Category Archives: Storyline

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“Tower Heist” from the script writer’s point of view

 

Screenwriting Corner
“Tower Heist” from the script writer’s point of view
Genres: Comedy/Drama/Action/Adventure
By Ronnie Tharp-Garber

Designing Principle
Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy lead an all-star cast in Tower Heist, a comedy caper about working stiffs who seek revenge on the Wall Street swindler who stiffed them.

Premise
After the workers at a luxury Central Park condominium discover the penthouse billionaire has stolen their retirement, they plot the ultimate revenge: a heist to reclaim what he took from them.

This is a comedy with the sub-genre of heist-comedy. The drama elements are the known Opponent, with a moral dilemma that blows in the Battle scene, with the Opponent defeated: finally a Wall St. multi-million dollar player who thinks he’s above the law is brought down by some very creative “working stiffs.”

The elements of action come into play with the Hero, Ben Stiller, greatly incensed when the trusted employee/doorman of a high rise tower building is bilked out of his life savings by the Opponent and then tries to commit suicide. To stay in this genre where comedy is the overall force, the doorman could not be killed – Ending up in a hospital, yes. And the Hero goes for a visit and vows to make things right. As a comic action Hero, “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do!”

The Character Web of hotel workers and bosses and funny residents of this super-expensive, posh residence that resembles Trump Tower is neatly played out. All of the secondary characters play against their natures, which contributes to that “comic gap” that is the mainstay of comedy: The desk clerk Russian young woman is studying for the bar and will end up being the shark lawyer for the Hero; the Jamaican maid is a brain with safe-cracking; the lonely, broke, divorced and bankrupt Wall St. occupant becomes part of the heist team instead of going asunder; the primo thief, Eddie Murphy, is bailed out of jail and wears a stolen business suit with attache case and becomes the heist trainer for these other “pansy-ass” would be thieves, who have never stolen anything in their lives.
All of the secondary characters support the Main Desire Line of the Hero, who wants to retrieve the money that the Opponent stole from the employees’ pension plan. Each character approaches the Desire according to his/her particular “quirk” and value system.

What keeps the Narrative Drive going is the continued “immoral” acts that the Hero commits to reach his goal/Desire of getting the money back for the employees. The Hero smashes a prized race car to smithereens; he engineers a safe-break-in; trains with a jailed criminal. The comic gap with his straight man character is that in the beginning of the story, he is a perfectionist- well-respected and politically correct with the wealthy residents of the Tower at all times. He plays along with the Opponent boss and maintains his calm under pressure. But then he goes berserk and is willing to jump completely out of character to go after the goal/Desire.

In a tightly crafted script such as this one, the story beats are all orchestrated: There’s the Inciting Incident at the 12-minute mark: The news that the pension fund has been raped by the unscrupulous boss. The end of Act 1 is at the 30 minute mark when the Hero receives new information to propel him into a definitive Plan of action to solve a huge dilemma that not only he is faced with, but all of his employees, or “working stiffs” as the Opponent likes to call them.

Act 2 is filled with preparation and training for the big heist moment. A sub-plot love interest for the Hero is woven in with the F.B.I. agent also desirous of putting the Opponent away, as she is totally disgusted with the rich raping the poor and being above the law. At the 60-minute mark, also called the Mid-Point Break, there is a distinct change of story world where the characters are in a very precarious time, just steps away from being discovered by the F.B.I., the Main Opponent, and the police. On page 75, a unique reveal occurs, and on page 85, another unique reveal occurs to jolt the audience forward with the Narrative Drive of the story. On page 90, the low point is very definitive, but because this is comedy, it is not a devastating low point.

There is a creative twist at the end, which comes after the Battle scene. The final sequences are compressed, as in comedy genre, these sequences are generally shorter than in other genres. The average comedy is about 96 minutes long, and this film is 99 minutes, including 5 minutes of credits. There is no Self-Revelation or New Equilibrium sequence, as the audience mainly cares about the Battle scene and wants to see the Opponent get his due.

For an entertaining, rollicking and good-humored 99 minutes, this film delivers. The cast is superb, the script is tight, and the comedy-heist genre is transcended, whereby the audience knows it will be a happy ending, but they will be surprised with the twist – It’s not a deux ex machina type of twist, but rather a set-up in good script writing, so that the audience feels a “poetic justice” type of emotion for a clever turn on predictability.

Understanding Myth Genre: “Avatar”

“Avatar”

Genres: Mythology, Action, Romance –

Logline: A paraplegic Marine, dispatched to the moon Pandora on a unique mission, becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home.

It’s important to note that frequently, a film can be marketed as a genre(s) that may or may not have been the intention of the screenwriter. “Avatar” was marketed as a Fantasy, Action, Adventure. From the point of view of James Cameron, the writer, “Avatar” was crafted as a conflict between the Male Myth and a combination of Female Myth and Ecological Myth; Action, and Romance.

There is generally a misunderstanding of what the Myth genre really embodies. As a writer, it will greatly help you if you can distinguish between the different kinds of Myth forms that you can utilize when crafting your story. Whereas ancient myth dealt with a pastoral world and contained gods and goddesses who ruled that world in various forms, what can be called “the new myth forms” are cutting edge because they deal with mankind in the modern world.

To imbue your Hero with mythological elements when crafting his character is to create a Hero with great depth. This is a Hero who is also universally compelling because the genre of Mythology travels the world better than any other genre. Ie. It is not “culture specific.”

Here are some of the basic Myth story beats that define it from other genres:

1. The Hero goes on a circular journey: He starts from home, travels and slays many dragons, and then returns home to find what was already there for him. After the journey, his perception is changed; he’s been through a self-revelation which is public and oftentimes cosmic – Moses; Jesus; Odysseus; Kings or Queens; great warriors who have become leaders of their people.
2. The Hero has a late Desire line, but when he finds it, his Desire is his Destiny.
3. The Myth genre contains the following: Birth, Death, Rebirth. Other genres do not deal with this. Also, there may be more than one rebirth: Each dragon that is slain represents a rebirth. Myth genre therefore, gives us the broadest track of personal growth of all the other genres.
4. The Hero in “Avatar” has 4 rebirths. Watch the film and see if you can find them.
5. There is more than what has been called “the monomyth.” Recommended reading is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. But this is “the monomyth.” It’s important to note that this monomyth is not found in all stories because it is the male warrior myth story.
6. There are more myth forms than male warrior myth. “Avatar” is a combination of 3 myth forms: The Male Myth, the Female Myth, and the Ecological Myth.
7. The male warrior is an archetypical character from the Male Myth; the earth mother is an archetypical character from the Female Myth. In the Ecological myth, the individual and the entire society are a positive blend and balance. The ultimate outcome of a utopian vs. dystopian universe is that the individual, the family, the society, nature, and technology have all blended together.

Suggested viewing: “American Sniper,” “Frozen,” “Gravity.”

Jason Bourne: Script Learning Curve

Jason Bourne is a known entity – It is a highly successful franchise: The Bourne Identity, The The Bourne Ultimatum, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Legacy, and now – Just plain Jason Bourne because that’s all we need. The name says it all.

The genre that audiences love – Action/Thriller fully delivers, with a shaky-cam that can sometimes drive an audience to dizziness. Every single scene starts late and arrives early. In other words: The party is already in full swing when the guest arrives; a door slams and the guest is in his getaway car. The camera cross-cuts to the various story lines with record-breaking speed and then, we get a rap-up or mop-up in the last sequence of the story.

The story is compelling: A loner with a mysterious past. He’s been dealing with amnesia, but through all the Bourne movies, he’s slowly gotten his memory back. The plot has revolved around the fact that this Hero is looking for his past so he can understand his present and then hopefully, move on to a future. This is the compelling notion about crafting such a Main Character: Most of the people in the audience can certainly identify with his quest for self-understanding, as the journey most of us take through life involves connecting these three core elements: Past, Present, Future.

The problems with this script were not enough to make the film a failure, but there were problems, and if you can identify what they were, it will help to make you a better writer.
First of all, Nicki, the potential love interest and ally is knocked off at the end of Act 1. At approximately the 31 minute mark, she dies from several bullet wounds. Because the writer chose to kill off the potential love interest and Bourne’s only ally at the end of Act 1, no time was invested in any type of relationship between the Hero and his love interest, who did have a vested affection for Bourne, as was established in prior films in this franchise. The audience doesn’t feel emotionally involved by Bourne’s loss in this film because there is simply no set up for it. If the writer was counting on every viewer having seen the prior films, that was an error. She could have been killed off on p. 75 which would set up the eventual show-down with the Main Opponent, the Tommy Lee Jones character.

Instead, the Vikander character appears as Bourne’s new ally. She is a fake ally, as will be revealed in the Climax. But again, this is a “dropped in” contrivance of the writer. The audience is sucked in to thinking she’s the new ally, and she is set-up nicely for this because the Opponent is aware that she is helping Bourne, but finds her conveniently useful to advance his own Plan – to take down Bourne. Suddenly, she turns and wants power and the whole thing about being Bourne’s ally hits the dust. He is on to her though, as he is a “superman warrior who misses nothing,” and we are given this little “twist” at the end of the Climax, into the New Equilibrium sequence of the story. All of this at the end was contrived and predictable and highly irritating because audiences are not as stupid as Hollywood thinks they are.

By the end of Act I, Bourne has figured out his identity and he has also gleaned remarkably new information about his father. This was powerful stuff and certainly could have sufficed to catapult him into Act 2 to avenge his father’s murder. Instead, as already noted, Nicki, the love interest is the “new information” that pushes him out of his Ordinary World of fighting in bars and just existing in hiding into the C.I.A. world of high gadgetry, action, more murder, car chases, more opponents – All the stuff that audiences love in this genre. The high-tech guru, with heady references to Snowden and identity theft, also on today’s audience’s minds, takes a bullet on p. 75 instead of Nicki, the love interest. Maybe the writer toyed with this idea. What was lacking here was what the high-tech guru had as a relationship to Bourne’s character development – I couldn’t find it. It made for a big disconnect. It was not a good feeling to see the guy felled by a bullet, but it was a plot contrivance and it was predictable. Yes, it was set-up when the high-tech guru had his meeting with the Opponent, the Tommy Lee Jones character. But again, unless the high-tech guru character either challenged, supported, or negated the Bourne character, he should have been rewritten in this script.

Then we had, per an interview with Matt Damon, approximately 170 cars demolished in this film. Kudos to Las Vegas for allowing all this craziness on the Strip. But 70 cars demolished would have been enough. The massive pile-ups were staged to the point of looking like an animation. And why not take the money from the savings of buying 100 cars and then smashing them up and give the money to some out of work Vegas people? All the casino employees who lost their jobs when the bubble burst in 2008 would have loved a lottery to win a car from Jason Bourne.

This brings me back to the compelling Weakness/Need of the Hero who is trying to connect his past with his present so he can move forward into his future. He’s been used and abused by a corrupt system within the C.I.A., a common mantra these days. The audience identifies with this Hero. I’m not discounting the acting of Matt Damon, a very lovable, believable “All American” kinda guy. And the genre of Action/Thriller is a crowd-pleaser. But certain elements in this action-packed thriller could have made the character even more compelling and elevated the story line to a much higher level. Fancy camera work, cross-cutting, and superb high-tech gadgetry aside, it’s the story that everyone remembers. It’s the inner struggle, that term called the “character arc,” that audiences remember. It was a bit thin in Jason Bourne.

How Do I Start to Write?

1) Decide on your genre.  Think about genres that really speak to you, that move you deeply.

Is this an historical epic? Are your characters real or fictional? Is this a drama? A political thriller?  An action/adventure? Is this a mix of romance and comedy? Drama and historical epic? Science fiction mixed with Drama and Mythology?

2) Where did your story originate?  Are you the sole author?  Is it a derivative work based on other material, such as a book, magazine article, short story?  Is the derivative work public record?  If not, you have to acquire rights of the living person to write the story.

Maybe this was an event that occurred that you now want to write about.  Maybe you “read about this person” and always wanted to write a story, incorporating this person’s story, but fictionalizing it.

Maybe you lived in the arena you want to write about—Journalism, tennis, ballet, medicine, education, the oil industry, the legal profession, politics, art, music.  This is good.  But if you did not live in the arena you want to write about, you need to start doing research about the arena.  As you get deeper and deeper into the research, you will be amazed how inspired you will become.  New ideas and perspectives will reveal themselves.  You will become knowledgeable and feel that you have the depth to write a story that is believable and “grabs” your audience!

3) Story values within your story idea – Come up with a main character who has those values.

What draws you to that story?  What does the story reveal about the human condition? Your main character has psychological needs and moral needs – What are they? What happened to him/her that caused this character to have these needs? What flaws does this character have as a result of his/her psychological/moral make-up? All of this moral structure value system for your story will give it spine and a theme, and the moral structure value system of your main character will play out in the climax. So it’s important to devote some time to this in the very beginning!

The Writer’s Goal of Peeling the Onion©

With our belief in the process of “taking the mystery out of the mystique” of film making and story telling, it is the hope of JCAD that anyone who has the passion to tell stories will do so in an educated and thoughtful, but highly passionate manner!  Whether a person tells his/her story through a screenplay, stage play, novel, or documentary, storytelling is an art that is one part pure imagination; a dash of risk and daring to be different; several cups of technical prowess and bending to a paradigm that goes back to Aristotle; many teaspoonfuls of psychological introspection and a pinch of willingness to hold a mirror to the writer’s soul.  Truth-telling from the heart comes out loud and clear as the writer’s voice that can be heard and felt in the hearts and minds of the movie audience or novel reader.

The Hollywood film industry churns out many films a year, oftentimes films that are “forgettable.”  It is not easy to design a story that will translate to the screen and end up being a “Blockbuster.”  In addition, not all “Blockbusters” are liked or admired by a segment of the population, who would prefer independently produced films that are on a much smaller budget, speak to a particular niche of an audience, and have a defined message to impart.  No matter what the outcome of the writer’s art or craft, whether it is a Blockbuster or Indie screenplay, stage play, novel, or documentary, the point is that with the insight into one’s soul, one can reach heights that never seemed possible.  Even if the story never makes millions of dollars, the internal satisfaction of writing a great story is an amazingly cathartic experience.

You can succeed in taking the mystery out of the mystique of storytelling and film production and then tell your own unique story, one page at a time.  The “High Concept” idea is important to remember though.  For example, you may think you’ve got a novel to write, as the result of a bitter divorce, but this might better lend itself to journal writing.  A divorce, per se, is not a story.  It certainly has story elements, but it is not a story that anyone would want to read about or go see a film about.

Although weddings are fraught with multiple stories and angst and worry that it’s all going to “go off” like a calibrated marching band, a wedding is not a story.  A death is not a story.  A Bar Mitzvah is not a story.  A pregnancy is not a story, even if there were complications and the baby died at birth.  Missing the train, which ended up getting derailed and killing a hundred people is not a story.  Missing a bus, which ended up getting blown up in a terror attack is not a story.  Missing one of the planes that ended up being highjacked by Islamic terrorists who directed the planes into skyscrapers and murdered thousands of innocent people is not a story.  ISIS beheading hundreds of human beings is not a story.  A little girl getting hit by a car and surviving is not a story.

What is missing from the above examples is a High Concept, a raison d’etre, or a spine or a theme or a moral or conflict or a protagonist or an antagonist or a reason as to why an audience or a reader should see this film or read this book. There are certainly compelling, horrific elements to some of the examples given in the above paragraph, but they are components of a newspaper article, or a journal entry, or an op-ed piece.  The idea of making “a wedding” into a story can germinate into a story if the elements of a story are incorporated with compelling characters and conflict and a crisis moment or resolution which is what the audience or reader is waiting to find out about.

At JCAD, it is therefore our goal to teach the writer how to peel the layers of the onion and get at the truth in storytelling.  In other words, we want the writer to get to the core of issues and not just develop a “catchy” plot line with an interesting twist that could be defined as “original.”  To scratch the surface is not enough for great storytelling.  We therefore get down to value systems and goals, both internal and external.  This leads to the creation of compelling characters who are living in 3-D format and who have flaws, most of which are usually not discernable to the characters themselves.  Through the storytelling, the flaws will actually come into play when the protagonist seeks to reach his/her goal.  And the result will be rewarding for both the main character and the audience.

So peeling the onion can be a rewarding experience for the writer and for the audience.  Maybe with tears?  Maybe with a greater understanding of the human condition?  Maybe with a feeling that all is well with the world?  Or all is horrific, but somehow we survive?  Or saving others with no regard for our own safety is a pretty decent goal, one which just might inspire us to do better with our lives after we get home and realize that home is not really a movie, but just plain old home.

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