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Archive for November, 2011

Edward Dmytrk on Emotion

The following quote from the Oscar-nominated director of Crossfire  (and more than 50 other films including The Cain Mutiny) seems like a fitting quote to follow yesterday’s post Emotional Manipulation;

“Today, many film-makers are afraid to deal with sentiment, dismissing it as sentimentality. But the ability to properly handle sentiment and its underlying emotion, to get the most out of it without going over the line into mawkishness, is the trademark of the true dramatist. The greatest dramas ever written or performed have been ‘love stories’, concerned with the emotional contrasts and conflicts of human beings. If the characters in a film do not ‘touch’ each other, how can they possibly touch the viewer?”
Edward Dmytrk
On Screen Writing (first published in 1985) 

Movie Maker Article Edward Dmytryk, Odd Man Out

Scott W. Smith

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Emotional Manipulation

“Isn’t the whole point of making a trip to the movie theater that you’re actually hoping to be emotionally manipulated? Because you want someone to tell you a story that will then make you laugh or cry?
Jim Hill 

“Our results suggest that film-makers manipulate sounds to create non-linear analogues to manipulate our emotional responses.”
ABC Science, Movies manipulate our primal response 

Since I’ve been writing positively about emotions in screenwriting and filmmaking, I should give a little time to the other side of the coin.  Not everyone is a fan of movies that have a more emotional bent. The chief argument is usually that they don’t like being manipulated.

We’ve all been to movies where we roll our eyes at certain scenes because it just seems that the filmmakers were going over the top for the tears to flow. Scenes that come off more corny and sentimental. Of course, we are in a subjective minefield here. Try telling some people that Love Story or The Bridges of Madison County is emotional pornography and you’re stepping on some people’s favorite films.

Complain about a scene where a couple are kissing in the rain and you may invoke an emotional rage if their favorite film is The Notebook…or Enchanted, Sweet Home Alabama, Breakfast at Tiffany’sCast Away, Street of FireDear John. (For the record, I think George Stevens got in right in A Place in the Sun (1951) when the young couple runs for shelter from them rain and that sparks their first kiss.)

Here’s what animation historian Michael Barrier is quoted as saying about the beloved Pixar movies:

“I think they are emotionally manipulative in a fundamentally dishonest way. I dont think the people making the films are necessarily dishonest, but they don’t seem attuned to what their stories are saying. One example, in the opening montage of ‘Up,’ you’re essentially being strong armed into shedding tears about Carl and Ellie… to me, it was grotesquely sentimental and a lot of people were looking for an excuse to break into tears, and obviously this was for them. And ‘Cars’ has, there’s a sentimentality in most Pixar pictures that are very manipulative and completely unconvincing to me. They are congratulating their audience for feeling these synthetic emotions and, to me, that’s offensive.”

To paraphrase Police Chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo, “I’m not sure that I agree with you on your analytical work there,  Mr. Barrier.” (Though I know many do.)

A distinction of many independent and foreign films is they are more cerebral than a typical Hollywood main stream hit film. They appeal more to the intellect. (And professional film critics and film scholars tend to be on the intellectual side.) But if some emotional films come off sappy, it’s fair to say that many intellectual films come off cold. It’s a balance. And in a world that just a couple of weeks ago passed the seven billion people mark—there are seven billion personalities.

I personally think there was a head, heart and soul to Toy Story 3. And Toy Story 3 not only made over one billion dollars, it won the Academy Award for best Animated Film, and earned a rare 100% at Rotten Tomatoes from top movie critics. That won’t sway people like Barrier, but I think Toy Story 3 is a great film to study that works on many layers without going over the top.

The simple truth is we go to films to be manipulated. A lot of time, effort, skill and money go into picking the right sound effects, the right music, the right lighting, the right camera moves, the right wardrobe, and putting the right props in place so that actors wearing make up and saying made up lines will capture an audience with a story.

While manipulate is often used in a derogatory way, perhaps it’s wise to step back and look at the first definition of manipulate as found at the Merriam-Webster website:

1: To treat or operate with or as if with hands or by mechanical means especially in a skillful manner.

May all of you screenwriters and filmmakers out there be skillful manipulators.

Scott W. Smith

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“Give the reader an emotional experience or you’re wasting your time. It doesn’t matter what emotion it is, but make damn sure he or she feels something. “
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 ways to make it better

One of the 100 Ways to make your script better in William M. Akers’ book Your Screenplay Sucks! is this:

22. You don’t give the reader enough emotion!

Emotion can be anything. Laughter. Fear. Compassion. Heartache. Lust.

One of the illustrations Akers’ mentions in his book is the scene in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial when Elliott and E.T. fly for the first time silhouetted against the moon. Earlier this year Filmclub voted another scene from that movie as cinema’s most powerful moment.;

1. ET: the Extra-Terrestrial (PG, 1982): ET says goodbye to his friends and heads home in a spaceship, leaving a rainbow trailing across the sky.

2. Toy Story 3 (U, 2010): The toys hold hands and face their fate.

3. Rocky (PG, 1976): The emotionally-charged climactic fight.

4. Bambi (U, 1942): The moment when tragedy touches the young life of Bambi in the shape of his mother’s death.

5. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (PG, 1969): The scene in which the besieged cowboys leap out of their bunker, all guns blazing.

6. The Wizard of Oz (U, 1939): When Dorothy opens the door of her grey house to behold a world filled with colour.

7. Battleship Potemkin (PG, 1925): The influential “Odessa steps” massacre scene.

8. Mr Smith Goes to Washington (U, 1939): The filibuster scene makes a powerful case for justice: “I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause.”

9. Network (15, 1976): When news anchor Howard Beale announces: “I’m as mad as hell.”

10. Miracle in Milan (U, 1951): Final scene when Toto and his friends rise into the sky on brooms.

Is it even possible to have a memorable scene that isn’t emotional? (This is why I’ve been on this thread for two-weeks. I think it’s the most overlooked aspect in screenwriting circles.)

Also note that there is a mixture of joy and sadness in the above list. And in the cases of E.T. and Rocky, the filmmakers pulled off a mixture of joy and sadness in one scene. Two emotions for the price of one.

Related  Post: What’s at Stake? (Tip #9)

 Scott W. Smith

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Emotion & James Cameron

“(James Cameron) gets a lot of points for being a techno-brat, but he is a very emotional storyteller.”
Steven Spielberg 

“James Cameron has made the two biggest movies ever made, and say what you will about his dialogue or his characterizations, but every single one of his movies obviously have resonated with a HUGE audience across the world. They all back up the eye-melting spectacle on display with an emotional story, and that is absolutely no accident.”
Nate Newton

“Cameron has long claimed that Titanic was at its core a love story. Or at least that’s how he approached the venture. It’s great to have a story with huge scope and stakes, but writers have to provide points of emotional connection for the reader in order for them to become invested in that bigger story.”
Scott Myers

“I think its interesting you can have a film like Inconvenient Truth, which actually gives you a lot of facts but it’s not a particularly emotional film, it’s not emotional at all. Avatar is exactly the opposite it doesn’t give you the facts at all – it assumes you know the facts or you know the issues – it gives you an emotional context – it gives you a sense of – let’s say – a moral outrage when you see the tree destroyed and when you see the people gassed and displaced from their ancestral home and so on, and out of that sense of outrage then you evolve to a sense of triumph and hope because good conquers evil at the end of the film. I think you put those two emotions together and it could be effective in galvanizing people to actually do something – in a way in having all the facts triggers a sense of denial.”
James Cameron 

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“Storytelling is innate to the human condition. Its underpinnings are cerebral, emotional, communal, psychological. One of the storyteller’s main responsibilities is to resonate in the audience’s psyche a certain something at the end of it all, to emotionally move the audience, to compel the audience to ‘get it’ on a visceral level.”
Oscar-nominated director Arthur Hiller (Love Story)
Pulled from the forward to Kate Wright’s book Screenwriting is Storytelling

P.S. Hiller also directed the The Hospital for which Paddy Chayefsky won an Ocsar for his script. Next week (November 22) Hiller will turn 88 and he’s had an amazing six-decade career working alongside some of the most talented people in the business; Al Pacino, Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Nick Nolte, Jill Clayburgh, Kevin Spacy, Leslie Dixon, J.J. Abrams, Neil Simon, Eli Wallach, Sophia Loren, Steve Martin and Walter Matthau. Born in Edmondton, Canada, he recieved an MA in psychology. That should give a little weight to the quote above.

Scott W. Smith

 

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For the last several days I’ve been exploring the topic of emotions and why sadness in particular seems to  get quite a bit of stage time throughout theatrical history. The great American playwright Euguene O’Neill (1888-1953) wrote his share of downbeat stories (Long Day’s Journey, The Iceman Cometh)  and when once asked if he was “the apostle of woe,” he smiled and replied, “I don’t know, there’s Volstead.” (I’m guessing he meant politician Andre Volstead, who once appeared on the cover of Time magazine because of the Volstead Act of 1919, better known as Prohibition.)

That question was ask of O’Neill in 1922 by Malcom Mollan in the article Making Plays with a Tragic End: An Intimate Interview with Eugene O’Neill, Who Tells Why He Does It . Mollan told O’Neill that he basically had one question for him, “Have you any present purpose, or expectations, of writing a play with an out -and-out happy ending? You’ll grant, I suppose, that there are interesting situations in life, even dramatic situations, out of which genuine happiness sometimes issues?”

Eugene O’Neill: “Sure, I’ll write about happiness, if I ever happen to meet up with that luxury, and find it sufficiently dramatic and in harmony with any deep rhythm of life. But happiness is a word. What does it mean? Exaltation: an intesified feeling of the significant worth of man’s being and becoming? Well, if it means that—and not a mere smirking contentment with one’s lot—I know there is more of it in tragedy than in all the happy-ending plays ever written. 

See here, it’s sheer present-day judgment to think tragedy as unhappy? The Greeks and the Elizabethans knew better. They felt the tremendous lift to it. It roused them spiritually to a deeper understanding of life. Through it they found release from the petty considerations of everyday existence. They saw their lives ennobled by it.”
Conversations with Eugene O’Neill 

In 1936, O’Neill was also the first American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Related Posts:  Emotional Playwriting
Writing for Emotions
Emotional Change (Tip #54)
Volcanic Emotions & Arthur Miller
Aristotle, Catharsis & Extreme Emotion
Emotional Screenwriting

Scott W. Smith

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“Some of my main influences in the documentary world are Davis Guggenheim and Lesley Chicott, who taught me about finding the story and its emotional heart through the people (being filmed), and all of Earl Morris‘ films, which bring narrative form to the documentary.”
Logan Scheider
American Cinematographer magazine
November 2011

Scheider was the cinematographer on the beautifully shot PBS four-part documentary America in Primetime. (Here’s the official trailer I found online that for some reason is not only not HD, but is poorly compressed as well, so it doesn’t capture Scheider’s simple, yet complex lighting.)

Update: Found this short promo for America in Primetime on the PBS website but can only link to it rather than embed it here.

Related posts:

Emotional Screenwriting
Emotional Playwriting
Emotional Change (Tip #54) 

Scott W. Smith

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Emotional Playwriting

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth
William Shakespeare

Guess there are times when we all need to share a little pain
Sad Song (Say so Much)
Elton John/Bernie Taupin

In the post Emotional Screenwriting (Tip #53) I pointed out how many great films deal with the core emotions of joy, sadness, fear, and anticipation. With sadness due to a loss as perhaps the common element that runs through all the varied lists of great films. The more I thought about that, the more I realized that that could also be said of the greatest plays in the history of theater.

The Cherry Orchard/ Chekhov
Hedda Gabbler/Ibsen
A Glass Menagerie/ Williams
Death of a Salesman/Miller
Long Day’s Journey Into Night/ O’Neil
King Lear/Shakespeare
Prometheus Bound/ Aeschylus
Oedipus Rex/Sophocles
Medea/Euripides

I’m aware that the list of plays that come to my mind are a somewhat subjective—though they are all considered classics. But as my mind continued to think of other plays and playwrights, there does seem to be a recurring theme of sadness/loss: Sam Shepard, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Tracy Letts, Beth Henley, August Wilson, David Mamet, Edward Albee,  The Visit (Durrenmatt), Ruined (Nottage), The Odd Couple (Simon), Equus (Shaffer) A Trip to Bountiful (Foote).

Is it any wonder why so many writers battle with melancholy, depression, and alcohol and drug abuse?

If the six root emotions are happy, sad, angry, fear, disgust and surprise—which emotion gets the majority of stage time? Which emotion is best represented in the most memorable movie scenes you recall? Which emotion is most represented in your writing?

Scott W. Smith

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Writing for Emotions

“We’ve all read books that are technically perfect but emotionally barren.

Where’s the life?  Why couldn’t we, as readers, engage?

Often we find books cold because the author hasn’t raised the emotional level.  Hasn’t considered emotions at all.

Details and description have their places, but emotions flavor a story.”
Beth Hill
Writing for the Emotions on The Editor’s Blog 

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“Storytelling involves more than lining up the action pieces, arranging them in a logical order and then drawing conclusions. Yes, dramatic action pulls moviegoers to the edge of their seats. And yes, conflict, tension, suspense and curiosity hook moviegoers. Yet, no matter how exciting the action, the character’s emotional reactions and emotional development provide fascination. Any presentation with a strong human element increases the chances of audience identification.”
Martha Alderson*
Character Emotion Makes the Plot 

Want an example of emotional change? The clip below from An Officer and a Gentleman (based on the Oscar-nominated screenplay by Douglas Day Stewart) comes to mind. If you’ve never seen the film it’s a little odd out of context, but it’s a popular enough scene for me to find in about ten seconds on You Tube, even though the film is almost 30 years old.

A fitting Veterans Day clip as well. Cheers to all those American men and women who have endured boot camps and wars—and a special remembrance to those that didn’t come home from battle.

P.S. Roger Ebert in a 1982 movie review wrote, “An Officer and a Gentleman is the best movie about love that I’ve seen in a long time. Maybe that’s because it’s not about ‘love’ as a Hollywood concept, but about love as growth.” He also wrote, “Lou Gossett, Jr. does such a fine job of fine-tuning the line between his professional standards and his personal emotions that the performance deserves its Academy Award.” The Academy agreed.

*Martha is also the author of The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master

Scott W. Smith

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