Tag Archives: character

Watch Your Fucking Mouth

Al Swearengen

I’ve been reading a lot of unproduced screenplays recently, and a few things have been jumping out at me. First off: a lot of writers fumble on structure. A lot of what I’ve read has shown clear signs of competence but wandered around plotless for upwards of fifty pages. Some writers can pull off plotless, but most of them are novelists.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of writers are really bad at swearing. I’ll read a script full of characters saying fuck every other sentence and it just rings untrue. I always feel a bit silly when I ding a script for “too much swearing”, so I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothers me about it. I’m no prude, and some of my favorite scenes and movies are full of swearing, so what’s different about these scripts?

I think the key difference is that these writers are swearing by default. They probably swear a decent amount in their own lives, they’ve watched plenty of movies full of swearing, so they throw in swearing because that’s how people sound, right? The problem is that they forget to make their choice of words about the characters saying them. The swearing is about the writer, not the characters.

People who accuse writers of laziness when they use vulgarity are missing the point. Swearwords aren’t automatically lazy; it all comes down to how you use them. Some of the greatest scenes in film and TV revolve around characters who swear up a blue streak, but they work because those moments reveal something about those characters and deepen our understanding of their feelings and motivations.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

1) Steve Martin blows up at a rental car agent in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Up until this point the character has been mild-mannered and relatively patient, but he’s been through such an ordeal that he finally snaps and lets loose in the way only a man on the edge would do. The way he swears also tells us something about him as a character; it’s like a dam bursting, this sudden barrage of profanity pours forth from him and he’s punctuating every fucking word of every fucking sentence with another fucking swear word.

2) Peter Capaldi (the next Doctor Who!) in pretty much every scene of In The Loop.

Malcolm Tucker swears constantly and with evident relish. He terrorizes everyone around him and uses words like knives. He isn’t content with throwing out a “fuck” here and there, he rants and raves and spins absurd metaphors and embellishes every sentence with an acidity that jumps out of the screen at you.

3) Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.

David Mamet wrote this scene for Alec Baldwin. It isn’t in the stage play, but it’s by far the most famous moment in the movie. Baldwin is in the zone here, he’s all rhythm and rancor and cool energy. He swears for emphasis, to make a point, to hammer home his message and it flows like poetry. Say what you will about Mamet the man, but when he could write, he could write.

4) Bunk and McNulty in The Wire.

Two characters communicate entirely through the word fuck and it’s hilarious. They give every variation of the word its own meaning. A large part of this relies on the talent of the actors and their delivery, but the humor is there in the writing. The great part about this scene is that it shows us that the characters know each other so well that they can communicate with only one word.

These are all excellent examples of writers using profanity to tell us something about their characters. Swearwords are words like any others; they have a certain bite and relish to them, but if they are used poorly, they clang and fall flat just like any other.

So, what’s the takeaway? Should writers avoid profanity in their scripts? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they really just need to hear their words read aloud. I feel like a lot of the problems with dialogue become glaringly obvious when the words are read aloud. Mainly, though, it’s a matter of deciding why a character swears and how they swear.

The Nature of a Good Plot Twist

I finished playing Heavy Rain last night, and it got me thinking about plot twists and their function in storytelling. Heavy Rain is a game that places itself firmly in the “thriller movie” genre, for better or worse. It’s great at building tension and getting you to care about the characters you meet and control, but it falls into the trap that undermines so many thrillers, namely that its endgame centers around a “shocking” reveal that doesn’t actually make any logical sense.

(Just a quick warning: this rest of this post will contain spoilers about movies that are old enough I will assume everyone has seen them. There will be no Heavy Rain spoilers, however.)

The problem with plot twists, see, is that by nature they should make you jump out of your seat or gasp in horror. You’d never expect that [CHARACTER NAME] was the killer in Heavy Rain, after all, and you are of course horrified that you empathized with the character while playing. That’s the root of the problem, though; in order to make the twist ending truly surprising, the game’s writers decided to fill the story with red herrings and give no real concrete clues about the real killer’s identity. They didn’t want you to figure it out ahead of time, after all.

I think this is why very few storytellers can pull off a truly stunning twist that holds up under scrutiny. If a writer works to make her story internally consistent, she may layer in too many readable clues and people will write off the twist as “predictable” and feel cheated. The easiest shortcut to making a completely unpredictable twist, then, is to make that twist completely illogical or at odds with everything leading up to it. This will at least ensure a visceral shock in the moment, but ultimately… the audience just feel cheated in the light of day. Six of one, half dozen of the other.

There are the occasional successful twists, of course: The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, and The Usual Suspects come to mind. From what I can remember of the first two, clues to predict the twist were layered in throughout both movies. If you go back and re-watch them a second time, knowing the twist reveals the story rather than undermining it. Of course, there may be those of you out there who figured out the twists halfway through because of the clues.

The Usual Suspects treads in kind of dangerous territory, however, in that its twist ending makes you question why everything you just watched even matters. If the entire movie is a lie told by Kevin Spacey’s character, why should I even care what happened? I think what helps Usual Suspects is that it is such a well-made movie we forgive it for playing with such a hackneyed trope. It’s rare that “it was all just a dream!” is used as anything but a cheap gag.

I think the best twists are often so subtle you may not even realize they are there. I would argue that Minority Report has a twist ending, for example, although everyone who saw it with me disagreed with my perspective. My argument was that when Tom Cruise’s character is arrested and put into cold storage, everything that happens after that is a dream, thus explaining why he is rescued and everything works out positively for the characters. The end of the movie doesn’t pull back the curtain and reveal this, however, so it is entirely up for interpretation. The only clues you are given are a few lines from the jailer character about whether his charges dream while they are in storage.

In any case, I’d love to play another game in the style of Heavy Rain, if only the makers could be convinced to forego the showy twists of thriller movies and focus on things like character development and an internally consistent story. Surely there is a way to work in shocking reveals without causing massive inconsistencies and plot holes.

Who watches The Watchmen? Definitely not the Heroes writers.

First off: a disclaimer. I’m going to discuss this week’s Heroes’ episode in my post, so if you’re spoiler averse, please stop reading now.

With that out of the way, I think those of us who are current on the newest season of Heroes can all safely agree that the show is a complete mess. By the same token, I think if you are current on the show, it’s because there’s still something about it that keeps you hooked and ready for the next episode. It’s almost as if it has some kind of charisma that makes you want to forgive its plot-holes and serious lapses in writing.

It’s why I keep watching, and keep hoping that the writing will rise above the current level and the writers will avoid any serious lapses in logic or character motivation. I have a feeling I will continue to get my hopes up only to have them dashed yet again.

This week’s episode, “Villains”, was a particularly good example. It focused entirely on a flashback seen through the eyes of a “dream-walking” Hiro. It was nice to have an episode that centered on characterization as opposed to express-train “save the world” plotlines, but at the same time it only introduced more serious logical lapses to an already overstuffed storyline.

Considering how this season has been received in the press and by fans, this episode felt like a last-ditch effort to remind the folks at home about the good times from season one. A number of familiar plot points from the first season were revisited and fleshed out from new perspectives. For the most part these details weren’t much more than filler, but one storyline did at least have an interesting premise, namely that Sylar’s descent into murder and mayhem wasn’t entirely his own doing.

Essentially the roles are reversed here, with Noah Bennett as the manipulative Company man (“villain”) who wants Sylar to keep killing so that they can study him, and Sylar as the relative innocent (“hero”) who truly regrets his initial act of violence and tries to commit suicide out of guilt. Sylar is a fascinating character, and I do like seeing more of his backstory, but I do wish that it didn’t have to come at the cost of the imposing air of menace he cultivated throughout seasons one and two. That isn’t my biggest problem with this storyline, however; my real issue is with the involvement of Kristen Bell’s character, Elle.

In this flashback storyline, we are told that Bennet and Elle partnered together to study Sylar. Elle was sent in undercover to draw him out of his shell by befriending him. She has second thoughts, however, and begins to have sympathy for Sylar as they become close, and she asks Bennett to back off.

The big disconnect is that when we meet Elle for the first time in season two, she is a daddy’s girl and an immature mess, completely sheltered and reliant on The Company for everything. In her scenes here, she seems much more in-control and mature, not to mention moral. In addition to that complete change in character, there are scenes later in season two where Elle saves several characters from a rampaging Sylar. I don’t have the episode in front of me to watch, but from what I remember there wasn’t even a hint of a shared history when they confronted each other.

You could, perhaps, explain some of this away as a case of a serious mind-wipe or manipulation performed on Elle so that she doesn’t remember what happened with Sylar, but that seems like a lazy explanation for what is, on the whole, half-assed writing. This particular storyline felt like it had some potential to be interesting, but it barely stands up to any kind of scrutiny. Overall, this week’s episode amounted to nothing more than plotholes interrupted by filler.

In conclusion, I think Heroes is best appreciated when you don’t analyze it too closely. I liked this week’s episode a lot more when I first started writing this post, and my opinion seriously went downhill from there. Doesn’t mean I’m going to stop watching, though. Shameful, really…

Austin Film Festival: Day… um… All The Rest

So when I first started attending AFF, I had a fairly ambitious plan to blog daily about my experiences, but… as you may have noticed, this went by the wayside pretty quickly. I’m a blogging wuss, I know, but what can I say? Attending more than 12 hours of festivities in one day tired me out pretty quickly.

Here’s everything I attended after Thursday:

Friday

“TV Drama Today”
“Finding the Voice: Dialogue”
“Writing Comedy for TV”
“A Conversation With Glenn Gordon Caron
“Film Texas BBQ Supper”
Reservation Road
Numb

Saturday

“Juno: From Script to Screen”
“Production Team: Friday Night Lights”
Control
“Conference Wrap Party”

Sunday

Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist
Juno

Monday

Neal Cassady

Wednesday

Two Tickets to Paradise

Continue reading

Welcome Back, TV Premiere Season

Here we are again… another year, and even more new shows to watch and watch fail. In the past few years I’ve paid much closer attention to the premiering shows, and I tend to check out anything with promise.

Of course, this means that I also end up watching plenty of shows that get canceled. Studio 60 is the most prominent example, of course, but I also watched Smith (I could tell after the pilot that it was done for), Help Me Help You (I had actually forgotten about this show), and Andy Barker PI. Studio 60 is the only one I really miss, but I started missing it a few episodes in after it never quite matched the promise of the pilot. It would also be nice if Andy Richter could find himself a successful show.

Earlier in the week I had a more ambitious goal to write a full review of every new show I watch, but I’m scaling that back a bit because I’m feeling lazy. I have, however, decided to rank the new shows I’ve watched so far:

Sam and The Devil1. Reaper – This is a must-see. The creators did a good job of establishing likable characters and the humor is right on target. The premise is dealt with in a fairly absurd way (“Sorry about that, son… we sold your soul to the devil to save your dad’s life!”), but overall that works for the tone of this show.

The actress who plays the love interest didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the show, but she was a late addition, replacing another actress, so hopefully things will gel more in later episodes. In fact, the most negative review of this show on MetaCritic says that “Reaper is strictly for fans of movies like Superbad.” How can you go wrong with that?

The main character from Journeyman2. Journeyman – I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked this show. It gets major points for throwing in a completely unexpected twist, which is pretty impressive for a brand new show. I also liked that the character was resourceful enough to deal with the problems that time-jumping could cause for his life and marriage in the present.

I’ve read it did terribly in the ratings, however, so it may not be long for this world. Hopefully it’ll get some buzz and start holding on to more of the lead-in from Heroes. If you missed the premiere, you can watch the whole thing on NBC’s website, or you can buy it on the iTunes store, thanks to the funny ways of television production (just because it airs on NBC doesn’t mean it was produced by NBC).

Chuck at Buy More3. Chuck – This show was highly entertaining, but only if you can ignore the serious gaps in logic in the setup. Somehow Chuck is sent an email full of a huge number “encrypted images” that contain intelligence from the NSA and the CIA. When he watches a slideshow of these images (it apparently takes all night) he wakes up with a brain full of crazy intelligence that has been interpreted by the computer that the images were stolen from.

This raises major questions, like: How was someone able to send an “email” full of millions of images and possibly terabytes of data? Why on earth did the NSA and the CIA put “all of their secrets” together on one computer? Why did they encode all of these secrets into images? Was it some kind of secret training program, i.e. a more efficient way of teaching someone intelligence data? That would certainly make slightly more sense than the explanation given in the pilot.

I sound pretty negative about Chuck, I know, but I really did laugh a lot, and all of the previews make future episodes look even better. Maybe they’ll do a better job of explaining the premise in later episodes, or maybe I’ll stop caring if the show just gets generally better. I’d also accept it if they started making fun of their own premise. It would be more in line with the style of creator Josh Schwartz’s previous show – The OC.

Katee Sackhoff, the best thing in Bionic Woman4. Bionic Woman – The problem with this one is just that Katee Sackhoff is too damn awesome. In a perfect world, she would play the main character, but only if it meant she could also finish Battlestar Galactica.

Michelle Ryan as Jaime Somers is certainly nice to look at, but didn’t really hold her own against Sackhoff in the pilot. Some of the dialog was fairly clunky, especially her speech at the end of the episode. I wonder how much of this can be chalked up to a British actress trying to do an American accent – not everyone can be Hugh Laurie or Colin Farrell, after all. This show wasn’t a complete disappointment, but it definitely did not live up to my expectations. I’ll keep watching for as long as it is on air to see if it improves.

Other than those four shows, I’ve also got Dirty Sexy Money and Gossip Girl waiting to be watched, and this upcoming week I’m recording: Cavemen (too awful-sounding to miss), Carpoolers, and Pushing Daisies. Pushing Daisies has been getting ecstatic reviews, so I hope it lives up to the hype.

Why Aren’t You Watching The OC, Bitch?

Okay… I’ll be upfront about it. I love The OC. Despite the fact that _everyone_ I know who used to watch it now turns their nose up at it like two-day-old fish, I’ve stuck by it, and those folks are seriously missing out on some damn fine television. A rollicking good time, even, if I do say so myself.

The fourth season episodes so far have been great, some of the best in the show in a good long time, possibly reaching the quality of the first season (blasphemy!)

Tonight’s episode was a riot, and there is one good reason why: Autumn Reeser as Taylor Townsend!

!{float: left; margin-right: 1em;}/images/autumn.jpg! Not only is she pretty nice to look at, she is absolutely hilarious to watch. Her character is really well-written, but it helps that she’s such a talented performer.

Taylor was already my favorite character last season when the character was just a guest role, so I was definitely crossing my fingers in the hopes that she’d be added to the cast full-time… lucky me!

…Except The OC might not last after this season because none of you jerks are watching it. Jerks.

Seriously, though… the third season was kind of a drag sometimes, but it was still good, and the fourth season so far is leaps and bounds better than seasons two and three combined. It’s rare for a show to have such a resurgence in quality after two kind of shaky seasons, but here we are.

So… this is my call to all of you fair-weather fans… start watching The OC again. Watch one episode and you’ll forget what the hell Mischa Barton even looked like because a far better actress has taken her place front-and-center. So there.

Tasks: 1) Bend. 2) Cheese it!

My mom has politely requested that I update my blog more often. I’ve been letting down my faithful readers, apparently. Hi Mom!

!{float: left}/images/chair.jpg! Tonight Beau and I went and saw “The Puffy Chair”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0436689/, which is a little indie film directed by two brothers from Austin, Mark and Jay Duplass. The basic premise of the movie is that Josh, a 20-something former musician, has bought a big, puffy chair on eBay, and has planned a road trip to pick it up and deliver it to his dad as a birthday present. Apparently his dad had the same chair years ago, and Josh thinks it will make a nice present.

Initially, he plans to make the trip by himself, but the night before he is going to leave, he has a fight with his girlfriend. To make it up to her, he invites her along on the road trip so that they can spend some time together – she had already said that she wanted to come along for the ride. Things start off well enough, but when they stop to visit Josh’s brother, Brett, he invites himself along, too.

This just makes things more complicated, but because this movie is anything but formulaic, Brett is not the sort of character who causes conflict by being wacky – he’s just another person along for the ride, someone who gets in the way when the couple is trying to be intimate, or asks questions about what is going on when they’re fighting.

…And fight they do. One of the best things this movie does is unflinchingly portray a couple dealing with some pretty serious issues and constantly picking at each other or fighting. Somehow it manages to do this while still being funny, but it’s definitely not a “romantic” comedy. It’s, well… a relationship-roadtrip-nightmare comedy/drama.

The stylistic choices made in the movie really help it all seem that much more _real_. The movie was shot on digital video, like many indies nowadays, and that combined with the handheld camera throughout most of the movie makes it seem like a documentary. The characters really felt like people I know.

You can check out a trailer for it at “the Duplass brothers’ website”:http://www.duplassbrothers.com/home.html. I’d recommend it, but I don’t know if it would make for a good “date” movie…