What’s up with universal appeal?

So, you want to write a screenplay that has universal appeal (don’t we all)?

There are a couple of major things you need to focus on for that to happen:  Your plot and the reason for action.
According to Aristotle, “The life and soul of all drama (tragedy) is the plot,”  and action is related to the want and need/goal of your main character.  In other words, let’s say your protagonist desires or needs love.  His or her need is going to drive him or her to respond or act according to the need.  Micheal Tierno, in his book Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters says, “When a strong desire of a hero relates to all of the action, then the plot can depict a simple ‘portrait’ of the hero.”

So, often times, action is a emotional response of the character’s need or want.  For example:  Remember the movie Cocktail (1988), which starred Tom Cruise and Elizabeth Shue?  Let’s look at the storyline.  Brian Flanagan has just gotten out of the service and wants to make money.  He wants his own business, but after being turned down in several job interviews for lack of education, he takes a job working as a bartender.  His need for money pushes him to take a job that he’s really not excited about.  However, his need produces continued actions (chains of events), to include traveling to Jamaica to work as a bartender at an upscale resort, and meeting Jordan Mooney, the seeming love of his life. His boss, Doug Coughlin also wants to own his own high-end bar, so the two come up with a game-plan.  Once again, this flawed protagonist has an agenda, and his need gives rise to action, pushes the plot forward and will eventually guide the story to resolution.

(Tom Cruise- Brian Flanagan in Cocktail, 1988)

Universal appeal is important because for an audience to relate to a character or story there must be a relationship with the character and the storyline.  So, when Brian Flanagan’s business partner (the antagonist) puts him to a dare, we (the audience) feel bad for him, because it seems like all is lost.  We’ve all been there.  Desire and need are powerful things.  We somehow relate to his plight, his frustration, his turmoil, and that is universally appealing.

Is universal appeal important?  You betcha!  Life is a journey, and we are all a part of it.  For an audience or reader to relate to a character, there must be character traits, familiar moments that we’ve walked through or witnessed.  We know how this character feels because we’ve been there and done that!

According to Aristotle, “A plot must include causes of the action that can arouse the audience’s deepest pity and fear [or laughter and tears]. This means the audience must understand the hero’s thoughts and see those thoughts becoming actions, which in turn reveal a moral quality (character) of the hero.”

Just a little writing tip, in case you’re in the midst!

I am available for online, one-on-one, script coaching.   Click here: Script coaching online

Reference:  Aristotle’s Poetics by Michael Tierno

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August Osage County: Film vs. the play

Sometimes theatrical plays don’t translate well onto the screen.  I suspect, based on my reading of the play (I have not seen the production), that this might be the case with Tracy Letts Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County, vs. his movie adaptation.

In the play, the first line of the prologue is revelatory. “Life is very long…” (10) This intensely dark comedy epitomizes the term “baggage” with the unfolding of every single character within the play, and Letts uses their dysfunctional personal and interpersonal dynamics to set the tone in the storyline, which drives the plot forward.  This is certainly the case in the film as well.  The audience is told that life is long against a backdrop of miles flat Oklahoma fields–fields that seem to go on forever.

There is no doubt that Meryl Streep lives up to her reputation, and executes a brilliant performance playing Violet, the cancer-laden, vicious, pill-popping, abusive, bitter Weston family matriarch. This untamed shrew is at the helm of her entire family’s extreme dysfunction.  Despite the amazing performances by Streep, and even with the all-star cast in this adaptation, the film has some issues.  Let’s start with the fact that the trailer sets this film up as a comedy, but in no way is this storyline comedic, in fact, it is epitomizes that worst kind of individual and family dysfunction.  It’s brutal.

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Violet, who is suffering from mouth cancer, spews venomous words in rapid fire against every member of her family–to include her daughters, following her husbands suicide.  Violet is toxic and overbearing; she is nothing short of a monster. Her “truth-telling” takes sharing and disclosure to a new level. Julia Roberts plays her eldest daughter Barbara, who is the acorn that didn’t fall too far from the tree.  Roberts also delivers a stunning performance, but having two characters that are this “large,” seems to take away from the  intensity of the other.  Even though I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing August Osage County on stage, I can’t help but believe these two characters, in particular, would be better slated for the stage than the screen.

Some of the themes so present in the play are muddied when adapted over into a film.  Such as the disconnect present in a family who are aimlessly going through the motions of life, and none of them are on the same page. At times, it felt contrived.  Also, the dinner-table scene goes on and on, and is somewhat stifling.

At the core, this story is about abuse, and generational abuse shared between all the women in this family, and all of the many skeletons that are in their closets.

When a story comes together in a film… well, it’s

MAGICAL!!!

For those of you who haven’t yet seen Saving Mr. Banks, I highly recommend it.  Based on the true story of P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins children’s books, Saving Mr. Banks promises to entertain, prod emotion, and warm the heart.

The story is about the making of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, and how Disney wooed author P.L. Travers to allow him to make a film about her “magical” nanny.  As expected, Emma Thompson (P.L.Travers) and Tom Hanks (Walt Disney) give absolutely wonderful performances.  The author juxtaposes the unbending, surly personality of P.L.Travers’ character, against warm-hearted, passionate and determined Walt Disney, and it works well in the storyline.  Of course, while the film’s final scene between Disney and Traver’s is endearing and heart-warming, it is completely embellished.  The real story portrays a very unhappy Travers over the final outcome of the film, and it appears Disney and Travers end things on a very sour note.

However, the film keeps the moment magical, and it works. Our hearts are lifted, and we (the audience) are contented.

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Saving Mr. Banks manages to weave together two separate stories: the story of Ginty, an eight-year-old Australian girl and her relationship with her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell).  Ginty and her father have a unique, close-knit, loving relationship that is dramatically affected by his love for the bottle.  When his life is cut short, and he dies, Ginty’s life is forever affected. The bulk of the narrative is Disney’s pursuit of the story, and the things that transpire once Travers is flown to Los Angeles to meet the writers (screenwriting and songwriting) who hope to take the Mary Poppins’ stories and adapt them for the screen.

Travers is not easy won, which really adds to the complex scope of her character.  She is cold, indifferent, calloused, and clearly flawed.  Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith did a great job of jarring the audiences emotions with this character, and Thompson gives a rave performance.

From the time Travers arrives in Los Angeles, she is uncomfortable and unyielding, in fact, the only one who is really able to crack through her hard-hearted shell, is the friendly limo driver (Paul Giamatti) provided by Disney.  He touches the heart of Travers; something that Disney is really never able to do.  She is taken off-guard, as he gives her the grand tour of L.A. and takes her to Disneyland.  Her relationship with the driver is sincere and gives us a sense of “who” Travers “really” is, when she is normally complex, irritable, and very difficult to deal with.  Giamatti’s relationship with Travers is endearing and uplifting.

One of the biggest issues with the script, is the continual flashbacks from the present (life in the 60’s) to Ginty’s troubled childhood in Australia. These flashbacks are used to slowly unveil the complexities that surround Travers and her icy personality.   Flashbacks are tricky and can often be risky, but somehow, they work in Saving Mr. Banks.  Eventually, the audience is made aware of “why” Travers is so protective over her work; it is related to her need to protect her father.  Knowing this history gives the audience a greater understanding and appreciation for Travers.  We become engaged, and we care about this character. It’s powerful when the audience cares about the protagonist.

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The film is actually more about struggle than anything else.  While we “think” it’s about how Mary Poppins was made, it’s really much more than that.  Both Travers and Disney had troubled childhoods.  Disney choose fantasy as a way to ease his own past and conquer his demons, where Travers plummeted herself into her books about a magical nanny–a nanny that would simple whisk heartache and care away.  Travers looks at the world through hardness and disappointment, and Disney creates a new world–a happy place to shield himself from pain.  It’s a compelling comparison.

No doubt, Saving Mr. Banks is well-worth seeing.  It encapsulates the word, “entertainment,” and makes the heart glad.  ❤

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The “Journey” is More Than a Road Trip in Thelma & Louise

In every successful story, the journey is what helps transform the protagonist.  In Callie Khouri’s screenplay, Thelma & Louise (1991), the writer uses a road-trip to birth the two main characters call to adventure; an adventure that takes them out of all things familiar, into a world of monumental change.

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The opening scene is revelatory, and Khouri’s uses juxtaposition to highlight the differences between the two main characters, THELMA and LOUISE, while setting up the premise for the story.  Louise is a meticulously groomed very attractive waitress in her early thirties who still works in a coffee shop, and Thelma is married, un-kept, untidy and in a dysfunctional, non-communicative relationship.  In fact, she was supposed to tell her husband DARRYL about the planned “weekend away,” but when he tells her he may not be home because it is Friday night, she opts to not share her plans and just go on the trip.  When he walks out the door for work, she says, “He’s gonna shit” (4).

Both of these women need to get away from the monotony of everyday life, and especially since everyday life does not seem to be very exciting or promising.   It is easy to picture their excitement, when they finally pack up Louise’s “66-T Bird convertible,”  and it is a good thing Thelma packs things like a gun and lantern, props that give the audience the idea that this trip might have some unexpected turns.

The first unexpected road trip happens about an hour before the ladies reach their destination.  Thelma is hungry, and Louise just wants to get to the cabin, but Thelma pleads her case when she says, “I never get to do stuff like this.”  The truth is, Thelma is bound by a loveless, boring marriage (great material for conflict within the character), with a husband who is most-likely unfaithful and very expectant.  There is no passion or excitement in Thelma’s life.  I’d like to add that her lack of zing creates a “need” for something more.  So, when these zany women stop off at THE SILVER BULLET, we see the beginning of Thelma’s exodus from her boring, old life.  To Louise’s surprise, she orders a “Wild Turkey, straight up, and a Coke back.” When Louise shows her surprise, Thelma’s response is very revealing.  She has had it “up to her ass” with placid living and is “letting her hair down.” Bottom line, there’s a huge shift happening, and Thelma is pulling Louise into the make-over.  Louise orders a margarita with a shot of Cuervo on the side.  In the meantime, while bantering about their problems on the home-front, the flirty HARLAN enters the scene.

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The ladies opposite personalities shine through even in the midst of their fun-filled drinking adventures.  Louise is uneasy and Thelma is engaging.  It’s no surprise when later Harlan tries to rape Thelma in the back of the parking lot. OOPS, murder will always add some conflict to a plot.  Everything in their worlds shift, and it becomes clear that Thelma and Louise are on a very different journey.  The string of incidents that take place at the Silver Bullet demand ACTION, and create the NEED for change!  The dysfunctional, ordinary world that they knew will never be the same.  In fact, when the two women stop at a truck stop at 4 a.m., and Louise is trying to figure out their next move, Thelma is enjoying herself to the hilt!  “Ur next move?  I’ll say one thing, Louise.  This is some vacation.  I sure am having a good time.  This is real fun.”  lol

Of course, Harlan’s murder is the catalyst that not only births change, but it is used to dramatically shift the way these two ladies respond to life.  Thelma, especially, is embracing her new-found freedom and asserting herself without hesitation.  Hence, the entrance of J.D., the hitchhiker who Thelma wants to take home because he has a “cute butt.”  J.D. is not a normal guy though.  He’s an ex-con who robs the women, which in turn sets up the scene for Thelma to rob a store.  These two are in for the ride of their lives.  First murder and now a robbery’s been thrown into the mix!  And the conflict on their road to discovery only continues…

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The robbery was taped.  What began as a joy ride for a weekend of freedom becomes a crazy crime-laden odyssey alternating between drunken hilarity, the reality of their plight, and empowerment.  Thelma and Louise choose to never return to anything that resembles their former lives (guess they’re not returning home anytime soon).  Their empowerment leads both of them into a very unexpected finale–a double suicide.  With an army of police behind them, police helicopters above them, and the Grand Canyon in front of them (yes, their boxed in), there is only one choice that will guarantee freedom.

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Death is an odd kind of freedom, but the brilliance of the screenplay really does lie in the transition that takes place on this road trip; indeed, it’s a road trip of a lifetime.  Their journey is all about self-discovery in a way that would have never happened if they had stayed at home (it’s simply wonderful writing). Through these series of unexpected incidents, the author creates a premise for CHANGE (every hero must change), and even through these fallen heroes are criminals, they are fully realized–enlightened and free to choose death over confinement.  After all, they’ve already had a taste of imprisonment.

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Breaking down the action in a screenplay

I am re-reading the book Backwards & Forwards by David Ball, and I had forgotten just how much I enjoy this book, and for so many reasons.  While this book is primarily about unfolding theatrical plays, there are many elements that are pertinent to a screenwriter like myself.  Always remembering that both play-writing and screenwriting are rooted in Aristotle’s three-act premise, and his view about plot, character, thought and action.

Ball compares a script to a musical score.  He says, “A plays sound, music, movement, looks, dynamics–and much more–are to be discovered deep in the script…”

There’s nothing like discovery.

How do you find the plot, character and thought of a screenplay?  How do we break a script down?  It’s all about analysis and understanding the mechanics of well-crafted writing.

Ball says, “A play’s plot is the product of other elements.  Character–particularly in drama–is not where analysis starts, but where it ends.  On stage, in real life (or on the screen) character is amorphous, shifting, intangible.  Understanding character requires analysis of its components–concrete, palpable components.”

In other words, LOOK DEEPER!

In order to understand how a screenplay works, you need to be more-than familiar with the tools.  Ball suggests that when building a house, you should learn how to distinguish a hammer from an ax.

It’s probably a good idea to start with reading.  If you want to be a good writer, you must embrace the joy of reading, and I mean read nearly everything–well, everything well-written.  I would skip the tabloids.  It’s not just about reading either, it’s learning how to read skillfully.  That of course takes some practice.

So, when we are reading a play or a screenplay, what do we notice?  We can see from the way the script moves, that a play is a “series of actions.”  Ball says, “Action occurs when something happens that makes or permits something else to happen.”

Is the fuel in a hurricane lamp action? No.

Is the fizzling soda water in a glass action?  No.

If these objects are not action, then what is?  How do we see action move from one scene to another in a screenplay?

Go to the action and look backwards.  What triggered the action?  In a screenplay something happens to make something else happen.   In the screenplay Legally Blonde, Elle Woods obsessively studies to get accepted into Harvard Law School.  But why does she do that?  What prods her to act accordingly?  Her DESIRE/WANT to be married to her college sweetheart Warner.  Warner ditched her before moving back to Boston.

So, it’s safe to say that character DESIRE/WANT produces ACTION.

When reading a play or screenplay, find each action, then look for the thing that triggered the action.  They are CONNECTED.

Ball says, “If I walk into your room shouting that the building is on fire and you flee for your life, that is action.” One event produces another event. It’s these series of connected moments that make life move forward.  In a story, action pushes the plot forward.

If I have a toothache, my NEED for pain relief is going to push me to ACTION.  I’m going to call the dentist.

It’s 1:00 in the afternoon.  Bob didn’t have breakfast, and has now missed lunch.  His stomach is excessively growling.  What’s Bob going to do?  FIND FOOD.  His hunger will push him to action.

A druggie is going to want more drugs to appease his addiction.  What’s he going to do?  FIND a way to GET DRUGS.  That action can be stealing, prostitution, drug pushing, etc.  His need for more drugs will push him to ACT.

“An event is anything that happens.  When one event causes or permits another event, the two event’s together comprise an action.  Actions are a play’s (screenplay’s) primary building blocks.” – David Ball

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