Sunday, December 31, 2006

Breakdown - Nashville

All the hallmarks of Robert Altman's aural and visual styles are evident in Nashville - the overlapping dialogue, the life-like improvised roles and ensemble acting, multiple means of communication to connect the characters (phone calls, tape recordings, radio and TV, and P.A. announcements), a continuously moving camera, long takes, and imaginative sound and film editing.

Not only that, Ebert called this movie "a virtuoso display of narrative mastery." You can read the 1974 draft

As Miriam points out, the film has 96 scenes which are usually brief, over a minute in length, until you get to the last quarter of the film in which the scenes can be as long as 6, 7, 11, and even 12 minutes in length. Why some scenes are longer than others and how much Altman accomplishes in the smaller scenes, I'll leave for you to discover. However, I will say that I loved what Miriam wrote in her notes:

"He doesn't introduce people, but drifts into their lives. Even though there had to have been lights, booms, grips, sound men, and the myriad of people who have to wait and observe a shot as it happens, everything looks as if it is just taking place on the spur of the moment. Altman makes a well orchestrated film look like a documentary. The acting is very natural, with no melodramatic histrionics. Sean Penn's performance as the anguished father of the murdered girl in Mystic River is riveting, but it's staged. Linnea's quiet, subtle anguish as she falls a little in love with Tom is understated and real."

Great job, Mim. Best one yet.



Friday, December 29, 2006

Gone with the Wind

On Christmas Day, while spending time with my parents in Central Florida, severe weather swept across the state. Shortly after lunch, a tornado had reportedly touched down nearby, and we actually spent an hour huddling together in the master bath.

We played poker. I brought in all the desserts. (I refused to die before eating Dad’s notorious rum cake.) Mom kicked our asses in poker, but the rum cake made it feel okay.

We emerged from our little porcelain room unscathed with only a few downed trees in the neighborhood. Plans that day were ruined. We decided to watch some movies. I can’t believe I’m blogging about this but I actually agreed to sit though from beginning to end (for the first time in my life) Gone with the Wind.

And ya know, I really loved it.

MaryAn Batchellor coincidentally posted an article about Premiere's list of over-rated films, and at the top of that list was Gone with the Wind. After having just watched the film, I can say with absolute conviction - that’s bullshit. Gone with the Wind is big, long, full of excess and melodrama, but it’s also a great movie. It’s not high art, but it sure as hell knows how to entertain. Even by today’s standard, this movie is a visual feast. You can still be left breathless by some of its sequences, particularly the “street of dying men” shot and the burning down of Atlanta. (That wasn’t special effects, by the way, or models of buildings going down in flames. Those were real buildings on fire, as they were in reality burning down old movie sets like King Kong).

The characters were so vivid and full of depth that it’s impossible not to love them. And if you want to talk about a protagonist that is neither empathetic nor sympathetic and does not have a true character arc, let’s talk about Scarlett O’Hara. That crazy girl has not one empathetic bone in her body. She will compliment fellow southern belles at a ball while also stealing their men right in front of them, men she would never care about because she only loved Ashley Wilkes. You cannot deny that Scarlett is one of cinema’s most sensational characters, bigger than life, full of contradictions, and just plain fun to watch because there is nothing she isn’t capable of doing.

Of course, after she returned to Tara and found it in ruins and her mother dead, she went out to the fields and cried out to the heavens, “As God is my witness, as God is my witness, they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.”

That is certainly a defining moment for Scarlett only in the sense that she found the zeal to overcome her devastation, but let it be said that her speech is more a declaration of true character than anything else. She will overcome this tragedy but she will not change who she is. Ever. She will continue to be the bad girl she always has been. She will stoop to any low to rise again, and that’s exactly what she did in the second half of that movie. She lied. She stole. She cheated, and she killed. She did change in the sense that she saw Ashley for what he really was (a spineless wimp). She adapted to her new circumstances going from a spoiled society girl to a devastated southerner and then back again as a self-made business woman, but she never once changed who she was at her core.

As Rhett told her, “you're selfish to the very end.”

There’s something exciting about a bigger-than-life character like Scarlett O’Hara meeting her match. “With enough courage, you can do without a reputation,” Rhett says. He was a charming bastard, never afraid to confront Scarlett or to match her wit-for-wit in terms of audacity, selfishness, lust, and vanity. He tells her, “No, I don't think I will kiss you, although you need kissing badly. That's what's wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.” Of this line, Ebert wrote, “Dialogue like that reaches something deep and fundamental in most people; it stirs their fantasies about being brought to sexual pleasure despite themselves… Scarlett's confusion is between her sentimental fixation on a tepid ‘Southern gentleman’ (Ashley Wilkes) and her unladylike lust for a bold man (Rhett Butler). The most thrilling struggle in GWTW is not between North and South, but between Scarlett's lust and her vanity.”

Where Ashley was Scarlett’s idea of the perfect mate in a civilized southern society, Rhett was a mirrored reflection of her true character. I don’t know if they ever had true love as much as they were absolutely perfect for each other. He was everything she deserved in life. “Sir, you are no gentleman,” she tells him. “And you, miss, are no lady. But don’t think I’ll hold it against you.” He was doomed to love and never really have Scarlett as much as Scarlett would love and never really have Ashley Wilkes. And when Rhett and Scarlett finally get married, you knew you were about to see one of the most explosive wars in the south, almost as big as the Civil War itself.

Melanie, as a character, might’ve been modeled after Pride & Prejudice’s Jane Bennet, but I think Melanie has more depth. She was the antithesis of Scarlett with her endless goodness, sweetness, and compassion, but she also had depth through contradictions because she was so sweet she was at times naïve about the world. The way she projected her own goodness onto other characters, especially Scarlett, was at times almost vomit-inducing. “Oh, Scarlett, you have so much love. I’ve always admired you so. I wish I could be more like you.” Scarlett replies, “You mustn’t flatter me, Melanie, and say things you don’t mean,” to which Ashley says, “Nobody could accuse Melanie of being... insincere.”

Of Melanie's goodness, Rhett told Scarlett, "Miss Mellie's a fool, but not the kind you think. It's just that there's too much honor in her to ever conceive of dishonoring anyone she loves. And she loves you. Well, just why she does I'm sure I don't know."

And yet, Melanie would also surprise you by how strong she could be in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Watch her scheme with Scarlett about what to do with the union soldier Scarlett had just murdered. Or how she helped pull off the deception of her husband being “drunk” in front of union solders who wanted to arrest him. “What a cool eye you are, Melanie,” Scarlett says to her. And on her death bed, Melanie may have revealed just a little that she knew more than she led on about Scarlett and Ashley. Ashley, of course, made the right choice in marrying Melanie, but Melanie had her faults, too. She wouldn’t have been a great character if she was perfect.

Even supporting characters like Prissy had depth. Prissy convinced Scarlett to keep her around to help birth Melanie’s baby because she knew “how to do everything.” You could tell that those words were not true just by the way Butterfly McQueen so brilliantly pulled off those lines. And then, of course, we learn the truth that she “don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies,” a line the world would embrace and repeat for decades. But that line was not written for the sake of catching on with audiences. People fell in love with it because it was so rooted in Prissy’s character. The line exposed a lie.

And, God, how I loved Mammy. She was tough as nails, and yet Hattie McDaniel brought such a humanity to all of that tough-talk that you cannot help but love her. And yet, she had other dimensions. When Scarlett gave birth to a baby girl, Mammy was THE happiest woman in Atlanta. And when the Butler marriage had reached its darkest days, Mammy’s long walk with Melanie, in which Mammy tearfully listed a litany of horrible things Scarlett and Rhett had recently done to each other, was in and of itself worthy of an Oscar. It came as no surprise that Scarlett and Rhett would almost kill each other, but you are moved to tears only because it completely broke Mammy’s heart.

The set ups and pay offs were masterfully executed, like the lines from Scarlett where she’d say “I’ll think about that tomorrow,” which was meant to set up the last line - “Tomorrow is another day.”

There was a scene early in the film in which we see the slaves in the fields and one man starts shouting, “It’s quittin’ time! It’s quittin’ time!” The Foreman walks up to him. “I’s the foreman and I says when it’s quittin’ time.” And then he starts screaming, “It’s quittin’ time! Quittin’ time!” As a kid, I remember thinking, “This is boring. Why do we have to watch scenes like this? Why can’t they just stick with the war and Scarlett and Rhett?” Of course, I can see now that it was absolutely essential to establish the Foreman early in Act One, because he would appear again and again in the story at very crucial moments in Scarlett’s life. And now I can admire a little scene like that for what it really is - quality craftsmanship.

I’ve rambled too much.

Mom always wished Ms. Mitchell lived long enough to have at least started writing the sequel, because she always wrote the ending first.

Had Margaret Mitchell lived long enough to write the sequel, would she have brought Scarlett and Rhett back together?

I can’t say what Margaret would’ve done, but there’s no damn way those two characters could stay together and live to tell about it.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Holiday Trivia - ANSWER

Geez, this wasn't even up an hour and it was QUICKLY ANSWERED. (Thank you, Dix & Christina.)

The quote is from Billy Mernit's
soon-to-be-published novel, Making Up.


If you need any feedback on your screenplay adaptation, I've got at least a dozen readers and myself included who would, for free, be happy to give you plenty to think about.

Because that's what we do for each other.


Holiday Trivia

Can anyone answer this question?

What great new American novel contains the following passage:

"On my third night alone since Isabella left, our home feels so haunted that I can’t stand to stay inside, so I bolt through the garden gate and go stalking the empty street, crazed and aimless, only to realize I’m also keyless – I’ve locked myself out."

I'll give you a few hints: it's a romance novel, it's in the first chapter, and there's talk of it being turned into a movie.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Friday, December 22, 2006

It's Create A Character Weekend!

Who is this man and why would he write such a thing?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Merciless Logicians & The Sliding Scale of Plausibility

From a recent review I posted:

Okay, a question for all the scribes: must a thriller be totally plausible in order to be entertaining? Many film critics and TS reviewers behave like merciless logicians by pointing out each and every plot hole and logic flaw and thereby rejecting entire stories because of said plot holes no matter how small they might be, as if that's the only thing that matters in a movie. Well, it all depends up on the size of the holes, doesn't it? Most film students know that almost every thriller under the sun has plot holes and flaws in logic in them but they are still accepted and beloved by many because of so many other elements of quality craftsmanship. I think there's a sliding scale involved. If a movie takes itself seriously and yet you can't buy into it's incredibly flawed plot, then yeah, it officially sucks. Unless, of course, it is a movie that doesn't really take itself too seriously and is INTENDED to be wildly impossible but entertainingly so, like, say, a James Bond movie, then okay, no problem. If a serious thriller can hold water for the most part (or not leak too quickly), I won't condemn a movie over a few minor leaks...

...I also think you guys offered a huge volume of characters because you're not yet disciplined in the difficult task of exploring (and exploiting and giving arcs to) just a few characters with depth. I would've preferred fewer twists and stronger scenes and more attention to a smaller number of characters who have more depth. I'll praise a movie even if the story parts do not fit the whole so long as the scenes play strongly on their own and the parts work together even if the whole leaves me a little uncertain. A lot of movies are certain about their story as a whole but are made of careless parts, which is what I feel like we have here. Forced to choose, I would take the strong parts over the whole...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Donner’s Superman II

Let me just say that the best Superman movie that got released this year went straight to DVD – Donner’s beautiful Superman II.

There’s been a lot of press about it, and I’m sure you guys already know the story. Briefly - Richard Donner was filming SI and SII simultaneously. He got behind on SI and had to quickly finish it in order to be ready for the release. His battles with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind are now the stuff of Hollywood legends. In the end, they made the world believe a man could fly, and Superman became a giant box office sensation. Donner started making preparations to go back to work on SII, but then he received the (now) famous telegram stating that his services were no longer required.

The Salkinds brought in Richard Lester who made numerous changes to SII. In fact, it’s been reported that only 30% of what Donner filmed can be seen in Lester’s version, mainly the scenes with Gene Hackman. SII went on to become another critical and commercial smash hit.

Then came this thing called the “internet” and fan-based websites like Superman Cinema
, which chronicled every detail of what was different about Donner’s version. (There is also a really nice breakdown at Wikipedia, of all places.) You could even read Donner’s script here and an earlier version here. Oh, yes, there were huge differences, and many of those scenes were already shot by Donner. They were just sitting in a vault somewhere collecting dust. Even I couldn’t resist writing about those lost scenes in my Goodbye, Lois post. And thus began a great push by the fans to see a cut of Donner’s version.

Which is now finally

I love it.

Gone is Lester’s opening sequence at the Eiffel Tower. I used to love that sequence as a kid, but over the years, I’ve grown increasingly annoyed with it’s A) contrived set up in the first scene between Clark Kent and Perry White, and B) the horribly weak lines from Lois and the terrorists in the Eiffel Tower, which were designed to pass along childish exposition to the audience. The whole thing is weak. But, of course, it was designed to get that hydrogen bomb into space so it will explode and free the three Kryptonians.

Donner opens with a thrilling montage of what happened in the previous film and all the events that led up to that one nuclear missile that was intended for Hackensack, New Jersey, which we had watched Superman send into space. But this time, we follow that missile, see it explode, and… free the villains.

Cut to the always exciting opening credits.

Consider this. After the credits, we’re back at the Daily Planet in which Lois IMMEDIATELY figures out that Clark is Superman. Donner just hits the ground running with a great plot twist that’s completely rooted in his characters. Lois sits at her desk and happily draws Clark’s glasses, hairstyle, and suit over a front-page photo of Superman.

Clark strolls up to her. “How are you, Lois?” With a sly wink, she replies, “Oh… just super, thanks.”

What follows is a scene in Perry White’s office filled with subtext and happy banter as Perry orders them to go to Niagara Falls to expose a newlywed racket. This scene is not only about setting up the Niagara Falls trip, but it’s also about Lois testing and prodding Clark about being Superman. Plus, it’s about Clark trying to wiggle his way out of this trip and somehow survive this losing battle with Lois. But then, to prove her point, she tells him, “I’ll bet my life on it,” and jumps out a window.

I love it.

The fact that Lois knows Clark is Superman BEFORE they go to Niagara Falls makes that sequence that much more fun. She knows he's Superman and she loves him. He IS Superman and he loves her. And yet, here they are wildly in love with each other pretending to be reporters who are not in love who are pretending to be newlyweds in love for the sake of getting a story. How much fun is that? In Lester’s version, the Niagara Falls sequence was never even set up. They just show up in Niagara Falls 30 minutes into the film and Lois gives the most horrifying line of exposition, “I can’t believe Perry White sent us to Niagara Falls in order to expose a newlywed racket.” Oh, you’re killing me, Lester. Not only that, to make Lois Lane slow to realize that Clark is Superman is a waste of time and weakens her as a character.

Not only THAT, Lois’s “I’ll bet my life on it” line was designed to set up the scene in Niagara Falls in which she PROVES that Clark is Superman. She just pulls out a gun. She talks about what a mistake it was to bet HER life instead of HIS. Clark screams, “Lois, don’t be insane, you’re crazy.” She fires. Game over. He takes off his glasses and speaks to her AS Superman. “You realize, of course,” he says, “if you’d been wrong… Clark Kent would’ve been killed.”

“How? With a blank?”


Let it also be said that Marlon Brando is all over Donner’s version. The presence of Jor-El makes all the difference in the world. Cutting Brando out of SII has to be one of the most criminal creative acts in Hollywood history. The story between father and son was not yet over. You may recall that the first movie ended with Superman defying Jor-El by “interfering in human history” and turning back time to save the life of a woman he loved so very much. Hello? Their story was not over.

Clark’s human father, Jonathan Kent, knew his son had special powers meant for something greater than sports. He knew Clark was brought to this earth for a reason, and he needed to find that reason. His Smallville dad was very special, indeed. But it was Jor-El who taught him who he was, what it meant to be “Kal-El,” his son, and he showed him how to live his life and use those amazing powers:

“You are superior to others. You can only become inferior by setting yourself above them. Lead by inspiration. Let your actions and ideals become a touchstone against which mankind may learn how to serve the common good. While it is forbidden for you to interfere with human history itself, your leadership can stir others to their own capacity for moral betterment... They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all - their capacity for good - I have sent them you. My only son.”

SII brought this conflict over a woman between Jor-El and Kal-El to its inevitable climax. Those scenes are electric. Superman stands before Jor-El absolutely committed to being with her for the rest of his life, and in doing so, Jor-El tells him that he must give up his powers, which was to avoid creating a new race on earth. He says, “If you will not be Kal-El – if you will live as one of them... love their kind as one of them, then it follows that you must become... one of them.”

As Superman gives up his powers, there’s a brief shot of Jor-El giving Lois a dirty look. Oh, it’s beautiful.

In Lester’s version, the powerless Kal-El returns to the Fortress of Solitude, cries out for his father, and finds the green crystal. Then we cut to the reborn Superman outside Perry’s office politely asking Zod to “step outside.” Ever since the first time I watched that movie, I always wondered what the hell happened after he found that green crystal. (Except without the cursing. I was just a kid.)

You see exactly what happens in Donner’s version. The storyline between father and son is at long last resolved. The powerless Kal-El returns to the Fortress of Solitude, cries out for his father, and reunites with him after finding that green crystal. Kal-El falls before him a humbled failure, feeling truly human for the first time. He’s willing to acknowledge and accept the ways of his father. And he is saved by the grace and mercy of Jor-El.

However, he says, “Listen carefully, my son, for we shall never speak again…” I will say no more, but it’s the stuff of myths & legends. The father becomes the son and the son becomes the father. He now lives in his father and his father lives in him.

And at the end, Superman destroys the Fortress of Solitude.

Now here’s the big question – how do you fix the storyline about Lois knowing that Clark is Superman? I've always had one big reservation about Donner’s version and that was his ending, which was identical to SI. Superman spins the world back in time, yet again, only now it was to fix this storyline with Lois. It really pissed me off. I thought it was lazy writing. How many times are you guys going to fall back on this cheap gimmick just to fix a story problem you created for yourselves? What's the point of sitting through this entire movie if Superman could simply turn back time to fix what's happened? Give me a break!

But there’s a story about that ending.

In the early, early planning stages, spinning the world back in time was always intended to be the ending for SII simply because it was, at the time, the biggest special effects sequence they could muster. But when they got behind on SI, they stole the ending from II and added it to I just to finish it. They told themselves they would eventually fix the ending for II with something different. Of course, they never got the chance to do that, and what we see on this DVD does not reflect what the ending would have actually been.

So how do you fix the storyline with Lois knowing that Clark is Superman without spinning time back? How do you turn everything back to status quo? Lester had a “mystery kiss,” which I don’t mind so much, but I think he should’ve set up that kiss somewhere else.

How would you have resolved that storyline?

(Personally, I would’ve never resolved it. I would’ve made it a bittersweet ending with Lois knowing very well that Clark is Superman. And I would’ve had fun playing with that storyline in III and IV. That is, if I wasn’t a kid back then.)

Friday, December 15, 2006

Create TWO Characters this Weekend!

Who are these guys? What is it that has them so terrified?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Breakdown - Body Double

(Miriam always does an execptional job with her movie breakdowns, but this one's a doozy. Outstanding job, Miriam. -MM)

Welcome to the film break-downs of "great" directors. I put "great" in quotes because identifying directors as "great" is kind of a subjective thing. We can all agree that certain directors leave an identifiable mark on their films, or that certain directors have amassed a body of work that is both commercially and critically successful. We label them as "great," but really it comes down to popularity. Most of these directors have a fairly large and very dedicated fan base.

I'm starting with Brian DePalma. I really like his movies. He has an interesting way of paying tribute to Alfred Hitchcock while retaining a completely unique and personal voice. He definitely encompasses the definition of the term "auteur." Those are all valid reasons for studying him. And they are all valid reasons for studying Body Double, which is a particular tribute to Rear Window. But I chose this film because I wanted to talk about female masturbation and porn films.

I'm doing something different with this film because of the composition. Some of the scenes break down into sections that stand on their own. There are 77 separate sections, but only 58 scenes.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tarantino is Back

I hear that Grindhouse is about 3-hours in length. It’s comprised of two 90-minute horror films: Tarantino’s Death Proof and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. They are reimagining a double billing of ‘70s exploitation films, which were dubbed “grindhouses.” Apparently, during the “intermission,” we will see quite a few fake trailers of other ‘70s exploitation films. Tarantino told MTV that they’re working on trailers for the blaxploitation, kung-fu, sexploitation, and spaghetti-western genres. “I think for sure I'm going to do the sexploitation trailer, which is called Cowgirls in Sweden,” he said. The cast of Death Proof and Planet Terror will also make cameos in the fake trailers.

Thus, in the trailer for Grindhouse, we also see a trailer for a fake movie called Machete. I suppose it’s a good thing Machete isn’t a real film. All the screenwriting gurus would’ve bitched about him not having a character arc.

It’s been
reported that Tarantino’s next film, Inglorious Bastards, which is about a group of soldiers who, on their way to being executed, get the chance for a reprieve, is a 6-hour, 600-page script.

Michael Madsen’s in it. His character is meant to be an homage to Charles Bronson. Madsen said that Tim Roth and Adam Sandler are also attached. Eddie Murphy has confirmed rumors that he’s been approached to be in the film. There have also been rumors about Paul Walker, Johnny Depp, John Travolta, Christopher Walken, and Bo Svenson. Not only that, Tarantino is famously quoted as saying, “I've said it once and I am going to say it again. I want Bruce, Sly, and Arnold for my World War II epic. I have always dreamed of having these 3 superstars together in a movie.”

Sly is now
reportedly “locked” to be in the film.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


What is melodrama and how do we avoid it?

Over the years, I’ve noticed that quite a few people have differing interpretations of melodrama, which range from “a sad movie” to “soap operas” to “anything that’s on Lifetime” or, as one guy told me, “it’s anything written by Anton Chekhov.”

Indeed, variations abound in its definition:

“A genre with an opposition between good and evil, in which good prevails.”

“An extravagant comedy in which action is more salient than characterization.”

“A play characterized by stereotypical characters, exaggerated emotions, and simplistic conflict.”

“A film or literary work marked by ‘good guys’ vs. ‘bad guys,’ unexpected plot twists, surprise endings, action and suspense. Examples: Most horror movies and detective thrillers.”

“Exciting, emotional story. Often unsubtle and romantic.”

“The dramatic genre characterized by an emphasis on plot over characterization; typically, characters are defined as heroes or villains, conflicts are defined along moral lines, and the resolution rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Spectacle and action are important to the melodramatic effect.”

“n. a play in which there are so much violence, feelings and exaggerations that it does not seem to be true.”

“A play which suspends the audience through action and tension but contains the conventional ‘happy ending.’”

“Melodrama is a rigidly conventionalized genre of popular drama, theatrical rather than literary in appeal, characterized by rapid and exciting physical action, sharply contrasted and simplified characters, and colorful alternations of violence, pathos, and humor. The central situation in melodrama--victimization of helpless innocence by powerful evil forces--gives rise to four basic characters: the hero and the heroine, a comic ally who assists them, and the villain against whom they are pitted...”

“A melodrama in a more neutral and technical sense of the term is a play, film, or other work in which plot and action are emphasized in comparison to the more character-driven emphasis within a drama. Melodramas can be distinguished from tragedy by the fact that it is open to having a happy ending.”

A few other definitions:

Houghton Mifflin: “A play or film in which the plot is often sensational and the characters may display exaggerated emotion.”

Britannica: “Sentimental drama marked by extravagant theatricality, subordination of character development to plot, and focus on sensational incidents. It usually has an improbable plot that features such stock characters as the noble hero, the long-suffering heroine, and the hard-hearted villain, and it ends with virtue triumphing over vice.”

American Heritage: “A drama, such as a play, film, or television program, characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts.”

Let’s look at the word itself.

Melo = From "melos," Greek word for song (melody).
Drama = Greek for action, literally means “to do.”

Essentially, the word means “song-drama.”

A brief history: melodramas began in the 18th century theatre when they introduced music into plays, which was generally thought to have begun with Pygmalion (not the one by George Bernard Shaw, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Music was eventually used to make statements about the characters (i.e., this one is “good” and this one is “bad”), which had inadvertently simplified and weakened the characters.

According to Wikipedia:

By the end of the
19th century the term melodrama had nearly exclusively narrowed down to a specific genre of salon entertainment: more or less rhythmically spoken words (often poetry) - not sung, sometimes more or less enacted, at least with some dramatic structure or plot - synchronized to an accompaniment of music (usually piano). It was looked down on as a genre for authors and composers of lesser stature (probably also the reason why virtually no realisations of the genre are still remembered). This was probably also the time when the connotation of cheap overacting first became associated with the term. As a cross-over genre mixing narration and chamber music it was eclipsed nearly overnight by a single composition: Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (1912), where Sprechgesang was used instead of rhythmically spoken words and which took a freer and more imaginative course regarding the plot prerogative.

I’m always surprised when I see current definitions involving violence, comedy, characters of the “good vs. evil” stock, and stories with happy endings. I get the impression that when critics today label something as “melodramatic,” they are usually referring to exaggerated emotions and weak characters. I don’t recall anyone labeling Star Wars or Raiders as “melodrama.” I have a feeling that most contemporary thought about melodrama revolves around exaggerated emotions.

Personally, I assume something is “melodramatic” when I’m sitting through the kind of movie that’s filled with characters who are so sensitive to their plight that they're ready to burst into tears at a moment’s notice. Do you know what I mean?

I’ve been trying to come up with definitions lately that satisfy me personally and also help me to avoid this pitfall:

  • When the emotions are high but the stakes are low.
  • Sometimes it’s not a character's over-expression as much as it is under-motivation. The motivation has to match the expression.
  • When you rely too heavily on music, clothes, sets, etc, to define the main characters.
  • A scene with high emotions that feels weak because of its poor treatment, perhaps there's too much on-the-nose dialogue.
  • When the emphasis in the narrative is on something other than the characters.
  • When characters are highly emotional about something that doesn’t directly affect their lives.

A few examples off the top of my head:

  • A scene early in Act One in which two characters who have just been introduced into the story are having a highly emotional argument about their PAST relationship, which was done solely to establish a backstory.
  • Or it’s a dramatic treatment of a political, social, or health-related event and you have a lawyer or physician who gets involved in this event and goes on to make passionate, grandiose speeches about a cause that doesn’t really affect his/her personal life.
  • Or, say, a dramatic treatment of something historical, where a character is used to be a prism to view those famous historical events and the emphasis in the narrative is on the events and not the character.

Am I wrong? Can anyone else give examples or definitions?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Never ever sell yourself short.

From a recent review I posted on TriggerStreet:

Here's a reviewer's dilemma. You love horror. You're given a horror assignment, and the writer tells you in the Production Notes that "the story is intended as a 'popcorn horror,' the kind of old school, old fashioned summer-screamer that is scary and a general good time, it's not a heavy, dark psych. horror, but it's also not a comedy." Okay, but this is a genre that's filled more often than not with forgettable movies filled with cheap thrills, weak stories, weak characters, and incredibly weak dialogue. So do you really want to satisfy the requirements of this genre? Should I reward you if you did? No, I don't think I should. Can I just add that there are also quite a few horror films that were, technically speaking, "popcorn entertainment" but they were also four-star films - The Exorcist, Jaws, Poltergeist, Psycho, Alien, Aliens, Silence of the Lambs, Rosemary's Baby, Halloween, Carrie, etc. Or three star films - Christine, Poltergeist, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.

I cannot approve of this, and I'll tell you why. You should aspire to do great, four-star specs - NOTHING LESS. I know you're capable of great things because of the success you've already had on TS. You're selling yourself short and you're not doing yourself any favors with this cheap slasher flick. It's possible that someone would produce this, but will it advance your careers? That's a big risk to take, because this could stall or even end an early career, especially if it bombs. AND the critics rip you apart. Just because you finally earn a screenwriting credit does not mean that you will start a career. People will assume that this movie is the limit of your talent, and they would be wrong. You want those early credits to be the right ones, the kind of credits that prove your worth as a writer. If this got made and this was one of your first credits, I'm sure I don't have to explain how quickly you could get pigeon-holed as the writer who only does dismissable horror movies, which is not true, because you are, in fact, capable of so much more. A good writer, I think, has to make an impact on the present and shape the future of a genre, not regurgitate the past.

Friday, December 08, 2006

It's Create a Character Weekend! Yeah!

I don't know who he is, but as a character, I love him. Hehehe...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Christina's Comments on "A Crowded Room"

(This one comes to us from the always wonderful Christina Ferguson. I really enjoyed reading this. The photo above is one of Sybil's real paintings. She called it "Blue is the Color of Love." Her real name was Shirley Ardell Mason. -MM)

I'm the type that writes comments on a script, usually when I get pulled out of the story or want to note significant beats or questions. My first notation on "A Crowded Room" is on:
Page 11: "So not if... but why?" [Why he committed the crimes.]
Turns out this is indeed the central question of the screenplay.

And now, for the comedic notes:

On page 13, the protagonist rips a toilet from the wall of his jail cell. I wrote: "Yeah, right... uh..."
Page 14: "Split personality - only one personality has the disorder [nystagmus]?"
Page 15: "Yep. Split personality."
Page 16: "This is feeling like Memento..."
Page 17: "Not just split personality - but multiple! Whoo-hoo!"
Page 18: Dialogue says: "I made a mistake telling you." My note says: "But I needed to move the plot forward." A few more exchanges and I wrote: "Ah, so Sybil." A few exchanges later where the characters themselves bring up Sybil, I wrote: "Ha Ha! Ha Ha!"
Page 19: "Judy will be our 'whiner' character - she'll probably be the one that saves Billy." I was wrong.
Page 20: At the end of an exchange between Judy and Gary, the public defenders, where Judy tries to talk Gary (her boss) into defending Billy. He agrees, too easily. I wrote, "Why [should he go]? I don't buy it - if she [Judy] had promised sex, maybe..."
Page 21: Yet the introduction of another personality, I wrote: "Tommy. Must start list of personalities..."
Page 22: "Why would the different personalities be willing to divulge so much [to the public defenders]?" Seems too easy. Oh yeah, to move the plot forward.
Page 23: "Okay, this is starting to ready like a mockumentary of serial killer... no, he's not a serial killer, okay - like a mockumentary of crime movies..."
Page 25: "I smell a role for Christian Bale."
Page 26: "So I guess the question becomes... Why? Why is he so fragmented?"
Page 27: "Central question now - will this be Sybil or the Usual Suspects?" I.e. is he really fucked up or is he putting on an act?
Page 28: "I think they [the public defenders] are convinced too easily. He [the accused] could have been faking IQ tests all along - a true sociopath would have."
Page 31: "One thing to note: I'm morbidly hooked and engaged [by this lame story]..."
Page 32: "He [Gary, the defender] 'wings' it pretty well... a little too well." And another note towards the bottom, "Ohhhhh... Will we get a Nurse Ratchet too?"
Page 36: A psych nurse watches Billy and notes his boring activities. I wrote, "Just like the Discovery Channel." Further down, "Allen - have we met this one [personality] yet?" And then when a patient in the psych ward introduces herself as 'Natalie Wood' to the protag, I wrote: "This is 'ha ha' funny. Don't know if it fits the tone of the script."
And then, on page 40 or so, the screenplay goes back in time to cover Billy's childhood. This is where it really lost me. I was enjoying it as a cliched crime movie up until this point. But the time spent on his childhood and the feuding between the different personalities was WAY TOO LONG. Someone said that good dialogue captures "the idea of a conversation." I think something similar here would work well - we should get the idea of many personalities... And the trial at the end? It felt tacked on. Too short and too late in coming. Bottom line: the thing reads likes a bloated, uninteresting "Capote."

Okay, from left field -- here is my suggestion on how it could work... !

Make the likable Gary (the pot-smoking but principled public defender that ultimately frees Billy) the main character, like Truman Capote was the main character of "Capote." As written, Billy is not engaging/sympathetic enough to carry the story. But if the main character were Gary and we followed his journey into the gray zone of deciding whether or not to free a man who is only half-well (as opposed to a more likable character like Sybil who didn't commit crimes and is completely well by the end), then we'd have contradiction and conflict that we could empathize with. It's not fair that Billy was tortured as a child, but is it fair to release him only half-healed? I think that's a much more interesting question than, "How did he get so fucked up?" Let Gary lead the uncovering of the events in Billy's life. Pare down the long childhood sequences and bring in the trial and Gary's dilemma within the first 20 pages. Wouldn't that work so much better?

As written, this feels like a quick attempt by a director at getting down scenes he can imagine shooting. There are a lot of "angle on" and detailed action description. I talked about the screenplay with my indie producer friend and he said that the reason it's probably not polished is because the director fully intends to hire a "Richard LaGravenese" to flesh out the story into something shootable. This is just a quick attempt to get the basic story down so that he can get the project set up. (I think my friend is right.)

My suggestion for our next "script club" read: a spec by a relatively unknown writer that sold for a high price that we can compare the quality of to this one...

Back to
James Cameron's A Crowded Room.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Pat's Review of "A Crowded Room"

(Hey guys, this one comes to us from Pat (GimmeABreak). Thanks so much. Great job. -MM)

Sybil is the movie against which all other MPD (multiple personality disorder)/DID (dissociative identity disorder) stories are compared. A Crowded Room didn't fare well in the comparison IMHO.

SETUP and FIRST ACT: the hook should have stopped at the identification of William Milligan as the suspect. That it continued through his arrest gave away the rest of the story. It was like reading the last page of the book first. Between the end of the hook and the end of the first act, many of the secondary characters come across as caricatures – mostly brutal law enforcement officers or inept psychiatrists. One of the public defenders, Gary, has some funny lines and shows some individuality but he's gone in the blink of an eye (and doesn't reappear until the last twenty pages). Some of Billy's personalities are introduced, one of which transforms into an Incredible Hulk-like character in an unintentionally comical way. Virtually all the dialog between Billy, Gary and Judy is exposition and not very interesting exposition at that. There are a number of smaller scenes that don't advance the story (examples – the guards' threat to tattoo numbers on Billy arm and the exchange with Natalie Wood in the day room). The scene in the hearing room is unsatisfying and unrealistic (not sure if it was truncated intentionally but there would have been a trial and Billy would have been confined to a mental hospital rather than being sent away a free man).

SECOND ACT: since we already know the outcome of the story, the second act functions as a history lesson explaining why Billy dissociated and what happened when he did. Unfortunately, it doesn't do it very well. All of the childhood traumas were encapsulated in a single scene of rape by Billy's step-father. While this certainly is a traumatic event, it isn't enough to cause the psychiatric disorder. Neither does it provide justification for the violent nature of the alternate personalities. The timeline is confusing because it switches back and forth between two young Billys, teen-aged Billys, a young adult Billy and an adult Billy. Some of the personalities manifest themselves for the first time when the traumas appear to have stopped so the continued dissociation doesn't make sense. We see Billy as a violent drug dealer and body guard – an thoroughly unlikable character. The action sequences are very well-written but feel completely out-of-place. There are many other scenes showing the various Billy personalities in a variety of locations interacting with a variety of other people and fantasizing about taking revenge against the step-father (or was the Chalmer sequence real – I couldn't tell) but they all feel disconnected – individual sequences rather than part of a cohesive whole. Everything that occurs in the first act is repeated in greater detail on the second half of the second act. Feels like the second act ends on page 111 – twenty pages from the end.

THIRD ACT: the beginning is implausible to the degree that I almost got angry. It's not clear how old Billy was when he was committed but to expect the audience to believe that he was "cured" in less than a year is unreasonable. We see nothing of his treatment but, instead, are presented with a variety of intercuts showing Billy see his other "selves" on video tape with Dr. Caul. The very first opportunity I have to sympathize with Billy is during Gary's summation. Instead of having him speak of the torment the young man experienced, I would like to have seen it in some way much earlier so that I didn't spend the entire read not caring about the main character.

CONCEPT: I'm not sure I can categorize this. It starts out as a crime/courtroom drama but turns into an action flick in the second act then reverts back to the crime/courtroom drama in the third.

CHARACTERS: Billy is never really seen as a sympathetic character (until the end of the third act) inasmuch as his childhood traumas are compressed in this SP to a single incident which, in its presentation, seems hardly enough to cause MPD/DID. He's involved in unsavory activities and comes across as a violent brute rather than as someone we should like or even feel sorry for. Gary, the public defender, was an interesting character but was present in the first act for only a few pages and then again briefly in the third.

DIALOG: most of it was on-the-nose and expository.

STRUCTURE: as mentioned earlier, I believe the hook exposed too much and there was no where to go after that. The second act really dragged for me – it felt like it belonged in a different story. The third act returned to the tone set up in the first act. Billy (and his alter egos) is clearly the main character but is he a protag? I'm not sure. I don't know what he wants and I can't see what he's doing to get it. He's generally passive in the sense that Billy always awakens to discover what someone else (one of the other personalities) has done to him or on his behalf. I guess Billy's other selves are the antags but in order to give substance to the internal battle, the other selves had to be shown as individual people. When all of these selves popped in and out, it was confusing and almost dizzying. I'm not sure what the theme is, either. What kind of message did this story tell? What am I supposed to be thinking about as I leave the theatre?

STORY: seemed like two different writers. Acts one and three told one story and act two was a different story – an action/crime picture. The parts didn't fit well for me and the transitions from first to second to third were jarring and distracting.

GENERAL: I had problems with this because it doesn't ring true based on what I know of MPD/DID. Usually, the other personalities aren't aware of each other so I had a really tough time with all the sequences where the various incarnations of Billy engaged in conversation with each other (and that's what it was – expository conversation).

If I were rewriting this, I'd probably start it out in the Lima facility. Immediately establish sympathy for the main character by showing the torture he was subjected to under the guise of treatment. Then reveal his past – the horrors to which he was exposed and those to which he subjected others – in bits and pieces during the "successful" treatment. Caveat – since Billy Milligan has continued to demonstrate violent behavior (in real life) since his "cure," the ending cannot be a "happily ever after" sort of thing and I don't know how satisfying that will be.

Back to James Cameron's A Crowded Room.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Nena's Review of "A Crowded Room"

(This review comes to us from Nena Eskridge, a wonderful writer. The photo above is another shot of the Athens Lunatic Asylum. -MM)

All of the elements are there in A Crowded Room to make for a taut and tantalizing tale about the very important topic of dissociative identity disorder (DID/MPD). It's very difficult to write about mental illness without it coming off as poorly written melodrama. I think one of the reasons it's hard to write well-drawn "emotionally challenged" characters is because their struggle is an internal one while screenplays (films) are about external/visual experiences. It's not so much about good dialogue as it is about how that dialogue is delivered. And because so little is understood about MPD, it takes an amazingly talented director and actor, to create a realistic portrait of one.

A Crowded Room starts out beautifully with swirling, disorienting images -- very intense, very effective. And while the script hits the mark time and time again, giving a brief glimpse of what it might feel like seeing the world through the eyes of someone with MPD, I think the effectiveness of the many powerful scenes almost gets lost in the long blocks of expository dialogue and the smattering of cliched situations. But with a bit of editing - mostly cutting and pasting - shifting a few scenes around -- this screenplay could really shine.

We see a lot these days about MPD, mostly on TV cop dramas. So I was a bit disappointed when A Crowded Room turned into one with all of the interrogation scenes. Are they really necessary? Wouldn't it be more interesting to see Billy roaming free and unfettered, out and about in society -- rather than locked up safe and sound, no longer a threat to anyone? And having him change from one part to the next for the interviewers, on cue, isn't very realistic -- or as much fun. I'd rather meet them in real time. I'd like to see the mystery as it unfolds. Take Psycho for instance. Imagine opening that movie with a police interrogation where we meet Bates before we actually see him in action. The scene in which he is ranting in his mother's bedroom -- shot from a distance so we don't actually SEE him switch from one part to another -- we simply hear the different voices as he switches. Chilling. So much more so than the regimented switching from one to the other, on command -- within the confines and safety of a jail.

I'd like to see the script begin as is then continue without the interrogation scenes. Let us meet each of his parts out in the real world, not behind bars. Rather than his telling us he loses time it's fascinating to watch him freak out about it -- who is that guy banging on his door? Finding the hidden drugs, the empty wallet. Yikes. And rather than doing the rapes in flashback in the first act, let us experience them in the last, as written. Do you really need both? (BTW, these scenes are terrific -- horrifying without being exploitive).

The most important thing is that all of the necessary scenes are there. It just doesn't feel like they happen in the correct order. I really think one afternoon of cutting and pasting is all it would take to finish this "nearly there," extremely important piece of work. I have a sibling with MPD, so I thank you for writing it.

Back to James Cameron's A Crowded Room.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Create a Character Weekend!

Who is this little girl and what did she grow up to become?

(This is, in fact, a photo of our very own - Miriam Paschal.)

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Bob's Review of "A Crowded Room"

(This review comes to us from good friend and writer, Bob Thielke. The photo above is another shot of the Athens hospital. -MM)

Okay, here are my thoughts on this story. I felt there were three specific stories in this script:

1) a 40-page story to show that Billy Milligan (or one of his personalities) is a serial rapist and gets sentenced to a mental hospital;

2) a story showing how his condition progressed from an abusive childhood;

3) a trial and his subsequent hospitalization into a maximum security facility.

These three stories essentially served as the three acts. However, I thought this was problematic because I never felt that the three separate stories fed off each other properly. I was interested in the first act. Hmm, was Billy really ill or was he faking it? Was he going to gain his freedom?

Then, to me, the second act took me out of the first story completely. I guess I wasn’t concerned about HOW he became mentally ill, but I wanted to see if justice would be served. This story about how Billy got to the point where he raped the three women went to page 124 or so. We finally get to the story you were telling in the first act, in which he was now going to have to go on trial.

Now, if you told the story in terms of Act I- he is committed to the hospital. Act II- Use flashback interspersed with current time to reveal the different personalities and how each one contributes to his crimes. For example, when it’s time to reveal why Billy forced the women to disrobe, reveal the anarchist Kevin. When he raped them show them that it was the sensitive Aldana that was only looking for love. This way, you show twists and turns in the story, showing us which personality was responsible for each twist and turn. Then at the end of Act II, Billy makes the decision that he wants to stand trial for his sanity and pressures Gary or whomever to force the issue on that. This makes Billy a proactive person as well. Then Act III can consist of the trial.

Character- You give us little reason to like Billy at page 40, then you spend 80 pages telling us why we should give the poor guy a break. However, these multiple personalities also cause a problem because only the bad ones are proactive in any way. Arthur and Ragen talk many times about banishing Kevin, but never do it. Billy is completely subrogated to oblivion. And then when he finally comes back at the end, he’s completely passive because he relies on the whims of the doctors and the prosecutors to decide his fate. My understanding is that you want us to have sympathy for Billy and his plight. Then you must show the dominant personalities taking hold in Billy, show how Arthur forced the destructive personalities to go away, show Billy re-emerging and taking control of his own sanity. I like how you used the “Spot” to delineate personalities and to show internal discussion amongst the various sides of Billy. Another issue at play here is defining who or what the antagonistic force is in this script. In the first 40 pages, Billy is the antagonist(or Kevin I guess). Chalmer is an antagonist, but it’s always like we see him through a filter, and in the third act the prosecuters are the antagonist. I’d like to see a more consistent antagonism and I think the most logical choice is to make this a battle between Billy’s good personalities and his bad personalities. He fights from the depths to over come Kevin, and then has the courage to ask Arthur and Ragen to leave, because he’s now strong enough to stand on his own. Then use the trial to seek vindication for his efforts. Have him show some compassion and reconciliation with his victims.

Dialogue- I noticed nothing out of line with the dialogue, although I occasionally felt that things said in the “spot” were said for my benefit and not necessarily organic to the situation at hand.

Structure- I think the three separate stories that essentially serve as the acts do not help this script. I’d personally like to see more continuity. I think his arrest and commitment to Athens should happen fairly quickly together, so that his being committed is the end of act I, then Act II can be his battle to become whole again, then Act III is where Billy redeems himself through the trial. Also I noted a couple places where the scenes went on a long time 5 or 6 minutes.

Thanks for letting me participate in this little exercise.

Notes below as I was reading:

Scene 1- Adequate to create curiosity, the voice over transition to scene 2 is effective.

Scene 2- as Donna is describing her capture, how did he handcuff her to the car? And how was she able to “study” her book if her hands were cuffed? Minor details, but most car doors wouldn’t be amenable to attaching a handcuff. I’m torn on Billy’s statement that the brotherhood will get her if she calls the police. On one hand it seems expositional, on the other hand, if he’s delusional maybe it’s okay.

Scene 2 is six pages long in courier 10 point font. That ‘s 7 ½ pages in 12 point. My concern is that we have this long scene that establishes the fact that 3 women have been raped, and they know his name is William Mulligan. I still don’t know much else after essentially 8 or 9 minutes of the film. I thought the cutting back and forth of victims was well done, but I’m wondering how critical it is to reveal all three victims right now?

Scene 3- Would a policeman really use him as a human shield, not standard police procedures. Also with this scene, the police never confirm that there’s no one else in the apartment. I think that has to happen in this scene to establish the fact that either he’s crazy or his accomplices/friends got away.

Scene 4- Unless he has some kind of supernatural power, I’m finding it difficult to believe that he has the strength to tear a toilet off it’s anchor and heave it at the guards. I do like the reveal about how angry he gets when his art is messed with.

Pg 17- I’m wondering if it is worthwhile to reveal his split personalities so early in the story. I’m at page 17 and now I feel confident that Billy could have done this. Unless there is a big reveal or reversal later on I feel like this is going to be predictable. Also at page 17, I’m not real confident about what the inciting event for this story is.

Pg 23 – Gary’s question about where Billy learned to dislocate his shoulder is a big hint that we’re going to find abuse in Billy’s past?

Pg 27- of course there’s kids in there, Judy. They just told you about the little boy a minute ago.

Pg 29- Once again, unless there is some supernatural things going on, how can a brain that’s never been exposed to serbo-croatian or Swahili become fluent at those languages? I remember that story John Travolta was in which he had that tumor that allowed him to instantly retain anything he was exposed to, but he didn’t know it before he read it or heard it, correct.

Pg 31- It’s dramatically convenient that his parole statute of limitations runs out today! Why should it matter, the key is whether he goes to the hospital or not. This time constraint seems contrived.

Pg 33. I’m sorry, but the zucchini logic just couldn’t work in a court. Of course it’s a gun. A more viable argument would be to argue that they are non-working models.
Pg 35- Would they let him in a day room. I mean he has shown tremendous and unexpected violent urges.

Pg 52- Thinking of the busboy is an unfilmable unless you flash to him quickly.

Pg 72- How does the viewer know Allen has occupied billy if he doesn’t do anything allen-like.

Pg 92- This is the 3rd or 4th time Arthur says they have to reorder yet they do nothing about it.

Pg 96- I’m curious what this England sequence is for.

Pg. 98- You’d have to be careful to identify what age billy is in each scene because you switch freely from the nine year old to the 20 something Billy.

Pg 105- How will the viewer know which personality is in charge? Only the reader knows this.

Pg 131- A long speech from Billy.

Pg 138- hot water would not make his flesh boil away. Skin blistering? Maybe.

Back to James Cameron's A Crowded Room.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Miriam's Review of "A Crowded Room"

(As we continue our discussion this week of James Cameron's A Crowded Room, this review comes to us from Miriam Paschal. By the way, today is her birthday! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MIRIAM!)

Sybil was the original story of MPD and the drama and interest in that made-for-TV movie lay in the discovery of the disorder itself, as well as its cause. Because it was done so well in Sybil, relying on revealing the disease is no longer enough to sustain a sense of drama, and that is what I feel is the weakness of this story. In Identity the drama is generated by setting up the mind and imagination of the MPD as a hotel where the guests are stranded by the rainstorm. The reveal that all of this has been taking place within the mind of the MPD is done near the end of the second act. In A Crowded Room, I think too much time is spent detailing how Billy becomes an MPD and then how the doctors discover it. The story of how the system let him down gets put on the back burner because of it, yet that is where the real drama lies.

I looked up Lima Hospital (pictured above, now a prison) and found the book about Billy Milligan, so I know this is based on real events. However, some of these events play as too melodramatic to be believable by a modern audience. The guards at the jail, the cops who arrest him, and the doctors who treat him at Lima are too evil and too abusive to be seen as real people. My suggestion is to tone it down for the modern audience. The people will seem more evil and the events more frightening if they are subtly presented. As it is now, they seem to come at the audience like a sledgehammer. Perhaps they really did try to exorcise Billy in Lima, but it comes across as unbelievable.

I read "Sybil" the book after I saw the made-for-TV movie. I also read a book called, "When Rabbit Howls," which was written by "The Troops For Trudy Chase." Trudy Chase no longer exists. During therapy her various personalities (over 50 of them) decided not to integrate, but rather to live in harmony. Through therapy, all of them are awake and aware at all times and work together to present a united front to the world. They make committee decisions about how to use the body in which they exist. I've also read a few medical papers I found online. Most experts agree that MPD occurs when the child is exposed to what can only be described as torture during its very early years, usually before age five. The fact that Billy's mind was more fully formed before the period of torture in his life (eight years old instead of the usual six months to three years), makes his MPD break seem less realistic. Until his mother met Chalmer Milligan, Billy had a more "normal" dysfunctional life, not the kind of life that would create an MPD.

But too much time was spent detailing how he became an MPD, and too much was spent detailing how it affected his life after that. The long section that takes up much of the second act should be compressed into short flashbacks. The bulk of the story should focus on the struggle to place Billy in a facility that will treat him rather than re-expose him to more torture (albeit of a different type).

Billy should be both the main character and protagonist, but he emerges as neither. The story starts with the three victims in a rather clever intercut interview and doesn't get to Billy until he is arrested. You should start with Billy and focus on him. Or, if you want an active protagonist, start with Gary Schweickart and make it his story as he discovers the truth about Billy's secret life and battles to see justice done.

I like the imagery of the spotlight that recalls a happier time in his life, but I think you could make more of that if you use it less frequently. As it is, you use it the same way each time. If you use it less often, and expand on it as a symbol by using it differently (very vague, I know, but it's just a feeling), I think it will have more impact.

In Terminator the dramatic impact was the reveal that one of the men chasing Sarah Connor was a machine. But the drama kept building as details were revealed at key points. He's a machine. He's from the future. In the future machines will destroy humans. Your son sent me. I'm in love with you. And finally we discover, almost along with Sarah, that the son sent his own father, knowing that in order to exist he had to sacrifice this man who would give him life. It's this whole Oedipal thing wrapped up in a time travel twist.

In Titanic the dramatic impact was how Jack saved Rose at the cost of his own life. At the beginning nobody loved life more than him, and nobody hated it more than her. By the end he realizes that in order for her to live her life to the fullest, his must end.

So now you must find the dramatic impact of this story. Will it be a tense courtroom fight between rivals as Gary goes toe to toe with Banks? If so, you'll have to set up a history between the two men. Or will it be the human drama of Gary and Judy discovering the life of Billy Milligan and trying to save him? Whatever it is, most of it must take place within the present of Billy's arrest and trial, not in his past, and most of it must focus on what he is now, not how he got that way.

Chalmer's role could be expanded in the present. I didn't make any notes, but I found his speech to the reporters too easy. Break his presence up into shorter moments, and let his evil nature seep slowly into the story as the conversations with Billy slowly reveal what he did. But always keep him and his history with Billy in the background. The larger story is the current fight for justice.

I hope these notes have been helpful. Your work is among some of my favorite. But I'd trade Jack's impassioned speech to Rose for Virgil smacking Lindsey and yelling, "Come on, you bitch. You've never backed down from a fight in your life." It's those short pieces of dialogue that have more dramatic impact.

Thanks for the opportunity.


Back to James Cameron's A Crowded Room.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

MM’s Review of “A Crowded Room”

As always, let us start with praise.

Did you guys notice how Mr. Cameron connected the opening and closing shots in his script? As I’m sure all of you know, the opening shot of a movie sets up what that movie is about as well as the expectation of what is to come, and in good movies, the first shot and the last are usually connected in some way. Here, we open with an animated “Rotoscope” sequence involving art, which is quite significant in Billy’s life. The sequence highlights very specific images relevant to Billy’s story – the small girl clutching the rag doll (who we will later learn is Christene, one of Billy’s many “selves”); the rag doll later hangs by a noose, symbolizing the death of an innocent childhood; behind her, a male figure with a black moustache cradles her (who we will later learn is Ragen, “The Protector,” another one of Billy’s 23 personalities); there’s the farmhouse, the leafless trees with spiky tentacles, and of course, Billy’s “heart of darkness,” the corn crib. This sequence sets up a lot of what is to come, the almost fragmented, trippy, episodic events of his life that would shape his adulthood.

And then we get a contrast in the animated sequence at the end with Billy in the Lima State Hospital painting on the white walls of his room “a lush, green landscape.” Then we see Billy IN the animation -- “just Billy, enveloped in this peaceful, green Eden -- painting himself out of Hell and into a world of escape.” First, we're given his nightmares and repression and in the end, his desire to escape.

Billy’s a fascinating individual to say the least, and I completely understand why anyone would want to explore his life for a story. When I first read this script a couple of years ago, I remember thinking, “My goodness, that’s an awfully long flashback of Billy’s childhood.” This time around, it occurred to me that this was, in fact, intended to be a flashback structure, a la the Titanic. In this case, we open with the Act II climax, flashback to see all the events that lead up to that climax (thereby coming full circle back to where we started), and then move into the Act III resolution. While this type of structure worked very well for the Titanic and perhaps others like Double Indemnity and Amadeus, I do question its use here.

We are shown in the opening scenes our protagonist raping those poor, innocent girls. The rest of the script is spent giving Billy’s defense, showing us his troubled childhood and young adulthood and all of the major events that led up to those horrible moments. It was all masterfully written, but emotionally, the piece felt oddly cold to me. I felt cold toward Billy from the very beginning because of those rapes. I was slow to warm up to him or sympathize even when I was sitting through his terrible childhood. When Billy was in that jail cell and he ripped the toilet out of the wall and hurled it at the guards, I felt more like an impartial observer than I did an emotionally invested movie-goer. Even toward the end, I kept myself emotionally distanced from Billy because of those rapes.

Am I a cold-hearted bastard or is this perhaps a flaw in the structure?

It’s a very tall order to show your protagonist raping innocent girls in the beginning and then ask the audience to sympathize by showing his life’s story. I think most audiences could be sympathetic toward a troubled character if he was only robbing people or even if he murdered bad people, but will they feel that way after seeing him rape innocent girls? I don’t know. It could be said, too, that to explore how you feel about this character and his problems and what he did is the whole point of the movie. You could also argue that we’re experiencing his story as everyone else experienced Billy Milligan in the ‘70s. True, but I still can’t help but wonder if there might be a better approach.

Would it not be better to tell this kind of story very simply in chronological order beginning with his childhood? We might feel more involved by experiencing his childhood first as if it was taking place NOW as opposed to seeing events that took place IN THE PAST through flashback. And at least Billy would earn some sympathy before we see him raping girls. And we would have a better understanding why that was happening, too. Would it not also be better, when we actually get to the Act II climax, to have the audience saying to themselves, “Don’t do it, Billy. Don’t do it,” as opposed to the shock of seeing him do it in the very beginning without any regret or remorse? To be more straightforward in the narrative might make the tone of those rapes different, perhaps giving it an air of tragedy, as if to say that this is the lowest low in his life, this is the breaking point, this is the inevitable result of his troubled childhood and severe mental illness.

Okay, the ending. I think Mr. Cameron did as well as he could (perhaps even above and beyond) with the material he had. However, I think Billy’s story makes for a problematic narrative because of the rapes and an even more problematic ending because he never fully recovered. We never saw Billy become whole as one individual. With Sybil, at least we were given that emotional scene in the park where she met and embraced for the first time her other selves. You knew her road to recovery would still be long and difficult but you felt emotionally satisfied that she would recover fully. And, indeed, she did. You don’t really get that with Billy in this story. Here, there was TALK about Billy having met his other selves, about his marked improvement, which we never really saw. I never felt he became whole enough that, if I met him on the street, I could trust him. Indeed, in the closing animation sequence, we’re given a picture of him STILL TRYING TO ESCAPE, not a scene that made us feel, as we did with Sybil, that he would eventually become whole.

There was also talk about him starting a Foundation Against Child Abuse, which we never saw, nor did we get the impression he truly cared about helping others. In a story like this, you typically read about how this kind of person devoted his life to helping others (usually motivated by guilt over his past), but you don’t get that with Billy. Now, he owns a small movie company, Stormy Life Productions. In the script, he never apologized nor tried to compensate the poor girls he violated so horribly. And let me be clear. I don't think these are flaws in Cameron's ability to tell a story, but they may be legitimate cracks in BILLY'S STORY that fatally wounds a big screen adaptation.

Billy’s criminal behavior after this story, even as recent as 1996, almost ruins the chance to have a feature film made. It was reported in the Associated Press that Billy was found incompetent to manage his own affairs and that Billy's OWN court-appointed attorney, Gretchen von Helms, said he “allegedly referred to strapping explosives to his chest to get attention” and “talked about banging on a judge's door and robbing a bank.” That's scary, is it not? Why should audiences care if he’s behaving this way 20 years after this story took place?

Billy Milligan is a genuinely fascinating individual, no question about it. I do feel for him. I think this would make for an interesting HBO documentary or even a docu-drama on TV, but a feature film on the big screen distributed around the world? I’d have to pass, I’m so sorry to say. His story’s not over yet. He still needs to recover. And I also think he might find happiness in his life if he just gave away to those who have also been abused the kind of love that he never received.

Back to James Cameron's A Crowded Room.