May 28, 2012
The Godfather : A Story Breakdown From Brian McDonald

Brian McDonald, “The Godfather,” and how to find the Theme

Brian McDonald is the author of Invisible InkA Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate, and The Golden ThemeHow to make your writing appeal to the highest common denominator. 
   He is an award winning screenwriter who has taught his craft at several major studios, including PixarDisneyand Industrial Light & Magic. His award-winning short filmWhite Face has been shown all over the USA. 
   I had the privilege of asking him some questions back in January. That interview will be published here shortly. Today we’re focusing on a question I asked him about Theme and everybody’s favourite movie, The Godfather. Is the theme of that movie, Family is all?
   Instead of simply answering my question, he went one better and answered a question I’ve been asking for years: How can you know what is the theme of any given movie? _______________________________________________________________________ 

The way to find a story’s theme is to look for clues as to what the story is proving. Think of the three acts this way: 

Act One: The Proposal

The proposal is where the theme of the piece is first introduced in some way. For instance you might introduce a pacifist character who believes there is never a cause for violence. Or you may have a character who strongly disbelieves in anything supernatural.
   In The Godfather we are introduced right away to the idea of Justice-versus-Revenge. It’s the very first thing that happens in the film. We learn that even in this world of gangsters and crime, there is a sense of what is just. Marlon Brando, the Godfather, tells us explicitly the difference between justice and revenge when a man, whose daughter was nearly raped and was beaten so bad that she was hospitalized, asks the Godfather to kill the men who did this. The Godfather refuses to kill the men because the girl did not diethat would not be justice, he says. But he will hurt these men as much as the girl was hurt.

That is not justice. Your daughter is still alive.
Then we are introduced to the rest of the gangster familythe Corleone family. We meet Michael Corleone, one of the sons. He is not part of the family business. He must be squeaky clean for the story to work, so when we meet him, he is in uniformhe is a war heroand he is with his girlfriend, who is beyond squeaky clean. 
   Michael tells her a story about his father and a violent threat he made to get a man to sign a contract. Michael says, “My father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract.” The girlfriend almost can’t believe what she’s heard. Then Michael says, “That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me.”

That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.
So we know who Michael is, we know who his family is, we know the rules for this world, and we have an idea that this piece will explore the idea of Justice-versus-Revenge. And we know that this family is closethey love each other.
   More things happen in Act One of this film, but you get the idea.

Act Two: The Argument or Proof

In Act Two, you set out to explore the thematic premise of the first act. You argueprove or disprovethat theme. The very first thing we learned in the story isthat revenge is not good. That’s one aspect of the theme. But there is also Michael’s statement, “That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me.” Now Michael must be forced, by the story, to confront that idea. Is it him?
   Michael’s father is shot in a gang hit. He does not die, though he is badly hurt and is hospitalized. Michael goes to see his father and finds out that some men are coming to finish him off. To save his father’s life, he moves his bed into another room to hide him from the would-be killers.

Just lie here, Pop. I’ll take care of you now. I’m with you now.
This is the beginning of Michael becoming more like the rest of his family. It starts off innocently enough. Most of us would do the same thing. This is his father and he loves him. 
   Then, at the hospital, Michael is roughed up pretty good by a dirty cop who works with the rival gangsters.
Take a hold of him. Stand him up. Stand im up straight.
Michael is angry and decides he wants to kill these guys who did this to his father. Notice, how like the girl in the opening of the story, the Godfather is alive, but badly hurt and hospitalized. These two characters are in the very same condition. But what does Michael doseek justice? No, he seeks revenge. He kills the men responsible and sets off a violent gang war.
… a guarantee: No more attempts on my father’s life.
He flees to Sicily to avoid being killed himself, but the retaliatory violence reaches him even there and kills his young wife.
   There was something wrong in seeking revenge rather than justiceit brought even more violence.

Act Three:  Conclusion

This is where we see what the other acts have added up to. What the third act of this film asks about Michael is, Who is he now? Does he learn the lesson that revenge isn’t worth it, or not? 
   No, he doesn’t. He orders a ruthless killing spree of his enemies.
Do you renounce Satan?   I do renounce him.
In the end, Michael is corrupted. His statement, “That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me,” is no longer true.
   So you ask yourself, what does the story prove? Does it prove Family is all? I don’t think it does.
   You can express a theme in many ways, even with the same story. The purpose of drama is to prove a point through the use of emotion, so sometimes themes can be hard to put into exact words. But a few ways to state this theme might be:
  • It is better to seek justice than revenge.
  • Revenge corrupts.
  • Revenge brings pain to the avenger.
Or, if you word it in character terms, you might say something like:
  • Anyone can be corrupted.
  • No one knows what he is capable of becoming, given the right circumstances.
I’m sure there are more ways to word it, but whatever you think the theme is, it has to be something that the characters and events prove, through the movement of the story.

April 16, 2012
What is Cinema: Hitchcock, Scorsese, and Following the Story

I’m a beginning filmmaker and I don’t want anyone taking my opinion seriously. In fact, I don’t even have my own theory on what to do, how to cut, what is cinema, and what it means to be cinematic. But I do know of someone who knows all of that and more: Alfred Hitchcock.

The Hitchcock Cut

Here’s a video of Hitchcock himself describing what I call The Hitchcock Cut:

As you can tell Hitchcock is very interested in the assembly of pieces of film—the putting together of various shots to give the viewer an idea.

This is a very simple idea…too simple for me when I first started learning about film.

So I temporarily abandoned this idea and coveted the more complex camera moves—like Scorsese’s smooth camera moves in Goodfellas and Casino. I initially tried to pull off smooth camera moves in my animated short, The Boy and The Tree. 

But then I realized that Hitchcock uses the cut over and over throughout his career, and to great effect. Just watch Rear Window.

The YouTube clips don’t bring this scene justice and it cuts to a commercial for some website, so please, watch the entire movie. You’ll love it.

In my opinion what you just saw is the primary objective of cinema: the assembly of film to put an idea in your mind. In the case of Rear Window’s suspense scenes, Grace Kelly is in trouble as Jimmy Stewart watches helplessly from his apartment window.

Check out how Hitchcock cuts Rear Window. If you study the footage the entire film is based on Jimmy Stewart looking, cut, a shot of whatever he sees, cut, Jimmy Stewart’s reaction. Yes, it is that simple. Shot of your character, shot of what he/she see’s, shot of his/her reaction.

Rear Window is cut the right way, the cinematic way. That kind of cut shows a before and after of our character’s thought process, and puts the viewer in the perspective of the main character.

There’s a detached way of cutting that puts the viewer in the third person, which is to say, there’s a way of cutting film that makes the audience not care about the main character. Sometimes I think people do this intentionally as a knee-jerk reaction. Obviously if the story isn’t strong enough everyone’s subconscious reaction is to film it in a way so as to hide the weakness—the lack of story—so the cool cut, awesome lighting, or amazing special effects becomes the staple of the film. Bring out the steady cams and the Red Epics.

But no one can avoid the following: If you don’t take us inside the main character’s head so that we share his/her thought process, there is no way to extract empathy from the audience.

And the only way to share a character’s thought process is to see what he/she sees wedged in between the character’s before and after reaction. We as human beings are inherently wired to empathize with each other—so if the Hitchcock Cut is in your film then you are forcing us to view the situation from the main character’s perspective.

Following the Story

This is not to say Scorsese had the wrong idea—in fact now that I think about it I believe he was following Hitchcock cinema all along. Marty used the steady cam judiciously—when he wanted its effect—and not frivolously.

Marty’s steady cam shot of Henry Hill walking his date Karen into Copacabana has a very specific effect in the context of the film—it is meant to show how impressed Karen is with how influential and well connected Henry is. We are supposed to be impressed too.

Marty has a story reason to do this because that’s what the whole story is about. Goodfellas is a story about a man who is well-connected and trusted, but even that trust and connection breaks down when people’s necks are on the line.

To show the breakdown of trust in the end, Marty had to create a feeling of connection and trust in the beginning. That’s why he had to pull off the steady cam shot: it makes Henry seem like such a well-connected and impressive man to Karen and the audience.

In conclusion, follow the story and you will be fine. Cut like Hitchcock. If you need a steady cam shot, do it. But do it for the story and not for the lolz.

April 8, 2012
The Emma Coats (story) Tweets

Emma Coats, storyboard artist at Pixar, has been at it again! Here are some of her tweets about how to tell stories at the Pixar level:

OK, people who are applying for the Pixar story internship: all the networking in the world won’t help you. Strength of portfolio & films.

Even if networking could get you in, rather than strength of your work, you’d get your ass kicked when the program started up.

We look for draftsmanship, story sense, volume of work. Also film language. Go read Mark Kennedy’s blog to brush up or get started.

I know the feeling of “if I could just get a chance, I could prove myself” - but this is how it works: you prove yourself to get the chance.

Don’t wait for outside validation. Don’t wait on guidance. Analyze things for yourself, break them down, apply them to your work. No excuse.

Expose yourself to art you don’t understand yet. Get outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself. Watch anything BUT animation.

And there you have it folks. Secrets to success. Who would’ve known that the secret to success is hard work?

I had no idea…

February 28, 2012
Peter Bogdanovich Interviews Alfred Hitchcock (1963)


It’s limitless, I would say, the power of cutting and the assembly of the images. Like the man with no eyes in The Birds–zooming the camera in–the staccato jumps are almost like catching the breath. Is it? Gasp. Gasp. Yes. Young directors always come up with the idea, “Let the camera be someone and let it move as though it’s the person, and you put the guy in front of a mirror and then you see him.” It’s a terrible mistake. Bob Montgomery did that in Lady in the Lake–I don’t believe in it myself. What are you really doing? You are keeping back from the audience who it is. What for? That’s all you are doing. Why not show who it is?

[My cameramen] have standing instructions from me–they never give any air around the figures. If I want air, I’ll say so. Now, you see, when I’m on the set, I’m not on the set. If I’m looking at acting or looking at a scene–the way its played, or where they are–I am looking at a screen, I am not confused by the set and the movement of the people across the set. In other words, I follow the geography of the screen. I can only think of the screen. Most directors say, “Well, he’s got to come in that door so he’s got to walk from there to there.” Which is as dull as hell. And not only that, it makes the shot itself so empty and so loose that I say, “Well, if he’s still in a mood–whatever mood he’s in–take him across in a close-up, but keep the mood on the screen.” We’re not interested in distance. I don’t care how he got across the room. What’s the state of mind? You can only think of the screen. You cannot think of the set or where you are in the studio–nothing of that sort.

Let me explain to you. If you put a lot of redundant expressions on your face, it’s like taking a piece of paper and scribbling all over it–full of scribble, the whole piece of paper. You want to write a sentence for somebody to read. They can’t read it–too much scribble on the face. Much easier to read if the piece of paper is blank. That’s what your face ought to be when we need the expression.

In the early days–way, way back in the English period, I would always work on a treatment with a writer who would be a plot maker, or story man. I would work weeks and weeks on this treatment and what it would amount to would be a complete narrative, even indicating shots, but not in the words of long-shot or close-up. It would have everything in it, all the details. Then I used to give it to a top writer to dialogue it. When he sent in his dialogue, I would sit down and dictate the shots in a complete continuity. But the film had to be made on paper in this narrative form. It would describe the film, shot by shot, beginning to end. Sometimes with drawings, sometimes without. I abandoned this method when I came to America. I found that American writers wouldn’t go for that sort of thing. I do it verbally now, with the writer, and then I make corrections and adjustments afterwards. I work many weeks with him and he takes notes.

Secret Agent (1936)
I liked The Secret Agent quite a bit. I’m sorry it wasn’t more of a success, but I believe it was unsuccessful because it was the story of a man who did not want to do something. He was sent out to kill a German spy and was given a killer to do it and he botched it the first time–killed the wrong man. You can’t root for a hero who doesn’t want to be a hero. So it’s a negative thing. I think that’s why it didn’t really succeed.

Sabotage (1936)
Sabotage had a grimmer aspect than most of the other British films. Is this because of the bomb incident?
Oh, that was a big error. I made a cardinal error there in terms of suspense. The bomb should never have gone off. If you build an audience up to that point, the explosion becomes strangely anti-climactic. You work the audience up to such a degree that they need the relief. The critics were very angry. One woman said, “I could hit you.” I found everybody protesting against it. Now the boy had to be killed for the sake of the story. One should have done the killing a different way, off the screen or something. I shouldn’t have made a suspense thing of it.

Foreign Correspondent (1940)
How did you get the idea of the windmill sequence?
When I am given a locale–and this is very important in my mind–it’s got to be used, and used dramatically. We’re in Holland. What have they got in Holland? Windmills? Tulips? If the picture had been in color, I would have worked in the shot I’ve always wanted to do and never have yet. The murder in a tulip field. Two figures. The assassin–say it’s Jack-the-Ripper–comes up behind the girl. The shadow creeps up on her, she turns, screams. Immediately we pan down to the struggling feet, in the tulip bed. We dolly the camera in to one of the flowers, sounds of the struggle heard in the background. We go right to one petal–it fills the screen–and, splash! a drop of red blood comes over the petal. And that would be the end of the murder.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Shadow of a Doubt was a most satisfying picture for me–one of my favorite films–because for once there was time to get characters into it. It was the blending of character and thriller at the same time. That’s very hard to do.

Spellbound (1945)
Why did you go to Dali for the dream sequence?
Selznick thought I only wanted Dali for publicity purposes. That wasn’t true. I felt that if I was going to have dream sequences, they should be vivid. I didn’t think that we should resort to the old-fashioned blurry effect that they got by putting vaseline around the lens. What I really wanted to do, and they wouldn’t do it because of the expense, was to have the dream sequences shot on the back lot in bright sunshine, so they would have to stop-down the camera to such a degree that the pictures would have been needle-sharp, as contrast to the rest of the picture, which was slightly diffused because that was the cameraman’s particular style. But I used Dali for his draftmanship and the infinity which he introduces into his subject.

Rope (1948)
Do you consider Rope one of your most experimental films, technically?
Only because I abandoned pure cinema in an effort to make the stage play mobile. With a flowing camera, the film played in its own time, there were no dissolves, no time-lapses in it, it was continuous action. And I thought it also ought to have a continuous flow of camera narrative as well. I think it was an error technically because one abandoned pure cinema for it. But when you take a stage play in one room, it is very hard to cut it up.

Dial M for Murder (1954)
What was your main reason for making Dial M for Murder?
I was running for cover. When your batteries run dry, when you are out creatively, and you have to go on, that’s what I call running for cover. Take a comparatively successful play that requires no great creative effort on your part and make it. Keep your hand in, that’s all. When you’re in this business, don’t make anything unless it looks like it’s going to promise something. If you have to make a film–as I was under contract to Warners at the time–play safe. Go get a play and make an average movie–photographs of people talking. It’s ordinary craftsmanship. But there is another interesting facet about the photographed stage play. Some people make the mistake, I think, of trying to open the play up for the screen. That’s a big mistake. I think the whole conception of a play is confinement within the proscenium–and that’s what the author uses dramatically. Now you are undoing a newly-knitted sweater. Pull it apart and you have nothing. In Dial M, I made sure that I would go outside as little as possible. I had a real tile floor laid down, the crack under the door, the shadow of the feet, all part of the stage play and I made sure I didn’t lose that. Otherwise, if you go outside, what do you end up with? A taxi arrives outside, the door opens, and they get out and go in.

Vertigo (1958)
“Now,” I said, “one of the fatal things, Sam, in all suspense is to have a mind that is confused. Otherwise the audience won’t emote. Clarify, clarify, clarify. Don’t let them say, “I don’t know which woman that is, who’s that?” So,” I said, “we are going to take the bull by the horns and put it all in a flashback, bang! right then and there–show it’s one and the same woman.”

North By Northwest (1959)
How did you get the idea for the plane sequence?
This comes under the heading of avoiding the clichés. The cliché of that kind of scene is in The Third Man. Under a street lamp, in a medieval setting, black cat slithers by, somebody opens a blind and looks out, eerie music. Now, what is the antithesis of this? Nothing! No music, bright sunshine, and nothing. Now put a man in a business suit in this setting.

Wow, just wow.

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