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Monday, February 26, 2007

Keep Your Drafts Simplex

Am I alone in finding awards ceremonies deathly dull? It would seem so. I really couldn't give a toss who won what, who thanked God or who cried at the podium. I know that's dreadfully mean-spirited of me: after all, these are my (intended) colleagues one day but for me, the very idea that a film is "good enough" for an award means it invariably isn't in my view and I suddenly lose interest. I never watched CRASH or BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN: why? Because everyone raved about them. I suppose it's the sad, disaffected teen in me that I haven't yet grown out of: everyone else likes it, so I won't. I also always feel a certain gless whenever I'm proved right: I love CHILDREN OF MEN - did it win anything? No? Then it's TOO GOOD for it, hah! Why join the ranks of pap like MONSTERS BALL or GLADIATOR when you can be the IN THE BEDROOMs or even THE ICE STORMs? No, 'tis far, far better to be snubbed. Or at least it is in my tiny mind, so when I never even get nominated, let alone win anything, I can just tell myself it's because I'm TOO GOOD! :P

Okay, rant over.

Today children, I'm going to talk about story. Are you sitting comfortably? ; )

Simple, yet complex is the name of the game when it comes to feature film. I call this approach Simplex. Yes, it's a paradox, but it can be done. Let me explain.

When drafts come through BANG2WRITE the very first thing that is often wrong with them is story. In that, I don't know what it is. Now writers may be completely flummoxed by this assertion and I sympathise: I'm always reminded of a time I attempted to write a creature movie without a creature (I kid you not: I was so revolutionary! Naahht) and coverage came back from The First Film Foundation that said, basically, WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS GOING ON HERE?? There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth by moi and I put the script aside for approximately six months while I concentrated on something else.

So I re-read the script later and you've guessed it, my first thought...


It's perfectly possible to write a story of 90 even 120 pages that makes no sense. I've done it, you've probably done it, we'll all no doubt do it again: this is my coined phrase, the WTF? Draft. And let's face it, it's far better to write a WTF? Draft than one that's dull and predictable. There's a certain essence to WTF? drafts that are enthusiastic, alive, fun - as long as you can capture the seed of what makes them enthusiastic, alive and fun and make it coherent, you're laughing. Far harder to breathe life into something pedestrian. Yuk.

So, simple yet complex. Simplex. Let's look at a fave franchise of mine, The Terminator Trilogy (hah, you thought I'd say ALIEN! WRONG! Now a certain amount of you are beginning to realise why I hate awards ceremonies...Yes?!)

The story behind TERMINATOR is very simple. Cyber guy comes back from future to kill mother of the child before he's even born who will go on to save the human race.

Again, the story behind TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY is very simple: more advanced cyber guy comes back from future to kill mother of the child AND the child who will save the human race, only cyber guy from first movie helps them get away.

TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES: more of the same, except original cyber guy is now almost obselete, the mother is dead, the kid is grown up and the advanced cyber guy is a cyber woman and obsolete cyber guy has to save the pre-destined wife of original saviour kid as well. Phew.

As you can see, it gets more complicated, but that's okay: we have the original film as reference. There's something to be learned here - add mega detail as you go along, maybe? Or, if you want to introduce multiple strands - like kids, babies, wives, dead mothers - maybe you need multiple movies?

But anyway, I digress. The franchise is simple: Arnie comes back from the future three times, first to kill (by proxy in that first movie) and then to save, John Connor. Set up: he comes back, finds him. Conflict: he either tracks him or helps him get away. Resolution: they defeat the baddie, either Arnie or the other dudes depending which film it is, usually in some kind of factory or underground-type shelter. Woo hoo. Three for the price of one, yeah!

So what's complicated about it? In terms of structure, nothing. It's a very easy to understand set of chase movies, with plenty of explosions, shooting and the odd bit of stabbing with big metal spikes (gotta love those spikes).

No, what is complicated about it relates to the content. In other words, what we see in those pictures pictures PRODUCES QUESTIONS that are never fully answered and nor should they be. For example: is the future pre-destined? Can you change your fate? These ideas ride high in the story throughout all three films and though assertions are made - they "prevent" Judgement Day in T2 and realise they've "postponed" it in T3 for the sake of plotting - there is no definite conclusion. There are references to Chaos Theory throughout the whole franchise, but especially in T3 with the previous kiss in the den between Nick Stahl and Claire Danes' characters when they were kids ("If you hadn't come back then, I would have known her sooner!") which is the exact opposite to Pre-destination, yet still it works because there is no hard and fast ideology to what is being said here: is it pre-destination or chaos theory? Who the hell knows? Who cares? It ADDS to the experience.

So, Simplex: make your basic plot as simple as possible. Bring your complicated notions through character interreaction, dialogue, arena, motivations.

Easier said than done...


Lucy said...

If you have to save your complication notions for the simple plot, does that mean your movie becomes complified?

Optimistic_Reader said...

Very well put! I find this with most of my private clients too - the story is overly complicated but there's nothing going on beneath the surface. Of course, I'm not immune to complicating things myself - simplicity is hard!

Lucy said...

Simplicity IS really hard, lost count of the number of times I've tied myself up in knots only to think: why the hell am I doing this?

It's not just in the rewriting, but REDUCTION as well.