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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.

     

  • What Elements Make for a Good Dramatic Screenplay?

    January 8th, 2010

    Some say comedy is hard. And they’re right. But in my opinion it’s not as hard as crafting a good, successful, engrossing drama. Why? Well, even the dumbest of comedic gags or basest of jokes, will inevitably make someone laugh and be entertained. But a good drama has to do so much more than that. There’s a reason why almost 50% of the Oscar Winning Best Pictures in the last 80 years have been dramas.

     

    There is something powerful about a story that just wraps around you and sucks you in, making you forget your own problems and forces you to care about those of an often fictional character or at least someone to whom you have no personal connection. There’s something powerful about a story that can reduce your father to tears – or an audience of fathers. There’s something timeless about a good story that can make you think, reflect, feel, and react emotionally. And this is what a good dramatic screenplay should do.

     

    So how do you achieve that type of reaction? Well, it’s not easy.  But there are some keys to crafting a good dramatic screenplay. Let’s look at some examples of Oscar Nominated (or winning) dramas and see if there are any trends you notice. Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, Titanic, American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, Saving Private Ryan, Mystic River, A Few Good Men, Crash, Shawshank Redemption, The Queen, Apollo 13, Dead Man Walking, The Insider, Traffic, Slumdog Millionaire, etc.

     

    What do these movies have in common? There are three different trends and categories I’ve found.  First, there are true stories. Often the most dramatic stories are the ones that have actually happened or are based on actual events/people. The world is full of drama. However, the stories that movies are made about have something extra. They have broad appeal and national recognition, perhaps even historical significance. There’s something commercial about them, something that connects instead of detracts. The writer will take an event (or person or story or societal issue) and find an interesting and commercial hook they can explore to create a new angle on the story and those involved.  Some true stories expose something about people or an event or society as a whole that is unexpected, intriguing or brings something to light that has never been seen in that visual way before. From the above list, Titanic, Schindler’s List, The Queen, Apollo 13, Traffic and The Insider would all qualify under this trend.

     

    The second trend is epics. Oscar loves the epic and executives love big projects that feel like a whole new world is being created. Having a sweeping feeling means you are swept away by the story to a different place. Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, The English Patient, Braveheart, Elizabeth, Cold Mountain, etc. These are all sweeping epics. To be an epic, a script must have that sweeping feel to it, it almost always takes place in a different time period, it must be big budget, have action, romance, drama, numerous or at least large locations, a good number of characters (though only 2 or three strong leads), etc. Now, if you’re a first time writer, do yourself a favor and don’t write an epic. It will not sell and it will not do you any good as a first and only writing sample. Save it for after you’ve made your first sale.

     

    The third and final trend is that great dramatic stories start with great characters. Forrest Gump, American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, Shawshank Redemption, Mystic River, A Few Good Men, Crash, Dead Man Walking, Milk, The Wrestler, etc. It was the character – and the portrayal of that character through brilliant acting – that brings out the true power of the story and makes it connect to an audience. The story of Slumdog Millionaire was a universal, tried and true, rags to riches love story but without the setting (which was the most important character) and those little kids that the audience just fell for, that story wouldn’t have won anything.

     

    If your drama doesn’t have a juicy, complex, emotional, heart-wrenching, personal, intelligent, connectable role for an actor – it’s dead in the water.  A good dramatic screenplay has characters people can relate to and ones that come off as genuine – like you can understand exactly why they are doing what they are doing or feeling what they are feeling, etc. Same with dialogue – in a good drama, the dialogue is slightly heightened but it feels authentic – like it’s exactly what we would say in that same situation (though perhaps more verbose and intelligent – it is a movie after all). And as a side note, don’t be afraid to inject some comedy into your dramatic scenes. Except for Schindlers List, every single drama listed above has more than one moment of levity.

     

    However, there is one thing that every good drama needs no matter what the story is. It’s more than a trend – it’s the mandatory ingredient – CONFLICT. Drama is based on conflict. And not just any conflict, but one that is powerful, relatable, and complex enough to propel a story forward and help develop characters. The story has to be constantly progressing and increasingly more involved as dramas are the most likely genre to get stale or boring. So many ideas for dramas just aren’t BIG enough, so they feel slight on the page. If there is no tension, no conflict, no build to something powerful, then your script is BORING. I can’t tell you how many scripts I read where the writer thinks there is conflict, but alas, there isn’t nearly enough for a feature. There needs to be an immediate tangible conflict, a personal aka internal conflict, an inter-personal conflict AND an overarching conflict. And your story should bring all of these together in interesting and commercial ways. If you only have ONE of these, you don’t have a good dramatic screenplay.

     

    Now, recently dramas have been on the decline. Why? Because everyone has drama in their real life, so it’s not what they want to see on the screen. However, movies like “Precious” will do well because it actually makes most people’s drama seem not so bad. Audiences either want to be completely entertained or made to think their life doesn’t suck as badly as other people’s. And if there was only ONE drama produced per year, you could bet it would still be nominated. So, search for the conflict, the story or the character that inspires you, grabs you and affects you – and if you can’t find one, make one up. And keep writing!

     

    (Article was originally published on Storylink and can also be found at http://www.storylink.com/article/333)

     

     

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