Posts Tagged ‘story’

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Realism vs Believability

November 29, 2014

Internet Anger

So the first trailer for Jurassic World came out this week (as did a teaser for the new Star Wars, but I’ll comment on that later) and I’ll get my opinion out of the way first: I’m somewhere between “woohoo a new Jurassic Park” and “probably won’t bother watching it to be honest.” It looks well-made, seems to keep most of the core elements that worked in the original and gives the formula a new spin. But I also think, good as it might be, it will only disappoint people like me- people in their twenties and thirties who have a love of the original film, not just because of its myriad merits but also because of how it made us feel as kids and, in my case, helped sowed the seeds of filmmaking in me. A new film, just like any long-awaited sequel, prequel or ill-fated reboot, can’t live up to that. It’s like losing your virginity while a particular 90s song was playing on the radio and then trying to capture that excitement and magic with every subsequent partner by playing “Pure” by the Lightning Seeds as a mood-setter.

Anyway, enough about nostalgia, reboots and disappointed 30-somethings. This post is about something that happened in the wake of that trailer (and indeed after every film comes out really): the rise of the pedant. The nitpicker. The guys who split more hairs than a stylist with a laser and an electron microscope. Shit like:

“Dinosaurs don’t have opposable thumbs!”

(No, but how else are they going to make that “rraw, I’m coming to eat you” expression?)

“Why don’t the dinosaurs have feathers, are they just sticking to what experts thought in 1992?”

(Kinda, it’s called series continuity and audience expectation, arsehat.)

“Your dinosaur has the right teeth, but no forked tongue which it should have because something something science…”

(Oh God… It’s a fucking movie, people…)

I get it. You’re passionate and informed about something. You’re an expert on it. And you see a film about this subject so you’re all excited, then discover that it carries inaccuracies and errors… so you notice them. Those errors destroy for you that suspension of disbelief that movies need in order to function. Then, since we live in the internet age and anyone can make overreactive comments on message boards and twitter, you point them out and proclaim the film/filmmakers to be shit.

Actually, that last one I don’t get. I mean, I empathise, but it’s just a movie. The film and the filmmakers aren’t shit for letting those “mistakes” through the net. In fact, it’s quite likely they did it that way on purpose.

Sure, some of those facts were incorrect out of ignorance (either the writer’s research didn’t uncover them, or the research was relatively inadequate) but some were out of choice. Jurassic Park‘s dinosaurs not having feathers, for instance, was a bit of both. In 1993, the idea that dinosaurs evolved into birds was a very niche theory not accepted by most palaeontologists of the time and the idea that they had feathers was as dumb as all hell with no evidence to back it up. So when they made the film, they made the dinosaurs how everyone, audience and experts alike, expected them to be- scaly, scary and not in the least bit feathered. Even today, if you put feathers on a dinosaur, the average movie viewer won’t accept it, no matter how accurate it is. Which is probably why they chose to do the same thing in the new film. What kind of director wants their audience laughing at velociraptors dolled up like Priscilla Queen of the Desert?

Films are an illusion and in order for an audience to become immersed in them, they have to buy that illusion. These little details, regardless of their veracity, are there to help sell that illusion. It’s about believability not realism. Because let’s face it, a completely 100% realistic film with every detail and moment intact would be really fucking boring. It would be like looking out a window. The story would get lost in all the meandering minutiae and have no weight to it.

And that’s the main reason why these decisions are made. If the content in the film, whether it be accurate as possible or madey-uppy as all hell, takes the average movie viewer out of the story, then it needs to go. Case in point- Gravity. Well made and very well-researched in every other respect, when there were inaccuracies (the orbital heights of the spacecraft, the fact Sandra Bullock’s character can’t pilot the landing vehicle, the lack of space nappies…) they were more than likely there through choice. Having to explain what the space nappies were when Bullock de-spacesuits would slow the story down, distract the average viewer and be completely irrelevant when it comes to the story. Thus they put her in cycle shorts and gave us that visually arresting womb metaphor which did more for the story than foil pants would ever have done.

As a director, you are usually the one who has to make these decisions. And that can be tough. Whatever decision you make, someone in the audience is going to hate it. If you choose to have the hero take cover behind a car during a gunfight, there will be at least a couple of people who point out that 9mm parabellum rounds will easily go through a car’s bodywork. If you do the opposite and have them get shot through the car, the larger portion of the audience will be confused as to what happened and why. But you need to put the story first. If it’s important to the story, then it can stay. If it detracts from the story, it needs to change. Simple as that.

To paraphrase Spock, the needs of the audience outweigh the needs of the nitpicker. Besides, they enjoy complaining on twitter and while they’re doing that, the rest of us are enjoying the movie as the filmmakers intended.

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Life’s a Pitch

November 16, 2014
"...and then the T-Rex goes Rraaarrw!"

“…and then the T-Rex goes Rraaarrw!”

Writers and directors frequently talk about the importance of a good pitch. For writers, this is them in a meeting with a potential producer trying to get them to buy (figuratively or literally) their script/treatment/vague idea scribbled on a napkin in Starbucks. For directors, this is often the same audience but this time trying to get them to buy you and your take on this script you have/have been given to read. In both cases, it’s technically a job interview. As I mentioned before, auditions and interviews are prolonged and generally painful experiences for everyone involved, not just the dude in the spotlit chair, so it’s a good idea to get some practice in before you bank your career on your ability to hook an audience with your pitch.

But pitching as a skill also serves another useful purpose which I’ve only recently realised. If you’re writing a script and are having trouble sorting out story points (particularly character and event points- see previous blog), find a willing friend and pitch the story to them. This forces you to see the story from an audience’s point of view and tell it in a way that is easy to follow, compelling and full of narrative moments. And perhaps it’s because of this that the best pitching audience are film-watchers and not film-makers. The former will see the story in their heads as you tell it, filling in the gaps with their own images and actors and everything, whereas the latter are more likely to cast a practical eye on the story, thinking about cinematography or editing or budgetary concerns, knowing full-well you intend to film or write it.

Recently, I pitched a feature film idea I’ve been chewing on for a year or so to a couple of friends separately. Before these pitches, I really only had a basic premise, a couple of characters and some moments/set-pieces. I hadn’t started on a script- usually I like to get a rough structure in place before I fire up Celtx- and didn’t even have a brief treatment scribbled on the back of an envelope. What I had was in my head.

But when I was in the pub with my mate Chris (as accurately recreated above) and the conversation turned to what I was working on, the usual vagaries I might spin to someone else receded and I started to tell him about this feature film. And I did something I don’t normally do when pitching. I skipped over the “it’s like this film meets that film” back-of-the-DVD summary and started with the “we open on a dark side street…” The first scene description.

I told the story from the beginning.

I introduced characters as they appeared, described the look and feel of things, revealed plot points and backstory as you would find it in the story and let the events unfold naturally. And in the process, I was able to see plot holes (either for myself or because Chris asked about them) and dramatic through line. It got me back to the basics of storytelling and freed me from all the practical concerns that come with directing your own script and the marketing concerns that a producer might focus on. It allowed me to tell the story on its own merits- something I frequently forget to do in a professional pitching situation.

It also feels collaborative. My ideas weren’t set in stone, so when Chris made observations or suggestions and got immersed in the story, I was in a place where I could take note of these things and work them in depending on what he responded to. Chris actually contributed to several key plot points as a result of this, as well as reminding me of stories or franchises mine might be similar to (and thus might want to differentiate myself from).

When I got home from the pub I quickly took down all the new notes while they were fresh and it gave me new motivation to crack on with the script. A few weeks later, I pitched the new story to my mate Mike (also in a pub- it’s where all the best production meetings happen!) and his reactions also built on the film’s structure, characters and moments. The whole project also swelled into a trilogy, which I now have mapped out. God only knows if I’ll actually get to make it, but still…

So pitching is a great way to hammer your story into shape, but does it work the other way? Does simply telling your story work when pitching to other film professionals, like producers and executives?

For the most part, yes.

Remember, that’s what they’re hiring a director for- to tell that story. If they just needed someone to put things in front of the camera or focus on the audience demographics, they could have found someone with less imagination and communication skills to do that. Obviously, you need to understand something of their interests (demographics, budget, key markets etc) and communicate your understanding so they have confidence in you, but your pitch should again just focus on the story and your treatment of it.

While I’ve not yet pitched to producers for feature film gigs, I have pitched to producers for web series like “Persona” and pretty much every music video gig (and quite a few corporate shoots) essentially involves a pitch of some sort. And it’s always the same: Tell your story, engage their interest and move them emotionally, intellectually or viscerally. Once they’re hooked and on board, address the practical issues, but always with solutions where possible.

Sounds bloody obvious now, but this is actually the director’s best method of pitching. Treat your audience, no matter whether they be filmmaking co-conspirators on the project or secular acquaintances, as just that- an audience and everything else will fall into place.

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The Four Elements of Storytelling

July 4, 2014

I’ve been working on a bunch of scripts recently from the ground up and it’s meant focusing a lot on story and how it works. We often take story for granted, but there’s a system and structure to making it effective. There are various approaches to this, from the writings of Robert McKee and Joseph Campbell to the story process of Disney and Pixar…

… And, somewhat foolishly, I thought I’d put my opinions on the matter in the same box. So here goes…

As I see it, a story can basically be broken down into four elements- The Big Picture, Events, Characters and The World. Generally none of these are more important than the other (although your story and your budget might tweak your focus somewhat) but if you neglect one of them, the story is likely to fall flat.

The Big Picture

BigPicture

This is the overall arc of the story. It plots how things change, develop and grow, the fundamental themes and ultimately the story’s purpose (aka why bother to tell this story at all?). The Big Picture is the bit where you can distill the story into as simple an idea as you like, breaking it down into such tropes as “boy meets girl” or “naive youth goes on journey to save his world.” Essentially, The Big Picture is where you answer the question “what’s this story about?” in the broadest sense. It’s also where the story’s themes and subtext find root. For instance, Paul Verhoven’s Robocop is about consumerist America and the fascist power of big corporations (while the much-crappier remake is about drone warfare or something) and this thematic idea informs all manner of things in the movie.

The Big Picture isn’t about details, it’s about the general experience. It’s the message and feeling that the audience take away with them and it needs to be in the back of the director’s and writer’s mind the whole time because it’s what guides and shapes the film.

The Events

Events

This, confusingly, might also called “the plot.” It is essentially the series of obstacles, interactions, beats, moments and resolutions that make up the backbone of the story. These are normally the things beginners and non-storytellers focus on when trying to tell a story- but strangely, on their own, the events really don’t hold much of the audience’s attention (as anyone who’s listened to pub anecdotes can tell you). Much of this is because although they advance the story by providing constant changes in scenery and situation, they don’t emotionally engage audiences- that role falls to characters. The Events are a vehicle for everything else and without them, the story doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere.

A certain amount of interest and drama can be created in the way and order the events are revealed- such as flashbacks or the ever-popular non-linear, out-of-order structure. But doing so in isolation just becomes a puzzle the audience has little interest in solving.

The Characters

Characters

The characters provide the connection between the audience and the rest of the story. They need to be appealing and/or interesting and, particularly for the protagonists, somewhat relatable. Primary characters need an arc and it’s this course of development and change that contributes to the core story. Secondary characters can get away with little to no development, but it’s still best to have some growth otherwise they lose some of their believability.

Audiences engage with characters, either because they relate to them in some way or because they have some appeal which keeps them interesting. Remember “appeal” doesn’t mean “like” it just means they are interesting to watch. Some of the most appealing movie characters in history are thoroughly unlikeable as people (bad guys are a great example of this), but engaging enough on screen to carry a film or their plot threads.

The World

World

The World is what surrounds the characters and provides the backdrop for the events. It’s obvious how important this is in a scifi or fantasy movie, where the world has to be created from scratch, but it’s equally important in more contemporary, realistic settings. For instance, both The Avengers and Cloverfield are action films set in contemporary, post-9/11 New York, but the worlds and their rules are completely different.

The World is where the rules are set and the other story elements are given context. By developing the world, you are adding depth and believability to the story, making the setting almost like another character in the film. And just like the characters, the audience needs to relate to it and or find it appealing. Is your world a worthwhile place to spend the next 90mins or so?

All events in the story should either come from the actions of the characters or the machinations of the world around them, so neglecting this aspect can seriously impact plot progression as well.

To see how all this comes together, let’s look at a film that most people have seen and are familiar with since it’s a cornerstone of our culture…

Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus.

No, not really. That heap of self-aware cinematic dog shit is more the kidney stone of our culture. Let’s look at Star Wars. The first one, not the less-than-stellar prequels.

Nostalgia aside, Star Wars is hardly a well-directed piece of cinema. But it is a well-constructed story and much of that is down to the balance between the events, characters, world and the big picture.

Star Wars was intentionally designed as a classic hero’s journey, based on the works of Joseph Campbell and his “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” This makes its Big Picture fairly easy to adhere to- naive youth gets pulled into a greater conflict by a wise old man, learns to be a warrior and ultimately defeats the great evil. The fundamental themes are good and evil, heroism and coming-of-age. If there is any subtext or parallels, it’s with classic stories of heroism, knights of the round table, samurai etc Essentially, it’s a fairy tale set in space.

The characters are also atypical of that source material. Luke is a naive farm boy who dreams of more and over the course of the story, he becomes a Jedi knight like his father (or at least starts to in the first film) and ultimately saves the day with his ability to fire proton torpedoes down thermal exhaust ports. As the protagonist, it’s him we follow and see grow the most. In the beginning, he’s uncertain and doesn’t want to disappoint his uncle. He also lacks self-belief, thinking that he’s not capable of doing anything to help the rebellion. By the end of the movie, he’s saved the princess, signed up to pilot an x-wing and even learnt to turn off the targeting computer and trust the force. It’s essentially a scifi reworking of the warrior’s journey.

Other characters also have arcs- Han Solo goes from being self-centred to helping the rebellion at the 59th minute and Leia learns to trust and respect lower-class heroes like Luke and Han. The other characters are somewhat static in their development, even if they do provide backstory reveals like Obi Wan Kenobi.

The Events are quite varied and fast moving. The first third of the movie follows the droids in their mission to deliver Leia’s message, the middle is Luke and Han’s attempt to rescue Leia and the final third is the assault on the Death Star. For the most part, each plot event is driven forward by the macguffin of the Death Star plans, who has them, who wants them and what they’ll be used for. Very few scenes are truly superfluous. Locations vary too, just to keep things interesting- from sterile space craft to desert planets, old ruins with hidden bases to the cobbled-together environs of the Millennium Falcon.

The World is where Star Wars really comes into its own. Aside from all the various planets and aliens seen or hinted at, there is all the implied history of the empire and the rebellion, the Jedi and the Sith. There are referred-to characters like Luke’s father, Jabba the Hutt and the Emperor, alien languages (that frequently don’t get fully translated) and all manner of backstory (thanks to Lucas going a bit nuts on his yellow note paper). It helps that the effects were good enough to be able to put all this stuff on screen and make the world feel rich, believable and interesting.

So that’s my take on what makes a story work, the four story elements of character, event, world and the big picture. In my experience it seems to do the trick and at the very least gives me as a director something to work with throughout production.

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There in Black and White

February 12, 2013

I’ve said before that I’m not much of a writer. Hence the lack of auteur-ed material in my back catalogue. But when you only know a handful of good writers and don’t want to exploit them unnecessarily, you have to write your own shit and hope for the best. Maybe get them in to rewrite things later, but that usually means writing the first draft yourself.

Hemingway

For a while now, I’ve had this little idea for a showreel-worthy short film fermenting in my noggin. Something that might be my calling card and the thing that kicks my career into touch. So I’m keen to get this on paper, on camera and then on screen. But it’s quite a genre/style blend and certain parts of it are quite esoteric- combining elements from Hong Kong heroic bloodshed movies, crime dramas and film noir. Not an easy thing to get a handle on and I don’t know any writers who’d get it right off the bat. So it looks like I need to do the legwork- write the treatment and in all likelihood, the first draft- so that when I do pass it over to a proper writer, they have something to go on.

So I’ve had to force myself to write a treatment.

I never used to like, or more accurately use, the whole treatment-then-script-then-rewrite process. I used to just dive into the script, start at the beginning then work my way to the end. Which I suppose explains why my IMDB listing doesn’t have any screenwriting credits. Well, proper pro credits- “The Last Serenade” doesn’t count… But I’ve now grown to realise the importance of the treatment- in particular getting the story working there before you start writing the script proper.

As a director, one of my… things… is internal story logic. Character actions and motivations have to make sense. You can’t just fudge things (big things at least) to create the dramatic moment or effect you want- everything has to come from a real place. If you fudge it, the actors will point it out to you on set, the editor will point it out to you in the edit suite and audiences will point it out to anyone who’ll listen five minutes after they’ve tuned out of the film. So it needs to work structurally and that’s what the treatment’s for. Ironing out those story wrinkles and plotholes and getting the important details right.

sonicscrewdriver

The other thing the treatment’s good for is pacing and delivery. Treatments are written in the present tense- as the film unfolds, exactly how an audience experiences it. If nothing else reinforces the director’s role as the audience’s ombudsman, the treatment is it.

So I’ve been writing mine and I’ve found that some things like the general structure (the opening scenes, the plot twist and the placement of the action sequences) were already set in place in my head but others (like the drip-feed like reveals of information and backstory and the logical causes for the moments I had later) were a mystery. This is where the treatment really comes into its own. Each scene is a paragraph- at least it is in my method, other more capable writers probably do things differently/better- so if you know a scene has to go here but have no idea what it is, just write any old shit to fill the space. You can and will change it later. I used to do the same thing when writing scripts- write the scenes I knew or was enthused about and put placeholders in for the ones I didn’t. I found that doing things this way meant I can see the story as a whole and judge how and when to reveal story points better.

And ultimately, fixing the story points is what this is all in aid of. On a related if tangential note, I’ve been seeing a lot of scripts recently that are poorly structured or badly written. I know that at the stage I’m at in my career and the sort of erratic circles I move in, I shouldn’t expect miracles, but these are from people serious enough about writing to call themselves writers. There have been sitcoms and sketch shows that just flat-out aren’t funny, character dramas that make absolutely no sense, genre pieces that have less homages and more full-on uninspired rip-offs and short films that kill the main character off at the end (supposedly for a shock twist, but actually just because the writer has a creation complex and doesn’t know how to finish the film otherwise). I don’t want this project to have those flaws. I want it to work for me as a filmmaker and for an audience.

But if I can nail the treatment, I can get someone talented in to do the rest of the script and I can concentrate on directing the shit out of it instead.

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Small Screen Drama on an Even Smaller Screen

February 25, 2012

I’ve mentioned Persona a few times recently, but haven’t really explained what the hell I’m on about.

Persona is a soap opera you view on smartphones. Essentially, every monthly season has four storylines filmed by four different directors. These storylines are cut into 1-2 minute chunks and interweaved so that every daily 3 minute episode (or “appisode” to use the encouraged portmanteu) contains the latest installments from two of the stories. The stories involve a variety of characters and their dramas and in due course will cross over into other storylines. Once you’ve downloaded the app (for free), each new installment is available daily, monday to friday. So it’s… like a soap opera you can view on a smartphone.

As you might guess, I’m directing one of the storylines- an arc from season 4 (due to be broadcast end of April). I’m not going to spoil the plot, but the writer, Martyn Deakin, and I have cooked up something weighty, topical and… well… dramatic! I’m looking forward to it.

Actually constructing the story though was a lot trickier than you’d think. I have to take my hat off to lead writer Phillip Barron for guiding Martyn and myself through the minefield that is the story and writing process. Essentially each story amounts to a 15-17 min short film cut into chunks. You’d think that’s quite simple- after all, it’s a 15 min short film and most filmmakers have had a crack at something like that- but you’d be wrong. You see, each chunk has no immediate continuity with the ones before and after it- it’s surrounded by the chunks of different storylines. So each scene is isolated and has to be somewhat self-contained, yet feel continuous in the grand scheme of things. This means you can’t do any scenes that follow on immediately because you don’t have any direct continuity and you can’t use any flashbacks because they’d be isolated and have no context. You also have to make sure that each scene is effectively a cliffhanger so people tune in again for the next installment. So it’s actually really tricky to write!

But now the writing process is over and we’re into pre-production- shot-listing, storyboarding (as mentioned in a previous post), location finding, casting, crewing and frantic panicking! I’ve now got to hope that we did our work properly in the script and story structure phase, because I’m now going to have to spend most of my focus on directing the minutiae- the performances, the shots, the design, the details, looks and edit points- and keep the bigger picture of how the story will be intercut and delivered at the very back of my mind.

And while I’m shooting mine, the third season will be available to download, just as season 2 is now. By the time you’re watching the story Martyn and I have created, some other writer and some other director will be bugging poor old Phill about structure and cliffhangers! So go on, join the bandwagon and download the free Persona app (for Android devices and Apple iPhones and iPads) and tell all your friends! And do it before the end of April or you’ll miss out on our fine work!