Watched the 1990 Men of Gray Movie today

September 9, 2009

I hadn’t seen the movie in probably eight or 10 years. To my surprise, I enjoyed the viewing immensely!

Don’t get me wrong…

My surprise enjoyment is not a disparagement against the movie. mog-1-Russo-n-menIt’s just that I generally find it hard to watch stuff I’ve directed or edited (or both, in this case) because I can’t easily settle into the role of a viewer of any movie I heavily participated in.

And directing or editing a feature length movie is always a substantial investment of body and soul. Consequently, watching them takes me back to the production of it.

Isn’t that a good thing?

Definitely, since I have many good memories with each production, after all. Still, viewing them again is mostly a hard thing emotionally.

Why? Because, in watching them, my mind flashes back with shocking clarity to the challenges and sacrifices of making each scene – the inevitable resignation of settling between what I envisioned for the scene and what was ultimately possible under the circumstances. To a degree, I suspect that…

All movie directors feel this

…because of the nature of the beast. Directing a narrative feature takes vast imagination and vision in the planning. But creating is always more costly than envisioning.

So, once the director has that glorious mog-1-kickup-avision firmly fixed in his mind, he must then begin carefully chiseling away at that fantastic masterpiece (fully formed in the fantasy of the mind), reducing it to a state that matches the budget, the cast, and any technical or time constraints.

The final movie – what’s left after all the difficult and sacrificial choices leading up to, and through, production and post production – may be viewed by audiences and critics as a great movie. Even so, the movie will inevitably be but a dim reflection of what the director envisioned.

For me at least, mog-1-Russo-threatensthe sought-after movies I had envisioned are still as strong in my mind as is the movies we were actually able to shoot. So, when watching any of these past movies, I’m reliving the sacrifices, even as I’m viewing the victories and remembering great cast and crewmembers.

Also, making a movie is like running a marathon or having a baby (although I’m not speaking  from personal experience on either analogous example) in that they all can be incomprehensibly grueling to go through: seemingly impossible tasks. When you have finished running a marathon or birthing a baby or making a movie, there is not only great satisfaction but great relief that it’s over!

Which is why it’s hard for me to watch … usually.

So you can imagine my surprise, finding today’s viewing so enjoyable.

And it certainly isn’t because the resulting movie mog-1-Joe-stalksclosely resembled my sought-after vision.  I assure you, there were countless necessary subtractions between the vision and the reality of this first Men of Gray movie – it had a budget of less than $10,000, for goodness sake!  🙂

So I should have felt the same discomfort in viewing this movie as with any other that I’ve directed. But, watching it after all these years…

I was having just way too much fun!

I mean, sure — there’s only so much mog-1-showdownyou can do with less than $10,000 when making a full-length feature movie, right? But that actually becomes its charm, in this case. Honestly, it’s pretty amazing what we were able to pull off under the  circumstances.

For instance, most ultra-ultra-low-budget movies are carefully crafted to control costs (like having a small cast, very few locations, mostly daylight shots, minimal action, etc., for example).

But, no, not this movie…

It was a freakin’ epic!

I don’t have the exact numbers, Image-0012but there were probably more than 80 people in the cast, some two or three dozen locations, countless night shots, and maybe a dozen high-action scenes.

Oh, and we made it in a country that has no movie industry — no infrastructure to support film production.  So, my hat is off to producers G. Anthony and Ria Joseph for what they were able to accomplish in putting this whole thing together.  Truly remarkable.

In fact, I could do a half dozen posts about the amazing challenges and crazy adventures in the making of this 1990 movie – and may in fact do so at some point. But suffice it to say, there’s a lot of bang in the bucks we had to work with.

And so I had a ball watching it again

Plus, it was my  first feature film and my first time in Trinidad & Tobago. Image-0009Seeing all those locations and reliving all those memories made me laugh and smile. The guerrilla filmmaking tactics we employed could be strung together and would make a hilarious documentary movie. Remembering those adventures as the movie unfolded scene by scene, how could I not enjoy myself?

 

A great trip. 🙂  And, because I know the movie is very hard to find, I’ve added these screen captures from it to give you a sense of the flavor of that movie.

And, as I suspect, watching the first Men of Grey gave me a few ideas on where to go with the current story, Men of Gray III.

 

Advertisements

No Script Progress Today

September 8, 2009

How’s that for a compelling headline! 🙂

I had some personal business and an urgent project request from one of my WriteWorks Agency clients that kept me from the movie project today.

You know, after making a daily habit of screenplay development, it feels … inappropriate … to not touch it for a day.

But, something fun; I’ll soon be watching the founding 1990 Men of Gray movie – the first feature-length movie I directed. I haven’t seen in perhaps 10 years because I no longer have a VCR and my only copies of the movie were on VHS videocassette or on 3/4-inch industrial tape.  But I’m getting transferred to DVD.

It should be a strange, haunting, and yet pleasant trip down memory lane to see it again.  Hopefully tomorrow.


It’s Brainstorming, I Swear!

September 7, 2009

image

That’s my story, and I’m sticking it.

 

Pun intended.


Plant, Nurture, and Release

September 6, 2009

Cotton freshly-picked from the plant is not nearly as useful to us as cotton that has been formed into threads. As a thread, it has tensile strength and can then be interwoven with other threads to form fabric. Similarly…

A story thread packs more punch than a story event

To create a story thread, I consider how a story character or other element will be more emotionally engaging or satisfying to the audience if I structured it the way you structure a story: in three acts. Here’s that three-act structure in a nutshell:

  • The first act introduces
  • The second act develops
  • The third act releases

Similarly, take any single story element and give it a similar structure: introduce it into the story, nurture it by interweaving it into the plotline, and then deliver it. Pay it out. Release it. Resolve it. That’s a story thread with tensile strength.

Simple example:

Let’s say you’ve got a story about (Act I) a timid, abused woman who finally decides (Act II) to stand up for herself. But the harder she tries, the harder it seems to get. Finally, she summons all her willpower and creativity to (Act III) launch one last desperate attempt to change her destiny. In a climatic face-to-face moment with her abusive husband where, for the first time, she has the power, the woman slaps him in the face before walking away, victorious.

We are as surprised as he is by that slap — a powerful dramatic event. But rather than make it a standalone event, here’s how you could pump up the drama by making it part of a Physical Abuse story thread:

  1. SETUP: In the first act, we see the husband slap the woman. It catches us by surprise. We see more physical abuse, and we become more alarmed or frustrated when she just takes it.
  2. NURTURE: Now, when she decides to do something about it (launching Act II) we are both excited for her and a little scared, too. As the story develops, we think she’s making some headway but then she gets slapped around by the man again, maybe even more abusively, which makes us more afraid for her and angry at him.
  3. PAYOFF: Finally, when her last great effort to win over the abusive man succeeds, we are not simply surprised when the victory moment is punctuated as she slaps him; we are enthralled and cheering for her.

In this story about a woman learning how to stand up for herself, the drama is much more intense if we interweave the abusiveness into the developing storyline. By having her get slapped early in the story, we establish abusiveness as the status quo. Because we are not comfortable with that state, we are totally on board when she finally decides to do something about it. And because we have seen how vicious the husband can be, we respect the tremendous risk she is putting herself in by going against her husband. This creates tremendous tension for us as we empathize with her, hoping that we could be so brave while also knowing how much we don’t like being slapped, which keeps happening to her.

Good stuff… dramaturgically speaking.

It then becomes great dramaturgical stuff when, after all of this terrible abuse, the husband finally gets what he’s got coming to him, as punctuated by that great reversal when she slaps him. It allows us to feel what she feels: vindicated. In fact, when she slaps him, the act becomes a symbol, proving that she has finally overcome her timidity. That’s why I like to plan out and carefully deploy story threads, because…

Surprise is nice but suspense is tense

And intensity is the heart and soul of drama — that heart-wrenching tension between what is happening and what we want to happen.

Something that I recall Oscar award-winning director-screenwriter Milos Forman mentioning more than once in his class at USC’s school of Cinema is that, while surprise is a nice tool in the screenwriter’s toolbox, it cannot compare to the power of suspense. When we know that something is going to happen and we don’t want it to but we are powerless to stop it (that’s suspense), we are considerably more emotionally invested in the drama than when we are surprised by an unexpected event.

And that’s why I dig threads. 🙂 A writer can ensure that the influencing and influenced story elements enrich the story and grip the heart and mind of the viewer (or reader) if they give the element a life, not just a moment; if they set it up, nurture it, and then release it into the protagonist’s world, giving the element its big dramatic moment – the payoff.

That’s the power of the story thread.


Maybe Just One More Analogy…

September 5, 2009

To summarize my last post: A writer can infuse a scene or moment with dimensional richness by planning out and artfully revealing story threads. Largely, this richness comes from giving the viewer (or reader) a completely different perspective on the plot and the protagonist.

Maybe you’ve also seen this?

image I remember watching a chess player in a very intense match who, after studying the board for several minutes to strategize his next move, suddenly got up and walked over to his opponent’s side of the board to study it from that viewpoint before eventually returning to his side and making his move.

Obviously, he was seeking to optimize his strategy by…

Getting a fresh perspective

Nearly always, the storyline is centered on the hero, right?

Right. But what or who influences the hero as the story unfolds? And what or who does the hero effect?

While screenwriters are inclined to write from the perspective of the hero/protagonist as they create each moment, the story can have greater realism and richness if they also take the time to look at what else is (or could be) happening in the unfolding moment, and consider what fresh insights the viewer may enjoy from the vantage points of your protagonist’s influencers or influenced.

While planning out a story, I think about events or conditions or people — the influencing and influenced — and consider where a moment in the story might be much more dramatic or meaningful if I pump it up by revealing the moment from those alternative perspectives, not just the protagonist’s.

But as I suggested in The Five Steps of Story Deconstruction, such elements or characters have limited dramatic value if presented as a singular event or “beat.” They gain their greatest impact when they are strung together to form a series of building story revelations. That’s a story thread.

More on the power of the story thread tomorrow…


Story Threads: Same Thing, New Angle

September 4, 2009

If you ask three people to describe an event they all witnessed or were a part of, what do you think the odds are that you’ll hear the same description from all three? For instance…

I remember one family vacation…

It was several years ago. From our Kansas City home, we trekked westward in our minivan for famed Yellowstone and Grand Teton national Parks, with a brief stop en route at Mount Rushmore. I was shocked when, a couple years later, the four of us were describing that vacation to our relatives. You would have thought we were describing four completely different trips!

  • I remember it as breathtaking, majestic, full of adventure, and loaded with quality one-on-one time.
  • My son described the two-week trip as being two weeks too long.
  • My daughter described it as torturous entrapment.
  • And my wife remembered enjoying the natural wonders, but being too exhausted (dealing with CFS at the time) to enjoy much of it, and finding the cabin accommodations too “rustic.”

One experience, but four radically different remembrances. Which is a roundabout way of explaining the value of knowing well your story threads, because…

Story threads are just like that

Sometimes, separate story threads are describing the same event, but from a different point of view. For example, here are two of the story threads i developed:

Joe’s Son — since Joe is a single dad, a pivotal character is his young-adult son, Sean, who is also a rookie officer under Joe’s authority. He often influences what Joe does or says, or what happens to Joe. So, I’ve got about 15 cards in the “Joe’s son” thread representing 15 story beats that involve Sean.

Spring Breakers — it would be a plot spoiler to explain why a group of American college students on spring break are important enough to the story that I’ve developed a story thread just for them. What I can share: Sandy, one of the students, becomes romantically involved with Joe’s son Sean. Though not as interwoven into the story as Sean is, I’ve got about 10 cards in the “Spring Breakers” thread, representing key moments in the story that involve the students or their parents.

Watch how these threads intersect

Here is the same scene as described on one card from each of these two story threads; it’s the same moment, but from unique perspectives. Notice the differences here:

image image

When I finally write the one scene described on these two cards, we will see this moment revealed primarily from Sean’s perspective. But we will also see what Sandy sees — perhaps how she reacts when Sean isn’t looking.

But remember: Sean and Sandy only exist in this story to push the protagonist or the plot forward. So, we need to understand this event from the perspective of a third character in the scene – Joe. The way I envision the scene unfolding, I want us to notice when Joe first notices the rapidly developing romantic chemistry between Sean and Sandy. I suspect we will be aware of Joe’s feelings about this before the other characters are.

There you have it: one moment within one scene, affecting three different people in three different ways.

Okay, different perspectives… so what?

So, while almost all screenplays are written from a particular character’s point of view (usually the hero’s), the medium of film is so multidimensional that it’s dramaturgical suicide when a writer forces the viewer to see the story unfold through only one character’s eyes.

As a writer — and as a director — I feel it’s important to create scenes that consider what is happening to other characters and to represent, if I feel it’s appropriate to the story, how other characters are viewing the unfolding drama.

An example from this story:

There’s a Family Gathering scene in the first act that introduces us to some of Joe’s relatives. In that moment, it’s important for us to see, among other things, that Joe loves and respects his mother and that she strongly affects Joe’s sense of right and wrong.

At the same time that this is being revealed, Joe’s older brother — the primary antagonist — is there, revealing to us his insecurities. We see that, while he is politically one of the strongest people in the country and is viewed by the family as an authority figure (since he is, by many years, the eldest brother), he nonetheless feels like the lesser brother around the family, and therefore harbors jealousy. We see this when he subtly belittles Joe as his mother praises little brother for some recent accomplishment. But his lame effort to look superior by making Joe look inferior backfires when their elderly mother scolds him briefly and returns her attention to Joe again. This leaves the older brother smoldering with a growing hatred for Joe.

What we see the older brother going through in that moment is hardly noticed by anyone else in the crowded home, even though it affects the man so much that it becomes a pivotal event in his life, planting the seed for revenge. Meanwhile, we see that Joe leaves that family gathering feeling both encouraged by his mom to not give up his vision, and challenged by her vision for what Joe is capable of doing for the good of the country.

See? One event, but two radically different viewpoints

And, because they are both leading characters, my responsibility as a writer is to make sure that we understand both characters’ psyche in that moment.

Creating not only the primary story line but also planning out a story thread for Joe’s mom and brother has helped me to retain their importance in the story and the pace of their character revelation as I craft the screenplay.

For a future post, I’ll come up with an example or two from an existing movie of how well-constructed story threads create better drama.


Putting Meat on Their Bones

September 3, 2009

I had to break today from developing the Act 2 step outline when I hit scenes that demand development of the five US College-Spring-Break Students and their parents. Without unique personalities, I quickly became bogged down in generalities.

About those “other guys”

In the first act, I was able to get by with only one of the five students named and fleshed out, while simply referring to her traveling mates as “the other well-bred American students.” No problem with that … until now.

I put away the step outline and jumped right into the character sheet, which is where I’m listing all the characters by name and giving each a short description. This morning, I filled in the gaps for these American students and their parents, most of whom need to be socially powerful — monetarily, politically, and such (you’ll see why later).

Apart from this, at least for the primary story characters, I’m also creating detailed character descriptions — a few paragraphs usually, or even a few pages for major or more complicated, dramaturgically pivotal characters. But not this morning.

More on that later. Today, I just honed in on the character sheet, with an eye on…

Connecting the students to the plot line

I already had a general idea of what personalities would need to be represented among the students, and how their parents would later alter the course of the storyline. Now, having reached a point where I could no longer go on until I took the time to make these kids real, I reviewed all the major plot points, looking for opportunities to heighten the drama or strengthened the story’s emotional spine by interjecting the students or their parents. From that, I gave them distinct personalities that would support those plot points, and also endowed them with real names that felt “right” to me.

That’s now done. And, let me tell you, it was both…

A worthwhile diversion, and well-timed!

Had I tried to mold them into dimensional characters earlier, before the storyline was sufficiently formed, it likely would have been a meandering guessing game, based less on how they would each effect the lead characters or the plot, and more on generic assumptions about what I think might be fun for people to watch.

Boring.

Flat.

But breaking to do this now, the story was hungry, greedy for their existence. It anxiously reached in to my subconscious and ripped the characters out, effectively forcing them into being.

Don’t worry, it’s not as painful as it sounds. Invigorating, actually. I just kinda’ sat back and watched.

So, who are they?

Going forward, instead of just “Sandy, and the other students,” here’s what I’ve got to work with:

SANDY BROUGHAM — A confident, comely, well-bred American lass on spring break from college. She is graceful and intelligent, and smitten by Sean, who is smitten by her.

JIM BROUGHAM — Sandy’s brother. An athletic and affable young man, lacking in the looks department. Not witty, but laughs easily, enjoying the humors of others.

MRS. VICTORIA BROUGHAM — Sandy and Jim’s loving mother, and also a state supreme court judge. Quick to judge, but, once beyond her initial reaction, she’s able to assess accurately, wisely.

MR. JOHN BROUGHAM — Sandy and Jim’s father. A US senator.

JANICE HOROWITZ — Also well bred and intelligent, but this Spring breaker is sorely lacking in self-confidence and social graces … when sober.

COLLEEN SMITH — Rather attractive American Spring breaker. Not from money or power, and not very studious. An athletic daredevil and wicked prankster. Funny as hell.

MR. JERRY SMITH — Colleen’s father. A widower of limited financial means. Dearly (smotheringly) loves his daughter — his only child.

JOSH KINGSLEY — Another US Spring breaker: a lanky and quick witted poli-sci major. He loves a good political battle, but too likeable to get rankled about it, as he artfully employs humor to defuse and persuade.

MR . CAMERON KINGSLEY — Josh’s “Type A” father. A nationally known American TV political commentator. Loves his son, and dearly loves his work.

MRS. RAMONA KINGSLEY — Josh’s devoted mother. A quiet woman, honest as the day is long; naturally inclined to give the benefit of the doubt.

Much more satisfying! Now, I’m charging back into the step outline with this bevy of clearly formed characters at my side, spurring me on.

It just gets more fun every day. Tally ho….