Perfect timing. With my 1-week online class Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling starting on Monday, May 30, along comes Part 1 of what looks to be an excellent series on the cinematic efforts of Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Here the video covers how the Coens got into filmmaking and their first two movies: Blood Simple. and Raising Arizona:
I saw Blood Simple. when it was released in 1984 and Raising Arizona will always have a soft spot in my heart as one of the very first industry screenings I attended when I first broke into Hollywood in 1987. Also it features my first agent Peter Benedek as a prison counselor.
The Coens are part of my Holy Trinity of filmmakers along with Billy Wilder and Pixar which is why I’m excited to teach this upcoming class on the duo. For more information, go here.
I have been tracking Kirby Ferguson and his “Everything is a Remix” videos since the very first one came out in 2010. So when Kirby reached out to me via email about his latest video — “Everything is a Remix: The Force Awakens” — I had to check it out. Here it is:
While the video notes numerous similarities between Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Kirby makes some more important points for screenwriters:
* Since everything has pretty much been done before, it is inevitable we will be ‘remixing’ content from previous stories. So the challenge is to Copy, Transform, and Combine — this is Kirby’s language — and that fits in with what I’ve blogged about since I launched this site in 2008: That Hollywood’s philosophy in choosing what movies and TV series to make comes down to this: Similar but different. As I articulated in this 2013 post:
Sequels. Prequels. Remakes. Reboots. Why do Hollywood studios choose to go this route with such familiar material? Why not fill their development slates with bold projects full of fresh ideas and innovative stories?
That would run entirely counter to the working ethos which informs the studio system decision-making process, a business mantra that can best be summed up in this manner: What they are inclined to buy, develop, and produce are projects, including screenplays, that are similar but different.
Again the question: Why? There are many reasons. Here are the biggest two.
The increasing importance of marketing: The simple fact is after the acquisition of a project, years of rewrites, talent falling in and out, battles over budget, months of pre-production, production, post-production, none of it matters one whit unless the studios can sell the movie. And in an increasingly noisy world with consumers bombarded by advertisers on all sides, a studio’s task of getting the message out about a movie has become harder and harder.
If the movie’s concept or storyline has a familiar ring to it, so the marketing theory goes, it’s more likely to connect with consumers. And if a consumer remembers some aspect of a movie’s ad campaign, the odds increase exponentially they will be motivated to get off their fanny, drive to the local Cineplex, and actually buy a movie ticket.
So from a purely marketing standpoint, similar but different is supposed to make selling the movie easier and more effective. That’s the first reason. The other reason lies at the heart of the studios’ decision-making process regarding movie deals:
Fear of making a mistake: Studio executives are afraid to commit to projects because if a movie they’re associated with bombs, it doesn’t bode well for their careers. This is especially true with the current climate where the major Hollywood studios are all part of major corporate conglomerates which means pretty much everything boils down to profits.
Flops make bad things happen.
This should put a personal spin on why Hollywood puts out so many sequels, remakes, and film adaptations of TV shows. Even if they fail (Cats & Dogs II, The A-Team), studio execs can defend themselves because there are equally, if not more, hits based on similar but different content (Iron Man 2, The Karate Kid, Star Trek).
* Given these dual realities — Every new story is in some way a remix of old stories / Hollywood actually embraces the idea of ‘similar but different’ — the task of the creator, as Kirby lays it out in his videos, is to find the sweet spot between the Familiar on one hand and the Novel on the other.
In a nifty bit of synchronicity, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie made this precise point on Twitter yesterday:
Screenwriting tip: It’s as simple as giving them exactly what they expect in a way they’ve never seen before.
So there’s the takeaway: Give ’em what they expect, but with a fresh combination of narrative elements.
Here is the combo plate of Kirby’s first four videos in the Everything is a Remix series:
For many people, Sunday is a time for reflection. Here is a video to do just that:
Joseph Campbell said the central theme of the Hero’s Journey is this: Follow your bliss. Discover what your rapture is and do that. This video by Prince Ea makes that point in a poetic and dramatic fashion.
Each one of us is born with an expiration date. If you are called to a creative life, make the most of each day.
This is excellent from Tony Zhou who keeps producing terrific and informative videos. Here he delves into the craft of film editing including interviews with several notable editors, attempting to get into their minds about their process. Bottom line: They choose cuts based primarily by instinct. Check it out:
Two takeaways for writers:
* We can bring our own inner editor to work in our writing. How and when to enter and exit scenes. How and what to focus on with our scene description, each line a potential camera shot. Transitions between scenes. Lines of dialogue, what to keep, what to cut. Even choices of INT. and EXT., DAY and NIGHT, moving from scene to scene can created editorial opportunities. When you write, especially those final drafts, bring your inner editor to bear on the material.
* Watching this video reminds us – yet again! – that movies are primarily a visual medium. Obviously directors, cinematographers, and actors have much more say as to the visual nature of movie simply because they are involved in the production stage of the process, and yet writers should almost always default to thinking visual first, dialogue second. If we can convey in words what we hope the production team to accomplish in a visual moment, we stand a chance to have a greater influence on the final product as well as play to movie’s strength – visual storytelling.
As writers, it behooves us to pay attention to actors and directors when they talk about what draws them to a particular scripted project. In this video, David Gordon Green talks with Jake Gyllenhaal and the very first question he asks is this: What is it that draws you to a role?
Here is a transcript of Gyllenhaal’s response which starts at 3:15 in the clip:
First and foremost, it’s the story, more than it is even a role. The story feels like the ship you’re going to be going out in and if you don’t have a solid one, you get into rough waters, you’re pretty much screwed. To me it’s really that, initially. What is this whole thing saying? Does it have something to say? Does it have something to say beyond the entertainment of it, the fun factor? And does it have something that’s fun, that’s entertaining, that’s filled with tension, and do I want to move to the next scene and ultimately do I want to know what’s going on with these characters. And then I ask myself, ‘Would it be cool to play this part?’
Interesting comments. Some thoughts:
* The first thing he says: It’s the story. Not the role. Story.
* The metaphor of a “ship” for a film project sounds like it’s spoken by someone who has gotten into some “rough waters” in previous movies and one thing about being a passenger on a ship: You’re stuck there. You can’t leave until the ship hits shore.
* “What is this whole thing saying?” From a writing perspective, this is about Themes.
* Entertainment, fun factor, and tension. All important.
* “Do I want to move to the next scene.” This speaks to the importance of creating Narrative Drive, that energy which propels the story from scene to scene.
* “What’s going on with these characters.” Obviously as writers, we want to create compelling characters who create a sense of emotional connection with readers.
* And finally he winds his way to the particularly role: “Would it be cool to play this part?” So there is a cool factor we need to tap into when writing our characters.
So it’s not just the character an actor assess when considering a role, it’s a whole host of elements — and each one of those noted above are what we, as writers, need to handle when crafting our stories.
HT to @capa150 for tweeting the link to the Gyllenhaal video.
As screenwriters, we think about this phenomenon in terms of creating a sense of audience identification to shrink the psychological distance between the script reader and the script, the moviegoer and the movie. How do we do that? Through the characters we create and the circumstances we create around them. It’s not just a generic thing, it’s this character in this situation. Done well, that generates a feeling of emotional resonance with the character mirroring something of our own experience.
Getting a script reader emotionally involved in the lives of our story’s characters is one of our most fundamental goals in writing a script. This video serves as a reminder of that responsibility.
The Blu-ray/DVD release of “Straight Outta Compton,” the biopic about influential rap group N.W.A., is scheduled for Jan. 19. Among the features on the disc is a deleted scene showing Nicole Young as she visits her boyfriend-turned-husband, Dr. Dre, in jail.
That reminds me my popular 1 week Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling class returns starting Monday, January 25! Learn key storytelling themes and dynamics common to Pixar movies, and how we can use those to elevate our writing. I’m updating my lectures to include Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. Lots and lots of new background articles and videos, along with my exclusive interview with Mary Coleman, head of the Pixar story department.
So if you’re a Pixar fan or just want to get better as a writer, you should check out my class. To find out more, go here.
A University of Utah film student has put together an Inside Out Outside Edition that uses only the scenes outside of Riley’s mind, without the feelings to let us know what’s going inside her head.
Here’s the video:
I’m really looking forward to diving into Inside Out in my upcoming Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling class which begins January 25. It’s not only a terrific movie, it also may be the single best story to illustrate the dual worlds of a screenplay universe as I use it: The External World (Plotline) and Internal World (Themeline).
This video is a brilliant concept, focusing the story strictly on the External World. And yet, we can sense what’s going on in Riley’s Internal World, her painful process of moving from Disunity, literally uprooted from her home in Minnesota combined with her emerging adolescence, toward a place approximating Unity at the end.
Both the video and the movie illustrate one of the keys to writing: When something happens, something else happens. What hear in Dialogue, there is Subtext. What see in Action, there is Intention. The inner world of our characters are equally important in our storytelling as they provide meaning and emotional resonance for a script reader.