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“One of the essential components of drama is tension…Drama, so said drama critic William Archer, is almost always the effect of ‘anticipation mingled with uncertainty.'”
Alexander Mackendrick

“We knew no time for sadness, that’s a road we each had crossed.”
Pieces of April
Lyrics by Dave Loggins, recorded by Three Dog Night

“Passivity in a character is a real danger to dramatic values. ‘Protagonist’ (the name given to the leading character in your story) literally means the person who initiates the agon (struggle). But a figure who does not (or cannot) actually do things or who hasn’t got the gumption to struggle in a way that produces new situations and developments is apt—in dramatic terms—to be dead weight on the narrative. In effect, a bore.”
Writer/ director Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making
Page 11

I wish when I was younger someone would have explained that the word protagonist flowed from the Greek word agōn, and basically meant struggle.  (The word agony also has roots in agōn.) I used to prefer the term hero to protagonist. But thinking of your main character as the one who struggles—and the antagonist as the one struggling against your main character—conjurers up powerful imagery.

The Olympic Games started in Greece so here’s a good visual of wrestling in Ancient Greece that also symbolically represents modern screenwriting.  (Think of if as Screenwriting from Greece.)

Ancient-wrestling

Keep in mind that while the struggle can be as grand as saving the world (Deep Impact), it can also be as simple as cooking a turkey (Pieces of April). In fact, the micro-budget Pieces of April written and directed by Peter Hedges is a good example of having a character struggling on many levels. April (Katie Holmes) not only struggles to find a place to cook her Thanksgiving dinner after her oven breaks, but she struggles with her neighbors, her boyfriend, her family, society, herself—she even has conflict with the salt and pepper shakers.

In fact, if you’re looking for a film school for under forty bucks pick up Mackendrick’s On-Filmmaking, a used copy of Seven Famous Greek Plays (introduction by Eugene O’Neil),  and the DVD of Pieces of April (which has a commentary by Hedges). Pieces of April is tour de force of quality writing and acting.

P.S. If you’re new to screenwriting then today is your lucky day. Because if you can simply do two things in your screenwriting— 1) Have an active protagonist, and 2) Have a level of tension/conflict in every scene—you will have a heads-up on most scripts written. Any script readers out there want to say what percentage of screenplays they’ve read where two major problems were passive characters and lack of conflict?

Related post:
Don’t Bore the Audience!
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)
Meet Your First Audience (Tip #36)

Scott W. Smith 

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In the spirit of the Olympics, how do you think the state of Iowa would match-up against Hawaii? You may be surprised at the results. (Stick with me and I’ll tie it in with screenwriting.)

In a recent article I read on Yahoo! News written by Jeanna Bryner she reported on the happiest places to live in 2009. All 50 United States were graded on a well-being score.

Bryner writes, “The well-being score for each state is an average of six sub-categories, including: life evaluation (self-evaluation about your present life situation and anticipated one in five years); emotional health; work environment (such as job satisfaction); physical health; healthy behavior; basic access (access to healthcare, a doctor, a safe place to exercise and walk, as well as community satisfaction).

Who came out on top? Hawaii…but Iowa was close behind at #5. And if you add its neighbor just to the north, Minnesota which came in #4,  then Iowa/Minnesota make the best one/two connected states in the U.S. on the old happy meter. (Granted Hawaii is at a disadvantage there.) Actually four of the top ten states are in the Midwest with Kansas and North Dakota being the other states. Who knew?

So Hawaii edges out Iowa as far well-being. But lets put Cedar Falls, Iowa up against Maui. Well, I’m sure there are many ways to judge such a thing but only one of those places was chosen earlier this month as a “distinctive destination of 2010.” Yep, Cedar Falls. (See the article Cedar Falls receives rare honor from National Trust.)

I think we’re officially on the map. Last month Sports Illustrated did a feature on the local college basketball team (UNI) and last summer Good Morning America taped a segment  downtown.  Remember this is the town that Julia Roberts escapes to in the movie Sleeping with the Enemy. That novel was written in Cedar Falls by Nancy Price as was The Bridges of Madison Country when Robert Waller  lived in Cedar Falls. And the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine features an illustration of Sade that was created by local artist Gary Kelley. (And don’t forget the first screenwriting blog to win an Emmy was created in–of all places–Cedar Falls, Iowa.)

If you’re a screenwriter/filmmaker outside L.A. you probably have a chip on your shoulder. And it’s good to be reminded of people and places in your area of the world that have found some measure of local, regional, national or international success. Remember that “hope is a dangerous thing.” Isn’t it inspirational when you watch Olympic athletes who come from small middle of nowhere towns and villages around the world and stand on the world stage?

Focus on the prize. (And do the work when no one is watching.)

And if you’re ever in these parts stop by for a visit. (The above photo is for a client of mine The Black Hawk Hotel.) Here’s what the National Trust for Historic Preservation writes about Cedar Falls:

Situated in a picturesque bend in the Cedar River, Cedar Falls, Iowa offers an impressive mix of shopping, dining, entertainment and cultural activities, from eclectic shopping experiences along its historic Main Street to the many recreational opportunities in the surrounding forests, lakes and prairie preserves. Cedar Falls’ Main Street is a national model, a winner of the Great American Main Street Award that hums with activity nearly round the clock. In addition to its retail offerings, the historic downtown has been certified by the state of Iowa as an “Arts and Cultural District.”

P.S. If you’re looking to move to a happy place and you’re torn between Hawaii and Iowa (common problem)… you may want to compare housing prices.

Text & photo Copyright 2010 Scott W. Smith

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“I shoot video because it gives me freedom as a filmmaker to try new things.”
                                                                                                Mike Figgis
                                                                                                Writer/Director
                                                                                                Leaving Las Vegas  

“Montage is conflict.”
                                                                                              
Sergei Eisenstein 

 

 

Since my last post was on the six-word story, I thought it would be a fitting place to talk about the 48 hour film.

A couple weekends ago I made a film as part of The 48 Hour Film Project taking place in Des Moines, Iowa. Below the film titled “Heart Strings” I’ll talk a little about the process of making that film.

This is my third year doing The 48 Hour Film Project in Des Moines. The past two years my films have won best cinematography against the 35+ teams competing. This year I really wanted to take a shot at making the best film.

The first thing I noticed is in these sort of things comedy does very well so I had in mind that I’d make a film with a humorous angle. I also decided that I wanted to shoot in one location and be done shooting by Saturday morning. Local artist Paco Rosic (www.pacorosic.com) has a restaurant here and said we could shoot there after 10 PM. 

Then we had a handful of people that had agreed to be in the film if I needed them. My goal was to use only two or three people. I really was aiming for simplicity. On Friday night we drew romance as the genre we had to make and the idea of speed dating came to my mind in about ten seconds.

Which of course fit the talent pool I had gathered– a mix of men and one women. Paco ended up as one of the actors and not only gets the girl at the end of the movie, but he edited the film as well. He is a talented artist and who has a non-linear editing system in his loft near the restaurant.

You learn to go with the flow when you’re making a film in 48 hours. I had an editor and a DP both from Minneapolis who had to pull out of helping just days before the shoot so I was glad Paco wanted to take a stab at editing it. Local grip and lighting specialist Jon Van Allen decided he could help out and the film would not have been as good without him. He brought not only his talent, but his fully equipped grip trailer and an extra Panasonic HVX 200 camera.   

And then there is the lead actress Amy Anderson. This is a classic case of “do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” This was Amy’s first film, but I knew she could play the violin so that would play a part of the story. So she not only was on camera between midnight and 6AM talking to strangers, but she had to perform for the final scene after that. Thank you, Amy.

The entire cast and crew did a super job and it was an enjoyable and stress free shoot. I had written a loose outline of characters and some dialogue and then we just shot a lot of footage picking out the best performances that seemed to have the most conflict in the character Bridget’s search for Mr. Right. 

We turned in the film before the deadline and would have liked more time to tweak the audio–but it is a 48 hour film. Thanks to people lending their time, talent and equipment the total budget was less than 48 bucks. (Probably less than the average lunch for Matthew McConaughey on “Failure to Launch.”)

If you’re a screenwriter who’s never directed a film, events like this are perfect for you to try some new things. It’s also a good chance to let people who have little or no experience to get a glimpse into what it takes to make a film. Believe it or not, an all night shoot is a great introduction to the carnival of a life in the film business.

And if you’re ever driving through Iowa and looking for a unique restaurant check out  Galleria de Paco in Waterloo, Iowa. (The shooting location of Heart Strings.) How many places in the world can you eat shrimp and grits and look at a fantastic spray painted recreation of the Sistine Chapel?

Update: On August 14, The 48 Hour/Des Moines Awards were given out and my little film  “Heart Strings” won best cinematography and an honorable mention for best directing.  

Later that night US Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson from West Des Moines snagged a silver metal in Beijing. In one of those quirky timing things I drove by Johnson’s high school on the way to the Fleur Cinema where the top 12 48 Hour Films were being shown.

Johnson is one more reminder that Iowa is full of surprises. Check out her website that is hosted by my buddies over at Spin-U-Tech.

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