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Learn to Write Visually
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Anne Phyllis Pinzow
MOVIES AND TELEVISION SHOWS AS TEXTBOOKS
HOW LONG TILL IT STARTS?
Anne Phyllis Pinzow
EXT. AFTERNOON, RAINY SATURDAY
Late 50's model car drives towards a stoplighted corner down a middle-class suburban street near a small town.
Rain splashes against the windshield as the wipers swish back and forth. MR. BERNSTEIN, a middle-aged man drives with a determined yet mildly distracted look on his face. He winces every time an ear piercing shriek arises from the giggling din coming from the three ten-year-old girls occupying the back seat with a fourth hanging half way over the back of the front seat to talk with her friends. The man seeming to catch sight of the girl's actions, spares her an annoyed look.
Leslie, how many times have I told
you to sit down in your seat?
LESLIE, the blonde girl in the front seat settles down and turns to the man.
Daddy, how long till the movie starts?
Don't worry honey. We'll be there
in plenty of time.
Leslie sneaks her body around to more giggles and shrieks as the car catches the light and turns down the main street of the town. The man's expression changes to something akin to relief and then dismay.
EXT. DAY, RAINY SATURDAY AFTERNOON, SUBURBAN TOWN
There is a line of rambunctious children and impatient parents emanating from a small single screen theater. The line winds around the block, patrolled by ushers in uniforms. One comes out and holds up a sign to the crowd which can't be read at this distance.
(more anxious than before)
Daddy, how long till the movie starts?
How many times did I ask that question of 'adult in authority' while growing up? And how many times have my nephews and nieces asked me that same question, in minute intervals, while sitting in the near darkness of a movie theater awaiting Tinkerbell to fly across the screen signaling the beginning of the latest Disney flick?
Every Saturday afternoon, rain or shine, summer, winter, fall or spring, one of our fathers (genus "suburbanite mother" was not known to drive yet) would take my friends and I to the local movie theater and leave us there, sometimes alone. There was only one theater in a ten mile radius which had only one screen which showed only 'family' type movies and changed shows every Wednesday. When a very well advertised movie was playing there would be a line going around the block. Of course, a double feature, complete with movietone newsreels and at least five cartoons, cost a whole quarter to view. It was entertainment that could not be passed up. And for just another nickel there was a tub of popcorn you could get lost in. Just imagine, no "coming attractions," "movie scramblers," "silly surveys," or advertisements of any kind.
That same theater (presently struggling to hold its own against a dozen or so duplexes, tenplexes, and even a 21 theater complex in a mall) holds some of my fondest memories, from the times I would cuddle up against my grandmother's side and hide my eyes to avoid seeing the witch in "Snow White," to, what we called 'making out in the loge', to starting the local 'Rent A Child' service so a childless young adult wouldn't feel embarrassed seeing a G movie, to holding my four-year-old nephew on my knee and comforting him with the age old assurance "It's make-believe, sweetheart, it can't hurt you." when he saw the witch in "Snow White."
I love movies. I've loved them from the time when I was a little kid and would sneak downstairs late at night to watch the Late Late Show on the twelve inch screen of our black and white console television set. I loved those Saturday afternoons when I would see vivid and detailed worlds, impossible places and unimaginable situations that I thought I'd never experience and where everything made sense, and there was always a happy ending. Those were worlds where ordinary people were capable of incredible feats of outrage, courage, vengeance, understanding, idiotic decisions no matter how loud I screamed "don't go outside, there's a monster out there," supreme intelligence and very dumb luck.
Movies taught me about the world outside. I learned history only because I would watch the movies and then look up the facts in the encyclopedia. In fact, it was largely due to the way that Betty Davis played Queen Elizabeth the First, that I ever passed a European history test.
I grew up in the Technicolor age, when those silver screens were brighter and much more vivid than real life. Something would catch my interest in a movie and I'd dive into the library to read all about it. And I'd remember. I'm told that I have the unique ability to remember and recite the plot of every movie I've ever seen.
It was the very first thing I learned during all that time spent watching shadow and light, the plot. Then I learned if it was a good plot or a bad plot. And then I learned....
I'd like to note here that this is not about how to write a movie. In fact, many of the movies I name, like, or even consider my favorites, aren't necessarily well written. This is only about how to watch a movie and what you can learn from watching them.
Let's start with my ten favorite movies and go from there.
Actually, I have many more than ten favorites and I tend to add movies to my favorites as they come out. Please note, I know that this list is biased in a certain direction. I make no apologies about it. We all favor movies which hit personal chords with us (Jacqueline Lichtenberg's 'tailored effect'). So here goes (and this is not in any particular order, just off the top of my head.) Also, as I think of it, I can think of more movies that I love. However, I thought of these first and I figure, there must be a reason for it. I'm also picking movies that I'm pretty sure you can find at your local Blockbuster. Also, the dates are far from exact. If I can I'll get more precise information on each of these but you can probably do that yourself on the internet (http://us.imdb.com/faq-search)
I have also included information and trivia about each of these movies. This information is vital for anyone who wants to write movies. This imperical knowledge is just one of the things that separates the people who will make it in the business from the people who just want to make it in the business.
TITLE: Life Is Beautiful
SLUG: Man uses his sense of the beauty of life to sustain his family through internment in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.
SOME BACKGROUND: (Written by and starring Roberto Begnini who is known as a comedian and whose agent begged him not to do this movie.) This is a recently released (1999) Italian made movie. It was, and I love these three little words, "cheap to make" and cost no more than $500,000.00. In this day of multi-million dollar budgets, that's quite an accomplishment. It had one fairly well known (to me) actor in it who I sort of recognized while watching the film and was surprised by the name in the credits, Horst Bucholtz. I generally avoid foreign films and when I saw that I was going to have to read (it's subtitled) throughout I almost walked out of the theater. Who can bother with people constantly getting up to go for popcorn or to the bathroom, blocking the screen, hence blocking the subtitles, etc.? However, very soon this movie drew me in because the movie is extremely visual (an opera without the music). It is based on a true story. Oh, and it's what I call a three boxer. (You need three boxes of Kleenex to get through it.)
TITLE: Shining Through
SLUG: Jewish woman, entranced with movies, uses what she's learned from them to spy on Nazis.
SOME BACKGROUND: (Early 1990's I think) This movie was not so cheap to make. It stars Michael Douglas, Melanie Griffith and Liam Neeson. This is what I call a good old fashioned love story (two boxer). It's totally improbable and yet, in many ways, very believable. The movie is beautifully produced and I loved it immediately.
TITLE: The Godfather Trilogy
SLUG: The life of Michael Corleone, head of a Mafia family.
SOME BACKGROUND: (1972, 1974, 1992) An actress, Roberta Klien-Mendelsen, said of this trilogy "In the first movie he lost his innocence, in the second he lost his soul and in the third he lost his life." Actually, the story starts with Michael's father and how he left the town of Corleone in Sicily. Also, many of the true events (mafia wars, hits, etc.)over the years are dramatized in this movie (with the names changed to protect the guilty).
I find, even though I tend to close my eyes during the gory parts, and there are some really gory scenes in these movies, that I want to see these movies over and over again. There's always something new to discover in them that I didn't notice the dozens of times that I've seen them before. They are visual masterpieces. And remember, movies are a visual medium. One thing we'll get to later on is that though a movie may not "read" well, sometimes it tends to be a better movie.
The movie stars, if I can remember all of the people, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Andy Garcia, Diane Keaton, Robert DeNiro, Marlon Brando, Robert Hamilton, Abe Vigota, and a very long list of other familiar faces.
TITLE: Gone With The Wind
SLUG: How a woman survives the horrors of the Civil War.
SOME BACKGROUND: (1936) I'd find it hard to believe that anyone who likes movies hasn't seen this one. But, for those of you who have never seen this movie, once you do you'll know why, when I saw Titanic, my reaction was, "ho hum."
The movie is based on the book of the same name by Margaret Mitchell. Oh, by the way, the book went to 27 publishers before someone ever bought it and the movie script went through something like 10 writers. I forgot how much money the movie rights went for but it was huge. The nationwide search for Scarlett was a great publicity stunt, and useless since Vivian Leigh, who was nearly instantly cast on sight, was introduced to the director by Sir Lawrence Olivier, her husband of whom it had been said to be the greatest actor of his time. The stars are, Clark Gable, Vivian Leigh, Maureen O'Hara and Leslie Howard (there was also a nationwide search for someone to play that part too, Ashley Hamilton, and of course, they ended up with a British movie idol).
Some interesting trivia, there is a scene in the movie that was shot before the script was written and before the stars were cast. It is the very famous burning of Atlanta scene. Now, I kid you not. There was on the set at the time, a giant set of big doors that were used in "King Kong." They set fire to those doors and had a long shot (shot from far away) of a male actor (later Clark Gable) and a female actor (later Vivian Leigh) drive a wagon harnessed with a team of very upset horses, past the burning doors. Oh, also, the mansion house of the plantation, Tara, was actually the main office building of the studio (I think MGM but I'm not sure.)
SLUG: Romanticized story of the founding of the State of Israel seen through the eyes of a soldier in the Hagganah (Israeli army).
SOME BACKGROUND: (1956) This is based upon the book of the same name, written by Leon Uris and I highly suggest reading the book, but after you see the movie. The story loosely incorporates and takes great liberty with the facts of several amazingly true events as they related to Israel's partition in 1948. This is also the movie which initiated the rumor that Paul Newman is Jewish. He's not but he did such a wonderful job in that movie that million's of Jewish mamas wished he were and said, upon leaving the theater, "I didn't know he was Jewish."
This was one of the first movies shot on location in Israel and starred, with Paul Neuman, Eva Marie Saint, John Derrick (husband of Bo), Lee J. Cobb.
TITLE: The Ten Commandments (with Charlton Heston)
SLUG: The life of Moses
SOME BACKGROUND: (1958) Well, yes, this is based on the Five Books of Moses (the Old Testament of the Bible) and a few books written about Moses. However it is romanticized and fictionalized (romanticizing and fictionalizing the Bible, what a concept!) However, once you see that Red Sea part, WOW. To me, that's what it really must have been like. You can take your theories of the tide being low or there being a drought or an earth quake shifting sea's bottom. No, it didn't happen that way. This movie showed me how it REALLY happened! (Actually the recent "Prince of Egypt" though animated, did a pretty good job of it too.)
This movie stars Charlton Heston, Yul Brunner, Yvonne DeCarlo, Sir Cedrik Hardwicke and was one of the first to have a CAST OF THOUSANDS, including the Egyptian Army (I kid you not,) and the voice of Cecille B. DeMille as G-d. (Well, who else would have the nerve?) It was one of the first true spectacular movies, the predecessor to "Ben Hur," (the second "Ben Hur") and "El Cid."
This was the second of Cecille B. DeMille's TC efforts. The first was in the early thirties and, I believe, was silent. This one isn't. When you see this movie you have to remember that there was NO computer animation at the time it was produced. Also, all those people in the background are people, not painted on a backdrop.
TITLE: Schindler's List
SLUG: A Polish entrepreneur conspires to save Jews from the Holocaust.
BACKGROUND: (1993) This is based on the Book "Schindler's List" and on a true story. It's not romanticized, however several characters are compilations of many people. For instance, Schindler's accountant, well there were actually about three people, I think.
Steven Spielberg said that this book sat in his desk for ten years. He had to grow up before he could do this movie and he did it for his children. All the profits from this movie were donated to charities and it was distributed free of charge to schools all over the country. It is an amazing movie. In fact, to me, it's one very good reasons to make movies. This is what the medium can be used for.
Jurassic Park was done the very same year. It is not one of my favorites, however I felt that it's important to note the extremes of Spielberg's talent. He directed both.
It stars Ralph Fienes, Liam Neeson, Catherine Goodall and Ben Kingsley
TITLE: The Wizard of Oz
SLUG: A little girl gets swept over the rainbow by a tornado and has her adventures trying to get back home.
SOME BACKGROUND: (1938) There are lots of tales about the making of The Wizard of Oz. One was that they wanted to use Shirley Temple instead of Judy Garland. There have even been movies, "Under the Rainbow," about the little people used for Munchkines and the like. But, all in all, this movie is an icon in American history and American movie making. Oh, and Billie Bundy, the actress who plays Glinda the Good Witch of the North, was the wife of Florenz Ziegfield.
TITLE: All the James Bond Movies
SLUG: The adventures of British Secret Agent, "James Bond," code named 007.
SOME BACKGROUND: (1960s ad infinitum) Ian Flemming, who had worked for British Intelligence during World War II, wrote at least seven books about his creation James Bond, who, it is said, he based upon the exploits of a real agent of the British government, Sidney Riely. He got the name "James Bond" from the name of the author of a book on ornithology and actually met the author years later in Jamaica. However, after Flemming's death, John Gardner took up the pen and wrote several other James Bond novels (in my opinion, not as good.) I believe there's a third author now but I haven't read him. Let us just say that they finished with Flemming's original material a very long time ago. Even the first producer (Broccoli, and yes, the vegetable is named for his family) is no longer with us. But James Bond, as all good legends, lives on.
For those of you who remember "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." which starred Robert Vaughn and David MacCallum, Ian Fleming helped in the creation of Vaughn's character, Napoleon Solo.
Of course, the secret agent has had, I believe six reincarnations. The first was, believe it or not, on live American television and played by, I believe, Van Johnson (or Van somebody). Then, there's my favorite, Sean Connery, then another actor who did just "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," then Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and most recently Pierce Brosnon, who I think almost matches Connery's performance. I am trying to forget a spoof done of the 007 movies called Casino Royal (which is the first 007 novel) and starred (I think) David Niven.
What is wondrous about these movies are the openings. They keep coming up with more spectacular stunts. Also, James Bond is the most tenacious of heroes. The only one I've ever seen to match him is Indiana Jones. He just will not give up.
Whatever you might think of the individual movies, the production quality is always top notch.
TITLE: Air Force One
SLUG: Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists and the President saves the day.
SOME BACKGROUND: (1997) This is a well crafted, well acted, action adventure, darn good movie. It's well written, things make sense, the villains are intelligent and not comic book characters, the hero sees the fallen gun and actually picks it up, not leaving it for another villain to get, and no one ventures out into the dark knowing that there is a monster ready to pounce.
I can see this over and over again. Well, the fact that it stars Harrison Ford is probably part of the reason for that. By the way, Ford went over to Bill Clinton at a fund raiser dinner and asked permission for the set designing crew to go aboard Air Force One. He gave it and they were allowed into all the non-restricted areas. Also, it is said, that after seeing Air Force One, Harrison Ford kissed the director. He really liked the movie. (Believe it or not, it is rare that actors really like a movie in which they appear. But we won't go into that here.)
Another bit of trivia I heard has to do with a particular and very intense action scene. The chief terrorist is attempting to force the President to make a call to set a super bad, bad guy free. Harrison Ford, playing the president, happens to do most of his own stunts (the guy is in his mid to late 50s!) He is also into realism (lost his teeth in a stunt accident and those pearly whites are actually dentures, gals.) Anyway, he felt that Gary Oldman, the actor playing the bad guy, wasn't throwing him around hard enough to be convincing. So, he kept egging him on. Finally, the actor did and Ford got hurt. Oldman felt devastated. Ford had to have makeup cover a black eye for a good deal of the rest of the shooting of the movie.
By the way, Harrison Ford, at present, gets twenty million dollars per picture and is the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Considering he started out as a carpenter, (and even gave up an acting job once because he was earning more money as a carpenter)....
Just so you know, I'm not into the private lives of actors, their politics, or their sex lives. What I am into is the movies they make and what I need to know about them to further that knowledge.
(At the end of this essay is included a list of other movies I like and highly suggest and will probably be referring to.)
So, as you can see, I like a lot of different types of movies. Ah ha, you will note, that I have not included too many contemporary comedies, monster movies, science fiction, horror, Star Trek, Star Wars, Batman, Superman, Indiana Jones etc. Well, I've seen all of those too, and quite a few in each one of the other genres. Some I liked, however, they are not among my favorites. Don't get me wrong. Many of them are good and commercially successful and just because I like or don't like them does not mean that you won't or should or should not. However, I like well made movies and most science fiction or comic book movies tend to be badly, almost intentionally flawed and we'll get to that too. Also, and beware of a philosophical statement here, I don't like it when I find myself laughing at cruelty. Neither will I pay money to see a movie where the entire reason it was made was to showcase people demonstrating idiotic or disgusting behavior. (Why would I pay money to see adults stick objects up their noses when I discipline children for doing that, because their friends do it, because they saw it in a movie?)
INT. AFTERNOON, MOVIE THEATER
Mr. Bernstein sits with Leslie, ANNE, ROBIN AND EILEEN in the center of an auditorium, surrounded by children, adults and bags of popcorn, candy. There is now a low din.
Daddy, what's the movie about?
That's called the plot and it's the very first thing most of us learn about.
Actually, there are several elements to a plot. The first is, as Leslie asked, "what's the movie about?" We, the audience, want to see movies about things we relate to, understand and/or have an interest in. So, naturally, it's the very first question we ask.
You'll note that in my list of ten favorites, I included a sentence which described the plot. That's called the slug line. When you get to the point where you have to describe your script to an agent, producer, actor, director etc. you have to be able to interest the buyer with one line of twenty-five words or less.
Pick four movies and write slug lines for them.
In a movie called, "The Players," (1990s, which stars Tim Robbins and cameo appearances by at least a dozen big name stars and is great if you want to get a good, unadorned view of what Hollywood is REALLY like) it is explained quite clearly, what makes a good movie. One of the statements is that the audience must know what the movie is about within the first 20 minutes. There has to be a clear statement of that. Another way to put it is that the conflict of the movie must be demonstrated, or the question that the movie addresses must be asked in those first 20 minutes, preferably in the first ten.
I kid my agent (http:\\www.toadhallinc.com) about something she always says to everyone, "make it clear." Okay, this is the writers' job. However, if you, the audience, don't understand what the movie is about, and understand it quickly, then immediately you begin to lose interest and enjoyment in the film. Think about it.
Pick any of the movies listed below; and I'll pick "Twelve Angry Men," (1950s) thank you. First, the title tells you that this is about, ta da, twelve angry men. Now, granted, we don't know what they're angry about or why there are twelve or why they are all men. However, not five minutes after the movie begins, actually, if memory serves, it's within about one minute and with the pure use of intense rich visuals (in black and white yet), you know what the movie is about; twelve jurors deliberating the guilt or innocence of a young Hispanic man tried for murder.
You also begin to sense the underlying themes, the tension and the relationships these men will build. Not a word has been spoken. I don't remember the exact sequence, so, without going to the videotape, there's a courthouse, a courtroom, a shot of a worried young Hispanic man seated next to a type cast lawyer and the jury filing out of the jury box. Next scene is of these same jurors filing into a spartan room, with a table and twelve chairs.
Visuals! Pictures. And, I'd like to point out here that we've already been hit with the story telling tool of our own unconscious assumptions. (More about this later on.) It was perhaps a sign of the times, or the market to which this movie was aimed, but I doubt if there was anyone who assumed that the type cast lawyer was the defendent. EVERYONE knew that the Hispanic man was the accused. (This was around the time of the hit Broadway musical WEST SIDE STORY and a time when gang warfare was endemic.) So not only did this movie use pictures but a very common, not so underlying prejuduce (fear, hatred, etc.), or presumption, about a minority ethnic group to tell this story. Again, not a word is spoken and we know what this movie is about.
In "The Ten Commandments," though badly mistitled, (it's not about The Ten Commandments) immediately you know that this is about the life of Moses, again, within the first five minutes. "Nine To Five," is the story of three secretaries vs. "the boss." In fact, in any of the movies I mentioned, anyone who views that movie can tell you what it's about within the first five minutes. "The First Wives Club" is a wonderful title, hence you have a good idea of the conflict before the movie even begins.
Now, when a movie conveys this information that quickly, it doesn't necessarily mean that the movie will be a financially successful film. However, most financially successful films are films that are understood, quickly and easily by the most people. (I don't want to use the term 'the lowest common denominator' because, I believe that a movie that is aimed at 'the lowest common denominator' cannot possibly be a good movie; financially successful, yes, probably; good, no.)
Let's look at another example now. This is a movie that might have made it into my favorites list, if not for the very first scene. A 1998 film "Beloved" (starring Oprah Winfry and Danny Glover) is an example of an otherwise excellent film, which is not easily understood. The acting and production of this film were unsurpassed. The camera work was amazing and this was one of the most richly visual pictures (next to Saving Private Ryan, 1998) that I've recently seen. However, I saw the movie, I read the book (by Pulitzer Prize winner, Toni Morrison, who lives in the same county I live in) and I still don't 'get' the opening scene and how it relates to the rest of the story (someday I'll call her up and ask her). Now, because I didn't 'get' the opening scene, no matter what happened after that, I still kept trying to relate it to those first visuals.
Remember, a movie is a VISUAL medium. You are sitting in a dark, hopefully quiet, theater. You are not getting up to answer a phone or running some errand or other, running a vaccum cleaner or drinking a beer at a bar with a bunch of buddies. You're sitting, watching the screen and what you SEE is telling you the story. What you HEAR isn't necessarily relevant. In fact, what you hear (in a well directed and written movie) should only support what you see (despite quadraponic, digital sound blasters in the most modern theaters). This is the major difference between a movie, a book and a television show.
Television shows are constructed such that, the sound of it, all by itself, or the pictures, all by themselves, should be able to convey the plot. This isn't always the case. However, since most people use television as a background to other activities, those shows which tend to follow this formula generally have higher ratings. As far as a book is concerned, the reader provides the pictures and sound directed by the author's words.
But, with movies, the pictures are everything.
As an aside, I was at a New Years Eve party that was going full blast. I couldn't hear myself think. On the television was "Cliffhanger" (1993 I think) a Sylvester Stallone movie. I was able to follow the plot, through the pictures, without being able to hear a word of the script.
Two other examples of this are, "The Bellhop," and "Silent Movie." "The Bellhop" is a Jerry Lewis Movie (I think one of the first he made without Dean Martin). In that movie, Jerry Lewis does not utter a word (I think at the very end he says a couple of words.) The movie is about his character and he conveys everything through the use of visuals. "Silent Movie," (produced and directed by Mel Brooks who also starred in it with, Dom Deluise and a third actor, whose name escapes me but is famous for his "bug" eyes.) also tells an entire story with the use of visuals. However, I believe there were subtitles. They were superfluous.
Back to "Twelve Angry Men." Every step of the way, in this movie, you know what is happening, you know why it's happening and you know who is doing what to whom. As you watch the movie, questions are raised and immediately answered and each answer generates more questions. Soon you realize that the question of the accused' guilt or innocence is just the secondary issue. What is being discussed is duty, honor, integrity and courage. The writer put the American Jury System on trial and demonstrated that it only works if individual jurors want it to work.
HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT: Pick four of your favorite movies and in twenty-five words or less (preferably less) describe the plot.
What the movie is about is only part of the question of plot. Next is the question, does it make sense, is your suspension of disbelief strained to or past the breaking point, does the person in the cabin in the middle of the woods have a good reason to go out into the stormy night unarmed, alone, knowing that the monster is out there ready to eat him/her?
Again, I refer to my agent. Sometimes we see movies together and she literally tears at her hair when the "hero" knocks the bad guy out and leaves the gun in reach of the bad guy. This is very poor writing. There was a recent television movie (and you'll note that I avoided mentioning them as most of them are highly forgetable) "Futuresport," (starring Dean Cain, Wesley Snipes and Vanessa Williams). I liked it and felt that while there were relatively few surprises, due to a lack of conflict within the personality of the main character, there were some places where I actually cheered. One was when the hero picked up the gun, finally.
This again, is in the writing of a movie. You want your protaganists to do what you think you yourself might do. Or, even better, you want the heros to be people that you'd like as role models.
Jacqueline Lichtenberg, in her writing classes, calls it "the because line".
NOTE: Again, I'm going to refer to another television show, "Law and Order," (NBC, Wednesday, 10 PM). This is the first show I've ever seen where there is a believable, intelligent female role model. And I'm not referring to any of the main characters but to a secondary one, the Police Lieutentant Anita Van Buren. She commands the men and she does it without sex or by being one of the boys, or by being everyone's mother or by sacrificing her femininity. The actress S. Epatha Merkenson, is excellent. Oh, and since we're speaking of plots here, this show actually has them and they are magnificent and surprising.
Okay, back to the "because line." In "Law And Order," a crime is committed in the very first scene or what is called, the "teaser." Then, during the first half of the show, there is a line of evidence which is developed finally leading to an arrest. The police are relentless in their investigation and find the bad guys because of this line of evidence. The second half of the show is about how the district attorney continues the investigation and brings the accused to justice (or sometimes not.)
Here is an example of a "because line."
John has an overwhelming curiosity for which his friends and family have berated him. In order to appease the people important to him, he tries very hard to curb this 'character flaw' but he can't so over and over again his curiosity has gotten him in trouble. However, his curiosity has also caused him to learn a tremendous amount about the world around him. (NOTE: the character's major flaw is also the character's main strength.)
One day after a rain storm, our ever curious John, decides to take a walk in the woods in order to satisfy his curiosity. Bending over to inspect something glittering in the underbrush, John slips, falls, and gets his behind caught in a bear trap.
John, being in pain and unable to get out, yells. There is quiet and then John hears something. At first he thinks it might be help. But then he realizes (because he's read alot and listened alot because he's so curious and uses his knowledge) that what he hears is not the sound of help. It's the sound of a bear.
Trapped and bleeding, John searches for some means of escape. Suddenly, John remembers that a big game hunter passing through was very annoyed with John asking him so many questions. However, one thing the hunter did tell John was how to get out of bear traps with his bare hands. However, the trap is on his behind and John can't see it. But, John remembers that when he bent down and slipped he was looking for something that glittered. Remembering that all that glitters is not gold, John hopes it was a mirror, or at least something that reflects. As John searches, the bear comes closer.
Sorry, I'm going to stop here. And before anyone gets any ideas, something like this plot, was used in a movie called "The Edge" (staring Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin and Bart the Bear who not only was a better actor but also starred in a furniture commercial).
As you can see, everything happens to John "because" of John's own actions, which he takes "because" of who he is and stems from his major character flaw which also happens to be his major strength and will eventually save him. That is a "because line."
Part 1: Pick two of your favorite movies and track the entire "because line."
Part 2: Using the elements described above, that everything that happens evolves from the main character's major flaw, which is also his/her major strength, write out two "because lines."
So far we have covered two elements of plot, 1) What the story is about, and 2) The "because line." There is a third element of plot called technique and this is a bit tricker to explain. However, if you don't manage to attain technique, forget ever selling anything to anybody. In fact, as many a story teller can tell you, it's not so much the story you're telling but how you tell it and perhaps the "how you tell it," is the best explaination for technique. But I'll try to be a little less ambiquous.
Technique is attained through a combination of skills but is much more easily observed than learned. In fact, about the only way to understand technique is to spot it in something else and then to try and copy it.
A recent masterpiece of technique was "Star Trek: Insurrection." (1998) If you remember, the very first scene of that movie was an establishing shot (a camera shot which shows the location of the story) of a storybook like place. The colors were vivid, people dressed up in storybook like clothing (actually more Mother Goose type clothing) and there were a lot of children playing. Then we saw a little boy playing hide and seek in a haystack.
Now, skip to the middle of the movie. There's a little boy teaching Data (the android for those people who, gasp!, don't know anything about Star Trek) how to play.
Then we go to the end of the movie and we see Data playing hide and seek with the little boy, sticking his head, quite endearingly, up through the haystack.
Hide and seek was used repeatedly. The Federation had a cloaked observation post (hiding). Data and the rest of the observation team were walking around cloaked in invisibility (hiding). In order to find out what was going on, why Data did what he did, Capt. Picard had to go seek something that was being hidden. Then Commander Riker takes the ship to the Federation and he must hide the ship, I beleive in an asteroid field and the bad guys must seek him out. Then it turns out that the bad guys and a not so bad guy were hiding information, etc.
But here is the problem. The plot had nothing to do with "Hide and Seek." "Hide and Seek" was a motif. It was not a philosophical statement, it was not a question, it wasn't a theme. It wasn't even a conflict. It was an overlay. And, because of this, the ST:Insurrection came off more as a two hour television episode than as a movie. In fact the timing, pacing and all the other elements of technique were much more suited to a television show.
Remember what I said earlier about the difference between television shows and movies? Well, the technique used in a television show is different than what is used in a movie. The technique used in "Star Trek: Insurrection" was television show technique. In fact, it is much easier to spot technique in a television show than in a movie for a very good reason.
Technique, which builds suspense, which gives the audience a sense of what emotional response will be engendered, is what holds an audience to the screen. In a movie theater, the audience is kind of trapped. You paid you $8.25 for your ticket and you're going to get your money's worth. However, when you watch television, there are a million and one distractions. So the emphasis on technique is much stronger. In ST:Insurrection, the technique, the motif of "Hide and Seek" was very strong. However, it had nothing to do with what the movie was about.
Let's compare this with a miniseries, "Noble House" (based on the book of the same name by James Clavell) which I happened to have loved and which aired around 1990. There was a strong visual cue throughout the eight hours of the series. It was a broken coin. The broken coin was a symbol which happened to encompass the underlying theme of the entire series. It bound the protagonist to the past and yet, was his means of reaching for the future. It was a symbol of his character flaw and of his strength. While the broken coin started out as a symbol of trust it became a symbol of breaking faith. In fact, the whole theme of the miniseries could be explained by that broken coin.
The broken coin motif was used again and again in everthing that we saw on the screen, from the dialog, to very strong visuals, to the action. It built tension, it kept reminding the audience of the underlying plots and subplots, all having to do with trust, breaking faith, and trust again.
Now, I point out these two examples because while technique is used heavily in both, it worked much better in Noble House. In ST:Insurection, the story did not match the plot and hence the visual cues, while keeping us on the story line, did not support the plot. And I'm going to put here the phrase, in my opinion.
However, in "Noble House," the theme of trust, and breaking faith was played out over and over again. The symbols of trust and breaking faith were also used repeatedly and well.
Part 1: Pick two movies and pick out the repeated visual and/or thematic motiff which best describes the theme.
Part 2: Pick two conflicts and design a visual and thematic motiff which best demonstrates the philosophical statement.
There is a lot more to technique than what I have described, above, however, this is about watching a movie or television show and what you can learn from that. There will be discussions about writing technique, which is different in scripts than in novels. Those will occur in other essays.
The next discussion will be about actors, actresses and casting (what we think when we see an actor in a part and why certain actors are chosen for specific parts.)
Movies I suggest:
All About Eve (Betty Davis, Olivia DeHavalind, George Sanders) A terrific movie.
Amistad (Patrick McChonaughey, Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman)
The American President (Michael Douglas, Annette Benning, Michael J. Fox, Richard Dryfus, Martin Sheen)
Around The World In Eighty Days (Directed by Mike Todd, starring David Niven, Cantassflas (sp?) and everybody. This is a masterpiece in casting and production.)
The Battle of the Bulge (the movie guys)(Henry Fonda, James MacArthur, Robert Montgomery, Robert Ryan)
Barefoot In The Park (Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, written by Neil Simon)
Beauty and the Beast Animated
Biloxi Blues (also written by Neil Simon)
Ben Hur (with Charlton Heston)
The Birdcage (Nathan Lane, Robin Williams, Gene Hackman)
The Black Shield of Falworth (Tony Curtis and wife at the time Janet Leigh)
Braveheart (Produced, directed and starring Mel Gibson)
Brighton Beach Memoirs (also written by Neil Simon)
Captain Blood (starring Eryol Flynn and Olivia DeHaviland)
Captain Horatio Hornblower (with Gregory Peck made so long ago he looked like a hunk to die for.)
A Christmas Carol (1950s version)
A Civil Action (John Travolta) A compelling movie.
A Clear and Present Danger (Harrison Ford, William DeFoe, James Earl Jones)
Dancing With Wolves (Directed by and starring Kevin Costner, Graham Green) Kevin Costner housed and fed the writer of this epic while he wrote the script. Oh, Kevin, over here!
Dangerous Liaisons (Glenn Close, John Malcovitch, Michelle Pfeiffer)
Devil's Advocate (Al Pacino, Keanu Reeves) Not really what I'd call a favorite of mine because I don't want to see it again but it is one of the most visually powerful movies I've ever seen.
The Devil's Brigade (William Holden, Cliff Robertson)
Dirty Dancing (Patrick Swazye, Jerry Orbach, Jennifer Grey)
Don't Go Near The Water (Glenn Ford, GaGa Gabor)
El Cid (Charlton Heston, Sophia Loran)
Elizabeth the Queen (Betty Davis, Eryol Flynn)
Father Goose (Cary Grant)
A Few Good Men (Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise)
Fire Over England (Flora Robson, Sir Lawrence Olivier)
The Firm (Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman),
The First Wives Club (Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton)
For Pete's Sake (Barbra Striesand, Ryan O'Neil)
Forever Young (Mel Gibson)
The Funniest Ship in the Army (Jack Lemmon, Ricky Nelson)
Gandhi (Ben Kingsley)
A Gentleman's Agreement (Gregory Peck) A writer pretends to be Jewish in order to unmask and understand prejudice.
Ghost (Patrick Swazye, Demi Moore, Whoopie Goldberg)
The Ghost and the Darkness (Val Kilmer, Michael Douglas)
The Great Race (with Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk and Jack Lemmon and this is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen)
Grumpy Old Men (Ann Margaret, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau)
The Hunt For Red October (Alec Baldwin, Sean Connery, James Earl Jones, Sam Neil)
Indiscreet (with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant)
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (Ingred Bergman)
It's a Wonderful Life (Jimmy Stewert, Donna Reed)
The Karate Kid 1, 2 and 3 (Pat Morita, Ralph Macchio)
LadyHawk (Michelle Pfieffer, Michael Broderick)
Lethal Weapon movies (Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci)
The Lion in Winter (Peter O'Toole, Cathrine Hepburn, Timothy Dalton, Anthony Hopkins) A magnificant movie.
The Lion King Animated
The Little Mermaid Animated
The Little Princess (with Shirley Temple) Well, I like sugary, sappy at times.
The Longest Day (with everybody, the cast of Hollywood and European stars was longer than the movie. This movie has my all time favorite line in it. "Sometimes I wonder which side God is on." It's said once by an American commander and once by a German commander.)
A Majority of One (Rosalind Russell, Alec Guiness, Ray Danton)
Mame (the musical with Lucille Ball and the earlier one "Auntie Mame" with Rosalind Russell)
The Man In The Iron Mask (recent with Gerrad Depardue, John Malcovitch, Jeremy Irons, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gabriel Burn and 1930s version)
The Mask of Zorro (with Antonio Bandares and Anthony Hopkins) but my all time favorite version will always be with Tyrone Power
The Man Without A Face (Mel Gibson)
McClintock (John Wayne, Patrick Wayne, Maureen O'Sullivan)
The Mirror Has Two Faces (Barbra Streisand, Jeff Bridges) Barbra Streisand is probably one of the best directors ever despite a lot of bad press.
Mr. Blanding's Dream House (Cary Grant)
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (Jimmy Stewart)
Mr. Holland's Opus (Richard Dryfuss)
Mr. Roberts (Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon),
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Jimmy Stewart)
My Fair Lady (Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn)
My Favorite Year (Peter O'Toole)
Network (William Holden, Fay Dunaway)
Nine To Five (Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin) the theme to the movie was sung by these three women,
The Odd Couple (Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon)
Oh God (George Burns)
Patriot Games (Harrison Ford, Sean Bean, James Earl Jones)
Patton (George C. Scott)
The Pink Submarine (not "The Yellow Submarine")(Cary Grant, Tony Curtis)
A Pocket Full of Miracles (with Glenn Ford, Betty Davis, Peter Falk, Hope Lange and also the first version of the Damon Runion tale which I think was called "Apple Annie" but I'm not sure)
Prince of Egypt - (1998)Animated. Coincidentally, this movie was released at the same time of year when the Torah (The Jewish Holy Book) portion telling this story is read.
Ransom (Mel Gibson)
Rio Lobo (John Wayne, Ricky Nelson, Dean Martin, Ward Bond, Angie Dickenson, Walter Brennon)
Robin Hood (with Eryol Flynn)
Romancing the Stone (Danny DeVito, Michael Douglas)
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (starring Rob Reiner and Theodore Bikel with a bow to Jacqueline)
Sabrina (both versions, first with Audry Heburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart and the second with, Harrison Ford)
The Saint (with Val Kilmer),
Saving Private Ryan (Tom Hanks)
Shawshank Redemption (Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman)
The Sea Hawks (Eryol Flynn, Flora Robson)
She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (John Wayne, Ward Bond, Henry Fonda, Shirly Temple)
Soapdish (Sally Fields, Whoopie Goldberg, Teri Hatcher, Kevin Klein) One of the most hysterically funny movies I've ever seen, mostly because they are not exagerating the truth of what goes on.
Sleeping Beauty (Animated)
Snow White (Animated)
The Sunshine Boys (George Burns, Walter Matthau)
Tale of Two Cities (with Ronald Coleman)
Teahouse of the August Moon (Glenn Ford, Marlon Brando, Paul Ford)
Three Men and a Baby (Tom Selleck, Ted Danson),
Three Violent People (Tom Tryon, Charlton Heston)
That Touch of Mink (Doris Day, Cary Grant)
To Wong Fu, Best Wishes, Love Julie Newmar (Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swazie. This is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen)
Tootsie (Dustin Hoffman)
Twelve Angry Men (Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec and Robert Webber. This is, in my humble opinion, a perfect and brilliant movie. Only, possibly "Lifeboat," directed by Alfred Hitchock, can match it but has far less power. Every time I see it, I end up panting for breath. Oh and if you want a writing lesson in characterization, throw out the books and study this movie. You'll learn all you will ever need to know.)
Victor, Victoria (Julie Andrews)
Wall Street (Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Martin Sheen)
Witness (Harrison Ford, Kelly MaGinnis)
Working Girl (Harrison Ford, Melanie Grifith, Sigornie Weaver, Alec Baldwin)
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