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.

September 22, 2011
Act 1’s

I once saw a film in which the very first thing the audience sees is the main character bruised and hurt. 

This is a problem. Think about it.

Let’s say you drive past a collision on the highway. There are ambulances, firetrucks. You even see a person being carted into the back of the ambulance. You will get a reaction, sure. Yes, you will be curious. You will feel sad for the person on a superficial level. And then you will move on. That’s what you would feel if the first thing you knew about a person is that they are hurt.

But let’s say you find out that your best friend, brother, or mother was in a horrific collision on the highway—and let’s say you decide to drive out there to meet them. You will be filled with an entirely different emotion. You will be terrified, scarred, nervous. You will be full of anxiety as you drive along the highway. Each stop in traffic will be filled with tension, suspense. Where is your loved one? Finally you see the firetruck. An ambulance. Finally you see a person being carted off. Is that your friend? You can’t breathe. You get a sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach.

What accounts for the difference in how you react to these two events? They are the same events after all, but with one key difference: in the second scenario, you know the people involved the accident.

You are more emotionally attached to someone’s plight if you knew them before their darkest hour. Only then can you really be with them as they get hurt or die. That’s why starting the movie with someone hurt might be a bad idea—it is only a hook. If the hook is that your main character is hurt or dead, you better go back and explain how it happened that way—as in Double Indemnity or Sunset Boulevard. If you go ahead and do that, then you get to explain why we should care about your hurt/dead character, such that by the end of the movie, we actually do care. It is a way of rewarding the audience for paying attention to your Act 1.

People use catching hooks all the time to start conversations:

"I got fired from work today".

"My daughter got into Harvard!"

"I think my wife is cheating on me."

But then the rest of the conversation is usually always the lead-up to the hook—it explains the hook:

"So I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business…"

"Yeah she got her envelope in the mail this past Thursday…"

"So last week I was packing for a business trip and I came across…"

The conversation works backwards. You get the idea.

In the movie I saw, the hurt woman gets taken care of and gets better—but I was never told who she is and why she was hurt in the first place. In other words, I was never told why I should care about the woman.

The movie held my curiosity, but then I moved on.

Make your Act 1 matter. Hook your audience in more than a superficial way.

February 21, 2011
Originality vs Focus

What makes a great movie is not its originality, but its razor sharp focus.

Take The King’s Speech. It’s about a King who overcomes his fear of public speaking to deliver a wartime speech to his citizens. It is a great movie.

But at the core, it is saying nothing new. Overcoming fear is a theme of numerous self help books and movies. I won’t bother to name all the books and movies that try to address this issue.

Here’s examples of other movies that are unoriginal:

Psycho is about a transvestite killer. It contains one of Hitchcock’s most memorable scenes and many people think of it as original. But if you wiki it, you’ll find that it is based on a play by Josef Stefano, who adapted it from a novel, which is actually based on true events of actual crimes committed by a Wisconsin serial killer.

Dial M For Murder is another Hitchcock thriller based on a play. Yet another one is Rope.

What differentiates The King’s Speech from its competition is its focus, not its originality. Every scene served the story. Remember, the movie is about a prince who overcomes his fear of public speaking. Well, the very first scene is of the prince absolutely bombing a public speech.

Well, duh. Isn’t this obvious? Yes it is. Obvious and unoriginal. So obvious it was overlooked. Overlooked as a story, overlooked by Hollywood and overlooked by moviegoers until now.

The King’s Speech is spot on. Every scene had to do with Albert’s fear of public speaking. There were no wasted shots. They make it look easy, but if it really is easy then there should be dozens of movies this year with the same kind of focus as The King’s Speech. Well, there isn’t.

Almost all movies try to be original, but they somehow always end up having the same corny special effects, the same bad guys, the same hot girl, one of ghosts, aliens, or robots, or all three.

Meanwhile, not many movies actually know what it is trying to say.

It’s okay to drive home an old point, as long as you are focused.

February 1, 2011

Tree Production: Current Storyboard

Armature: Every ending leads to a new beginning.

August 4, 2010
Don’t Use Special Effects Part 2

The title of this post and my previous post is an exaggeration of course. I want to over-emphasize my point, because I’m hoping that it might reel people in. Just like scope creep on programming teams, special effects will sneak in to your work or your team’s work if you’re not careful. This will surely muddy up the picture.

Pretty soon, you’re animating a bunch of special effects, eating up render time like nobody’s business, clogging up the farms and wasting unnecessary dollars hiring effects folks. I’m sure you’ll get some good explosions, airplanes might blow up, and look! There’s a black hole eating a mothership. But will the audience care about the people in that ship?

If you’ve seen the new Star Trek, you’ll know that in the first scene, James Kirk’s father sacrifices himself to save his son and his wife. The film makers took that time to get the audience emotionally invested in the film. That’s why towards the end you care that the Enterprise is being sucked into a black hole because you care about James Kirk and James Kirk is in that ship. Only then can you go ahead and animate the black hole scene. That’s a good use of special effects, but the special effect was set up by the story. Special effects never stand on their own.

2012 is a good example of a movie that doesn’t stand on its own because it relies on special effects to tell the story. But the special effects in 2012 were not story-driven. You might say, “but Jimmy, the story in 2012 is that the world is ending, so the effects were story motivated.” My response is: the world is ending is not a story. It’s a scenario. Towards the end you stop caring about the catastrophic events because you don’t care about the character.

The special effect has to be supported by the story. If the story doesn’t call for effects, then don’t use it.

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