Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What the Oscars Can Teach You About Writing

Yes! I'm back! Blogging!

Sorry I've taken such a long hiatus. Promoting one book and drafting another has managed to suck out all my writing energy. But the Oscars are this Sunday, and how could I not write about them? This year is especially exciting since there's such a tight race for Best Picture. Will it be 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, American Hustle, or another dark horse?

This has been called an exceptionally strong year for movies. The competition is tight. In another year, any of these 9 films could've walked away with Best Picture. For the second year in a row, I've managed to watch all 9 nominees, and I've walked away from each one with unexpected writing wisdom.

Don't be afraid to toy with convention
Movie: 12 Years a Slave
This could be the first movie about slavery since Gone with the Wind to win Best Picture. What's so powerful about 12YAS is that it turns the conventional slave narrative on its head. Epitomized in films like GWTW, slaves were usually depicted as happy to serve their kindly master and speaking in an uneducated "yes sir/no sir" fashion. Think Mammy and Scarlett. In 12YAS, we see slavery from the slaves' POV. They speak intelligently and are fully fleshed out characters with emotionally rich lives. The white characters are shown as cruel, sadistic, but also dealing with their own desperation, forced to live in a world they may not fully agree with. There is even a short scene with a former slave (Alfre Woodard) who went on to marry her master. These are depictions we haven't seen on film, and it makes 12YAS that much more special. As writers, dare to challenge the norm, dare to dig deeper behind classic archetypes.

Never make it easy on your protagonist
Movie: Gravity
To say Sandra Bullock's character has a rough go of it in space is an understatement. She spends 90 minutes barely surviving, scraping by from one set piece to another by the skin of her teeth. Alfonso Cuaron, the director, never makes things easy for his protagonist. She's either running low on oxygen or facing down space debris or narrowly escaping a fire. All by herself! Even until the very end, which I won't spoil, Ryan Stone had to struggle. That made her victories throughout the film all the more powerful. That made me root for her and get invested in the film. Never make it easy for your main character.

Unless you're writing non-fiction, you aren't beholden to the truth
Movie: American Hustle
To be honest, I didn't love this movie. I thought the story was all over the place, confusing, and in the end, I just didn't care about anyone. (How ironic that it's a frontrunner for Best Original Screenplay.) While the film is based on true events, David O. Russell didn't strive to make the movie accurate. He basically created his own story against the backdrop of true events. "Some of this actually happened" pops up on the screen at the very beginning. If you're writing a fact-based book, you're under no obligation to write it exactly as happened. You need to do what's best for the story, to make it as narratively compelling as possible. Even if that means casting a spunky 23-year-old Kentuckian as a 40-something Long Island housewife.

Dare to make your villains 3-dimensional
Movie: Captain Phillips
This could've been a standard thriller. They could've cast Liam Neeson as Captain Phillips and had him kick Somali ass. Taken meets I'm on a boat. What elevated Captain Phillips from genre thriller to Oscar-nominated film was that the writer dared to humanize the "bad guys." In the movie, the Somali pirates weren't cardboard villains out for money. They weren't depicted as angels thrown into this mess either. They did bad things, but they had real motivations. They were fueled by desperation and fear and pride and striving for a better life. You sympathized with them, even though you knew what they were doing was wrong.

Wow 'em with your ending
Movie: The Wolf of Wall Street
The above is paraphrasing from the great movie Adaptation when Robert McKee tells blocked screenwriter Charlie Kaufman that no matter what, you gotta wow 'em with your ending. The Wolf of Wall Street was a 3-hour movie about excess -- lots of excess. It dragged a little in certain parts. But that ending. Wow. That ending elevated the movie from good to great. People complained that the main character never got his comeuppance in the end. That was the point, and that's what made the movie so bold. In the final shot, Martin Scorcese literally turns the camera on us, a rapt audience. We may hate Jordan Belfort, but we all want to be him. It was a powerful ending that has stuck with me. So no matter the twists and turns your story takes, remember how important your ending is. It's your last impression on the reader.

There's no such thing as a stupid concept
Movie: Her
Her could've been a sketch on SNL. A man falls in love with Siri. It's a ridiculous concept. Yet through Spike Jonze's masterful script and direction, that idea became a brilliant, thought-provoking film which examined the nature of love and relationships. Jonze made it believable and relatable. Nobody was snickering after leaving this movie.

Have a healthy balance of plot and character
Movie: Philomena
This was the big surprise for me. What a fantastic movie. I didn't expect to love this movie as much as I did. Philomena is about a woman searching for her son who she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years ago. I thought I knew where this story was going, but I was so wrong. The writers threw in nifty twists to Philomena's search as she got to know her son. (And it's all a true story, which goes to show that sometimes it pays to hew close to the truth.) But at the same time, the movie was a wonderful character study of Philomena and journalist Martin Sixsmith. They clashed over religion and faith and grieving over the past throughout their journey. The movie deftly balanced the "search for son" plot with the character study. I've read too many books where it's either one or the other, but you can mix both to wonderful results.

Comic relief is a wonderful thing
Movie: Nebraska
It's a black-and-white movie about a son taking his senile father back to his bleak hometown to claim a Publisher's Clearing prize he didn't win. Yet despite the depressing premise, Nebraska was surprisingly funny. June Squibb, who played Woody's tart-tongued wife, was hysterical. She kept the movie from being a total drag. She infused the movie with levity at all the right moments. Nobody wants to read a downer of a story. Just as comedies need moments of gravity, most dramas need moments of comedy. (Though not all. 12YAS is laugh-free, save for Brad Pitt's terrible accent.)

Never underestimate telling a simple story
Movie: Dallas Buyers Club
There's nothing groundbreaking in the script for Dallas Buyers Club. It's a premise that's been done before: outspoken, fish-out-of-water person fights injustice and takes on evil, faceless corporations. DBC is basically Erin Brockovich, but with AIDS instead of hexavalent chromium. The script follows all the necessary beats. And that's not a bad thing. You don't always need to turn convention on its head or craft a complex plot. A good story is a good story. DBC knew what it was and did it well, and people have responded.

Honorable mention to two other screenplay nominees:
Before Midnight taught me that sequels don't have to be retreads (like Hangover 2, Home Alone 2). Existing characters can keep growing, keep maturing, keep learning about themselves.
Blue Jasmine taught me how to take familiar stories and make them your own. Woody Allen took A Streetcar Named Desire and updated it for the modern world, much like Emma was turned into Clueless.

Have fun watching the Oscars this Sunday! Let me know what your favorite of the bunch was and who you're rooting for. (I'm hoping Leo pulls out a win.)

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