July 13, 2014

'We Believe What We Can See.' Watch This TEDx Talk on the Mystery of Story

unproduced-screenplaysIn the 80s, the joke was that everyone, no matter what they did during the day, had a screenplay to hawk. With Joe Eszterhas getting millions for scribbling the plot of One Night Stand on a cocktail napkin, and Shane Black writing Lethal Weapon at the age of 26, what didn't look like hard work looked good to lots of people. Much of this can be laid at the feet of one Syd Field, whose Screenplay took thousands of years of dramaturgical what have you and condensed it into a friendly set of easy-to-follow rules that helped spark the screenplay goldrush of the 80s. Yet the number of working Hollywood screenwriters stays the same, roughly, from year to year. So what, then is the secret? Is there even a secret? You'll have to read until the end to find out. (Suspense!)

After college, my friend moved to LA and wrote coverage (essentially, memos that said whether or not a given submission was worth considering further) for a mid-size production company. Most spec screenplays do not pass the reader. From time to time, my friend would send me some of the more out there scripts he read, along with his dumbfounded coverage, and both were always amazing to me.

It seemed that most of these potential movies had been designed by writers with a sort of narrative tone deafness, an insensitivity to story, or even how people talked to each other; this, combined with a lack of awareness of their deficiencies (the Dunning Kruger effect has shown that the worse you are at a given task, the more likely you are to rate yourself as being totally great at this task, which is why I will arm wrestle any of you, anytime) led to pages of contraction-less, expository dialogue about what was going on on-screen. In this TEDx talk, agent Julian Friedman addresses issues related to why good story is such a rare metal, and also, why America is story's chief exporter around the world.

It's a talk that covers everything from why Beethoven used the happy ending motif so frequently (not because he was cheerful) to why American films do better (~80%) overseas than their European counterparts. One reason, Friedman posits, is that Hollywood films have 2/3 less dialogue than their European cousins, and are therefore that much more accessible to a wider audience, which today means a global audience; even with higher literacy than ever, some 15% of the world is still illiterate, and even though that might seem like a small figure, 15% of 7 billion or so is around 105,000,000, which is not negligible. "We believe what we can see," Friedman says, noting that sometimes great effect can come from having the verbal and visual conflict or contradiction to each other, either subtly or outright. The ensuing illogic will catch the attention of your reader (or viewer) and help draw them in by giving them a problem to solve. Because everyone likes to feel useful.

He also speaks admiringly of Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writingwhich I read as a teenager and heartily recommend for anyone trying to write about people, especially people who need people, a group also known, sometimes, as the luckiest people. Egri's intended audience was playwrights, and he stressed that the most important thing, the factor that drives a story forward, is not the contrived events of the so-called "plot", but the motivations, the needs, of the characters. They are these needs that, in fact, create "the plot." The collision of opposed self-interests creates drama, and, by extension, compelling movies (if all else goes well, of course, but that's beyond the scope of this article).

Human motivation is irrational, emotional, and not subject to the dictates of logic, as anyone who has ever spent anytime with humans is well aware. This video is pretty odd, but also a good overview of Egri's most important points:

Maybe it's true, as some say, that story is a proxy for life, that we use it to work out how to live -- that we experience a story by putting ourselves in the shoes of its characters. Maybe this is true, and maybe it's not; all that is known with any degree of certainty is that we know a good story when we see one. So, the best you can do is see as many movies as you can, read everything you get your hands on, and write in every spare moment. I would recommend this regimen even if you have no intention of being a screenwriter, but that's just me. Anyway. Good talk.

[via Tedx Talks]

Your Comment

10 Comments

We might also ask why junk food is so popular, why has MacDonald's served over 9 Billion, why is the same pop song recycled over and over and still they call for more? There are so few movies worth the life one expends watching them. And, unlike literature, movies rarely have lasting or deeply meaningful qualities; perhaps this has something to do with the rules that ensure movies stay well within the money making boundaries - after all, movies are made with bucket loads of the stuff, unlike any other visual art form; perhaps that is why movies will never be made by, or give birth to, the likes of a Malevich or a Picasso or a John Cage…. Or perhaps movies have just been born into the world, and all that has gone before was simply the gurgling of amniotic fluid.

July 13, 2014 at 4:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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William

...If you hate movies so much, why are you on a film site?....

July 14, 2014 at 1:32AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jim

McDonalds and pop songs are the choice of the consumers, the masses. Filmmakers and playwrights are creators, the individuals. You can make a choice and your choice will be quantified with several billions of others, finally becomes what is our 'culture'. If you wish the cultures were different, you are more than welcome to make a choice, insteading of blaming others.

July 14, 2014 at 4:44AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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ghostmomo

I don't hate movies. Far from it, but when one mentions thousands of years of dramaturgy and Syd Field and Lethal Weapon in the same breath… Let's face it, most movies, and I mean MOST, are commercial drivel - some thinly veiled to come across as something else just long enough to make it to the bank.
But, no, I don't hate movies, and I have a lot of faith in this new generation of filmmakers.

July 14, 2014 at 12:35PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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William

It's true that "less talk, more 'splosions" formula works but often the story lines of these big budget action films are rather idiotic and the Hollywood elite confuses the film grosses with their appreciation by the film going public across the globe. In other words, a large number of people hates these loud blockbusters but they play well to the lowest common denominator and that alone picks up enough revenues to justify their production.
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The other way of looking at it is that a film that grosses $500M worldwide is seen in the theaters by 50-60 million people out of ~ 7.2 billion that inhabit the Earth or less than 1% of the world's population. By contrast, when "Gone with the Wind" premiered in 1939, it sold roughly a ticket per every US resident thereby achieving a 100% market penetration. How about that for a drop? Even huge US hits - and 2013 had 13 films that grossed over $200M in the domestic market - are normally seen by fewer than 10% of the total possible audience.
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And this will probably remain a status quo until the alternative means of distribution - namely online - really take off.

July 14, 2014 at 2:01AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

"The audience will fill in that gap". I don't agree with that.
This is an aseptic statement, meaning that it does sounds true in theory but that's not what happens in the actual unfolding and editing of most of the films that nowadays Hollywood produces.
It's actually true the opposite. We went from longer cuts to shorter ones, turning the viewer from participants to spectators, as Walter Murch explained so well in his "In the Blink of an Eye". With faster cuts what we're doing is feeding the viewer with more details, leaving less room to interpretation, taking them by hand and explaining them much more than in the past. In my opinion that's the very reason why horror movies, despite no CGI or modern VFX solutions, were scarier in the past that nowadays.
Also, a great example of what that gap could bring to the narrative experience is right here on NFS, the side by side comparison of De Sica's vs. Selznick's Terminal Station.
Most of the time today's films are targeting young generations, minds used to Social Networks, people who "wants it now". Generations of "I like", clicked as they're being busy doing something else with no real concern about the content. McLuhan was right: "The medium is the message".

July 14, 2014 at 3:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Piero

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/the_big_picture/2011/02/jeffrey-katzenbe...

one person's not-so-recent take ... but a very rich and powerful person at that

July 15, 2014 at 2:08AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

Like any other writing guru, he has the standard jest of an useless boring omniscient voice over. My blind grand Ma can give a lecture like that. He is redundant, self absorbed and boring. I don't care what is his job or how he got the job of "rejecting stories", I'm sure he can't be a good judge for creative work. Nor he can teach anyone anything about screenwriting.

July 17, 2014 at 4:43PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Atic

Although it's tough to hear, I think everything this guy said was pretty spot on.

July 19, 2014 at 4:16PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Mary

15% of 7 billion is 1.05 billion not 105 million

August 3, 2014 at 5:31AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tom