Screenwriters, do yourselves a favor.

HBO recently released Craig Mazin’s miniseries ChernobylWhile nothing in this life is perfect, Chernobyl comes pretty darn close. From acting to directing to art direction to sound design, Chernobyl is a masterclass in filmmaking.

But the biggest story is probably the story itself. In the television world, screenwriters hold the creative power and, as writer and executive producer, Mazin made a variety of bold and effective decisions. For example, the explosion takes place in the first few minutes of the mini-series. He doesn’t make the audience sit through a lengthy first act or ordinary world, and it’s spectacularly powerful. But his reasoning behind the decision is what will really make things click for filmmakers.

In addition to the show, Mazin recorded a companion podcast with NPR host Peter Sagal to accompany each episode. In it, he explains his creative decisions. He shares insight about story structure, adapting true stories, portraying gore on screen, sound design, and even accents. It’s entertaining, engaging, and informative. It’s unfiltered information coming from a filmmaker at the top of his game.

Taken together, Chernobyl and the companion podcast are worth far more to aspiring filmmakers than anything you can find in a university catalogue. The podcast is free and HBO Now has a 7 day free trial. You have no excuses. If you want to learn about the craft of filmmaking, Chernobyl is a must.

The Last Watch. Thankfully.

On Sunday night, HBO suckered Game of Thrones fans in for what was touted as a two-hour behind-the-scenes documentary, a glimpse into the magic of the making of Game of Thrones. I’ve seen most of the bonus features on the Game of Thrones Blu-rays. They’re well-produced and informative. This sounded like it would be a great retrospective on the series and an emotional farewell tour. Instead, HBO gave us a cloying, aimless, slice-of-life piece that ranks somewhere between a vacation slideshow and college project. 

There are plenty of behind-the-scenes shots in The Last Watch, but they completely lack context or explanation. My wife called it pretentious. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘You don’t understand what we do, and we’re not going to explain it to you.'” I agree. Hundreds of people worked on the show, but the documentary only covered a handful of crew members and none of them very well. No one from the camera, grip, electric, props, sound, video, or AD departments were interviewed. There was no story. There was no narrative (ironic for a show whose finale centers on a speech about great stories). There were some heartfelt moments, such as when makeup artist Sarah Gower explained that because both she and her husband worked on the show, neither of them were at home with her daughter. Sad? Yes. A two hour story? No.

In many ways, it felt as though these crew members had drawn short straws and were being saddled with the BTS crew because no one else wanted to talk to them. That may have been the case, but the documentary did have a way out. Andrew McClay, a background actor who played a Stark soldier for multiple seasons, seemed to love the BTS crew. He was the perfect, humanizing connection between an epic fantasy series and the audience at home. Just an average Joe trying to make a living. But the documentary failed in some very basic ways to craft that story. Can we see where Andrew lives? What did he do before GOT? How did GOT change his life? What do his friends and loved ones think of all this? With so many unanswered questions, maybe he’ll get a spinoff series…

The documentary avoided discussing creative decisions in the final season, in depth interviews with major cast members or the show’s creators, or even a broad representation of the cast. Fingers crossed, those things will appear in the Blu-ray. Last night however, we were given a voyeuristic opportunity to fawn over Emilia and Kit (or Keeeet as the Spaniards call him) and a very brief glimpse at the humanity of a very small slice of a very large crew. Not exactly the kind of documentary quality I’ve come to expect from HBO. Did it fill two hours of programming and keep some of Game of Thrones fans tuning in for another week? Yes. But it could have been so much better.

All Men (and Shows) Must Die

The last episode of Game of Thrones will go live in just a two days and the internet is still roiling about last week’s episode. “What have the writer’s done?!” I can’t be certain how D&D plan to resolve this mess, but I can guarantee no matter what happens some people will hate it. Is all of the Sturm und Drang really merited?

I’ll start with a bit of a humble brag. I was a fan of the books. I was ecstatic to hear that HBO would be adapting them into a show. And for the most part, the series stayed true to the books, which is to say, it stayed true to human nature.

The thing that struck me about Game of Thrones was its realism. Sure, you had to get past the dragons and the army of the undead, but in many ways, George R.R. Martin’s world felt more authentic and his characters felt more real than most things you read. Writers – screenwriters in particular – rely heavily on preconceived notions (also called cliches) to keep stories moving forward. When you’re telling the story of Odysseus, you can’t get hung up what oarsman #3 is doing.

Martin didn’t let that bother him. Oarsman #3, the red-headed prostitute, and the kennel master’s daughter were just as likely to have staring roles as the king and the elite assassin. No one was purely good and no one was purely evil. Everyone was just trying to get by in this nasty and brutish world Martin had created. It was enthralling.

It also came at a cost. Descriptions could be burdensome. Do we really care what all eleventeen courses were at the feast? Or whose bannermen wore what sigils? All of the descriptions, details, side quests, and characters made each book in the series a massive tome somewhere in the 1000 page range. And then there was the killing of characters.

I started out rooting for Ned. Here was a man who was going to get things done. It’s not a spoiler at this point to say things didn’t pan out for him. Then I rooted for his son, Robb… and then Jon. But the last time Martin mentions Jon, he’s, well, dead. Then Martin went off and wrote a book on a an entirely different continent with other characters. (As a reader, I was none too happy about it and couldn’t decide if I would finish the series. But I’d like to point out that, despite some angry fan mail, if  anyone is winning the game of thrones, it’s Martin.)

HBO took the same route, shocking audiences each season. There was Ned, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, the Great Sept. How do you top that? Looking back on it, however, the question isn’t about “topping” the previous season, but treating Westeros with the same reality the books did.

Life is messy. The people who you want to win don’t. The people in charge are often war criminals. The people who should be in charge don’t want the job. Siblings fight and betray trust. Some people redeem themselves. Others don’t. Game of Thrones created a world that was big enough to be treated realistically rather than having to rely on the tropes that govern most stories. Last week’s episode was a case in point.

Was Danaery’s a long con? Did D&D spend nine years building empathy for a character they knew would turn out to be an unhinged megalomaniac? Or maybe like the gods whenever a Targaryen is born, they just flipped a coin in the writer’s room. The point is, even though it frustrated a huge portion of the audience, it felt strangely inspired. It felt real. We don’t get upset when our deadbeat friend does something stupid. We get upset when our heroes and mentors do something stupid. That’s why this episode bothered us so much.

There are many theories about what will happen in the final episode, some of them more disappointing than others. But I can honestly say, I have no idea what will happen. That’s been the shocking fun of Game of Thrones since day one. Let’s be honest, for a show that killed most of its characters off, it would be completely “in character” for them to do something shocking, absurd, and brutal. I’m fully expecting that. The disappointment won’t be how it ends, but that it’s ending.

I’m hopeful though. Game of Thrones took chances with traditional storytelling, creating something new and complex and engaging. HBO adapted it – warts and all – into something we love, and love to hate. I hope that complexity affects television for years to come. In the meantime, I know what I’ll be reading.

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7/14/19

While I stand by my comments regarding Game of Thrones, and my appreciation of George R. R. Martin’s storytelling, I won’t necessarily recommend Fire & Blood. It is a history book. It’s an interesting, well-written history book, but it’s a. history book. I guess I’ll just have to wait for The Winds of Winter.

 

The Tragedy of Tragedy Girls

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(image via: http://www.dreadcentral.com/news/264412/tragedy-girls-starring-alexandra-shipp-brianna-hildebrand-hits-blu-ray-february/)

With the Oscars this week, you’re probably scrambling to watch all of the films you’ve head about but haven’t seen. One little nugget that flew under the radar last year was Tragedy Girls. I only learned about it through the Queens of Crime podcast. (Highly recommended if you like true crime stories.) I enjoyed it for all of the reasons I thought I would: a ridiculous premise (high schoolers become murderers to publicize their blog), campy humor, ridiculous gore, and surprisingly high production value. The acting was spot on and the cinematography was creative and effective.

All that being said, there’s a reason this film flew under the radar, and it can be a lesson for the aspiring filmmaker. Tragedy Girls disregards many of the “rules” of screenwriting, and it shows. It wasn’t bad enough to be a B movie, but it wasn’t likable enough to be mainstream. The biggest thing I felt while watching it was discomfort. And here’s why.

Does your protagonist need to be likable?

No. But they do need to be relatable. The main characters, Sadie and McKayla, are snotty, narcissistic teens who are obsessed with social media. And while they can be funny, they aren’t likable. Nobody is rooting for them to succeed. The film never builds a bridge between these antiheroes and the audience. There is no “save the cat” moment or humanization of these sociopathic killers.

The film could have humanized them in a variety of ways. It could have better explained why they were killers (bullying? revenge?), given them their comeuppance in the end, or given them an opportunity to make amends for what they did. It also could have made their victims more despicable, turning Sadie and McKayla into the lesser of several evils (think of Dexter). But for some reason, everyone else in Tragedy Girls, is strangely guiltless and generally likable.

The Three Act Structure

Tragedy Girls disregards the three act structure, starting with Sadie and McKayla committing their first murder and capturing (and torturing) a serial killer. While it does get things moving quickly, it raises more questions than it answers. Who are these girls? What is their ordinary world? Why do they believe they are morally justified in killing people? Why is social media so important to them? Why do they want to be notorious killers? Answering even one of these questions would help endear them to the audience which is, after all, the primary function of the first act.

From there, the girls spiral into their killing spree–a kind of Mean Girls but with murder. And while it does have its comedic moments, that’s sort of it for the rest of the film. If you don’t find that entertaining, the film has lost you twenty minutes in.

The final act offers no real resolution or change. Sadie and McKayla are essentially the same on minute 1 and minute 91, giving the impression of a drawn out SNL sketch rather than a feature film.

Too Close to Home

When you strip away the jokes, you end up with a movie about two teens who kill their classmates and get away with it. The film offers no real alternative to the outcome, and it isn’t really a cautionary tale. If, for some perverse reason, you end up rooting for Sadie and McKayla, you end up rooting for high school murderers.

That really brings me full circle to discomfort. At every point in the movie, you’re not 100% sure if you should be laughing, cheering, or vomiting in disgust. I do have to tip my hat to the filmmakers because, production-wise, it’s very well put together. They also stick to their guns. They made a movie about unabashed serial killers who get away with their crimes. They bucked convention. As to whether or not it worked, you’ll have to judge for yourself. But as you build our own stories and craft your own characters, it’s important to keep in mind how some of these “rules” operate in screenplays and the reaction an audience can have if you disregard them.

 

A Roundabout Review of “Medici: Masters of Florence”

New screenwriters will often ask if they have to follow “the rules.” The short answer is, “Yes.” Why? Keep reading.

There are some great scripts that break “the rules.” But there are many, many, many terrible scripts that break “the rules,” and it’s easier to understand why the rules exist by watching some of these terrible movies (and TV shows). Medici: Masters of Florence, currently available on Netflix, is one of them. Here are some of my thoughts organized with the same headings used for industry standard coverage.

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STRUCTURE

You’ve probably heard of the three-act structure. I alluded to it in my previous post about Extraordinary Worlds. The purpose of the first act (AKA “The Beginning”) is to establish the characters and their needs. It builds empathy between the characters and the audience and gives the audience an idea of where this script is headed.

Medici starts by killing off Dustin Hoffman. We don’t know who he is. We don’t know why we should like him. Maybe it’s a good thing he’s being killed off. We immediately jump to Richard Madden (apparently Hoffman’s son) who is trying to decide how to respond to his political rivals. Again, it’s a little unclear who Madden is or why we should like him.

Hoffman’s death is cut together with scenes of Hoffman’s own funeral making the opening sequence even more confusing. Once we establish that A) Hoffman was the Medici patriarch, B) he is dead, C) Madden is his son, and D) Madden must now fill his ample shoes, Medici immediately jumps to a flashback.

In general, flashbacks are poor storytelling. Scripts are written in present tense because they happen now, and now is important. Flashbacks tell the audience that whatever happened then is more important than what is happening now. Well if then is more important than now, why not have your script take place then?

Although Madden’s hair is different and Hoffman is inexplicably alive, there’s no real way to distinguish now from then, continuing Medici’s theme of baffling confusion. This confusion is the bigger sin than merely using a flashback. The flashback not only fails to contribute to Madden’s contemporary story (his appointment to the signoria), but makes the show difficult to follow. And just when you thought the show was about to buckle down and do some proper storytelling, it dives into a montage.

Montages, like flashbacks, are generally poor storytelling. They can be used for a variety of reasons, but are most frequently used to compress time. In sports movies, you can’t show your heroes playing all 162 regular season games, but you can show a montage. When your warrior is training for the final battle, you don’t bore your audience with thirty minutes of calisthenics and meditation, you use a montage. In the pilot episode of Medici when Madden falls hopelessly in love with a laundress and drives a rift between him and his father, you should probably play that out for a few episodes. Well, they used a montage, and it was laughable. How can we possibly care about the love of his life when she’s only on screen for three minutes?!

Similarly (back to now), a surgeon who performed an illegal autopsy on Hoffman blackmails Madden. Madden informs his consigliere to pay the surgeon 100 Florins. When the consigliere pays the money, the surgeon demands 1000 Florins. Seems like a pretty important scene, right? We never get to see it! Madden’s consigliere just tells him about it in painful exposition a few scenes later. Why wouldn’t you use that scene?!

To sum up structure, there’s no real first act, the story is difficult to follow, the pacing is wildly off, and important scenes are not included in the script. Moving on…

CHARACTER

Hoffman and Madden may develop into interesting, likeable characters, but they certainly don’t start out that way. Madden is dour and brooding. Hoffman is, well, dead. In the flashback he kind of seems like a jerk. Maybe they’ll redeem themselves, but I’m not sure if I’ll watch long enough to see that. (Not all protagonists need to be likable, but they do need a redeeming quality. This is where Blake Snyder got the name for his fantastic screenwriting book Save the Cat.)

Madden’s lover (and most of the tertiary characters) are paper-thin. She’s posing for a group of artists only partially clothed. Despite all of the other eligible young men in the room, she and Madden are instantly smitten with each other. This leads to the aforementioned three-minute sex montage. (Now that I think about it, maybe it was just three minutes of sex. Again, the story was hard to follow.) In any case, it’s not the kind of deep reflection on the human condition that leads to memorable characters. Oh, by the way, she’s scared out of Madden’s life a few minutes later by his dad’s henchmen. (Another scene that is only talked about, not shown.)

There’s a brother, a not particularly intimidating antagonist, the consigliere, a cameo by the artist Donatello, and a handful of other forgettable characters who take themselves too seriously. The only entertaining person is Steven Waddington who plays a cheeky cardinal who bribes his way to the papacy.

DIALOGUE

But wait, it gets worse! If you’ve ever studied Uta Hagen (It’s bonus credit, but I do recommend reading Respect for Acting), you know that actors need motivation. When they lack motivation, your scene runs a very high risk of exposition. After all, if your characters have no motivation, they have nothing to do, and will just end up talking.

In Medici, there’s the awful scene where Hoffman’s rival sort of threatens Madden, but mostly explains that the signoria is rigged. Then there’s the scene where Madden’s wife explains that she’s been a loyal wife who wants to be part of his business decisions. But the one that really takes the cake is the scene between Hoffman and Madden about Hoffman’s legacy.

In it, Hoffman waxes philosophic about his legacy, complains about Madden’s desire to be an artist (another terrible example where “showing” would have been more powerful than “telling”), and explains his scheme for gaining power. Why have this elaborate, dull conversation full of exposition? Because it’s the middle ages and they have nothing better to do when travelling from place to place?

Now they could have been trying to convince someone to join their cause. Hoffman could have been scolding his son wasting resources on art. Or they could have been doing something visually interesting while having a boring conversation (another great tip from Blake Snyder that he calls “Pope in the pool”). Instead, it’s five mind-numbing minutes of exposition. C’mon, people.

The other thing that really kills the scene (while this isn’t in the writer’s purview), is Hoffman’s accent. Everyone else in the series sounds like they’re doing Shakespeare. Hoffman sounds like they pulled him out of a dock in the Bronx. The tough guy persona could work well, but the juxtaposition is distracting.

UGH…

On top of all of this, there was a painful and distracting soundtrack. It was almost as though they realized the show was horrible and were trying to draw your attention away from it.

With the difficultly of following the story, lack of empathy for the characters, and laughable dialogue, it was really hard to care. I ended up reading about the Medici on Wikipedia—which I found much more interesting—and frankly don’t know how the episode ended. More importantly, I don’t care.

This may not be a glowing review, but I do recommend you watch the pilot episode of Medici: Masters of Florence. It’s much easier to understand “the rules” when you see what happens if you break them.