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
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 email@example.com
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.
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.