Thursday, January 11, 2007

Father Max

Hey guys,

I will finish my series on Kubrick’s Napoleon next week.

A writer has to give credit where credit is due. Our good friend,
Bob Thielke, posted “Revision 4” of his Father Max story. (I wrote about an earlier draft in a post called On Character Arcs.) Ya know, I cannot deny the great craftsmanship behind this story. It is a great, powerful, 4-star script. You will absolutely weep at the end.

Below is my recent free-will review of this story, which chronicled a number of ways Bob made improvements to his script. Even if you don’t know the story, the lessons behind this revision, such as trimming the action lines, removing on-the-nose lines of dialogue, etc, are good ones for any screenwriter.

Here’s the review. Hope you enjoy it.


A 4-Star Script

This is a major overhaul of what was already a good story. The result is quite literally a 4-star script. It's one of the best scripts of the year.

There are a couple of comments I'd like to make, because I think there are some lessons to be learned in this revision.

Consider all the ways Bob, without adding more pages, gave himself room to expand upon his subplots in Auschwitz, particularly Fritsch's storyline, by cleaning up his story in the following ways:

1) He trimmed his action lines. If you read the earlier draft and pay close attention, many many paragraphs are shorter. Bob can write wonderfully descriptive prose but that's not screenwriting. Story comes first and your action lines have to serve the story with brevity and clarity. Period. A script is not about how pretty the action lines are written, it's about WHAT those actions are and you have to convey those ideas with beautiful simplicity.

2) He removed the flashback structure of the earlier draft, which was absolutely the right decision. That kind of structure really wasn't necessary here because we didn't hear or need narration from Francis in order to tell this story. And by removing this structure, it should comes as a SURPRISE to us in the end that Francis is not only converted but he knows the Pope. It's no secret that I dislike flashback structures and people love to point out "Titanic," "Double Indemnity," and "Amadeus" to me. There are exceptions, but amateurs use it so frequently in their scripts, I think it's better to avoid it altogether because it's become so clichéd. A non-flashback structure is, in fact, more difficult work, and ultimately, more impressive if you pull it off really well. I think newbie writers are drawn to the flashback structure because it "feels right" to connect the opening and closing scenes. And yes, it should feel right. Good movies quite often make connections between the opening and closing shots, but you don't need a flashback structure to do it. You connect the visuals and the images. Here, Bob simply connects the opening and closing shots with doves.

Let's talk about on-the-nose exposition.

One of your top priorities in doing any revision is to look for ways around on-the-nose exposition in your dialogue, which will almost always improve any scene.

Consider the scene on page 3 with the Nicolas and Francis sitting in the flatbed truck. In the earlier draft, we watched the boys sit in the truck and listen to Father Max on the radio. Afterwards, we get some on-the-nose exposition from Francis: "Between the paper and this radio show of his, when does he find time to pray?" We didn't need that line to establish the fact that Max had a paper and a radio show because we just watched Max hand off his newspapers and we just heard him on the radio. So that line is gone. It's also boring to watch those boys sitting in a truck listening to the radio. Now that Bob freed up some space for himself, we have a great new sequence. The boys turn up the radio to hear Father Max but we leave the truck. While we HEAR Max talk about forces of secrecy and corruption, we WATCH a German man struggle to get money and food, and then he walks by an Old Jewish Man. The German spits in his face. And as we hear Max's tough talk against the Zionists (and also the Freemasons), we see this elderly Jewish man sit in his home with his wife and nervously peer out the window and we might think that Max is inadvertently contributing to the hatred of the Jews. And we might wonder about Max's motivations, which will of course get clarified in the next few pages. It's a great, 4-star sequence.

Consider this scene:

There is a new scene where Francis comes home to discover that his son has been taken away by the Nazis for Aryan indoctrination. In an earlier scene, Francis and Gert discuss the possibility that their son, Peter, might be taken away. Francis tries to convince her (and himself) he won't be taken away because "the age limit is six" and Peter is eight. He comes back home to find that, in fact, the Nazis will take any child at any age. When Bob first wrote this new scene, he had Francis discover that Peter was gone and then he argued with Gert about how he told her not to let him out, which was all on-the-nose, and we already knew those things. So then Bob took out all of the exposition and the scene is even more powerful because it is now completely visual, not verbal. Francis simply walks up to the stoop and when he sees the horrified look on his wife, he knows what has happened. He runs through the house screaming for Peter. We watch him run upstairs, downstairs, into the kitchen and living room. He rips a crucifix off the wall and hurls it across the room as he cries out in anguish. Do I even need to explain that by watching him throw the crucifix, we learn everything we need to know about his anger toward God? THAT is far superior to him verbalizing those feelings somewhere else. Another great, 4-star sequence.

Let's talk about setups and payoffs.

Not only do you setup and payoff plot points in a story, but I think you have to sometimes consider setting up and paying off particular screenwriting techniques. In Act Three, Bob cut back and forth between Max in the crematorium death room and Francis in the camp. It was very good but a little out of place, technique-wise, because no where else did Bob cut back and forth between two storylines taking place at the same time. Until you got to the end, everything always happened in sequential order. In this new draft, that technique is set up throughout pages 20-30.

Instead of watching, as we did before, (in sequential order) Francis in Warsaw and then another sequence later with Max in the Niepokalanow Friary during New Year's Eve, Bob now cuts back and forth between these two sequences, which are now taking place at the same time during New Year's. And we keep watching these two storylines unfold until both Francis and Father Max wind up in the same prison cell together. That is master craftsmanship, and yet another great, 4-star sequence. Not only that, there are a number of changes within Francis’ sequence that are praiseworthy. Here Francis helps SAVE the boy from the soldiers, which is extremely powerful, because you get the impression that it might be how he wanted to save his own son. Francis participates in the execution of the soldiers, which is now more clearly motivated because of his anger about his son. We also see HOW Francis winds up in jail, which did not exist before.

Let's talk about Max himself.

I was so very happy to see a new scene with Father Max and Rabbi Davidowitz in the Mess Hall, which takes place right before the Rabbi's death. This entire storyline between Max and the Rabbi finally comes full circle with Max's tearful confession and apology to the Rabbi. This script needed this scene more than anything else. I was happy to see it and then I was in tears because it's so heartbreaking. Yet, it brings a much-needed layer of humanity to Max that we didn't really see before. It's not just the fact that the camp had finally broken him, but this scene shows that Max is a man who knows he is human, that he is capable of making mistakes and second-guesses himself, who is not blind about his own influences, and who cared very deeply about the Jews, particularly the Rabbi, despite the impression they may have gotten from his writings. The last thing he ever wanted to see were his friends in this tragic condition. Max sobs and sobs, and he says, "It's my fault you're here, your family's here... Brother Ludwick begged me not to cause trouble. If I would have just shut down the paper. You'd be safe, we'd all be safe..." The Rabbi says, "Max, listen to me..." but Max continues, "I wanted to die... I condemned all of you as well..."

And the final words the Rabbi gives him reflects as much about how great the Jews can be as Max reflects Catholics. In the end, it's all about love and forgiveness, is it not?

I should probably stop here.

There was more I wanted to talk about. In closing, let me say this. The ending is still just as great and powerful as it ever was. However, Bob changed the person who kills Max in the Crematorium. Why he made that change and how that fit into that person’s own storyline, I will leave for you to discover. It was the right choice.


Anonymous said...

I saw your review on TS. I'm reading FATHER MAX as I can today. I'm only on p22 at the moment, so I have a ways to go before I comment, but I am thinking about the issue of subtext as we discussed on this blog a little while ago.

Mystery Man said...

No worries, man.


GameArs said...

I know people who have paid several hundred dollars and not gotten such good feedback as you give, MM.

I've read another of Bob's scripts and he's got mad skillz, yo. I took some lessons from reading his stuff.

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, Carl!

The lessons behind this revision are good ones. I loved the technique of cutting back and forth between two storylines taking place at the same time. I'd like to see more screenwriters aspire to do that.

Mim said...

I haven't read Father Max since its original incarnation, but I also recommended taking out the parenthetical flashback method of telling the story.

Sounds like Bob's been doing wonderful things with this story.

bob said...

Carl is so right (not about the mad skilz), but about getting the feedback from MM. I've felt so lucky and indebted that you've taken an interest in working with me on this script. It's made it better by a million percent and I owe alot of the ideas to Mr. Man! It's a great feeling to be mentored by someone who knows what they are doing.

Mim said...

That's true. We are all very lucky to have our Mystery Man.

GimmeABreak said...

What she said!

GameArs said...

Mad skillz, yo! You don't even know!

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, guys. I needed that.


Anonymous said...

Hi! I just came to agree about "Father Max", Bob and Mystery Man. MM, you amaze me with your generosity and vast knowledge! Bob, Father Max is a a great script and I've already told you that. I spent the day yesterday just playing over in my mind what I had learned from having read versions 2 & 4. I'm in awe of all you guys!


Mystery Man said...

It's so nice to hear from you, Michelle! I was glad to see that story was assigned to you. I knew you'd really like it.