Screenwriting Journal II

March 12, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Posted in Journal | Leave a comment
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Woke up late today, had a rather late session of writing last night, but produced some solid work. Got to flesh out three or four scenes, now I just need to do another important scene today and I’m well on my way through the second act. I was starting to get the impression though that the whole structure was falling apart. However, right at the moment when I went to bed I came up with an idea for a transition that would strengthen my structure, luckily I made a mental note of it and can remember it today; I really need to get a small notepad.

Although I am putting most of my effort into the feature I am working on currently, I always have tons of other ideas in the back of my head, but I will have to trash most of them. The most prominent one though is one I’m co-writing with a friend; we start working on it, hopefully, sometime in May. But by then I need to come up with a more detailed outline, as at the moment we only have the premise and a couple of key scenes in mind.

I really want to write another short script, once I’m done with this feature I might sit back and spend some weeks on that.

Screenwriting Journal

March 12, 2010 at 1:52 am | Posted in Journal | Leave a comment
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Going to continue tonight on my feature script. I have tried to work all day, but the effort just hasn’t been there, then all of a sudden, after midnight, I get a sudden surge to write, strange that. I’m in that mode where I’m uncertain of the quality of what I’m writing, but I better just get cracking on. For the most part, I have a detailed outline, but at the moment I’m just writing from the top of my head. The film is a family melodrama, inspired very much by Meet Me in St. Louis and the colour films of Douglas Sirk.

Anyway, also trying to cast for the short film I wrote which we start shooting in three weeks, looking forward to how that turns out. It’s so damn easy to find actresses between 20-30 in this city, however, the male supporting role seems less forthcoming, and I might have to look around some more.

The more I write my feature the more the structure seems to be lost on my, I look forward to actually rewriting; I’ll get a better perspective then. Also, I desperately need to get some visual aid, I find it very useful when writing my scripts.

Why Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, 2010) doesn’t work

March 12, 2010 at 12:51 am | Posted in Film Analysis | Leave a comment

I watched the newest version of Alice in Wonderland the other day, and I thought it was quite poor. However, it was worthwhile because there are quite a few things I can say about it, specifically why it doesn’t work. It’s hard to say exactly where Alice in Wonderland went wrong, but the first place I’d point to is the screenplay, which is really poor. The dialogue is at times embarrassingly written, but moreover, the structure and characters are severely flawed.

The film has been received with a sense of indifference from both the mainstream audience and critics. After I left the screen room, the ticket guy asked me what I thought. I said it was “fairly mediocre” and he replied, “Yeah, it wasn’t very memorable.” I feel this really summed up the film, without a cohesive and well working story, the film will become just a collection of moments, that while well executed, isn’t very memorable. Of course, some people did actually like it, but then again it’s by Tim Burton, so a legion of fans raving is mandatory. Anyway…

Let’s talk about the theme, which hilariously undermines itself. The theme is that it’s okay to be weird, and to be a little bit mad. This point is hammered through our head throughout the film, especially through the Mad Hatter. Alice, now 19, is about to be married away into a conservative family where she will have lots of children and prosperity. Now, the main problem here is that, for all her endeavours, Alice isn’t really weird, or mad. Indeed, she is a very stereotypical hero, who has to risk her life for the better of all, like any other hero. The films rationalization for her being weird is merely that she likes to stare at birds.

To the time period she might be somewhat off, but to modern sensibilities she is not, indeed, she is actually rather conservative. The reason for this is partly the script, and partly the uninspired and flat performance from actress Mia Wasikowska. The character is too ordinary and boring, we want to see characters make choices that are difficult, be in positions where something is at stake. Sadly, all her decision making is very predictable and doesn’t really have much inner conflict.

For example, the man she has to marry is an utterly unlikable and unattractive cretin, someone no one would want to marry. Of course she is going to run away to Wonderland, and in the end not marry him. Did she really need that whole journey of self-realization to come to this decision? What if, say, the guy is actually quite charming, and handsome, and she has a thing for him. But he is still quite conservative, and she feels her independence is under threat. Does she chose the safe, probably comfortable conservative life, or does she risk living in independence? See, that’s interesting, inner conflict where she has to make a REAL choice. With the prospective husband being so cartoonish and horrendous, of course she isn’t going to choose to marry him; her choice becomes all that much easier. And because of that, the journey through Wonderland didn’t really mean anything much; it was just a little push.

There are a lot of other issues I had with the film, but those are the two main ones, for now. Without a proper story to hold on to, the film, despite its gorgeous visuals, becomes empty and hollow, it has neither meaning nor any significance. It is just a bunch of pretty visuals and animal cruelty.

Looking closer at The Silence of the Lambs (Part 1)

March 10, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Posted in Film Analysis | Leave a comment

Silence of the Lambs is a pretty popular film, yeah? But no one really talks about it anymore, except for making inane references to Hannibal Lecter.  For some reason I rarely see it in people’s top lists or whatever, and it is certainly not appreciated greatly within academia. But whatever, I watched the other day, and actually, it’s pretty damn well written. Add this with Demme’s intelligent directing, and The Silence of the Lambs is perhaps one of the best executed films of the last decade, YES I went there!

One of the reasons why I like the way The Silence of the Lambs is so well written is because it in a very engaging way uses visual language to tell us the inner emotions of the characters. An early little scene I think does this very well is the first scene at the institute where Hannibal Lecter is being held. We cut to a close-up of Dr. Chilton, his smug face covering the screen, immediately the audience is uncomfortable, and we do not want to be so close to this man. Cut to a wide shot of Clarice, who looks cornered by the walls, by her body language we can tell that she is uncomfortable too. Cut back to a close-up of Dr. Chilton, he asks if she is free tonight. He is now encroaching on her personally, which makes the scene even more uncomfortable, cut to a close-up of Clarice, now very dismissive. She neglects his proposition, kindly. The camera then cuts back to a wide shot of Dr. Chilton, releasing the tension in the scene, as his sexual advances have been neglected, and he shows no interest in Clarice anymore.

Even though the scene is very short, I think it is a useful example of how The Silence of the Lambs tells its story and creates characterization. The audience and Clarice are both made uncomfortable by Dr. Chilton, thus immediately giving us and Clarice, the protagonist, a bond. It also shows, again, how Clarice pushes away sexual advances from men and stays professional; it tells us something about her character. It is also an effective introduction of Dr. Chilton who, while not evil in the classical sense, is an antagonist of sorts. It is also of great importance that the scene tells us what is going on through its visuals. Turn off the sound and watch the scene, it still makes sense, and anyone who hasn’t watched the film will also understand what’s going on in the scene. They won’t be able to get the information in the dialogue, but the interaction between the two characters is quite clear, just through the visuals.

I was reading on imdb where some people were saying that the character Clarice is asexual. But actually, they’re quite wrong. In films one must make sure to keep character’s interesting throughout by surprising the audience, but not in a way that makes the character too inconsistent. There are several such methods used with Clarice, but my favourite one is another little scene when she visits the two bug guys. Again, you can “get” this scene without sound. The bug guy with glasses is inspecting the larva she brought, while Clarice and the other guy stands of either side of him. Quick close-up of the bug guy without glasses, who looks at Clarice, we cut to a close-up of her, watching the bug being dissected. Simple, he is attracted to her. Cut to some shots of the larva being dissected, he asks her what she does on her free time, she kindly turns him away, he tries again, and implies asking her out, but in a much more approachable way than Dr. Chilton, as we saw earlier. Indeed, instead of turning him away, she in a playing way flirts back.

It is a very short scene, and doesn’t have much to do with the overall narrative, but it is a nice opportunity to make Clarice a more interesting character and add a bit of depth and surprise. I’d like to go deeper into the film, but that’s it for now. In Part 2 I’ll look at why Hannibal is such a successful and popular character.

How to write your film visually

March 8, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Posted in Screenwriting | Leave a comment
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So I’ve talked a lot about visuals being important in film, now let’s actually look closer at how to write your screenplay visually. To refer back to the first draft article, don’t worry about this to begin with. If you want a character to express that he is angry, but don’t know a way right now, just make him say “I’m really angry!” and come back to it later, at the first draft stage it is only crucial that YOU know what your character thinks.

The reason why we write films visually is because these images are much more engaging, than just having your character say what they feel. Both express the same, but in such dialogue it feels clunky, and isn’t very expressive nor interesting. Take American Beauty, for example, the dinner scene when Lester takes a plate and throws it into the wall, smiling. Many have talked to me about this scene. They remember it because it is an excellent visual manifestation of Lester’s interior life, what he feels inside.

I don’t know how Alan Ball writes his scripts, but let’s hypothetically say that Ball in this scene just wrote Lester saying what he feels, instead of throwing the plate. It still expresses the same, but with much less impact. He then looked at the script and though, “hey, this scene needs something that hits the audience a bit more, it’s too flat.” He had a problem with the scene, but solved it in using visuals. This is a problem all screenwriters have to solve at several points in their scripts.

Actually, for your own reference it’s quite useful to write an internal monologue or dialogue between the characters, because it gives you a quick and straightforward look at what the characters feel and think. This is how you want the characters to express themselves. If you have a scene, look at your internal dialogue, then the more subtle scene and think, “does this scene express what I wrote in the internal dialogue?” If it does, great! If not, rewrite the scene, the internal dialogue should be the blueprint, the actual scene the subtle execution of this blueprint.

Of course, a lot of the visual language comes when the film is actually made, the director working with the actors. However, that doesn’t mean the screenwriter shouldn’t make an effort to tell his story as visually as possible. There are certain things you can’t get on the page, but that’s fine. Most of all, the actions of the characters should be visual, and redundant dialogue should be cut.

We will come back to this issue later, without a doubt. Meanwhile, I would like to recommend some films that use visuals and sequences of non-dialogue extremely well. Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964), Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le cercle rouge (1970). Check them out, and have a nice day.

Writing that first draft

March 8, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Screenwriting | Leave a comment
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So you have a great idea, and you are ready to put your thoughts on paper? Great! However, what I’d like to talk about is the writing of the first draft. This is one of the trickiest parts of writing a screenplay, because it is the point in which you are also attacked by you own mind, doubts and worries over whether or not the script works, are the characters believable, will people relate to this?

Well, my first and strongest advice would be: Just write! You can always go back and fix things, your first draft will, anyway, most likely be quite poor, always. The point of the first draft is to get your writing down on paper, to have something tangible to work on, rather than just in your head. A script is much easier to improve if you have it written down; in your head it can become a bit a mess.

Doesn’t your character work? Fine, continue writing, fix it later. Is the dialogue bland? Fine, just come back later. What is most important is to have an overall structure you can look at, all the ideas are there, now you just need to refine them. The majority of the writing process is rewriting, but a lot of aspiring writers become frustrated at the first draft, because their brilliant ideas aren’t turning out the way the hoped for on the page. Don’t worry, your idea is probably fine, only when you’re writing the third draft and it’s STILL not working, should you worry.

Carefully crafting your first draft is, in my opinion, meaningless. Of course, you have to put your hard work and intelligence into it, but don’t work yourself out over it, just get it done. A good example which is similar is when I had my editing exam. Basically, in my class I got the best grade. I am not bragging, because I don’t think I did better than everyone else because I am a better editor, but because my method of editing was superior.

What most people did was labour over every second from the word go, they moved slowly through the scene. Me, I threw wide shots together just to get a sense of the time and space in twenty minutes. That was my first draft. Then I would look at the scene I created and think; “what does this scene say? What does it need?” Then I would go over it, refining it and changing it in significant ways. That was my second draft. Then I reworked the scene over and over until I thought it worked the way I wanted to.

Don’t labour over your first draft, just get it done. Later I will cover how to actually developing your story, how to go from a vague idea to a much more detailed outline.

In many ways, the first draft is more of a template than an actual piece of creative writing. The real work starts when you write the second draft.

Getting started

March 8, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Posted in Screenwriting | Leave a comment
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We writers tend to be neurotic creatures, that is probably why we like to shut ourselves out from society and then, inexplicably, write about just that. So, you’re a shut-in and want to write a screenplay? Great! However, most people don’t come up with a story on the spot, but rather an idea or a premise, and then work from there. So how do you best develop you initial idea into a detailed outline?

Well, to tell the truth there is not real “correct” way to do this. Myself, I usually have a beginning or an ending in mind, then find out what would be the best ending/beginning based on which end I came up with first, then work on the meat in-between. I’ve read many interviews and comments by screenwriters on this topic, and it seems everyone have their own method.

Just figure out which one works the best for you, and then work from there, however, there are some thoughts you should have in mind before you write.

  • What is the format? Ten minute short film or a three hour long epic? Make sure you know roughly how long you want the screenplay to be.
  • Who is my protagonist, and what are his goals and desires? How should he change by the end of the story?
  • Is the character’s struggle based on interior or exterior problems? It is critical that you map this out. Interior deal with psychological issues, inner emotions, while exterior deal with an outside force, most action films are like this. Of course, a film can have both elements.
  • Are you writing within a genre? If you are writing within one of the popular genres, make sure you know that genre well and avoid the more glaring clichés.
  • What is the antagonistic force in the film? Sometimes the antagonistic force is just the main villain, but sometimes it could be the character’s own psychological problems. Or, as in many recent films, nature itself. Every film must have an antagonistic force to drive the story and protagonist forward.
  • What is it that you want to tell through this story, what is your message?

There are many other elements that you have to consider, but to begin with, these should do nicely to map out where your screenplay is heading.

Welcome!

March 8, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Posted in General | Leave a comment

Welcome to The Visual Story blog, a blog dedicated to talking and discussing screenwriting, from characterization to story structure, as well as analyzing how some films work, or conversely, don’t work.

Film is a visual medium, as well as using time and space, but in the larger scheme, storytelling in cinema is done through the visuals. This is crucial. What the audience remembers is usually what they saw, powerful images that express the inner life of its characters. Remember the half-hour sequence in Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) which has no dialogue whatsoever or the intense non-dialogue opening of Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953)?

Alright, quite old examples there, but then there is the opening sequence of There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007), which is really potent, and contains no dialogue. Imagery is powerful, and telling you story through visuals is one of the keys to creating a successful screenplay. I hope you enjoy reading here.

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