Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Observing Drama in its Natural Habitat -- A Raccoon Adventure

All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions. --Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci was 500 years ahead of his time. Think about that for a second. Five hundred years. He invented the diving suit, the armored tank, the helicopter, the parachute, the hang glider and even scissors, to name just a few accomplishments.

I once watched a documentary about Leonardo that quoted him as saying that all of his ideas came from nature, which reminded me that Aristotle famously said that drama was an imitation of life.

These two titans of thought are worth listening to--we need to be looking at nature because nature has all of the secrets.

Everything one wants to learn about telling stories can be observed by studying them in nature. I call this observing stories in their natural habitat. Life is the natural habitat of stories. We forget this all the time. We are surrounded by stories, and the elements that make them up, daily. All of the principles and rules are there to be seen by anyone willing to look.

The master of suspense in film, Alfred Hitchcock, said that he learned about suspense when he was a boy in school in England. At his school, when you got in trouble you would have to go see the headmaster of the school--who had a paddle for such occasions. At that meeting, the severity of the crime was discussed and it was determined just how many swats were to be given as punishment. But they were not given to the child at that time. No. The number was written in a book next to the child’s name. The child would then have to return at the end of the day for his punishment.

Hitchcock said that all one could think about for the rest of the day was those oncoming swats. He said that’s where he learned about suspense.

He always said that one doesn’t create suspense by keeping information from an audience, but by giving them information.

This wasn’t something he learned in a book. He observed it in nature. In life. And he used that lesson to build a long career of turning out film classics.

The basic elements one needs to create compelling dramatic (or comedic) conflict are these: Someone wants something desperately and there is an obstacle to that goal.  

This is not a rule made up by someone--this is what is compelling to us in life. It is life at its most basic. Life is a series of obstacles that we must overcome in order to survive.

For example, last summer my girlfriend and I went to the zoo. While there we found ourselves at the bald eagle enclosure. It was outside, very high, with a net overhead and all around to keep the birds in.

There is something compelling about seeing a bald eagle in real life--they are near-mythic creatures. They had everyone’s attention as they sat high overhead on top of a pole, looking powerful and majestic. 

That is, until we all noticed that a wild raccoon had pried an opening at the bottom of the fence and made his way into the enclosure. There was a small babbling stream running through the eagle habitat and, on the ground, suspended over this stream was a log. Underneath this log were suspended several fish. They had been hung there by the keepers for the eagle’s supper. But the raccoon had other plans. Here right in front of us was an unfolding drama. Drama in its natural habitat. The crowd was mesmerized. All eyes were riveted.

The raccoon made his way to the log. It was clear he wanted the fish. The first element of dramatic conflict: Someone wants something desperately.

It was also clear that this raccoon didn’t want to get wet. So he would reach for the fish, almost fall into the stream, catch himself, rethink his strategy and try another angle. With each slip the crowd laughed and gasped. The second element of drama--not wanting to get wet--was the obstacle to the goal of getting food.

And another obstacle was also present: eagles overheard. Would they swoop down to protect their food?

This was bona fide dramatic conflict and the crowd knew it. People held their collective breath as this drama unfolded. Will this raccoon succeed in getting his meal, we wondered. We were on pins and needles each time the raccoon reached for his prize. He would stretch out his little hand and arm as far as he could, almost touch the fish and slip. Each time almost falling into the stream. We gasped each time. Then all eyes would move to the eagles to see what they were going to do. They remained still. They hadn’t noticed the little thief.

And true to the “rules” of drama the raccoon had become the main character--the protagonist--while the eagles had become the antagonists. Why? Because we all identified with the “person” with the strong goal. We all wanted to know if he would succeed.

Eventually the raccoon found an angle on the problem that allowed him to succeed. He grabbed a fish, but not without almost falling into the water, and sneaked back under the fence with his well-deserved meal without being detected by the eagles.

Everyone, kids and adults alike, cheered at his victory like he was Luke Skywalker blowing up the Deathstar. This was a drama as old as life itself and still it entertained. It was, in fact, riveting. Not one person turned away from this scene. No one cared that this was an old story--maybe the oldest. In fact, its strength came from being so primal--the struggles to get food, the struggle to live another day. This is at the core of drama, at its nucleus.

I have often been accused of being too rigid with my “rules” for drama. But they aren’t my rules; they’re nature’s. It is when we start to separate these rules from the way life actually works that we run into trouble. It is when we break these rules that we risk losing our audience.

I’m guessing that few the people at the zoo that day were students of drama, but they all knew it when they saw it. Ironically, this was not a natural habitat for the animals, but it was for drama.

For those of us who create stories, these lessons are all around us. We are in school 24 hours a day. At least we can be if, like Da Vinci, we pay attention.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Conflict Resolution

Most writing teachers will tell you that stories and their scenes need to contain conflict. Most people have heard that an understand it. The problem is how they understand it. To most novice writers it means an argument. So I read scripts all the time with people fighting, but with no underlying conflict.

Conflict comes in a few forms. There is a kind of “super-conflict” which is related to the super objective—to borrow from Constantin Stanislavski.

Super objective, meaning that the story’s protagonist has a goal or objective that she wants and is after the entire time. This is what moves the story forward. The “super-conflict” is the big obstacle that keeps her from that goal. So this is one kind of conflict.

But as the story progresses, related objectives arise, as do their obstacles. For instance, the super objective may be to steal a billion dollars and run off to Acapulco. But along the way, the protagonist may need to get the combination to a vault or acquire a key from a guard. Or find a way into the bank after closing. These obstacles are conflicts, but they do not necessarily require that two or more characters have a screaming match.

In fact, our protagonist may smile and flirt with the bank guard to gain his trust and get close to the key she needs. There would be conflict in such a scene because there is a goal and obstacle.

There is internal conflict that can work very well. This kind of scene requires very little of a writer.

In the movie Fatal Attraction, Michael Douglas plays a man who has had an adulterous affair, but begins to regret the consequences. So the storytellers put Michael’s character in happy family scenes. While he is out for a night of bowling with his family, they are having fun and he is lost in thought and regret, but tries to put on a happy face. The conflict is internal. You can get a lot of mileage out of this kind of conflict.

Internal conflict is the most powerful form. Hamlet’s To-be-or-not-to-be soliloquy is testament to the power of a character in conflict with himself.

If you have a character who is a recovering alcoholic and has decided not to drink, find a reason to get her in a bar with people laughing, drinking and having a good time. Boom. Conflict. Internal conflict. After that you can write a pretty straightforward scene.

There is a great scene in Disney’s The Jungle Book where Baloo has to break it to the boy Mowgli that he needs to go back to the “Man-Village” to be safe from the bloodthirsty tiger Shere Khan.

This is a great scene because there is Baloo’s internal conflict, but the two characters also have different objectives. In the scene, the boy wants to play and Baloo has something serious to say. These are characters at cross-purposes and that is a perfect ingredient for dramatic or comedic conflict.

This is conflict, but not arguing. You could, for instance, have one character embarrassed by the behavior of a friend. But no one needs to argue. Not necessarily.

Another reason to use internal conflict is that a character may be uncomfortable in his or her skin—they could embarrass themselves. You could have a flabby guy at his first day at the gym surrounded by muscular men with perfect physiques and—to top it off—fill the place with beautiful women.

Or you could go the other way and put an overweight woman in a room full of wafer-thin super models and handsome eligible men.

Same thing. Put a poor person in a swanky country club. You get the idea.

There is also practical conflict, by which I mean physical barriers that must be overcome. The hero must defuse a bomb is a practical conflict. But if you throw in that this is his first day on the job and he’s nervous, you now have internal conflict, too. 

Sometimes conflict is in the form of an argument, but often it can take other more interesting and nuanced forms. If you apply these forms your stories will take on added dimension.

It’s true—don’t argue with me.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Getting past our issues to get to the craft

Dooley Wilson and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. 
Sometimes I will tell a student that they should watch a particular film to help them understand a particular concept better or just to see a concept executed perfectly. I was once, but am no longer, surprised at the response that often comes back at me: “No, I won’t see that film because I don’t like fill-in the-blank-actor.” Or they will say have a particular political philosophy that stops them from seeing the film. I have a conservative friend who would not see the animated film The Iron Giant because he had heard from his family that it was “anti-gun.”

I once had a student who refused to get the point of why I was showing her a clip from the film Kramer vs. Kramer because she thought the film was sexist.

I’m not saying that you should not be offended at the things you feel are wrong, just that these personal things often get in the way of people being able to see craft clearly.

Casablanca is, in my opinion, one of the best films ever made. It is amazingly well constructed, acted, photographed and directed. I have seen it more times than I can count and still think it is a brilliant piece of cinema. It also has clear evidence of racism.

I understand that this is a sensitive subject for some and any charge of racism is a reason for them to turn off and stop listening, but please stick with me here. There are many who will see this post as “preachy.” I have found that for some even the acknowledgment of the history of racism in America is offensive.

My purpose here is neither to provoke nor to preach. It is just that for reasons of this post I have to talk about a subject that evokes strong emotions in me. Thanks in advance for understanding this.

When my mother was a little girl in St. Joseph, Missouri, she was once in a restaurant with her father where they ordered food, but were not allowed to sit. They had to take the food out to eat. My mother tells me that she kept asking her father why they couldn’t sit down. He was silent, and did not answer her question. Rather, he could not answer.

I have often wondered what that felt like for my grandfather. How do you explain to your child that the world does not treat you with dignity—does not treat you as a man.

In the world of my grandfather, and for most of American history, it was common to treat grown black men as children. Not just children, but dimwitted children at that. “Boy” was the word used to refer to my grandfather; no matter how old he got, he would be called “boy,” and treated as such.

Why bring this up?  Because in the film Casablanca, when Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman, sees Sam the black pianist played by Dooley Wilson, she recognizes him and inquires about the boy playing the piano. The “boy.” Dooley Wilson was in his mid-fifties at the time but she tosses this term off casually. Boy. It was normal. A word people used in polite conversation. A word my grandfather heard many days of his life, which was meant to emasculate him and remind him that he had no power in this world.

In the film Sam also sings a song called “Shine.” “Shine” was what was called a “coon song.” “Coon songs” were a popular form of music in the America until the 1920s. These songs relied heavily on black racial stereotypes, and in fact “Shine” was a derogatory term for black people.

Here are the lyrics to “Shine”:

Well, just because my hair is curly
 And just because my teeth are pearly
Just because I always wear a smile
 Likes to dress up in the latest style 
Just because I'm glad I'm livin’
Takes trouble smilin’, never whine 
Just because my color’s shady
 Slightly different maybe
 That’s why they call me shine.

I bring this up because although the presence of these things in the film Casablanca are offensive to me I can still acknowledge the flawless craftsmanship of the filmmaking and story-craft.

Unlike Birth of a Nation, D.W Griffith’s 1915 film, which is blatant piece of racist propaganda that turns the Ku Klux Klan into heroes, I don’t feel that the makers of Casablanca went out of their way to be racist. They were simply products of their time.

Birth of a Nation makes use of gross stereotypes of brutish black men that were so frightening to some that that some white audiences at the time fired their pistols at the screen. Reports say that many African Americans openly wept at how they saw themselves portrayed.

In fact, Birth of a Nation has been said to have been a factor in the huge resurgence of Klan membership in the 1920s.

I have even watched this film because it is credited with defining much of the film language that we still use today and take for granted—like the close-up, for instance.  But I have only watched it once—I am only human after all and the film is reprehensible. Still, I made a point to learn from the film how best to tell the stories I’d like to tell about the things that are important to me.

As for Casablanca, I consider this film a masterpiece of storytelling as well as an example of American racism at that time. Yes, it can be at once brilliant and racist. I do not let one thing affect my view of the other.

If I had not gotten past my personal issues while watching Casablanca, there are some great craft lessons that I would not have learned. Stuff that I use in my own work. Things I have written about in my books and on this blog. 

The reason I bring all of this up in a blog about story-craft is because I wanted to illustrate that if I am able to look past my personal concerns to see what is good about the film, you can do the same.

I promise the next post will be less touchy and personal. Thanks for sticking with me.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Advanced Class – Back to Basics

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee

Many times after one of my six-week classes is completed, a student, excited by what he or she has just learned, has said to me, “You should teach an advanced class!”

I am always flattered, but always a little surprised. Advanced? I know for a fact that they have not mastered the most basic principles, and yet they feel that they are ready to move on to the next level. Being introduced concepts is nothing like truly understanding them.

I never cease being bowled over when someone blows off a concept as basic—some people are always looking for “something new.” But storytelling is as old as humanity and there is nothing new to it. Someone may have a new way to say an old thing, and that might help the concept be more clear to some, but if it is real knowledge, it will be an old concept.

Stories and storytelling are rooted in human emotions, motivations and psychology, and these have not changed. Until they do, no one will have anything truly new to say on the subject.  Anyone who says differently is trying to sell you something. (My apologies to William Goldman)

One can change the form that stories take—for instance, from stage to film. Film was new and techniques of using that medium to best tell stories had to be developed, but stories and storytelling are still rooted in common human experience. This will never change. This is why Aristotle’s Poetics is still read and studied today, because despite all of the changes and advancements made in this world nothing of consequence has changed about the fundamentals of storytelling.

The best way to discover “new things” is to contemplate the old ones. Contemplation is not something Westerners put much stock in—and we Americans are particularly bad at it. We need to know it all—right now! But contemplation—deep contemplation over months, years or decades—is the only way to fully understand anything worth learning.

Someone recently requested that I post pictures of my bookshelves on my blog. I’m guessing she thought it might give some insight to how I have learned what I know. I don’t want to be presumptuous here, there are plenty of people out there don’t think I know much at all. But if you think I have anything worthwhile to say, this is how I learned it.

When I was very young I used watch television shows and movies. I took them apart the way other boys took apart their toys to see how they worked. In the ’70s, before the days of videotape, I used to audiotape television shows and study their construction. I knew about act structure before I ever read one book about it or even knew it was something other people studied.

We were poor. I remember days without food. I remember going to school with an empty belly. I wanted more than anything to have a movie camera, but there was no money for such a thing. One day Mister Rogers showed how to make flip books on his show and I became obsessed with making them. I have no idea how many I made, but I made at least one a day for years. People who were adults at the time still remember me making these flip books. I learned things then that I still use today.

In 1975, I met a kid with a movie camera and we made a Super 8mm film, an animated film using plastic army men called The War. My strongest memory from that time, my strongest feeling, was: Finally. Finally I’m getting to make a film. I was 10 years old.

The first movie camera I owned was this exact model.  It was not even super 8mm – it was 8mm.  It was a very old camera even when I was using it.

A few years later I called all of the people who had anything to do with film in my town and asked if I could come see what they did. A few said yes. And one guy, who had a small animation company, offered me an afterschool job. This was about 1979 or ’80. This is also around the time I wrote my first screenplay.

Film, filmmaking and storytelling were my life. I read about it all the time. I read every interview with every director, screenwriter, animator and special effects guy I could find. And then I would watch films and television trying to spot the theories and principles talked about in these interviews, to see if these things were really there and if they worked the way they were supposed to.

When anyone would say that they had recently seem a film they liked or didn’t like, I would grill them about what they liked and what they didn’t. I would sit in movie theaters and watch one screening after another of a film, studying them. I noted where people reacted from one screening to the next. Some screenings I would watch the audience more than the film.

I didn’t know it, but I was lucky in some ways: I didn’t do well in school and was never told that I was smart. I had dyslexia, but no one bothered to diagnose it. I thought that I was stupid, thought that I never understood anything, so I worked extra hard to understand the things I was interested in. I thought about concepts for years. (The only adult outside my family who ever told me I was smart was my mentor, Bruce Walters.)

I won’t recount my entire life here, but suffice to say that I have spent my life contemplating the very first things I ever learned. By the time I teach them, argue about them in a coffee shop, write about them in a book, or lecture on them, I have literally spent years in deep contemplation on the subject.

Once you think you understand something, you will stop learning about it and your knowledge may stagnate and even atrophy.

I have become confident that I understand the things I have studied, but I know that there is still much to uncover on these subjects. Because all of these hours over the last 35 years (more really), have taught me one thing above all others: There is no such thing as “advanced.” All there is is a deeper understanding of the basics.

P.S.  Here are some famous people who also have dyslexia