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Let It Rip Before the Next Oscars
Published by February 26, 2015 6:01 am

Oscar

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
Published by January 27, 2015 4:27 pm

Coppola

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…

– Extracts from ‘The Rumpus Interview with Francis Ford Coppola’ by Anisse Gross. August 17, 2012. View the full article at The Rumpus.


Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman
Published by December 6, 2014 6:54 am

Birdman

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 selin@magicofstory.com
Caution: Please continue to read if you’ve already seen the movie!

Opening Image
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.

Theme Stated
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?

Set-up
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’.

Catalyst
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.

Debate
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.

B Story
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.

Midpoint
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.

Finale
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!

Final Image
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.


10 Fundamental Lessons from Great Filmmakers
Published by July 25, 2014 7:26 am

tarantino

Here is a list of 10 invaluable lessons from famous filmmakers. I compiled some of my favorite quotes from the article, 100 Famous Directors’ Rules of Filmmaking. Enjoy!

1. My personal favorite! A screenplay should already be a movie in the reader’s imagination. This is the work…
Quentin Tarantino: “When I’m writing, it’s about the page. It’s not about the movie. It’s not about cinema. It’s about the literature of me putting my pen to paper and writing a good page and making it work completely as a document unto itself. That’s my first artistic contribution. If I do my job right, by the end of the script, I should be having the thought, ‘You know, if I were to just publish this now and not make it . . . ,’ I’m done.”

2. Make it universal, make it life…
Oscar Micheaux: “We want to see our lives dramatized on the screen as we are living it, the same as other people, the world over.”
Sarah Polley: “It’s been really important to me to create moments where there’s a breath or moments where there’s a laugh or moments where there’s real life that’s allowed to seep in through the cracks of whatever melodrama is happening, because that’s what does happen in life.”

3. It’s all about the emotions…
Ang Lee: “…the ideas don’t translate in a movie. It has to have emotions. So that’s different from the book quite a bit. So it has to be an emotional journey. . . . To me, I think that to me, it’s a visualization of feelings.”

4. The passion, the passion!
Gregg Araki: “It has to be something you’re so passionate about you are willing to die to make it…”

5. Keep your focus on what it is you are writing about…
Francis Ford Coppola: “When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words. Every time I made a film, I always knew what I thought the theme was, the core, in one word.”

6. No need to force a plot, just create real characters, put yourself in their shoes and live through them…
Andrea Arnold: “When your characters are really living they tell you what they do.”

7. What to avoid at all costs…
Frank Capra: “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.”

8. The only way for the hero (and the picture) to shine…
Alfred Hitchcock: “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.”

9. The all-important ‘be you’ advice…
Wes Anderson: “They say, ‘Well, I see a lot here that you did before, and it’s connected to this other movie you did,’ and . . . that almost seems like something I don’t quite choose. It chooses me.”
Abbas Kiarostami: “I never reflect or convey that which I have not experienced myself.”
Diablo Cody: “Don’t ever agonize about the hordes of other writers who are ostensibly your competition. No one is capable of doing what you do.”

10. Daily exercise of coming back to the centre…
Stanley Kubrick: “Is it meaningful? Is it believable? Is it interesting? Those are the questions that have to be answered several hundred times a day.”

See full article here.


Screenwriters’ Central Dilemma, Universal Pursuit of Happiness and the Source of Salieri’s Tragedy
Published by March 20, 2014 10:23 am

salieri

‘To be a screenwriter is to deal with an ongoing tug of war between breathtaking megalomania and insecurity so deep it takes years of therapy just to be able to say “I’m a writer” out loud.’ – Blake Snyder

In Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat’, you get a strong sense of what a writing life is or should be like. But the screenwriter’s dilemma he mentions above truly reveals what it feels like to be a writer, regardless of whether you are an established or a beginning one. In fact, it makes you wonder, without this very conflict would one be compelled to write in the first place.

Stephen Cope in ‘The Great Work of Your Life’ names the problem of doubt as the central affliction to realizing one’s dharma, aka true calling, sacred duty, vocation. Unless you live and work aligned with your dharma, there is only self-destruction. Only when you find, name, celebrate and nourish your path, your Gift, your dharma, Cope says, you will be truly happy and fulfilled in your life.

And guess what, ‘[Dharma] is only born out of our wrestling matches with doubt, with conflict, and with despair.’ As it turns out, all the torment involved in writing or simply having a desire to write is for a reason. And that reason is at the heart of humanity’s eternal pursuit of happiness. This makes it all a bit more bearable, doesn’t it?

As I wrestle with the particulars of my own dharma, I realized a few weeks ago why I consider Milos Forman’s ‘Amadeus’ one of my favourite movies of all time. Because, to me, ‘Amadeus’ is about dharma and how life can be a long soul destroying suffering if you are not living your dharma.

You may remember Salieri’s meaningful outcry, paralyzed by doubt: ‘All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing… and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?’ The ingenious screenplay by Peter Shaffer gives us the answer: because music was never meant to be Salieri’s dharma. It’s only his confusion that’s causing him all this agony.

Salieri’s true passion and dharma is hidden in the story. Do you remember those few short moments in the movie where Salieri talks about desserts? The most touching and dramatic thing about ‘Amadeus’ is Salieri’s passion for dessert! He is not only a man with a sweet tooth, he knows dessert and in a sense lives for it! These are the only moments in the movie where Salieri lights up and shines with joy and delight. Salieri’s character, as written by Shaffer, is a poignant portrait of dharma, or I should say, dharma-gone-wrong.

There is so much doubt and despair in store especially for people following artistic vocations. But, if writing is in ‘the subtle interior blueprint of your soul,’ then, Cope quotes Krishna’s lesson to Arjuna from the ancient story on dharma – Bhagavad Gita: ‘It is better to fail at your own dharma than to succeed at the dharma of someone else.’

I wish for all of us courage and perseverance in ‘looking more and more deeply into our doubts’ as a way to get to the certitude we need to take a leap of faith into our personal and unique dharma.


Frances Ha’s Shining Moment
Published by February 6, 2014 2:04 pm

Frances Ha

Noah Baumbach’s ‘Frances Ha’ is a wonderful modern tale about an artist trying to make it in the real world. Even more brilliant than Greta Gerwig’s heart-warming perfomance are the revealing choices the writers (Baumbach and Gerwig) made to create the character Frances.

Ever since watching the movie, there is a question that keeps popping up in my head: Why does Frances not tell Sophie she’s in Paris? You must have seen the movie. Frances often speaks untruthfully to impress people or to feel temporarily better about herself. When she is in Paris and receives a much-desired call from Sophie, she has a golden opportunity to feel important, busy, adventuresome, enviable… especially in the eyes of Sophie, who is about to break their bond by moving away with her boyfriend. It’s the one time Frances really is doing something ‘cool’, but passes on the chance to use it to her advantage.

These are the moments in movies that make characters ‘real’ characters. I can’t be sure why the writers decided to have Frances leave out that information. But the more I elaborate on it in my mind, the more I think it’s the best decision in the movie.

For one thing, Frances is a good-hearted person, who naively assumes everyone feels the same way as her. If Frances was in Sophie’s situation in that scene, she would have been hurt to hear Sophie enjoying herself in Paris when they could be together. So she lovingly protects Sophie from feeling bad. Secondly, Frances knows the whole Paris idea was stupid and at that moment hates herself for being there in the first place. Her characteristic insecurity about her crazy impulsive behavior stops her. And lastly, by not sharing such a major information as being in Paris, she is consistent in the randomness of her approach to self-portrayal.

The moment Frances makes the decision to keep her whereabouts to herself isn’t marked in the film. It’s not even a decision, it’s just what organically happens in that one little dialogue over the phone. But it is one of those key moments that invites the audience to really feel the character’s perspective in life, visit her emotional world and be a guest in her psyche.

This hidden moment in the screenplay is, I believe, one of the reasons why a lot of people, regardless of their age, gender, life experiences and personalities are able to empathize with such a particular character as Frances. Simply because she is ‘real’, and therefore embodies all of humanity in all her ‘uniqueness’. It is certainly why I liked her, understood her and felt myself in her shoes.

I congratulate the writers on this detail, among many others that give Frances her charm. I would have loved to be in the room when they discussed how Frances-in-Paris would cope with Sophie’s invitation to come to her party in New York. It must have been a victorious discovery into the character’s soul and the writers must have smiled with satisfaction, thinking ‘of course she wouldn’t tell Sophie she’s in Paris, because…’


Steiner on Storytelling
Published by January 21, 2014 5:37 am

‘The Challenge of Rudolf Steiner’ is a two-part documentary on the life and work of Austrian visionary philosopher and ‘spiritual scientist’ Rudolf Steiner. Although Steiner’s work does not extend to storytelling in much detail, stories are integral to his philosophy.

Rudolf Steiner made invaluable contributions to a variety of fields from education to agriculture, philosophy to arts, medicine to religion. We can apply and benefit from Steiner’s many ideas and practices in whichever area of life we turn to. Storytelling is no exception!

As an example, Steiner’s method on biodynamic agriculture can teach us about the structure and flow of stories. Biodynamic farming recognizes the interrelatedness of all farming tasks, forever continuing in a cyclical cause-and-effect relationship. Similarly, a well-told story should organically fuse the equally important elements of storytelling to create a functioning and abundant structure.

Each scene, sequence and act should progressively compose an overarching plot, through which the protagonist works his way and eventually harvests a new equilibrium – a brand new fertile soil on which a new seed/journey can be planted/launched.

May be one day we will be blessed with a theory on the nature of stories and storytelling, based on Steiner’s anthroposophy. There we may find a fresh, straightforward, dynamic, encouraging and compassionate answer to: how to create a convincing protagonist who embarks on an original quest that merges out of a true dilemma, which is moving towards resolution through an indestructable story structure. Until then, most of us will continue to struggle through the meticulous and cold complexity of Robert McKee’s ‘STORY’.