Screenwriting 101: Why the Story Structure Aerodynamics Matter, by Christopher Riley

The first of a five-part series on the laws of screenwriting aerodynamics: Whether you’re writing your first or fiftieth screenplay

The magic of flying isn’t the laws of aerodynamics any more than the magic of cinema is the principles of film structure. But those laws and those principles make the magic possible, enabling mere mortals to harness the power of flight.

by Christopher Riley, author of The Hollywood Standard

Beginning screenwriters hate structure. My students inevitably inform me of such predictable certainties as…

Screenwriter and Author Christopher Riley

Structure chafes.

Structure kills creativity.

Structure is for paint-by-the-numbers hacks, mindless, slavish screenwriting hordes laboring in the sweatshops of Snyder, Aristotle, and McKee.

Structure is a four-letter word. Count ‘em. Str-uc-tu-re. Four toxic letters that spell death to art.

So let’s not talk about structure. Let’s talk about hummingbirds, or, better yet, airplanes.

I wonder if airplane designers debate whether the laws of aerodynamics matter. If they entertain the notion of casting aside those outmoded, restrictive physical laws that mandate things like thrust and lift, and that result in a dull sameness among aircraft, each with some form of motor and wing.

I wonder if any of those free-thinking designers build flying machines without regard for the rigid and stultifying laws of aerodynamics, build them in bright colors and novel, bulbous shapes without wings, without motors, then wrap silk scarves around their necks and take their machines to the skies.

I wonder if they die in pain.

The good news: no one dies when a screenwriter defies the principles of screenplay structure. What terrible thing does happen? The story loses its way. The audience loses interest. The film bombs.

I have no interest in propounding rules for rules’ sake. I’m a screenwriter. I aspire to create films that explore and expand the boundaries of cinema in all its forms. If I could craft a story with no structure, or with some radically new structure heretofore unknown to humankind, I’d love to do it and take home the Nobel in Screenwriting.

But I don’t want to commit the cardinal sin of the would-be entertainer, boring the audience. And I must tell you that having read thousands of scripts, and watched many, many films, and worked with hundreds of students on their stories, and written an award-winning European film, and written scripts for Hollywood studios, and written scripts for the Web, I’ve made this observation.

Stories without structure don’t work.

They don’t sustain audience interest from beginning to end.

They bore.

Here’s why.

Screenwriting Laws of Aerodynamics
Houston, we have a problem. ‘Structure is the rope that pulls the audience through the story.’ -Ron Howard, Apollo 13 Director

A movie is a delicate thing, typically consumed by a viewer in one sitting, dependent on a story that constantly moves forward, upping the emotional ante, riveting us in our plush seats. Without a sound structure capable of grabbing audience interest at the start and holding it until the end, a two-hour film collapses under its own weight. It sags in the middle. It fails to provide the setups and payoffs, the emotional ups and downs, that create a cinema experience that satisfies.

We know this from observing films that work, the same way we know about the laws of aerodynamics by observing planes that fly. That’s where Aristotle got his material. He didn’t make it up. He wasn’t a structure czar. He was a scientist. He observed the stories that worked best and then described what he saw. Same with Robert McKee and Chris Vogler and Syd Field. Same with Blake Snyder. They observed the common structural characteristics of stories that manage to hold audience interest all the way to the end, which is the most fundamental definition of what it means to entertain. Then they described the principles that shape those stories. And despite the variances in terminology and details, their descriptions are remarkably similar.That shouldn’t surprise us. They all looked at the same thing.

Dummies and Ropes
Chris wrote the book on screenplay formatting… literally!

Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman has described structure as being like the clothing dummy used by the fashion designer. It always looks the same. If you don’t understand the shape of the clothing dummy, which is the shape of the human body, you’re not going to make clothes that any humans can wear. You might congratulate yourself on your innovation, having sewn a pair of pants that are all puff sleeve, but you’re not going to clothe anyone.

Director Ron Howard offers his own elegant definition. Structure, he says, is the rope that pulls the audience through the story. It’s the one-thing-leads-to-the-next, the-answer-to-one-question-raises-an-even-more-compelling-question quality of films that makes us want to stick around and find out what happens next. And so it is.

Look closely at successful films that appear to defy the principles of story construction and you’ll see that in fact they conform. Memento is a hummingbird of a story, appearing to defy gravity even as it obeys the aerodynamics of story structure. You’ve got a beginning, ingeniously built of stuff that happens last chronologically, and this beginning, as in all good film beginnings, is where we meet and begin to root for the main character. It’s where we’re introduced to the world of the story. It’s where we discover what the situation is, what problem our hero faces, and what he wants.

Three Acts are Three Acts
Falling with style. Whether he’d admit it or not, he discovered that structure by gut, because he’s a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.

How could it possibly be otherwise? You have a middle, where the main character pursues a plan to get what he wants, where he tries his best against all obstacles to reach his goal. And you’ve got a decisive, cataclysmic ending, even though it’s built of stuff that actually happens first chronologically.

That’s three acts, structure at its simplest and most irreducible. Want four acts? Split the middle act into two. Five acts? Split the second act into thirds. Have as many acts as you like, only don’t tell your producer or studio executive, because that’s not the language they speak.

Now you don’t necessarily need to study film structure or even believe it exists in order to make a film that works. It’s true. This is because you don’t have to understand structure in an explicit way to write or make a well-structured film. Some storytellers simply know structure implicitly, the way some people always know which way is north.

We Need a Compass
‘Memento’ is a hummingbird of a story, appearing to defy gravity even as it obeys the aerodynamics of story structure. It flies because its structure, not in spite of it.

I think that for most of us, however, an explicit mastery of the principles of structure saves weeks and months of wandering in the jungle without a compass. It certainly makes it easier to describe our stories to other Hollywood professionals, nearly all of whom speak the language of structure. But, to be fair, I have to tell you about the case I know in which a writer-director of a high-profile film publicly announced that he’d disregarded the whole three-act structure conceit and simply shot his movie. I saw this infidel’s movie in his presence at a Writers Guild screening in Beverly Hills.

The thing worked beautifully. It wasn’t boring. It didn’t collapse under its own weight. It grabbed my attention at the beginning and held it all the way to the end. Which seems to contradict everything I’ve just told you. Except…

In the Q&A following the screening, the filmmaker described the first, bloated, four-hour cut of his film, and the months of sitting in the editing room sifting through his story, discovering his movie, which ultimately came in at around two hours and had a classical three-act structure. Whether he’d admit it or not, he discovered that structure by gut, because he’s a gifted filmmaker and storyteller. He felt his way to it in the darkness of the editing bay. He might have saved himself some of those months in post, and he might have saved his investors some of the dollars he spent shooting scenes he didn’t need, if he’d discovered his structure at the writing stage.

The hummingbird doesn’t need to know how he flies. But to hedge your bets, just in case you’re more human than hummingbird, I say read up on the observations of Aristotle, Field, McKee, and Snyder before you take to the air. The magic of flying isn’t the laws of aerodynamics any more than the magic of cinema is the principles of film structure. But those laws and those principles make the magic possible, enabling mere mortals to harness the power of flight.

Next Post in Series: Screenwriting 101: A Step by Step Guide to Achieving the Impossible – Steps 1-3, by Christopher Riley

 

Christopher Riley is the author of The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style.  He wrote the German-language courtroom thriller After the Truth with his wife and writing partner Kathleen Riley, and executive produced the provocative web series Bump+. This article originally appeared on www.blakesnyder.com. Used by permission.

Ideas Have Consequences: The Power and Limits of Existentialism, Dead Poets Society 2

Part 9 of series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru the Stories We Live By

“No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”   -Mr. Keating (Robin Williams)

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

gal-dps-cast-jpgThe main characters of Dead Poets Society (1989) provide a perfect opportunity to observe, not only the remarkable skill of no less than three young actors (Ethan HawkeRobert Sean LeonardJosh Charles) on their way to Hollywood greatness, but also a profound illustration the various array of practice shifts involved in the worldview of Existentialism  (See, Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society).

Paradigm Shifts versus Practice Shifts

A worldview is a lot like an iceberg in at least two important ways: First, only their uppermost levels are visible to the naked eye.  Second, that visible tip is not the even close to the most dangerous part of an iceberg or a worldview. It is that proverbial 90% lurking beneath the waterline that can sink your ship… and maybe even cost you your life.

Screen shot 2013-05-02 at 1.37.53 AM

You cannot “see” the strategies, values, or stories guiding a person or society. Unless they are reflected in actions, words, or “cultural artifacts”—art, architecture, literature, technology, institutions, etc.—ideas remain hidden under the surface. Like mounting pressure on tectonic plates, no one knows how much power is really stored up until the ground begins to shake.

Many anthropologists, therefore, make a distinction between “paradigm shifts” and “practice shifts.” A paradigm shift is change in the unseen world of ideas of an individual or society, while a practice shift is a change in actual behavior. For instance, in Casablanca, we had no idea what a profound paradigm shift Rick was experiencing until the moment we saw his practice shift in putting Ilsa on the plane with Victor. Or in Fiddler on the Roof, it was impossible to know if Tevye had actually shifted his paradigm for marriage from a business contract to a romantic covenant, until he applied his daughters’ paradigm in his own practices by asking Golda, “Do you love me?”

The critical moment that ultimately leads Keating’s students from paradigm shift to practice shift

The relationship between invisible paradigm shifts and visible practice shifts is a critical element of all good filmmaking. Whether it is Luke Skywalker turning off his targeting computer, because he has finally put his faith in “The Force,” or George Bailey asking God to make him live again, because he has finally reinterpreted his life as “wonderful,” the clearer the connection between a main character’s paradigm shift and their practice shift, the better.

Dead Poet Society (DPS) Character Transformations

Dead Poets Society offers the unusual pleasure of following the transformation arc of multiple characters, four of who get their own complete storylines. And while their paradigm shifts are similar, their practice shifts are radically different.

While Mr. Keating implores his students that “words and ideas can change the world,” it is Knox Overstreet who gives voice to the counter-balancing truth, “I’ve got to do something!” And do something is exactly what the young DPS members set out to do.

Knox Overstreet: For the Love of Chris

For Knox Overstreet applying Mr. Keating’s worldview to his own life story begins with the inciting event of Chris Noel (Alexandra Powers) coming into his life. What begins as obligatory dinner at the home family friends—the Danbury’s—turns into the beginning of an epic adventure. The Danbury’s football star son, Chet, is dating cheerleader Chris whom Knox decides is “the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my entire life.”

Instead of accepting the script written for him by his family and school, he invokes “Carpe Diem!” in his headlong pursuit of the girl of his dreams. The new plausibility structures of his new worldview open up the possibility of engaging in behaviors that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks earlier.  He sneaks off campus to see Chris.  He writes poetry about her.

Chris Noel, the Goal of Knox’s Quest

Finally the internal pressure of his newfound love and newly expanded worldview reach a boiling point. Standing by the phone with the entire DPS watching, he rewrites his life story from the Welton/family worldview to his newly chosen existentialism in a single moment:

Knox: She’s going to hate me. The Danbury’s will hate me. My parents will kill me. (Looking at the group.) All right, God damn it. (Inserts coins.) Carpe diem!

Once committed—the “midpoint” of his story arc—there is no turning back for Knox. He kisses Chris at a party, reads her poetry at her school, and just when all hope seems lost, he wins a date and the heart of his true love.

Mr. Keating’s teaching has shifted his paradigm in such a way that his practice shifts with it. Knox rejects his Welton/family story that social structures must be followed and embraces a new story where he is free to think for himself and find his own meaning for his day-to-day existence. The ideas found in Mr. Keating’s Existentialism have serious consequences for Knox. His life is clearly changed and enriched from the experience.

Charlie Daulton: The Name is Nuwanda

Charlie Daulton’s (Gale Hansen) life story, on the other hand, isn’t so much transformed by Mr. Keating’s worldview as it is confirmed. As the film’s steadfast character, Charlie really doesn’t change much at all. He is a charming rebellious hedonist at the beginning of the film, and a charming and even more rebellious hedonist at the end. From bringing pornography, and later girls to DPS meetings, interrupting a school assembly with a phone call from God (also about girls), to painting a virility symbol on his chest and adopting the name “Nuwanda,” Mr. Keating’s Existentialism functions primarily to free Charlie to act on impulses he had previously restrained.

Mr. Keating attempts to reign in Charlie’s character with the warning: “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone. There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”  Yet he never really succeeds in actually transforming Charlie’s girl obsessed life story.

On a more positive note, his new worldview also helps Charlie to stand against external pressure. He is perhaps the first Dead Poet to “get” Mr. Keating’s courtyard marching lesson on conformity when he tells his teacher, “I’m exercising the right not to walk.” In the end, Charlie alone is the only Dead Poet willing to endure both paddling and expulsion without ratting out his friends or betraying his teacher.

While Mr. Keating’s worldview doesn’t really change the direction of Charlie’s life, it does help strengthen his character. While not exactly a heroic character, his exposure to existentialism certainly hasn’t hurt his life.

Todd Anderson: O Captain, my Captain!

Perhaps the most moving transformation in the film is that of Todd Anderson. At the start of the film, Todd’s identity is buried so deeply in that of the Welton/Family worldview, he functions merely as a sub-plot of his older brother’s story.  Something inside him is so stirred by Mr. Keating’s message that he writes “Seize the Day” in bold writing in his notebook.  Then we watch as the Welton/Family story wins out and he crumbles the paper and tosses it in the waste basket.

But Mr. Keating is not finished with Todd yet. When Todd refuses to even admit that he has written a poem to be read aloud in class, Mr. Keating steps in:

Keating: “Mr. Anderson thinks that everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing. Isn’t that right, Todd. Isn’t that your worst fear?  Well, I think you’re wrong. I think you have something inside of you that is worth a great deal.”

Visions of a sweaty-toothed madman

In perhaps the film’s most moving scene, Mr. Keating writes Walt Whitman’s adage on the blackboard—“I sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world”—and demands that Todd YAWP! Suddenly the paradigm shift that has been lurking beneath the surface of Todd’s life breaks into the open in his “sweaty-tooth madman” speech.

Todd: Truth like-like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold… Y-You push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying t-to the moment we leave dying, it’ll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.

Keating: [long pause then class applauds] Don’t you forget this.

He never does. In the climactic final scene it is Todd who finds his voice in leading the Dead Poets in their final act of heroism. As the bagpipe music closes on a freeze frame of the boys standing on their desks, you FEEL the incredible power of existentialism to free these young men from the bondage of the gravity of Physicalism and send them soaring into the invisible world of Ideals.

Todd is the first one on his feet, er, desk, in a final DPS salute to their “Captain”

O, if that was all there was to the story. But there is another major character, and it is his story that points us to the second similarity between worldviews and icebergs—what you don’t see is what is most likely to kill you.  Was there something lurking just beneath the waterline of the iceberg of existentialism that ultimately led to Neil’s tragic Titanic ending?

If so… was Mr. Keating at least somewhat responsible for Neil’s death?

.

 

Next post in series:

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories 

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See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s 

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

If you Live it, They Will Come: The Blind Side and Better Faith-Based Filmmaking

 

 

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Part of ongoing series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru the Stories We Live By

“Carpe Diem!  Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” -Mr. Keating (Robin Williams)

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

posterDead Poets Society, 1989 Oscar winner for best original screenplay, boasts an impressive Hollywood lineage. In addition to the best screenplay win for Tom Schulman,  Dead Poets earned a best director nomination for Peter Weir, a best actor nomination for Robin Williams. It also helped launch the careers of Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Before Sunset), as well as Emmy-nominated actors Robert Sean Leonard (House), and Josh Charles (The Good Wife). Not bad for a small budget film few imagined would grow into culture-shaping cinema.

It is also one of the best films ever made on the vocation of teaching. I rarely meet any teacher, professor, or youth minister who wasn’t deeply moved by their first encounter with Dead Poets Society.  It deftly touches a nerve for anyone entrusted with the thrilling, yet delicate art of shaping young lives.

Mr. Keating’s brief sojourn at the fictional Welton Academy captures both the highest hopes and greatest fears of anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom. As it turns out, worldview formation is as dangerous as it is fulfilling. Which brings me to my real point.

Worldview Transformation

Gather ye rose buds while ye may…

Dead Poets is also a tremendous film for anyone interested in the art of worldview formation in film and in life. First, it illustrates the power of mentors, texts, and communities in shaping worldview. Second, it gives soaring testimony to the power of Existentialism in the quest to escape the gravity of Physicalism into the intoxicating heights of Idealism.  Finally, it provides a troubling warning as to the power of nihilism to crush the dreams of the unsuspecting idealist. (For and explanation of Physicalism versus Idealism, see, It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece.)

The Welton Worldview

Both in movies and real life, worldview change never comes easily. Human beings are insanely committed to maintaining the societal traditions and personal strategies we’ve carefully developed for managing our lives, even and especially when those strategies are counter-productive. Dead Poets does a wonderful job of detailing how good teachers expose the counter-productive flaws in their students’ worldview. And no worldview seems quite so flawed as that of the mythical Welton academy in which Dead Poets Society is set..

As a highly traditional 1950’s college preparatory academy, Welton is rooted in what appears to be a highly Physicalist (if somewhat religiously Deistic) worldview. (For and explanation of the four levels see, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.)  In other words, the hard, pragmatic realities of the physical world are the only things that are “really real” at Welton.

The underlying story of Welton Academy is financial success, not personal exploration

Level 4—Story/Basis: The underlying story of Welton is success, or more specifically, the financial success and social status available to those who get into prestigious schools in order to gain entry into prestigious careers.

Todd Anderson’s (Ethan Hawke) disengaged parents may forget what they got him for his last birthday, but they know they want for his life–Valedictorian honors and a National Merit scholarship like his older brother. (Hint: The Welton Academy Yearbook is a great source for keeping characters straight.)

Neil Perry’s (Robert Sean Leonard) helicopter father may not listen to his son’s desires to write for the school newspaper (or become an actor), but he already has his son’s life planned out for him whether he likes it or not:

“You’re going to Harvard and becoming a doctor.”

Level 3—Values/Principles: Welton faculty and administration oblige their moneyed parents by creating an academy rooted in the values of “tradition, honor, discipline, excellence.” They celebrate “the light of knowledge” with religious trappings and a strong classical sense of morality, giving Welton a rather Deistic slant. All we really know about this distant God is that he doesn’t want girls at “Helton” distracting the “boys” (not men) from their studies. (The Welton Academy Yearbook is a great source for keeping characters straight.)

“Tradition, honor, discipline, excellence.”

Level 2 — Strategies/Culture: Accordingly, Welton’s academic culture is devoted to a highly traditional curriculum, and educational methodology.  We are offered brief glimpses into the strict world of “normal” Welton classrooms marked by rote memorization of Greek, Biology, and Calculus.

These are not the kind of classrooms a creative personality would cherish, but that’s just fine with most Welton students. They are just going through the motions doing whatever is necessary in order to gain parental approval and Ivy League admission.

Level 1—Action/Behavior: By the end of Act 1, it is clear that while Welton students may not particularly like the school, enjoy belittling its values, and despise their parent’s transference of their success stories upon their lives, they still go along with the flow in overall daily decisions.

The Keating Worldview

Enter the transformation artist

All this changes when the students enter the classroom of Welton’s newest teacher—Mr. Keating (Robin Williams). Like a character in Plato’s cave analogy, Keating has broken free of the bondage of Welton’s limited perspective, and returned to enlighten students still chained to the wall of shadows. Like Morpheus in The Matrix, Keating is determined to “free the minds” of his students in order to help them enter a larger, richer world of the liberal arts.

It is a beautiful story of how great teachers foster worldview change in their students. Keating employs a dizzying teaching arsenal of texts (Walt Whitman, etc.), music (The 1812 Overture), mentorship (“O Captain, my Captain”), learning exercises (standing on desk), challenge (“A sweaty-toothed madman”), and community (The Dead Poets Society) to captivate his students’ imaginations. While at first his classroom is merely, “Weird, but different,” it gradually becomes the focal point of their universe.

The worldview Mr. Keating wants his students to address is robust form of romantic Existentialism, rooted in Physicalism, yet rejecting its pragmatic pessimism.

Make your lives extraordinary!

Level 4—Story/Basis: Walt Whitman and the other romantic poets teach us that even though Physicalism may be scientifically true in that “we are all food for worms,” we can strive to make meaning out of our own brief lives by our own choices and values. Keating’s story is a radical rebellion against both Nihilistic Physicalism that insists that life has no meaning, and the Deism of Welton that insists we live only for the morality and stories of others.  Mr. Keating is not so much interested in his students’ embracing their parents’ story of financial/social success as he is that they live their own story.

Keating: We are food for worms, lads. Believe or not, each and every one of us in this room is going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die… Peruse some of the faces of the past (Welton students) …Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable. Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you: (whispered) ‘Carpe Diem! …Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Level 3—Values/Principles: Beyond the walls of the physical universe Keating points his students to the Idealistic realm of beauty, love, and meaning that eludes those trapped in the Physicalist worldview. Naturalistic Physicalism would tell us that the universe is a “box” limited by space and time, and accessible only through the physical senses. Our hearts tell us a different story.  There is something more to life than what we can touch, taste, hear, see, and smell.  Poetry points the way to this larger world of values, that can’t be measured “scientifically” like a “length of pipe”[1] nor explained with graphs like J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.

Keating then tells his students to rip out the entire introduction to their poetry textbook and has them “huddle up” to hear the real meaning of poetry (and life.)

Keating: We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Now, medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary for sustaining life, but poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

This speech is a stunning description of Existential Idealism in its purest Romantic form. And it will not be the last.

Seeing the world from a new perspective

Level 2—Strategies/Culture: Keating’s goal is for his students to stop mimicing and reciting the words of others, and “find your own voice,” and “Learn to think for yourselves again.”

On top of his desk, he gets them to consider life from a new perspective. In the courtyard, he gets them to fall into the trap of walking in conformity to the life of those around us. On the soccer field, he inspires them to reach their full potential.

Watch desk scene here.

Freedom from Physicalism

As I said above, it is liberal arts education at its finest. He is using the arts to liberate his students from seeing life only from their own tradition and preconceptions. (See, The Greco-Roman Liberal Arts.) It is a breathtaking and soul stirring tour de force his students find nearly iresistible.

Slowly, Keating’s students begin to break free from the suffocating gravity of a Physicalist worldview, in order to embrace the broader Idealistic world he has opened up for them….

Level 1—Action/Behavioral: Of course, the movie only gets going once some of the boys actually start acting on Mr. Keating’s worldview.

And that is where the story really gets interesting!

Next: Ideas Have Consequences: The Power and the Limits of Existentialism, Dead Poets Society, Part 2

 

See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s 

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Deep Culture: Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

The Blind Side leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories

Related Posts:

Using Zombie Movies to Teach Politics, by Daniel W. Drezner

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger

Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on ‘Shutter Island,’ by Cari Myers

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert

 

Notes



[1] Perhaps an allusion to George Bailey’s objection to his father’s commitment to the Building and Loan in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

 

Master Shots: First and Final Frames of 55 Films Side-by-Side, by Jacob T. Swinney

The Meta-Story  and Worldview of many films is discernible from little more than their first and final shots.  Don’t believe it?  Watch this video! 

Jacob T. Swinney on Vimeo

Birdman_69883 (1)
Final shot, Birdman (2014)

 

What can we learn by examining only the first and final shot of a film?

This video plays the opening and closing shots of 55 films side-by-side. Some of the opening shots are strikingly similar to the final shots, while others are vastly different–both serving a purpose in communicating various themes.

Some show progress, some show decline, and some are simply impactful images used to begin and end a film.

.

See also:

Inside Out Screenwriting: What’s My Final Image? by Jeremy Casper

Birdman Ending: Why That Obscure Final Shot Makes Total Sense, by Catarina Cowden

MUSIC: “Any Other Name” by Thomas Newman

Films used (in order of appearance):
The Tree of Life 00:00
The Master 00:09
Brokeback Mountain 00:15
No Country for Old Men 00:23
Her 00:27
Blue Valentine 00:30
Birdman 00:34
Black Swan 00:41
Gone Girl 00:47
Kill Bill Vol. 2 00:53
Punch-Drunk Love 00:59
Silver Linings Playbook 01:06
Taxi Driver 01:11
Shutter Island 01:20
Children of Men 01:27
We Need to Talk About Kevin 01:33
Funny Games (2007) 01:41
Fight Club 01:47
12 Years a Slave 01:54
There Will be Blood 01:59
The Godfather Part II 02:05
Shame 02:10
Never Let Me Go 02:17
The Road 02:21
Hunger 02:27
Raging Bull 02:31
Cabaret 02:36
Before Sunrise 02:42
Nebraska 02:47
Frank 02:54
Cast Away 03:01
Somewhere 03:06
Melancholia 03:11
Morvern Callar 03:18
Take this Waltz 03:21
Buried 03:25
Lord of War 03:32
Cape Fear 03:38
12 Monkeys 03:45
The World According to Garp 03:50
Saving Private Ryan 03:57
Poetry 04:02
Solaris (1972) 04:05
Dr. Strangelove 04:11
The Astronaut Farmer 04:16
The Piano 04:21
Inception 04:26
Boyhood 04:31
Whiplash 04:37
Cloud Atlas 04:43
Under the Skin 04:47
2001: A Space Odyssey 04:51
Gravity 04:57
The Searchers 05:03
The Usual Suspects 05:23

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Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last, by Maria Popova

Wisdom from a prolific novelist, graphic novelist, non-fiction writer and screenwriter (O, and did we mention children’s books?)

“Stories … are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”   – Neil Gaiman

by  in Brain Pickings

Would Homeland (Claire Danes) or Daredevil (Charlie Cox) have made it without Gaiman's Stardust?
Gaiman’s Stardust helped launch Claire Danes (Homeland) and Charlie Cox (Daredevil) to new heights.

Stories have shapes, as Vonnegut believed, and they in turn give shape to our lives. But how do stories like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Alice in Wonderland continue to enchant the popular imagination generation after generation — what is it that makes certain stories last?

That’s what the wise and wonderful Neil Gaiman explores in a fantastic lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking.

Nearly half a century after French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the “abstract kingdom” — a conceptual parallel to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate like organisms do in the natural world — and after Richard Dawkins built upon this concept to coin the word “meme,” Gaiman suggests stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does.

Please enjoy, with transcribed highlights below.

Considering the scientific definition of life as a process that “includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death,” Gaiman argues that stories are alive — that they can, and do, outlive even the world’s oldest living trees by millennia:

Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.

On story being the original and deepest creative act:

Pictures, I think, may have been a way of transmitting stories. The drawings on cave walls that we assume are acts of worship or of sympathetic magic, intended to bring hunters luck and good kills. I keep wondering if, actually, they’re just ways of telling stories: “We came over that bridge and we saw a herd of wooly bisons.” And I wonder that because people tell stories — it’s an enormous part of what makes us human.

We will do an awful lot for stories — we will endure an awful lot for stories. And stories, in their turn — like some kind of symbiote — help us endure and make sense of our lives.

A lot of stories do appear to begin as intrinsic to religions and belief systems — a lot of the ones we have have gods or goddesses in them; they teach us how the world exists; they teach us the rules of living in the world. But they also have to come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and we want to help them propagate.

Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor…

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Sandman-covers-1
A prolific writer across multiple genres, Gaiman’s Sandman grew to 10 collections and became one of the most enduring and beloved graphic novels series.

 

is a reader, writer, interestingness hunter-gatherer, and curious mind at large, who writes for WiredUK, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, among others. She is also an am an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

Would Major TV Networks Be Interested In My Faith Based Show Idea? by Phil Cooke

Tips from leading Hollywood consultant

In Hollywood, nobody cares that you’re a Christian. They’re more interested in your ability to actually produce a popular television program.

by Phil Cooke, PhD • President, Cooke Pictures

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Strong Sunday prime time ratings for “A.D. The Bible Continues,” especially among 18-49 year olds, will only drive current interest in faith-based projects.

With the success of “The Bible” TV series, and “Finding Jesus” on CNN, I’ve been getting plenty of inquires from people who want to get other Christian ideas picked up by a secular network. In many cases, they’re starting from the wrong perspective. The first step isn’t getting your show idea on a network. The first step is finding out what the network is interested in programming. With that in mind, here’s a few critical principles about how to get a secular network to look at your Christian program idea:

1) Start by looking for cultural events that would make networks more open to a Christian influenced program.  For instance, a number of years ago, I realized the anniversary of William Wilberforce abolishing the slave trade in the British empire was about to happen. Since he was driven by his Christian faith, I pitched PBS on a one hour documentary on Wilberforce’s life. They loved the idea and not only did it get a national broadcast on PBS, but it was privately screened at the White House. So – what’s trending in the news right now that would make a network interested in your idea?

2) Think ahead.  My friend, movie producer Ralph Winter says that making a big budget movie isn’t about what’s popular now. It’s about what will be popular 5 years from now, because that’s how long it takes to make a major movie. It’s really not much different with TV projects. So look into the future. Once “The Bible” series was successful, I received a ton of proposals to do something similar. Likewise, once Noah hit theaters, I had a bunch of Noah projects pitched to me. But they’d already been done and networks weren’t interested. The question is – What’s next?

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An internationally known writer and speaker, Phil Cooke has actually produced media programming in nearly 50 countries around the world. In the process, has been shot at, survived two military coups, fallen out of a helicopter, and in Africa, been threatened with prison. And during that time – through his company Cooke Pictures in Burbank, California – he’s helped some of the largest nonprofit organizations and leaders in the world use the media to tell their story in a changing, disrupted culture.

How Hollywood Keeps Out Women, by Jessica P. Ogilvie

And the beat-down goes on 

The numbers for women in Hollywood trail far behind the percentage of females in executive positions in other heavily male-dominated endeavors, including the military, tech, finance, government, science and engineering

(Illustration by Darrick Rainey)
(Illustration by Darrick Rainey)

In 2005, Diana Ossana was in the green room at the Venice Film Festival, elated. Brokeback Mountain, the film she’d shepherded into being after reading Annie Proulx’s short story in The New Yorker eight years earlier, had just won the Golden Lion, top prize at the festival.

Ossana, who optioned the story from Proulx, then co-wrote and produced the film starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, was standing next to its director, Ang Lee, basking in their success when, she says, George Clooney walked in. Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck also had been in the running for the Golden Lion.

“He walked right up to Ang, shook his hand and congratulated him,” Ossana says from her home in Tucson. After heartily congratulating Lee, Clooney looked right past Ossana, then moved on.

“I really was startled,” she says. “It was as if I wasn’t even in the room. Ang even commented on it afterward; it was that obvious.” Clooney did not respond to a request for comment.

Ossana had been fielding that kind of treatment since before the film’s inception. Without her writing partner, Larry McMurtry, she wasn’t taken seriously. During meetings with studio execs, at which she was often the only woman, men turned in surprise when she spoke.

“They would look at me as if, ‘Oh, she speaks!'” Ossana says. “These were very prominent, very well-known men. If I was any more specific, everyone would know exactly who I was talking about.”

Ossana later had to demand that studio executives recognize her with a producing credit on Brokeback, which she and McMurtry had to push through the system. And “when we set about to make the deal with the studio, I’m not certain why, but they said they would have preferred Larry to be a producer.” (He got an executive producer credit, she a producer credit.)

Women are not tapped for power jobs in Hollywood. Their numbers trail far behind the percentage of females in executive positions in other heavily male-dominated endeavors, including the military, tech, finance, government, science and engineering. In 2013, 1.9 percent of the directors of Hollywood’s 100 top-grossing films were female, according to a study conducted by USC researcher Stacy L. Smith. In 2011, women held 7.1 percent of U.S. military general and admiral posts, 20 percent of U.S. Senate seats and more than 20 percent of leadership roles at Twitter and Facebook — and both companies now face gender-discrimination lawsuits.

In the wake of the Sony email-hacking scandal, and following Patricia Arquette’s rallying cry at the Oscars, some well-known Hollywood figures are openly saying that an ugly bias grips the liberal, charitable, Democrat-dominated movie industry…

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See also:
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Dean Batali, ‘That 70s Show’ Writer and Producer, Shares His Greatest Cultural Influencers

Reposted in honor of Dean’s Birthday!

One of the top mentors of young television and screenwriters in Hollywood points to the influencers who influenced him

One of today’s most articulate voices for faithful engagement in culture, Dean Batali, is best known for his work on That ‘70s Show, where he served as a writer for seven years and as an executive producer for the show’s final season. Dean also wrote for the initial two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as for a number of other successful shows (Duckman, Hope and Gloria, The Half-Hour News Hour, and The Adventures of Pete and Pete) and has been key in the development of many young TV writers in Hollywood today.

Always the stickler for precision, Dean took EXACTLY 15 minutes to complete his list and added the following caveat: “I’m going to assume that the Bible is ineligible, but it should go as #1. Sheryl (Anderson) only listed writers, which I would be happy to do, in which case it would be “Preston Sturges” instead of Sullvan’s Travels and “Tom Fontana” instead of Homicide and “Jerry Zucker, David Zucker and Jim Abraham” instead of Airplane! and Peter Jackson instead of Lord of the Rings… etc.  But if I were doing just an author list, I’d have to get into names like Bob Briner, and maybe A. Scott Berg.

Here’s Dean’s “Fab 15” list of the greatest influences in his life.

Michelangelo

David Mamet

St. Elsewhere (TV Show)

Paul McCartney

David E. Kelley

James Brooks

C.S. Lewis

The Lord of the Rings (film) trilogy

Sullivan’s Travels

Buffy helped launch the careers of both show creator Joss Whedon and staff writer Dean Batali

A.A. Milne

Homicide: Life on the Street (TV Show)

Ordinary People (movie)

William Shakespeare

A Chorus Line

Airplane!.

What’s on your “Fab 15 list?

 

Inside Out Screenwriting: What’s My Final Image? by Jeremy Casper

Part of ongoing series: Screenwriting 101: Why the Story Structure Aerodynamics Matter

Your final image serves as the bullseye for your film. With every scene you write, you can ask yourself, “Am I moving my main character closer to that final image or further away?”

by Jeremy Casper • Los Angeles Film Study Center

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If my students were allowed to write down and take with them only one point from my lectures, I would have them write down this simple statement:

A story is… a narrative about a single character who must overcome some sort of conflict in order to solve a very specific problem.

This statement might seem elementary, but if I had a dollar for every script I’ve read that failed to follow this basic tenant of storytelling, I’d be a rich man.

Many times my students think they’ve successfully executed the above statement, but here is where most writers fail. Most writers have a difficult time grasping the concept of “…a very specific problem.” I cannot emphasize how important it is for you as a writer to give your main character a very clearly defined, measurable problem with a cinematic solution.  And, by “cinematic,” I mean a solution that is external and visual.

The solution should be revealed through images not through dialogue. This is why sports stories work so well – there is always a tangible finish line or a physical trophy to win. I can show a team winning the national tournament without ever uttering a single line of dialogue. YOUR stories should work the same way. We know Frodo accomplished his goal at the end of The Return of the King, because the solution to the problem was so clearly defined – the story isn’t over until the One Ring of Power is cast into the fiery pits of Mount Doom – can you get any more cinematic than that?

Where most writers fail is by making the central problem of their story too internal.  Let’s look at a specific example. The following statement is a poor example of a central story problem:

A man wants to find true love.

There are a thousand stories I could write about a man wanting to find true love. In fact, there are so many possibilities that I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know where to start, so I walk away from my laptop and claim I have “writer’s block.”

The above problem is a great “internal” problem for a story, but it’s not strong enough to drive the narrative.  By externalizing the above problem and making it cinematic, I narrow my options and suddenly the writing process doesn’t seem so daunting. So, instead of trying to operate from a vague premise with endless possibilities, let’s tell a story about a man waiting to find true love but make our central story problem more specific and measurable:

A man must propose to a girl before his 30th birthday…

which is only two weeks away!

I don’t even fully know my story yet, but I already know what my final image is going to be…

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s200_jeremy.casperJeremy Casper is a writer/director/producer and recently completed Vacant House, winner of the Silver Screen Award at the Nevada Film Festival.  He teaches cinematography and narrative storytelling at the Los Angeles Film Studies Center (which he also attended 1996). Jeremy has worked professionally in the film industry at Warner Brothers and did his internship at James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment during the production of Titanic.  As a film professor, he has helped develop over 600 short films and is currently co-writing “The Inside Out Story” with filmmaker John K. Bucher, Jr.  He also leads filmmaking seminars all over the world, most recently in Egypt, Ukraine, Ethiopia, New Zealand, Australia, and Italy.  He has several projects currently in development, including his next feature film, which he also plans to direct.

See also: How to Write Everyday Without Missing Your Life, by Genevieve Parker Hill

 

 

Act One Hollywood Screenwriting Program: Coming Soon to a Computer Near You, by Chris Dalton

Inaugural Online Cohort Begins February 19

“Mentoring Act One students is my way of encouraging and empowering the next generation of screenwriters.”  – Monica Macer, Writer, Lost (ABC), Prison Break (Fox); Producer, Nashville (ABC)

by Chris Dalton • Vice President, Act One: Training for Hollywood

Ralph Winter Act One QuoteThis spring, Act One is offering its world-class screenwriting course online. Over the course of 10 weeks, writers can immerse themselves in 40 plus hours of video courses, Skype group writing sessions, and interactive one-on-one exercises with a skilled master teacher. Our goal: to launch you on the path of becoming a top-notch screenwriter.

The program kicks off February 19 with a 3-day intensive writing workshop in Hollywood, California. Students will sit with Hollywood screenwriters, producers, and executives and engage in high-level discussions on film, story, faith and contemporary culture. Lectures and workshops will focus on the vision and creativity needed to succeed in today’s Industry. Participants will leave spiritually challenged and refreshed, ready to dive into the 10-week video-based, online courses running the week of March 2 through the week of May 4.

We are seeing amazing things come out of our online program. Here is what one alum had to say:

“Here’s my story… I left in the personal parts because they’re true. I was truly, truly blessed this summer to be part of act one and welcomed into the family of this amazing program…You guys were a life saver for me in a difficult time where the grief of losing my mom could have easily brought me to a dark place where I gave up my passion and dreams of writing for television, for good. Getting accepted into act one and taking part of the writing program this summer gave me hope, took my writing to the next level, and allowed me to get a glimpse of Hollywood. It also brought wonderful new friends into my life…All through act one. God is doing so much more through this program, this beacon of light than just reaching Hollywood, He’s doing a deep work in the people He chooses to take part of the program. For that, I say: thank you.” – Joey C.

Right now, Act One is offering a discounted rate on the tuition. Apply by January 30, get accepted and pay the tuition in full by February 10, and you will get $250 off the current rate. On top of that, the registration fee is waived.

Visit http://www.actoneprogram.com/writing-program/ for more information.

“If you were to walk into an Act One class, it wouldn’t feel any different than being at UCLA or USC. But from a Christian perspective, it’s a community where people can think out loud.”  –Kurt Schemper, Emmy Award-winning Act One Alumnus

“Whoever tells the best story shapes the culture. Act One is training Christian writers and producers to be the very best.” –David McFadzean, Act One Faculty, Co-Creator, Home Improvement with Tim Allen

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3 Reasons Why a Christian Film Industry is a Really, Really Bad Idea, by Nate Flemming

Part of ongoing series: The Future of Faith in Film and Television

A small voice crying in the wilderness, making the argument that creating a Christian film industry is absolutely the last thing that we Christians should be trying to do.

by Nate Fleming |  Thimblerig’s Ark

holywood“Too little, too late.”

That’s the phrase that kept coming to mind as I started to write a blog post where I, as a Christian, was going to argue against the building of a Christian film industry.

After all, Christians have been trying – on some level – to create a Christian film industry since movies began, and some would argue even earlier.  There were the Billy Graham films of the 1950’s, the apocalyptic Thief in the Night movies of the 1970’s, and a smattering of attempts by different Christian filmmakers during the 1980’s and 1990’s, but these movies barely registered on the radar of people outside of the church.  As far as Hollywood was concerned, Christian movies were provincial affairs, unworthy of notice.

Then in 2004, Mel Gibson shocked everyone to attention with his blood-soaked account of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus – The Passion of the Christ, a film that cost 30 million to make and earned over 600 million.

Hollywood finally stood up and took notice.

It was as if Gibson, by successfully tapping into the largely untapped market of the “faith based audience”, had singlehandedly uncovered the fabled lost golden city of El Dorado, and the L.A. conquistadors immediately set about strategizing how to best invade and conquer this shining city on a hill.

The Armani-suited conquistadors didn’t waste time, but began attaching themselves to little-known Christian filmmakers who seemed to appeal to the Christian masses, eventually inking deals with the Kendrick brothers (Facing the Giants, Fireproof), Pureflix Entertainment (God’s Not Dead), Cloud Ten Pictures (Left Behind), and many others – helping provide the finances and distribution channels that would permit these filmmakers and film companies to continue making and marketing their products for the Christian audience.

And in the past couple of years we’ve seen several well-known individuals from outside the filmmaking industry also try to tap into the Χριστιανός zeitgeist – Rick Santorum, Glenn Beck, Willie Robertson, to name a few – all doing their part to try and build up a Christian (or politically conservative) filmmaking industry in their own image, or at least one that lines up with their own personal theological interpretation of the faith or political ideology.

And now, here we have this little blog, a small voice crying in the wilderness, making the argument that creating a Christian film industry is absolutely the last thing that we Christians should be trying to do.

Here are my three arguments why a Christian Film Industry is a really, really, bad idea… 

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See Also: 

The Future of Faith in Film? Youth and Evangelicals Outstrip All Other Movie-going Audiences, by David Kinnaman

Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories

Oh Crap! The Theater’s Full! by Actress McKenna Elise

The Future of Faith-Based Filmmaking: What is a Christian movie? by Screenwriter Mike Rinaldi

Why Most “Christian” Movies Suck, by Screenwriter Brennan Mark Smith

Christians in Hollywood: A Mission Impossible Writer Offers a Treatment, by TV Writer Ron Austin