My very good friend Consuelo Mackintosh lives with her boyfriend who happens to be a dead ringer for Javier Bardem. One night, Javier 2.0 invited a group of people over who became loud and annoying. It actually drove Consuelo out of the house. She decided an evening movie would be a nice way to kill some time before going back to the rabble invading her home and went to see mother! – an artistic exercise masquerading as a film about rabble invading a woman’s home. Consuelo chose this movie because it stars the original Javier, but it is also Jennifer Lawrence’s latest effort to prove her Academy Award was not a fluke.
I had no intention of seeing mother! – Maybe because it received both cheers and boos after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Maybe because it received an F on CinemaScore which measures audience’s reactions immediately after seeing a film on the first night of wide release. Or maybe because I just don’t appreciate titles that require punctuation. Whatever the reason, I was not interested until Consuelo called it artsy crap only film students can appreciate and not worth the price of admission for anyone else. What can I say? I think fifteen dollars is a small price to pay for artsy crap.
And that is just what mother! is – artsy crap. Emerging screenwriters often make the mistake of trying to produce their own art. We say we want our work to be polarizing because at least people are talking. It’s not what you know or who you know, but who knows you. The movie was written and directed by Lawrence’s real life paramour Darren Aronofsky, a big cheese in the film biz. Everyone knows him. His filmography includes Noah, Black Swan, The Wrestler, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream and Pi. I mention so many to give you a sense of where this guy’s head is. So polarizing is good, but for the tested and certified successful writer/director like Aronofsky. You, me – not so much.
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Be prepared. This is a longer post than I usually write. I got carried away. Apologies. Maybe because it’s back to school time that these first few paragraphs may seem like a classroom lesson, but if you keep reading I promise it gets better. I suggest you pack a lunch or read it in sections; stretch first we’ll be awhile. Okay, ready? Ahem… Stories give a narrative account of events either real or imagined. Those events involve characters. The characters the audience relates to are the heroes we root for. We want them to win. We are invested in their character arc as they journey from one place to another, learning something, transforming internally and improving their lot in life along the way. It is understood in most stories that after trial and tribulation the main character chalks up a win. This is similar to the way Americans believe in success. That if you do the right thing, if you work hard, if you don’t give up, you will eventually get what you want. It’s America’s Promise which can be summed in the equation
Talent + Hard Work = Success.
In screenwriting, heroes’ arcs go up because of good behavior and after several losses they end winning what is most important to their journey. In a negative character arc, the anti-hero’s journey is the result of bad behavior and choices that hurt others and eventually themselves because they end losing either their life or what is most important to their journey.
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I started this blog to help emerging screen and TV writers survive the day job, general meetings and life shit that happens on the way to success. So you’re a writing a TV pilot, I assume you know what to do. If not, there are a gazillion analysts to help writers write. Here is one I highly recommend – Michael Tucker and his Lessons From The Screenplay on You Tube are definitely worth a subscription and a donation via Patreon.
Crystal Fish is the script supervisor for my next short film. She is a lovely, intelligent, highly focused young woman with a strange obsession. I mean that literally. For her Thanksgiving holiday Crystal has forsaken family obligations of pumpkin pie and unboxing winter clothes. Instead she is binge-watching Netflix’s Stranger Things on a continuous loop.
Netflix has officially overtaken HBO as my go-to channel. Yes, it is a strange new world when the home of Game of Thrones, Veep and John Oliver is no longer the first button I push when I can’t sleep at three o’clock in the morning, but there it is. The reason is Crystal’s humbling little show called Stranger Things. I have written about the joys of binge watching and how easy it is these days over all devices, but this. I bow to the clever writing. I quiver at the way the underlying adult psychodrama captivates me while I’m watching a story starring children. Stranger Things is about the search for a missing 12-year-old boy who disappears under the watchful eye of a government research facility in a small Midwestern town. The boy’s family and friends team up to find him and discover mysterious and supernatural freaky happenings at the government facility. This nostalgic series set in the 1980s uses child protagonists as stand-ins for the grown up target audience whose own adolescence was during that era.
The cast is stellar from newcomers like Millie Bobby Brown as an escapee from the facility with Carrie-like telekinetic powers to 1980s OG Winona Ryder as the missing boy’s mother. The spookiness reminds me of The X-files while the pre-teen adventure/mystery is not unlike The Goonies. What a combination. This is not your teenager’s binge. The science fiction show is all grown up and ready to rumble. Each episode layers in the idea of fear and trust and government shenanigans (sound familiar) and pulls you deeper into the strange conspiracy and its literal monster. It’s not scary like a horror, but grounded in a realism that makes sense in our changing and uncertain world of unknown dangers. The web is abuzz with all kinds of theories and prognostications for season 2. Emerging writers please note: when forty-something fanboys and girls actually cut their workout time in half to argue with strangers online over whether a badass preteen bald girl with telekinetic powers will destroy your fictional town in Indiana, you know you have a hit.
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Between the 2016 Presidential election, Hurricanes Matthew & Nicole and the inexplicable success of Issa Rae with HBO’s Insecure I realize you are so busy assessing the damage that you may not have had time to see the new movie of your favorite book of 2015, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I saw that Rotten Tomatoes gave it a shocking splat at 44%. What gives?
Your observation is spot on. I do spend time contemplating how it is far more likely for an emerging screenwriter to be groped by Donald Trump than it is to become an internet cult sensation and handed a premium cable series as is the case for Ms. Rae. (Right time, right place, right message, right demographic. It ain’t rocket science, it’s lightning in a bottle). In between my seasonal preserve canning and frequent trips to the Wine Barn, I did manage to catch a showing of what I had hoped would be my favorite film of the year. In fact I don’t even know why anyone is talking about e-mails or tax loopholes – blah, blah, blah – Emily Blunt is terrific. Unfortunately, the film is not. I don’t think I am overstepping my bounds to say that director Tate Taylor (The Help) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) should be put into their own basket of deplorables for the disservice they did to such luxuriant mommy porn-ready source material.
The problem with The Girl on the Train is its partner in suburban chic chick-lit with “Girl” in the title – Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s electric 2012 mystery thriller. (Yes, it was my favorite novel that year). Both books center on the disappearances of beautifully bored icy blonde wives in good-from-afar marriages. As the pages turn and multiple narrators reveal what it is like to be inside these too perfect to be true lives, it is a reminder to the reader that the American dream of suburban bliss can become a nightmare. Especially if you are married to a bitch.
What makes most stories about middle class malaise work is the underlying social commentary. The grass isn’t always greener. We live that now. Upside down mortgages. Unaffordable health care. Student Loan interest rates that prevent a dream trip to Tuscany. Check out the people you went to high school with on Facebook. All those smiling vacation photos of happy families, you know at least one of them is self-medicating. The message in both novels is clear – what lies beneath the facade of Heaven is 3,500 square feet of Hell. And what better way to unleash hell than psychological suspense?
The comparison ends there. Both films are faithful to their sources. However, where Gone Girl gets it right is the underlying context of women’s role in society. The illusion of who girls want to be when they grow up. As satire it is a biting indictment of the root of sociopathy in suburbia. Most women are not Cool Girl. Even Cool Girl is not cool. She’s twisted. Seriously – Amazing Amy is fucked up. And I mean that in the best possible way.
It is exactly what The Girl on the Train did wrong. The films can be described with adjectives like treachery, psychotic and murderous. All desirable for a thriller, but a good sociopath needs more than a few plot twists turned on unreliable narration. This movie doesn’t offer a surprising plot twist. It barely throws in a red herring suspect with the therapist, who we know is not guilty from the jump – so what was the point? A good thriller would have framed him like Flynn did Desi in Gone Girl to either keep us guessing or see who is truly twisted and how.
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