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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
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!
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…