The Nice Guys. Shane Black. 2016.

Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling and Angoulie Rice play at neonoir malaise in Shane Black's "The Nice Guys."

Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling and Angoulie Rice play at neo-noir malaise in Shane Black’s “The Nice Guys.”

There is something undeniably brilliant about Shane Black’s filmmaking voice. His action sequences unfold with a vitality and an unpredictable energy that is so undeniably his own; just when you think the scene is going one way, it goes an entirely different way (there is no better example of this than the opening sequence where a kid steals his father’s porno mag and lusts after the centerfold model – only to have a car careen down an adjacent hill and crash through the house with said model dying inside). The movie just pops off the screen with visual flair, surprising comedic flourishes, crackerjack dialogue and an unmistakable enthusiasm for these hardened but heart-centered characters and the tragicomic world that they inhabit together.

That said, I cannot help but feel that the style really does take center stage over anything resembling real substance. It’s like the plot, the action and the characters all serve as a mere prop for the overall mood and tone of the movie.

Nowhere is this clearer than with the characterization of one of the titular “nice guys,” private detective Holland Arch (Ryan Gosling). Black sets up an entire back-story where Arch’s weakened smell failed to alert him to a severe gas leak in a former home and thereby led to a fire that killed his beloved wife; now, Arch spends his days in a drunken stupor, resigned to being a “bad person,” making empty promises to his frustrated daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) that they will one day rebuild their family home on the now-vacant lot where the original disaster occurred. It’s an incredibly convoluted set-up – one that not only lacks any kind of resolution (we never see Arch come to terms with his wife’s death or go through any kind of meaningful grieving process, nor do we see him ever truly grapple with the consequences of his own self-centered guilt complex), but also fails to reflect a genuine character flaw or imbalance (are we really supposed to fault Arch for not smelling a gas leak? Is this physiological deficiency supposed to somehow be symptomatic of a deeper moral failing?). Continue reading

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20 Feet From Stardom & What We Can Learn About Storytelling Principles From Great Documentaries

20-Feet-From-Stardom

“20 Feet From Stardom” illustrates some great storytelling principles that we can apply to fictional storytelling.

I love documentaries because they so often illustrate the simplest and most profound principles of storytelling.

Take the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom as an example.

This movie couldn’t be any clearer what it’s about: back-up singers.

That’s it. That is the simple, distilled essence of its external plot.

The title “20 Feet From Stardom” refers to those singers standing 20 feet away from the star performer, the ones who lend additional vocal power to the overall musical act, and the trials-and-tribulations they navigate in that unique sphere.

From beginning to end, there is not a single moment in 20 Feet From Stardom that does not in some way trace back to the journey taken by back-up singers on their road to a very specialized kind of success.

One of the first movies I show my students at the start of the academic year is The Bicycle Thieves. And I show it to them because it so clearly illustrates the power of a simple external premise: it’s about a man’s search for a bike.

His search for the bike occupies the beginning, middle and ending of the movie; his search for the bike contains all the story’s main dramatic events and turning points; his search for the bike is the vessel for our journey, it is the arc that sustains the entire film.

No matter where we are in The Bicycle Thieves, we’re always so clearly situated in the broader framework of our hero’s quest for that object, all the parts relate back to this whole (this is why, throughout the year, I would constantly ask my students, “What is your search for the bike? What is the main external event sustaining this movie from beginning to end?”).

You see this main tenant of storytelling in films all the time: every moment of Her traces back to Joaquin Phoenix’s growing romantic relationship with a computer operating system; every moment of Dallas Buyers Club relates back to Matthew McConaughey’s quest to procure pharmaceutical drugs available for those in need (first himself, then others); every moment of 12 Years a Slave stems from Chiwetel Ejiofor’s journey as a kidnapped slave. Continue reading

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Mala Noche. Gus Van Sant. 1986.

It's a sweet-natured world of users and con artists in Gus Van Sant's "Mala Noche."

It’s a sweet-natured world of users and con artists in Gus Van Sant’s “Mala Noche.”

Gus Van San’ts directorial debut (he also wrote it). There is a real sweetness to this movie. Ostensibly, it’s about two people who are using each other: gay convenience store clerk Walt (Tim Streeter) uses money and lodging to manipulate comely Mexican immigrant Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) into spending time with him (Walt wants to sleep with Johnny and hopes he can gently push him into some kind of relationship, even if it’s that of a paid escort); and Johnny uses his sex appeal to manipulate Johnny into providing him with hospitality that he would not otherwise receive in a largely inhospitable world (in one particularly touching sequence, Johnny submits to some intimate roughhousing with Walt and then reaps the benefit of getting to drive his car). The beauty of this film lies in the fact that the mutual manipulation is never presented as particularly callous or cunning on either side. Quite to the contrary, the manipulation is more used as a pretense for these lonely souls to spend time together, to receive human contact from one another and to share something that racial, social and sexual lines would normally preclude them from sharing. They’re all in on the con, and none of them seem to really care – at the end of the day, they all want connection and some reprieve from their shared desolation, and they all remain happy to play their prescribed social roles in order to make it happen.

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Drinking Buddies. Joe Swanberg. 2013.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson willfully skirt around the truth in "Drinking Buddies."

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson willfully skirt around the truth in “Drinking Buddies.”

What Drinking Buddies does, it does well. Namely, it captures the way that romantic partners casually lie to themselves about their true feelings and remain content to skirt the edges of major issues like infidelity, long-term commitment and authentic connection. In this case, coworkers Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) indulge their obvious chemistry behind the pretense of platonic friendship lest they rock the boat of their respective committed relationships. Truthfully, nothing much happens in Drinking Buddies, and in some ways this lack of dramatic event becomes one of its greatest strengths: there is no adherence to the typical romantic comedy structure here, there is no real pay-off to the “will they or won’t they” sexual tension at its core, there is no big climactic moment where innocent flirtation goes too far, and that is very much the point; this is a more a film about the way the characters don’t communicate with one another than it is about any kind of cathartic disclosure. And in that regard, the movie is actually quite subtle and quite lovely. Because Kate and Luke constantly dance around the edges of their feelings for one another (using beer and seemingly “casual” social interactions to blur the lines of their flirtation), because the subtext never becomes text, entire moods shift based on otherwise innocuous details, and the smallest issues become vessels for a world of unexpressed emotion, all leading to a beautifully orchestrated final confrontation that hangs heavy with a world of pent-up romantic energy. It’s a shame, then, that Drinking Buddies buckles under the weight of its Mumblecore leanings – this highly-improvised, skeletal film succinctly evokes a very slight slice of romantic reality, but ultimately fails to take it to a deeper level. Still, there is a lot of undeniable skill on display here.

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Shotgun Stories. Jeff Nichols. 2007.

Jeff Nichols' "Shotgun Stories" represents one of the most auspicious directorial debuts you're likely to find.

Jeff Nichols’ “Shotgun Stories” represents one of the most auspicious directorial debuts you’re likely to find.

“You raised us to hate them and now we do, and this is where it has gotten us.”

Writer/director Jeff Nichols rightfully came to prominence last year with the deceptively sophisticated Mud (the first major piece of the Matthew McConaughey revival). But before Mud, came Nichol’s quiet, accomplished directorial debut Shotgun Stories. It’s a story of Biblical proportions set in the cotton fields and back-roads of Southeast Arkansas, and it centers on a trio of transient brothers named, quite simply, Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs). Son is the most settled of the bunch – he lives in a (mostly empty) house in the wake of his wife’s recent departure; Kid has been living in a tent in Boy’s backyard; now that Boy’s wife has left, Kid is happy to move into the house, but he is also equally happy to stay in the tent. Kid doesn’t own a car, he doesn’t have an apartment; he just has a pair of boots and a tent; likewise, Boy has his van and his dog and his VHS tapes of old soccer games. There is this distinct feeling of impermanence in the film, like any one of these characters could drift away into the cotton fields at a moment’s notice. They wake up each day, they go get food when they’re hungry, they move into the house when there’s a vacancy, they move back into the tent when the wife comes back, they try to fix a discarded A/C when they find it on the side of the road, they chuck the A/C unit back to the curb when it short circuits the car – these are creatures of present-moment instinct. Water is a recurring image in this film, and it is an apt image – there is a kind of unseen current running through this family: these three brothers follow the flow of where the world takes them in the most uncomplicated, unhurried way. Their lack of material or worldly attachments deeply highlights the force of life that runs through them – namely, their deep love for one another.

And also their rage: the three young men have been raised to foster a multi-generational grudge against a rival family. The movie’s overarching simplicity only serves to illuminate the destructive senselessness of anger that has been handed down from father to son. The antagonism no longer serves a purpose (if it ever did), and it threatens to crush the pulse of life felt so vitally elsewhere in the story. It is to Nichol’s credit that Shotgun Stories moves along so quietly steadily, and then, somewhere along the way, it reaches dramatic heights you never saw coming. The rare film that manages to be as human as it is philosophical, as grounded as it is spiritual, as simple as it is complicated, Shotgun Stories ranks as one of the most auspicious debuts you’re likely to find.

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Notes from November – Procrastination & Why It’s Good for You

James Franco gets some much needed rest to fuel his next performance art endeavor.

James Franco gets some much needed rest to fuel his next performance art endeavor.

I had major resistance to writing these notes today.

In fact, my whole body shut down when it came time to sit in front of my computer. My arms ached, and something went numb inside me.

So, you know what I did? 

I listened to my body.

I laid myself down. I went inward. I gave myself space. And somewhere in that space, I started to feel safe, and then I felt an organic inspiration to write.

As I type these words, I’m still in a relaxed state of receptivity: I’m lying down on my good friend’s couch in NYC, with my feet propped up and my head reclined on a comfortable cushion. These notes feel like an outgrowth of self-care rather than a demand I have placed on myself.

I mention this because so many of my clients seem to struggle with the notion of what it means to be productive. There is this underlying dialogue that says, “If I get a certain amount of tasks done, if I can check these items off my to-do list, then I have accomplished something, and I am worthwhile! But if I give into doing nothing, then I am ‘procrastinating,’ and that means I am worthless and deserve to beat myself up!” 

I actually don’t think there is such a thing as procrastination.

I think procrastination is the body’s deeper, wiser call to rest. Relaxation is a much needed part of the creative process. And it is actually an act of self-cruelty to negatively label that need for rest as procrastination. Continue reading

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What It Means To Work on Your Script & Work On Your Life

In "Adaptation," screenwriter Charlie Kaufman explores what it means to work on your script and work on your life - and initiates a process where the world of his script takes over his personal world.

In “Adaptation,” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and initiates a process where the world of his script takes over his personal world – he quite literally works on his script as he works on his life.

Two weeks ago, I got a call from from Wesleyan University asking me to expand my previous one-semester screenwriting course into a full-year mentorship program for the seniors writing thesis scripts.

The second I received the call, I knew exactly what I wanted to teach these students.

I wanted to help them learn to tolerate being in process with their screenplays. To not worry about “getting it right,” to not worry about the “proper” way to do it, but to keep returning to the key questions that speak to the core dramatic idea at the heart of their stories:

1) What do I want to express with this script?

2) Why is this important to me?

3) What do I want people to take from this movie?

After all, isn’t this the most valuable lesson of all for writers? To cultivate a tolerance for the changing, shifting creative process? And navigate it not from a place of intellectual worry but from a place of clear artistic intention?

My feeling was (and always has been) that if you have real clarity on why you are working on a particular script, if you have real clarity on what you want to express with it, then you have an unshakable compass to guide you through the myriad of seemingly endless story choices.

Elements of structure can change from script to script. But the capacity to to tolerate creative discovery can sustain an entire career.

I was so excited about the idea of a class that focused less on external mechanics of structure and more on supporting the students to get clear and specific on what they longed to express. I was brimming with ideas.

I was also short on time.

I got the call literally a week before I was to fly out to Connecticut to commence the first class. With all the hustle and bustle of both taking care of remaining loose ends in Los Angeles as well as planning the trip, I was counting on my free time in Connecticut prior to the class to finalize my initial lesson plan. I had everything perfectly scheduled out and all my ducks lined up in a row.

And then everything went wrong. Continue reading

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Lessons From Jane Campion’s “The Piano”: Why Your Uncompromising Dramatic Voice is Ultimately Your Most Viable Business Commodity

The box office and critical success of Jane Campion's "The Piano" illustrates how your uncompromising artistic voice is ultimately your best business commodity.

The box office and critical success of Jane Campion’s “The Piano” illustrates how your uncompromising artistic voice is ultimately your best business commodity.

I was recently browsing Netflix for streaming movies and decided to revisit Jane Campion’s 1993 art-house hit The Piano as I had not seen it since it was originally out in theaters.

I really enjoyed the movie and proceeded to do my usual tour of various film analysis sites to read what other critics and viewers had to say about it.

That was when I stumbled across an incredibly interesting fact: The Piano earned 40 million dollars at the box office.

That’s 40 million dollars against an estimated production budget of 7 million. That means The Piano earned almost six times its actual cost. And this is saying nothing of its critical accolades and numerous awards.

The financial numbers were so interesting to me because, on paper, everything about The Piano sounds like box office poison: a 19th-century period film about a mute Scottish woman sent off to an arranged marriage in the New Zealand wild where she must prostitute her body in exchange for the privilege of playing her beloved piano.

There is not a traditional studio or an executive or a script consultant in the world that would even conceive of encouraging this premise – glum, provocative and thematically ambiguous, it challenges just about every norm that conventional Hollywood thinking holds dear.

And yet I remind you: The Piano earned 40 million dollars at the box office.

For me, it was just another in a long list of reminders that you can get away with telling any story imaginable as long as you tell it well. 

Not only did it get away with its story – it excelled with its story, and it established Jane Campion as one of our most self-assured contemporary filmmakers (and perhaps the only female filmmaker taken seriously at that time).

What’s even more important here is why we like The Piano: we like it for the very reasons that no one would ever think it could get made in the first place – we like it for its brave, daring dramatic voice, and its willingness to commit to its provocative premise with unrelenting depth and clarity.  Continue reading

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“I Know Structure” – Why These Three Words Make Me Concerned for My Clients, and What They Mean for Your Script

The Cohen Brothers subvert traditional structure in Academy-Award winning “No Country For Old Men” to meaningfully reflect the disillusioned futility felt by hero Tommy Lee Jones.

I often talk to perspective clients on the phone to get a sense of where they’re at in the writing process and to give them a better sense of what I’m all about as a script consultant. And there’s one often-made statement that immediately gets me concerned:

“I know structure.”

This statement concerns me because it assumes screenplay structure to be some immutable, unwavering thing entirely independent of the unique story being told. It’s as if there is some specific technique for structure that, once you know it, you simply know it, and you then use it in the same way for every script you would ever possibly write.

And yet this could not be further from the truth.

Structure is inextricably linked to the internal fire of each specific story – it’s the outward vehicle for the deeper message you want to express with your script, and, as such, it is ultimately as individual as the content and characters of the story itself.

That is why there are so many successful movies that completely defy what we regard as traditional screenwriting structure.

Consider, for example, a project like No Country For Old Men, which won the 2007 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, and earned more than triple its production budget. The movie garnered all these achievements despite the fact that, upon close examination, it breaks almost every conceivable “rule” of screenwriting.

Continue reading

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We Write the Scripts that Want to Kill Us

Our creative muses bring us onto a path of personal transformation.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware that I work as a script consultant who specializes in connecting writers to the deep story they’re passionate about telling.

What you may not know, however, is that I have additionally almost completed my training as a Core Energetics therapist. Core Energetics is a form of body-based therapy that uses movement and voice to help clients access deep, frozen feelings and thereby empowers them to have greater access to their fullest selves.

In the past few months, I have been combining Core Energetics with my script consultation work to help writers bypass their heads and instead connect to their projects on a deeper, emotional level. I have so often found that writers tend to get intellectually preoccupied with getting their scripts “right” – i.e. using their minds to try to figure out their script’s structure and proper execution – and that this furious mental activity oftentimes blocks the organic creative flow that would otherwise allow their voice to come truly alive on the page. Introducing writers to Core Energetics techniques has helped them to get out of that destructive headspace and into their bodies to a place of deeper creative truth and self-expression. It’s been incredibly inspiring and liberating work for both my clients and me. Continue reading

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