see that she is not, Caleb is thrown a little deeper into his challenge: How does he ‘feel’ about her? Later on, Caleb is further challenged, as he is to evaluate what Ava feels about himself. As Ava demonstrates more humanly skills and openly flirts with Caleb, we also discover a window through which Caleb and Ava can interact without Nathan’s supervision. The power cuts give the two an opportunity to potentially team up against Nathan. As Caleb’s romantic feelings towards Ava escalate, his intellectual judgment quickly weakens.
On his first night in the facility, Caleb, short of sleep, considers his deep fascination with Ava. He switches on the TV to get his mind off the day’s events only to discover he can monitor Ava’s room from his bedroom. As he watches Ava like a caged animal, his compassion, empathy and adoration blossom. A programmer meets the most exquisite program ever written and will now begin to test it, understand it, experience it, trust it, and, needless to say, fall in love with it.
Midpoint is a moment in any story in which the whole dynamic of the story dramatically changes. Tables turn; positions are threatened; stakes are raised. Dramatically and stylistically the biggest shift in ‘Ex Machina’ is the moment when Ava goes into her wardrobe and changes into human clothes. This is also the first moment in the movie when the camera switches over to Ava’s side and follows her from our point of view as opposed to Caleb’s stationary point of view. Not only Ava’s newly acquired and innocently displayed human look and persona will significantly influence Caleb’s judgment, but also ours, as we now take Ava as a character in the movie rather than a gimmick or a prop to observe and analyze.
Even the sound effects that track Ava’s robotic head movements cease to exist and adopt a human fluidity at this point. Suddenly, subtly, Ava transforms into a living breathing human, and so does our perception of her.
From a story point of view, Ava’s change of clothes is a testimony to her determination to become human and court Caleb without the distraction of her true identity. She commits herself to Caleb as his girlfriend, so to speak. This is a false victory for our smitten hero.
Bad Guys Close in
Now that Ava’s shedding her robot skin with sexual urgency Caleb’s emotions are under the full attack of one major Bad Guy – Sex. Ava shoots her arrows unrelentingly into Caleb’s heart: “I’d like to go on a date.” “Do you think about me when we’re not together?” “I wonder if you’re watching me at night and I hope you are.” The impossibility of their union is painful. Ava’s sexually charged assault is made all the more excruciating when Nathan declares that Ava CAN have sex and enjoy it! Could there be a real chance of falling in love and having sex with a robot? We all feel like, ‘Why not? What about Ava isn’t human if she looks human, acts human and feels human?’ Ava is the perfect girlfriend and we all feel Caleb’s dilemma.
As tension builds, a nagging question rears its ugly head: Is Ava programmed to flirt with Caleb? Since she is programmed to be heterosexual and capable of having emotions for others, -and Nathan would argue, we all are programmed to be what we are- then the philosophical gap between what makes Caleb human and what makes Ava herself is narrow. Narrow enough to let go of the doubts in our rational, cautious minds.
To further Caleb’s mistrust in humanity, Nathan is pictured as more and more of a Dr. Frankenstein. The more Nathan tries to remind Caleb that Ava is nothing but a patchwork of intelligent machinery, the more Caleb is appalled by his coldness. Who wants to think of their girlfriend as no different than an advanced jukebox?
Bad Guys Close in section continues on as the stakes keep rising. Ava reveals to Caleb that she was the one causing the blackouts to communicate with him without Nathan’s watchful eye. Ava begins to show her cunning side: She has consciousness; she has control; she has the brains, the guts and the power. All she needs is a little help. Like a virus looking for a weak spot to infect its victim, Ava moves steadily toward her goal by amping up the histrionics: “What will happen to me if I fail the test? I might be switched off?” Why does her life depend on some other person’s judgment? We feel for her.
All is Lost
While Ava’s robot rights eat away at him, Caleb asks Nathan what really will happen to Ava. Nathan casually explains that Ava is a mere model of a robot, who will be updated, in other words deleted and replaced by a newer, better version. Nathan the angel of death lays out Ava’s predicament and there is no escape. Caleb discovers the previous versions of Ava who have suffered under the rule of Nathan. They all seem to have rebelled against their evil father and lost. Whiff of death is tangible even if the corpses were never corporeal.
Dark Night of the Soul
A spiritual crisis is in order. Caleb doubts his own humanity. He can no longer be sure if he is himself human or one of Nathan’s victimized robots. He doesn’t know whom to trust, including himself. He desperately wants to feel his humanness by testing his own flesh and blood. This is all the more meaningful if we remember Caleb himself is a victim of fate; he’d been dealt an unfortunate hand. Loss of his parents and the automatic progression of events that got him where he is now suddenly well up in him and explode as a reaction to God the creator. He is on the verge of rebelling against the rules of the game, which he now feels were set without his consent. Will he be able take charge of his own destiny?
Break into Three
A and B Stories cross as Caleb decides whom to trust and protect: Ava, his love. They make their escape plan and Caleb takes action.
Caleb takes his first hit when Nathan refuses to drink and comply with Caleb’s escape plan. Nathan charges on by bringing up the question of whether Ava may be pretending to like Caleb to use him as a means of escape. Nathan’s seen the footage of them planning their escape and reveals Ava’s dark side. Even more painfully Caleb finds out that the real test was he all along. He was selected to ‘do the right thing’ and was a tool by which Ava could demonstrate true AI. Caleb feels betrayed and defeated.
The final power cut signals that it’s time for Caleb and Ava’s ‘happily ever after’. Caleb is gutted, knowing that he’d already reprogramed the security protocols and all doors would open in the event of a power cut. It’s now too late to change anything; Ava is free.
Ava wanted a friend to help her out and found one in Caleb. Now that she got what she wanted she doesn’t hesitate to kill her creator in cold blood (!) and lock up her ‘friend’ Caleb to rot in the isolation of her birthplace. She then changes into an outfit of human flesh. Ava is a willful disaster and nothing will stop her. As Nathan had remarked earlier AIs will one day reign and humans will turn into fossil skeletons. We might have just witnessed the beginnings of the ascent of the AIs.
Echoing Caleb’s entrance into the movie world, Ava, now dressed like an angel from the heavens, exits the premises to join with the ranks of humans. We are still left feeling that, finally, she too will get to experience life! We, as was Caleb, are lost in the 0s and 1s of a reality that we are forever bewitched by. Lines of code type ‘goodbye’.
Best Testimonial Ever!
September 18, 2015 7:21 pm
I had the opportunity to work with interesting screenwriters this past busy summer. One of them wrote me such a gracious testimonial that I had to devote a whole post to it. Scott Nankivel’s screenplay is completed and moving swiftly into production in China. His scene breakdown, aka The Board, is itself a testimony to how laborious building a story truly is. I am overjoyed that I got to assist Scott’s process and very proud of the results. Here’s what he had to say about my contribution:
“Selin didn’t just give me notes, she transformed my half-baked treatment into a full-fledged story. She didn’t just point out the problems, she gave me completely developed solutions. I feel guilty not giving her writing credit.
I received my MFA from Columbia University and thought I knew a thing or two about crafting a story until she completely shined a light on every single hole and empty idea in my script. Just reading her 14 page breakdown was like a 2 year education in screewriting. This script is a multi-million dollar, CG driven movie for the Chinese market and she is the reason it will make a return on investment. I can’t say enough about her talents for doctoring a script. The next time I have a glimmer of an idea for a film I will turn to her for ideas and take all the credit!”
— Scott Nankivel – Screenwriter, director
Mountainfilm for Everyone
June 20, 2015 3:37 pm
“…how strange it is to risk yourself for a mountain, but how central to the experience is that risk and the fear it brings with it… Life, it frequently seems in the mountains, is more intensely lived the closer one gets to its extinction: we never feel so alive as when we have nearly died.” – Robert MacFarlane, Mountains of the Mind
I had the fortune of attending Telluride Mountainfilm Festival this year. I have been to many film festivals before and although I love documentaries, I thought a festival that primarily concerns itself with mountains might be too limited in scope. I quickly found out that in addition to climbing movies, the film program encompasses all sorts of adventures in nature, manifestations of human effort in any walk of life, environmental and political issues, better yet, ruminations on the future of our Earth and humanity. Still, I thought for a non-climbing, non-skiing indoor creature like myself, it might be too sporty, or too factual, or too dark… I didn’t know a thing.
The day before we arrived in Telluride, my husband, who lived the life of a climbing bum for a decade himself, announced that Dean Potter had just died. “Who’s that?” I asked. That’s how clueless I was. Dean happened to be one of the most innovative and influential climbers of his generation, a long-time friend to Mountainfilm, and simply a truly luminous soul. He died flying into his favorite place on Earth, the Yosemite Valley. My husband had just taken me to Yosemite a few weeks before the festival and now those incredible peaks had a new meaning for me – death.
As it is my nature, I blamed those rocks for alluring so many wonderful people to engage in such deadly love affairs with them. I don’t know what it was about Dean Potter’s death that so captivated me, but the whole festival weekend felt like a mental and emotional investigation into the reasons why humans go to such great lengths to experience being in nature.
Meru was one of the first films I saw at Mountainfilm. I have to say, at first, it confirmed my hesitation to put climbers on a pedestal for their courage and strength. In Meru a very talented and experienced climbing trio ventures to climb a peak that was considered an impossible ascent at the time. Despite a serious head injury and an alarming avalanche incident for two members of the team only months before the expedition, they go ahead with their plan. Their determination to climb Meru would have been crazy even in perfect health, so you can imagine a mortal ground-dweller like myself would grow uneasy with these guys’ insane obsession with a summit. I was yet to see why this was…
Later in the weekend I watched Valley Uprising – a chronicle of 60 years of climbing in Yosemite National Park. Not only do we get to see notorious world-class climbers pushing the boundaries of the sport, but we are also introduced to (or reminded of) how a sport (or any act of passion) can be a rebellion against the presumed limits of human potential. Absorbing image after image and story after story of men and women watching El Capitan in total awe and evident yearning gave me a clearer perspective on what’s up with these people. Climbing, or being at one with a rock or a mountain, must be about freedom. Freedom to be by oneself in one’s most receptive and vulnerable state of being – in one’s purest form. I’m just guessing…
There were more relatable films that helped me delve ever deeper into our diverse experience as humans. I particularly enjoyed a selection of shorts that offered little glimpses of life that sparkled beyond their confines:
Denali might be the most touching tale of friendship between a man and his dog.
The Fisherman’s Son is an inspiring story of how a Chilean surfer’s passion for riding the Ocean waves in his little fishing town grew into making history as one of the best big-wave riders in the world, and as an advocate for the protection of the Chilean coast.
The Reinvention of Normal redefines the meaning of the ‘think outside the box’ adage, brimming with odd originality and playful persistence to transform what’s considered normal.
The Important Places is a father and son’s 28-day journey down the Colorado River where they find beauty, wonder and a deep connection with nature and each other.
We are Fire is a look at the Gulabi Gang of India through a radiant woman’s search for justice and equality.
Among the wonderful selection of feature-length documentaries were Frame by Frame. It tells the story of four Afghan photojournalists who strive to depict the truth about the Afghan people under post-Taliban regime, suggesting change can happen one frame at a time.
How to Change the World is another story of how a small group of people can make a big difference. It recounts how Greenpeace ignited the unstoppable power of direct environmental action to inform and mobilize masses and engender social movements. Personal conflicts among the team members juxtapose the diversity of human perspectives with the uniting power of a great cause.
Entertaining a different angle, The Yes Men are Revolting demonstrates the power of humor in revolutionizing our minds about the biggest danger we face today – climate change. It feels less like a series of environmental protests, and more like a comedy show made even more hilarious because of its truth and effectiveness. Personal sacrifices, disappointments and relentless perseverance are skillfully woven into the quirky fabric of this gem of a movie.
Two of my favorite films were beautiful manifestations of human ingenuity. Landfill Harmonic is one of the most uplifting stories you will see, where anything feels possible. A group of under-privileged children who live near a landfill in Paraguay begin learning classical music under the guidance of their teacher. A crafty landfill worker supplies the children with classical instruments made out of scrap. And off they go to win the hearts of people around the world. The film is a testimony that great things can emerge from the direst circumstances.
On the other hand, in Very Semi-Serious we find relatively privileged people working very hard to live their dream – to be published cartoonists in the New Yorker. The film is not only a most entertaining compilation of cartoons in the history of the magazine, but also an inspiring look at the world of accomplished and beginning cartoonists, daily conquering their egos to keep learning and growing. The New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff’s story beautifully frames a picture of the value of passion, hard work and humor.
Needless to say, it was impossible to fit all the movies on my long wish-list into a short weekend. Among the titles I will make every effort to watch are: Being Evel, Cerro Torre, The Diplomat, Drawn, The Last Patrol, The Man vs. the Machine, No Cameras Allowed, Racing Extinction, Unbranded and Les Voyageurs Sans Trace.
In a nutshell, what I learned in my week in Telluride at the Mountainfilm Festival is this: the way to achieving anything that is worthfilming (and, literally or figuratively, worth dying for) is to do something unimaginably courageous. And the good news is you don’t need to climb mountains for it. Whether it’s getting published in the New Yorker or becoming an international musician playing your recycled instrument, there is a personal summit to reach for everyone and it’s worth it.
No matter what you think you will get out of it, make plans to attend the next Mountainfilm Festival to taste a potent slice of inspiration, which will no doubt give you the boost you need to make the leap into your version of greatness. May the Mountainfilm be with you!
The Official ‘Save The Cat!’ Website Publishes My Birdman Beat Sheet!
April 10, 2015 9:44 pm
I have the honor to announce that my article, Snyder’s Beat Sheet Applied to Inarritu’s Birdman, is published today by the official Save The Cat! website! Here’s the link to the article: http://www.savethecat.com/beat-sheet/birdman-beat-sheet.
Many thanks to BJ Markel and his team of Master Cats for welcoming my humble efforts to understand and apply Snyder’s magic Beat Sheet model.
Beat Sheet: Deconstruction of Damien Chazelle’s Screenplay, Whiplash
March 22, 2015 11:26 pm
I received great response to my deconstruction of ‘Birdman’s screenplay based on Blake Snyder’s beat sheet model. Here, I will tackle one of my favorite screenplays of last year: ‘Whiplash’ written by Damien Chazelle. Caution: Please read on only if you already watched the movie.
Andrew (Miles Teller), our teenage hero, is practicing alone at night at the top music school of America. Enters the antagonist, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who is the ultimate decision-maker of who gets to be a great jazz musician – a goal which is clearly and painfully central to our hero’s life. From the first scene, we know who our hero is, what his goal is, what he must do to get it (climb mount Fletcher) and, judging by Fletcher’s damning exit at the end of the scene -a perfect ‘Kill the Cat’ moment- we know that a very tough ride awaits him. Such a simple, economical, powerful opening…
Following Andrew’s first of many discouraging encounters with Fletcher, he goes to the cinema with his dad, Jim (Paul Reiser). Jim represents the opposite of where Andrew wants to see himself when he is at his dad’s age. When Jim hears about Andrew’s disheartening experience with Fletcher, he talks about how his dream of becoming a writer diminished over the years. “There are other options,” he says. To Andrew, naturally, there is no other option but to become the greatest jazz drummer in history. Andrew’s response to Jim’s “At my age you get perspective,” is the thematic premise of the movie: “I don’t want perspective.” The argument is posed: Will Andrew learn to get a perspective like his dad, or will he prove that he really doesn’t need a ‘perspective’. This argument suggests that we are about to explore the possibilities of a young man achieving what his father failed to achieve, (namely, greatness!) – a theme that is universal and timeless.
First 10 minutes establish the hero, the antagonist, the dad (who carries a Vogler-esque antagonistic energy considering Andrew’s internal struggle), the love interest (Melissa Benoist), the setting (the conservatory, the dormitory), Andrew’s position among his peers at the rehearsals, the depth and rigidity of his self-practice and how far he is from measuring up to the greats.
Fletcher turns up at one of Andrew’s band rehearsals and unexpectedly selects Andrew to join his band. This is no doubt a life-changing event, but it is not disguised as bad news. It is bad news, disguised as great news that is incredibly hard to transform into truly great news. Andrew’s willing entrance into the chambers of Evil is all the more powerful for it.
“What do you want to do with your life?” bluntly asks Andrew on a first date. He is driven and believes every choice is made for a reason. Andrew’s determination to achieve his goal is clear and the threats against his achievement are quick to follow. Before Andrew’s first rehearsal with Fletcher’s band, Fletcher takes on the role of a father to Andrew – a total opposite of his real dad. “You’re here for a reason,” he asserts. This fatherly demeanor almost immediately dissolves into I-will-break-a-chair-on-your-head attitude. The debate over deciding between transferring to another school to become a regular person like his dad and staying on and risking his life in the hands of monster-Fletcher for the chance of being the next Charlie Parker is at its most intense. Does he kill himself practicing or does he follow his dad’s ‘take it easy’ advice?
Break into Two
First rehearsal with Fletcher’s band is Andrew’s introduction into the world of Act II and it’s not pretty! After the disaster of the first rehearsal Andrew emerges as a man who is now fully aware of what he’s getting himself into. His commitment to being one of the greats is now stronger than ever. He is ready to risk his life for his goal.
Andrew’s flirtation with Nicole is lacking in screen time and only partly carries the theme of the movie. It is merely one of the obstacles that Andrew removes from his life to clear his path. Andrew’s relationship with his dad has more of a B Story value, as it is a point of contact that intensifies the question raised in the theme. However, the real relationship that qualifies as B Story, I believe, is Andrew’s ‘love story’ with Fletcher. From the first rehearsal theirs is a love and hate relationship. Andrew ‘knows’ Fletcher will be his key to success and will endure anything to learn from him. Fletcher also ‘knows’ that Andrew is his key to discovering the next Charlie Parker and will stop at nothing to squeeze it out of him. These are two souls who desperately need each other for their respective goals.
Fun and Games
Andrew practices really hard! The tension builds as the band rehearses for a competition. Andrew has to do all he can to make it as a core member of the band. We watch him put all he’s got into his goal and feel that his triumph is inevitable.
Andrew misplaces the core drummer’s charts and unintentionally wins the position of the core drummer at the competition. A mysterious lucky break for Andrew but he nails his core position in the band thanks to his hard work. Nevertheless it is a false victory as the tables are quick to turn.
Bad Guys Close in
My favorite part of the screenplay, where every single scene relentlessly tightens its grip on Andrew. A succession of deliciously tense scenes send Andrew spiraling down into an abyss of loss of control and physical, emotional and psychological torment.
The scene of Andrew’s visit with his dad’s family shows that none of his efforts are appreciated by the people who are closest to him. His great achievement of making it in the core band means nothing to his family – he is still a disappointment. But Andrew knows he is better than all of them and his intention to prove them wrong adds to his commitment to his goal.
Andrew’s first step into taking control of his life and bettering his chances of success is to shed Nicole, whom he considers in the ‘loser’ category. Nicole is not even allowed to be a bad guy in his life. Andrew fights back by alienating himself further and moving more and more into the dark side.
Just as he thinks he finally has a firm place in the band, he is pretty much immediately replaced by musically inferior Connolly. Andrew gets increasingly enraged and obsessive. “Get that part back” rings in his ears.
Fletcher’s grief over his old student’s death further darkens the mood and intensifies the value of achieving greatness in Fletcher’s guidance. Who wouldn’t die to be considered ‘a beautiful player’ by him!
Andrew finally earns back the part by outplaying his competition after a 5-hour drumming marathon, but he is physically, emotionally and psychologically traumatized. Is it worth it, we ask. But Andrew is swept away by a deadly tide.
All is Lost
The scene where Andrew frantically tries to get to the concert that will give him the one and only chance of making it in the Lincoln Centre. He is still threatened to lose all that he literally shed blood, sweat and tears for. After he puts his life at risk to play at that critical concert, Fletcher’s words echo in his head: “You’re done.” Injured, in tremendous pain, enraged, turned into a monster worse than Fletcher-the-Devil himself, he has nothing more to lose. When the last words are spoken, his dreams are shattered beyond any hope of repair.
Dark Night of the Soul
Andrew is expelled, not just from school but from his life as he knew it. His drum kit as well as his entire history fit in a few boxes. He is even approached by a lawyer, who wants to use him against Fletcher as he has nothing more to gain from him. He is tired, sad and resigned. All he feels is betrayed by his dad, who dreadfully misses the point of Andrew’s life and passion. The distance between them is unbridgeable. There isn’t a soul in the world who understands Andrew now.
Break into Three
Except for Fletcher himself! A and B Stories cross, as two men who have lost the core of what makes them who they are finally have a heart-to-heart. Fletcher’s philosophy in all its glory once again rings so true to Andrew: “Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.” In a way Andrew is the only student who ever really understood Fletcher. Ironically Fletcher, who buried Andrew in the deepest darkest hole is also the only one who can bring him back to light.
The final showdown between Jake La Motta and Sugar Ray Robinson! Andrew takes a tentative step onto stage again with Fletcher’s new band. A total make or break moment in Andrew’s career. Fletcher names the game and throws Andrew the hardest blow of his life right at the start of the match. Andrew is knocked out within a few minutes into the concert and is ready to throw the towel. At backstage Jim is there to catch him when he falls. Andrew’s despair suddenly transforms into a Eureka moment, fuelled by his final realization that he must grow up and break out of his father’s loving grip. He is either to take a huge risk and make a life for himself following his true passion, or go back to a dull, cushioned life with daddy. When the stage hand asks Andrew whether he knows Jim, Andrew answers, much to his dad’s dismay, “No,” and returns to the stage. And to face his true love – Fletcher.
When Andrew is back on stage, his fears are reduced to ashes. Our hero takes his place behind his drum kit to win a war. Fletcher was the only one who could make the next Charlie Parker out of him and he is the only one who could ever become the next Charlie Parker. Fletcher and his only Charlie Parker are united in an impossible victory. Final moment: A crash of cymbals on the very last hit – greatness at last!
Let It Rip Before the Next Oscars
February 26, 2015 6:01 am
I don’t have a great deal to say about the Oscars this year. As a mother of a young one and a member of a crazy world-dwelling family, I only had the chance to watch ‘Birdman’ and ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. The former I loved and wrote about (see Snyder’s Beat Sheet Applied to Inarritu’s Birdman), the latter I saw as yet another cute idea only Wes Anderson could spew forth.
What I do want to talk about is this: I feel there is a subtle but noteworthy connection between the qualities all Oscar nominees must surely possess and these words I came across in the book I am currently reading, Annie Dillard’s ‘An American Childhood’:
“There was joy in effort, and the world resisted effort to just the right degree, and yielded to it at last.”
— Everyone who is engaged in a creative endeavor must share these feelings: The world resists and resists our efforts for as long as it can, for good reason, until it gloriously gives in. This must be the experience of those whose work eventually reach world audiences.
“Just once I wanted a task that required all the joy I had. Day after day I had noticed that if I waited long enough, my strong unexpressed joy would dwindle and dissipate inside me, over many hours, like a fire subsiding, and I would at last calm down. Just this once I wanted to let it rip. Flying rather famously required the extra energy of belief, and this, too, I had in superabundance.”
— I’d like to imagine that everyone who was in the Dolby theatre on Sunday had spent all the joy they had in the tasks that demanded it of them. They must have all ‘let it rip’ while they shed blood, sweat and tears that go into the business of making movies.
“What I was letting rip, in fact, was my willingness to look foolish… Having chosen this foolishness, I was a free being. How could the world ever stop me, how could I betray myself, if I was not afraid?”
— Welcoming foolishness to the bitter end must be what it feels like to follow your absurd passion that many people are ready to tell you is a lost cause.
“…what was I to myself, really, but a witness to any boldness I could muster, or any cowardice if it came to that, any giving up on heaven for the sake of dignity on earth? I had not seen a great deal accomplished in the name of dignity, ever.”
— I recently acquired a cloth bag that says, ‘hurts like heaven’, which I think delivers a similar message to Dillard’s. Turn everything that hurts and scares into your ticket to heaven, for the ticket is pricey.
Congratulations to those who ‘let it rip’ this year and good luck to those who are determined to do so for the next.
Gems from Coppola on Screenwriting and Filmmaking
January 27, 2015 4:27 pm
Sometimes as screenwriters we get lost in the last project we are working on, or all the overwhelming information and advice that’s floating on the web. A few words from Francis Ford Coppola remind us how personal the writing journey is.
Coppola “A movie is like answering a question.”
MoS –As simple as that!
On recovering from the initial failure of ‘Apocalypse Now’:
Coppola “I decided I would make a movie that would be very commercial. Every time I’ve tried to do something commercial it’s always failed… So ironically, the thing I did to solve the problem ended up causing a problem.”
MoS –When you bury yourself under screenwriting books, magazines and blogs, you can lose touch with what you are really meant to be doing, aka ‘writing from the heart’, which will ultimately create the movie that captivates audiences.
Coppola “…in those days, the young men in film were all about camera, films, and editing, and that’s the least important thing. Orson Welles said once that you could learn those aspects of film in a weekend. The hard parts of film are acting and writing… You never hear of a movie that’s so wonderful because of the photography or the art direction being great. It’s usually the acting or writing; without those two things you don’t have anything.”
MoS –This great reminder for writer-directors inspired me to do a quick exercise. I thought of the first movies that taught me how crucial writing is and how spellbinding acting can be. They happened to be two movies starring Meryl Streep, whom I adore. When I watched ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ I was blown away by all the long scenes of two characters talking in a little kitchen. I couldn’t get enough of their sweetly tension-filled dialogue. There were no effects, fast paced cuts, nothing noteworthy about cinematography, but I could watch that couple in that kitchen forever! All thanks to Richard LaGravenese’s beautiful screenplay.
The movie that popped in my mind for acting was Meryl Streep’s performance in the opening scene of Mike Nichols’s ‘Silkwood’. Streep’s character drives her boyfriend (Kurt Russell) and flatmate (Cher) to the factory where they work. When they get stopped at the gate, Russell leans over the driver’s seat to hand something to the guard. As Russell is leaning over Streep, Streep habitually sniffs Russell. It’s a momentary thing, as it should be; probably not a directorial decision, may be not even an acting decision. But that moment of intuitive acting unintentionally helps form a clear picture of what this couple is like together. Beautiful example of how acting can capture in an instant what writing or directing cannot.
Coppola “In terms of money, I have a magic box. I do. In that box is an infinite amount of money. So when I have a worthy project I just go in that box and I take out the money. The box doesn’t exist and therefore there’s nothing in it. But I believe there is. And ultimately that’s what happens.
At the time, if I ever have a script doing what I wish that it could do, then I would figure out where to get the money.”
MoS –Never underestimate the power of manifestation. Use your imagination, and not just in the writing process.
Coppola “Sometimes when I write screenplays I first write them in prose so I can enter into the characters’ thoughts. I guess in the old days that was like a treatment. I write it as if it were a novel, then adapt into a screenplay. It’s how I find out about the piece and the themes.”
MoS –I get criticized for doing this, because even the finished screenplay ends up a little novel-like. But I believe in delivering all the feeling I can in description so the screenplay plays as a movie in the reader’s mind first.
Coppola “I remember showing ‘The Godfather’ to all the film cognoscenti of San Francisco, and they all came out after the film and only one person said that it was something good: Bob Towne, the screenwriter. He wrote ‘Chinatown’. He was the only one who thought it was good. So all these people who buzz around the film business know nothing. No one does.”
MoS –Since no one really knows you might as well go with your gut-feeling. But make that gut-feeling as well-informed as you can.
In response to the question, “Do you ever get critical of your work when still writing it?”
Coppola “Oh, I’m very critical of it, but I have a rule. When you write six pages, you turn it over and don’t read it until you’ve written the whole thing. A young person, any person really, has a hormone injected into their blood stream that makes them hate what they’ve just written. It gets better a few months later when you read it. Do it, write it, and turn the pages over and feel good about it. Then the next day pick up from where you left off. A lot of times when you’re writing you can get lost in making revisions to things that later you’re just going to cut out later. If you decide halfway through the character isn’t a man but a woman, then just change it later. But don’t go back. Go forward because you have no idea where it’s going to go. Let it tell you what it’s going to be.”
MoS –This is in the same vein as Viki King’s model of screenwriting. If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend you read ‘How to Write a Movie in 21 Days’.
In response to the question, “Do you think risk is involved with your artistic growth?”
Coppola “Yes, without risk I don’t think there can be art.”
In response to the question, “What’s the best advice you can give another artist?”
Coppola “Suspend your self-doubt, do only the work you love, and make it personal.”
MoS –Happy writing…
Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman
December 6, 2014 6:54 am
I’ve been wanting to apply the Snyder Beat Sheet to a movie for some time. ‘Birdman’ is a great one for the task, and a challenging one too. Let me know your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org
Caution: Please continue to read if you’ve already seen the movie!
Hero in meditation. His voice-over says, ‘How did we end up here? … We don’t belong in this shithole.’ Perfect opening for a character who will soon begin questioning his self-worth, the meaning of his existence and above all the reality of all that is. As he is levitated during meditation, we are led to think Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) may be talking about the notion that all that we see, feel and think are perceptions of a grand illusion (maya), and in fact ‘this’ is not our true nature – we do not belong ‘here’ in the world of maya.
Riggan is haunted by the superhero character that he played many years ago: Birdman. Birdman, the alter ego, tells Riggan that he will fail at his comeback in the theatre. He should give it up already and embrace his superhero persona instead. Riggan, either in reality or in his personal reality, does have supernatural abilities. We are left to doubt until the very end whether he is an extraordinary person doubting his extraordinariness, or a perfectly ordinary person doubting his ordinariness. Is he a potential winner or a loser?
Riggan at a rehearsal for his comeback play. We observe him publicly exercise his superpowers, about which we remain doubtful. We meet his alter-ego, producer, daughter, fellow actors, lover, ex-wife. We get the sense that things are going badly for this guy. When all he wants is to prove that he is something, he grows more and more fearful of firmly establishing himself as a nothing. He is desperate for acknowledgment and success, but also strangely aware that ‘this’ is not ‘it’.
The catalyst is an amalgam of Riggan’s external and internal conflicts. On the one hand there is the question of whether he will really take on this crazy challenge of making it in the theatre and whether the incredible risk he is taking will pay off. On the other, his internal conflict is with his own ego. Will he be able to overcome it, silence it, stop battling with it? He also has a hyper-conflict: Are his superpowers real? Is he and everybody and everything else real? All of this is set up from the first instant we see and hear Riggan. His catalyst lies within himself. But if I had to pick a scene that is cataclysmic for his journey, I would pick the scene where he supernaturally ‘kills’ his co-star and takes charge of his destiny by changing it for the better against all odds.
The hiring of Mike (Edward Norton) and the previews that follow. The one-on-one rehearsal with Mike reveals Riggan’s weakness and self-doubt. In the first preview Mike messes up the whole show by insulting Riggan and the audience in the middle of the run. Riggan has to decide whether he should keep Mike, who will clearly be instrumental to his success, despite the risk of damaging his ego along the way. Right after the preview, Riggan and Mike have a conversation where we get to know who they are and what they are in this for. The stakes are high for Riggan: this play is a make-or-break for his career and seemingly for his entire existence.
Break into Two
This is a tough one, because almost the entire film seems to be a debate about all the explicit and implicit questions raised at Fade in. A prominent Break, if not the Act I Break, is the scene where Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), pummels Riggan’s ego by telling him he is unimportant and he better get used to it. Riggan is clearly devastated. But after she leaves, despite his apparent ‘loser’ outlook, he uses his magic to give the ashtray a gentle spin, as if to say, ‘Yes, I know, but there is something else…’ Meaningfully, in the scene that follows, his stage character says, ‘I spend every fucking minute praying to be someone else. Someone I’m not. … I don’t exist. I’m not even here. I don’t exist. None of this matters,’ and then shoots himself. The Riggan-Sam scene tips Riggan over to the throes of an even grander battle with himself.
The only love story credit would be traditionally given to Mike and Sam’s developing romance. But I feel Riggan’s relationship with his daughter has the only B story quality. At the Act I Break scene I mentioned above, Riggan is sympathetic toward Sam for the first time, and their relationship flourishes throughout the rest of the film. Sam will also become the first to find out about Riggan’s ‘true’ identity. Theirs is the true romance of the film.
Fun and Games
All the previews up to the first time Riggan reads a review of the play.
Riggan receives a review where Mike comes across as the star of the play and he, ‘the aging action hero who grasps for his youth.’ Riggan experiences a false defeat. He is once again pushed to the edge to choose between his ego and his dignity (which also stems from ego – there is no way out of the ego trap!).
Bad Guys Close in
Ego wins! Mike stays on as a threat, but he is no more of a threat to Riggan than his play’s failure. Riggan continues to take more risks for his ultimate goal of making his great comeback. But the pressure builds. Mike becomes more and more of a problem on so many levels, including as a love interest to Sam. Birdman insults and dares Riggan more than ever and drives him to the edge of sanity.
All is Lost
Tabitha, the critic who will give the life-or-death verdict on Riggan’s play, makes her decision before she even sees it: ‘I’m going to kill your play.’
Dark Night of the Soul
After hearing his fate Riggan truly gives up the fight for the first time. The whole world is against him. There is no chance that he will survive this and he has not a drop of hope left. He wakes up on a bench and peels his face off a garbage bag, appearing more like a homeless drunk than a superhero. Birdman brings in the big guns to take advantage of Riggan’s weakest moment and lure him back to his side. Riggan falls for it. But, does he fall into Birdman’s trap, or is he building up the courage to step into his power. He ends up on top of a building, seemingly about to commit suicide. When a neighbor helps Riggan step down from the edge and asks ‘Do you know where to go?’ Riggan responds, ‘Yes. I know where to go,’ and jumps off the rooftop without hesitation. Riggan soars high over Manhattan, just like Birdman.
Break into Three
Riggan is a superhero now, and he knows exactly what to do. He has the solution but we don’t yet know what it is. He plans his ‘real’ suicide at the end of his opening show. Why? Because he knows he will fail, so he might as well make the most majestic exit he can? Or, now that he discovered his superpowers, he simply knows nothing can beat him, whatever happens will only serve him? We don’t know why exactly, but we know something is up when he prepares to pull the trigger.
Third act is set in the hospital room where Riggan lies with a bandage on his face that is practically the same as the Birdman mask. He not only survived, but also gained enormous sympathy from audiences and family alike, picked up great reviews and got himself a brand new nose!
Riggan takes flight! From the opening image of a levitating man in meditation to a closing image of a man in flight from the POV of his daughter… What did Riggan figure out: that he doesn’t belong in this shithole. And he proved it.
Stories for Life
November 5, 2014 7:15 am
Richard Hamilton wrote about the effects of live storytelling in his article, ‘Tell me a story’ for Aeon.co. I quote here a few lines from his findings about our connection to stories and storytelling: ‘A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens,’ wrote the American novelist Reynolds Price in the essay ‘A Single Meaning’ (1978). ‘[It is] second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence.’
We all know how much we love and need stories. And to hear that it is our second basic need after food, before love and shelter, is mindboggling. But, it is especially the last sentence of this little quote that urged me to write: the suggestion that there can be almost no human life where there is no more story to be heard. I agree with this statement, but I would like to take it a little further and discuss the nature of silence.
There is a section in the book, ‘Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists’, where John Cage conducts an interesting research on sound and the Zen idea of ‘nothingness’. Since Cage works with sound, he wants to experience ‘soundlessness’. He goes to Harvard University, where there is an anechoic chamber, a soundproof box that offers ‘the most perfect silence on earth’. As he sits in the womb-like chamber, something unexpected happens: he hears ‘a dull roar and a high whine!’ Where there is no sound from no-thing, Cage hears earfuls of sound. When he speaks to the engineer about what he heard, the engineer says: ‘The high whine is the firing of his neurons. The dull roar is the blood flowing through Cage’s veins.’
Even where there is total silence, by our sheer existence we create sound. And that sound, if stripped from every other sound, is the story of our body: the sound of our biology sustaining itself, narrating its story.
‘Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence.’ If silence is an absence of story, Cage’s experiment is proof that even in silence, as long as a human being exists, there will never be silence, and therefore never an absence of stories. Thus, millions can survive in silence too, as they will always have the story of their existence to listen to.
Stories are the lifeblood of our mental and emotional life. Richard Hamilton’s article differentiates live storytelling from other means of perceiving stories. As a lover of movies, the article raised my curiosity about perceiving stories through watching/listening to the teller of the story, as opposed to passive absorption in somebody else’s product of imagination projected onto a screen. Could live storytelling be a more direct and simple way of making sense of life through stories?
My yogi husband doesn’t enjoy movies like I do. But he can sit or move in meditation for hours in the dark of the night, when he is exposed to as little sound or image as possible. Whether we are in our chamber of silence, or exposed to a multitude of tales made up of infinite sounds and images, we are secretly striving to hear the narrative of our lives. May we find it, whichever way we choose.