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Talking About Sex

Posted by Gil Bettman on Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Want to make a film for no money which gets theatrical distribution and launches you into the elite cadre of working directors? Do as Stephen Soderbergh did with “Sex, Lies and Videotape”, or Alfonso Cuaron did with “Y Tu Mama Tambien”. Write a script which is at least 50% people talking about sex.

“Sex has been a topic of unerring interest to mankind throughout the ages.” So stated Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan in the opening line of his opinion which lifted the obscenity ban on James Joyce’s classic novel, “Ulysses”.

And yet, Hollywood never gets sex right. They rarely get it right when they show couples having sex, and I will explain why in a coming blog.

But they also almost never even dare to make movies in which people talk, honestly, and at length, about sex. Despite the hot buzz on the surface, this country is deeply puritanical down to its roots. So films about sex are risky, and Hollywood is risk-adverse. Yet, as Justice Brennan wisely observed, sex is a topic which people (including the puritans) the world-over, are, to say the least, fascinated by. Obsessed with, is probably more accurate. This opens up a huge window of opportunity for every no-budget filmmaker. Do as Soderbergh and Cuaron did. Put a sexy girl up on screen, talking honestly and openly about sex with a sexy guy, when the subtext is very clearly, “Are we going to have sex?” and people will pay good money to come see it. The successful release of “Sex Lies and Videotape” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” proves this emphatically.

The hard part, as always, is the script. But, as I have explained in my previous blogs, make that which is at stake love. Create a likeable protagonist who, as the story advances, can either win or lose more and more good love. And have this take place in a believable human context which necessitates honest conversations about sex.

Soderbergh hits the sweet spot in “Sex, Lies and Videotape” by making his protagonist, Graham, impotent. So, as Graham (the very sexy and handsome young James Spader) openly admits to Cynthia (the very sexy and young Laura San Giacomo) he “gets off” video-taping women describing their sex lives. And then he tapes her. And Soderbergh puts it on film and picks up the Audience Award at Sundance.

In “Y Tu Mama Tambien” Cuaron lights the fuse on a sexual time bomb when his female lead, a beautiful 30-something woman, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, decides to have one last fling and gets in a car for extended road trip with two sixteen year old boys who have just one thing on their minds. They light a joint and start talking. Cuaron puts it on film and then gets hired to direct the next mega-budget Harry Potter flic.

People talking about sex costs next to nothing to put on the big screen. As anyone who has made a movie can attest, nothing is cheaper and easier to do than shoot static two-shots and close-ups of people talking. But that talk can propel a movie to greatness if a lot of good love is on the line, and the guy is sexy and the girl is sexy and the subtext is “Are we going to have sex?”

Run Your Hero Off a Cliff

Posted by Gil Bettman on Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Both the Dardenne brothers, and my other hero filmmaker of the moment, Ashgar Farhadi, front load the stakes in their love stories. They fully understand that the more good love at stake, the more precarious the balance between it all being lost or gained, the greater the narrative drive and suspense. So they don’t wait around to put a lot of love on the line.

At the very beginning of the Dardennes’ latest film, “The Kid With a Bike” when we meet the protagonist, Cyril, he is biting, kicking and fighting his way out the grasp of the counselors in a foster care farm and hurling himself out of windows, over walls and down the road on his bike, determined to reunite himself with the father who has cast him off like an old shoe. The Dardennes immediately run their young hero off a cliff and leave him there flailing in mid-air like Wily Coyote. We see the abyss open up beneath him. We pray he won’t fall, but we know he must, and we know the landing will hurt. Nothing hurts like a parental slight, and the slight Cyril’s father seems poised to deal him would destroy any one of us. So we dread its inevitability, even as we pray that it can be averted. This all happens in the first act and launches the audience headlong into the film.

Similarly, Farhadi starts his masterpiece, “A Separation”, in medias res. When we meet the main character, Nader, his wife, Simin, is putting an emotional gun to his head by threatening to divorce him unless he leaves Iran with her. Nader insists that he must stay in Iran so he can care for his father, who is increasingly crippled by Alzheimer’s. Unmoved, Simin moves out of their apartment, leaving Nader alone to care for his ailing father and their twelve year old daughter, Termeh.

Now the gun which Simin has pointed at Nader’s head is loaded with the bullet of Termeh’s love. Clearly, Simin’s agenda is to divorce Nader, leave Iran, and convince Termeh to come with her. To do this she must first win out over Nader in a contest for their daughter’s love. To compete, Nader must keep working at the bank so he can offer his daughter as much in material comfort as his angry wife whose family is very wealthy. At the same time, he must fulfill the role of mother and father for Termeh and serve as competent 24/7 caregiver for his father. Or he might lose his daughter forever.

To meet this test, Nader, hires a woman who is a virtual stranger, Razieh, to come to his apartment to care for his father when he is out working. Razieh is desperately poor, illiterate, and an absolute fundamentalist Muslim. And under her burka she is four months pregnant – a secret she hides from Nader. The hiring of Razieh is the inciting incident of “A Separation”. It happens twenty minutes into the film and it results in a world of grief for Nader.

In this, Fahardi is working from the same play book as the Dardennes. Show us a good man who wants desperately to be a good father and a good son. And immediately align powerful forces against him which conspire to take all the good love out of his life.

Again, if you make love what’s at stake rather than life and death you can power your film forward with as much narrative drive as any film made for any price. But part of the trick is do as Fahadi and the Dardennes do, and front load your script by putting as much good love on the line as fast a possible.

Love Is the Answer

Posted by Gil Bettman on Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

 

If you want to launch your career as a director the smartest thing you can do is to write a script for a film which can be made for little or no money because it is 90% people talking in rooms. And yet, this script must generate great narrative drive – as much narrative drive as is whipped up by 200 million dollars worth of action sequences in the Hollywood franchise films: Batman, Spiderman, Transformers and the like. It is not easy. You have to be a gifted screenwriter and great student of human nature. But it can be done. Asgar Farhadi did it in “A Seperation”. Alfonso Cuaron did it in “Y Tu Mama Tambien”. Neil LaBute did in “In the Company of Men”. Stephen Soderbergh did it in “Sex, Lies and Videotape”. Spike Lee did it “She’s Gotta Have It”. All of these films suck you in and compel you to watch them with the same rapt attention as any film made for any budget, but they can do it for a fraction of the cost by simply showing you people talking in rooms. This is because what is at stake in all these films is love, rather than life and death.

Not surprisingly, we human beings are hard-wired to want love almost as much life over death. Many would argue that life without love is comparable to death. Nobody has too much good love in their life. We could all use a little more. And so Fahardi, Cuaron, Soderbergh et. al, under the cover of darkness, in the movie theater, drive their hooks into our hearts by throwing a likeable protagonist up on the screen with whom we identify, and then dangling the possibility of they’re getting more good love in their life if only events do (or do not) unfold a certain way. The more good love at stake, the more precarious the balance between it all being lost or gained, the more passionately we hope for the fortunate outcome, the more anxiously we dread the bad outcome. This generates a freight train of narrative drive and fuels a level of suspense as high as in any film made for any price.

I would argue that Fahardi’s film does this more effectively than any of the others I list. Certainly, if you could write a script as good as “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, “In the Company of Men”, “Sex Lies and Videotape” or “She’s Gotta Have It”, you would be one monumental step closer to doing as the directors who wrote those scripts did and launching your career. But if you could write a script as good as Fahardi’s “A Separation” you would have one foot in the pantheon of all-time-great directors. And he does this primarily by using each scene in the film to make us feel more palpably how much the main character, Nadar, loves his daughter and his father and how he will do anything to nurture and grow the good love which they bring him. At the same time, Fahardi, brilliantly, makes us feel how much the antagonist, Razieh, loves her daughter and her husband and how Razieh will do anything to nurture and grow the good love she enjoys with them, even it means not telling the complete truth in court and thereby creating the very real possibility that Nadar will go to jail and lose the love his daughter and father.

Perhaps I am just a sucker for love and that is why “A Separation” affected me so profoundly. But my guess is that anyone who truly values the love they share with their parents, their spouse or their children cannot watch this film without hoping with a passionate intensity that Nadar can keep the good love of his daughter and father and fearing with equal dread that he will lose it all because Razieh, in the same way as Nadar, will do anything to keep the good love which she has in her life. It will tear your heart apart. And, amazingly, Fahardi did it simply by shooting two-shots and close-ups of people talking in rooms.

THE ACADEMY GOT IT RIGHT!!!

Posted by Gil Bettman on Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

The Iranian film “A Separation” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. The Academy got that right, but, to my mind, they should have awarded it Best Picture. This film, written and directed by Ashgar Farhadi, makes “The Artist” look like a trifle.

Anyone who wants to launch a directing career should immediately see “A Separation” (while it is still in the theaters) because, in terms of production value, it is absolutely within the grasp of every aspiring filmmaker. It has the narrative drive of a freight train, but it is 90% close-ups and two-shots of people talking in rooms. There are no action sequences, no special effects, no crowds, no production design. If you had Farhadi’s talent, his cast and a capable crew that would work for nothing (and they exist) you could have made this film for $ 10,000. The rest would be history.

On a visual level Farhadi succeeds mostly because he fully understands, as I claimed in an earlier blog, that the most powerful image a filmmaker can put on the screen is the close up of an actor in the throes of intense feeling. The protagonist of “A Separation”, Peyman Moadi, as Nader, speaks volumes by raising his left eyebrow. At the end of the film a judge asks Nader’s ten year old daughter if she wants to live with her mother or her father after they get their divorce. She is framed a close-up against a grey wall. She starts to cry. To my eye, this shot is more powerful than anything in “Avatar”. All you need is a Canon 5D and an actress who can emote as honestly as the girl who plays Nader’s daughter, and you too can put the power of that image on screen.

But what makes “A Separation” a film for the ages is the script. Fahardi’s shining virtue as a film auteur is that, more than almost every filmmaker working today, known or unknown, mainstream or indie, he has the guts to make his hero hugely flawed and his villains amazingly sympathetic. Everybody who sees this film will experience it differently because it works overtime to be as open to interpretation as real life. But in the middle of film, I found myself very much on the side of the protagonist, Nader. His antagonist, Hodjat, struck me as the reincarnation of Mohamed Atta – the fundamentalist crazy who led the 9/11 hijackers. By the end of the film I had to admit, grudging, that Nader had brought much of  his grief on himself, and that Hodjat, while undeniably a little crazy in some scary ways, was just a small man doing all the wrong things for some very understandable reasons.

In my book, this makes “A Separation” as brilliant as “Rashomon” and puts Fahardi in the same league as Sam Peckinpah who is known to have said, “I never had a villain I didn’t love.”

Oscar Hype

Posted by Gil Bettman on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

 

 In my last blog, I explained why I don’t care who wins the Oscars. Bottom line? My personal experience working with hundreds of the 5765 members of the Academy revealed that they are predominately too male, too white, too old and too in love with the films they made in their Hollywood heyday — 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago — to be able to pick the best films and filmmakers of today. Over the past 100 years, the Academy has used the power of media hype to convince the world that all the pretty faces in the front rows of the Kodak Theater on Oscar Night are representative of the membership of the Academy. This would make them as young, hip and diverse as any organization on the planet. But, in truth, they are none of the above.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s look at the article published three days ago in the Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/movies/academy/. The Academy keeps it a secret, so to “unmask Oscar” LA Times reporters, Nicole Sperling and John Horn, “reviewed academy publications, resumes and biographies to confirm the identities of more than 5100” Academy members and found that “Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male…Oscar voters have a median age of 62…People younger than 50 constitute just 14% of the membership.”

And, most damning, the Times found that only 42% of the members had received a screen credit in the last twelve years. So their careers are over. They are sitting at home. And how great were they at their job when they were working? Not that great – 64% of the Academy have never even been nominated for an Oscar. They are more Deadwood than Hollywood.

This seriously skews the way they pick the Oscar winners. Don’t believe me? Okay, here is what Dave Karger, who is a Senior Writer at Entertainment Weekly and arguably the world’s leading expert on everything Oscar, told Elvis Mitchell today on NPR’s The Treatment, “when I watch a movie I watch it with two eyes. One eye is for the way I would see it, and the other eye is for the way a 60 or a 70 or an 80 year old guy would see it” because that’s how the Academy will vote on it. So when Karger saw an initial screening of “The Artist” he ran to file an article predicting that it would be nominated for Best Picture. Karger and Mitchell agreed with assurance that it will win the Oscar. Mitchell quipped, “I always get the feeling that the film which wins Best Picture is the Best Picture of 1939.  This is why ‘The King’s Speech’ beat out ‘The Social Network’ in 2010.”

The world seems to think that it matters a great deal if a bunch of 60 or 70 or 80 year-old, white guys like “The Artist” and think it’s the best film of 2011. I’m sorry, but there is something seriously wrong with this picture.

OSCAR NIGHT!!! Do You Care???

Posted by Gil Bettman on Thursday, February 16th, 2012

The Oscar nominations have been announced! It is all-Oscar all the time from now until the big night, February 26! You cannot escape it. Every media outlet is abuzz wondering, who will the 6000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pick to win the Oscars. Do you care?

I used to, until I spent ten years working with hundreds of members of the Academy and got a sense of who exactly makes up this organization and who gets to vote on the Oscars. The Academy will not reveal any detailed information about the demographics of its membership. Why? Because they do not want the public to find out what I discovered when I was working my way up to becoming an episodic TV director.

I did this over a ten year period, toiling as an associate producer on more than a dozen prime time TV shows made at Universal and Fox. I was the last man on the TV assembly line in charge of the hundreds of worker-bee sound-FX, music and dialogue editors who “gang-banged” the hundreds of sound tracks for each episode which were then blended together into a final sound mix on a re-recording stage. Because I was the last man on the assembly line, every delay in preproduction and production came out of the amount time I had to complete the post sound. So by the time the show got turned over to me, the only way to get it done before the air-date was to “gang-bang” it – throw a hundred editors at it and work them around the clock.

The gang-bang would culminate in 24 hour long ordeal of sound mixing. And toward the end of that ordeal it would become apparent that what was holding up the entire process was dialogue track number 2 for reel number 2, commonly referred to as R/2/D/2. (Yes, that’s where George Lucas got the name for the robot.) Or it could have been R/3/FX/23 – reel 3, sound effects track number 23; or R/5/M/1 – reel 5, music track number 1. The bottom line was that whichever editor had built that track for that reel was incapable of doing it correctly, and so we could not mix the reel, finish the re-recording session and go home to bed.

In these cases, I would gather up D/2/D/2 myself, and, as the sun was peaking up above the San Gabriel Mountains, hike across the lot, up three flights of stairs and down the hall looking at the names on the doors to determine behind which of them lurked the genius responsible for prolonging this expensive ordeal. And almost inevitably, when I found his name, it was on a little gold plaque, with an Oscar on it and the initials AMPAS after his name. I would knock. The door would open, and there would stand a humpbacked gnome, under a very bad toupee, wearing a plaid jacket and a striped shirt, peering up at me through his Coke-bottle thick glasses. These, all too typically, were the circumstances under which I came face to face with yet another one of the individuals who have, because of their membership in the Academy, been deemed the ultimate arbiters of award-worthy filmmaking.

This concept is a monument to power of media hype. For almost a hundred years now, the Academy has been promoting itself of being the most discerning body of film critics on the planet, and they have done a brilliant job. They are geniuses in their own mind, and they have sold this entirely subjective rationale to the world.

How do you become one of these self-proclaimed geniuses? You get a credit as the sound-FX editor, assistant director, or camera operator on two theatrically released films and you get a buddy of yours who is already in the Academy to nominate you. That’s it. The Academy would have you believe that their entire membership is made up of all those pretty faces you see in the first rows of the Kodak Theater on Oscar night. But the truth is that, like the dialogue editor who could not get R/2/D/2 right, the 6000 members of the Academy are mostly Hollywood deadwood. They have done their little grunt job well enough to earn their two credits, and they are not dead yet. These are self-proclaimed geniuses who determine who wins the Oscars.

Now, do you care?

Writing With One Hand Behind Your Back

Posted by Mark W Travis on Monday, January 9th, 2012

We’re all storytellers, each and every one of us. We tell stories all day long – at meetings, dinners, on the phone, taking walks – and even to ourselves. We post stories on Facebook and Twitter. We text our friends and colleagues. We live in a world immersed in story. And then occasionally we record our stories in novels, newspaper articles, short stories, plays, poems and screenplays. In many ways we are master storytellers because it is an art form that we practice every day. But, also, in many ways we are novices, neophytes, fledglings, because we stumble and falter with the telling of so many stories. We struggle with the extraordinary demands of each form or genre or delivery system. We’re like infants trying to take those first steps when inside we feel the desire to run.

Each form of storytelling has its opportunities and limitations. In the novel the visuals have to be created with words. Journalists struggle with maintaining the required objectivity while feeling the pull to infuse their stories with an element of personal intimacy. Playwrights battle the limitations of the stage and the restrictions of time. But, one of the most severe sets of limitations is experienced by screenwriters. The screenplay appears so seductively simple with its standard format and three-act 120-page structure. But its simplicity is deceptive. Regardless of the story you want to tell, the genre you have chosen or the theme or subject matter – your hands are tied. You are limited to only four storytelling tools. There are only four elements that you are allowed to use. They are basic, they are necessary, but they are not enough.

Quite simply they are:

  1. LOCATION. You are allowed to describe and define the location where each scene takes place. You can give as much description as you want, but for the sake of time (remember, only 120 pages) and in order to maintain the forward momentum of the story you want to keep it brief. The fewer words the better, just enough information to let us know where we are.
  2. CHARACTERS. You can tell us who is in each scene. You can have as many characters as you like but again for the sake of time (remember, you are attempting to create the illusion that the reader is seeing a film, not reading a novel) keep it brief. Be “laser”. Get to the point and move on.
  3. BEHAVIOR. This is where things begin to get interesting. You are encouraged to describe and define the behavior of the characters, individually and collectively. Now you have the characters in motion and we can begin to get a sense of what they are thinking, feeling, intending, etc.
  4. DIALOGUE. And, finally, you can write what these characters say, what they say to each other or even to themselves. They can speak as eloquently or passionately as you like about anything.

And that’s it. That’s all you get to write. Quite simply, your task is to write what we will see and what we will hear on the screen. And what you don’t get to write, what you can’t describe because it can’t be seen or heard are the feelings, the emotions, those deeply unexpressed desires and fears of your characters. Of course you can slip in bits of dialogue about the history or back-story of a character that will help. You can also have your characters attempt to reveal what is going on inside in their dialogue or behavior. But for the most part, the core of your story, the inner life of your characters cannot be expressed on the screenplay page.

Your story and your characters are driven by these deep feelings, desires and emotions.  This is what your story is all about. And you can’t write it. This inner, subtextual world is the genesis of your story, the stimulation and the reason for the story. And on the screenplay page it has to remain unwritten, implied, suggested, subtextual.

We go to see films to experience the inner life of the characters, their hopes and dreams, desires and disappointments, their fears and fantasies. And we have to remember that the screenplay is not the blueprint we would like to have. It is a snapshot. It is only a result, a documentation of what happens as these characters are pursue their most deeply felt desires and objectives, as they fight their most deeply felt demons, obstacles and fears.

As a writer, if you really wanted to bring your reader into the core of your story, into the deepest and darkest corners of your characters inner lives, then you should write a novel. But if you want to engage your audience in the cinematic experience of living with your characters for a concentrated and intimate two-hour journey, then you need to write a screenplay.

The challenge of writing for the screen, this Zen-like, Haiku-like art form is a noble and magnificent challenge, mastered by few, admired by many and embraced by the masses.

Which Widgets Do You Want to Make?

Posted by Mark W Travis on Saturday, December 24th, 2011

We’re all storytellers. That’s why we’re in this business. True, there are many people in this business who are not in it because of the stories but because it is a business. There are widgets to be sold and they can make a lot of money selling them. But most of us are the widget makers. And at the very outset we need to decide what kind of widgets we want to make. What kind of stories do you want to tell? And why? Do you want to tell stories so that you can sell them, make some money, have a career? Or do you want to tell stories because you have something to say? Be clear where your priorities are. Embrace your goals with passion and move forward.

I seem to be the kind of widget maker that feels he has something to say. Somewhere locked in my DNA is a compelling energy that has insists that my stories must have meaning and purpose and integrity, that they have the intention to enlighten and inform. I could blame my parents, I guess, or their parents. Not sure who to blame. But somebody is responsible. This wasn’t my idea.

So, there are widgets I want to make and widgets I want to support. It’s a small, enthusiastic, iconoclastic, often discouraged struggling community that I belong to. But it’s the community that produces widgets (films, books, plays) of such passion and insight that they leave me breathless. What more could I ask for?

But what are these widgets? Stories? If the widgets we are making are stories, then how do we define them?

And, before we attempt to define story, I want to make on thing very clear. As storytellers, as purveyors of yarns that are intended to entertain, educate, inspire or intrigue, we have to be aware that our yarns can assume several different forms. Like shape-shifters, our stories can take morph themselves into a variety of shapes depending on the story, the intended recipients and the circumstances. Some possible shapes: novel, short story, poem, play, film, memoir, oral, audio, visual, etc. You get the idea. But before we decide what shape we want our story to shift into, we need to understand what the story is. What it is all about. What it wants to say. What journey it wants to take the recipient (listener, audience, viewer, reader) on. When you, the storyteller, the widget maker begin to comprehend the essence and raison d’être of your story you will also feel, from within the story, which shape will serve it best. You need to allow the story to tell you. Be careful that you don’t force your story into the wrong box just because you like the box.

As widget makers we have to respect the widget, the story. The story is our only reason for being here. Honor the story. Honor the art and craft of storytelling. Be a slave to your story and it’s possible that your story will raise you above the masses.

The Invisible Story

Posted by Mark W Travis on Saturday, November 26th, 2011

Dear Friends of Hollywood Film Directing,

Welcome to our new Blog site where we will be sharing with you ideas and insights into the world of film directing.

Since my area of expertise is the Story, the Script and the Actor, I’m going to start with Story. Every film is an attempt to tell a story. That’s a simple concept. But before we launch ourselves recklessly into the world of film directing we need to look at what constitutes a story and a screenplay.

 

The Invisible Story

One of the curious and annoying things about writing screenplays is their limitation. Yes, telling a story on the screen is very exciting and full of possibilities both real and imagined. You would think there were no limitations – and you would be right. The possibilities seem endless and the limitations are few. But, we’re not talking about movies right now. We’re talking about screenplays. We’re talking about those 90-120 page documents that are attempting to describe what will be on the screen. And, just as the script is not the story (we’ll get to that later), the script is also not the movie.  The script is, by its very nature a reduction of the story and the potential movie to its most basic elements. What it is saying is: “Here is what you will see and here is what you will hear.” That’s it. And we can define that even a bit more. A screenplay has four basic elements: Location, Character, Behavior and Dialogue. That’s it. In every scene you are limited to: here’s where it’s happening (location), here’s who is in the scene (characters), here’s what they are doing (behavior) and here’s what they are saying (dialogue). That’s it.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Wait a minute, there’s a lot more. There are all those parentheticals, all those descriptions of emotions and feelings, hopes and dreams, disappointments and despair!” Of course, you’re right. Any self-respecting screenplay writer is going to infuse the script with as much description of the emotional journey of the characters as possible. And there are hundreds of clever tricks and tools that can help you do that. And in many ways it’s necessary to do that so the reader can be guided to experience the story the way you want.

Experience the story? So why can’t location, character, behavior, and dialogue alone convey the story? Why isn’t that enough? Well, it’s not enough because it’s not the story.

Okay, now we need to back up a bit. We’re back to ‘what is the story’? Not, what is a story, but what is the story you are trying to tell? And if all this description of characters, behavior and dialogue isn’t the story, then what is?

The story you are telling is beneath the story you are showing. The story you are telling lives within the characters. The story you are telling is invisible, it is silent – unseen, unheard. Your story is sequestered in that cave called Subtext.

In future blogs we will explore how to find and expose the subtext of your story.

Cheers,

Mark W. Travis