Doubt – Truth vs Conscience

Doubt-etbscreenwritingThe movie Doubt, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, has an emotional disconnect at its core– in the most unsuccessful sense of the word. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is a Power of Conscience character at the center of a Power of Truth story. She is the wrong protagonist for the film and this mistake fatally skews and distorts the story’s emotional focus. It makes the ending feel false (or as described by various critics– “a cop out”). Here’s what went wrong and why.

Meryl Streep plays a classic Power of Conscience protagonist. In all the reviews and press information her character is described variously as: stern, rigid, inflexible, intimidating, judgmental, authoritarian, single-minded, strict, moralistic, harsh, punitive and punishing. Early in the film, she glares at children whispering, fidgeting, slumping or snoozing in Mass and admonishes them with a variety of hisses and thumps on the head or raps on the knuckles. She describes herself a number of times in the movie as “certain” or having “absolute certainty.”

Power of Conscience ETB ScreenwritingPower of Conscience characters see something and immediately “know” if it is right or wrong. If they witness an action or activity they view as improper, immoral or corrupt and they are compelled to act. These characters simply cannot stand by or be silent in the face of perceived injustice or wrong-doing. Inspector Javert, in Les Miserables is another example of a hardened, unforgiving and unrelenting Power of Conscience character in pursuit of a “wrong-doer.” Less dark versions of this Character Type in religious life are Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons and Thomas Becket in Becket. Both men defy a king whose actions they judged as immoral or improper. Both men died as a result.

Suspicion or doubt, by their nature are at the heart of a Power of Truth story. The Story Questions in a Power of Truth film are: Who can I trust? What is really going on here? Did I really see what I thought I saw? Who is my ally and who is my enemy? When does loyalty look like betrayal? When does betrayal look like loyalty? How can I be really certain of anything? What does it all mean?

None of these questions occur to Sister Aloysius. She never doubts her own judgment. She is unwavering in her pursuit of what she “knows” must be the corruption at the heart of Father Flynn’s actions. She is single-minded and sure of herself. She is absolutely determined to root out wrong-doing wherever and however it rears its head in her school.

Sister James (Amy Adams) is the person plagued and tormented by each of these Power of Truth questions. She is torn and doesn’t know what to believe. It is very difficult to suspect someone you genuinely like and admire of a horrible act. Sister James likes and respects the warm charismatic Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the parish priest at the center of the controversy. The pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church turned on the difficulty those in authority had in believing that competent, well-respected and well-liked priests could also be bad men with deeply criminal impulses.

Power of Truth ETB ScreenwritingIf the story is about really is about doubt, then the ages and positions of the nuns should have been reversed. Sister James should have been the older school principal and protagonist. Sister Aloysius should have been a younger gung-ho Power of Conscience nun. If Sister James had been goaded into accusing Father Flynn, despite her uncertainty and doubt, then it would be entirely credible that she would be tormented about whether or not she did the right thing.

A Power of Conscience character cannot be the protagonist of a Power of Truth film without causing an emotional disconnect. That’s why the ending of the film feels so contrived and false. We never quite believe that Sister Aloysius, who is so certain in all things, would inexplicably dissolve into tears of doubt and remorse once she had accomplished her goal– removing a man she believed to be corrupt from her school.

If this is Power of Conscience film then the central issue is not doubt, it is the dangers of executing a God-like judgment of others. If the harsh unyielding Sister Aloyius is the protagonist, then her character should have been proven wrong with horrible results. Her hard, unrelenting, moral certainty should have been her tragic downfall.

Wesley Morris writing in The Boston Globe about the film says: “…The truth is that Sister Aloysius’s steely single-mindedness is actually quite simple, which is why the movie’s (and the play’s) abrupt final scene is a cop-out.”

Milk – Lack of Internal Conflict

MILK-POSTER-etbscreenwritingMilk features standout performances and worthy subject matter of real historical significance. The film, however, is severely lacking in story on several accounts. It is a object lesson on the need for conflict, conflict, conflict. Too much backstory compromises the emotional power of the film.

The story is too episodic. We watch Milk setting a goal and achieving it for the vast majority of screen time. Sean Penn’s performance is a stunning achievement but it is constrained by the screenplay’s step-by-step by the numbers plot. Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) moves to San Francisco and becomes a Gay Rights activist. He runs unsuccessfully for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors and is elected on his third try. Milk becomes the first openly gay man in America to be elected to public office.

External Conflict

We see Milk overcome obstacles in his quest for elective office but those are all external obstacles; prejudice, lack of funds or lack of broad-based support. External conflict is the least emotional kind of conflict. There is little relationship conflict in the film and no inner conflict. These kinds of conflicts are the most intense and powerful for an audience.

On the relationship front, Milk breaks up with his long-time partner, James Franco (Scott Smith) over political ambitions. This is handled in a few short scenes, none of which have any real heat. It is a sad but amiable dissolution of the relationship and the two men remain committed and affectionate friends through-out the film. Not much intense conflict there.

Franco and Milk’s other friends disapprove of Milk’s new partner, Jack Lira (Diego Luna) a flamboyant needy younger man. Lira complains of feeling excluded but we never see any real rejection, cruelty or even nastiness on the part of Milks friends. Nor do we see much conflict between Lira and Milk. Tepid exasperation on Franco’s and his friend’s behalf, brief child-like petulance on Lira’s behalf and tolerant bemusement on Milk’s behalf is about as intense as the relationship conflict gets. When Lira kills himself, this big emotional moment simply isn’t earned. Where are the cat-fights, personal fireworks, desperation, deep frustration or anger that leads to that intense dramatic moment? It’s just not there.

Internal Conflict

Most troubling is the lack of internal conflict. Milk is portrayed as a smart, caring, committed, passionate, inspirational and good-humored man through-out. Were all his political ambitions noble and pure? Were there no darker impulses at work– selfishness, ego, pride or hubris? We never see him struggle with his baser and his more noble desires for political power.

Nor do we ever see Milk wrestle with himself. He never struggles with two competing values. He appears to sacrifice his love relationships to his political ambitions but we don’t we see him struggle to make that choice. Break-ups of deep caring relationships don’t just happen. There is conflict leading to a moment of personal choice– This relationship isn’t worth my time or I want something more. Where are the tears, recriminations or the uncertainty that politics is worth sacrificing some who loves you? Instead, we simply see the report, after the fact, that a relationship, has ended (tragically in suicide in Lira’s case). Where are the intense passionate conflicts as Milk neglects his partners and sacrifices them for him aspirations and ambitions?

The real, and most interesting, conflict emerges in Milk’s relationship with Dan White (Josh Brolin) This is where the emotions on the screen finally heat up and start to get real. From a character and conflict standpoint, the film catches fire with Milk’s election. Do we really need to know the step-by-step process by which White was elected? We can watch the documentary to understand that process.

The complex psychological dance between Milk and White is where the true emotional power of the film lies. White (Brolin) has an intense need to connect with Milk and earn his respect. He blames all his troubles on Milk. In turn, we get glimpses of Milk playing with White both personally and politically, taunting him and occasionally condescending to him. We finally get a tiny glimpse of Milk’s less than perfect humanity and his hubris. White is desperate and feels deeply threatened, humiliated and inadequate. How do the emotions build to the culmination of a tragic double murder? That is the heart of the most emotional story in the film and it gets too short a shrift.

Watching Brolin and Penn go at it in highly charged scenes fraught with powerful subtext and deep personal conflict is a joy to behold. THAT is the movie. The rest is purely prologue and should have been cut from the story.

The Wrestler – Power of Idealism

Wrestler-etbscreenwritingThe Wrestler opens with a montage of clippings, photos and playbills extolling the career of 1980’s professional wrestling star Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke).

Twenty-years later, Randy’s glory days are long-gone. He is reduced to a battered battle-scarred hulk self-medicating his psychic and physical pain with a cocktail of drugs, steroids and booze.

Randy is a Power of Idealism Character fallen to the Dark Side.

At their worst, Power of Idealism Characters suffer from delusions of grandeur and, alternately, deep despair. They are self-destructive, self-loathing and self-harming. Randy is locked in a self-annihilating dance with the ghost of his former fame. He is consumed by the fantasy, loss and drama of his stage persona. Randy only feels “alive” in the elaborately choreographed hero’s role he plays in the ring.

Ty Burr, writing in The Boston Globe, contrasts the two main characters in the film: “Pam (Marisa Tomei), (is) an aging stripper whose stage name is Cassidy and who understands far better than The Ram the tensions between selling a persona and living in reality. Both use their bodies for the fantasies of others, but only Pam sees that when the body fails, the fantasy goes with it.”

Pam/Cassidy also realizes her real world and real life is with her son. The fantasy of her stage persona is just a way to make a living– Nothing more. Her true self-identification is as a mother.

Randy can’t embrace the simple reality of ordinary family life. He continually abandoned his daughter for the brief hero-worship of strangers. He breaks her heart yet again by not showing up after a fragile reconciliation. Instead, he chooses to party with a young woman who sees a liaison with him as a novelty retro sex act. Randy also rejects Pam/Cassidy’s real offer of love for the cheering strangers in yet another grimy run-down converted gym/wrestling arena. As he makes his trademarked leap from the top of the ropes, his heart literally gives out.

Burr comments: “(P)ro wrestling has always been a cartoon, and that’s the appeal to performers and fans alike: It resolves life’s complexities with a turnbuckle to the skull. The Wrestler is about the seductions of superficiality and the dull ache of living beyond one’s moment.”

Power of Idealism ETB ScreenwritingIn order to find salvation, Power of Idealism characters must learn to find the magic and passion in the small details of life with family, friends and the mundane, ordinary moments of living. Randy’s tragedy is he finds magic only in the empty choreographed illusions of the ring. He compulsively plays the spray-tanned bleached blond hero to dwindling numbers of cheering strangers.

Frost/Nixon and the Power of Ambition

Frost Nixon ETB ScreenwritingThe film Frost/Nixon is one of the best of a dispiriting lot this movie-going Holiday Season.  Although there have been some remarkable performances in the current crop of films, many of the stories on screen have been weak and unsatisfying.

In contrast, Frost/Nixon has it all– towering performances and a tight script that builds to a satisfying finish.  The film is the story of an epic battle between two Power of Ambition characters.  The characters and film are pitch perfect.

Power of Ambition characters fear failure in the eyes of others and in the eyes of the world. The worst thing that could happen to these characters is being publicly “unmasked” for the fraud, failure or loser they fear they are.

Image is everything to these characters.  They are terrified of any kind of public embarrassment, becoming unpopular or appearing to be of no public or social  importance. They are always keeping score and worry that they will fall behind somehow. It is nearly impossible for these character to admit their mistakes or acknowledge their failings.

In their worst moments these characters exhibit manic depressive swings— obsessive self-serving action punctuated by nearly paralyzing shame, despair, self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy, inferiority and failure.

The following scene from Frost/Nixon articulate the Power of Ambition character’s fear perfectly.  The scene is intimate, personal and comes at just the right moment in the story.  Before their film taping session Nixon calls Frost’s hotel room late at night:

NIXON
We’ve sat in chairs opposite one another, talking for hours, it seems– days on end– and yet I’ve hardly gotten to know you. One of my people– ah– as part of the preparation of this interview–did a profile of you, and I’m sorry to say– I only got around to reading it tonight. (Nixon looks in the file: sees evidence or Frost’s humble childhood)  There’s some interesting stuff in there. The Methodist background, modest circumstances. Then off to a grand university. Full of richer, posher types. What was it? Oxford?

FROST
Cambridge.

NIXON
Did the snobs there look down on you,too?

FROST
I .. I ..

NIXON
Of course they did. That’s our tragedy, isn’t it, Mr. Frost? No matter how high we get, they still look down at us ..

FROST
I–. really– don’t know what you’re talking about ..

NIXON
Yes, you do. C’mon. You know exactly. No matter how many awards– or how many column inches are written about you– or how high the elected office is for me– it still isn’t enough, am I right? We still feel like the little man? The loser they told us we were? A hundred times. The smart-asses at college. The high-ups. The well-born.The people who’s respect we really wanted. Really craved. And isn’t that why we work so hard now? Why we fight for every inch. Scrambling our way up, in undignified fashion, whatever hillock or mountain it is, why we never tire, why we find energy or motivation when any sensible person would lie down, or relax.  (Nixon looks in the file: articles about FROST’s failure in America. The network show being canceled)  If we’re honest for a minute. If we reflect privately just for a moment– if we allow ourselves … a glimpse into that shadowy place we call our soul, isn’t that why we’re here now? The two of us? Looking for a way back? Into the sun? Into the limelight? Back onto the winner’s podium? Because we could feel itslipping away? We were headed, both of us, for the dirt. The place the snobs always told us we’d end up. Face in the dust. Humiliated all the more for having tried so pitifully hard. Well, to hell with that. We’re not going to let that happen. Either of us. We’re going to show those bums, and make them choke on our continued success.Our continued headlines. Our continued awards, power and glory. We’re going to make those motherfuckers choke. Am I right?

FROST
You are. Except only ONE of us can win.

NIXON
And I shall be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I’ve got. Because the limelight can only shine on ONE of us. And for the other, it’ll be the ‘wilderness’. With nothing and no one for company, but those voices ringing in our heads.

It is my belief, facts are less important than the emotional truth of a story.  Just because it never really happened that way doesn’t mean it isn’t true!

Slumdog Millionaire – Power of Idealism

Slumdog Millionaire is set in truly horrific circumstances, involving extreme poverty and the foulest kind of child exploitation.  I also discovered it is a Power of Idealism film about the triumph of love and the human spirit.  It is must-see viewing this holiday season.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Power of Idealism films are about the difference between fate and destiny. Chance, God or the Universe determines fate.  It is written.  You can’t change your fate.  It is outside your control. Your destiny is an opportunity that lies before you.  You recognize this chance and choose either to walk away or hurry toward it.  This choice defines who you are.  Seizing your destiny determines how and for what you are remembered.
Dr. Howard Suber, film structure professor to generations of UCLA students, teaches and writes eloquently about the distinction in his wonderful book, The Power of Film.  In brief, Dr. Suber says:  “You seek your destiny; you succumb to your fate.”
In addition to Slumdog Millionaire, two other very diverse Power of Idealism films demonstrate the same principles and choices—Lawrence of Arabia and Ratatouille.
The hero’s circumstances in all three films are determined by his birth.  Fate would have it that these circumstances are impossible to escape.  It is a condition that cannot be changed.  It is completely outside the hero’s control.
In Lawrence of Arabia, young Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is born an unrecognized illegitimate son of a wealthy man.  Lawrence is eccentric and a social misfit.  In the class-driven British system such an outcast should never rise to orchestrate and lead one of the greatest military campaigns in history.
Young Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) in Ratatouille is born a rat. Chefs consider rats filthy vermin. Remy is also an outcast and should never rise to become a famous chef.
Young Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) in Slumdog Millionaire is born in overwhelmingly dire poverty in Mumbai, India.  He is considered no better than human vermin. Jamal, too, is a social outcast and should never hope to rise above and triumph over his circumstances.
Each of these Power of Idealism heroes has an over-riding passion, a great love that calls him to seize his destiny and attempt the impossible.  Lawrence’s great love is the desert and freedom of the Arab people.  Remy’s great love is gourmet cooking.  Jamal’s great love is the beautiful young Latika (Freida Pinto).
A key scene in Lawrence of Arabia illustrates the difference between fate and destiny.  Lawrence attempts the impossible, to cross the worst desert on earth, “The Sun’s Anvil,” with a handful of Arab fighters.  He aims to launch a surprise attack on the city of Aqaba.  Near the end of the arduous journey Lawrence notices one young fighter (Gasim) is missing.  Gasim’s camel trots along riderless. Lawrence demands they go back into the desert to find him.  Sheik Ali (Omar Sharif) refuses.
Sheik Ali: “In God’s name understand, we cannot go back.”
Lawrence: “I can.”
Sheik Ali: “If you go back, you’ll kill us all. Gasim you have killed already.”
Lawrence: “Get out of my way.”
Another Arab Fighter: “Gasim’s time is come, Lawrence. It is written!”
Lawrence: “Nothing is written.”
Sheik Ali (riding along with and haranguing Lawrence): “Go back, then. What did you bring us here for with your blasphemous conceit? Eh, English blasphemer? Aqaba? You will not be at Aqaba, English. Go back, blasphemer! But you will not be at Aqaba!”
Lawrence (riding ahead he turns back toward Sheik Ali): “I shall be at Aqaba. That is written… (He points at his heart)… in here!”
Lawrence then courageously retraces his steps and finds the half-dead Gasim.  He returns with the young man strapped to his saddle. Lawrence defiantly repeats to Sheik Ali: “Nothing is written.”
Later in the film, Sheik Ali acknowledges Lawrence’s remarkable courage and fortitude, first witnessed in Gasim’s rescue. Sheik Ali says: “Truly for some men, nothing is written unless they write it.”
Nothing is written for Lawrence, Remy or Jamal unless each writes it in his own heart.  For each of these  three characters, seizing his destiny is an extraordinary act of faith powered by an overwhelming passion for one great transcendent love.
The lesson of being an extraordinary Power of Idealism hero is voiced in Ratatouille by Restaurant Critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole).  He writes about the talented rat and chef, Remy saying: “…Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France.”
Here is how Jamal follows his passion for his great love in Slumdog Millionaire.  At the beginning of the film, Jamal is interrogated by the police. He is a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Jamal makes it to the final round of the quiz show and is in reach of the grand prize.  Before the final round is played, Jamal is kidnapped, arrested and accused of cheating.  Even under torture, he insists that he did not cheat.
The police chief is willing to give Jamal the benefit of the doubt if Jamal can explain how he answered the show’s questions. Jamal tells the story of his life, turning his suffering and pain into an inspiring tale of enduring love.  The film flashes between the questions on the quiz show and Jamal’s childhood.
He recounts how he and his older brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal) grew up in the chaotic squalor of a Mumbai slum.  They are orphaned when their mother is killed during an anti-Muslim riot and subsequent widespread arson. The boys escape the burning slum together.  Despite Salim’s objections, Jamal invites the orphaned Latika to join them.  It is love at first sight.
The three children scavenge in one of Mumbai’s largest dumps until they are taken to an orphanage.  The orphanage is a front for a begging operation that uses horrific tactics to make the children more pitiful.  Jamal is taught to sing.  Salim (a young Power of Will character) is recruited to bully and capture other children.
Salim is not afraid to use violence to help him and his brother survive.  He protects Jamal and stages their escape. When the boys jump on a freight train, Salim lets go of Latika’s hand and she is left behind with the gangsters.  Salim is jealous of Jamal’s love for Latika.
The brothers spend years scamming and stealing from tourists.  Jamal refuses to forget Latika.  He obsessively searches for her.  Jamal finally finds her only to lose her again.  His brother rapes Latika and vanishes with the young girl.  Jamal eventually finds work delivering tea in a call center.  Searching the computer company’s mobile phone records he locates his missing brother.  When he finds and follows Salim he also finds Latika.
Salim and Latika live in the thrall of a powerful Mumbai crime lord.  Latika is one of the man’s concubines. Salim is one of his thuggish enforcers.  Jamal convinces Latika to escape and meet him at the train station.  Salim follows, recaptures and brutalizes her.
To escape his other larger problems, the crime lord is forced to leave Mumbai.  He takes Salim and Latika with him. Jamal attempts to find and reach out to Latika by becoming a contestant on her favorite quiz show, the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Jamal’s fate is that of a slumdog.  He is poor, uneducated and one of millions just like him.  Fate should dictate that he live and die in the slum, unheralded and unsung.  He should accept his fate as a piece of human garbage, disposable and easily forgotten.
Instead, Jamal turns the pain, humiliation and hopelessness of his life into the answers that complete an epic quest for the love of his life.  Jamal refuses to surrender to his fate or to the gangsters who control the slums.  He chooses instead to seize his destiny and pursue the impossible. The police chief’s reaction is much like Anton Ego’s in Ratatouille.  His preconceptions about Jamal are shattered.  He rips up Jamal’s arrest warrant and returns him to the quiz show to play the prize-winning final round.
Jamal’s destiny is Latika.  However unattainable their love is, Jamal chooses to race toward his passion.  His choice defines who he is.  Seizing his destiny ensures Jamal will live forever as a legend in slums.  He never gives up.  He never gives in.  His unending quest finally inspires the love of his brother, who makes the ultimate sacrifice in recognition of the unquenchable intensity and purity of Jamal’s love.
Jamal and Latika find each other at the train station at the end of the film.  The two have a tearful and passionate reunion.
Latika:  “I thought we would meet again only in death.”
Jamal (shaking his head):  “I knew you would be watching.” (Jamal turns her head to gently touch the scar disfiguring the side of her face, which is Salim’s punishment for her previous escape. She tries to turn away.)
Jamal:  “This is our destiny.” (He kisses her scar tenderly)  “This is our destiny.”  (He kisses and holds her tight)
I am happy to close out 2008 with a newsletter about such an inspiring film. Pearl S. Buck, the Pulitzer-winning American author of The Good Earth and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature famously wrote:  “The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible—and achieve it, generation after generation.”
I challenge you all to be young at heart in 2009, seize your destiny and aim for the impossible.  As President-elect Barack Obama proved—Nothing is written unless we write it in our hearts.  This year, resolve to write your best self.  Defy the odds.  Fly in the face of your fears.  Make a Leap of Faith.  I will be there with you, every step of the way.

Slumdog-Millionaire-etbscreenwritingSlumdog Millionaire is set in truly horrific circumstances, involving extreme poverty and the foulest kind of child exploitation.  I also discovered it is a Power of Idealism film about the triumph of love and the human spirit.  It is must-see viewing this 2008 holiday season.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Power of Idealism films are about the difference between fate and destiny. Chance, God or the Universe determines fate.  It is written.  You can’t change your fate.  It is outside your control. Your destiny is an opportunity that lies before you.  You recognize this chance and choose either to walk away or hurry toward it.  This choice defines who you are.  Seizing your destiny determines how and for what you are remembered.

Dr. Howard Suber, film structure professor to generations of UCLA students, teaches and writes eloquently about the distinction in his wonderful book, The Power of Film.  In brief, Dr. Suber says:  “You seek your destiny; you succumb to your fate.”

In addition to Slumdog Millionaire, two other very diverse Power of Idealism films demonstrate the same principles and choices—Lawrence of Arabia and Ratatouille.

The hero’s circumstances in all three films are determined by his birth.  Fate would have it that these circumstances are impossible to escape.  It is a condition that cannot be changed.  It is completely outside the hero’s control.

In Lawrence of Arabia, young Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is born an unrecognized illegitimate son of a wealthy man.  Lawrence is eccentric and a social misfit.  In the class-driven British system such an outcast should never rise to orchestrate and lead one of the greatest military campaigns in history.

Young Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) in Ratatouille is born a rat. Chefs consider rats filthy vermin. Remy is also an outcast and should never rise to become a famous chef.

Young Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) in Slumdog Millionaire is born in overwhelmingly dire poverty in Mumbai, India.  He is considered no better than human vermin. Jamal, too, is a social outcast and should never hope to rise above and triumph over his circumstances.

Each of these Power of Idealism heroes has an over-riding passion, a great love that calls him to seize his destiny and attempt the impossible.  Lawrence’s great love is the desert and freedom of the Arab people. Remy’s great love is gourmet cooking.  Jamal’s great love is the beautiful young Latika (Freida Pinto).

peter-otoole-lawrence-of-arabia-etbscreenwritingA key scene in Lawrence of Arabia illustrates the difference between fate and destiny.  Lawrence attempts the impossible, to cross the worst desert on earth, “The Sun’s Anvil,” with a handful of Arab fighters.  He aims to launch a surprise attack on the city of Aqaba.  Near the end of the arduous journey Lawrence notices one young fighter (Gasim) is missing.  Gasim’s camel trots along riderless. Lawrence demands they go back into the desert to find him.  Sheik Ali (Omar Sharif) refuses.

.

Sheik Ali: “In God’s name understand, we cannot go back.”

Lawrence: “I can.”

Sheik Ali: “If you go back, you’ll kill us all. Gasim you have killed already.”

Lawrence: “Get out of my way.”

Another Arab Fighter: “Gasim’s time is come, Lawrence. It is written!”

Lawrence: “Nothing is written.”

Sheik Ali (riding along with and haranguing Lawrence): “Go back, then. What did you bring us here for with your blasphemous conceit? Eh, English blasphemer? Aqaba? You will not be at Aqaba, English. Go back, blasphemer! But you will not be at Aqaba!”

Lawrence (riding ahead he turns back toward Sheik Ali): “I shall be at Aqaba. That is written… (He points at his heart)… in here!”

Lawrence then courageously retraces his steps and finds the half-dead Gasim.  He returns with the young man strapped to his saddle. Lawrence defiantly repeats to Sheik Ali: “Nothing is written.”

Later in the film, Sheik Ali acknowledges Lawrence’s remarkable courage and fortitude, first witnessed in Gasim’s rescue. Sheik Ali says: “Truly for some men, nothing is written unless they write it.”

Nothing is written for Lawrence, Remy or Jamal unless each writes it in his own heart.  For each of these  three characters, seizing his destiny is an extraordinary act of faith powered by an overwhelming passion for one great transcendent love.

ratatouille-etb-screenwritingThe lesson of being an extraordinary Power of Idealism hero is voiced in Ratatouille by Restaurant Critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole).  He writes about the talented rat and chef, Remy saying: “…Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France.”

Here is how Jamal follows his passion for his great love in Slumdog Millionaire.  At the beginning of the film, Jamal is interrogated by the police. He is a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Jamal makes it to the final round of the quiz show and is in reach of the grand prize.  Before the final round is played, Jamal is kidnapped, arrested and accused of cheating.  Even under torture, he insists that he did not cheat.

The police chief is willing to give Jamal the benefit of the doubt if Jamal can explain how he answered the show’s questions. Jamal tells the story of his life, turning his suffering and pain into an inspiring tale of enduring love.  The film flashes between the questions on the quiz show and Jamal’s childhood.

He recounts how he and his older brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal) grew up in the chaotic squalor of a Mumbai slum.  They are orphaned when their mother is killed during an anti-Muslim riot and subsequent widespread arson. The boys escape the burning slum together.  Despite Salim’s objections, Jamal invites the orphaned Latika to join them.  It is love at first sight.

The three children scavenge in one of Mumbai’s largest dumps until they are taken to an orphanage.  The orphanage is a front for a begging operation that uses horrific tactics to make the children more pitiful. Jamal is taught to sing.  Salim (a young Power of Will character) is recruited to bully and capture other children.

Salim is not afraid to use violence to help him and his brother survive.  He protects Jamal and stages their escape. When the boys jump on a freight train, Salim lets go of Latika’s hand and she is left behind with the gangsters.  Salim is jealous of Jamal’s love for Latika.

The brothers spend years scamming and stealing from tourists.  Jamal refuses to forget Latika.  He obsessively searches for her.  Jamal finally finds her only to lose her again.  His brother rapes Latika and vanishes with the young girl.  Jamal eventually finds work delivering tea in a call center.  Searching the computer company’s mobile phone records he locates his missing brother.  When he finds and follows Salim he also finds Latika.

Salim and Latika live in the thrall of a powerful Mumbai crime lord.  Latika is one of the man’s concubines. Salim is one of his thuggish enforcers.  Jamal convinces Latika to escape and meet him at the train station. Salim follows, recaptures and brutalizes her.

To escape his other larger problems, the crime lord is forced to leave Mumbai.  He takes Salim and Latika with him. Jamal attempts to find and reach out to Latika by becoming a contestant on her favorite quiz show, the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Jamal’s fate is that of a slumdog.  He is poor, uneducated and one of millions just like him.  Fate should dictate that he live and die in the slum, unheralded and unsung.  He should accept his fate as a piece of human garbage, disposable and easily forgotten.

Instead, Jamal turns the pain, humiliation and hopelessness of his life into the answers that complete an epic quest for the love of his life.  Jamal refuses to surrender to his fate or to the gangsters who control the slums.  He chooses instead to seize his destiny and pursue the impossible. The police chief’s reaction is much like Anton Ego’s in Ratatouille.  His preconceptions about Jamal are shattered.  He rips up Jamal’s arrest warrant and returns him to the quiz show to play the prize-winning final round.

Jamal’s destiny is Latika.  However unattainable their love is, Jamal chooses to race toward his passion.  His choice defines who he is.  Seizing his destiny ensures Jamal will live forever as a legend in slums.  He never gives up.  He never gives in.  His unending quest finally inspires the love of his brother, who makes the ultimate sacrifice in recognition of the unquenchable intensity and purity of Jamal’s love.

Jamal and Latika find each other at the train station at the end of the film.  The two have a tearful and passionate reunion.

Latika:  “I thought we would meet again only in death.”

Jamal (shaking his head):  “I knew you would be watching.” (Jamal turns her head to gently touch the scar disfiguring the side of her face, which is Salim’s punishment for her previous escape. She tries to turn away.)

Jamal:  “This is our destiny.” (He kisses her scar tenderly)  “This is our destiny.”  (He kisses and holds her tight)

I am happy to close out 2008 with a post about such an inspiring film. Pearl S. Buck, the Pulitzer-winning American author of The Good Earth and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature famously wrote:  “The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible—and achieve it, generation after generation.”

I challenge you all to be young at heart in 2009, seize your destiny and aim for the impossible.  As President-elect Barack Obama proved—Nothing is written unless we write it in our hearts.  This year, resolve to write your best self.  Defy the odds.  Fly in the face of your fears.  Make a Leap of Faith.  I will be there with you, every step of the way.

Creating a New Character – Fear

edvard-munch ETB ScreenwritingI have been silent on the blog these last few days because I’ve been struggling with a terrible cold.  Not a pleasant way to spend a romantic holiday in Paris with my husband (he’s been sick too)– but there you have it.  It’s a good thing we are staying with loving family members who have taken good care of us.

I am now preparing for a television show I’ll be working with in Europe. I just received a bio which describes a new character soon to be added to the show’s ensemble.  It is a male character, a father, whose greatest fear is described as the terror that something might happen to his daughter.

When I first developed the Character Map I asked writers “What is your biggest fear?”  This kind of answer would often come up.  As adults we often fear most for those we love, especially our children.

I realized this was the wrong way to ask the question.  I then asked “What was your biggest worry as a child?”

This question yielded much more useful answers.  How do we turn around the character’s natural fear about a child’s welfare into something more specific to that particular character?

We must look at the ways the character is most worried about failing others and becoming unloved or unlovable.  This often is traceable back to the character’s own childhood fears.  These early fears powerfully stay with us and color our adult lives.

The question to ask the character (a father) in this case is– “How do you fear you might be the cause of something terrible happening to your child?”

This makes the fear specific and personal and keys it directly to the Character Type.  Here are some examples:

I fear I am not strong enough to protect my child.  If I show any weakness my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Will father (like Tony Soprano on The Sopranos).

I fear I am not good enough to protect my child.  If I don’t judge correctly or make bad choices my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Conscience father (like Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights).

I fear I am not cautious enough to protect my child.  If I don’t see all the hidden dangers my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Truth father (like the father fish, Marlin, in Finding Nemo).

I fear I am not extraordinary enough to protect my child.  If I don’t act with honor and heroism my family might be exposed to danger.  This at the root of the fear for a Power of Idealism father (like William Wallace in Braveheart).

I fear I am not objective enough to protect my child.  If I don’t act rationally my family might be exposed to danger.  This at the root of the fear for a Power of Reason father (like Dr.Matt Fowler in In the Bedroom)

I fear I am not successful enough to protect my child.  If I don’t have enough money my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Ambition father (like Fletcher Reed in Liar Liar)

I fear I am not responsible enough to protect my child.  If I don’t have enough maturity my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Excitement father (like Samuel Faulkner in Nine Months).

I fear I am not useful enough to protect my child.  If I my family doesn’t realize I know best they might be exposed to danger. This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Love father (like Stanley Banks in Father of the Bride).

I fear I am not significant enough to protect my child. If I am too simple my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Imagination father (like Guido Orefice in Life is Beautiful).

The trick is to make the fear personal to the character and fit the Character Type.  Simply fearing for a child is too general.  The fear must speak directly to the character’s own Worldview, View of Love and how one protects and cherishes those one loves.  Or how specifically one might fail to do so.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Coming of Age Films and Power of Idealism

400blows ETBScreenwriterComing of Age films, as I define them, are Power of Idealism films.  Anyone telling stories about young people should see a wide selection from the following films.

They offer a broad diverse but incredibly consistent view of the struggles, values at stake and conflicts involved in growing-up and defining one’s self as an individual.  Get out your Netfilx list!  Drop me a line if I’ve missed one of your favorites.

▪  The 400 Blows
▪    8 Mile
▪    Almost Famous
▪    Amarcord
▪    American Graffiti
▪    Angus
▪    Au revoir, les enfants
▪    The Basketball Diaries
▪    Bend It Like Beckham
▪    Boyz n the Hood
▪    The Breakfast Club
▪    Breaking Away
▪    The Chosen
▪    Cinema Paradiso
▪    Dead Poets Society
▪    Dear Frankie
▪    Diner
▪    Dirty Dancing
▪    Donnie Darko
▪    Driving Lessons
▪    East of Eden
▪    Educating Rita
▪    Endless Love
▪    Footloose
▪    Giant
▪    Girl, Interrupted
▪    The Graduate
▪    A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
▪    Juno
▪    The Karate Kid
▪    Labyrinth
▪    The Last Picture Show
▪    The Lion King
▪    A Little Romance
▪    Little Women (1949 film)
▪    The Lost Boys
▪    Love & Basketball
▪    My Brilliant Career
▪    My Girl
▪    Old Yeller (1957 film)
▪    The Outsiders
▪    Pretty in Pink
▪    Real Women Have Curves
▪    Reality Bites
▪    Rebel Without a Cause
▪    A River Runs Through It
▪    Say Anything…
▪    Sixteen Candles
▪    Sounder
▪    Splendor in the Grass
▪    St. Elmo’s Fire
▪    Stand by Me
▪    Summer of ’42
▪    A Walk to Remember
▪    Whale Rider
▪    What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
▪    The Wild Ones
▪    White Oleander
▪    Y tu mamá también

Second Hand Wedding

secondhand ETBScreenwritingAs a frequent flyer on Air New Zealand (my favorite carrier to Australia/New Zealand AND from LA to London) I have the opportunity to see regional films that don’t ever make it to the US in wide distribution.

My favorite film this trip was the delightful and heartwarming Second Hand Wedding.  It’s everything one would want in comedy.  Laughter, tears, deep true human feeling and outstanding performances.

The film is set and filmed on the Kapiti Coast of New Zealand.  School principal and devoted mum, Jill Rose (Geraldine Brophy) fanatically hunts down garage sales every Saturday morning.  Bargains fill her house to the brim. She is obsessive, over-bearing and extremely warm-hearted, a larger-than-life Power of Love character.

When Jill’s daughter, teacher Cheryl (Holly Shanahan), finally accepts a marriage proposal from her long-time car mechanic boyfriend Stew (Ryan O’Kane) she’s afraid to tell her mum.  Cheryl has avoided marriage because she’s afraid Jill will turn her wedding into a tacky bargain basement affair.  Cheryl is a Power of Ambition character, whose most intense childhood memories are the humilations she suffered at never having anything new or trendy like the popular kids.  Her mum always dressed her in off-beat garage sale finds.

Cheryl does confide in her patient and accepting dad Brian (Patrick Wilson).  He is a retired security guard who is a Power of Imagination tinkerer.  His dream is rebuilding a Model T Ford in his garage.  He dotes on Jill accomodates her mania for buying junk.  He does keeps Cheryl’s secret, however.

Gracie (Vivien Bell), is a fellow teacher who missed out on the principal’s job when Jill was selected.  She is a vengeful Power of Conscience charater who spitefully reveals that Cheryl is engaged.  Jill is shocked to hear the news.  She is further devastated when Gracie gleefully discloses that Cheryl is too embarrassed by Jill’s mania for bargains to include Jill in the wedding plans.

Jill absorbs this brutal truth with heartbreaking misery.  She backs off and doesn’t interfere.  Meanwhile, Cheryl and Stew sign up for a wedding reception at a fancy but pretentious wedding hall.  They mistakenly think the $6000 they have paid is the full cost.  They are shocked to discover the total is actually $24,000, a sum don’t have any hope of raising.

The hall manager, Daniela (Gentiane Lupi), is a deliciously nasty (Power of Will) executive who gets a fantastic come-uppance by Jill.  Cherly is tearfully grateful and comes to her mum for further help.  Jill saves the day and pulls off the wedding reception with her daughter’s blessing.

NOTE TO BROADCASTERS:  This family would make a wonderful engaging sit-com series!

Second Hand Wedding is a bon-bon and a delight.  See if you can find it on Netflix.  It’s well worth the watch.

Values at Stake – Film

oskar-schindler ETB ScreenwritingValues are defined as a person’s principles or judgments about what is most important in life.

Competing values are neutral.  They are a simple (often one word) expression of a fundamental truth or an ideal a person holds dear.  No value is inherently better or worse than another.  For example:  Freedom and Security are two fundamental American values.

America sees itself as “the home of the brave and the land of the free.”  Lady Liberty is an iconic symbol of the nation.  But to survive, every nation (or person) must be secure in its person, property and borders.  Security is also a fundamental American value, especially in these potentially very dangerous times.

The question is:  What happens when a character (or country) is forced to make starker and starker choices in favor of one value over (or to the exclusion of) another?

How much freedom are you willing to sacrifice or surrender in order to be secure?  As citizens are pushed to give up more personal autonomy, liberty or privacy, when do they cease to be free? Alternatively, how much security are you willing to sacrifice or surrender in order to be free?  If safety measures are too often thwarted by civil libertarians can a nation be adequately secure?

As the risk rises and a nation (or person) is pushed to the brink, it is forced to chose one value over the other.  These choices build up over time.  A final definitive choice should negate or eliminate one value in favor of another.   The payoff to a feature film well and satisfyingly written is to show this kind of final climactic choice at the end of the story.

For example:  In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler discovers war is the road to riches.  His Jewish accountant pads the factory payroll to save people from the camps.  At first, Schindler resists then, as he gets to know the factory workers, he gives away his watch, then his ring and then his cigarette case in making deals to shield them.  Schindler makes his final value choice when he gives his last trunk of money to protect those workers who are now finally and fully “his” responsibility. Schindler finishes the film penniless and dressed in the rags.  In a Power of Conscience film, like Schindler’s List, the values at stake are Personal Well-Being vs. Moral Responsibility.

In series television, this choice is paid off more slowly and over multiple episodes or seasons.  A television series shows how this choice is made through incremental action, over time, leading to a climactic series finale.

For example:  In NYPD Blues, Andy Sipowicz choses to face his demons one by one.  He battles his temper and his rage. First he reigns himself in and gets sober, then he gets married, has a baby, reconciles with his eldest son, loses that son, loses his wife and cares for his remaining child. Over 17 years the drunken, racist, misanthrope we met in the pilot becomes, in a final leap of faith, a temperate respected leader of the men in his precinct. In a Power of Will series, like NYPD Blues, each choice involves the competing values of Impluse vs Restraint.

Getting back to our earlier example: How is freedom finally sacrificed? What is the tipping point?  Alternatively, what well-meaning policies deal security a fatal blow?   The audience wants to see how this final value choice is driven by faith or by fear.   They want to see how the character is pushed to extremes that provoke action that conclusively defines his or her character.

Values + Action = Character

The obstacles in a film or television series should create the kind of risk, peril or danger that pushes the character to take actions that define what is most fundamentally important or true in a character’s life. This is the case even in comedy.  There is no greater risk or peril than the vulnerability that makes a character funny.

The character should be forced to make a stark, definitive and active choice. As one value is ultimately chosen, the character finally negates or surrenders the other contrasting value.  What price is paid for the character’s choice?  What are the consequences for the character?  The more expensive the price, the more dire the consequences are for your character, the more compelling and urgent your story will be for your audience.

I am still hard at work on my books about the Nine Character Types.  Stay tuned! And email me to get on a Special Offer List.

Values at Stake – Televison

sipowicz ETBScreenwritingValues are defined as a person’s principles or judgments about what is most important in life.

Competing values are neutral.  They are a simple (often one word) expression of a fundamental truth or an ideal a person holds dear.  No value is inherently better or worse than another.  For example:  Freedom and Security are two fundamental American values.

America sees itself as “the home of the brave and the land of the free.”  Lady Liberty is an iconic symbol of the nation.  But to survive, every nation (or person) must be secure in its person, property and borders.  Security is also a fundamental American value, especially in these potentially very dangerous times.

The question is:  What happens when a character (or country) is forced to make starker and starker choices in favor of one value over (or to the exclusion of) another?

How much freedom are you willing to sacrifice or surrender in order to be secure?  As citizens are pushed to give up more personal autonomy, liberty or privacy, when do they cease to be free? Alternatively, how much security are you willing to sacrifice or surrender in order to be free?  If safety measures are too often thwarted by civil libertarians can a nation be adequately secure?

As the risk rises and a nation (or person) is pushed to the brink, it is forced to chose one value over the other.  These choices build up over time.  A final definitive choice should negate or eliminate one value in favor of another.   The payoff to a feature film well and satisfyingly written is to show this kind of final climactic choice at the end of the story.

For example:  In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler discovers war is the road to riches.  His Jewish accountant pads the factory payroll to save people from the camps.  At first, Schindler resists then, as he gets to know the factory workers, he gives away his watch, then his ring and then his cigarette case in making deals to shield them.  Schindler makes his final value choice when he gives his last trunk of money to protect those workers who are now finally and fully “his” responsibility. Schindler finishes the film penniless and dressed in the rags.  In a Power of Conscience film, like Schindler’s List, the values at stake are Personal Well-Being vs. Moral Responsibility.

In series television, this choice is paid off more slowly and over multiple episodes or seasons.  A television series shows how this choice is made through incremental action, over time, leading to a climactic series finale.

For example:  In NYPD Blue, Andy Sipowicz choses to face his demons one by one.  He battles his temper and his rage. First he reigns himself in and gets sober, then he gets married, has a baby, reconciles with his eldest son, loses that son, loses his wife and cares for his remaining child. Over 17 years the drunken, racist, misanthrope we met in the pilot becomes, in a final leap of faith, a temperate respected leader of the men in his precinct. In a Power of Will series, like NYPD Blue, each choice involves the competing values of Impulse vs Restraint.

Getting back to our earlier example: How is freedom finally sacrificed? What is the tipping point?  Alternatively, what well-meaning policies deal security a fatal blow?   The audience wants to see how this final value choice is driven by faith or by fear.   They want to see how the character is pushed to extremes that provoke action that conclusively defines his or her character.

Values + Action = Character

The obstacles in a film or television series should create the kind of risk, peril or danger that pushes the character to take actions that define what is most fundamentally important or true in a character’s life. This is the case even in comedy.  There is no greater risk or peril than the vulnerability that makes a character funny.

The character should be forced to make a stark, definitive and active choice. As one value is ultimately chosen, the character finally negates or surrenders the other contrasting value.  What price is paid for the character’s choice?  What are the consequences for the character?  The more expensive the price, the more dire the consequences are for your character, the more compelling and urgent your story will be for your audience.