Thursday, August 20, 2009

You, feeling something

Learning screenwriting for me has been kind of like learning to think like a machine. You take this free-flowing stream of thoughts and images and turn them into a highly specific document that is logical, precise, and organized -- in 12 point Courier, no exceptions. Everything about screenplay craft has a terse, businesslike, unemotional classification. Act I, Act II, Act III. Plot points. Character arcs. Sequences. Set pieces. Forget emotion; you need motivation. You don't write scenes about people feeling things; you write scenes about people doing things -- specific things, for specific reasons. You have to justify every scene in the script, every character, every plot element, in terms of the internal logic of the story.

It's exhausting. And I figured once I was able to sublimate all my creativity into this machine language, I'd be done. But, as it turns out, that's only half the journey.

The other half, ironically, appears to consist of putting back in all that sweeping emotion I've been suppressing up to now in the name of being terse and clinical and adhering to all the cinematic rules and regulations. Except, all the terse, clinical, objective stuff still applies.

Essentially, in other words, I have to think like a machine with feelings.

Sci-fi fans and technology buffs will be aware of the difficulty inherent in this proposition. A machine, by definition, is something that does not feel; and a being with feelings, by definition, is not a machine. Attempts to fuse the two have met with failure in reality and disaster in fiction. But this is exactly what you have to be, I'm convinced, if you want to write a really great screenplay. Logic, motivation, organization... it's not enough. A screenplay in which everything happens for a compelling and justifiable reason will fall flat 99% of the time if it's not also dripping with emotion at every turn.

Am I only talking about dramas, romantic comedies, bodice-ripping period pieces? No. (And I probably won't, because I don't have a lot of interest in writing in those genres.) I'm talking about Die Hard, The Fugitive, Terminator 2, Run Lola Run, Casino Royale, Kill Bill -- each one a great action film that packs an emotional punch into virtually every scene. These movies don't just work because they set up a compelling motivation for the protagonist; they work because they're constantly exploring the protagonist's feelings.

In Die Hard, for example, John McClane has genuine human reactions to every situation he's placed in. He feels pain, exhaustion, desperation, sorrow, panic, even fear. He performs superhuman feats, but we always believe he's human -- because his humanity is not merely implied by the fact that he's taking on incredible risks to save his wife; it's constantly demonstrated. The movie's tactically timed plot turns, efficient exposition, and methodically executed action sequences are all honed with a machine-like precision, and they are no doubt essential to its success -- but the emotions cement the film's status as a leader in its genre, even after 20 years of much more impressively-staged competitors. It's why a movie like Shoot 'Em Up can bombard the senses with scene after scene of ever-more-phenomenal action and yet fail to draw much of an audience even despite its A-list cast.

Don Draper summarizes the essence of advertising in the Season 2 opener of "Mad Men" thusly: "You are the product. You, feeling something. That's what sells." It's a valuable truism for screenwriters to keep in mind. If the writer doesn't feel anything about what he/she is writing, then the characters won't feel anything either, and neither will the audience.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Rewriting again

So, a little less than a year ago I had what I considered a pretty brilliant idea for a movie. A globe-trotting action/adventure ensemble flick with kidnapping, hidden treasures, puzzles, booby-traps, mythical creatures, perhaps even a dirigible or two. The summer movie to end all summer movies. I was in the middle of writing another script at the time, so I put it on the back burner until I was in a position to devote serious time to it.

When it came time to get to work on it, I realized I needed to make some significant changes to the characters and structure. Out went the ensemble cast, a chunk of the first act, and probably half the globe-trotting. The script just wasn't going to work that way, and it was painful to accept that fact since I'd had such a specific vision in my head for so long, but such is the nature of things. Anyway, I did manage to keep a lot of what inspired me to write the script in the first place, and I'm pretty sure that everything that I changed was for the better. I wrote the outline, cranked out the script, and now here I am again in rewrite hell.

Thankfully, though, it's not nearly as hellish as it once was. Confidence helps. Starting with better material helps. And, most importantly, having a real handle on your story and characters helps. (Successfully rewriting something you were never all that sure of is a near-impossible task. Believe me, I know; I've tried it. Multiple times.) After a while, it doesn't just start sucking less; it actually becomes liberating. The outline and first draft is largely a negative-feeling process (you have a great idea in your head, and your only real goal is to avoid screwing it up), but the rewrite process reverses that thinking: How much better can I do? How great can I make this? You realize you've blown the ceiling off and are now free to reach for the stars; you're limited only by your willingness to push yourself.

OK, all this hope and enthusiasm is a clear indication that it's been too long since I've done any actual writing. Better get on that.