Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Lives of Others

I must say, The Lives of Others is a tremendous mastery of craftsmanship, a full 3-course meal, satisfying on all levels. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, it’s the story of Hauptmann Gerd Weisler (played by Ulrich Mühe who passed away last July, sadly). In 1984, Weisler was a rather scary Stasi Officer, a scary interrogator, a scary lecturer on the art of interrogations, and he’s also the dutiful, yet very scary, enforcer of the East German thought police. We hate him and he’s the protagonist, if you can believe that.

Weisler wants to (and he is also ordered to) eavesdrop on a renowned German playwright by the name of Georg Dreyman who is “devoted and loyal to the government.” I liked how Ebert wrote,

“How can that be? Wiesler wonders. Dreyman is good-looking, successful, with a beautiful lover; he must be getting away with something. Driven by suspicion, or perhaps by envy or simple curiosity, Wiesler has Dreyman's flat wired and begins an official eavesdropping inquiry. He doesn't find a shred of evidence that Dreyman is disloyal. Not even in whispers. Not even in guarded allusions. Not even during pillow talk. The man obviously believes in the East German version of socialism, and the implication is that not even the Stasi can believe that. They are looking for dissent and subversion because, in a way, they think a man like Dreyman should be guilty of them. Perhaps they do not believe in East Germany themselves, but have simply chosen to play for the winning team.”

We learn that all is not as it seems and this isn’t simply about Wiesler’s perverse suspicions. A government bigwig, Minister Hempf, has a thing for Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, who must at times comply with Hempf’s disgusting advances at the risk of imprisonment, banishment, or humiliation. Thus, Hempf wants dirt on his romantic rival. Wiesler’s boss, Colonel Grubitz, the closest thing Wiesler has to a “friend,” is happy to advance his own career by going along with the corrupt whims of Minister Hempf. And Wiesler is asked to lie, to behave falsely, to ruin a good man, in order to prove his own loyalty.

But we learn that even Weisler is not as he seems. He is only doing his duty because he has no other choice. How is a good man to act in an environment that squashes any possibility for moral behavior? Well, we learn through Weisler’s actions and the enormous decisions he makes throughout Act II that he is, in fact, a good man whose heart can be moved, and he is quite capable of making moral decisions that will have a lasting impact on the lives of all these characters, especially himself. We first hate him, then we’re intrigued and fascinated by him, and in the end we admire him for what he did. Is there anything wrong with this approach in the protag’s arc? Not one damn bit. And yet, the gurus and pro readers and men like Robert McKee drill into screenwriters that all protagonists must be sympathetic and/or empathetic from the very beginning. No, they don’t. Weisler earned our love and sympathy in the end and isn’t that when it really counts?

By the way, I loved what A.O. Scott wrote:

“It is not inaccurate to describe ‘The Lives of Others’ as the story of how both men become disillusioned and hasten each other’s disillusionment. But the paradoxes inherent in this story — which are central to Mr. von Donnersmarck’s brilliant exposition of the Orwellian logic of East German Communism — are worth pausing over. It is not simply that Wiesler, the state-sanctioned, clandestine predator, develops a measure of sympathy for his quarry as he listens in on Georg’s private, unguarded moments (“presumably they have intercourse,” he types in his daily report after eavesdropping on Georg’s birthday party). Surely his training would have inoculated him against this kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome.

“Rather, even as Georg is driven toward actions that implicate him, for the first time, in dissident activity, Wiesler becomes convinced of Georg’s essential innocence and takes steps to protect him. The plot, as it acquires the breathless momentum of a thriller, also takes on the outlines of a dark joke. The poet and the secret policeman — both writers, in their differing fashions — may be the only two true patriots in the whole G.D.R.; in other words, the only people who take the Republic’s stated ideals at face value. But since the nation itself functions by means of the wholesale and systematic betrayal of those ideals, the only way Wiesler and Georg can express their loyalty is by committing treason.”

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Best Of - Kubrick's Napoleon

Hey guys,

I've been gaining a number of new readers over the last few months (around the world, no less). In fact, next to English, the top languages are in this order: German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Portugese, and Swedish. I know you guys are out there, and I want you to feel very welcome here. And ya know, there's one guy in Turkey who reads me religiously. Whenever I look over my blog stats, I always look for that one guy in Turkey. Sure enough, like clockwork, he always shows up. I don't know who you are, man, but I want YOU to know I'm always glad when you visit.

Okay, for the benefit of all my new readers, I'd like to periodically post "Best Of" articles. And you can't get much better than the 8-part series we finished last February on Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon screenplay. Kubrick followed Napoleon’s life from his birth all the way up to his death. He starts with a few pages on his childhood, moves on to Napoleon’s quick rise in military power and on to become head of an empire that ruled over much of Europe. And then we witness his stunning, heart-wrenching downfall. He loses everything that is precious to him. And in Act Three, Napoleon mounts his final comeback. He regains his power, which lasts briefly, and then we see the entire world move against him and crush him. It's sensational and there is so much to learn from it. We explored every single facet and technique used in that script. Kubrick's Napoleon is unquestionably one of the most fascinating unproduced screenplays ever written.

Below are the links to all of the articles and beneath that are my final thoughts on Napoleon in an article called "Poetics in Cinema."

Hope you enjoy them.



The Complete Series:

Part I - Stanley Kubrick's Obsession

Part II - "A Teddy Bear, A Prostitute, & A Peasant's Revolution"

Part III - "Josephine"

Part IV - "The Art of War"

Part V - "Empire"

Part VI - "The Fall"

Part VII - "The Defeat" or "The Thousand Mile March Into Oblivion"

Part VIII - "Elba, St. Helana, & Beyond"

Stanley's Production Notes


“Poetics in Cinema.”

Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon is a sweeping epic told in broad strokes and poetic symbolism. He has us following Napoleon’s life from his birth all the way up to his death. He starts with a few pages on his childhood. He moves on to Napoleon’s quick rise to military power and then on to become head of an empire that ruled over much of Europe. And then we witness his stunning, heart-wrenching downfall. In fact, he loses everything that is precious to him. And in Act Three, Napoleon mounts his final comeback. He regains his power, which lasts quite briefly, and then we see the entire world move against him and crush him.

I’m reminded of a recent (and wonderful) post by
Girish about Poetic Films. He quotes Maya Deren who made a distinction between drama that’s “horizontal” and “vertical,” and by that she means that the narrative is “horizontal” and the lyric is “vertical.” To quote her,

In Shakespeare, you have the drama moving forward on a ‘horizontal’ plane of development, of one circumstance—action—leading to another, and this delineates the character. Every once in a while, however, he arrives at a point of action where he wants to illuminate the meaning to this moment of drama, and, at that moment, he builds a pyramid or investigates it ‘vertically,’ if you will, so that you have a ‘horizontal’ development with periodic ‘vertical’ investigations, which are the poems, which are the monologues… You can have operas where the ‘horizontal’ development is virtually unimportant—the plots are very silly, but they serve as an excuse for stringing together a number of arias that are essentially lyric statements.

You can really see in this script the distinction between that which is “horizontal” and “vertical,” because in order to cover all of the important events in Napoleon’s life, you have to fly down that horizontal plane at lightning speed in order to squeeze it all in before you reach page 150. And thus, you cannot help but notice those moments when Stanley shifts gears in the narrative and chooses to slow down to be “vertical,” to spend just a few pages to highlight the meaning of a dramatic moment.

The first “vertical” moment that comes to mind has to be the sequence involving Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine (found in Part III). We’ve been flying through pages about his quick rise to power and his preparations for the Italian campaign, which we know will send him into worldwide fame and headlong to becoming the next Emperor of France. But we stop for this very important love affair. We hear Napoleon’s many poetic love letters to Josephine. “Sweet and incomparable Josephine, what is this bizarre effect you have upon my heart?” “By what magic have you captivated all my faculties, concentrated in yourself all my existence? It is a kind of death, my darling, since there is no survival for me except in you.”

And while we hear Napoleon pour his heart out, we watch Josephine have an affair with Captain Hippolyte Charles.

And that sequence was not just about establishing their marriage and her betrayal and how much Napoleon loved Josephine. It was also about how much he overwhelmed her with the kind of love that suffocates a human being, which in this case drove Josephine into the arms of another man. (Of course, she was indifferent to him since the beginning, but his behavior certainly didn't help matters either.) In any case, that sequence also showed a believable contradiction in the main protagonist, which gave him depth - that is, the arrogant, powerful, confident Napoleon was also the insecure, needy, emotionally reckless Napoleon who naively wanted to be loved as overwhelmingly as he loved Josephine. We see that he completely gave himself over to her with an almost childlike honesty without realizing the consequences of his behavior, a stark contrast to the genius who meticulously calculated (and won) every battle. And by making us hear his voluminous words of love while at the same time showing us Josephine’s betrayal, we are practically forced to feel the sting of her infidelity just as Napoleon felt it, and we sympathize with him.

How many scenes does it take to establish the fact that they got married and she had an affair and Napoleon’s heart was broken? Those are just facts. To be a little “vertical” in this sequence, to hear his words of love found within those many volumes of letters, to know how he pushed her away, and to see the affair and its affect on him, is to understand the meaning of those events and to feel for the characters.

I don’t believe anyone has taken the time to comment on the poetic techniques of Kubrick’s Napoleon. I’m reminded of something Francis Ford Coppola said in his commentary of Apocalypse Now Redux: “In a way, you know, cinema is more like poetry than literature. It’s all about expressing things and saying things that you don’t say and trying to say it in another way – to use metaphor, or simile, or allegory or any of these other poetic techniques where you express one thing by, in fact, showing something quite different – and the audience puts it together. Cinema is at its best when it expresses things without really expressing them.” And that’s exactly what Stanley does here.

Time and again, in scene after scene, Stanley uses his own style of poetic cinema in which he shows us one thing on the screen but he makes us hear something quite different that undercuts the meaning of what we are seeing. A few examples that come to mind:

  • In the sequence above between Napoleon and Josephine, we hear Napoleon’s endless love for Josephine, but we see the painful reality of their marriage.

  • As we see the happy wedding of Napoleon and Josephine, we hear in voice over Josephine reveal her true feelings of lukewarm indifference to Napoleon.

  • During the Italian campaign, we hear the Narrator tell us about all the glories and victories of Napoleon while we see French troops pillage small Italian towns and take away food and livestock from poor farmers.

  • We hear Napoleon tell his party guests about how “authority's main job is to keep man from being at his worst,” but we see Napoleon behaving at his worst by conspiring to have an affair with another woman right in front of Josephine.

  • We hear Josephine read her statement declaring how she feels pleasure giving Napoleon “the greatest proof of attachment and devotedness that was ever given on earth,” that is, a divorce, but yet, we also see her sobbing uncontrollably.

In one of the last scenes in which we see Napoleon in Tuileries Palace, Stanley shifts poetic gears once again. We see Napoleon sitting at a large table eating alone, and we hear the Narrator tell us that all of the allies had refused to have any diplomatic dealings with Napoleon. You see, in a stark contrast to all of the previous scenes in which we saw one thing but heard something different, this is one of the only scenes in which we see and hear something that has the very same meaning – that is, Napoleon is completely and hopelessly alone.

That, to me, is poetic cinema.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Youth Without Youth

* Spoilers *

We first heard rumors of Coppola’s Megalopolis script. We knew that his story drew upon mythology and a woman who was a student of mythology and that there was a male protagonist who had the ability to stop time while he alone remained awake and active, “a variant of Peggy Sue’s unique experience and a power that Francis had arranged for him to use in fiendishly cunning ways,” said Wendy Doniger, a longtime friend and scholar, as quoted in Zoetrope magazine.

But in draft after draft, the story kept spinning away from him.

So Wendy hooked Francis up with a book called “Youth Without Youth” by Mircea Eliade, because similar themes were explored in Eliade’s novella. Well, Francis leaped at the chance to adapt it.

Some of my more devoted readers may recall that we
had a discussion here last February over some remarks Coppola had made in the diary portion of the film’s official website. And I think his words are still fascinating enough to be shared again:

“I've been thinking about what seems to be a repeating pattern: artists who distinguish themselves when they are young, and then never can quite reach those levels again. There are many examples, especially in literature, the theater, and of course in film. I think of some of the greats I've admired in my own life: Tennessee Williams, who wrote THE GLASS MENAGERIE and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE when he was in his thirties and then was tormented by critics as well as himself for failing to match those achievements later in life; Norman Mailer, who was twenty-five when he wrote THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, and kept working, reaching ever upward and not quite making it; Joseph Heller, who wrote CATCH-22 in 1961 and never topped it; J. D. Salinger, who wrote his two great books and stories early on and then nothing; and many others, including poets and playwrights who took their own lives rather than face the fact that their creative summits seemed to have passed. Many artists arrive at what seems to be the peaks of their careers when they are quite young, and though they try hard, find that in the eyes of critics, their readers or audiences, and perhaps even themselves -they never match or outdo the work of their youth. Even the great Fellini tormented himself over what he felt were a series of failures beginning with GUILETTA DEGLI SPIRITTI. But there have been exceptions, of course - few but great. Think of Shakespeare, who continually seemed to be able to reinvent himself; and Akira Kurosawa, who made magnificent films throughout his long life despite great periods of depression. Braque never was able to outdo the work of his younger self, but his colleague Picasso did. And when Giuseppe Verdi was eighty years old and considered at the end of a beloved career, he astonished all with the great work FALSTAFF. Why is this? What are the reasons? Is it only that genius at the level of Shakespeare, Verdi, Kurosawa and Picasso is as rare and precious as it would seem, or are there other factors as well?”

“I've begun to think that the only sensible way to deal with this dilemma is to become young again, to forget everything I know and try to have the mind of a student. To re-invent myself by forgetting I ever had any film career at all, and instead to dream about having one. Certainly one advantage of 'youth' in the arts is ignorance, to know so little as to be fearless. To not grasp that certain things one may dream up are actually impossible to do. When I finished Apocalypse Now I of course thought ‘If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have even tried...’ Certainly old age brings ‘experience’ and that is not to be discounted, but in the arts, fearlessness is a more desirable genie than experience. Fearlessness is cousin to innovation, whereas experience can be the parent of fear. Once you've fallen out of the tree a few times; felt the pain of those bruised knees and suffered the embarrassment of the inevitable ridicule —it's much more difficult to be as daring in what you do, or even what you attempt to do.”

In a
recent piece in the NY Times, A.O. Scott pointed out:

“Mr. Coppola’s record through the ’80s — at the moment everybody’s least favorite decade in the history of American cinema — is disappointing only when held up against his work in the ’70s. Nobody will argue that
“Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986), “Gardens of Stone” (1987) and “Tucker: The Man and his Dream” (1988) are masterpieces, but they hold up pretty well. Kathleen Turner, James Caan and Jeff Bridges are all in good form, and if the movies were underappreciated in their time, it was in no small part because the man who directed them had, not so long before, made “The Conversation” and the first two “Godfather” pictures in a three-year span. In other words, it may have been the burden of the big career that made it hard for Mr. Coppola to carve out a medium-size career as a maker of moderately ambitious, high-quality commercial movies.”


So what do you do? Do you keep going and take the hits or aspire to create more masterpieces at the risk of financial security? I’ll say this – I don’t agree with the idea that you forget everything and start over late in your career. Whatever you work on at ANY stage of your career, keep it simple and pursue a mastery of the craft. Apply everything you know to every new story you work on, do the very best you can EVERY TIME, and let the chips fall where they may.


Okay, the story involves “Dominic Matei, a professor whose life changes after a cataclysmic incident during the dark years prior to World War II.” In other words, he got struck by lightning and by some medical miracle, he’s young again. Hence, youth without youth - he’s young again without actually being young. Wonderful! LOVE the concept! I have 5 outlines about stories involving a return to youth in some fashion, and I couldn’t wait to read the book. But this damn thing is
not available anywhere in the U.S. Well, during my recent disappearance, I managed to get my hands on a copy of Eliade’s novella (in English no less!), which I read in one sitting.

I have no idea how anyone could possibly adapt this book.


There is very little about this novella that makes it a “story” in any traditional sense of the word. The setup of Matei becoming young again, kinda like Solaris, was just an excuse to have a string of philosophical and/or metaphysical discussions. The “story” does move forward, not because a plot moves forward, but because time moves forward from about 1938 to 1968. After the inciting incident of the lightning strike, a Professor takes an interest in Matei in the hospital. As Matei slowly recovers, there are flashbacks to his past and a woman he loved and lost. Once re-awakened, both Matei and the Professor quickly realize he’s miraculously young again. This once 80-year-old man remembers everything he's ever learned with incredible precision. Word spreads about his amazing story. The world becomes fascinated. The Gestapo wants to take him away for experiments. The hospital is surrounded by mysterious men scrutinizing Matei’s every move. And Matei can’t go back to his old life because all of his friends think he’s dead. He has to find a way to start anew and avoid all of this attention.


But then nothing happens. We skip ahead to a few years. The threat of the Gestapo never played out. We’re told that the Professor had died. Other men who had taken an interest in him while he was in the hospital are dead, too, from WWII. Matei is in another city, and we’re never told how he managed to sneak out of the hospital. Eliade highlights a few moments throughout Matei’s new young life where certain individuals or reporters recognize him but those encounters won't lead to anything else. Matei has no goals (in the traditional narrative sense) except to abandon his previous life’s work, avoid getting noticed, and drift through his new life while trying to come to terms with what's happened to him on a philosophical, metaphysical level. Thus, we're fed one intellectual discussion after another. Here’s a sample. Matei talks to himself (this'll explains the roses):

“He came to, laughing, and sat bolt upright. For several moments he looked around, then whispered, pronouncing the words slowly: ‘So, I’ve come back again to my old passion, philosophy. Will I ever succeed in demonstrating logically the reality of the exterior world? Idealistic metaphysics still seems to me today to be the only perfectly coherent construct.’ We’ve gotten off our subject, he heard the voice say. The problem was not the reality of the exterior world, but the objective reality of the ‘double’ or the guardian angel – pick any term that suits you. Isn’t that true? Very true. I can’t believe in the objective reality of the 'person' with whom I’m conversing; I consider him my 'double.' In a sense, that’s what he is. But that doesn’t mean he does not exist in an objective way, independently of the consciousness whose projection he appears to be. I’d like to be convinced, but… I know, in metaphysical controversies empirical proofs have no value. But wouldn’t you enjoy receiving, right now, in a moment or two, a few fresh roses picked from the garden? Roses! he exclaimed with feeling and some trepidation. I’ve always liked roses. Where would you like me to put them? Not in the glass, at any rate… No, he replied. Not in the glass. But a rose in my right hand, as I’m holding it now, open, and another on my knee. And a third, let’s say…

“At that moment he suddenly found himself holding between his fingers a beautiful rose the color of fresh blood, and on his knee, in an unstable balance, another was rocking…”

It’s not until the end of Matei’s life around 1960 that Eliade even indulges in a philosophical discussion about what to do with time. You’d think that discussion would’ve taken place when Matei first discovered he was young again. In any case, by all the photos I’ve seen and the trailer, it appears that Francis is actually staying quite faithful to the book. As best as I can gather, this could be the structure we'll see:


1) Matei is struck by lightning.

2) As he slowly recovers, there are flashbacks to his younger life and a girl he once loved (and lost) named Laura.

3) They figure out he’s young again. Tensions rise due to the fast approaching Gestapo. At one point, he slips out to be with a hooker who turns out to be an informant for the Gestapo.

4) He escapes. Fastforward a few years. He falls in love with a new girl, Veronica (who is like Laura and played by the same actress). Veronica also had an incident with lightning. She slips in and out of different realities and can speak Sanskrit, Ancient Egyptian, and Babylonian.

5) They part for the sake of her health.

6) We move ahead to the end of his life. A discussion about time. Matei invents an entirely new language to record his ideas, a language decipherable only by a futuristic computer program.

7) He dies. He thinks of Laura.


A.O. Scott wasn’t kidding when
he wrote, “The plot of Youth Without Youth is an otherworldly blend of moods and genres” or that it “bristles with restless, perhaps overreaching intellectual ambition, and without being overtly autobiographical, it feels intensely & earnestly personal.”

Well, I cannot criticize Eliade’s book. I am not qualified and I cannot say that there’s anything wrong with creating a setup like this in a book for the sake of having a lot of metaphysical discussions. In a film, I can't recommend it. In the hands of an amateur, this screams "lots of talk." In the hands of Francis Ford Coppola, we know he'll turn this into as beautiful and cinematic an experience as he can muster.

The problems I had with the book may be my own fault, really, because I am so accustomed to traditional structures with horizontal planes of development. I just wasn’t that interested in the metaphysical aspects of it – I wanted to feel the heart of the story. I wanted to feel the joy of being young again and see how Matei changed and how he used this blessing of extra time, and I was never quite satisfied. Since Matei spent so much of his first youth devoting himself to becoming brilliant (and in the process losing the love of his life), I wanted to explore emotionally how his brilliance was put to good use the second time around. I wanted him to really fall in love again and do it right and I just wasn’t satisfied with Veronica. His time with her was designed to be more of a metaphysical conundrum than a human story.

Does this mean that the film will be terrible? I have no idea. I can’t help but admire the wild, blind courage of Coppola to tackle a story like this, and I’ll be first in line to see the film. And I'll try to forget what I wanted and didn't get out of the book. Sometimes I wonder if we don't judge films/scripts too harshly because they're not the films/scripts WE would've created, as opposed to considering, on its own terms, the one that the director/screenwriter created.

Even if he fails, I won’t care. When it comes to Coppola, I’ll take the bad with the good. I’d rather him fail and keep trying than to see him do nothing at all. To hell with embarrassment.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Creative Screenwriting Rant

In the latest issue of Creative Screenwriting Magazine (Volume 14, Number 4), Jeff Goldsmith wrote a giant 6-page puff piece on Milos Forman and his latest film, Goya’s Ghosts, which Jeff called “a finely told tale of torture and the abuse of power, a story whose sophisticated narrative and memorable characterizations… make it one of this summer’s standout screenplays.”

THIS, a film that scored 30% on the
Critic’s Tomatometer. THIS, a movie Richard Roeper said was “Wrong, wrong, wrong, every step of the way.” THIS, a film Matt Zoller Seitz called “an unwieldy mix of political satire and lavish period soap opera.” Even Roger Ebert, whom I love dearly but his reviews have become generous to a fault, admitted in his review, “It's filled with so much melodrama, coincidence and people living their lives against the backdrop of history that Victor Hugo would feel overserved. There are so many dramatic incidents, indeed, that it's hard to figure out who the central figure is supposed to be.” And this was almost everyone’s complaint, the fact that the film’s title character, Goya, was lost in the shuffle and shoved into the background to make way for a subplot involving a Priest named Lorenzo and a girl named Ines, who is wrongfully imprisoned, raped, and tortured as part of the Spanish Inquisition.

My question is this – how does an article like this serve all those aspiring screenwriters out there who are trying so hard to learn the craft? Because this does more to reinforce Goldman’s comment that “nobody knows anything” than provide any semblance of edification for newbies. Almost all of the articles (in both
Creative Screenwriting and Script Magazine) about screenwriters whose scripts have been produced and whose films are soon-to-be-released never fail to be mindless puff pieces, because the assumption is that they succeeded because they got a sale and because they got produced.

Just because a script got produced does not mean that they wrote a good script that’s worthy of our time. This is not the measure of success. All things are not equal when it comes to script sales.

It simply isn’t enough to get a sale. You have to master the craft in order stay alive. Would anyone think Milos Forman successful just because his Goya’s Ghosts screenplay (in collaboration Jean-Claude Carriere) got turned into a film? The fact is, even the masters fail from time to time. Magazines like
Script and Creative Screenwriting sacrifice intellectual honesty about the craft by foolishly propping up endeavors that fail under the guise of “supporting the writer.”

What’s better for the writer - false praise or intellectual honesty about how something failed?

So where can a screenwriter get fed? For me, personally, I feel more nourished by reading the
New York Times Arts Section, Roger Ebert, GreenCine Daily, and all the people on my sidebar.

How about you?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Do you believe me now?

Okay, as promised, I’m posting the photo to prove that I am, in fact, Mystery Man, and your favorite sexy man movie-writer.

(Hey guys, will return in a couple of days.)


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Script Review - Hitman (Part 2)


All right, let’s talk story.

Hitman is very much a standard issue conspiracy plot, very similar to
Shooter in the sense that an expert killer gets hired to shoot a target (in this case, a Marxist-lovin’ Russian presidential candidate), but the job goes terribly awry (SURPRISE!). Suddenly, our main man finds himself swept up into the murky waters of government conspiracies. In Shooter, the protagonist works to clear his name. In Hitman, the protagonist doesn’t have a name. He’s just a number, which isn’t even above 50. So I doubt he’s all that concerned about clearing his anonymous number, and thus we need other goals to rope Agent 47 back into this wildly convoluted plot. Skip gives us 2:

1) The Marxist-lovin’ Russian presidential candidate, whom 47 shoots between the eyes in public, almost immediately shows up on TV giving more speeches with some bandages on his head. Is this really 47’s problem? He did his job. Not according to the agency, as they aren’t willing to pay him. (I was half-expecting 47 to tell Diana they should pay him for a second contract, because there’s an obvious body-double thing going on here, but that never happened.) So he has to find the real Marxist-lovin’ Russian presidential candidate and take him out.

2) A gorgeous Russian hooker (aren’t they all?) needs to be taken out, too, because she saw Agent 47 during the assassination attempt. Or… did she? A side-note about 47’s suits. I frickin’ love his suits, I really do, but if you’re going to take out a Russian presidential candidate IN RUSSIA with a Barrett .50 Caliber Long Range Sniper Rifle and you’re BALD with a BARCODE on the back of your head, you might want to nix the suit and try to BLEND IN. Just a thought. At least, that’s what I used to do, but that’s all I’m saying about my other life.

(Those caps are dedicated to you, my friend Joshua James.)

Question - are those two goals good enough for a story?

I’ll let you decide.

There are 5 layers to this screenplay that I want to explore. I’m covering 2 in this post, 3 in the next, and then I’ll analyze the characters. I can’t help it. There are lots of great topics to discuss and why not? I’m also saving my praise for Skip ‘til the end.


The hit on the Marxist-lovin’ Russian presidential candidate, which I would characterize as the Inciting Incident, doesn’t even happen until – holy crap – page 25 (or page 40 if this was formatted correctly). In most 120-page 3-act scripts, the entire FIRST ACT should be over by about page 27. This isn’t a 4-act story, or a non-plot, or an anti-plot or anything else - it’s a straightforward action picture that follows 3-acts. When you realize how long it takes before the main plot even begins, you’re annoyed. As far as I’m concerned, the hit on the Russian candidate should’ve been the opening scene.

What held Skip up for so long was a pointless Flashback Structure. For those who may not know, this is where we open with the ending. Usually there’s a cliff-hanger, because something’s at stake. Then a character “tells his/her story” (gag me). We go through the entire story (filled with voice overs) until we come full circle back to where we started at the ending. There’s usually a twist and then the story’s over. I despise this structure with every fiber of my being. Although I should thank quite a few scribes on
TriggerStreet for showing me how some films used this structure to a good, defensible purpose – Amadeus, Double Indemnity, Titanic, to name a few. In the case of Amadeus and Double Indemnity, the audience gets emotionally prepared for the tragic ending. Okay, fine. In the case of Titanic (which Pat talked about in her third exposition article), we first see the ship after it sank, we learn how it sank, so that we’re not too distracted when it sinks.

So how was this used in Hitman? We open with Mike Whittier coming home. After wandering through the kitchen and family room he discovers a body wrapped in a rug and - WHOA - there’s Agent 47 with his .45s out (silencers attached). He’s sitting at his desk in his chair! God, hold me back. Mike’s very apprehensive.

He says, “If you’re going to kill me…”

47 interrupts him. “If I was gonna kill you, I would’ve done it when you walked to your car this morning, and been gone by the time your body hit the sidewalk. But, right now all you can think about is your family. And that is making you desperate. Desperate men do stupid things. Without the suppressor, this weapon will sound like a Howitzer going off in here. And… I don’t leave witnesses.”

Mike says, “I understand what you’re implying.”

“I’m not implying anything. If you make me kill you, Mike, you won’t go alone. Sit!” And then Agent 47 tells his whole frickin' bloody life story through voice over. God help me...

Four things I hate about this approach:

1) There is nothing Agent 47 tells us in voice over about being a hitman or anything else that we couldn’t easily figure out for ourselves just by watching the damn film.

2) We know that no matter what happens throughout the story, no matter how intense the action gets, no matter how many bad guys surround 47 with submachine guns, we'll never once have a reason to worry because we already know how it’ll end. Skip gave the game away before it even started! We now know that 47 and Mike will survive everything because they must inevitably wind up back where we started in Mike’s house to have that final showdown.

3) The only thing at stake in this setup is Mike’s life (and the lives of his family) and he's not even the protag. And since Agent 47 is the protag, we can already guess that he’s not going to mercilessly kill him and his wife and his kids, because it would piss us off to see the protag slaughter innocent people right before the closing credits.

4) Having said all of this, the only other question that remains is who is in the rug? So, tell me, is this question really important enough to warrant a Flashback Structure? Not one damn bit.

Unless it helps to prepare us for something that's kind of tragic, a Flashback Structure generally puts an audience at an emotional distance to the characters because it keeps them from just totally diving into your story. It takes away too much of the mystery and turns the plot into a connect-the-dots puzzle as opposed to making the audience wonder and worry scene-by-scene how it’s going to end. You’re given a nice, soft cushion to hold on to, because you can always remind yourself, “He can’t die because he has to wind up back in Mike’s house.”

You’re being too nice to the audience by giving them that cushion. We all know that audiences don’t really want a cushion. They want to be taken for that roller coaster ride from beginning to end, and they all want to sit in the front seat.

A few more scenes into the story, we learn that Mike works for Interpol, that he is hot on the trail of Agent 47, and he’s just dying to take him down, thus making him the antagonist. Well, this really pissed me off, because this means that Skip has already shown me how the protag and antag will inevitably face off in the Act 3 climax.



I once played Hitman 2. Had a great time. I have my own wonderful hitman outline and thought this might help provide some creative inspiration. It didn’t, but I had fun.

For each assignment in the game, there's a variety of options available to take out the target. You could do it in a silent, deadly fashion, like sneak into a man’s kitchen, pour poison onto his fish, sneak out, and wait for the confirmation that he’s dead. Or you could grab a bunch of guns and kill everyone in sight, including innocent people. (Depending upon my mood, I went either way. Hehehe…)

After each assignment, you’d get rated. If you’re really good and you put the poison in the fish without being seen or killing anyone but the target, you’ll get a “Silent Assassin” rating with very high marks. If you blast everyone in sight like a homicidal maniac, you’ll get a “Mass Murderer” rating with very low marks.

Skip Woods’ Agent 47 would fail at his own game because his solution to everything was to behave like a “Mass Murderer.”

Well, there were one or two minor exceptions, but generally speaking – mass murderer.

And this brings me to Agent 47’s second assignment in the script. First, Mike walks through a crime scene in a “private banquet room” in Budapest. “It is a blood bath,” Skip writes. Mike explains to the “Head Guy” of the Budapest Federal Police how it probably happened: “I believe based on the discarded waiter’s jacket, he assumed the position of a waiter… And entered the room unarmed… The first one to go was stabbed. Probably from one of the steak knives.”

And then we see exactly how it happened, which was just as Mike described. Are you kidding me? Do we really need to have it explained before we watch it? And yes, it is a merciless blood bath. 47 takes out ten guys with his Glocks. As he leaves, Mike tells us in voice over he leaves and “strolled out of the club’s back door…”

No shit.

So let me ask the question – what’s the dramatic point of watching 47 wipe everyone out like that in a flashback? To show us what a homicidal maniac he is? This may be exciting in a game, but it sure as hell serves no dramatic purpose in an action film. And this brings up an interesting point. If you’re writing a hitman story, should you not make a dramatic point behind each assignment? Because there has to be a defensible purpose to the violence.

How many dramatic points can you come up with for a hit?

I give you 5:

1) The hit’s about how well he can accomplish the task, like in training.

2) The hit presents a moment of inner conflict for the protagonist, like a discovery that the target is a relative and he can’t go through with it or his personal feelings are somehow interfering with the assignment

3) An outside factor interferes, and the hitman has to suddenly change plans, like he discovers that he’s the target, or he’s been caught, or as in Spielberg's Munich a child runs back into the soon-to-be-exploding building, etc.

4) The hit is something the protag is doing without permission and at great risk.

5) The hit is about how the protag screws up.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Script Review - Hitman (Part 1)


Okay, I have an undated 127-page draft from
Skip Woods, author of Swordfish, a movie that came out way back in 2001 and received a spirited lynching from the critics. In fact, Mr. Woods’ script was singled-out in the vast majority of reviews. Ebert called it “the result of a nasty explosion down at the Plot Works. It's skillfully mounted and fitfully intriguing, but weaves such a tangled web that at the end I defy anyone in the audience to explain the exact loyalties and motives of the leading characters.” The Los Angeles Times said, “Whatever interest the film creates is squandered via the smug, showy amorality that runs through it.” Rolling Stones - “the sleazy script by Skip Woods… slimes the actors.” The Los Angeles Daily - “This is the definition of empty (and empty-headed) entertainment, willing to stoop to any level to goose a weary and jaded audience.” Newsday - “By the seventh explosion, you can't help wondering whether all this flashy stuff amounts to more of a smokescreen shielding a lack of spine or soul.” And finally, Philadelphia Daily News - “Oops, I think one of the flying bodies belonged to a screenwriter, the one who was meant to supply clever dialogue and plausibility.”


Swordfish had a moderate showing at the box office, and I suspect, all things considered, the studio just barely broke even if that. (The movie is long removed from public consciousness. The only aspect about that film that people remember or talk about is the fact that you got to see Halle Berry’s breasts in a moment so pointless and gratuitous it was embarrassing.) Since the film’s release, everyone seemingly moved on except Skip – a good warning to screenwriters – you're never more than one script away from a career-stalling disaster. I’m not sure what happened to Skip. It’s been about 7 or 8 years. Either the industry shied away from him or he shied away from the industry OR he had a lot of starts and stops but wasn’t able to close a deal. And now he’s landed a nice gig with a franchise-starter, which adapts a popular video game and I’m sure he hopes will put him back on top.

I think this is the context through which we’d have to view this script, because this is really about how to recover when you get publicly shot down for a movie you wrote.

Two points:

1 – A lambasting by the critics changes nothing. You have to remain faithfully devoted to mastering the craft to the very end, always broadening your horizons, which means studying the craft, writing endlessly, giving and receiving feedback weekly, if not daily.

2 – You have to make sure your next script doesn’t repeat those same mistakes. You have to prove that you are not, in fact, what they say you are and illustrate very clear evidence to the contrary, as well as a supreme mastery of craft.

And now we come to a consideration of Hitman.


In a nutshell - the look of the script smacks of desperation. Skip manipulated almost everything to keep the page count down. Instead of 12 pt. Courier font, we have 11 pt. Courier font. The lines have been squeezed together so much so that the tops of some letters actually touch the bottoms of other letters. He manipulated the margins of the dialogue, too, so that it’s well over four inches wide, which is very troubling. Dialogue is usually 3 inches wide. (What’s your deal Mystery Man? Who do you think you are? The Format Police?) Hey, look, format was designed this way so that one page would equal one minute of screentime. When you’ve manipulated font size and spacing and margins of dialogue, this means that scenes, especially those with a lot of talk, will take up more screentime than page count. If formatted properly, this script would be pushing 160 pages, maybe longer.

If you find yourself manipulating font size and margins in order to squeeze it all in and keep the page count down, the problem is not the format. The problem is you.

(Note: picture above is NOT worth 1,000 words.)

Manipulated format gives the impression that the writer still hasn’t gotten a handle on the craft of screenwriting, that he/she is overeager to impress while not entirely confident in his/her skills, and that the emphasis in the script may very well be on all the wrong elements, like too much dialogue or how brilliant one can write action lines. A lot of aspiring screenwriters do this. They’ll try so hard to impress through beautifully written action lines that show how intelligent & insightful the writer can be or how he/she can poetically capture the slightest gestures of characters. Well, the emphasis is all wrong. The emphasis in a scene should be WHAT happens and HOW does it happen. Your brilliance and style should shine through action and character, not prosy, novel-like action paragraphs. That's very weak screenwriting.

And in this case, we have action lines that are ridiculously overwritten and scenes with absurd amounts of dialogue. In my running notes, I had “Pg 75 – Good God, look at all that talk…” “Pg 109 – WAY too much dialogue and exposition that comes too late into the story...” “Pg 119 – RIDICULOUS amount of dialogue.”

Not only that, for a guy who has an image of writing hip, contemporary action films, it’s embarrassing to see that he has no clue as to how a screenplay ought to function. Between the scenes, he has CUT TOs and FADE TO BLACKs, which we don’t write anymore. How can you be hip when you’re using outdated techniques from like, the 1960s? The action lines are filled with camera angles, “we see,” “we hear,” “CU” (for close-ups), “SUPERIMPOSE TITLE CARDs (when only SUPER is necessary), and worst of all, we have a countless number of overwritten unfilmmables in the action lines. For example:

“BELOW, another camouflaged and masked soldier, holding a sat-phone moves through the compound. These men belong to the most elite of the Russian Special forces, Spetsgruppa Vympel.

Believed to be dismantled under Gorbachev due to their legendary cruelty and predilection for blood-letting, the Vympel’s were in fact simply reorganized. A military sledgehammer for the new KGB.

The other Vympel walks toward the remnants of an old apartment building.”

That middle paragraph? Unfilmmable and unnecessary. Cut it. If it was truly essential to know their backstory, that would have to come out somewhere in the dialogue. If the production needed details about Spetsgruppa Vympel, they can easily look it up.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking and I’ll ask the question for you – why does format matter if Skip’s script was accepted and produced?

Easy - this was an assignment, and they had to accept it. Make no mistake, this spec was in need of a rewrite; however, almost everything in this business boils down to money. And I suspect they simply didn’t want to pay the money to hire another writer to fix the script, and this, my friends, is how bad movies get made. Yet, sometimes, by a miracle, they turn out okay.

When this film gets released on DVD, I may do a script-to-screen study because I really am curious to see how the badly manipulated format compares to the finished film.

Next: Story & Character.