GAME OF THRONES

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK TV Series Review:

Game of Thrones (2011- ) | Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

The Politics of Myth in Martin’s Modern Classic

If we were to unearth the politics buried inside every tale ever told, we could divide all stories into two grand schools of partisan thought: Tradition-bound, old rules, right-wing beliefs versus reform-minded, new rules, left-wing principles. In other words, myth versus fiction. GAME OF THRONES merges these political extremes into one ingeniously massive yarn. But first, before we look at how they do it, let’s separate these two modes of storytelling to see what they are and why.

MYTH:

Ancient cultures invented myths to explain the birth of the cosmos and the origin of human beings. These parables were chanted by shamans in religious rituals, then passed from mouth to ear for thousands of years. Paraphrased and translated from language to language, myths travel through time without loss of meaning because they’re not in fact literature. In myths, deeds and characters count, not words.

Fiction evolved when language began to matter. In the works of Homer, for example, his vivid verse is as critical to his epics as who does what to whom. The Roman origin tale of Romulus and Remus, for example, is a myth; Virgil’s Aeneid is literature.

The underlying politics of myth—every king in his palace, every peasant in his hovel—reinforce authoritarian institutions and advocate conformity. Myths not only fortify primitive traditions but the beliefs (often superstitions) that prop them up.

FICTION:

Fiction does the opposite. Writers of literature, both dramatic and comedic, tend to take a critical, often cynical, view of rulers and their hierarchies. From the very beginning, the epic poets and playwrights of Greece leaned toward the anti-conformist values of personal freedom (Aristophanes’ The Wasps), rebellion (Sophocles’ The Tragedy of Antigone), and even chaos as the cure for tyranny (Euripides’ The Bacchae).

In classical literature, dramatic characters suffer tragic events, while comic characters bounce off the walls of absurdity. In fictional works, the world is not as it should be.

In mythical works, the world is exactly as it should be—monsters and all. The belief systems that underpin mythologies put their trust in a universe of sacred god-given order that gives power to despots but denies it to servants. The rigid social structures of myth never change—the hero must. He must come of age, prove himself, and then conform to tradition, so he can take his proper place in the hierarchy. Women are there to assist.

In the 20th century three men recycled these archaic tellings to serve rather personal purposes. Carl Jung used myths to underpin his psychological theories; Mircea Eliade used them to argue for his religious theories; Joseph Campbell encapsulated them inside a monomyth to cure the sickness in the modern soul; Hollywood actioneers hammered his all-purpose myth into a cookie cutter for the mass-production of megahits. (If you’re interested in this subject, read Robert Ellwood’s The Politics of Myth.)

To generalize, myths personify polar forces of good and evil and seek the return of a long lost paradise; fiction wrestles with the complexities of reality and seeks a way to live in the here, now, and what’s to come.

(This is why, by the way, when you comb through the myriad myths our ancestors left behind, you find no comedies. Not one. You find mean-spirited trickster characters who play cheap pranks and mock people, but their one-off gags don’t add up to comedy. A true, knife-wheedling comedy spins a story’s worth of roiling jokes that laugh at an institution: government, business, royalty, religion, courtship, marriage, the military, the rich, the law, the arts, the buddy system—any tradition encrusted with greed, pretension, and genetic stupidity.)

Who benefits from fiction? Readers and audiences. How? By gaining insights into the follies and fates of human beings.

Who benefits from myths? The rich old men who commission them. How? By convincing people to believe in these yarns the powerful keep their grip on society.

GAME OF THRONES:

The brilliance of David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’s GAME OF THRONES, as adapted from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, is that the storytelling mixes the subject matter of myth with the ironies of fiction. Out of this merger the telling builds a mammoth clash of politics:

On the extreme Right, the autocratic, narcissistic Cersei of House Lannister, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms. On the humanistic Left, the graceful, compassionate Daenerys of House Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, who also calls herself Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Lady Regnant of the Seven Kingdoms, as well as Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Breaker of Chains, the Unburnt.

Cersei embodies retrogressive, patriarchal tyranny. Temperamentally, she’s pro-feudalism and anti-change. A narcissist at heart, she feels contempt for her subjects and forces them to obey her whims without choice.

Like the royal families of ancient Egypt, she enjoys incest with her brother and gives birth to their three children. She indulges superstitions, first forcing a witch to prophesize her dark future, then doing every ruthless thing she can to hide her secrets and escape her fate.

Daenerys embodies the future-leaning, open-minded spirit of progress. Temperamentally, she’s anti-feudalism and pro-change. She feels a passionate empathy for those, like her, who are socially and politically oppressed, and offers them the free choice to follow her or not.

As she says to Jon Snow, “So many men have tried to kill me, I don’t remember all their names. I have been sold like a broodmare. I’ve been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled. Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen. Not in any gods, not in any myths…” Daenerys denies myth; Cersei lives myth; in Westeros, both become legends for opposite reasons: The people trust Daenerys, fear Cersei.

But then, into this bipolar world the storytellers ingeniously triangulate the third thing: The Night King and his obedient masses of White Walkers. Next season, the tension between myth and fiction, with its clash of despotism versus freedom, will fade into the background while the writers answer questions of who lives, who dies. Death has no politics.

ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Atomic Blonde (2017) | Directed by David Leitch

McKee Says: It Doesn’t Work

A Failure in Genre Execution

ATOMIC BLONDE bombs for many reasons, but the ABCs are: (A) a false financial premise, (B) a catalogue of clichés, and (C) inept execution of genre convention.

(A) This film began to fail the moment someone invested dollar one. So here’s the five-step system for raising money used all too often in today’s Hollywood:

  1. Get the rights to a cartoon character.
  2. Hire an Oscar winning actor to play this role.
  3. Hide the obvious truth that the espionage plot is trivial and the cast is a George Smiley family album of spy-types.
  4. And instead, sell your investors this idea: Over the last trending decades, films inspired by graphic novels and comic books have made a ton of money, so buy a seat on our money train.
  5. Quickly bank the checks these naïfs write before they realize they’ve been had.

(B) Today, the US/Russia standoff is hotter than ever, so why not update this Ian Fleming clone to 2017? Because to do that, the writers of both the graphic novel and screen adaptation would have to dig down into reality and unearth the trade secrets of actual spies operating in the world today. No, that would be hard work. Far easier to recycle outworn Cold War chestnuts. Here’s just a few of its spy vs. spy clichés: double agents, double crosses, double bosses, wigged disguises, escapes from submerged cars, and last second getaways just before the train door closes.

(C) Genre conventions shape an audience’s expectations. In ATOMIC BLONDE many conventions went awry, but let’s focus on just three: McGuffin, the Action Antagonist, and the Action Climax.

THE MCGUFFIN

At the core of all Action tales sits a McGuffin, defined as: The one thing everybody wants, and when you get it, it gives you power. It could be the ring in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the bridge in THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI, the falcon in THE MALTESE FALCON, the memorandum in THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM, the file in THE IPCRESS FILE, or the enigmatic “microfilm” in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. No matter how it’s embodied, pursuit of the McGuffin focuses the story’s Spine of Action.

Unfortunately, the writers of ATOMIC BLONDE could not come up with a single, original McGuffin, so they decided to substitute quantity for quality and give us two, both clichés: a traitorous double agent and a list of every secret agent in Europe. In a well-told espionage thriller, either one of these might develop into high-tension intrigue and motivation for mayhem, but in this film, the two McGuffins simply cleave the Spine of Action, blur focus, and water down suspense until neither target seems worth the risk and effort to get it.

THE ACTION ANTAGONIST

The following principle holds true for every story ever told: The life-energy of story pours out of the negative forces that thwart the will and desires of the characters. If these forces are weak and simple, then the protagonist and her story become drab and boring. But if these forces are amazingly powerful and cunningly complex, then she will have to rise to occasion and become a fascinating character with superb physical skills, iron will power, and mental brilliance.

When applied to the Action genre, this principle calls for an antagonist with extraordinary power, pursuing an ingenious, diabolical master plan. In other words, a brilliant villain makes for a thrilling, Jason Bournean hero who performs breath-catching feats of daring-do.

In this film, the Russian spymaster just isn’t up to the task. He has no plan to get the list, and even if he did, he has no power to execute it beyond a dozen goons who can’t land a punch or hit anything they’re shooting at. Because the villain is so inept and dull, the hero never has to do or be anything extraordinary. As spies and counterspies go, the Atomic Blonde is no one we haven’t seen before.

THE CLIMAX

At climax, an Action hero can win out against the villain in only one of three ways: She overpowers him; she outsmarts him; she does both at once. The least satisfying of these three possibilities is the first, overpowering, but that was the MO for the entire film. Scene after scene was packed with repetitious fist-to-fist, gun-to-gun combat. The Action genre offers a rich variety of set pieces, but one chase aside, the writers seemed intent in making Charlize Theron a neo-Jackie Chan, but without his wit.

In fact, the only time the Atomic Blonde uses her brain is at climax when she gets the drop on the villain by hiding her gun in a bowl of ice. But then you might ask, how did she get her gun into spymaster’s quarters in the first place? Did no one think to frisk her? I guess these Russians weren’t paying attention to the story.

LADY MACBETH (2017)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Lady MacBeth (2017) | Directed by William Oldroyd

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)
LADY MACBETH (2017)
A Study in the Power of Counterpoint

From its screenplay through its casting and on out to its camera work, this bare-knuckled psycho-thriller employs compelling counterpoint techniques to sharpen both meaning and emotion.

Traditional creative technique calls for content to dictate form. We, for example, convey the intimacy of a love scene with tender words, sensitive acting, and soft light wrapped around the lovers; we express the violence in action scenes with raucous dialogue, athletic stunts, and high-speed editing.

But for this reinvention of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, screenwriter Alice Birch, cinematographer Ari Wegner, and director William Oldroyd pulled the form-follows-content principle inside out.

COUNTERPOINT CINEMATOGAPHY:

LADY MACBETH dramatizes three murders: the poisoning of an old man, smothering of a child, and smashing of a man’s skull until his brains spatter the room. The camera, however, photographs this twisted animality with precise, balanced, often dead-center symmetry, followed by long, slow static portraits of the killer staring straight ahead. Why?

Cinematographer Ari Wegner took her inspiration from the 19th century Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi, who in turn took his inspiration from the interiors of homes. Natural light fills his softly shadowed rooms. A piece of furniture on one side precisely balances a solitary figure on the other, sitting or standing with her back to us, looking out a window.

The Dane’s work might remind you of “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1” (1871), commonly known as Whistler’s Mother. Like the American master, Hammershøi’s symmetrical compositions are calm to the edge of uncanny.

In theory, symmetry, soft light, and long held static compositions should defuse energy and relax us, but when these aesthetics conceal hideous deeds, counterpoint unnerves the mind. Calculatedly framed rooms of sepulchral stillness—nothing out of place, certainly nothing human—creep us out. To bring us to the edge of terror, Wegner’s obsessively balanced monochrome compositions focus a hypnotic tension between frozen form and scalding content.

COUNTERPOINT CASTING:

LADY MACBETH arouses the high-tension question “Will Katherine get away with murder?”, then answers it in a breath-catching final sequence you will never forget.

To prepare for this turning point, director William Oldroyd made three key casting choices: Florence Pugh, a white actor, as Katherine, the master’s wife; Naomi Ackie, a black actor, as Anna, her servant; Cosmo Jarvis, an actor of mixed race, as Sebastian the stableman.

Audiences may be confused to see servants of color in Victorian England, but the British Empire covered the globe, so why not. This ingenious black/white counterpoint makes the oppression and humiliation of Katherine by powerful, privileged males all that more harrowing, but more strategically, the bold casting sets up a stunning pay-off at Story Climax. As a result, 19th century Northumberland becomes a perfect anachronism for racial and gender politics today.

COUNTERPOINT CHARACTERS:

A character dimension brackets two contradictory qualities in one soul. To create a complex role, a writer first imagines a trait—something physical or behavioral—then looks for an opposite facet to counterpoint it.

Florence Pugh first portrays Katherine as a frail porcelain beauty imprisoned in a dark world, victimized by cruel men. Her lover (Cosmo Jarvis’s dark, rugged Sebastian) enters the story as a morally vacant sex athlete.

When her father-in- law and husband discover her adultery, Katherine plans and executes their murders, making Sebastian her partner in crime and herself owner of the estate. Soon after, her dead husband’s bastard son and heir shows up, while Sebastian holds him down, she suffocates the child.

This last crime overwhelms Sebastian. Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, his conscience drives him to distraction and confession. Guilt counterpoints his criminality, dimensionalizing his character to powerful effect.

At climax, Katherine betrays Sebastian, destroys Anna for good measure, and gets away with it by manipulating race. She is, after all, a white woman. Her counterpointed dimension of victim/villain, innocent/psychopath, makes her one of the most fascinating characters in recent cinema.

Lastly, many critics have hailed LADY MACBETH as feminist in spirit, but when did feminism become an advocate of evil?

MY COUSIN RACHEL (2017)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

My Cousin Rachel (2017) | Directed by Roger Michell

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

Thinking of adapting a novel to the screen? If so, don’t miss MY COUSIN RACHEL. This suspenseful summertime treat offers an excellent case study of a brilliantly told novel skillfully escorted from page to screen by writer/director Roger Michell.

We’ll look at three of its storytelling strategies—all originating in the novel, all needing special treatment on screen, and all interrelated: (1) the open ending, (2) first person point of view, and (3) the unreliable narrator.

1. THE OPEN ENDING:

To set up her novel, Daphne du Maurier invented a backstory in which the first two husbands of a captivating woman die in uncertain circumstances. Gossips spread rumors about murder, but the medical authorities ascribe both deaths to natural causes.

From that set-up, Du Maurier could have written a novel about Phillip, the prospective third husband of the widow Rachel, a man who senses he could become her third victim. The plot could have built to an either positive or negative climax in which Phillip discovers for certain that Rachel is innocent or for certain that she’s guilty, and acts accordingly one way or the other. Either ending would give the reader closure.

Instead, the novelist opted for ambiguity and an open ending. Du Maurier’s answer to “Did she or didn’t she?” is like staring at a gestalt:

Could be either but we’ll never know which.

To create her open ending, Du Maurier took a page from the playwright Luigi Pirandello. His plays dramatize the ways subjectivity warps the truth. He asks, “How can we ever know what factually happens in life when every human being sees things from a subjective, and therefore biased, point of view?” The Pirandello premise has inspired wonderful tellings such as Kurosawa’s film RASHOMON, Ian Pear’s novel The Instance of the Fingerpost, and Sarah Treem’s television series THE AFFAIR.

Now imagine Roger Michell’s task. How to write and direct the film so that some people come out convinced she did it, and others are just as certain she didn’t, but no one leaves confused. Solution: Write every line of dialogue, and then direct every scene so each word, look, and gesture creates a perfect double entendre—two opposite meanings that force the audience to choose. Next, sit back and let personal biases sway people the way they always do.

2. FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW:
The natural impulse of cinema is to leap through time and space, cutting from image to image. So, how to film a novel that’s persistently located in the protagonist’s mind and strictly limited to his subjective point of view?

One choice is to rewrite it into the objective third person point of view. Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, is narrated by a schizophrenic mental patient, Chief Bromden. As Chief tells us his tale, he hallucinates walls oozing slime and people growing and shrinking like Lewis Carroll creatures from beyond the looking glass. Instead, for the 1975 film, screenwriters Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman stripped the novel down to its essential events, put Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) at the center of the action, and re-envisioned the story through the cool eye of an omniscient, free-moving camera.

For MY COUSIN RACHEL, however, Roger Michell realized that du Maurier’s ingenious ambiguity wouldn’t work unless the camera locked into Phillip’s (Sam Claflin) POV and stayed there. So Michell’s script and editing constantly call for angles that either look at Phillip while he reacts, gaze over Phillip’s shoulder while he acts, or survey scenic landscapes while he narrates VO.

3. THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR:

Experienced readers know that exposition told in a first person voice may or may not be factual. Of course, many first person narrators are perfectly honest and can be trusted. We, for example, take Ishmael’s descriptions of the characters and events in Moby Dick as statements of fact.

On the other hand, in works such as FIGHT CLUB and GONE GIRL the audience senses that a character’s version of events (no matter how vivid and impactful) cannot be trusted. Such characters then become the fictional device known as the unreliable narrator.

This strategy has many variations. In some tellings the narrator’s unreliability is hinted at, but not revealed until the very end when we discover the whole story was a calculated lie (THE USUAL SUSPECTS) or a massive rationalization (ATONEMENT). Other narrators may be unreliable for reasons of insanity (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) or post-traumatic delusions (LIFE OF PI, JACOB’S LADDER). One of the most common variants is a story told by a gullible youth or naïf (FORREST GUMP, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, HUCKLEBERRY FINN).

This last variation was Daphne du Maurier’s choice. She wrote My Cousin Rachel (1951) in the first person voice of her seriously naïve protagonist, Phillip Ashley. Letters from his guardian, Ambrose Ashley (who may be suffering from a brain tumor and therefore delusional), make him highly suspicious of Ashley’s widow. Nonetheless, he falls madly in love with her.

Throughout the novel Phillip seeks the truth by constantly studying body language and facial expressions with an eye to ulterior motives or duplicitous thoughts in the subtexts of other character’s words and gestures. His inner monologues are spotted with “maybe,” “perhaps,” “possibly,” “as if”; he wonders aloud if his imagination, his “fancy,” is deceiving him or are his suspicions true; then as he reads minds, he becomes more and more sure of his surmises.

Two examples:

While questioning Rachel’s Italian friend, Rainaldi, Phillip muses: “He took up a pen between his fingers, and tapped it on the table, as if he were playing for time or trying to distract me. Was it my fancy or did a veiled look come over his dark eyes?” In other words, was Rainaldi lying? Is he up to something? If so, what?

Later while talking to Rachel: “I knew from her voice that she was talking to convince herself, not me.” In other words, she’s lying to herself. But what lie and why?

As we read du Maurier’s first person novel, we know that the other characters could be innocent and that Phillip’s suspicions could well be a distorted male gaze, but because we’re fixed in the POV of an unreliable protagonist, we have to judge for ourselves who or what to believe.

That’s literature. Roger Michell’s problem is how to turn it into cinema, and he found the solution in his casting and directing of the actors.

As we watch Rachel Weisz’s subtle performance, we sense her flow of unspoken thoughts, but what are they? Rachel’s subtext alternates between seeming innocence and what could be either regret over not being able to save her two fatally ill husbands or guilt about poisoning them. It’s for us to decide.

The same is true for the writing that underlies Sam Claflin’s impressive performance. Phillip doesn’t know anything, so he suspects everything. His country-boy character arcs from innocent to lethal in a seamless portrayal of how naiveté leads to the paranoia that sends a woman to her death.

If you’re interested in adaptation, watch for novels coming to the screen, read the books first, sketch the way you would do it, then see the films. You’ll learn fast.

WONDER WOMAN (2017)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Wonder Woman (2017) | Directed by Patty Jenkins

McKee Says: It Works, But… (Spoiler Alert!)

Over all, WONDER WOMAN successfully combines a coherent script and amiable casting with eye-catching spectacle and the triumph of good over evil. What’s more, the revival of this iconic protagonist in these contentious days makes it an important social event. Delighted little girls in my audience shouted “Wow!” scene after scene. It’s a hit and doing what Action spectacles are designed to do: making money.

However, I can think of two ways in which the film doesn’t work and cost it a bigger box office.

1. Repetitious Action:

I counted ten action set pieces: one rescue, one escape, and no less than eight assaults by Wonder Woman. Action becomes boredom without variety, so the director is to be congratulated for inducing pace, variation, and a sense of progression into a screenplay that repeated Wonder Woman’s mania for confrontation end to end.

2. The Character of Ares:

First, casting a British actor as villain is a dreadful cliché. Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal the Cannibal and Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber set the standard decades ago, but persistent copyists have worn the meme to its nub.

Second, an Action story can only be as exciting as the villain and his tactics make it. A cliché in that role sucks energy out of the telling.

The Action genre can deliver a positive climax in just one of three ways: The hero overpowers the villain; the hero outsmarts the villain; or the hero does both—outsmarts and overpowers.

Outsmarting means discovering a hidden flaw in the villain and, in a jiu-jitsu like move, exploiting it. Needless to say, a climax that pivots on the hero outsmarting the villain is far more satisfying than her overpowering him with brute muscle. But then an amazing feat of outsmarting calls for a screenplay with mental muscle.

Ares has no hidden flaw to discover, outsmart, and exploit; he’s just weaker than Wonder Woman and so ripe for defeat. We’re told that he was once the most murderous god on Olympus. If so, that doesn’t say much for the power of Zeus and his fellow deities. I doubt that Satan, the Christian god of evil, would crumple like Ares.

The Moral Question:

The Action Hero is, by definition, a good person who uses evil means to defeat evil. The hero will be as lying and deceitful as evil, as clever as evil, and most importantly, as violent as evil. In fact, the hero will ultimately do these things far better than evil, destroy evil, and then go back to being a good person again.

Of course, the notion that people who use evil means to do good will not be corrupted by these tactics, or that once heroes take life-and-death power into their hands, they will it back to the people is naïve. But then Action has always pitted an idealized purity of good against undiluted evil. That’s the core of this genre.

Because action heroes must be violent, they have been almost exclusively male since Homer. Recently, however, long form television series such as HOMELAND, GAME OF THRONES, VIKINGS, and THE AMERICANS have added fiercely heroic killer women to the ranks. Now WONDER WOMAN.

Always bear in mind that Action writers never intend for fictional violence to be taken as a literal model for behavior. Rather, they use it as a metaphor for the courageous strength we all need to face life. For that reason, society has generally accepted the role of Action tales in the lives of boys. On the other hand, if our sorry society is to progress, we must empower women as an equal, hopefully greater, force for moral good.

Therefore, some questions: Are we comfortable using violence as a poetic for girls in the same way we have always used it for boys? Have Action stories made boys better human beings? Will they have a positive influence on girls? I hope so because the trend is clear.

THE NIGHT OF

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK TV Series Review:

The Night Of (TV Mini-Series, 2016) | Created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian

THE NIGHT OF: A Study of the Importance of Research

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

Research on Character Specific Details  

A character can have conflicts on various levels; two traits could oppose, a trait and a conscious desire could oppose, two conscious desires could oppose, two subconscious desires could oppose, a conscious and a subconscious desires could oppose. You have all of these choices on how to develop conflict within a character.  

In THE NIGHT OF, the gritty telling details of the lawyer character suffering from an intense physical ailment gives him a unique character — a physical conflict, the psoriasis, with all its amazing variations against a character’s conscious will. How do you do your job when your body is raising hell with you? As a result, the audience is in tremendous empathy. It profoundly humanizes the character and makes you, the viewer, think about every little malady you ever had from headaches on down that got in your way when you were trying to do something. It is a great choice and impressive telling details make it very real. You can only create from what you already know. If you don’t know enough of your characters and their world to have 20 choices for everything, then you will just recycle clichés. I am hard pressed to think of a single cliché in THE NIGHT OF. I can’t think of anything where I had really felt “I had seen this before”. That’s eight hours of original writing.

The World of Prison: Pyramid of Power  

The world inside of the prison is about the people with power and the people without power. How do the people with power get their power? There are scenes in this series where guys spend a lot of time pushing weight. Most are quite strong, but only one guy rules and he is not the strongest guy in the prison. So there is a pyramid of power in prison. What is about the guy at the top of the pyramid that allows him to control people below him? The answer is personality. He possesses an inner quality that inmates recognize and it frightens them. Even though they might be twice as big and strong, they don’t throw a punch because they are intimidated. In any violent world, such as inside the Mafia, everybody’s got guns from top to bottom. So, how does the hierarchy control the lower-archy? They do it with personality. The same thing goes inside the lawless world of a prison.

Writing Freedom in TV Series

Although THE NIGHT OF deals with the degeneration plot, the spine of it is a social drama using the courtroom drama to expose and criticize a social problem, the incompetence of institutions, police, prosecutors, prisons and so forth.  

The institutions in society are mirrors of human nature. The great documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman made brilliant cinema vérité documentaries about institutions - prisons, insane asylums, high schools, boot camps, and monasteries. His premise was all institutions dehumanize people, including monasteries. It is just how it is; it is true. And herein lies the dilemma of a lesser of two evils choice. For example, if we don’t have an institution to put dangerous people away from society, we will be releasing serial killers. It is a terrible choice. At the same time we must bear in mind that we blame institutions as if they have separate consciousness of their own. They don’t. The consciousness behind all institutions is human nature.  

Now the cinema has become extremely conservative, socially and politically making it almost impossible for a filmmaker to get that bleak. The fear is few enough people go to the movies anyway, and negaphobia is rampant in our society. THE NIGHT OF is anything but conservative. It is real, cutting edge, too dangerous for an art movie. One of the few recent film exception is an Iranian film, A SEPARATION.

The great takeaway from all of this: This is the Age of the Writer. Television has released the writer with freedom to create comedies, dark dramas, family, whatever the subject is, to be innovative, to go into places and things that are restricted by commercial television and cinema.

BIG LITTLE LIES

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Big Little Lies (2017 - ) | Created by David E. Kelley

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

EDITING TEMPO

BIG LITTLE LIES crosscuts three stories over seven-episodes, then pulls them together at Climax. But instead of limiting itself to the points of view of its three protagonists, the screenplay moves from place to place, person to person, telling the story from an omniscient, God-angle view—as did the third-person novel it adapted.

Free to take the telling where they like, the editing team cuts from the struggles of the protagonists, to the schemings of various antagonists, to snide comments from sideline characters, to inserts of California clichés. In fact, the editors toss in more images of crashing waves than you’d see in a surfing contest.

This brisk editing tempo serves two purposes:

(1) It counterpoints the subtexts of emotional paralysis and anxiety that haunt the three principals. Without these cutaways, the mini-series could have become as static and mood-ridden as a minimalist art film.

(2) These inter-scene montages also serve as a delaying tactic to heighten tension. The splicings busy our eyes while the crosscutting keeps the storytelling in the air, both devices forestalling answers to the ultimate questions: “Who going to die in this story? Who will do the killing?” As the ancient writer’s adage goes: “Make’em laugh, make’em cry, make’em wait.”

DRAMATIC IRONY TO HOOK SUSPENSE

Beginning in 2007, the closed-season series DAMAGES pioneered a radical technique: Each episode’s teaser flashed forward to a glimpse of that season’s violent climax. As the weeks went by, teaser after teaser gave us snippets of the future, but never enough to know what happened in full. We had to wait to the final episode to experience the grand climax.

Along the way, however, we watched the series through the lens of dramatic irony. Because of the teasers, we knew more than the characters knew; we knew they were heading for disaster. The effect of putting the audience ahead of the characters was twofold: One, it created suspense of a unique quality. Two, the audience’s curiosity looked deeper into the inner workings of the characters, asking, “How and why did these characters do what I already know they did?”

BIG LITTLE LIES uses the same essential technique but with a comic touch. Between turning points, the telling flash-forwards to a Don Rickles chorus of fast-talking insult artists who ridicule protagonists and antagonists alike. They play no direct roles in the core dramas but instead get laughs as they mock this cast of pretentious elites. Like the foretastes of the future in DAMAGES, these gossipers put the audience ahead of the main characters but keep the outcome to themselves.

SETTING AS SIMILE

The setting is the costume a story wears. Ideally, the writer would like to wrap her telling in a time and place that heightens the meaning and emotion of its events. The setting’s imagery then acts as a subliminal metaphor for the story’s positive versus negative charges, for good versus evil, comedy and tragedy. With that ambition, the final location of BIG LITTLE LIES is perfection.

The climax takes place at a fund-raising costume party with an Elvis Presley/Audrey Hepburn theme. Elvis’s leather jackets versus Hepburn’s pearl necklaces express the series’ polar conflict of male v. female, aggressor v. victim, but in a way that is at once romantic and dangerous, serious and humorous, over the top and below the belt.

I was hooked, held, and paid off. I’ll miss these fascinating characters and the superb actors who played them.

VIKINGS

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK TV Series Review:

Vikings (2013-) | Written by Michael Hirst

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

ESCAPING THE HISTORICAL ACCURACY TRAP:

When we look back on the what-was, events often cloud over with shapeless confluences of intersecting cultural and physical forces, undercut by coincidence and contradiction. That’s why people argue about what happened last month, let alone last century. That’s also why striving for historical accuracy cripples storytelling. Trying to recreate past events as history says they happened often traps storylines in cul-de-sacs of confusion. Instead of granular factuality, the wise writer strives for historical expressiveness. In short, he captures the spirit of the times.

The three grand treatments of the past: News outlets monitor current events; historians interpret previous events; storytellers imagine living events. Chroniclers record factual deeds; historians sift social, political, environmental, and economic forces; authors express the human consequences.

Lazy writers carry around ready-made stories, hoping to transplant them in interesting historical settings. In such, the past simply becomes a background for a portable tale that could have been told in any time or place.

Hard-working writers explore the story potential in a span of history by first eliminating an overwhelming surplus of events, then selecting a cast of characters to stand in for that era’s vast population, and, most importantly, merging their factual knowledge of what actually happened with creative imaginings of what could have happened, dramatizing the hidden desires that drove their taken-from-life characters.

In other words, they let history reveal its stories, rather than imposing theirs on history. Discoveries found in books come to life in the imagination. As a result, when all-too-familiar genres, such as Love and Crime, arise naturally out of an unfamiliar world, they fascinate us with never-seen-before rituals, rules, and relationships. History, reinvented and well-told, makes the old new again.

THE VIKING HISTORY:

To create VIKINGS, Hirst called on three primary sources:

(1) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: In 891, King Alfred the Great (849—899) ordered all annals from all towns be collected, copied, and kept in one grand book. The resulting Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lists virtually every significant English event from 450 AD to 1066 AD.

(2) The History of Denmark: A hundred years after Alfred, the Danish scholar Saxo Grammatius gathered all oral sources he could find to compile a Danish history.

(3) The Icelandic Sagas: A century or two after Saxo, the last Icelandic storytellers, men and women who memorized and recited family narratives, transcribed their spoken histories to paper.

In these sources, and much secondary research as well, Hirst found six key events: (1) Ragnar Lothbrok married three times and fathered numerous children. (2) He led victorious Viking raids on England and France, but (3) suffered a major defeat at Paris. (4) In 865, a storm blew his ship aground on the English coast. (5) King Aella of Northumberland captured him and put him to death. (6) Months later, an army led by Ragnar’s sons conquered northern England and executed Aella.

HIRST’S STORYTELLING:

Every piece of history offers raw material for virtually every kind of story, so when Michael Hirst was drawn to the Viking era and Ragnar Lothbrok, he faced two major questions: How to structure a multi-season television series around just six events? And, most importantly, what genres do these facts suggest? He chose two primary lines that could sustain story arcs over decades of his characters’ lives and seasons of audience fascination:

Domestic Drama:

Vendettas inside families can last a lifetime. They churn through three intrinsic values: Envy/Empathy, Loyalty/Betrayal, Unity/Break-Up. To dramatize these values, Hirst redesigned the family that history gave him.

Legends claim that Ragnar had three wives, but for storytelling power, two is a much better number. Two wives can loathe each other to the death, but put a third spouse in the mix and drama turns to farce. So Hirst eliminated a wife and then created Lagertha and Aslaug as multi-dimensional women, mutually contradictory in their natures, living in perpetual hatred.

There’s no record of Ragnar’s siblings, so Hirst looked into Viking lore, found Rolo (a warrior who lived decades in the future), and him made Ragnar’s brother. Hirst’s Rolo, driven by envy of Ragnar, betrays him and ultimately defeats him in the second battle for Paris.

Ragnar’s Quest:

History dealt Hirst a weak hand: How can a man’s haphazard life unify four seasons of storytelling? What Spine of Action would motivate Ragnar to pursue what Object of Desire for over two decades (49 episodes) and end on a meaningfully powerful climax? Motivational questions require deep-seated insight into the inner realms of human beings, and history offers the writer no such answers.

Hirst’s raw material: When Ragnar’s sons carve the blood-eagle on King Aella, they take a Hamlet-like revenge, but only use episodes 44-47 to do it. What’s more, this last movement begins with the coincidental shipwreck that dropped Ragnar into Aella’s hands in the first place. His sons right a wrong, but if their revenge means no more than that, this uptick wouldn’t have the necessary weight to pay off four seasons.

Hirst’s solution: The author decided that revenge would be only a means to an end. To unify Ragnar’s story, he rewrote history by eliminating random chance and linking all pivotal events to the choices and actions of his protagonist and no one else. In short, Hirst gave Ragnar a quest.

Ragnar’s vision of Odin (1:1) triggers the Inciting Incident that launches his quest. Ragnar embraces the god’s call to greatness and goes in pursuit of conquests and renown. But then his struggle for fame takes a negative turn (2:2) when the Seer makes the prophecy that his sons will win far greater glory than him.

Ragnar’s defeat at Paris (4:10) costs him his last chance at greatness, and so with life at rock bottom, where does he go from there? Defying history, Hirst has Ragnar redefine his quest. He could still win immense glory, not for himself, but for his sons. To do so, Ragnar conceives a long con that will not only make the seer’s prophecy come true, but climax on his sacrificial suicide—the spectacular death of a tragic hero.

Ragnar bribes some has-been warriors to row him to England. Once there, he kills these men, and then surrenders to Ecbert, King of Wessex. Even though Ecbert locks him in a cage, Ragnar manipulates Wessex into turning him over to Northumberland. Ragnar knows that Aella, his ancient enemy, will inflict a suffering so degrading and hideous that his death will motivate his sons to take conquer England, take revenge on both Aella and Ecbert, and with win their glorified place in history.

Indeed, history granted fame to Bjorn, Hvitserk, Ubbe, Sigurd, and Ivar, but now, thanks to Michael Hirst, the scale has tipped and the future will know them as the five sons of Ragnar Lothbrok.

FOOTNOTE:

Hirst creates and executes this series without benefit of a writer’s room. VIKINGS is the outpouring of just one artist’s research, imagination, and storytelling gifts.

GET OUT (2017)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Get Out (2017) | Written and Directed by Jordan Peele

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

EXCELLENT EXECUTION OF GENRE:

Horror, when it’s really good, arouses the belly-knotting, irrational fear of things that do not in fact exist. This primal genre comes in three sub-genres: 

1. The Uncanny. In these stories, the antagonists possess fantastic and yet scientifically explainable powers. The alien in ALIEN, for example, forces its spore down the throat of a human being, so the embryo can incubate in the victim’s stomach before hatching and chewing its way out. Parasite wasps here on earth do exactly the same thing when they lay their eggs inside caterpillars.  
 
2. The Supernatural. These antagonists have extra-earthly powers beyond the logic of science. Freddy Krueger in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, for instance, is a demonic, murderous ghost who crosses from the after-world to the real world by moving through the dreams of his victims while they sleep.

3. The Super-Uncanny. The third sub-genre keeps the audience in the dark: From where does the horror come? The supernatural or the uncanny? Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of the Stephen King classic, THE SHINNING, raises the level of terror by suspending us in wonder: Who is he? Is Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) a psychopath bent on hellish savagery or a haunted man driven to violence by hellish demons?  

In all three subgenres, monsters thrive on the twisted pleasure of inflicting terrible pain, and then enjoying and prolonging the suffering of their victims. In short, they possess the spirit of evil.

GET OUT gives the Uncanny a 21st century twist by ingeniously dramatizing the unholy merger of science and evil.

SUPERB CRAFTING OF THE MERCY SCENE:

Horror, like all action genres, builds to the moment when the protagonist is weaponless, defenseless, back to the wall, at the mercy of the overpowering monster—aka, the Mercy Scene. If this story is going to have a positive ending, the protagonist, from a state of utter helplessness, must rise to the occasion by either outsmarting the monster by discovering and exploiting a weakness in it, or overpowering the villain by mastering his power. What’s more, the protagonist must come out on top without resorting to coincidence or rescue. This, needless to say, is where most action films fail.

GET OUT’s protagonist does both. He outwits the trap set for him, then unleashes a burst of brutal revenge that would make a monster cower. The writer/director Jordan Peele achieves this with a mastery of storytelling. If you’ve seen it, see it again. If you haven’t, see it twice so you can study the art of set-ups and pay-offs. Every turning point, every detail, every look does one or the other. Not a gesture is wasted.

WONDERFUL USE OF THE GOOD LAUGH:

Horror audiences laugh as a safety valve for extreme fear. This can’t be avoided, so the question is: “Do they laugh when they want or when the screenwriter wants?” The Good Laugh in Horror puts the writer in control. I have never seen the Good Laugh better handled than GET OUT’s hysterical gags.

THE SALESMAN (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

The Salesman (2016) | Written and Directed by Asghar Farhadi

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

MERGED GENRES:

Definition: A story’s genres merge when each genre supplies the other’s motivation.

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s genre of choice is Domestic Drama. The positive/negative charge of the core value in family stories veers between Unity and Disunity and back again, raising the question: Will this family stay together or split apart? Farhadi’s films—ABOUT ELLY (2009), A SEPARATION (2011), THE PAST (2013)—all feature fragile families conflicted on two levels: inwardly into themselves and outwardly into their cultures.

His most recent work, THE SALESMAN (2016), merges its Domestic Drama with a second genre, the Crime Story. In this case, rape. As the film begins, a stranger enters the protagonist’s apartment and violates his wife. The neighbors, however, doubt her story. Their wordless suspicions inflict a bitter humiliation, so she decides to drop the matter and not call the police.

Her husband chooses instead to pursue revenge. He secretly hunts for the rapist, planning to punish him, not with the law, but with exposure to his own family. In Iranian culture, a dirtied reputation in the eyes of your family is crucifixion worse than prison.

Just as the protagonist is about to exact revenge, his wife intervenes and threatens to leave him. She fears that if her husband punishes her attacker, his actions will expose her to even more disgrace. Like the rapist, the victim’s greatest fear is shame. To prevent that, she puts her marriage in jeopardy.

TURNING POINTS:

Iranian culture is not only high context* (see below), and therefore dialogue-lite, but governed by behavioral restraints and moral adhesions absent in western culture. As a result, the actions of the wife and husband trigger reactions from their society and within their marriage that deliver surprise after surprise, followed by insight after insight. The storytelling might not amaze a Persian audience, but for this American, every turning point came with a jolt. The Crime Story climaxes in a state of chaotic Justice I did not see coming.

CHARACTER ARCS:

The conflict-filled path through this story exposes and changes the humanity of both husband and wife. What they lose in innocence, they gain in self-awareness. And since the couple works in a theatre troupe, the change may make them more mature actors. But given the guilt that will now haunt their lives, this is an arc they could have done without.

*High-context cultures have a strong sense of history and tradition. They change very slowly over time, and so from generation to generation their members hold many beliefs and experiences in common. A high-context culture will be relational, collectivistic, intuitive, and contemplative. It places high value on interpersonal relationships within a close-knit community.

As a result, within these in-groups many things can be left unsaid because their members easily draw inferences from their shared culture and experiences. The Italian mafia is such an in-group. In THE GODFATHER, when Michael Corleone says “My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” an entire episode of extortion becomes violently clear. Michael then goes on to make the event explicit to Kay Adams because she’s not in the in-group.

High-context cultures, such as those in the Middle East and Asia, have low racial and social diversity. They value community over the individual. In-group members rely on their common background, rather than words, to explain situations. Consequently, dialogue within high-context cultures calls for extreme economy and precise word choices because within such settings a few subtle words can implicitly express a complex message.

Conversely, characters in low-context cultures, such as Northern Europe and North America, tend to explain things at greater length because the people around them come from a wide variety of racial, religious, class, and nationalistic backgrounds. Even within the same general cultures these differences appear. Compare, for example, two American stereotypes: a Louisianan (a high-context culture) and a New Yorker (a low-context culture). The former uses a few tacit words and prolonged silences, while the latter talks frankly and at length.

Excerpt from Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen (P. 187)

LOVING (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Loving (2016) | Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

HIGH RISK CHOICE OF GENRE:

Character-driven stories fall into six grand categories, each keyed to a distinctive change within the protagonist’s nature (his morality, mentality, or humanity) and the direction that change takes him (positive or negative). A change in morality, for instance, creates two often-used genres: the Redemption Plot (bad guy turns good, e.g., THE VERDICT) and the Degeneration Plot (good guy turns bad, e.g., THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY).

Amongst the various genres that change a character’s underlying humanity, the Testing Plot may be the most rare and most difficult. Its suspense hinges on this question: Will he persist or surrender? In other words, what Testing Plots test is willpower. Generally, these stories risk the character’s physical survival by pitting his strength of spirit against either the blind violence of Mother Nature or torture in captivity: e.g., ALL IS LOST and 127 HOURS versus UNBROKEN and THE PRISONER (1955).

LOVING risks its characters’ inner survival. It tests their strength to maintain a true, undamaged sense of self. The film asks, “Does this couple have the willpower to persist in the face of vicious social antagonisms and ten long years of legal battles? Will they lose their will to love? Will they give up and divorce? Or will they persevere?”

HIGH RISK CHOICE OF POV:

Legal dramas like LOVING conventionally tell their tale from the POV of attorneys fighting for justice. Instead, writer/director Jeff Nichols keeps the courtroom battles off-screen and takes the plaintiffs’ POV as they wait on the sidelines.

This choice anchors the drama in the subtext of the characters’ inner lives, as events hammer at their will to endure. Needless to say, stories told in the subtext of ordinary people demand extraordinary acting. The performances by Australian actor Joel Edgerton and Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga as Americans from Appalachia were nothing short of brilliant.

HIGH RISK OF REPETITIOUSNESS:

Even when Testing Plot protagonists battle Mother Nature, the storytelling runs the risk of redundant scenes—struggle, struggle, and more struggle of the same kind. But at least they’re visual, cinematic scenes. Thought, on the other hand, cannot be photographed. Repetitiousness becomes an acute danger when willpower combats inner forces of self-doubt, anxiety, frustration, and fear. That LOVING expressed variety, tension, and progression in its quiet faces and places is yet another measure of filmmaking excellence.

MOONLIGHT (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Moonlight (2016) | Written and Directed by Barry Jenkins

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

SUBJECT MATTER:

One of the most startling breakthroughs a writer ever makes is her discovery of a story’s true subject matter. She sets out to create one kind of telling, only to hear the voice of a very different tale pleading to be told. MOONLIGHT is a perfect example. It seems to weave a Social Drama around an Education Plot, but, in fact, a third storyline drives the film.

The genre of traditional Black Cinema is Social Drama—dramatizations of poverty, broken homes, drugs, racism—those persistent cruelties that never find a cure. MOONLIGHT ingeniously shifts these injustices from foreground to background. The film implies social crises but only uses them to tone the atmosphere and set the story’s world.

At first glance, MOONLIGHT seems to tell the coming-out story of Chiron (played by three different actors). The character evolves along an Education Plot that arcs him from confusion about his sexual identity (negative) to understanding his true self (positive). This indeed happens somewhere off-screen, but it is not, it seems to me, what MOONLIGHT is about.

THE MATURATION PLOT:

The discovery of your story’s core genre often comes down to a question of cause and effect. In MOONLIGHT, which came first: Did Chiron’s coming-of-age give him the strength to come out? Or did his coming-out suddenly make him come of age? Immaturity stifles perception; maturity is the ground that grows self-awareness. So in my analysis, if he hadn’t grown up, he couldn’t have come out.

The most difficult creative task in writing a Maturation Plot is conceiving its act of maturity. Exactly what action, under what circumstances, will announce to the reader/audience that the protagonist is no longer a child? In STAND BY ME (1986), Gordie (Wil Wheaton) finds the guts to make the local bully, Ace (Kiefer Sutherland), back down, knowing Ace will take painful revenge the next day. In BIG (1988), Josh (Tom Hanks) chooses to abandon his adult self and return to his adolescent self. Why? Because he’s grown up and that (with wonderful irony) is what a mature person would do.

MOONLIGHT shapes a graceful arc that takes Chiron from boy to man, climaxing with an act of maturity in Act Three’s coffee shop scene. First, he sheds his drug dealer persona by removing that staple of hip-hop fashion, gold Grillz, aka frontsnot just so he can eat, but to face the man he loves as his true self. He then confesses quietly, but with aching poignancy, of his fidelity throughout years of estrangement. His confession of love is not his coming-out; I think he did that within himself long ago. It’s not an act of social or familial defiance, not an act of self-discovery, but the action of an adult.

THE POWER OF SUBTEXT:

The most important events in MOONLIGHT take place wordlessly in the subtext. Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ extreme economy of dialogue opens up a silent pathway to the inner life of an utterly original, multi-dimensional character whose intimidating physique masks gentility, whose stoicism hides life-long suffering, whose loneliness hints at an observant, high intelligence.

I’ve always hoped that truth of this quality would someday reach the screen; it’s gratifying to see it expressed in my lifetime.