November 23, 2009

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MOTIF AND A PROP

I have been hesitating to write this blog because I can’t study the scene from Inglourious Basterds because it isn’t out on DVD yet. I may do things illegally on the downlow but I don’t do illegal downloads. But since this is just a blog, I can be sloppy, vague and maybe even wrong, right? Well, if I am, I promise you will still learn something.

IB is actually an example of a movie that succeeds (or fails) mostly on the scene level. This movie isn’t about the “structure”. If you are engaged by the several long mini-story scenes, then the movie works for you. If not, it probably doesn’t. So I want to look at one of the most fascinating scenes in the movie. It’s the one where Hans (the “Jew Hunter”) talks to Shosanna at the restaurant to vet her for the movie premiere to be held at her theater.

This scene has a lot of really high-end craft stuff that excites the film school geek and art-film lover in me. The way Tarantino plays with point-of-view is amazing.

FROM THE SCRIPT:

The empty chair next to the young Jewish girl is suddenly filled with the bottom half of a grey ss officer uniform


In the script, Tarantino has him sit down almost immediately, but by allowing him to stay standing up, we get a cool allusion to the opening scene. In the film Tarantino chooses to hold on the isolated CU of Shosanna while only Landa’s uniform can be seen behind her.

CU SHOSANNA


A bomb is dropped and detonated behind her eyes. But if she gives any indication of this, her war story ends here.

Although it’s a bit of a cheat, the moment is done so well that I forgive it. It’s not a gimmick or a stretch that she would recognize the voice of the man who executed her family. It echoes the opening scene but this time we get to see “it” from Shosanna’s POV. Earlier, she was offscreen and had to quietly and helplessly listen to Landa.

There is another little cheat.

FROM THE SCRIPT (his typos):

The fluency and poetic proficiency of the S.S. Jew hunters French, revels to the audience, that his feigning clumsiness at French with Monsieur Lapadite in the films first scene, was simply a interrogation technique.

Sadly, my four years of French in high school weren't enough for me to “get” this on my first viewing. It shows Tarantino’s considerable craft. It’s a clever demonstration of Landa’s character. Tarantino seemed to intend it to be for the audience and not for the characters themselves. But it’s possible that Landa's fluency could actually play in the scene. It would be an additional source of surprise and, possibly, fear for Shosanna in the scene.

Imagine this. She comments on his fluent French. He asks her to clarify why she would suspect that he speaks proficiently. And then she would have to cover by diverting attention from the fact that she has heard him speak before. Tarantino could have easily used this not just for the audience, for the characters.

INFORMAL DEFINITION ALERT

Actually, this question of whether his fluent French is recognized by her or just the audience, is a way to look at the definition and differences of motifs and props.

A motif is an image or idea something that has cumulative power from rhyming with a collection of other images or ideas like it. It may be the way that “eyes” and “seeing” are used in Silence of the Lambs or flawed eyes in Chinatown. It might even be the way oranges or the color orange shows up in The Godfather before most of the deaths. Motifs are there for the viewer or maybe even the reader. They aren’t there for the characters in the story. No character in The Godfather should be able to say “Orange! Boss, duck!” although maybe a henchman ordering Chinese takeout could ask, “Orange Duck, Boss?” (What? It could happen.)

A “prop” in the metaphysical sense of anything physically in the world of the story differs from a motif in that the characters are very much aware of it. It might be the expensive dress the wife has just bought with the husband’s credit card. It might be the murder weapon. It might be the bill at the restaurant over which two people argue. That item is part of the scene, story and the characters react to it.

Sometimes a motif and prop can overlap. Two characters with a chain link fence between them have to deal with the fence as a physical obstacle (reaching fingers through, being frustrated by inability to achieve physical contact) but the fence might also represent something bigger in the story: separation, being trapped, the nature of the relationship. And it might rhyme with other images of consriction. If I were watching a movie where three consecutive murders all happened in a red room, the appearance of another red room would have some effect on me. But if I were the character of the detective in that red room and I knew the pattern, I might also be suspicious or anxious. Why didn’t Brad Pitt in Se7en say, “If I don’t get to anger management class and FAST, I could be in big trouble”?

In the scene from IB, Tarantino has another really clever touch that walks this prop/motif line. While Landa is interrogating/talking to Shosanna, he orders milk and cream. I immediately got off on this in a film school geek sort of way. I get the irony that she was a dairy farmer and it is someone like her family that made or provided the milk for this cream. And the glass of milk harks back to the opening scene.

FROM THE SCRIPT:

COL LANDA: Yes, two strudels, one for myself and one for the Mademoiselle. A cup of Expresso, with a container of steamed milk, on the side. For the Mademoiselle, a glass of milk.

Considering Shosanna grew up on a dairy farm an the last time she was on a dairy farm, her strudel companion murdered her entire famiy, his ordering her milk is, to say the least….disconcerting.

We probably get it without the 4-line (in the script) cheat, but Tarantino is so effective in making all of these ideas and images resonate, I don’t mind it. It seems that the usage of the cream here is definitely as a motif, i.e., as a Christmas tree ornament for the audience only. There are several cuts to close-ups of the dairy in the scene, but (I believe on my 2 viewings) the characters don’t react to it at all. It’s only there as an extra layer of meaning, irony and stakes for us, the viewer and reader.

Just like his proficiency in French wasn’t recognized by Shosanna, but could have been, we can ask a similar question here. Could the cream be used as prop and not just a motif? I was careful not to ask the question with should. I am not judging (Myers-Briggs: I am at least 99% P, I swear); I don’t judge. I am about the process. And here the process is “what if?” What if Tarantino used this fact in the scene for the characters, not just the audience?

Could Shosanna look at the milk or cream and get flustered? Or would it distract her at a key point in the scene? Could she have to determine whether or not it’s a ploy by him? I am not saying that it takes over the scene but notice that it would be an organic reaction very much within the character, her background, her familiarity with dairy and its association with the milk-drinking nazi who gunned her family down.

I think because we have already seen Landa have the upper hand in an interrogation in the opening scene (where he asked for milk), then it might be redundant to do it again here. But at least be aware of what a powerful tool it would be to have him use her reaction to the cream as way to put pressure on her or call her bluff might seem a bit redundant.

There is a cool moment in Ronin when a guy knocks over a thermos to force another guy to catch it. This seemingly physically unassuming guy betrays lightning quick reflexes in grabbing it and we AND THE CHARACTER realize that this was a calculated trap to out him. The cream could be a way to Landa out Shosanna.

This sort of paradigmatically powerful moments is one of the most densely packed moments in recent film. It’s one of those moments where so much is going on that it’s almost mind boggling. It reminds me of two of my favorite moments in cinema: when Noah Cross asks "Mr. Gitts" in Chinatown if he is sleeping with his daughter and the opening of Midnight Cowboy. (Hey, I just got ideas for more blogs!)

I am surprised that some more of the elements of the scene didn’t rise up from the unconscious world of motifs to the conscious world of props, but IB is done and over. You now have to ask questions about your scenes to help them dig deeper AND be more cinematic? Are there images or items I can add to the scene to make it resonate more? Do these elements have thematic meaning? Do the characters respond to them? If not, could they? Do the characters’ responses help to define them? Is the characters’ interaction with the element/prop/motif the only way for the audience to understand this subtle point?

There is so many cool and advanced stuff – points of views, motifs, allusions - going on in the IB scene that make it exciting. Make sure you aim as high. How high? Check out the name of the blog.

November 5, 2009

DAMN IT, JIM, I AM A CONTEST ENTRANT NOT A CONTEST ADDICT

A long time (okay, yesterday), I suggested a way to evaluate screenwriting competitions from a more mathematical and logical perspective. If that was a little too Mr. Spock for you, there is another way to look at the equation. From Bones’ perspective. Take logic out of it.

It wasn’t just an arbitrary comparison or Freudian slip when I likened a contest to a poker hand. There is definitely an element of chance and excitement in contests. When I wrote the unused foreword to Erik Joseph’s book on screenwriting contests years ago (Curse thee, unknown writer of said foreword!), I talked about gamblng addiction. It’s never about winning or losing the coin toss; it’s about the moment when the coin is in the air and the butterflies in the stomach and the anticipation and excitement just knowing that you COULD win.

Contests are the same way. If they can help you enjoy this sometimes lonely and always rejection-filled process of writing screenplays by giving you something to look forward to, then figure out your, as they call it in poker, bankroll: What you are willing to risk on contests.  Even losing poker players can have an appropriate bankroll: The amount of money they are willing to lose in spending X hours of their life doing something they enjoy.

But Yikes, Jim, how do I know whether I should be signing up for WAB or GA? Hmm, well, if you’re an aspiring writer and spent $2000 on contest entry fees last year and advanced in none of them, listen to me. It’s intervention time:

Step away from the Internet Explorer Window that is open to Withoutabox, put down the mouse. I repeat, put down the mouse.
If you are having less than a 10% advance rate in contests, put your money and time into books, classes, consultants, coverage or notes. Here are some free resources from me: howtowriteascreenplay.net, my newsletter. You can find all other sorts of help on the web. And if you are going to take a big step into an expensive class or program or a high-end consultant, make sure you do some due diligence. Get a sample, look for testimonials, talk to former students/clients/graduates, read articles or watch their DVDS.  (What?  I didn't plug anything.)

But if you are having some moderate success even without winning, embrace the fact that it should be fun. Check out boards like Moviebytes (ignore some of the crazies) and the Done Deal forums and use them as a way to connect with other writers who have advanced or entered the same contests as you. As an extrovert who writes, I know it’s sometimes HARD to block out the impulse to be talking and hanging out with other people when you’re supposed to be, ah, interacting with your keyboard. Use the social aspects of contests as a reward for your time spent immersed in the interior fantasyland of your story and the writing thereof.

And if a deadline, a $50 entry fee and the hope of praise, promotion and money that you will get from a decent placement or win motivates you to write (or rewrite) a script, then we’re back to no-brainer territory: enter some contests. Of course, there might be a diminishing marginal utility in entering several, but the intangible (or arguably tangible) value in motivating you to write is worth much more than a few entry fees. If you find yourself in this scenario, you (cue: new age music) have already won.

As a storyteller, I am supposed to pay off the Kirk/Bones/Spock thing, right? Well, try to be like Captain Kirk. Use a little logic and a little emotion to come up with a sensible strategy. Remember the coin flip thing. Until the coin lands and the contest decides, there is excitement. So when you are a quarterfinalist, use that energy to query people and create momentum. Or if you meet some cool people who are also quarterfinalists for scripts of similar tone or genre, swap notes. Or use the deadlines to force yourself to finish a rewrite.

Contests are a game where there is a lot of luck involved. Unlike chess, it’s a game of imperfect information and chance. I could teach a 7 year old kid how to beat the best Monopoly player in the world 20 percent of the time. But I can't teach an Oscar winner how to advance in every contest.  You will always have to deal with some readers who don’t “get” your script. So don’t get down when a contest doesn’t go your way. Try to think of it like any other game. The goal is to have fun. Everything else is a bonus.

November 4, 2009

CONTESTS: LEFT BRAIN, RIGHT BRAIN, NO-BRAINER

Heather Hale did a cool article about screenwriting contests in the last issue of Craft & Career, so I just wanted to add my 2 cents and give you a certain way to look at contests. Full disclosure: I have won a couple of contests, been in contention a handful of times and I started or helped to start 3 contests and I wrote a foreword to Erik Joseph’s book on contests, but alas the publisher used a different one.

In this blog I will look at a way to look at contests from a mathematical and logical perspective and then in couple of days, I will follow up with a way to look at contests in a more emotional way. Is either way correct? Nah. It’s like who’s the coolest character? Spock or Bones? Neither, it’s Kirk, the guy who is an integration of the logic and emotion. (reminder: blog about character orchestration sometime) Like Kirk, you must use your left and right brain to protect the 400 people on the ship, uh, I mean, your screenplay contest budget.

On a cold and calculating level, you can look at contests like a poker hand, a calculated risk. It’s a pure mathematical equation of EV (Expected Value). “If I spend $50 to enter and so do 999 other people and the only prize is $50,001 for first place and my odds of winning are 1 in a 1000, then it’s a good risk for me.” If the grand prize is only $25,000, the question to ask is simply, “Do I have a better than 500:1 shot to win this contest?” If so, then it’s a good deal from a pure mathematical point of view.

You can modify this equation in several ways. The Nicholl Fellowship gives away $150,000 but since it gets more than 5000 entries, the math doesn’t work out to give it a positive expected value for every entrant. But if you are sure you are better than half the writers that enter (or are sure that your material is the sort that fits their taste(check out Scriptshadow’s review of recent Nicholl winner Victoria Falls)) and are willing to ride out the element of luck and chance, then it’s a great deal. (You only have to be a little bit better than the average entrant to make it +EV.) 

But you may even factor in the fact that, say, 5 percent of the people are going to be a semifinalist and for your ability to promote that fact if you win is worth $2,000. Even if you are only a 5% chance to make the semifinals, your expected value just from making the semifinals is .05 X $2000 which is $100. So from a mathematical standpoint, entering this contest is a no-brainer.  (Do the math with the real numbers and your own estimation of the value.)  The priceless (IMHO) nature of getting into the Sundance Lab is why I keep banging my head up against that wall of "almost."   Curse you, John Leguizamo!

You can also use this principle for contests that offer other prizes. In your calculations, consider the cash at 100% of its value obviously and then assign a subjective percentage to the other prizes. Maybe the $5000 in notes, classes and promotion is really worth only about 50% of the retail value to you in your subjective opinion. So add the cash value plus the adjusted prize value to determine your overall potential gain versus the number of entrants and your predicted chance to win.

An obvious corollary to this approach is that if you are a very good amateur writer and your script is a professional read (tight and polished) and fits the scope of the contest’s tastes, then many contests are worth entering from the perspective of expected gains. I know a few writers who made a living off of contests for a couple of years because their stuff was really good and they entered a lot of contests. Have faith that quality will eventually get noticed. (However, if your script fails to advance in 4-5 contests in a row, think about putting some of your contest resources into verifying your script is ready to go.)

The Nicholl isn’t a profit making endeavor; their money comes from a trust, so that’s why they can be so generous. But contests run by companies that can use their promotional power to generate a bunch of additional prizes can also be really worth it. If a company is giving away $20,000 in seats to a class or event you really want to attend, then that can be really valuable too.

Not every contest by this method will be wonderful, but you can use this approach to sort of determine the ones to stay away from. If a contest gets 4000 scripts at $50 a pop and gives away only $15,000 in cash, you gotta break it down and ask yourself where is the money going? $200,000 in revenue, $40,000 to readers, $15,000 to prizes, $10,000 to administration, maybe $10,000 in advertising? That leaves $115,000 unaccounted for. Do you want to enter this contest? I don’t. I want them to give away another $25k in cash or do some work and find another $50,000 in decent prizes.

As I mentioned, I have been involved with several contests and have entered several contests, so I am not going to make any judgments or point out what contests score well or poorly in this paradigm. Just giving you some ways to think about it.

I am currently reading the last 25 feature quarterfinalists for the Champion Competition (retail value of prizes =net revenue (entry fees minus Withoutabox fees)), so expect some news in a few days. I will take a break from reading in a day or two to discuss an alternate way to look at contests: from an emotional perspective.