Thursday, December 22, 2005


So I was going to write something about the difference between the protagonist and the main character, but decided to look up what others had said. The first Google hit was for John August's post from July on the topic, the comments of which reference Craig Mazin's post on the same topic. So, that ground having been covered, let me see if I can come up with another angle.

What a writer means when he says "protagonist," "hero," or "main character" seems to depend mostly on that writer's opinion -- they're not always hard and fast terms.

"Protagonist," despite its pretentious Greekiness, is the easiest and probably the most widely agreed-upon. As Craig Mazin says, "I define the protagonist as the character who changes in order to live his or her life by [the] propositional argument of the theme." Imagine a story with two main characters, one of whom goes from being good to being evil, and is hunted and defeated by the other. The hunter, in this case, is the obvious choice for "protagonist," assuming he undergoes some level of change. But what if the "good guy" undergoes no change? Is the "bad guy" now the protagonist? Nobody is changing "in order to live his or her life by the propositional argument of the theme." Does this story have no protagonist? Can a story have no protagonist?

"Hero" implies a level of heroism, especially in contrast with some level of villainy present in one or more of the other characters. No one1 would seriously claim that John McClane, Luke Skywalker, or Martin Brody aren't heroes. But is Phil Connors a hero? What about Lester Burnham? Michael Dorsey?

As I see it, the fundamental problem with August's definition of definition of "hero" as "the character we want to see win" is that the instinctive opposite of "hero" is "villain." There is no identifiable villain in Groundhog Day. There is an antagonist -- Phil's own selfishness -- but "villain" is not synonymous with "antagonist." Groundhog Day has an antagonist (and its opposite, the protagonist), but no villain (and thus no opposite, the hero). Now, if we define "hero" the way August does, then trivially Groundhog Day has a hero, but I think our other dramatic associations with the word "hero" render this definition problematic.

Another problem with "hero" is that we don't always know what the obvious candidate for "hero" really wants. Take Casablanca. We don't really know Rick's motivation until he tells Ilsa to get on the plane with Victor! Is he not a hero up until that point? He's sure acting non-heroically in the scenes leading up to the airport. On the other hand, if the film is constructed properly (which, Casablanca? definitely is), then we still root for that character to get what he wants, even if it's something as small as wanting another character to stand here or there, or say this or that. We want him to win every conversation, every interaction, every beat.

Yet another problem with this definition is that it's subjective. If an audience member wants Emperor Palpatine to win, then even if George Lucas thinks Obi-Wan is the hero... actually, since Obi-Wan is a complete failure, doesn't get what he wants, and doesn't learn from his mistakes, he's neither hero nor protagonist. Okay, bad example. Let's try again.

If an audience member wants Belloq to win, even if Kasdan, Spielberg, and Lucas think Indiana Jones is the hero, then as far as the audience member is concerned, Belloq is the hero. In the unlikely event this audience member sat down and chatted up Kasdan, Spielberg, and Lucas about Raiders of the Lost Ark, none of them could refer to "the hero" without having to specify who they meant, thus rendering the term useless.

"Main character" is pretty universally agreed upon to mean "the character the story spends the most time with." Of course, in this definition there is an implicit assumption that there is one character who the story spends the most time with. Who's the main character of Syriana? None of the five largest roles -- George Clooney's CIA agent, Alexander Siddig's prince, Jeffrey Wright's lawyer, Matt Damon's energy analyst, or Mazhar Munir's budding terrorist -- have substantially more screen time than the others. Are they all "main characters?" What about a film that, for better or worse, has twenty characters each with equal screen time? Is it even meaningful to call them all "main characters?" Where do we draw the line?

In practice, we come across few films that have more than one or two plausible candidates for "main character," nor do we usually strive to create works whose characters defy all attempts at classification. So given a movie like Die Hard, which has a blindingly obvious main character -- John McClane -- is it useful to identify him as such? Are there qualities or attributes that all main characters share, besides their dominance of the screen? I don't believe so. Take Face/Off. Travolta and Cage's characters (despite who's playing whom) have roughly equal screen time, but one (Castor Troy) is definitely a villain and antagonist, while the other (Sean Archer) is definitely the protagonist and, depending on your definition of "hero," a hero. But they both share screen time. So they both qualify as "main character." Or take any romantic comedy, where the two leads share equal screen time, are both protagonists, and neither of whom are villains or antagonists.

Except "main character" is also a tainted term, because instinctively it's used to mean the same thing as "protagonist," and because in most movies, the main character is also the protagonist and, frequently, the hero (by whatever definition). Argh!

Problems of definition aside, the overwhelming majority of movies have the protagonist, hero, and main character rolled up into one. Sometimes you get a character who's all three, and then secondary characters who are also heroic, and maybe secondary protagonists -- but I think it would do us all well to study great films that don't follow this paradigm.

In fact, ultimately, if you say, "This character is the [hero|protagonist|main character]," what you're really saying is, "This character is the [hero|protagonist|main character], and therefore X, Y, and Z." If the terms don't accurately serve that function, they should be replaced with something else.

1 You know what I mean.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


William Goldman once said, "Nobody messes with the cinematographer, because nobody knows what the hell a damn f-stop is -- but everybody knows the alphabet." Terry Rossio then proposed that screenwriters needed to come up with obscure technical lingo for our own craft, so that producers and executives can't mess with our work so easily. He was half-joking, but you know what? I think we should give it a shot.

Terry's examples mostly (mis-)used grammatical lingo so as to confuse executives, but I think we need to focus on the actual hard story elements and devices that we use. It's not about the language, it's about the mechanics. One problem is that we can't change certain words that people in production need to use -- like scene, line, slugline, shot, beat, etc. But there's a lot that goes into story creation that has nothing to do with the format in which it's presented, and that's where we attack.

Thusly, here I present the first (small) edition of the Obfuscatory Screenwriting Terminology Guide - the OSTG. Part of the idea is that we come up with frightening-sounding acronyms for well-known devices, or construct technical-sounding terms for simple concepts. My favorite example of this is the fearsome Thermoelectric Phase Converter, also known as... an oven.
  • EMD (Ex-Machina Device) - Any element, plot device, or character in a screenplay that functions as a deus ex machina.
  • inflection point - Any story event that causes or triggers character change.
  • OTTP (One-Two-Three Punch) - When a plot element is used once to establish its existence in the screenplay's world; used a second time to cement its place in that world; and a third time, with a twist, to surprise the audience and provide drama and/or growth. Canonical example is Marty's guitar-playing ability in Back to the Future.
  • subtend - In mathematics, an arc spans from one point on a circle to another, and we say it "subtends" a number of degrees. In a screenplay, a character thusly "subtends" their character arc. Can also be used to mean "change," e.g. "The confrontation between Frank and Sally causes Frank to subtend toward his terminus."
  • terminus - The points in the story when a given character is at the beginning or end of his arc.
Play along at home! Suggest your own terms!

There is at least one practical problem with this, in that if a screenwriter is working alone, then we can't get into the situation where two writers are sitting in front of an executive and a producer, flinging obscure technical terms back and forth, and causing the suits to get totally lost. Alas.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The ten-word King Kong review

The love story works, and that's ultimately all that matters.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Aged Oscars

If you don't know anything about the movie business, then you probably think the Oscars are some kind of true measure of a film's quality. Oscar-winning films are Good By Definition; there is no higher film award in the world than to win an Academy Award. I don't want to say "I know better" because, well, I was happier when I thought the Oscars were an accurate measure of quality. It's better that I know the truth, although only in the way that broccoli is better than ice cream.

In reality, the Oscars are a gigantic advertising stunt for the Hollywood film industry. Presumably corruption-free (PriceWaterhouseCoopersVoldemortBeeblebrox is apparently trustworthy), the Oscars give us insight into the current, collective tastes of the members of AMPAS. It's not a bad first step for identifying the Best Pictures that are produced, but it's hardly the be-all, end-all.

To date, 77 films have won the Oscar for Best Picture. I've seen all of them. This isn't by accident; I made it a project back in college (when there were a measly 72). I've kept up since then, and have managed to see each Best Picture winner, before it won, since Unforgiven (1992). Some of the BP winners hold up. Some don't.

We can ignore the first ten years of Oscar history, because, frankly, Hollywood hadn't really figured out the talkie-as-art-form yet. 1939 was the obvious turning point. Since then, most of the Best Picture flicks have been pretty good, but there are some stinkers (granted, this is from the point of view of someone born long after most of these movies were released):
  • How Green Was My Valley (1941) - One word: Treacly. My dad calls it Al Green Was My Valet.
  • Mrs. Miniver (1942) - Wartime hoo-rah propaganda, but otherwise, it's a soap opera.
  • Going My Way (1944) - Treacly blah. Bing Crosby is not really believable as a priest, but maybe that's just the cynicism talking.
  • Hamlet (1948) - Olivier's version is long and boring and staid. I think this is why Shakespeare movies had such a bad name among high school students for so long. It's the cinematic equivalent of asparagus. Good for you, but kids just don't appreciate it. And Branagh's version is a lot more interesting to watch. Hell, so is the Mel Gibson version. Or the Ethan Hawke version.
  • An American in Paris (1951) - Or An American In Traction, as we call it. It's charming but stupid and not within shouting distance of being worthy of Best Picture.
  • Marty (1955) - Also known as Stempel's Bane. It's short and cute and otherwise kinda forgettable.
  • Around the World in 80 Days (1956) - This movie has no story. It's just a bunch of random set pieces in colorful locales featuring lots of celebrities. Apparently the novelty was enough to win it Best Picture over Giant and DeMille's 48th version of The Ten Commandments.
  • Tom Jones (1963) - I think the Academy foresaw the imminently debaucherous years of the late 1960s, and decided that Tom Jones would make a good enough sacrifice to the gods of lewd behavior.
  • Oliver! (1968) - Cute, and a musical (which earns it bonus points pre-1970), but come on! This was a better film than The Lion in Winter? Than Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet?
And then, suddenly, in 1969, everything changed. Because Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture. I don't think it's quite that great of a movie; certainly plenty of memorable lines, scenes, and characters, but I think it won partly because of its relative shock value. It was rated X to begin with, but re-rated R in 1971, and these days it'd probably toddle on the borderline of PG-13. But if you look at the Best Picture winners since Midnight Cowboy, the one consistent factor is that (virtually) none of them contain any of the silly froth that you'd see in movies like An American in Paris or Around the World in 80 Days.

In fact, since then, only two comedies have won Best Picture (The Sting, 1973, which is arguably not really a comedy, even though it has plenty of funny dialogue -- the situations are not funny; and Annie Hall, 1977), and one musical (Chicago, 2002). Everything else: drama. The zeitgeist changed somehow. I blame Vietnam.

And of course, as time has progressed, some films have been revealed as brilliant, underappreciated gems, and previously glorified movies have fallen by the wayside. It's not reasonable, today, to say that How Green Was My Valley is a better film than Citizen Kane. It's not even better than The Maltese Falcon, which was up for Best Picture the same year.

But this process continues apace. In 1994, Forrest Gump won Best Picture... but Pulp Fiction contributed a lot more to the development of cinema. The Shawshank Redemption is more widely loved. Ed Wood is technically superior, and provides much deeper insight into the main character. In my worthless individual opinion, all three movies were more enjoyable than Forrest Gump. (For what it's (unscientifically) worth, Groundhog Day has the same 8.0 rating on the IMDB as Schindler's List. Ever wonder if Oskar Schindler would have eventually learned to make ice sculptures with a chainsaw?)

They oughta hold a ten-year-retrospective Oscar ceremony each year. Now that we've had ten years to look back, what were the best films of 1995? Was Braveheart really better than Toy Story? Heat? It's had less impact (though been parodied more) than Se7en. What's your vote for the best film of 1995?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

How about a retraction?

What slump?
In October, I (along with everyone else in the scribosphere) wrote my two cents about the supposed box-office slump, bitching specifically about how the New York Times kept having weekly stories about how the box office was imploding. Now the New York Times has an article saying that there is no slump (soul-crushing NYT registration required). No shit.

Of course, this article is by one "Lorne Manly," which sounds like the name of a porn star, and the weekly doom-and-gloom articles were not, as far as I can tell. One from October 31st ("Horror Reigns at Box Office, but Slump Persists") has a byline credited to "CATHERINE BILLEY; COMPILED BY BEN SISARIO (NYT)". It's not like it's surprising that a major newspaper doesn't hold a strict line on the box-office news coming out of Hollywood. Doom-and-gloom sells better than the reality of "Everything's fine, it's just a fluke."

In fact, they've managed to spin two sets of stories out of nothing at all: The first set talking about how there's this horrible slump, and the second set talking about how there really IS no slump. I just wish the latter set of articles would mention, "Ha ha, whoops, we just happen to be among those who published weekly articles about this supposed slump, which doesn't really exist. Oops." Of course, they could have saved everyone a lot of time and anguish by simply... not publishing the non-issue non-stories to begin with.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Close Expectations of the Third Kind

So I saw The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe last weekend, and enjoyed it. I'd read it as a kid, at least thirteen years ago, and remembered virtually nothing about it except that it featured (among other things) a lion, a witch, and a wardrobe. I didn't have a lot of specific expectations about whether the book would be translated faithfully to the screen.

I started thinking about adaptations and wondering what was important about translating a well-known work (novel, comic book, etc.) to the screen. Some people get furious if anything is left out; these are the people who bitched when Tom Bombadil was left out of Fellowship of the Ring. Frankly, screw those people. In the long run, a movie's quality and contribution to cinematic history is only vaguely dependent upon how faithful it was to its source material.

This isn't to say that changes away from the source material are always non-negative; usually, if a novel is being made into a movie, it's because a lot of people like it, and that's usually because it's a good story, so why tamper with a proven work? But that's more about whether you want people to like your movie in the near-term. People constantly discuss the near-mythical greatness of the film of The Godfather, but rarely does anyone mention the quality of Mario Puzo's novel, and nobody these days gives a crap about whether or not the movie was different from the book.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Trailers. All damn day long.

What's the best part of going to the movies?

Seeing trailers for movies you're looking forward to.

It's almost invariably better than seeing the movies themselves. I've lost count of the number of times a movie hasn't lived up to the expectations set by its trailers. It's gotten to the point where I have to force myself not to watch a trailer more than once, if it's for a movie that I'm excited about, because the more I see the trailer, the more excited I get.

One solution to this problem would be to simply make movie trailers without actually making the whole movie. Take J. Random Comic Book, work out a treatment (it doesn't have to be any good, because we're not showing anything more than disconnected, out-of-context bits of dialogue and explosions), and figure out how little you can get away with shooting.

Then we'd convince movie theaters to have one screen dedicated to just running trailers all day. $5 admission, stay as long as you want. Sit and watch trailers and soak up all that exciting goodness. And forget about the movie.

Or, you know... not.

Then there's those movies where the trailer looks, well, meh, but then you see the movie and it's a lot better than you expected. The recent Pride and Prejudice springs to mind. The trailer made it look like, Well, oh, look, another Austen adaptation, yawn. Hey, Keira Knightley. What the hell is Donald Sutherland doing in this movie? Who's that stiff playing Mr. Darcy?

But it was very charming and entertaining and energetic. So it is demonstrably possible for a trailer to outdo its expectations. Even better is when you haven't even seen the trailer for the movie, so you have no idea what it's about or what to expect. The Usual Suspects falls into this category for me. My dad suggested we go see it. All I knew about it was the print campaign, "Who is Keyser Soze?" and all that. And the lineup of the five guys.

So we see the movie, and wow, it blew me away. At the time, it was OMGGREATESTMOVIEEVAR!!!!11eleven, but in retrospect, it was the combination of 1) me being young, inexperienced, and under-educated with respect to cinema history, and 2) my complete lack of expectations.

I could forgo watching trailers entirely. On the other hand, I love the rush from seeing upcoming trailers for Big Action Movies, and I'd hate to give that up either. O, what problems I have.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Page eighty-something

Red Right Hand has thrown down the digital gauntlet, challenging other spec scribes to post one page of their work. Okay. Here's one from the space pirate script.

To set the scene, our heroes are aboard a stolen naval troop shuttle, a few million kilometers from the blue giant star Alcyone.
  • We need to find out where they're going and why!
  • ARIA
  • And that object might be able to tell us! At the very least we can maybe learn something about this whole secret project of theirs!
  • Well... yes!
  • A moment of tension. Frank spins on his heel and storms into the passenger bay.
  • CRASHING SOUNDS emanate from the bay, along with Frank's muffled curses.
  • A minute later, Frank returns, calm and collected.
  • Head for the object.
  • JOE
  • Aye aye, cap'n.
  • Frank stoically avoids looking at Aria. She stares at him for several seconds, but he doesn't even blink.
  • Finally Aria sweeps out of the cockpit, furious.
  • (to Bergen)
  • Is she always like that?
  • You mean right about everything? I'm afraid so.
  • JOE
  • Dad?
  • What?
  • JOE
  • Does this mean you and mom are getting a divorce?

I showed you mine. Show me yours!

Friday, December 09, 2005


Okay, so the first X-Men 3 trailer is online. And it looks good. Fears have been raised that because Brett Ratner is directing X3, it will, well, suck. A friend of a friend informed me that Ratner's directing MO is to plant cameras everywhere and let the editor make the movie. Which is oddly similar to George Lucas's methodology... only Ratner presumably knows better than to try and write his own scripts.

Yes, I'll say it: Brett Ratner is a better director than George Lucas. I know it's a stretch, a risky thing to say, but I'll be bold and put it out there. *snerk*


I'm going through a sticky section of the current script. No, no bodily fluids are involved, except a little spilt blood. The main problem is that the big action setpiece scene I'm writing has very little interaction with any of the character subplots. They're here to stop the bad guys from doing something bad, and their personal character and development have little to do with it. It's action and reaction.

As a result, I have little in the way of external forces shaping the scene. I know where it has to end up, to fit into the structural framework of the story; but the details of how it goes down are unformed. There is, of course, the Old Version, from the previous incarnation of this script, but it feels random and amateurish. So I'm rebuilding the scene from scratch.

It'll probably help to examine action scenes in other movies that have major character moments and see how those moments interact with the non-character story beats in those scenes. I can think of several off the top of my head; anyone got any particular recommendations?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Do noir heroes change?

I don't think Sam Spade was really putting his heart into it.

If you watch The Maltese Falcon, yeah, he unravels the mystery (or rather the hoax), figures out who's responsible for what, and so on. But at the end, he hasn't really changed. He hasn't grown, or become a better person; he's still the same callous, self-interested mook he was to begin with. I think he's gained a little insight into the human condition, but he's still just as cynical and unhopeful about humanity's prospects as he was to begin with. Even the last line (well, the penultimate line -- the last line is a confused "Huh?"), "The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of," is a recognition of the depths people will sink to in the greedy pursuit of money. And not in a good way.

A lot of noir heroes seem this way -- they start out world-weary and callous, and they end up world-weary and callous. The best you can usually hope for -- at least in hard-boiled detective-style noir -- is that they start out cynical and end up just a little less cynical, a little more hopeful that maybe the forces of evil won't always win. Except usually it's the opposite; they end up even more cynical, after experiencing the depravities of those involved in the case. Chinatown is an excellent example of negative change: Jake Gittes swore off ever helping someone if it involved anything more dangerous than trailing around unfaithful spouses, because of an experience when he was a police detective in Chinatown. But then Evelyn Mulwray comes along, and Jake falls for her, and believes that this time he can succeed where he failed before.

Of course, he's wrong; Evelyn dies, Noah kidnaps Katherine, and by any reasonable stretch of the imagination, the trauma to Jake's psyche would be so severe that he would never again risk that kind of emotional trauma. Realistically, Jake Gittes has nothing more to offer us, dramatically, because he is destroyed by his failure in Chinatown.

So, of course, they made a sequel. *facepalm*

Casablanca is noir, even though it's not in the Chandler-Hammett tradition. Rick Blaine undergoes significant positive change by the end of the movie. He goes from being snarky and selfish to being snarky and selfless. And the flashback sequence is brilliant, because we see him much happier and more positive than he's ever been. This gives us a contrast to his "present" state (drunk, morose, and pessimistic), making him an even deeper character. We don't see his transition to depressed bar owner; we merely see the trigger and are left to work out the rest for ourselves.

Double Indemnity is yet another example. Fred MacMurray's insurance investigator, Walter Neff, comes to realize the mistakes he made and the evil he committed -- and, had the wheels of justice not ground him into a fine paste, he would have subsequently become a good man who would never again commit such a transgression. He recognized his mistakes, unlike Jake Gittes; he did evil, unlike Rick Blaine; and he was the (im-)moral center of the story, unlike Sam Spade.

In fact, I'd venture to say that Sam Spade is not the protagonist of The Maltese Falcon. He doesn't change. Neither, really, does Joel Cairo; despite his barely-veiled rage, he's really no more than an extension of Kaspar Gutman's will. Possibly Gutman is the real protagonist; he learns to overcome shortsightedness and rage when he learns the "Falcon" is a fake, and commits to spending however long it takes to find the real Maltese Falcon. (Nevermind that he's shortly captured by the police and presumably convicted of numerous crimes.)

Monday, December 05, 2005


Woe is me, for I may have to restructure large sections of the current screenplay, because I came up with a kick-ass new ending; hopefully I can retrofit the story without too much disruption.

When did everyone become a critic? Do you think Ogg and Thorg sat around the cave twenty thousand years ago, debating the clan storyteller's dialogue choices after the evening's entertainment (which consisted of sitting around a fire, listening to a guy make shit up for an hour)? Or that they didn't think this chapter of Rokk Hunts a Wooly Mammoth was up to the dramatic standard set by the original? Criticism in those days probably only came in the form of being stabbed with a spear.

These days, we spend a great deal of time analyzing and dissecting and deciding whether or not a movie was Good or Bad. But entertainment is food for the mind; we need it for mental health just as much as we need regular organic food to sustain our bodies. And rarely do we spend more than a few words on the quality of food, if we do at all. I can't remember the last time I saw a movie, was sated, and thought no more of it.

Probably it's because thinking about an entertainment experience after the fact is as much a part of digesting it as is letting food run through our intestines after consuming it. But evolution has spend hundreds of millions of years giving us the tools to digest food. Do we have the same level of refinement in our tool choice for analyzing entertainment? Clearly we have the tools for complex, abstract thought. What kind of tools let us best digest a movie?

Thursday, December 01, 2005


Not dead. Busy writing. Hooray!