Monday, November 10, 2008

Falling Back

Instead of daylights savings, can we add a couple more hours to every day? I have too many things to do all at once. I thought gaining that one hour might help, but now it's gone... I need two extra hours every single day! There was the Final Draft Big Break Awards, then Halloween, then the elections, then American Film Market (started Wednesday, ends Wednesday) and on Thursday I teach my first classes at Expo, which ends on Sunday, and then I have something else on my calender before Thanksgiving, and then Christmas and New Years... and I have a screenplay I’m writing!

I’m behind a bit on the screenplay because of all of the last minute changes, which seemed simple at the time but have grown more complicated as the script goes on. I think I’ve over most of the big changes and down to one last main change that plays out through the rest of the script... so the hard part is over and now it’s just the regular hard work of writing a screenplay on a deadline that will go out to talent. You know - all of the regular headaches of writing a script.

My legs are aching because I spent yesterday climbing stairs at AFM - it was cool to see Script Magazine as an official AFM mag in the lobby right next to Hollywood Reporter and Screen International. Because I’ve got so many things to do (like this script) I’m not spending the whole week at AFM. Yesterday I had a couple of meetings, one of which cancelled at the last minute. Swell. It was another potential script sale. But I did bump into fellow blogger Bill from Pulp 2.0 and we discussed a company he has a contact with that are looking for a script like one of mine, so he’s taking it in to them. If that happens, I’ll give all of the details - right now it just like all of those companies who read my stuff.... usually hundreds of places read so that one sale can be made. Numbers game. I also bumped into a couple of companies at AFM that go on that list of things that might happen but probably won’t. But an interesting thing happened - I bumped into someone who was setting up seminars in foreign lands and wondered if I’d be interested in teaching screenwriting in various places I have never been to before. Hmm, something else to prevent me from writing scripts.

So now I’m gearing up for Expo... and will probably hit AFM again tomorrow. I wish there were more hours in the day.

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Story Is Change.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Steak at Norm's.

MOVIES: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - (Mild Spoilers) - A great film you may have never heard of. From the writer of THE FULL MONTY and the director of TRAINSPOTTING, this film will have you laughing and crying and even squirming, but you will leave the cinema with a smile on your face and hope for the human race... And wanting to tell everyone you know to go see it. Which is a good thing, because this film has no stars in it and doesn’t fit into any genre. It’s basically the story of a slum kid in India, played - not by an actor - but by an actual slum kid. See how that’s a tough sell to an audience used to seeing talking dog movies and Seth Rogen comedies?

If there is any “star” in SLUMDOG, it is the TV show WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE? That may seem odd, but there are versions of that TV show in almost every country, and they all use the same set design and music and format. Even though this film takes place in India, in a completely alien culture, you are familiar with the show... which is at the center of this story. So the show is the star - and a great way to publicize the movie is to ride on the coattails of the TB show... which this movies does in several ways.

SLUMDOG is about a poor orphan kid from the streets and slums of India who ends up on the Indian WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE at 20... and answers every question correctly... so he is arrested by the police for fraud, since they are sure that he cheated. How could a guy with this background know all of the answers? The police interrogate him - and they are not afraid to hit him and worse to get a confession - and ask him how he knew the answer to each question... which leads to a flashback... and the flashbacks tell the story of the boy, from childhood until now. This is a great CITIZEN KANE like device to give us the kid’s story, using the WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE show to drive the story.

The film ends up in 3 time periods - the Game Show, the Police Station, and the Boy’s Life. Because we have these three time storylines, each of them is chronological to avoid confusion - there’s enough going on in the structure already. So we begin with the boy (Jamal) and his brother at six or seven, then watch them grow up in flashbacks to thirteen or so, then as eighteen or nineteen year olds. The game show drives the story, and this is a great device - just telling the story of a kid growing up in the slums might be interesting, but the game show gives it a concept that is interesting and unusual. Not quite a high concept, but certainly something higher than just the kid story. This isn’t just any slum kid, this one just won WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. His story is unique and special. The game show gives his story a reason to be told.

The story behind the film is also interesting. It’s based on a novel titles Q&A that uses the game show to drive the story (which is different than the movie). After buying the rights to the novel and hiring Simon Beaufoy to write the script, the major problem was still the game show. To mention the game show in the novel may not have required purchasing any rights, but *showing* the game show would - the sets and music and format are copyrighted. So without the rights, there could be no movie (or they would have to make up a game show and change all of the elements - which removes the one thing that audiences are familiar with from the story. You lose the “hook” *and* the “star” in one script change!) - so everything depended on securing the rights to use the WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE show. Without it, the script is garbage. As luck would have it, the producers of MILLIONAIRE had just opened a film division and were looking for a project to produce - and this script actually promoted their show! So they not only granted the rights, they *funded the film*. They became the producers of the movie. Potentially deadly rights issue solved! Because this story has a couple of places where the show may not be seen in the most flattering light, it was possible that they might refuse to sell the rights to use MILLIONAIRE no matter what the price - and this whole project would have crashed and burned. So the lesson there is probably not to gamble on rights owned by somebody else, even though this film had a great outcome.


The format is: Game Show - kid is asked question and gives correct answer, Police Station - cops interrogate kid and ask him how he knew, Flashback - we see a portion of the kid’s life which includes how he knew the answer.

One of the things movies do is *transport us* - they take us into different worlds and allow us to live different lives for 2 hours. Though most often that fantasy life is something exciting and fun, it doesn’t have to be. In this case, we are taken into the world of slum dwellers in India - and see the world through their eyes. What amazed me was the beauty and squalor combined. The shanty town on the edge of the garbage dump... with all of the colorful laundry fluttering in the breeze on clothes lines. I wondered whether that was production design or just reality - and believe it’s probably just reality. This film was shot with compact digital cameras in the actual slums. You are taken into this world, and see it through the eyes of a child. That gives it a sense of wonder and mischief.

Jamal and his slightly older brother Salim live in the slums, and pick through garbage for hidden treasures and find unusual ways to make enough money to eat and survive. An early scene *shows* us the older brother’s character - which will come into play in almost every scene afterwards. The slums have outhouses on the end of piers, and the boys are taking tolls from anyone who needs to use them. Between customers, Jamal is using the facility when a movie star visits the slum to sign autographs (a photo op). This is Jamal’s favorite star, but his brother wedges a chair against the outhouse door so that he can’t get out. Just being a mean older brother - establishes a cruel streak. Jamal really wants to meet his favorite star and get the photo he always carries autographed. But how to escape the outhouse? Well, there is one way out... And this shows Jamal’s determination, his ingenuity, and the level of his love for this star. He goes down through the toilet - then manages to pass through the crowd surrounding the star (people do tend to step aside when you are covered with poop) and get his autograph. This is a big funny scene, that shows us the characters of both boys. But the next scene gives us more information about the brother, Salim... he steals the autographed picture and sells it, keeping the money for himself. Where Jamal is driven by his love for this star, Salim is driven by money. And we get another great scene between the two brothers where Jamal deals with being betrayed. By finding a pair of scenes that *demonstrate* the characters early on, we now know who they are and how they will each deal with every situation they encounter.

A few scenes later, it is *pouring* rain, and Jamal and Salim have taken shelter in a small shed. A slum girl they know, Latika, is stuck outside. Jamal wants to invite her into the shed with them, but Salim doesn’t want to give up any of his room for somebody else. Another great scene that *shows* us the characters... when Salim falls asleep, Jamal invites the girl in out of the rain. (There’s an additional element to this scene that I will not spoil for you.) After this, the three of them are a team (sort of) and the adventures of their young lives are what the flashback stories are all about. Do I even need to say that Jamal is in love with her?


Movies need goals that we can see. That way we know when a character has achieved their goal. If a character is looking for inner peace - we can’t see that so we have no idea if they ever find it or not. If they are looking for self respect, we can’t see that either. We need a *physical goal* and that visual goal needs to be what drives the story (so that we can see the character getting closer or farther from the goal with each scene). Many movies that don’t work use an internal goal to drive the story and come off as being a collection of scenes without that driving force that moves the story forward. Here we have three elements to the story, and sort of three goals.

Easy to figure out what the goal is in the Game Show, to win the money. We have a poor slum kid, now 20 working as a servant in an office getting tea for the employees and doing anything else they need him to do - and if he wins this game, he will be rich. Part of the game show format is they give the contestant a big fake check before the next question and ask if they want to quit now or risk that money to keep playing. That big fake check is the visual symbol of the money for both the show and the movie. So when he hands the check back to the host to continue playing, we *see* him risking the money. The money has been made tangible and physical with that big fake check. We always need to find a way to make something unseen and/or abstract into something concrete for the film.

And it’s easy to figure out what the goal is in the Police Station, to be released. Though the police station itself is a visual way to show confinement, our kid is handcuffed. The handcuffs create a physical goal - having them unlocked and removed is something that we can see. You always need a visual goal, and the more concrete the goal is, the better the goal. We need to be able to see the goal and know precisely when it has been achieved. Often this means creating a symbol - something physical like the handcuffs that represent the goal.

But for the kid’s story, what is the goal going to be? What is that drives that story? What can the goal be when we go from 6-7 years old all of the way up until he gets on the game show? And what does the game show have to do with that goal? Obviously, going on the game show needs to be motivated... by the goal. When the kid is 7 years old, he can’t be thinking, “If I could only get on WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE., I can change my whole life!” Kids don’t think like that, and I’m not even sure the show was on when he was a kid, and... well, where would a kid in the slums where there is not electricity watch TV? So we need something that is part of his slum life, that can also be a constant motivation throughout the rest of his life... which brings us to that third Musketeer - the girl from the slums that Jamal invites in out of the rain... and falls in love with, Latika. Throughout the flashbacks which make up most of the film, the three children have a variety of adventures... and often are split up by circumstances. So Jamal is often looking for the girl he loves - he will find her and then lose her several times in the course of the story. The girl herself is the goal, here - she is the physical symbol of his love. Had they been together throughout the movie, Latika could not be the symbol of lost love - because she wouldn’t be lost. If you have the goal, the film is over. So Jamal must lose the girl for her to be the goal. This girl is the through-line for the movie. The over-all goal. Which is great, because it makes the movie *not* about becoming a millionaire, but about finding love.


Because we have a complicated story with three basic time periods - and the flashbacks take place over a period of time - we need to keep the story as easy to follow as possible. Part of that is keeping all of the flashbacks in chronological order, but another part is limiting the characters. When we jump back to the flashbacks for a scene or two, we don’t have time to introduce a bunch of new characters. There is character conservation in this story - when a gangster is introduced in the slums when then kids are 6 or 7, the same gangster remains part of the story when they are 13, and when Jamal is a young adult. It’s not a bunch of different gangsters who run the crime in the slums, it’s one guy. That way, when we flash back for one scene and it has to do with the criminal elements in the slums, we already know who this gangster is - we recognize him from earlier scenes.

The other villainous character who runs throughout the flash back stories is the Beggar King, an evil Fagin type who rounds up orphan kids and turns them into professional beggars. Of course, he keeps all of the money, and believes that the kids are his property. They must do whatever he wants, and much of this is not fun at all. Again, this character (and even one of the orphan beggars) become constants in the flashback stories - once they have been introduced, the can return to other flashbacks without having to be introduced again. Though there are other characters introduced in the flashbacks, the main characters in the flashbacks are Jamal and Salim and Latika and the Gangster and the Beggar King. This also helps the audience, because we have a film filled with actors we have never seen before. If Paul Giamatti plays a bit part in a film, you know who he is - you recognize him. No real introduction needed. But if a movie keeps introducing characters played by actors we have never seen before, we tend to confuse one with another and get lost easily. Controlling the number of characters in your story also keeps the audience from being confused.

Something else that might be confusing to the audience is the change of actors when Jamal and his brother go from 7 to 13 years old. With out three main time periods - the Game Show, the Police Station, and the flashbacks - having the characters in the flashbacks each played by three different actors might be confusing. So they needed a bridge to connect the 7 year old version of Jamal and his older brother and the 13 year old version of Jamal and his older brother. We need a visual link from one age to the next, so that we *know* (without explanation) that the 7 year old Jamal is now this 13 year old version. The film actually gives us a “two-fer”, by bridging the two versions of Jamal and his brother *and* creating a kind of “montage” that explains what they’ve been doing for the years in between. Just not the kind of montage you’re thinking - something simple and elegant. When the brothers are hobos, riding from town to town by train, they get thrown off a train at 7, roll down a hill, and when they get to the bottom of the hill Jamal is 13 and his brother a year older. Rolling down the hill acts as the bridge *and* tells us that they’ve been going from town to town living by their wits for the past 6 years. Look for simple bridges like this that can do two things at once instead of complicated montages that give the audience the same amount of information but take more screen time and cost a bunch more to film. Always look for the clear, simple way.

Another element of the flashbacks is that they need to be the strongest moments from the character’s life - and we get some amazing and powerful moments. The high points of Jamal’s life and the low points.

The great thing about SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is that it *shows* us not only the power of love, but shows us that experience can teach us as much as a formal education. Jamal know all of the answers because he has lived his life... and learned from life. The film may not star anyone you have ever heard of, nor does it take place in a familiar world, but seek it out if it comes to a cinema near you. Opens on Friday in limited release, and will probably get some Oscar buzz and open in more theaters.

- Bill


E.C. Henry said...

I like the way you ballance things in your life, Bill. Keep rockin'! I'm a huge fan of yours.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Wendy Gail Ellen said...

I just found your blog, it's good stuff.

damZway said...

What's the latest on the re-release of your book?

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