Movie Story Type: Biopic

July 31st, 2013 by

In Hollywood movie circles, there are genres like Horror or Science Fiction, cross genres like Action-Thriller or Drama-Comedy, and sub-genres like Romantic Comedy or Mystery Thriller.

Then there are story types, a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or sub-genre.

In July for this series, we have explored over 20 of these movie story types. Knowledge about and awareness of these story types can be a boost not only to your understanding of film history and movie trends, but also as fodder for brainstorming new story concepts. Mix and match them. Invert them. Gender bend them. Genre bend them. Geo bend them.

Movie story types exist for a reason: Because they work. Hopefully this series will help you make them work for you.

Today: Biopic.

Biopic is an abbreviation of ‘biographical motion picture’. Per Wikipedia:

A film that dramatizes the life of an actual person or people. Such films show the life of a historical person and the central character’s real name is used. They differ from films “based on a true story” or “historical films” in that they attempt to comprehensively tell a person’s life story or at least the most historically important years of their lives.

Some examples of biopics:

Marie Antoinette (1938): The life of Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) from betrothal and marriage in 1770 to her beheading.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939): A fictionalized account of the early life of the American president as a young lawyer facing his greatest court case.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): A flamboyant and controversial British military figure and his conflicted loyalties during his World War I service in Arabia.

Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980): Biography of Loretta Lynn, a country and western singer that came from poverty to fame.

Raging Bull (1980): An emotionally self-destructive boxer’s journey through life, as the violence and temper that leads him to the top in the ring, destroys his life outside it.

The Elephant Man (1980): A Victorian surgeon rescues a heavily disfigured man who is mistreated while scraping a living as a side-show freak. Behind his monstrous facade, there is revealed a person of intelligence and sensitivity.

Reds (1981):A radical American journalist becomes involved with the Communist revolution in Russia and hopes to bring its spirit and idealism to the United States.

Silkwood (1983): The story of Karen Silkwood, a metallurgy worker at a plutonium processing plant who was purposefully contaminated, psychologically tortured and possibly murdered to prevent her from exposing blatant worker safety violations at the plant.

Amadeus (1984): The incredible story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, told by his peer and secret rival Antonio Salieri – now confined to an insane asylum.

The Last Emperor (1987): The story of the final Emperor of China.

Malcolm X (1992): The biopic of the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader.

Schindler’s List (1993): In Poland during World War II, Oskar Schindler gradually becomes concerned for his Jewish workforce after witnessing their persecution by the Nazis.

Ed Wood (1994): The mostly true story of the legendary director of awful movies and his strange group of friends and actors.

Erin Brockovich (2000): An unemployed single mother becomes a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brings down a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply.

Ray (2004): The life and career of the legendary popular music pianist, Ray Charles.

Milk (2008): The story of Harvey Milk, and his struggles as an American gay activist who fought for gay rights and became California’s first openly gay elected official.

The process of adapting a real person’s life into a movie story is one of the trickiest writing jobs around. The wealth of historical anecdotes and incidents is both a blessing and a curse: Generally great material, but too much of it. I’ve read a slew of interviews with screenwriters who echo this basic point: It’s almost more important what elements you choose to omit than what you decide to keep in the final story.

Sometimes a person’s life doesn’t lay out terribly well for narrative structure. Sometimes they do. In an article in “Written By” magazine, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman said that after he finished reading the Sylvia Nasar biography “A Beautiful Mind,” he immediately saw the three-act structure: Genius. Fall. Redemption. In either case, the screenwriter works by the golden rule of adaptation: Never let the facts get in the way of the story, an adage Goldsman followed big-time in adapting A Beautiful Mind. The Wikipedia entry lists some of the key changes in the movie:

The narrative of the film differs considerably from the actual events of Nash’s life. The film has been criticized for this, but the filmmakers had consistently said that the film was not meant to be a literal representation.One difficulty was in portraying stress and mental illness within one person’s mind.Sylvia Nasar stated that the filmmakers “invented a narrative that, while far from a literal telling, is true to the spirit of Nash’s story”. The film made his hallucinations visual and auditory when, in fact, they were exclusively auditory. It is true that his handlers, both from faculty and administration, had to introduce him to assistants and strangers. The PBS documentary A Brilliant Madness attempts to portray his life more accurately.

The differences were substantial. Few if any of the characters in the film, besides John and Alicia Nash, corresponded directly to actual people. The discussion of the Nash equilibrium was criticized as over-simplified. In the film, schizophrenic hallucinations appeared while he was in graduate school, when in fact they did not show up until some years later. No mention is made of Nash’s supposed homosexual experiences at Rand which Nash and his wife both denied.

Nash also fathered a son, John David Stier (born 19 June 1953), by Eleanor Agnes Stier (1921–2005), a nurse whom he abandoned when informed of her pregnancy.

The movie also did not include Alicia’s divorce of John in 1963. It was not until Nash won the Nobel Memorial Prize that they renewed their relationship, although she allowed him to live with her as a boarder beginning in 1970. They remarried in 2001.

But when John Nash himself attended the movie’s premiere, he said afterward, “That was my life.” Not his literal life perhaps, but his emotional and psychological experience. And in that respect, we can say that Goldsman nailed the adaptation.

That’s in keeping with Hollywood’s general approach to biopics: Never let the facts stand in the way of the story.

What are your favorite biopics? Why do you think they are so popular?

This is the final post in a monthly series. Have you learned anything from it? If so, please let us know in comments.

Movie Story Type: Contained Thriller

July 30th, 2013 by

In Hollywood movie circles, there are genres like Horror or Science Fiction, cross genres like Action-Thriller or Drama-Comedy, and sub-genres like Romantic Comedy or Mystery Thriller.

Then there are story types, a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or sub-genre.

In July for this series, we will explore over 20 of these movie story types, one each Monday through Friday. Knowledge about and awareness of these story types can be a boost not only to your understanding of film history and movie trends, but also as fodder for brainstorming new story concepts. Mix and match them. Invert them. Gender bend them. Genre bend them. Geo bend them.

Movie story types exist for a reason: Because they work. Hopefully this series will help you make them work for you.

Today: Contained Thriller.

Some examples of contained thriller movies:

Lifeboat (1944): Several survivors of a torpedoed ship find themselves in the same boat with one of the men who sunk it.

Rear Window (1954): A wheelchair bound photographer spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder.

Wait Until Dark (1967): A recently blinded woman is terrorized by a trio of thugs while they search for a heroin stuffed doll they believe is in her apartment.

When a Stranger Calls (1979): A psychopathic killer terrorizes a babysitter, then returns seven years later to menace her again.

Dead Calm (1989): A mass-murderer kidnaps and seduces a young woman after leaving her husband to die on the vessel whose crew he’s just slaughtered.

Cube (1997): Seven complete strangers of widely varying personality characteristics are involuntarily placed in an endless kafkaesque maze containing deadly traps.

Panic Room (2002): A woman and her teenage daughter become imprisoned in the panic room of their own house by 3 criminals.

Phone Booth (2002): Stuart Shepard finds himself trapped in a phone booth, pinned down by an extortionist’s sniper rifle.

Open Water (2003): Based on the true story of two scuba divers accidentally stranded in shark infested waters after their tour boat has left.

Saw (2004): With a dead body lying between them, two men wake up in the secure lair of a serial killer who’s been nicknamed “Jigsaw”. The men must follow various rules and objectives if they wish to survive and win the deadly game set for them.

Hard Candy (2005): A teenage girl raids a man’s home, suspecting he is a pedophile, in order to expose him.

Disturbia (2007): A teen living under house arrest becomes convinced his neighbor is a serial killer.

Buried (2010): After an attack by a group of Iraqis, Paul wakes to find he is buried alive inside a coffin. With only a lighter and a cell phone it’s a race against time to escape this claustrophobic death trap.

What are some of the common elements of a contained thriller? Obviously the contained part is key. If one of our goals as writers is to lock a Protagonist in a circumstance, what better way than to – literally – lock them to a specific location. The suffocating closeness of the locale can prove claustrophobic for a moviegoer. Combine that with a Nemesis figure who knows the ins and outs of the location, then you up the underdog status for the Protagonist.

But heads-up: Writing a contained thriller can be a challenge precisely because of the limited locations. In my 2011 interview with Chris Sparling, screenwriter of the contained thrillers Buried and ATM (2012), I asked this exact question:

SM: Having made that choice to stay inside the coffin with the Protagonist Paul Conroy, what did you find to be some of the most difficult aspects of crafting a viable story because of the physical limitations you set on yourself?

CS: I suppose it was trying to make sure the story didn’t seem redundant. It needed to always be changing, despite the physical limitations imposed by the setting. Primarily, this meant the risk/stakes had to keep escalating, just as the “set” itself had to evolve, which was accomplished with the various light sources and even Paul’s body position.

That said, if you can conquer that issue, a contained thriller can be a strong selling point for a spec script for two primary reasons: (1) The studios can use the restricted location as part of the hook in their marketing strategy, playing upon people’s fears about being stranded in a location. (2) More importantly: Cost. By virtue of the fact contained thrillers have as few as one location, that can result in a low or even microbudget project. Think Paranormal Activity (2007). Costing a reported $15,000, the movie grossed $9.1M its opening weekend, and the entire series of movies (5 total) has generated nearly $1B in box office revenues. All for a movie Oren Peli shot entirely inside his own house.

What other qualities and dynamics do you think are present in contained thriller movies? What other films of note belong in the list?

Movie Story Types: Body Swap

July 29th, 2013 by

In Hollywood movie circles, there are genres like Horror or Science Fiction, cross genres like Action-Thriller or Drama-Comedy, and sub-genres like Romantic Comedy or Mystery Thriller.

Then there are story types, a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or sub-genre.

In July for this series, we will explore over 20 of these movie story types, one each Monday through Friday. Knowledge about and awareness of these story types can be a boost not only to your understanding of film history and movie trends, but also as fodder for brainstorming new story concepts. Mix and match them. Invert them. Gender bend them. Genre bend them. Geo bend them.

Movie story types exist for a reason: Because they work. Hopefully this series will help you make them work for you.

Today: Body Swap.

Some examples of body swap movies:

All of Me (1984): A dying millionaire has her soul transferred into a younger, willing woman. But something goes wrong, and she finds herself in her lawyer’s body – together with the lawyer.

The Hidden (1987): An alien is on the run in America. To get his kicks, it kills anything that gets in its way, and uses the body as a new hiding place.

Like Father, Like Son (1987): A mysterious potion switches the personalities of a buttoned up doctor and his laid back son.

18 Again (1988): By means of an accident the soul of David and his swinging grandfather get swapped.

Big (1988): When a boy wishes to be big at a magic wish machine, he wakes up the next morning and finds himself in an adult body literally overnight.

Vice Versa (1988): A mysterious oriental skull transforms a father into his son, and vice versa.

Dream a Little Dream (1989): An accident puts the consciousness of an elderly dream researcher into the body of a bratty teenager. The problem? The kid prefers dreamworld limbo to real life.

Dating the Enemy (1996): A couple wake up one morning to find they have now switched bodies.

The Hot Chick (2002): An attractive and popular teenager who is mean spirited toward others, finds herself in the body of an older man, and must find a way to get back to her original body.

Freaky Friday (2003): An overworked mother and her daughter do not get along. When they switch bodies, each is forced to adapt to the others life for one freaky Friday.

13 Going on 30 (2004): A 13 year old girl plays a game on her 13th birthday and wakes up the next day as a 30 year old woman.

The Change-Up (2011): Dave is a married man with two kids and a loving wife , and Mitch is a single man who is at the prime of his sexual life. One fateful night while Mitch and Dave are peeing in a fountain when lightning strikes and they switch bodies.

The swap may occur through some sort of magic or a scientific experiment, often gone awry. Their minds may switch bodies. Alternatively their minds may stay the same, but their body may go through a sudden alteration as in Big and 13 Going on 30.

What is the appeal of this story type? If we look at that spate of body swap movies between 1987 and 1989, one thing is clear: In that era when high concept ruled, body swap fit the bill to a tee.

There is also a strong wish fulfillment potential: I wish I were big. Plus an organic FOOW [Fish Out Of Water] element: Oh, my God. I’m a girl!

What other qualities and dynamics do you think are present in body swap movies? What other films of note belong in the list?

Movie Story Types: Found Footage

July 26th, 2013 by

In Hollywood movie circles, there are genres like Horror or Science Fiction, cross genres like Action-Thriller or Drama-Comedy, and sub-genres like Romantic Comedy or Mystery Thriller.

Then there are story types, a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or sub-genre.

In July for this series, we will explore over 20 of these movie story types, one each Monday through Friday. Knowledge about and awareness of these story types can be a boost not only to your understanding of film history and movie trends, but also as fodder for brainstorming new story concepts. Mix and match them. Invert them. Gender bend them. Genre bend them. Geo bend them.

Movie story types exist for a reason: Because they work. Hopefully this series will help you make them work for you.

Today: Found Footage. Per its Wikipedia page:

Found footage is a genre of filmmaking, especially horror, in which all or a substantial part of a film is presented as discovered film or video recordings, often left behind by missing or dead protagonists. The events onscreen are seen through the camera of one or more of the characters involved, who often speaks offscreen. Filming may be done by the actors themselves as they recite their lines, and shaky camerawork is often employed for realism.

Some examples of found footage movies:

Cannibal Holocaust (1980): A New York University professor returns from a rescue mission to the Amazon rainforest with the footage shot by a lost team of documentarians who were making a film about the area’s local cannibal tribes.

Man Bites Dog (1992): A camera crew follows a serial killer/thief around as he exercises his craft.

The Last Broadcast (1998): Bristling with equipment, two enthusiastic local access cable TV producers recruit an assistant and venture into a forest in search of the mythical and horrifying Jersey Devil.

The Blair Witch Project (1999): Three film students travel to Maryland to make a student film about a local urban legend: The Blair Witch.

Noroi: The Curse (2005): A documentary filmmaker explores seemingly unrelated paranormal incidents connected by the legend of an ancient demon called the “kagutaba.”

[Rec] (2007): “REC” turns on a young TV reporter and her cameraman who cover the night shift at the local fire station.

Diary of the Dead (2007): A group of young film students run into real-life zombies while filming a horror movie of their own.

Cloverfield (2008): Revolves around a monster attack in New York as told from the point of view of a small group of people.

Paranormal Activity (2009): After moving into a suburban home, a couple becomes increasingly disturbed by a nightly demonic presence.

The Last Exorcism (2010): A troubled evangelical minister agrees to let his last exorcism be filmed by a documentary crew.

Apollo 18 (2011): Decades-old found footage from NASA’s abandoned Apollo 18 mission, where two American astronauts were sent on a secret expedition, reveals the reason the U.S. has never returned to the moon.

If you visit the Wikipedia page linked above, you will be amazed to see how many found footage movies have been produced in the last decade. Why?

First the very idea of the central conceit — found footage — can translate into low budget filmmaking. If the audience is expecting to see raw footage, then filmmakers can embrace that and cut costs at the same time.

Second viewers seem to be drawn to found footage movies because they create a heightened sense of reality making the viewing experience that much more realistic and visceral.

Indeed Hollywood has seemed to swap out its obsession with contained thrillers in exchange for found footage movies. Witness these spec scripts that have sold in 2011: Evidence and Category Six, both by writer John Swetnam.

What other qualities and dynamics do you think are present in found footage movies? What other films of note belong in the list?

Movie Story Type: Frustration Comedy

July 25th, 2013 by

In Hollywood movie circles, there are genres like Horror or Science Fiction, cross genres like Action-Thriller or Drama-Comedy, and sub-genres like Romantic Comedy or Mystery Thriller.

Then there are story types, a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or sub-genre.

In July for this series, we will explore over 20 of these movie story types, one each Monday through Friday. Knowledge about and awareness of these story types can be a boost not only to your understanding of film history and movie trends, but also as fodder for brainstorming new story concepts. Mix and match them. Invert them. Gender bend them. Genre bend them. Geo bend them.

Movie story types exist for a reason: Because they work. Hopefully this series will help you make them work for you.

Today: Frustration Comedy.

There are all sorts of comedy story types. One of them is the frustration comedy. There are variations, but the basic dynamic is that the Protagonist or Co-Protagonists are frustrated over and over and over again in their attempts to achieve their goal. Oftentimes the goal is actually pretty simple, which makes the level of frustration that much more… well… frustrating.

In It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), a dying man provides a clue to a disparate group of strangers that promises to lead them to – literally – buried treasure ($350K). The all-star cast of characters has everything go wrong that can go wrong in their race to get to the money first.

In My Favorite Year (1982), young TV staffer Benjy Stone (Mark-Linn Baker) is given the responsibility of taking care of alcoholic movie star Alan Swann (Peter O’Toole) in the week leading up to Swann’s appearance on a hit 50s TV variety show. Swann repeatedly drives Stone crazy through his drunken antics.

In Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), Neal Page (Steve Martin) gets stuck with fellow Thanksgiving weekend traveler Del Griffith (John Candy) and the pair endure one humiliating travel experience after another.

In The Hangover (2009), three groomsmen lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during their drunken misadventures, then must retrace their steps in order to find him.

But probably the best example of this type of story is After Hours (1986). In this dark comedy, directed by Martin Scorcese, Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a meek word processor unexpectedly meets Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette), a beautiful but emotionally disturbed woman. He impulsively travels to Manhattan’s SoHo district in a quixotic attempt to go on a date with the fetching Marcy, but finds himself trapped in a nightmarish web of unlikely and bizarre characters and events. The frustration is amplified by the fact that underlying his journey is his romantic desire re Marcy, a tantalizing fantasy turned into a nightmare.

The compressed time frame, clean set-up, clear goal, and increasing insanity of obstacles, complications, and reversals, all of that can make for a winning formula for a script.

I love these type of stories, so it’s no surprise there’s this:

Trojan War (1997): Brad thinks he has found the girl of his dreams with Brooke. On the night when he thinks all his dreams will come true he runs into a problem…No condom.

What frustration comedies would you add to this list? What appeals to you about this type of story?

Movie Story Type: Revenge

July 24th, 2013 by

In Hollywood movie circles, there are genres like Horror or Science Fiction, cross genres like Action-Thriller or Drama-Comedy, and sub-genres like Romantic Comedy or Mystery Thriller.

Then there are story types, a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or sub-genre.

In July for this series, we will explore over 20 of these movie story types, one each Monday through Friday. Knowledge about and awareness of these story types can be a boost not only to your understanding of film history and movie trends, but also as fodder for brainstorming new story concepts. Mix and match them. Invert them. Gender bend them. Genre bend them. Geo bend them.

Movie story types exist for a reason: Because they work. Hopefully this series will help you make them work for you.

Today: Revenge.

Ah, revenge. One of the most basic of human emotions. Someone screws with you? You screw with them. We are talking real lizard-brain storytelling here and there have been some big movies in this genre:

Some examples of revenge movies:

Death Wish (1974): A New York City architect becomes a one-man vigilante squad after his wife is murdered by street punks in which he randomly goes out and kills would-be muggers on the mean streets after dark.

Nine to Five (1980): Three female employees of a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” find a way to turn the tables on him.

Cape Fear (1991): A convicted rapist, released from prison after serving a 14 year sentence, stalks the family of the lawyer who originally defended him.

The Crow (1994): A man brutally murdered comes back to life as an undead avenger of his and his fiancée’s murder.

Payback (1999): Porter is shot by his wife and best friend and is left to die. When he survives he plots revenge.

The Limey (1999): An extremely volatile and dangerous Englishman goes to Los Angeles to find the man he considers responsible for his daughter’s death.

Gladiator (2000): When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an emperor’s corrupt son, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge.

Memento (2001): A man, suffering from short-term memory loss, uses notes and tattoos to hunt for the man he thinks killed his wife.

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003): The Bride wakes up after a long coma. The baby that she carried before entering the coma is gone. The only thing on her mind is to have revenge on the assassination team that betrayed her – a team she was once part of.

Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004): The murderous Bride continues her vengeance quest against her ex-boss, Bill, and his two remaining associates; his younger brother Budd, and Bill’s latest flame Elle.

Man On Fire (2004): In Mexico City, a former assassin swears vengeance on those who committed an unspeakable act against the family he was hired to protect.

V for Vendetta (2006): A shadowy freedom fighter known only as “V” uses terrorist tactics to fight against his totalitarian society. Upon rescuing a girl from the secret police, he also finds his best chance at having an ally.

Taken (2008): A former spy relies on his old skills to save his estranged daughter, who has been forced into the slave trade.

Horrible Bosses (2011): Three friends conspire to murder their awful bosses when they realize they are standing in the way of their happiness.

One of the main advantages of a revenge movie for a screenwriter is how clear cut everything is: Good Guy. Bad Guy. Crime. Justification for violence. And off you go.

We live in a complex world where very little is black and white. How nice to be able to dip into a revenge movie where we can indulge in simplistic fantasies, giving ourselves over purely to a blood lust for retribution.

Revenge movies cut through moral ambiguity and traffic in pure violent intentions, tapping into some of our most base human instincts. Those are powerful motivators for any potential moviegoer who has been wronged in his/her life… which is just about everybody.

What revenge movies would you add to this list? What appeals to you about this type of story?

Movie Story Type: Mockumentary

July 23rd, 2013 by

In Hollywood movie circles, there are genres like Horror or Science Fiction, cross genres like Action-Thriller or Drama-Comedy, and sub-genres like Romantic Comedy or Mystery Thriller.

Then there are story types, a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or sub-genre.

In July for this series, we will explore over 20 of these movie story types, one each Monday through Friday. Knowledge about and awareness of these story types can be a boost not only to your understanding of film history and movie trends, but also as fodder for brainstorming new story concepts. Mix and match them. Invert them. Gender bend them. Genre bend them. Geo bend them.

Movie story types exist for a reason: Because they work. Hopefully this series will help you make them work for you.

Today: Mockumentary.

Per its Wikipedia page:

A mockumentary (a portmanteau of the words mock and documentary), is a type of film or television show in which fictitious events are presented in documentary format. These productions are often used to analyze or comment on current events and issues by using a fictitious setting, or to parody the documentary form itself.[1] They may be either comedic or dramatic in form, although comedic mockumentaries are more common.

Some examples of mockumentary movies:

Take the Money and Run (1969): The life and times of Virgil Starkwell, inept bank robber.

Real Life (1979): A pushy, narcissistic filmmaker persuades a Phoenix family to let him and his crew film their everyday lives.

Zelig (1983): “Documentary” about a man who can look and act like whoever he’s around, and meets various famous people.

This is Spinal Tap! (1984): Spinal Tap, the world’s loudest band, is chronicled by hack documentarian Marti DeBergi on what proves to be a fateful tour.

Bob Roberts (1992): A corrupt rightwing folksinger runs a crooked election campaign while only one independent muck-raking reporter is trying to stop him.

Waiting for Guffman (1996): An aspiring director and the marginally-talented amateur cast of a hokey small-town Missouri musical production go overboard when they learn that someone from Broadway will be in attendance.

Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999): A small town beauty pageant turns deadly as it becomes clear that someone will go to any lengths to win.

Best in Show (2000): A colorful array of characters competes at a national dog show.

A Mighty Wind (2003): Mockumentary captures the reunion of 1960s folk trio the Folksmen as they prepare for a show at The Town Hall to memorialize a recently deceased concert promoter.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006): Kazakh TV talking head Borat is dispatched to the United States to report on the greatest country in the world. With a documentary crew in tow, Borat becomes more interested in locating and marrying Pamela Anderson.

For Your Consideration (2006): Three actors learn that their respective performances in the film “Home for Purim,” a drama set in the mid-1940s American South, are generating award-season buzz.

Bruno (2009): Flamboyant Austrian fashionista Brüno takes his show to America.

Mockumentaries, at least the comedic ones, fall into the broader category satire. They create an intriguing dynamic whereby the filmmakers go inside a subculture to make a commentary about it from the outside.

If we chose to ascribe a character archetype to mockumentary, it would have to be Trickster, whereby a character or characters don masks purporting to be representative of a specific viewpoint or sociological experience, only to use their personae to unearth the foibles, fabrications, and fun of those cultural environments.

From a psychological standpoint, one major attraction for a mockumentary movie viewer is the experience of being in on the joke, one that extends for the duration of the film.

What other qualities and dynamics do you think are present in mockumentary movies? What other films of note belong in the list?

Movie Story Type: Martial Arts

July 22nd, 2013 by

In Hollywood movie circles, there are genres like Horror or Science Fiction, cross genres like Action-Thriller or Drama-Comedy, and sub-genres like Romantic Comedy or Mystery Thriller.

Then there are story types, a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or sub-genre.

In July for this series, we will explore over 20 of these movie story types, one each Monday through Friday. Knowledge about and awareness of these story types can be a boost not only to your understanding of film history and movie trends, but also as fodder for brainstorming new story concepts. Mix and match them. Invert them. Gender bend them. Genre bend them. Geo bend them.

Movie story types exist for a reason: Because they work. Hopefully this series will help you make them work for you.

Today: Martial Arts.

Martial arts, kung fu, ninja, “chop sockey,” there are many variations in this movie story type, but they typically share some common traits:

* Action film with numerous fighting sequences.

* Highly technical fighting with stylized maneuvers and camera angles.

* A strong Asian influence with a majority of movies produced in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia.

Martial arts movies feature numerous stars including Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Yuen Baio and the legendary Bruce Lee [pictured]. Hollywood has also produced martial arts figures including Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Jason Statham.

Some examples of martial arts movies:

The Chinese Connection (1972): A young man seeks vengence for the death of his teacher.

Enter the Dragon (1973): A martial artist agrees to spy on a reclusive crime lord using his invitation to a tournament there as cover.

The Shaolin Temple (1982): The son of a slave worker escapes to the Shaolin Temple, learns kung fu, and sets out to kill the traitor who killed his father.

The Last Dragon (1985): A young man searches for the “master” to obtain the final level of martial arts mastery known as the glow.

The Legend of Drunken Master (1994): Wong Fei-Hong is unwittingly caught up in the battle between foreigners who wish to export ancient Chinese artifacts and loyalists who don’t want the pieces to leave the country.

Blade (1998): A half-vampire, half-mortal man becomes a protector of the mortal race, while slaying evil vampires.

The Matrix (1999): A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000: Two warriors in pursuit of a stolen sword and a notorious fugitive are led to an impetuous, physically-skilled, teenage nobleman’s daughter, who is at a crossroads in her life.

Ong-bak (2003): When the head of a statue sacred to a village is stolen, a young martial artist goes to the big city and finds himself taking on the underworld to retrieve it.

Fearless (2006): This film tells the story of Chinese Martial Arts Master Huo Yuanjia (1869-1910).

Ip Man (2008): A semi-biographical account of Yip Man, the first martial arts master to teach the Chinese martial art of Wing Chun.

Martial arts movies typically have a clear delineation between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, the latter having hurt or killed somebody close to the former, or overlords ruthlessly ruling underlings. This allows a viewer to fully commit their positive feelings toward the Protagonist and negative feelings toward the Nemesis, thus animating battle sequences with those dual sets of emotions.

Another feature common to martial arts movies is training, often comprising 10% or more of screen time. This allows the viewer to see complex techniques slowed down and broken into composite parts, meaning that when the participants use those same moves in real time battle, we have a greater appreciation for the skill in play. There’s also this: To the degree we identify with the Protagonist as they undergo training, there is a subtle reinforcement that happens: If this character can master a skill, we can, too. Maybe not becoming a kung fu expert, but other areas of our own lives.

Finally no martial arts movie is complete with a memorable Mentor character who distills some universal truth into simple, memorable lines of dialogue. To wit:

* It is better to sweat in practice than to bleed in battle.

* Practicing one hundred things is not as good as mastering one thing perfectly.

* The mind commands, strength goes along and follows.

What other qualities and dynamics do you think are present in most martial arts films? What other movies of note belong in the list?

Movie Story Type: Post-Apocalypse

July 19th, 2013 by

In Hollywood movie circles, there are genres like Horror or Science Fiction, cross genres like Action-Thriller or Drama-Comedy, and sub-genres like Romantic Comedy or Mystery Thriller.

Then there are story types, a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or sub-genre.

In July for this series, we will explore over 20 of these movie story types, one each Monday through Friday. Knowledge about and awareness of these story types can be a boost not only to your understanding of film history and movie trends, but also as fodder for brainstorming new story concepts. Mix and match them. Invert them. Gender bend them. Genre bend them. Geo bend them.

Movie story types exist for a reason: Because they work. Hopefully this series will help you make them work for you.

Today: Post Apocalypse. Closely related to disaster movies, Wikipedia has this article on apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction:

Apocalyptic fiction is a sub-genre of science fiction that is concerned with the end of civilization due to a potentially existential catastrophe such as nuclear warfare, pandemic, extraterrestrial attack, impact event, cybernetic revolt, Technological Singularity, Dysgenics, supernatural phenomena, Divine Judgement, Climate Change, resource depletion or some other general disaster. Post-apocalyptic fiction is set in a world or civilization after such a disaster. The time frame may be immediately after the catastrophe, focusing on the travails or psychology of survivors, or considerably later, often including the theme that the existence of pre-catastrophe civilization has been forgotten (or mythologized). Post-apocalyptic stories often take place in an agrarian, non-technological future world, or a world where only scattered elements of technology remain. There is a considerable degree of blurring between this form of science fiction and that which deals with dystopias.

Some examples of post-apocalyptic movies:

On the Beach (1959): The residents of Australia after a global nuclear war must come to terms with the fact that all life will be destroyed in a matter of months.

The Last Man on Earth (1964): When a disease turns all of humanity into the living dead, the last man on earth becomes a reluctant zombie hunter.

A Boy and His Dog (1975): A boy communicates telepathically with his dog as they scavenge for food and sex in a post-apocalyptic world.

Mad Max (1979): In a dystopic future Australia, a vicious biker gang murder a cop’s family and make his fight with them personal.

Twelve Monkeys (1995): In a future world devastated by disease, a convict is sent back in time to gather information about the man-made virus that wiped out most of the human population on the planet.

Waterworld (1995): In a future where the polar ice caps have melted and most of Earth is underwater, a mutated mariner fights starvation and outlaw “smokers,” and reluctantly helps a woman and a young girl try to find dry land.

The Postman (1997): In a post-apocalyptic America, what begins as a con game becomes one man’s quest to rebuild civilization by resuming postal service.

28 Days Later (2002): Four weeks after a mysterious, incurable virus spreads throughout the UK, a handful of survivors try to find sanctuary.

The Road (2009): A post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his son trying to survive by any means possible.

The Book of Eli (2010): A post-apocalyptic tale, in which a lone man fights his way across America in order to protect a sacred book that holds the secrets to saving humankind.

Whereas disaster movies focus on the build-up to and experience of some sort of extensive calamity, post-apocalypse movies deal with the aftermath. Thus a key question posed for viewers is a powerful psychological one: How would I survive? The question can be played out in a lonely existential framework such as The Last Man on Earth, one man versus an army of mutants, a handful of survivors such as 28 Days Later, or larger groups such as Waterworld.

One narrative angle on post-apocalyptic movies is the theme of society reformed. In stories like The Postman or TV mini-series like “The Stand,” the post-apocalyptic setting serves as a sort of petri dish for a grand social experiment: How will groups of survivors band together? Which systems of beliefs and behaviors will rise to the top… and which will fall to the side?

Those questions get at the heart of the psychological appeal of post-apocalypse movies: Stripped of what we experience in our ‘normal’ lives, which of our values would prevail? These type of stories cause us to go into a more base aspect of our self, much closer to our lizard-brain attached to survival than our higher consciousness and egalitarian instincts.

Whereas disaster movies cause us to ask this question — What would I do — post-apocalypse stories raise another issue: Who would I be?

What post-apocalypse movies would you add to this list? What appeals to you about this type of story?

Movie Story Type: Ticking Clock

July 18th, 2013 by

In Hollywood movie circles, there are genres like Horror or Science Fiction, cross genres like Action-Thriller or Drama-Comedy, and sub-genres like Romantic Comedy or Mystery Thriller.

Then there are story types, a shorthand way to describe a specific narrative conceit that is almost always tied directly to the movie’s central concept. They can be found in any genre, cross genre, or sub-genre.

In July for this series, we will explore over 20 of these movie story types, one each Monday through Friday. Knowledge about and awareness of these story types can be a boost not only to your understanding of film history and movie trends, but also as fodder for brainstorming new story concepts. Mix and match them. Invert them. Gender bend them. Genre bend them. Geo bend them.

Movie story types exist for a reason: Because they work. Hopefully this series will help you make them work for you.

Today: Ticking Clock.

Ticking Clock movies are those where there is a definitive event positioned to happen in the near future which will lead to dramatic, even dire results.

Some movie examples:

D.O.A. (1950): Frank Bigelow, told he’s been poisoned and has only a few days to live, tries to find out who killed him and why.

High Noon (1952): A marshall, personally compelled to face a returning deadly enemy, finds that his own town refuses to help him.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1962): An insane general starts a process to nuclear holocaust that a war room of politicians and generals frantically try to stop.

Escape from New York (1981): In 1997, when the US President crashes into Manhattan, now a giant maximum security prison, a convicted bank robber is sent in for a rescue.

War Games (1983): A young man finds a back door into a military central computer in which reality is confused with game-playing, possibly starting World War III.

Back to the Future (1985): In 1985, Doc Brown invents time travel; in 1955, Marty McFly accidentally prevents his parents from meeting, putting his own existence at stake.

Run Lola Run (1988): A young woman in Germany has twenty minutes to find and bring 100,000 Deutschmarks to her boyfriend before he robs a supermarket.

Speed (1994): A young cop must prevent a bomb exploding aboard a city bus by keeping its speed above 50 mph.

Nick of Time (1995): A six year-old girl is kidnapped with the criminals giving the father 90 minutes to assassinate the Governor in order to get his daughter back.

Phone Booth (2002): Stuart Shepard finds himself trapped in a phone booth, pinned down by an extortionist’s sniper rifle.

Crank (2006): Professional assassin Chev Chelios learns his rival has injected him with a poison that will kill him if his heart rate drops.

One of the most obvious advantages to a writer working with a ticking clock dynamic is an overt, sustained and building pressure as the time gets closer and closer. This also comes into play with the psychological experience of the script reader and can help generate a powerful sense of pace.

It’s also a great way to lure the moviegoer into the story universe: What if I was in a situation like that? What if the clock was ticking down on me?

Adding pressure to almost any situation helps the writer make the experience ‘more.’ If makes drama more dramatic… comedy more humorous… thrillers more suspenseful. And if the ticking clock is a key aspect of the story’s central conceit, it can also be a great marketing hook.

What other qualities and dynamics do you think are present in ticking clock movies? What other films of note belong in the list?