Their quote was about finding ways to get through life.
One: “Don’t be afraid of anyone. Now, can you imagine living your life afraid of no one?”
Two: “Get a really good bullshit detector.”
Three: “Three is be really, really tender.”
“And with those three things” – Laurie said – “you don’t need anything else.”
In the full wide range that stretches from street hobos to rich presidents and from Ivy-league dropouts to post-celebrity rehabs, there is a common thread: life is ripe with conflict.
Sure, conflict is what made humans sharper, problem solvers until the last beat. Storytellers know that ultimately conflict alone can float identity through a sea of half-truths, up, up to the surface where the sun plays catch with flying fish. However important our culture of conflict may be, the search for less human pain, suffering, and crisis may also be a story to pursue. A peaceful target to shoot for.
In dramatic movies, the ending may be, in terms of plot, happy or unhappy. In either case, if the story works, the viewer is rewarded with insights into the depths of human life.
The ancient Greeks attended Tragedies more than school, feasting on pop-corn-less morality with cathartic heroes like Oedipus (an unknowing motherfucker) or universal strategists like Ulysses, king of the surprise climax.
So, what can we learn about “making our life better” by watching a film story? It is true that caped Super-heroes are our cultural diet now, just as Commedia dell’Arte theatre masks were dominant wanderers from town to town for four centuries.
It’s all about relationships, stupid.
A film I would watch again is one that leads to my relationship with the story. Titanic was a lesson in teen-age blockbuster making, who would have thought it? Multiple viewings create a relationship, characters become familiar: it’s the key to the new TV series mania.
Note for debate: Characters are not people, but they’re close enough to pretend. Characters stand in a story because the plot says so, and the writer cast them for a role. No script? No character. They look like people, however. Or should.
This is not the case in real life where life may be scripted but in all likelihood is not very good. Determinists saw destiny play a bigger part than individuals. In the west we famously trust individual agency and will to drive success and failure.
You want to be the big boss man? Slay the dragons. Dominate your universe and plunge forward. Action films seem equivalent to playing Mozart with only Major chords. (Male chords, duh)
I have a preference for the Minor Key in film. Movies that don’t try and impress only with underlined cinematic cartwheeling. I have the same bias meeting people at parties.
If a film reveals a personal insight, I am Up. If there is a label that explains everything or indicates next to each action, I am turned off. I follow film-makers that make movies that matter, even a little.
As a producer of youth-cinema, I see film conflict not as a medieval head-to-head battle to release adrenaline, but a personal texture, an inside chess game of question marks: where to go? what to do? How? Who with? Well told conflict can be hesitation pure and simple. Or an identity short-circuit. Or lack of clarity, loss of vision. How to take direct action choices, then? Voting can be Hamletic too, in hard times.
Even without a simple top-down final duel on a skyscraper, a film can lead to a character’s foggy melting point, the quiet intersection of dramatic need, desire and urgency in search of identity.
Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed are not film characters.
In the script of life rewritten, I would try reducing, not adding, conflict to stories. Better conflict, of course, the one worth fighting for without fists and watching with senses aloft. As James Joyce said, the cinema is a “screen of consciousness”.
Luckily I am not afraid of fear, I can smell bullshit from outside the playground, and I still want to hear my kids tell me I was kind. That’s a step towards a better now, even for a callous storyteller like me.
There is already enough conflict to go around in the world.
Danny Alegi is a filmmaker, story development coach and speaker. Read more of Danny’s blogs at ‘Movies Without Cameras‘.
The puzzle of super-motivation: a guest post by Ray Grewal
Faster than a speeding bullet! Why Superman does what he does…
“What is Superman’s motivation?”
This question pops up now and again in creative writing workshops because knowing what the main character is striving to achieve and why is the backbone of any good story. Superman presents a conundrum: why does this superhuman alien while away his days trying to fix our mess? Two answers are always given to this question:
These answers are both wrong.
The crime genre aficionados amongst you know that every detective from Wilkie Collins’Sergeant Cuff in ‘Moonstone’ to Sally Wainwright’s Catherine Cawood in ‘Happy Valley’ is fighting for truth and justice (let’s assume ‘the American way’ is to endorse robust democracy and the rule of law so is synonymous with the first two). Whether they do it with a razor sharp intellect like Sherlock Holmes or a dogged tenacity like Columbo they are all trying to catch the bad guys to see them punished for their crimes – just like Superman. But, and you don’t need to be an aficionado to know this, at some point in any good detective story the crime will become personal. Jack Reacher, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade will all, at some point, stake their reputations, their relationships and even their lives on getting to the truth and they’ll do it for hubris, love and occasionally the greater good – but whatever their reason they’ll have a stake in the outcome.
Which is where, we assume, Lois Lane enters the fray.
In his infamous, unproduced, screenplay ‘Superman Lives’ Kevin Smith sums up Superman’s take on their relationship like this: “Yes, I do it all for the multitude. But when I save lives, or fight for the weak, I’m saving one life, fighting for one person – again, and again, and again. It’s her, don’t you see? She represents all of them – their hopes, their fragility, their passion. And if ever I feel like no matter how much I do, it’s not enough, I think of Lois. And then I’m off, faster than a speeding bullet…”
So really the two answers are one: Superman’s motivation is to fight for truth, justice and the American way because of Lois Lane. But there’s an unfulfilling myopia to this answer that’s borderline racist: we’re an indistinguishable mass to Superman. And it begs the question: if Superman had never met Lois Lane and he came across a child standing in the street with a car hurtling towards it would he let the child die? Of course he wouldn’t – he’s Superman.
In my opinion the puzzle as to what is Superman’s motivation has only been successfully solved once: in 1978 in a story by Mario Puzo, in a screenplay re-written by Tom Mankiewicz, in a film directed by Richard Donner.
Standing over Jonathan Kent’s grave, his arm around his mother, the rolling Kansas countryside bathed in afternoon sunlight around them, a young Clark Kent utters these words:“All of those things I can do, all those powers and I couldn’t even save him.” From that moment until the end of the film his motivation is clear and simple: on the day he first meets Lois he stops a bullet that would have killed her, he catches her when she falls out of a helicopter, he saves Air Force One when an engine is destroyed by lightening, he stops armed robbers and he catches a thief who falls off a building. Superman is doing for others what he couldn’t do for his father: he is stopping death.
But it isn’t enough to cheat death; he must defeat death and this is where Lex Luther comes in. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the antagonist of a story must be the equal to or stronger than the protagonist. Lex Luther is not the antagonist because he will never be stronger than Superman…but he can align himself with something that is: before we know anything about Lex’s fiendish scheme we learn that it involves killing a lot of people – death is coming, in a big way. As the story develops Lex (brilliantly played by Gene Hackman) taunts Superman that no matter how hard he tries he will not save everyone. And, it transpires, Lex is right: alone on a dirt road, Lois’ car gets wedged into a crevice and she is buried alive. Death has won. In a moment of pure rage, Superman defies his father, Jor-El’s edict that he should never interfere with human history and he turns back time. He brings Lois Lane back from the dead.
So the answer to the question what is Superman’s motivation?
Superman’s motivation is to defeat the only force in the universe that is stronger than he is: death.
In 1978 Superman won round one. I’m still waiting for round two.
(this post is about the cinematic interpretations of Superman and does not refer to the comics or the television series ‘Lois and Clark’ and ‘Smallville’ although comments and thoughts about these are welcome.)
THIS WAS THE FIRST OF A SRIES OF GUEST POSTS BY Ray Grewal
Visiting lecturer in screenwriting at Regent’s University, London.
Freelance writer, editor, reader and tutor working for companies including the BBC, Creative England, the Writers’ Workshop.
Ray blogs regularly at SCRIPTPLAY
Those who follow my blog know how much I respect Bob McKee, great inspiration of so many independent filmmakers. Here is a small piece from his Big Thinking.
Today we start a ride thru script services online, sites that offer feedback and written notes on formatted, completed screenplays. There is a fee to pay, but in this case, it’s lower than the average.
On top of that, Script Analytics offers a proprietary coverage system that you are probably curious to try out. So am I.
Andrew Fitzgerald from Twitter talks about short short stories & other hybrids coming our way.
Looking forward to miniature films?
@Cinemahead we map scripts because it makes the process of writing less painful and more fun. A story map makes the making-of a script faster, visual, imaginative. Plus, it makes it easy to collaborate.
I ran into this YouTube interview with Alfonso Cuaron, director of “Y Tu Mama Tambien”. Listen to what he has to say about coming up with and directing “Gravity”. He says it was “a script that took three weeks to write”, a story rooted in personal adversities.
A forgotten station emerges from under NYC, a metaphor for the magic power of reveals. We discover what was hidden and the range of our familiar spaces and sources expands. Read more on the blog that posted the story first, the cool travelettes.
This station is with us now, like a secret in a story revealed from the deep. Meaning is best not told, but discovered.
Take a good look at these two young actors in training at the MEISNER TRAINED teaching series in S.Francisco.
The scene work is lead by Meisner protege’ and Cinemahead friend Jimmy Jarrett. Click the blue link to view the short session.
I am back in Los Angeles at the Directors Playhouse, with a special run of “Story Different” my script development workshop that keeps helping writers and filmmakers win festival awards.
There are new dates upcoming in August.
If you're in town, take a look at the calendar or just stop by.
You can always grab a podcast from the resource page