Friday, October 22, 2010

101 Things I Learned in Film School

101 Things I Learned (TM) in Film School is a collection of ideas, thoughts and observations about film making, bound together in a handy little book. The author, Neil Landau gave a book reading recently at the Harvard Book Store, along with editor and illustrator Matthew Frederick.

Frederick, who wrote 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School and is the creator, editor and illustrator of the series, started the event with a short introduction and some prizes for those who knew their Boston movie and TV trivia (I think I knew the answers to two of the questions; but I didn't, for example, know that Shutter Island was Martin Scorsese's highest grossing film worldwide.)

In the 101 Things series, each topic gets two pages; one side is an illustration and the other side is a short description/explanation. Think of them as more like ideas than essays. But that's the point of the series; a quick transfer of information. Topics include: A movie is a novel turned inside out, Montage, Different lenses tell different stories, and Acting speaks louder than words.

Neil noted that one thing he learned writing the book is that that writing shorter and less is much harder than writing volumes and volumes. Rather than reading straight from the book, Neil gave a short talk about writing stories for movies, and the three important elements a good movie has; iconic characters, strong central conflict and central mystery.

Neil Landau at The Harvard Booksotre

The following are some quotes form the lecture:
I want to talk about are three main things, and whether you are a screenwriter, or a novelist or a playwright, I think all these things still apply. Even if you’re not a writer or have any interest in writing for film, it will increase your appreciation when you see movies.

Iconic Character
An iconic character is someone who, though you may not remember the plot of the movie very well, you never forget the character. An iconic character is a character who has a built in contradiction. When you think of Rick in Casablanca, when you think of Scarlet O’Hara or Hannibal Lecter, these are iconic characters because they possess both positive and very negative qualities.

Once you establish them, you want to put them in a situation that they are completely ill-prepared for and that’s going to challenge every fiber of their being.

The other thing about an iconic character; there’s something mysterious about that character. Something that we don’t quite understand why the character is this way when we meet them. It’s an embedded mystery within the character; how did this person become this way? And it will always come from their past. Some kind of wound from the past, something that is incomplete in them in the present. In the course of the movie, they are going to have to confront the fears and inner demons that have been holding them back.

Iconic characters have a lot of baggage, and the process of the evolution of the characters is that the baggage has become just so heavy that they can’t keep carrying it around any more, and during the course of the movie they have to take some of the darkness and the skeletons out of the bag.

One of the things that also defines an iconic character is that they have both positive goals and negative goals. Where is the heat in the story? Our job is to sustain dramatic tension from start to finish, and if people get bored it’s not their problem, it’s our problem. The heat is generated by having both positive and negative goals. They’re trying to win something, they’re trying to achieve something positive, but at the same time, if they don’t, they have something to lose. And something to lose that has emotional stakes and has real consequences.

If you’re writing a screenplay, or a novel or a play, and you’re asking yourself ‘is my character complex enough,’ I would ask yourself; ‘does a paradox exist within this character.” And I would also ask “what don’t we know about the character?” because I think audiences are much more intrigued [by] characters that contain contradiction.

The other part of an iconic character, […] when we first meet the character we have kind of a misconception about who he or she is. Usually I like to say they are wearing some kind of metaphorical mask, sometimes it’s a literal mask. They’re never quite what we think they are, and the course of the story is almost like unpeeling the layers of an onion, where we keep stripping away more and more about who the character is until we get to the core.

I believe that the common link between all human beings is yearning. That we all yearn for something. Something that’s just out of reach, or some dream that we have or somebody that we think we’re supposed to be but there’s just certain elements of our lives keeping us being from that. […] My belief is that at the core all protagonists yearn for the same thing, which is to be free of fear. To be free of something that limits them, that holds them back. And usually those fears manifest very early so they’re afraid of abandonment, they’re afraid of success, they’re afraid of failure. Really basic, universal things. Because movies need to speak to very universal things. Things that we can all relate to. Because if movies were just for a fringe of this many people they wouldn’t make money, and Hollywood and even an Indie movie, needs to make money.

Strong Central Conflict
Plot: It’s really essential that a good idea for a movie contains a strong central conflict, and this will always manifest itself when you tell somebody what the movie is about. It will contain the world BUT in the middle of the idea. And one of the lessons in the book is to have a strong But.

Here’s [an example]; "a man is on the run, he’s being chased by innumerable villans, enemies, and they all want to kill him. BUT, he can’t remember anything about his past or who he is." What’s the movie?  Bourne Identity.

One way to look at a strong central conflict is; can the character overcome those weaknesses and limitations in order to triumph in their quest?

A lot of people pitch half an idea where the central conflict isn’t developed. Like here’s half an idea, [based on] Tootise: "An out of work actor who can’t get hired on either coast, puts on a dress and becomes succeful as an actress." Now it has a conflict, but it’s half an idea because I feel like that’s just one joke. How many times can he stumble in high-heels? The part that gives it the strong central conflict is that he falls in love with his co-star on the soap, but he can’t have her because she doesn’t know he’s really a man.

Movies now tend to be about 110 pages, which is about ten minutes shy of two hours. The BUT, the central conflict, will give you the whole second act. The second act of the movie is where that central conflict presents itself and [...] the quest against the consequences occurs, that’s about 55 pages that you have to sustain in the middle.

One of the lessons in the book is; Act II is where a poorly structured screen play goes to die. If the central conflict is not complex enough, the quest and the challenge of the protagonist is too easy to accomplish.

Central Mystery
The other thing that I think that is really overlooked when people are coming up with movie ideas and developing their screenplays is they overlook the value of a strong central mystery. Mysteries in movies don’t have to be something that’s completely hidden, but something that’s obscured. A truth that is obscured.

One of the Lessons in the book is that in Film Noir, everyone is corrupt.

Suspence is generated because we care what happens. We care if they get hurt, if they’re rejected.

Another quote that I think related to all of these three things was a quote I heard from Walter Mosley; “plot is revelation.” The idea is that as the plot progresses you’re revealing more and more about who the characters are so that the hidden aspects of the character, the central mystery of just who the character is, the paradox and what we don’t know about the character, will be finally revealed.

The last thing I want to mention is something from Aristotle, which is; characters are defined by their actions. They’re defined by what they do. They’re not necessarily defined by what they say. The best dialog is filled with subtext

Illustrator Matthew Frederick

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