A Cacophony of Culture?

October 9, 2009

Right. I get that music design is normally a postproduction thing. Primarily.

Unless you’re shooting a musical.

And, no — this movie definitely won’t be a musical.

However, one lasting impression from my four times in the country of Trinidad and Tobago (once for two months, once for nearly 10 months) is the omnipresent role of music there. Even in the very atmosphere itself, really.

Must be something in the soil

It seems that music not only reflects but defines the people of Trinidad and Tobago. If you’ve traveled the country much, you know what I mean. The music is everywhere and anywhere in Trinidad and Tobago – where ever people gather (in crowds of one or more). image

And so, for a movie that we plan to shoot in such a music-centric land such as Trinidad & Tobago, I feel it’s important that the movie’s music design begins now, influencing even the structuring of the screenplay.

Whether I’m thinking as a writer or as a director, I feel it’s important to consider the rhythm and volume of a culture into which the movie will be set. And in the land of Trinidad and Tobago, the volume is up, the rhythms overlap, and the music styles often clash. Beautifully!

I guess you could call it…

A cacophony of culture

… because the mishmash of music you hear on the streets is an honest reflection of the Trinbagonian people: diverse, divergent, overlapping, and surprisingly harmonious.

In that sense, while the near-constant amplified dissonance of so many concurrent and competing sounds can seem a bit discordant or dissonant, it really is as natural and harmonious as can be, when you consider the culture.

I wonder sometimes…

How aware or unaware is the average Trinbagonian of either the volume or the concurrency of the music? If you’ve lived that way from birth, do you notice it? or is it like breathing: a thing that happens at a subconscious level?

To an outsider just visiting the country, it can be initially jarring to the senses. Overwhelming!

I recall feeling psychologically exhausted the first time I spent more than 30 minutes on the streets of downtown Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. I couldn’t wait to escape to the aural insulation of an air-conditioned car, windows up, driving AWAY from the hullabaloo.

But then … you adjust.

Just as I adjusted to working in the (initially) suffocating humidity, I adjusted also to the musical cavalcade. I came to appreciate, and even look forward to, the signature chorus of sounds and music that, like the rooster’s crow, signified the dawning of a new day. And which, unlike the cock’s crow, continued until after nightfall.  🙂

Oh, and I should mention: there were real rooster cock-a-doodle-doos mixed in to the daybreak chorus of sounds too. And the screeching of wild parrots flying over the hills. Morning in Trinidad.

I think it’s the weather too.

With the perpetually warm, tropical climate, the windows in Trinidad & Tobago are almost always open in homes, businesses, and cars. Which makes for this fascinating undulation of overlapping sounds as you walk or drive down the road.

I don’t suppose then that you would experience the aural mishmash in an equally musically-oriented country that has a cooler climate; the music would be more contained by the closed windows and doors.

But, no, it’s more than that.

It’s not just that the windows are open. Because you don’t get a comparable musical kaleidoscope effect in the cities of the hotter regions of the US. Not even close.

Part of what creates the Trinbagonian musical cacophony then has to do with the way that most Trinbagonians…

Embrace the climate

At least compared to Americans in the southern USA.

Now, I’m sure part of this open-air environment is about economics — not as many people in Trinidad and Tobago can afford air conditioning as in the US — but it also has to do with the strange tendency of most of us Americans to

(A) simultaneously seek out and settle in to the country’s hottest climates, and yet;

(B) spend so little time letting that climate anywhere near our bodies: living in air-conditioned homes, driving to work and the store in air-conditioned cars, and then working, dining, and shopping in air-conditioned businesses.

By not embracing our climate, Americans are more culturally cut off from the people around us than in an open-windowed, open-doored culture like Trinidad and Tobago.

But it’s more than that, too.

It’s also the melting pot effect.

Indeed, the US was once a great melting pot, as we often call ourselves even today. But we are a lot more homogenous now compared to many other societies. And certainly compared to Trinidad and Tobago.

And that’s my point with this whole music thing — how the ever-present musical mishmash is a perfectly natural reflection of Trinbagonian culture, which is a true melting pot of French, Spanish, British, African, Indian, and island peoples (did I miss any?).

But here’s the thing; even as each culture’s unique flavors, accents, dress, attitudes, and music have influenced one another, the unique cultures of each have not become so diluted as to loose their distinctness. So you get diversity harmoniously.

And that, you see, is why I describe the musical melting pot of the Trinbagonian culture as a beautiful cacophony — as clashing without clashing, if you embrace the sound as being a reflection of the people whose past 50 years, with a couple of notable exceptions (1990 comes to mind), generally accept and even take pride in their cultural diversity.

So, while Men of Gray III, The Midnight Robber is not a musical per se, I am purposely structuring the screenplay to…

Reflect the musical rhythm of the culture

My intention is to infuse the scenes with the music you would hear if you were in such a modern-day Trinbagonian moment, and to use that music to tell the story as much as the dialogue or images of the scene.

Sometimes, this infusion means envisioning a specific song that’s appropriate for the mood and the moment.

Sometimes, it’s more about the type of music that would be playing in a certain neighborhood or a certain type of occasion that the movie will portray.

Sometimes, it’s about the volume or the degree of musical cacophony in a scene or sequence: whether it’s subtly underscoring a character’s emotion or overpowering the dialogue, causing people to yell, for instance.

But, ultimately, it’s about building a movie that respects and realistically portrays the country’s culture, so that it will entertain and be embraced by Trinbagonians at least as much as it will the rest of the world. With its music as a natural and interwoven thread of this story, i think we can do that.

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Now, It Really Is Chaos

September 18, 2009

Strange day… I made much progress on the step outline.

Yep, that’s the strange part.

Since I am moving out  in less than two weeks (the end of my lease), the work of preparing for that move has recently crowded its way into my story development time. While I make it a daily habit to always achieve some measure of progress on the screenplay, they have been token advances for the last several days.

But today was different…

Somehow, in the midst of all my packing, apartment hunting, and handling a couple of freelance client needs, I managed to squeeze in a good three hours of screenwriting, in fact making great advances on the step outline.

When I’m working on the outline, I’m normally referring frequently to the story conceptualization board on the wall with its carefully arranged note cards, laid out chronologically along the story timeline, grouped step by step.

Normally.

But, like I said, today was different

In this earlier post, I spoke against the possible perception that all these notes on the board were chaos. But today, the board really is chaos, as you can see:

image

If you look closely, you can still barely make out the chronological note card arrangement half-buried amidst all the other junk.

What the… what happened?!

I blame it on the move preparation. To make sure I get my full security deposit back, I’m cleaning off anything I have on the walls (with the conceptualization board being the only remaining exception) so I can patch up holes with speckling paste and touch up with paint if necessary.

So, I’ve temporarily made this board the waiting room for anything that I had on the walls around my office but didn’t want to pack away yet. 

So, yeah, it’s chaos, just as it appears to be.

“But only temporarily,” he insisted defensively.


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…


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….


Name Changed to Connect the Innocent

September 2, 2009

Speaking of connecting the dots, an idea occurred to me this morning as I reread the Flight of the Ibis shooting script while brainstorming story thread tie-ins of the new story to the original movies from which Joe Cameron, the protagonist of the current story, was formed.

So, here’s what I’m toying with…

One of the lead characters in the developing story is Orlando LaSalle, a young member of the press who is initially influenced by Joe and then, later, becomes the influencer. So, it occurred to me that Flight of the Ibis had a younger reporter as well — Zack Lereau — who may appear in this story, no longer a reporter, and much older of course. Why, in fact, he’d be older enough to have a son about Orlando’s age … and since they both already have French surnames… maybe Orlando could be Zack’s son

It makes sense, because…

It’s not unreasonable to think that a news reporter could breed a news reporter. For starters. But wait, there’s more:

  • Joe Cameron and Zack Lereau formed a solid interpersonal connection in the last movie — a mutual respect. To have Orlando be Zack’s son could let me jettison the Joe-Orlando relationship past the normal who-are-you-and-should-I-care exposition just by having Joe finding out that this whippersnapper is Zack’s son.
  • The story’s Orlando intro is already designed to show that he is not a crowd-follower: not your typical reporter, which is something that Joe liked about Zack. So it’s believable that the son would share characteristics with the father.
  • Having Orlando be Zack’s son would help me bring Zack into the story without fabricating some contrivance to do so; having Joe meet the son of a man he once knew and respected would engender a desire to reconnect.

The only downfall:

And this is minor, really.  But I like the rhythm of the full name Orlando LaSalle, much more so than Orlando Lereau.  It doesn’t roll off the tongue as smoothly. But I also like Orlando as the reporter’s first name. It just … fits. So, I may have to give him a new first name if I decide to make the Zack-Orlando father-son connection.  Bummer.


Connecting the dots

September 1, 2009

As described briefly on the blog’s About page, even though I’m writing this screenplay to function primarily as a standalone story, the fact is that it is built on characters introduced in two earlier movies — Men of Gray and Men of Gray II  (released internationally as Flight of the Ibis). Both of these ultra-low-budget movies got some good play in festivals and both have acquired a fan base among Caribbean audiences, particularly in Trinidad and Tobago where they were produced.

Consequently, something that producer G. and I have been sensitive to in developing this story is stay true to the original character of Joe Cameron, and to consider the possibility of including other characters that were introduced in the first two movies — both things that we feel would be appreciated by those who are familiar with these earlier films.

Of course, since the first two movies were loaded with high action confrontations between police and criminals, we damn near killed off the whole lot!

But what about those few characters that did survive the mayhem?

Right: Some did survive. But, with this new story, some 16 years of water have gone under their bridges — 19 years from the first Men of Gray movie, in fact. So I certainly have the choice of starting from scratch: ignoring the past and hoping no one notices…

But frankly I like the challenge of not forgetting about it — of staying fully on course with the story that we want to tell, but also infusing it with these historic threads.

Infuse … How so?

Here’s what I’m thinking about:

  1. Influencing Joe’s brain:
    At the very least, the surviving main characters from the first two movies are part of the emotional and psychological makeup of the present day Joe Cameron, so I’ve already built the modern day psyche of this man with those past events and characters as influencers.
  2. Adding interim adventures:
    I’ve also considered what might have occurred in Joe’s life with these characters in the nearly 2 decades since we last saw them; if they were friends, did they continue to be friends? If they were coworkers or subordinates, did they stay that way? If they were his enemies — wait, no: We killed off all the enemies, come to think of it. But you see my point; life goes on, and so I wanted to have some fun exploring the possibilities of how their intertwining lives may have developed since we last saw them, and how that might influence the current plot.
  3. Reintroducing them into MOG3:
    Though not confirmed, this is something we are seriously considering — infusing this story with the present-day embodiment of these past characters. It introduces some pragmatic risks to the production though, so I’m only carefully looking at this option, designing the story in such a way that, if necessary, we could later remove any of these reintroduced characters without tearing at the fabric of the story.

What pragmatic risks would that introduce?

For instance, if we wanted to cast any of the original actors for the roles, do we know that they are available? Are they even alive? Do they look anything at all like they did back then, or would they have changed so much that bringing them back would do more harm than good for the audience? And, since this new movie will likely have a higher budget, it will also have higher international expectations or distribution requirements. That means that, even if we bring back any of these previous characters, we may need to recast them with actors who have stronger international appeal. Would doing so potentially alienate any of the existing fan base?

So, who survived, and what happens to them now?

None of this is set in stone, mind you, but here are some of the characters from Joe Cameron’s life that we didn’t kill off in the first two movies that I’m thinking we could make good use of this time around.

  • Sean Cameron
    sean-cameron-mog1This is Joe’s son. When we last saw Sean, he was about five years old. Now, he would be a young adult. This is the most probable character to be continued in the new story. He would have changed so much in appearance that we are free to cast openly for it. Also, no other character is “required” to have been a continuing influence in Joe’s life like Sean would. At the very least, we would have to explain what happened to him if he is suddenly missing from Joe’s life now. I apologize — I don’t recall the name of the young actor who played Sean. If anyone knows, please shout it out in the blog comments.
  • Kelly Shepherd
    TLK-MoG2Played by Tricia Lee Kelshall, Kelly was the one female on Joe’s police anti-narcotics “Ibis Squad.” In watching Men of Gray II – Flight of the Ibis, we get the sense that there is some romantic attraction between them, or at least by Kelly, but it remains unspoken: unrequited. Joe’s wife dies early on in that story, so we are not surprised when Joe’s focus is elsewhere.  However, as the movie ends, as Joe and Kelly walk off into the proverbial sunset (in fact literal sunset, as I recall), they are symbolically holding hands with little Sean in between them, and each holding on to the boy’s hands. I suspect that viewers would like to think that Joe and Kelly got together somewhere beyond that sunset. So, I’m playing with that idea now — that they became briefly, but intensly, involved romantically shortly after we last saw them, with each going their own way, with one or both of them remarrying. Now, Joe enters the story as a single man with no romantic connections, and no apparent interest in one. But what happens if, after many years of living abroad, Kelly suddenly shows up, and sparks are flying?
  • Jason
    Cauri-MoG2Jason (Cauri Jaye) was the rookie Ibis Squad cop from Men of Gray II. I have a couple angles I’m thinking about with Jason. We know from the first movie that he is “once bitten, twice shy” personified. So, perhaps he became afraid or disillusioned with the law enforcement business, and has left it long behind. What happens if his old mentor Joe suddenly shows up asking him to work with him again? He might accept, but what if he has become a pacifist instead? What if he is philosophically at odds with Joe’s radical anti-crime strategies? If Joe does persuade him to reenlist, I’m considering having Sean be directly involved at one pivotal moment in the story that involves innocent people being killed by Joe’s team due to some bad intelligence, tearing Jason up emotionally. Or maybe he just gets killed, I don’t know. Lots of options here. 😉
  • Zack Lareau
    Michael-MoG2Zack, who was played by Michael Cherrie, was a youthful, intelligent, and likeable newspaper reporter in Men of Gray II. it seems doubtful that he would still be doing the street beat after all these years. Since the story has several press characters, one thought was to make him a chief editor or perhaps a TV anchorman. An idea that I like even better: He is now an attorney … and could perhaps become Joe’s attorney when the world turns against him late in the second act.

 We’ll see…