Screenwriters love structure: it gives them something to focus on as they plow ahead in their storytelling or to retreat to if they get off track. Familiar structures include the road movie (looking for answers), the journey film (home to Ithaca) and the sit-by-the-fireplace flashback (“Let me tell you about Heathcliffe”).
I’ve covered the Sundance Film Festival many times and can say with reasonable authority that the movie lovers who brave Utah winters to see world premieres are some of the easiest audiences I’ve encountered.
On August 7, 1974, around 7:15 A.M., just as New York City was waking up and trudging off to work, a 24-year-old Frenchman was taking a walk on a metal cable that was strung between the twin towers of the still-uncompleted World Trade Center.
The name Roman Polanski conjures up different responses. To many film buffs he is the Polish wunderkind who rocketed out of the Lodz film school in Poland to direct the dark and mysterious Knife in the Water (1962), a tale of fear and betrayal on the high seas heralded for its thematic complexity and perfect camera placement.
Claude Lelouch’s 1966 film A Man and a Woman remains the North Star of romantic French movies. It also remains his obit-leader, since Lelouch has done nothing in the past 42 years to approximate that runaway success.
I took my 11-year-old son to see Son of Rambow as a form of retreat from the current armada of blockbusters. I had heard that the film, an audience favorite at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, was full of uplifting messages about friendship, imagination, creativity and tolerance.
David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels begins with the discordant sounds of a small-town high school band practicing on a football field under gray skies. It ends with the angry cry of a heartbroken grandmother calling to her dog from a back porch.
When he was in his early 40s, Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of a French fashion magazine, suffered a massive stroke which left him completely paralyzed except for the movement of one eye. By using this eye and a Morse code of sorts, he was able to dictate a memoir to a caring and patient scribe.
Part of what makes Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days so fascinating is its rambling, almost improvisational style. Viewers have to pick up bits of information about the plot and characters along the way.
There are few tasks more daunting for a filmmaker than straddling the line between comedy and tragedy. It is hard enough to establish a tone for a movie without the added challenge of making the funny stuff and the melancholy moments work together like the ingredients of a magic potion.
I often tell screenwriting students not to avoid the difficult scene. By “difficult scene” I mean one involving a serious confrontation, a declaration of love or infidelity, or a confession of sin or weakness. These are scenes that lesser writers try to work around, since they are so difficult to write. But these scenes are the cornerstones of a meaningful story.
Great stories touch on many themes and give us a long list of things that they could be said to be “about.” As I tell my students, if you think Moby-Dick is just about whale- hunting, you weren’t paying attention.
This 1982 drama directed by Alan Parker is one of the great films of its decade—complex, adult, irresolvable, with a screenplay by Bo Goldman that poeticizes its characters’ anguish. Many of the lines stay in your head.
Though atmosphere-heavy and plot-light, and obviously pushing Brad Pitt for a “he’s doing serious art here” Academy Award, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford turns out to be a mesmerizing look at the final months of a gun-toting desperado.
The Valley of Elah is the legendary spot between two mountains where, according to 1 Samuel, young David slew the mighty Philistine warrior Goliath. The site is an appropriate allusion for writer-director Paul Haggis’s movie about the American experience in Iraq. In the Valley of Elah posits that the U.S. may be the military Goliath brought down by hit-and-run insurgents.
Growing up in the Greek Orthodox Church, I learned to confess my sins by kneeling directly in front of the priest. I had no reason to believe that other churches handled this sacrament differently. When I first saw Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, I was mesmerized by the scenes of Death and the Knight talking to each other, in part because they were sitting in some sort of booth with a small door between them. What a great cinematic concept, I thought. When I later visited a Catholic church for the first time and saw the rows of confessionals, my response was, “They stole the idea from Bergman!”
Remember when children would learn key life lessons from their parents—when core beliefs and specific values would be passed down from one generation to the next whenever an opportunity for a lesson presented itself? With the continued splitting of the nuclear family, more and more kids are relying on the media to instruct them on the vagaries of growing up and finding a place in the world.
Alfred Hitchcock said that the literary form that most resembles a movie is not the novel but the short story, since it is designed to be digested in one sitting. But the dilemma for moviemakers who adapt short stories is that they almost always need to beef up or expand the story so it can fill 90 minutes or more.