You Are Responsible For What You Create

BY ANNETTE LANGE

Creativity, art, storytelling and cinematography  is a fascinating world with seemingly no limits. It can heal, harden or soften hearts in ways nothing else can. With this ability comes great responsibility.

CREATIVE FREEDOM

Most of us are fortunate enough to be allowed to create whatever we want. As wonderful as it is, it also creates the potential for danger and room for abuse. Hence the stigma of artists seeing themselves as above society’s rules and seeing no need to abide by them.

This entitlement for creative expression is often a breeding ground for selfishness and not of use to anyone. The options for artists to create are limitless and should by all means be explored, because it can simultaneously be a breeding ground for beauty.

MANUFACTURING CULTURE

Creative freedom shapes a culture and its humanity. One could almost say artists manufacture culture, because they help define cultural attitudes.  Art, (in this case film), is the most accessible form of art and is not exclusive to certain social classes or ages.

There are countless movies which have impacted society and led to a change of law, culture or perspective. To name a few, after the release of Fatal Attraction, divorce rates dramatically decreased, Anti-interracial laws were abolished at the release of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Philadelphia provided a platform to discuss the taboo subject of HIV/AIDS, and the Star Wars saga was undoubtedly a contributor to popular culture.

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OUR RESPONSIBILITY

And as present and future culture manufacturers, we have a responsibility towards our audience for what we create. Don’t simply create something without taking its consequences into consideration.

Filmmaking is hard work. And if you’re already putting so much effort and work into it, why not make it about something that will contribute to the betterment of humanity? Think about what your story promotes.

NO COMPROMISES

I’m not advocating you push for a certain message, because then your art becomes manipulative and self-promoting. It’s not your responsibility to change the whole world or create something which is forced. By all means, don’t produce something that is not genuine. Don’t compromise your uniqueness, but ask yourself if your uniqueness is being used to edify your audience.

MY PERSONAL INSPIRATION

A wonderful example of someone who has a great balance of art, personality, edification and truthfulness is Taika Waititi, director of Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilder People and  and most recently Thor: Ragnarok.

Waititi doesn’t apologize for who he is, but he doesn’t use his uniqueness to prove himself to anyone either. His stories are relatable and humorous, but they carry so much emotional weight. It doesn’t feel like he is trying to push a message on his audience, but they are left with food for thought, or at least a softened heart.

CONCLUSION

Your viewers are responsible for what they take away from the movie as well. But you’re still responsible for what your audience gets to see.

It is a great gift to create, and I admire everyone who is bold enough to create and vulnerable enough to show it to others – but, just be aware what your audience is left with when they go home after having seen your film.

You have the power to be an inspiration – whether is it temporary or long term – so let it move your audience to contribute to the betterment of humanity, no matter how big or small.

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Anatomy of the Best Loglines

Knowing where to start in the creative process of writing can be daunting for a first time filmmaker. I know it was for me. I’ve tried building a story around every possible thing imaginable, and I found Blake Snyder’s longline method from his infamous book, Save the Cat, to be the most effective.

His argument centers around starting your writing process by creating something called a logline (your entire movie summarized in a sentence). He would say, if you can’t do this in a compelling way from the start, then you don’t have a story worth telling.

Many of you more seasoned writers may find this approach “formulaic,” however for writers starting out, this is a great place to begin.  

Ingredients for the best logline:

  • One Character
  • One Goal
  • One Source of Conflict with a dash of Irony

In short what you will be creating is the following equation:

Your hero is going for their goal, but something ironic happens to stop them.

If you cannot put your story within this simple formula, then perhaps your story is too complicated, OR missing a crucial element.

FOR EXAMPLE:

Disgraced pilot, E. Ripley is left with PTSD after her encounter with the xenomorph and tries to rebuild a life for herself. However, when a human colony is overrun with xenomorphs, Ripley may be their only hope.

From the film Aliens

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Element 1: Establish Your Hero

The first step is to insert your main character into your logline. This isn’t a place to go into great detail on their backstory; all that’s needed are one or two descriptive words. Sometimes the scenario they find themselves in is sufficient enough information.

As Blake Snyder says, you want to paint a clear enough picture in the minds of those who will hear your logline. They need to be able to see where your story is going. This includes who your character is.

In my example, I defined Ellen Ripley as a disgraced pilot with PTSD. We know she’s an underdog, and it will be easy for the audience to get behind her.

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Element 2: Establish Your Hero’s Goal

The next step is to show what the character is trying to accomplish before they are confronted by the story’s major conflict.

In Vertigo, Scottie is investigating Madeline for her husband (his goal) before he begins to fall in love with her (the conflict).

In Beauty and the Beast, Belle wants more than what her small town has to offer (goal) before she is held prisoner in an enchanted castle (the conflict).

Sometimes the goal can be something more passive, or simply keeping the status quo. For example, in Toy Story, Woody isn’t actively trying to do something new, but is enjoying the “status quo” of being the toy on top.

Don’t just tell us WHO your character is, but where we find them at the start of the story.

For Ellen Ripley, I have her trying to rebuild a life for herself.

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Element 3: Conflict with a Dash of Irony

Lastly, we introduce our story’s major source of conflict into the logline.

This is where people tend to struggle the most, either because they realize they have no real source of conflict throughout their story. Even if they do it’s lacking the crucial element of irony which gives a story it’s hook, edge, or bite.

Conflict is truly what starts your story and what moves it forward. Without this element, there is no story.

In my example from Aliens, the conflict comes from the xenomorphs overtaking a colony, forcing the corporation to turn to Ripley for help.

It’s conflict, because it’s both stopping her from starting a new life, while giving her an opportunity to gain her old life back.

Irony?

Before I explain how irony comes to play in this equation, let me explain what irony IS. There are two forms of irony: situational and irony of fate. Situational irony is when events defy expectations, while irony of fate is when it seems the gods, fate, the universe, etc are toying with humanity for their own amusement.

Situational irony would be getting robbed by a police officer (an amoral act practiced by someone who is sent out to stop such behavior). Jesus being crucified by the very people he was to save is another great example of situational irony. Both examples play on your expectations and subvert them.

Irony of fate is when something occurs with lasting consequence beyond a specific situation. A former athlete who is now paralyzed is an example of irony of fate. Beethoven, one of the world’s greatest composers lost his hearing. He can no longer hear the beautiful music he puts out into the world. Irony of fate.

Irony is all about subverting our expectations in an effort to hook us.

The irony in Aliens is drawn mostly from the situation Ripley finds herself in; she was seen as a pariah and a liability by the company at the start of the film, and becomes the very person who could save them.

That’s irony.

There’s no right way to go through the writing process, but by beginning with a logline my writing has grown simpler and stronger. I hope it helps you on your own writing journey. For more great film advice, check out Blake Snyder’s book, Save the Cat.

Written by Brenden Bell.

 

Aliens: Screenwriting Principles From a Perfect Film

Written by Brenden Bell.

*********THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE 1989 FILM ALIENS************

If you’ve listened to me talk about movies, you know how much I love James Cameron’s Aliens. I gush over it endlessly, describing in detail the first time I watched it; sitting on the edge of my sofa, yelling at the TV, throwing couch cushions in frustration. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, and has set a high bar for future films.

I took my love of Aliens to the next level this past year, as I showed it to my screenwriting students as a film that exemplified various story principles I was attempting to get across to them. This film isn’t accidentally engaging; it was built purposefully and intentionally.

I call it a perfect film, because it is. It accomplishes everything I think a story should.

Here are a few of the screenwriting principles I pull from watching Aliens endlessly.

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  1. Ellen Ripley, All-American Woman

I’ve seen countless notables herald Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley as the greatest action hero of all times.  This isn’t said as some “feminists’” attempt to level the playing field between male and female representation in cinema.

It’s said because it’s true; Ripley deserves her place among other great, male action heroes like Batman and Indiana Jones.

Her heightened status as a character is for countless reasons, and a great deal of that is to do with Sigourney Weaver’s fantastic, Oscar-nominated performance.

Much of it, however is by design in the writing. She’s given many of the same attributes that a typical male hero has; she’s tough, smart, level-headed, snarky, and resourceful. What really elevates Ripley from other heroes, however are the competing “lacks” that are given to her.

The film opens with Ellen Ripley being found in cryo-sleep, right where we left her at the end of the first film. The twist? She’s been asleep for over 50 years, and her daughter has passed away.

The screenwriter has created a “lack” in our character; something that is missing in her life, which will be brought to completion by the end of the film.  Ripley has a daughter shaped hole in her heart that needs to be filled once more.

Ripley finds the hope of completion of this lack when she finds the young girl, Newt; the lone survivor from the xenomorph attack on LB-426.

Simultaneously, the screenwriter establishes an opposing “lack” early on. Ripley has been left scarred and broken by her previous encounter with the xenomorph. Her fear of them is something she will need to face again by the film’s conclusion.

The story is based around these two “lacks”, and its structure will force our character into a situation where she must decide which to hold on to; her fear of xenomorphs or her need to be a mother.

It’s “lacks” of this nature, particularly lacks that could be in conflict, that hook people into a story. It causes people to identify with the dilemma and care for the lead character. Without this element, your film will be dull.

Look at Godzilla (2014), an utterly forgettable film for several reasons. One of which is due to the fact that we established none of these things in the character of Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), or at least not well. The writers attempted to give him opposing lacks or  a dilemma by missing his wife and having relational tension with his father. These opposing lacks almost worked, that is until his father dies abruptly in the film, removing any tension in his character. As a result, for the rest of the film I couldn’t relate with Ford. As a result, I could’ve cared less about the outcome of the film.

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2. The Plot’s The Thing

Many would call the plot of this film “formulaic.”

This is probably because it is extremely formulaic.

Read The Writer’s Journey or Save the Cat and you will see that the plot of this film fits rather neatly into either of these film structures or “beat sheets.”

This is a large part of the reason why I chose to view this film in my screenwriting class; it’s easy to see the familiar structure, and how it can be used well.

Personally, I don’t think formulaic is bad, especially if it’s used as effectively as James Cameron does in this film.

We have our character’s competing “lacks” or dilemma and now it’s the writer’s job to create a plot that will force her to face both and make a choice.

There are two important choices our character has to make throughout the film, and they are both found at the “act breaks,” or the end of the first and second acts of the story. The end of the first act is our hero’s decision to go on the adventure in the first place. In the film, this is found when Ripley decides to go to LB-426 with the Colonial Marines.

The second choice is crucial; your entire story should be building up to it. The plot leads up to this point beautifully in Aliens.

Throughout the second act, Ripley is put in situation after situation where she has to face her fear of the xenomorphs and build her connection with Newt. One of the most brilliantly tense scenes is about halfway through the film when Ripley and Newt are locked in a room alone with a face hugger; a smaller version of the final act, training Ripley for the end of the film where she has to protect Newt from the largest xenomorph there is: the Queen.

As the film’s plot moves forward, the marines are picked off one by one, the base’s reactor is set to blow in less than an hour, the xenomorphs overtake their base, and Newt is kidnapped and taken to the hive.

Ripley is left alone and with a choice…does she leave because she’s afraid, or does she enter the hive and reclaim her daughter before it’s too late? Ripley chooses to go back and save Newt on her own, in spite of everything against her, and in spite of the fact that it’s where all of the xenomorphs live.

This shows the audience that not only has she once and for all overcome her fear of xenomorphs and broken their hold over her, but that she has found the completion for the daughter-sized hole in her heart.

The whole plot is built around the character of Ripley facing her fear, and getting what she needs to grow. If you want to tell a compelling story that matters, you should do the same.

Let’s compare this climactic moment to Godzilla’s. By the end of the film, the character of Godzilla is inconsequential to Ford’s journey and vice-versa. When the other monster (not Godzilla) attacks the city at the end, Godzilla stops it. It was by far the coolest part of the film, but it meant nothing to me. I hadn’t built an emotional connection to Godzilla, but Ford. However, Ford’s character is detached, passive and unrelated to this event, and I was left wondering why Ford’s character was necessary to the story at all.

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3. Make Me Care

Think about films that genuinely frightened you or made you feel something. How were they able to accomplish that?

Or the horror side of things, it’s almost always because they were successful in making me care about what happens to their characters. In Aliens, the most tense moments by far were Newt was in danger.

I think this is for two reasons. The first is simply because she’s a child; any scene where a child is in danger is automatically more intense for me (I’m looking right at you Jurassic Park). The second is because the filmmakers succeeded at their main job; they made me care.

I identified with Ripley being scarred from her past, and losing a significant relationship in her life. Seeing Ripley and Newt’s relationship flourish throughout the film, made it that much more nerve-wracking when Newt was kidnapped at the end of Act 2. It’s not just because she was a child and she was taken, it’s because she was the key to Ripley’s salvation and without her, Ripley is back where she started, only worse.

I knew that Ripley wanted a daughter, and when that was in jeopardy the film’s tension went through the roof.

The world itself wasn’t at stake, but Ripley’s was, and that’s what made the last 30 minutes of Aliens so intense.

We had to watch Ripley face her biggest fears head on and overcome them to get what she ultimately needed, a family. Without this element of family and relational completion this film would’ve lost all of its tension.

Let’s compare the final act of this film to the final act of say, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Literally, an entire nation might be destroyed by the villainous Ultron (for some ambiguous reason that is still very unclear to me). It should feel like everything is at stake. However, there wasn’t a single tense moment in the entire final act. The world was at stake, but none of the world’s of our characters’ were.

If the final act isn’t about a character overcoming a “lack” in order to save everything they hold dear being in total jeopardy, then your story isn’t going to be as thrilling as it could be.

The heart of this film is what elevates it beyond a run-of-the-mill, action film.

It’s easy to tell a story that no one cares about; it takes a great storyteller to tell one that is as engaging and engrossing as Aliens. It’s a long journey, becoming a great storyteller; it helps to glean from the greats.

Creating Dialogue that Doesn’t Completely Suck

written by Brenden Bell

 

I hate writing dialogue. Ok, that’s not entirely true. I’m not good at writing dialogue, and therefore I hate it. When writing a script, it’s always the thing I change a million times more than anything else.

 

This is probably because my least favourite experience as a screenwriter is sitting in an audition for my script, and hearing the shrill sound of my untested dialogue performed out loud. It makes me cringe every time, and takes everything within me to not assure the performers that the dialogue is still being tweaked (when in reality, I had no intention of doing so).

 

I get story; still don’t get dialogue.

 

I’ve done quite a bit of research over the years on how to create dialogue that doesn’t completely suck. I’ve grown a lot since my early days of “on the nose,” awful dialogue; occasionally, I write a line or two that I am proud of.

 

I want to share a few tips I have learned over the years.

 

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  1.  Have a Point

 

Many first drafts I read include long conversations between characters that don’t really go anywhere. In real life, we have conversations like this all the time. However in film, it’s boring to watch a conversation that is totally pointless.

 

All this to say, if you include a line of dialogue in your film, have a holistic purpose behind it. David, over at screenwriting website whatascript.com, calls this “fulfilling dialogue intentions.”

 

When you’re writing dialogue, ask yourself the following questions:

 

Is it moving the story forward?

Is it revealing character?

Is it communicating relevant information or exposition?

Is it creating conflict between characters?

Is it calling forth emotion?

 

Your dialogue should fulfil at least ONE of these intentions, it could accomplish more than one, and is even better if it’s able to accomplish all of the above.

 

If your dialogue isn’t doing at least one of these things, then you should probably cut it.

 

 

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  1.  Use Subtext

 

A sad reality of life is that we don’t always say what we’re thinking; sometimes this is intentional, while sometimes we aren’t even honest with ourselves.

 

Think of when you’re yelling at someone close to you about being late or forgetting something at the grocery store, are you actually angry about that particular thing? Partly, but you’re ACTUALLY angry about feeling disrespected or neglected by them. The tardiness/forgetfulness is the text, the disrespect/neglect is the subtext.

 

It’s easy as a screenwriter to write a conversation and focus the text on the disrespect/neglect. It’s stronger to keep it as subtext, under the surface.

 

The film Bridesmaids does this well; there are so many scenes that are entirely subtextual: Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Helen (Rose Byrne) have a “toast off” trying to one up each other’s toast to their friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph). The text of the scene is them trying to give a better toast than the other; the subtext is them fighting for position of influence in their friend Lillian.

 

Another great scene comes later, when Annie gets in a car accident and is discovered by a cop (Chris O’Dowd) that she’s had an on again/off again relationship with throughout the film. The text is has them arguing about why she hasn’t fixed her car. The subtext? Their failed relationship.

 

Check out the “toast off” scene below!

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bJu1fjIkGY

 

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  1.  Know Your Characters

 

Since you are only one person, the tendency is for all your characters to sound like you. Unless all of your characters have your  exact same life experience, this probably won’t work super well.

 

Everyone is different and sees the world from the perspective of their own culture, education level, socioeconomic status, personality type, past experiences, etc.

 

This is why it’s important to know your characters; if you know who they are at a core level, then you know how they’ll respond in a situation and what they would and wouldn’t say.

 

This isn’t only about giving them a backstory (that may or may not be fleshed out in the film itself), but also giving them a “spine” or prime motivation.

 

What I mean by this, is the one thing that drives your character to do what they do. The character may or may not be aware of it, but it is there all the same.

 

For example, Nina Sayers’ spine in Black Swan is to be perfect; everything she says and does is from the desire to perform her roles in Swan Lake as the black and white swan, as well as her role in life as “the good girl,” perfectly.

Flesh out who all of your characters are, where they come from, and what drives them. The dialogue will flow out of them.

 

 

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  1.  Read it Out Loud

 

Something that my boss, Jason Solari, and I did a lot when we were writing Out of the Woods, was read the scenes out loud. If dialogue felt unnatural or clunky, we would cut it or adjust so that it would flow more naturally.

 

This is important to do, because unlike writing in literature, film dialogue isn’t meant to be read, it’s meant to be heard. It might look beautiful on the page, but sound atrocious coming out of someone’s mouth.

 

I know a lot of screenwriters that even ask their acting friends to come in and do a table read of the script to listen to how the dialogue is sounding when spoken out loud and interpreted by performers. This will save you from cringeworthy auditions, where you’re embarrassed by listening to your own dialogue.

 

 

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  1. Don’t Use it

 

The greatest lesson I’ve learned about film dialogue is to not use it at all.

 

Like many of you, I came from a theatre background. Not on a professional level in any way; I was heavily involved in high school theatre as well as in college. I had grown accustomed to reading scripts in a theatre perspective, and had not read any screenplays.

 

Theatre almost always uses dialogue to move their story forward, because they have little other choice. The audience is so far removed from the stage that they almost have to. This is not so with film. We can move our camera directly in the actor’s face, or even focus in on an item or object in the scene if we so choose.

 

Film is a visual medium, and visuals should be used more than anything to push your story forward. A good practice to challenge yourself is to imagine your film as a silent movie; in the silent era of film, dialogue is displayed only when totally necessary. The story of the scene should be carried not in you dialogue, but in the action and visuals within.

 

Check out Steve McQueen’s dialogue-free scene from Shame, and tell me you don’t know exactly what is happening.

 

 

I’m only skimming the surface here; there is so much that goes into creating great dialogue, and so many different approaches to creating it. Find out what works for you and go for it.

 

Screenwriting is an art form, not a science. Take these principles and forge a path forward for yourself.