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“Reversals are a more compelling form of discoveries or revelations because they turn the story upside down.”
Karl Iglesias
Writing for Emotional Impact

chart-screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-10-47-56-pm

2016 Election Night/ New York Times

(Let me preface this post by saying that while I’ve been a registered Democrat and a registered Republican in the past, for the past 15 years I’ve been an independent. And though I did take part in this year’s election I did not vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.)

Politics aside, the 2016 United States Presidential Election was a great example of a major reversal. Up there with the granddaddy of cinematic major reversals— “I am your father.” And as divisive as this past election was, it’s simply too good a reversal illustration to pass up. (Plus what I’m talking about was already fair game for SNL Saturday night in their Election Night skit with Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and others.)

But before I talk politics, let’s talk sports. On Saturday college football had its own set of major reversals as the #2, #3, #4 teams lost. Something that ESPN reported hadn’t happened on the same day in 31 years. (Both #2 Clemson losing to unranked Pitt, and #4 Michigan losing to unranked Iowa—each by last second field goals—were particularly dramatic.)

And just two weeks ago the Chicago Cubs had their own major reversal. Once down 3 games to 1 in the best of seven  games 2016 World Series, they came back to win three games in a row including game 7 in extra innings. That was not only a reversal in being down 3-1 in the series, but a major reversal because it ended 108 of losing out on winning a championship. High stakes. High drama.

But this week’s Presidential Election had even a bigger major reversal than all of those. One commentator called it the biggest upset in American politics since 1948 when Truman upset Dewey for the presidency, another commentator called it the biggest political upset in a century, followed by an NPR commentator yesterday calling it “the biggest political upset in American history.”  All I know is at least half the voters in the USA are upset. (Major reversals are emotional. That’s why you sometimes see tears flow following one.)

“I’m not worried about Trump. As a Democrat, I hope he gets the nomination. Because if he gets it, I don’t think there’s any way he can win.”
Writer John Grisham
Interview published April 18, 2016

Perhaps filmmaker Michael Moore was the only person in the press in recent months who truly believed Donald Trump actually had a chance at becoming the next president of the United States. (And that includes the now President-elect Trump. Sources in Trump’s camp said he was “surprised” he won.)

But regardless of your view of the outcome of the election, there’s a great lesson here to improve your screenwriting and storytelling.

As I watched the election results unfold last Tuesday night it reminded me of watching a movie.

Act 1 (8:00 PM):  While the Major Dramatic Question was “Who is going to win the election?” the feel was “How big a margin is Hillary Clinton going to win by?” Basically echoing what Adam Nagourney wrote in The New York Times the Sunday before the election, “It’s hard to begrudge Democrats their gloating about the state of the Republican Party as the campaign enters its final hours. By most measures, Donald J. Trump appears headed for defeat.”

Act 2 (8:30 PM): As the Southern states started tilting red for Trump, TV commentators said things like “We expected this…” but then when Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Florida were all shaping up as too close to call one of the commentators said, “I’m not sure what’s happening.” Others said that it was surprising, but that Trump would actually have to win Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, AND Florida to have any chance at a path to win the election. Highly unlikely.

Act 3 (9:30 PM):
Trump did win Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, AND Florida. Now the talk flipped to “Hillary still has a path to the White House.” And that drama played out for about half an hour or so until Clinton appeared to be losing Iowa and Wisconsin and that Trump was actually going to pull off a major upset. In the early hours of Wednesday, Clinton conceded defeat. For the rest of your lives if you ever forget what a major reversal looks like you just have to recall the 2016 Presidential Election.

“A reversal changes the direction of the story 180 degrees…Reversals can work physically or emotionally. They can reverse the action or reverse a character’s emotions.”
Linda Seger
Making A Good Script Great
Page 67

Minor reversals (good and bad) are a daily part of our lives, but major reversals really get our attention.  It’s a divorce, a death, or the loss of a job. But it’s also a marriage, a birth, and a promotion. It’s been said that there really are only two emotions, happy and sad.

Movies are also full of minor reversals. Just about every scene has some kind of reversal in it.  The uncertainty holds our attention. But what sets a major reversal apart is scope and magnitude.

In Rocky, when Adrian finally accepts a date from Rocky that’s a reversal in their relationship up unto that point. When Rocky loses his locker, that’s a reversal. But when Rocky, a low-level, club boxer is chosen to fight the champion Apollo Creed, that is a major reversal in the story. It’s such a major reversal that five Rocky movies have flowed from the reversal.

If Rocky isn’t chosen for that fight, perhaps he realizes that boxing really isn’t his calling in life and takes a factory job where he ends up fighting the system like Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae. But Rocky fought for the championship and it resulted in a franchise that’s made over a billion dollars at the box office.

Robert Mckee says a film needs to have at least three major reversals to “satisfy the audience” and I’d agree with that. But I’d add that there are five places in script where major reversals are not only common, but needed:

  1. The inciting incident. (What others call the “Knock at the door.”) It’s the thing that sets your story in motion.
  2. Act 1 Turning point
  3. Midpoint conflict
  4. Act 2 Turning point
  5. Crisis/Climax toward the end of your story.

Many memorable movie scenes are major reversals that loosely fit in one of the above categories.

“Reversals go a long way toward helping writers confront the twin-edge sword of predictability.”
Richard Walters
Essentials of Screenwriting
Page 74

Off the top of my head here are some major reversals:

—”I see dead people.” (If you don’t know the reference I won’t spoil it for you.)
—”She’s my sister and my daughter.” (Ditto the above note.)
—The tornado in The Wizard of Oz.
—The plane crash in Cast Away.
— The super posse shows up in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
—Matt Damon gets stranded on Mars (The Martian).
—Sandra Bullock gets lost in space (Gravity).
—A command module malfunctions (Apollo 13).
—Jerry Maguire gets fired.
—Zoltar grants the young boy Josh his wish and he wakes up as a man (Big)
—The warden throws a rock through a Raquel Welch poster in Shawshank.
—Woody in the box at the end of Toy Story 3. (Yes, I shed a tear or two.)
—The ______ in the box in Se7en.
Both Fight Club and A Beautiful Mind have major reversals where the audience learns the main character has a mental illness.
—When Tom Cruise learns who the Rain Man is (Rain Man).
—And the Keyser Soze ending to The Usual Suspects:

Scott W. Smith

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clintontrump_4753

On this 2016 election day here in the USA I wanted to uniquely captured the presidential race in one photo and here is the results. I used my Nikon D800 in multiple shot mode to take a picture of a Hillary Clinton/ Tim Kaine sign and one of a Donald Trump/Mike Pence sign and the camera merged them together and liked the artistic results.

It’s about as united as the United States of America can get this election.

Scott W. Smith

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This was originally posted on October 3, 2012 as Writing & Rewriting ‘Pretty Woman’ (Part 2). Who would have thought three years ago Donald Trump would seriously be running for president of the United States? In one interview, as you’ll read in this post, director Garry Marshall said Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman was a “Donald Trump-style executive.”:

“All stories are about transformation.”
Blake Snyder

“Movies are all about rewriting.”
Garry Marshall

“When Disney first sent me the script for Pretty Woman, it was a dark tale about a cold and heartless corporate raider and a drug-addicted prostitute who had been hooking for six years. The relationship ended with the raider’s giving the prostitute three thousand dollars and knocking her to the ground. Vivian then screamed, ‘You go to hell! I hate you! I hate your money! I hate it! as he drove away leaving her in the gutter where he found her….What bothered me about the script was that it didn’t make me care about either of the characters. Neither of them generated much sympathy and I rooted for no one.”
Garry Marshall

In the book Wake Me When It’s Funny, Garry Marshall mentions that Jeffrey Katzenberg (then with Disney) brought him in to “supervise the rewrite and lighten it up” the script that would become the movie Pretty Woman.

“We had five different writers on Pretty Women and the first to attempt the rewrite was the original screenwriter, J.F. Lawton. Even after Lawton took a stab, the studio still felt that the script needed some more work. Our approach to the film was to make it the story of two people from totally different backgrounds united in a fairy tale. In all the rewrites, the part of Vivian, the prostitute, came quite easily. It was the character of the businessman, Edward Lewis, that presented the most problems. Only Barbara Benedek, the sole woman writer in the group, got the voice of Edward down by creating a Donald Trump-style executive with a vulnerable side.”
Writer/Director Garry Marshall

One of the writers was Stephen Metcalfe;

“Whenever people ask me what I’ve ‘done’ as a writer, the easiest answer is Pretty Woman. Instant credibility. But what I don’t go into is the fact I never got screen credit on it. I feel I should have, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really bother me. It wasn’t my story. The original script – 3000 – was written by a fine writer, J.F. Lawton. The Julia Roberts character was a coke addicted street walker. The Richard Gere character was a manipulating socio-path. It was gripping, dark and moody and was very real. What it wasn’t was a romantic comedy. And yet someone at Disney – perhaps it was Jeffrey Katzenberg – thought it could be. They believed it so much they’d already hired the director, Gary Marshall, who was sort of the Sidney Lumet of comedy and they’d hired Julia Roberts, who was not yet Julia Roberts but was undoubtably going to be.”
Stephen Metcalfe
From 2008 article Pretty Woman on his website

So if you’re keeping track, so far the writers attached to Pretty Woman were J.F. Lawton, Barbara Benedek and Stephen Metcalfe. Robert Garland did a version of the script and I don’t know if Marshall counted himself as the fifth writer or if it was someone else. I don’t know who to credit with writing this excellent opening description of the Richard Gere character:

EDWARD HARRIS stands at the window, impassively looking down at the party. Edward is a handsome, well groomed man around forty. He looks tired: the kind of fatigue that can’t be cured by a night’s sleep.

What I do know is that Lawton is single credited on the screenplay and received an WGA nomination for the script.

And while there is no shortage of essays about Pretty Women’s role in feminism, capitalism, and morality, or debates about the cliche of the “hooker with a heart of gold” and the businessman with daddy issues—the simple fact is Pretty Women captured the magic.

The film has sold more tickets in the United States than any other romantic comedy (yes, including My Big Fat Greek Wedding). And I think it captured the magic many ways using several tried and true methods including sex, shopping, and Cinderella. Along with a touch of Pygmalion, rags to riches, fish out of water, low class/high class, the American dream of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (even if they are knee-high hooker boots), finding the love of your life, and the classic transformation theme.

Of all of those, I think the transformation theme is what resonates the strongest. It’s one we put the put our personal hopes in.

“It is true that I look for the Cinderella aspect when I am making a film. Most good stories are Cinderella. Audiences like to watch characters whose lives change for the better.”
Garry Marshall
Interview with Leslie Elizabeth Kreiner

Yes, one side of Pretty Woman is silly, superficial, and demoralizing to women, etc., etc.—but another aspect of it touches a universal longing. And that is that no matter how low we are in life that there is hope that the winds of change will blow in our direction.

Have you ever seen a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and weeds?
If you’ve ever seen that scarecrow then you’ve seen me
Have you ever seen a one-armed man punching at nothing but the breeze?
If you ever seen a one-armed man then you’ve seen me
Bruce Springsteen
The Wrestler

While I’m no expert on world religions, I imagine that most deal with the concept of the broken made whole, the weak becoming strong, and the lost being redeemed. And for the broken, weak, and lost—what else is there but hope?

Hope is why some people buy lottery tickets, some go to church, and why others go to movies. Check out my post Hope & Redemption to see a list of films that I think follow those themes and have found large audiences, critical acclaim, and awards. Kind of the triple crown of filmmaking.

P.S. Interesting Pretty Women triva—considered for the role that Julie Roberts shined in were Molly Ringwald, Jennifer Connelly, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Daryl Hannah, Mary Steenburgen, Karen Allen, and Meg Ryan. Film historian David Thomson compared Roberts beauty in Pretty Woman with Elizabeth Taylor’s role in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun. (A once every fifty years kind of thing.)

P.P.S. Screenwriter Ben-Hur Sepehr wrote a screenplay called Temporary Arrangement in 1984 and sent the screenplay to an employee at Disney. He sued for copyright infringement but lost in court in 1992. The Entertainment Law Reporter wrote, “Sepehr argued that in both stories ‘a Hollywood  Boulevard prostitute is transformed emotionally, socially and morally through her employment by a super-rich business tycoon. A further result of the encounter is the transformation of the businessman also.’ The theme of ‘transformation’ was an unprotectible plot idea, stated the court. Judge Byrne, citing the ‘well established’ principle that broad character types are not protected by copyright law, concluded that the characters in the two works were not substantially similar – other than the fact that the two heroines were both prostitutes, they were entirely different characters, as were the two ‘successful, hardworking business executives.”

Scott W. Smith

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