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  • Why Her ?

    January 4th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    2013 was an excellent year for movies – perhaps the best in quite a few years. And there are many films that I would be very content with winning the Oscar. But for me, the best movie of the year is Her. And no one is more shocked about that than I am.

    I went in doubting the hype. I’m not a huge Joaquin Phoenix fan and Spike Jonze is the kind of manic eccentric genius that sometimes doesn’t translate to a relatable cohesive story. And considering his writing credits include the Jackass movies and Where the Wild Things Are and his directing credits include Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and dozens of music videos, who could guess that he’d write the next great American love story.

    The best compliment I could give Her is that it makes me never want to write again because I don’t think I could ever write something as good that works on so many levels. It is a touching, amazingly relevant, powerful and complete love story that engrosses you more than most love stories where there are TWO people present on screen. It is beautifully crafted, beautifully acted and thematically impactful. It’s a love story for the ages, and the age that hasn’t come yet.

    And I realized there are some specific reasons why this movie works so well.

    1.    It creates an interesting, expansive world but only explores one tiny piece of it. There are so many lovely nuances to this futuristic Los Angeles setting. The green screen backgrounds shows how much LA has changed in the near future, with its endless glittering lights and cell towers pinging like shooting stars. Every single person is engaged in a schizophrenic-like experience talking to their own ear pieces and personal OS systems as they walk down the street completely oblivious that anyone else exists. The sharp, ultra-functional, ultra-modern, color-infused world of the apartments and offices underline the isolation that seems to exist between its residents. There are friendships and dates and social interaction, but the closest relationship people seem to have in this world is with their tech gadgets.

    Other nuances like how email is read and categorized, how fast technology works and is able to absorb and grow and adapt, how people get around, etc. only further help flesh out the world.  Jonze clearly knew every little aspect of his near-future landscape before he wrote this script and was able to pick and choose which ones would highlight his theme and story and characters in genius ways.  There are probably tons of other aspects of this world that could have been explored, but limiting it to what is directly connected to the love story makes it all the more intriguing. When writers know how to create a truly intriguing world that is special yet relatable, different yet plausible, and that world matches the story that is occurring within it, it’s a winning combination.

    Many of the scripts I’ve read lately have these expansive futuristic/dystopian/post-apocalyptic worlds, but they aren’t really necessary to the story – the writers are just hoping that their “awesome” worlds will mask what’s lacking in the narrative. Jonze chose a time and world that complimented the story in perfect fashion and made it feel MORE believable and viable instead of just distracting us from it. Jonze created a big world but made it feel small, while creating a small story and making it feel big. That’s one of the keys to successful world building.

    2.   Timing. Is there a more relevant love story right now than that between man and technology? It’s the right story at the right time. The themes and societal questions raised and explored of what makes for a genuine relationship, what defines a happy couple, what makes for true love, and what constitutes an acceptable love dynamic in society is done so in beautiful ways. At a time when gay marriage is a hot button issue, Jonze takes the concept two steps further and makes relationships with OS’s (Operating Systems) the next issue to be tackled. It’s talked about and accepted by many in this story – but it’s still not the thing everyone is comfortable with. It’s still somewhat taboo and embarrassing for Phoenix’s character. There’s still that unsure “Ohhh…umm…okay” reaction when people hear about this relationship.

    When a writer can tap into the zeitgeist – and what could be NEXT in the zeitgeist – in a way that examines an issue in a brilliant way without ever mentioning the issue, that shows true talent. The concept of the OS/Human relationship is discussed, but it’s more about the doubt the Human and the OS have in their own feelings than their worries about what the outside world thinks. It’s about being comfortable in your own love and your own mind and letting everything else go. And if that’s not an important and relevant message and theme to explore today, I don’t know what is.

    The beauty of the way Jonze explores this theme, however, is how he has elevated the genre and the discussion. Which brings us to…

    3.    It defines elevated storytelling. And that’s not easy to do with romance or romantic dramas. If you’ve ever seen a Nicholas Sparks novel brought to life on screen, they all have strong emotional hooks. They all have an internal dilemma and external conflict that rips the lovers apart only so they can find a way to come back together. But almost none of them feel realistic or relatable. His books explore life-threatening illnesses and death. They are female fantasies underlining the power of true love. None of them are overly intelligent or complex. They connect on an emotional level but that’s about it. The beauty of Her is that it connects on an emotional level AND a cerebral one. It makes you feel, it makes you cry, and it makes you think at the same time.

    Hollywood always says it wants ELEVATED material. This is a romantic drama on an elevated level. Elevated means there is something smarter and deeper about the story than the normal, down-the-middle boy meets girl story. And Her delivers on that in spades.

    4.    It tells a complete love story. It’s boy meets girl (ish), but in a whole new way. But the beauty of the structure of the story is that we really get to experience their whole relationship. I don’t want to give anything away about how the film ends, but every time you think the story can end, Spike Jonze finds a believable and relatable way to throw another plot twist into the mix that progress the arcs of both characters and raises the stakes. And they all feel like REAL twists that would plague any real-world human relationship which is what makes it feel so genuine.

    It doesn’t take much to believe that a person can fall in love with a voice on a computer. So once you swallow that premise, the rest is a rollercoaster ride of emotion from beginning to end that probably feels like a love story you’ve experienced.  Or maybe that’s just me. It uses all the tropes of romantic drama – loss, death, cheating, conflict, temptation, realization, growth, change, love and sex – but there’s only one physical person involved. It’s a focused story, but a complete story. And that’s what you should be trying to do with your scripts.

    5.     It gives its actors immense room to play, react, feel and emote. Movies don’t get made without stars these days, and to get stars you need characters that stand out and give them something to do.  A new situation or mindset for them to explore emotionally. And too many writers focus on the action of what the characters do in the scene and not enough on the REACTION the actors get to portray in their quiet or reflective moments. And all of the actors in this film have those moments and play them perfectly.

    Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams (who looks more like Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich than the glam roles she usually plays), Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt and especially Scarlett Johansson are all pitch perfect (and listen for the greatest voice over cameo ever by Kristen Wiig).

    The fact that Scarlett Johansson can’t be nominated for an Academy Award is a damn shame. Personally, I’ve never been a big Joaquin Phoenix fan. I find him intense and creepy to watch but not in a fun way (like Daniel Day Lewis). But the man knows how to genuinely emote on screen like very few others can. He’s so open and able to commit to the words, it’s powerful to watch. And I’m not sure if Scarlett was in the room or speaking to him through the ear piece or if it was all done in post, but you’d never know he was the only person in the room.

    Phoenix’s character has a simple enough backstory – a nasty divorce from the love of his life has left him somewhat of a recluse and emotionally crippled. It’s not a hugely original backstory. But when combined with the world created, it’s all you need. The OS Samantha, played by Johansson, has just as much (if not more) or a character arc than the human characters. It’s her character that grows and changes the most. As I said, it’s a complete love story told from both perspectives, even though we are only SEEING one on screen. Give huge credit to Scarlett for bringing a character to life that isn’t even alive and that we never see. If you can write characters like that, you will get a major actor attached to your script.

    6.    The dialogue will affect you. I don’t want to ruin anything, but I will leave you with two quotes that stand out.  “Love is a form of socially acceptable insanity.” This line is brilliant not just because it’s accurate, but because the whole story is about a guy talking to an ear piece, which makes him look even crazier yet in this world it’s socially acceptable. And “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” It’s one of those lines that stay with you, that become part of the way you think. The script is full of these, and that kind of dialogue is what powerful films are made of.

    Hopefully I’ve convinced you to go see Her, but also to read the script and learn how to craft a story that deserves Oscar gold.


  • Making Sure Your Subplots Aren’t Sub-Par

    December 20th, 2011

    A man can’t live on ‘A’ storylines alone – and neither can your scripts. If you’re not crafting and interweaving compelling subplots and B stories into your script, your story will probably feel flat and won’t sustain for 100 minutes.

    Your subplots and B stories are what add new dimensions to your script and flesh out your concept and story. Most stories have at least 2 or 3 subplots, and can have more. But you don’t want them to take AWAY from the main storyline, only add to it!

    The first 8-10 pages of your second act is where your main character will face their first major test or challenge and take the first step in their arc. But these pages are also where you should begin introducing and developing your subplots and B stories. Somewhere in pgs 30-40ish.

    It’s a fuzzy area, but I actually think there are some differences between a B-STORY and a SUBPLOT. I think B stories usually still directly involve your main character, whereas subplots do not – at least not initially.

    The B Story is your character’s secondary motivation or mission – the OTHER thing they have to accomplish. Your B Story may be a second problem or issue that your main character has to fix. And while your A-Story presents itself at the inciting incident and is solidified at the end of the first act with the acceptance of the adventure, your B-Story often can’t be identified UNTIL the second act begins, because it’s what is illuminated by the adventure beginning. 

    For example, in The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy’s A-Story is to find the Wizard and get home, but the B-Story becomes helping Oz and her new friends. She had no idea she was going to have to do that until the adventure began.

    The B Story is often the more emotional thing, and not the visual, tangible, action-y thing. It’s connected to your concept – but is usually caused because of or caused by your concept. It’s what your hook or major storyline leads your characters to (or to do).

    For example, in the political comedy Dave, the main storyline is Kevin Kline pretending to be the President and getting away with it while adapting to his very new life as the leader of the free world. But there are two B stories – or perhaps B and C story – the first is the love story with the First Lady. The second B story, perhaps the C story, is that Dave must get this bill passed to save children and cut the budget.

    In my company’s own movie, Sydney White, the B story is how Amanda Bynes’s Sydney character affects and helps the “Dorks” characters. She’s still involved, so it’s not really a subplot. It’s a true secondary storyline. 

    Your B Story could be a love story for your main character (though in a straight romantic comedy, this would always be the A story). Very often, in action or disaster films, the B story is the love story, but it can be in any genre.

    Some examples where the B story is the love story include Juno (love story with Michael Cera), Liar Liar (love story with Maura Tierney and winning his wife back is a second mission and motivation to overcoming the issue of not being able to lie), Twister, Armageddon, 2012, Die Hard, etc – all have B love stories.

    In contrast, your subplots are basically a way for you to cut away from your main storylines and main characters and infuse different life and personality into your story. These subplots do NOT have to include your main characters, and probably shouldn’t. However, it usually does and SHOULD intersect and affect your major plotline at some point.

    It could be your sidekick, best friend, mentor character or antagonist that you’ve introduced us to in the first act, now develops their own slightly separate storyline and goals. Or it could be a totally NEW character that you introduce here.

    Your subplots actually can cause or lead to your turning points in your second act if they intersect well with your major storylines.  For instance, in The Ref, the two subplots are the son’s storyline and the Drunken Santa storyline. They eventually intersect and affect the main storyline of Denis Leary and the parents, but they are separate.

    In thrillers like Primal Fear, The Negotiator, or Long Kiss Goodnight, the subplots are the behind the scenes politics or overarching stories of corruption, dirty cops, revenge, business, etc. that affect and help drive the main action. In Primal Fear, there’s a real estate subplot that leads to discovery of clues that intersect with the main storyline, but it’s just a subplot and doesn’t directly involve the main characters.

    Or the subplot could be the OTHER side of your love story. For example, in Six Days 7 Nights, the major storyline is Anne Heche and Harrison Ford’s love story developing as they try to get rescued, but the subplot is their respective boyfriends/girlfriends back on the mainland as they get closer.

    Remember – much like your main ‘A’ storyline, your B stories and subplots should have a set up, a beginning, middle and end – they need a structure – and they need to be resolved. This is done usually by the end of your second act or middle of your third act – but it depends on how big and important the subplot is.

    Your B story – your character’s secondary missions – they have to include obstacles just like the A story does. And your subplot MUST have conflict – or else it is not a subplot, it’s just filler! I’ll say that again – if your subplot has no conflict, it’s just filler.

    The subplot must also connect with your story’s main theme. In fact, the subplot often drives home the theme even more specifically and obviously than your A storyline. Look at Crazy Stupid Love – had tons of storylines and subplots, but even the smaller subplots of Steve Carrell’s kid’s love life and the funny angry neighbors all added to, and brought out, the theme of the story.

    If you have a true ensemble piece – meaning there is pretty equal screen time shared amongst 5-10 different characters, then you don’t need subplots because each of your characters will have their own storyline and those will be more than enough to use to cut away from whatever else is going on, and progress the story. Basically, your whole story is made up of subplots that tie into an overarching concept, story or theme. For example – Crash, Love Actually, New Year’s Eve, Traffic, etc.  But keep in mind that many of these storylines should intersect in some way at some point just like your subplots would.

    And if you have created a wonderful subplot on page 32 and introduced new characters, but then we don’t see them again until page 83, then you haven’t tracked that subplot well enough and it will not seem important enough to the story. After your major structural points or turning points, that’s usually a great time to cut away from your main characters and check back in with your subplots.

    So as you develop your script, make sure that you’re creating and tracking subplots and B stories that are just as compelling as your major storyline so that your concept, hook and theme can truly shine.

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