Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

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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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A Director’s Identity

March 18, 2013

total-recall-if-im-not-me-then-who-the-hell-am-i

Something that affects all creative industry types at one point or another is deciding who they are. And I don’t mean anything existential- just who they are creatively. What their “type” is. When I’m shooting showreel scenes for actors, the topic of typecasting frequently comes up. Most actors don’t want to be typecast, they want to be versatile with great range, but actually typecasting is frequently good for actors. When you have a successful type, producers and directors have an easier time of casting you and you have a better chance of getting work. Harsh though it sounds, actors are frequently asked to an audition based on their headshots alone (particularly if they don’t have a reel)- hence the OTT price tag many headshot photographers apply to their trade.

But this is true of other creative types too- musicians are lumped into genres and sounds-a-bit-likes, artists are categorised by style and influences. Directors are no different.

I bring this up because, as my last blog post might have indicated, I’ve been looking for a writer with a script in tow. I posted on job sites like Mandy.com and TalentCircle.org and got loads of responses. Ignoring those that didn’t read the job description (and either didn’t have a script or sent the wrong thing) or didn’t understand the word “scriptwriter” (two directors applied to direct my “script”), most of the scripts were less than stellar. Now, I just asked for 20min scripts and didn’t specify genre or anything (since as mentioned, people don’t read job descriptions) but perhaps I should have. Some of the scripts were probably fine pieces but they had elements in them I didn’t like or didn’t make sense to me or weren’t morally acceptable to me.

Actually, that last one sounds kinda odd, but it’s true. I have a certain morality that I want to bring to the stories I tell- protagonists eventually have to do the right thing, evil always gets what’s coming to it and the good guys always win (even when they don’t, it has to feel like they came off better than their adversaries). I don’t want to tell stories that glamorise drug use or anti-social behaviour so a huge chunk of the “urban bullshit” scripts set in Britain’s inner city ghettos aren’t of any interest at all. I like shows with wit, intelligence, likeable characters and a positive moral outlook. I want an audience to finish watching a show I’ve directed and feel a) that it wasn’t a complete waste of their time and b) that they feel better off for having watched it. This doesn’t always mean a happy ending, but there needs to be a sense of completion and satisfaction upon getting to that end moment. It’s often said that artists paint the world as they wish it to be and while I’d cast some doubt on that generalisation given many artist’s predilection for painting “reality,” when it comes to me, it holds true. I like fictional (if otherwise realistic) worlds where good defeats evil and true love conquers all and there is serendipity and foreshadowing and irony… the real world is much more uncomfortable with its randomness, unpredictability and non-karmic cause and effect. These fictional worlds with their storybook rules make me feel better and that’s why I gravitate to them in my own work.

I have an identity as a director.

It’s weird but I never really thought about having an artistic identity before- which is strange considering my choice of milinery was an image decision that screamed “Director!”

This man is either a film director or a raider of tombs.

This man is either a film director or a raider of tombs.

Don’t get me wrong, I knew what I liked in films and TV and I knew what sort of stories I liked to tell, but never really thought of that as defining me as a filmmaker. Which makes me a bit of a pillock to be honest. I always thought that I could direct any drama- whether I liked the material or not (as long as I got paid for it!)- but actually that’s not the case. Tron Legacy director Joe Kosinski once said “you can only make a movie you want to see” and there’s more than a bit of truth in that. The director is the ombudsman for the audience, so if you don’t like the characters, relate to the story, understand the plot, feel the emotion or enjoy the film as a whole… the audience never will either because any attempt you make to tell the story will, at best, be facile and superficial and at worst, convey your dislike or apathy.

So it’s important, as a director, to pick projects that you relate to. If the script or story ain’t right, don’t direct it. You’ll only produce a sub-par film that no audience will like and you won’t want on your reel or IMDB page.

Unless you get paid of course, in which case you can distract yourself by thinking about all the sports cars and hookers you’re going to spend it on once the shoot’s wrapped!

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“Skyfall” and Knowing When to Stop

November 22, 2012

I don’t normally use this blog to review films but having just seen the latest Bond flick, I thought I’d share my thoughts on it and an important lesson the flick holds for the filmmaker.

First off, I really liked Skyfall– something that surprised me. In fact, if you’d have asked me my favourite bond movie a week ago, I’d have probably said Brosnan’s finest, Goldeneye. But even that has been surpassed now. Skyfall holds the crown.

Why? Because, unlike most Bonds, Skyfall is a character movie. Yes, there are action sequences. Yes, there are cool set pieces and exotic locations and even more exotic women. But at the heart of the film, it’s a dramatic story about a man coming to terms with who he is and a woman facing up to her past. Even among the ranks of high performance thrillers that’s a strong narrative through-line, but in a franchise whose past entries laboured and idolised the superficial and the escapist, this stands out like Sean Connery in a white tuxedo. To be fair, Casino Royale had a strong character spine but you always knew where it was heading. Skyfall just manages to keep the inevitable slightly out of sight, allowing things to surprise you and yet feel familiar.

Skyfall is also the best-looking Bond. Ever. Roger Deakins deserves every accolade he will likely earn for this movie. In fact, if he doesn’t earn an Oscar nomination for this, I’ll be most upset. From the neon silhouettes of a Shanghai skyscraper to the bleakness of a rustic mansion in the Scottish highlands, every frame is beautifully composed, masterfully lit and evocatively textured. When the great Conrad L Hall died, I always wondered who Sam Mendes would choose as his cinematographer du jour and in Deakins I think he has found a DOP to compliment his directing style perfectly.

The film also completes the Bond origin story. At the end, we feel we’ve come full circle and are ready to slip into Dr No with no hesitation. For me, this sort of storytelling is always a winner- returning to the point you came into the story at the end of the movie, only now armed with the knowledge of how you got there. It’s why all the non-linear narrative films of the 90s worked so well- there’s an inherent satisfaction to having all the pieces slot together and complete the picture. Without spoiling too much, by the end of the movie, key characters and production design elements from the established canon are firmly in place and you really feel like you’ve witnessed the birth of this franchise and its iconic character.

Which brings me on to today’s lesson.

Skyfall was the best Bond film yet. And if they’re smart, it will be the last one they ever make.

I know that won’t be the case- the film’s earnt way too much money for the producers and investors to bow out now, so undoubtedly there will be another Bond (whether the credits promise it or otherwise). Audiences will want more, investors will want more and in all likelihood, many of the cast and crew will want more.

But this will be a bad thing, story-wise at least. You see, Skyfall completes the franchise so perfectly that anything more will feel like draining the cash cow until its udders produce nothing but powdered milk. The performances were so strong and the story so definitive that if another film were to follow it, it would not be able to step out of it’s shadow let alone surpass it. They have reached the peak and the only way onwards is downwards.

The lesson, which the industry part of film production will undoubtedly ignore, is to know when to stop. Know when you’ve created the definitive version of something and leave it at that. Move on, do something different. George Lucas never understood this with Star Wars, James Cameron never understood this with The Terminator– and look how those franchises turned out. Yes, they made for a nice quarterly statement for the studios and many of the folks involved, but aside from all the extra Benjamins, I’d say the franchises are worse off for it. It always comes down to the same thing- the storyteller is likely content to end it there where the natural full stop is, but the well-greased and huge corporate movie-making machine will keep on running until the public stop paying for it.

Just ask yourself, as a filmmaker- what’s better? To go out on a high and leave them wanting more? Or to have a few more zeros in the bank account?

Tough call.