Wonder Woman vs. The God Complex
by Jeff Bowles
Here in the United States, we’re just a couple of days away from the release of the first big-screen adaptation of Wonder Woman, the legendary DC Comics character who’s been trading punches with bad guys since 1941. Early reviews of the film have been overwhelmingly positive, and I couldn’t be more excited to see it for myself.
Wonder Woman is one of my favorite comic book characters of all time. She’s strong, noble, and much like Superman or Captain America, she always seems to do the right thing. Diana Prince, otherwise known as Diana of Themyscira, is a Greek goddess who abandons the only world she’s ever known in order to fight for meek, flawed human beings. The island of Themyscira is home to the proud Amazons, a group of startlingly gifted women who’ll stab your eyes out just for looking at them the wrong way.
Actually, that’s beside the point. They are warriors, fierce battle-hardened females who’ve rarely glimpsed men and the world they’ve brought to the brink of destruction. DC Comics has done an amazing job curating and expanding upon the adventures of Diana Prince and her supporting cast of characters in the last fifteen years or so. Issue after issue of the comic has dealt with divinity, family and politics, and of course, myriad hot-button topics that have in some small way pushed the boundaries of what typical comic fans expect to see.
The upcoming film looks to do the same, though to what degree remains to be seen. As a character, Wonder Woman was created by a male psychologist who was inspired by early feminists. The guy was way ahead of his time, and over the intervening decades, Diana of Themyscira has been portrayed all kinds of ways. For instance, in the 1970s she was both a television sensation and a hard-hitting exploitation-style street vigilante, minus the tiara and bracelets. Comic book characters rarely stray far from their roots long, however, and elements such as her Lasso of Truth, her invisible jet, and her long-time on-again, off-again love interest, Steve Trevor, have come and gone.
I find it difficult to speak about the impact Wonder Woman has had on young girls and women across the globe, not just because I’m a man, but because it seems like far too large a topic. I think she’s been good for people over the years, and I hope this film delivers the kind of role model kids need nowadays. She’s important to me because growing up on comics meant a steady diet of homogeneous male heroes, and though I don’t consider myself overly political, it always gave me a pleasant feeling digging into that latest issue of Wonder Woman and reading about a damsel who was not in distress, who could handle her own, and who could in fact put the likes of Batman to shame.
Some people out there, I take it, don’t feel the same way. In the news just this morning, some theaters across the country are choosing to run a small number of female-only screenings of the film the day it comes out, distributing advertisements that make clear boys are not allowed. I think this is kind of cool, but right-wing commenters have already made some hay.
Modern America is fraught anyway. If you’re not fuming about the man in the White House, you’re screaming at the other side for their assault on your guy. Very rarely anymore can we have civil conversations about simple things like movies and comic book characters, not without the whole thing devolving into an ideological ant-scatter.
It’s important to point out Wonder Woman is in the minority as far as these things go. Nobody was creating strong female characters back in the 1940s. It just wasn’t done. I read Wonder Woman comics as a kid not because I was interested in feminism but because she was so strong, so very essential to the DC Comics mythos. Every comic fan knows the holy trinity of DC characters: Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman. Lose any of the three, and the books DC puts out every month just aren’t the same.
And of course, comic book movies in general are big business these days. Love them or hate them—and indeed, many people hate them—they’re a mainstay of cinemas and will be for some time to come. Though early word seems good, the naysayers will quickly poke holes in Wonder Woman’s cultural legend just because they can. Yeah, she’s a strong female character, but she still solves all her problems with her fists. And anyway, the male-driven conglomeration that is Warner Bros. will most likely try to pitch her in a way that doesn’t scare off men and young boys, the latter of which buy DC action figures and other tie-in merchandise by the bucket-full.
Such is the state of discourse in the modern world. Everything is an issue worthy of argument, even a symbol of strength and femininity who’s been around the better part of a century. I can’t say what Wonder Woman means to you. Maybe she means nothing at all, and when you go to the theater this weekend, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by her story. I hope that’s the case, because Wonder Woman has had a place in my heart for a very long time.
If, like me, you do have positive memories of her, perhaps it will be a treat to see Diana depicted in big-budget terms, regardless of whether the end product is actually any good or not. If Wonder Woman is more to you than some silly cultural icon, and if you feel like she’s never been more relevant than she is today, by all means go check the flick out for yourself.
I eschew politics when I can. I also have no children of my own. But if I had a daughter, and she was old enough to see an action film like this, I’d proudly take her down to the multiplex. Maybe afterward, I could turn the excursion into a conversation about standing up for what you believe in no matter what the cost. That’s who Wonder Woman is to me. She doesn’t know discrimination or inequality because she comes from a place where everyone is treated with respect and dignity. She stands up for the little guy, especially when that little guy is actually a girl.
I hate the need some people feel to turn her into a controversial figure. Is her story more than simple entertainment? Yes, I think it is. All the Wonder Woman comics I’ve read over the years are all the proof I need. Yes, she is a strong female who kicks butt and takes names, and yes, whether they want to admit it or not, this makes many people feel uncomfortable or even angry. But if you ask me, the politics is a cover. Wonder Woman is not and never will be just for girls. I love Wonder Woman, and I’m man enough to admit it.
There are so many ways to celebrate the world as men have made it. Is it too much to ask to celebrate the world of women? Even just for an afternoon?
Interested in my writing? Check out my latest short story collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces — https://www.amazon.com/Fear-Loathing-Las-Cruces-Stories-ebook/dp/B06XH2774F
YouTube’s Jeff Bowles Central: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6uMxedp3VxxUCS4zn3ulgQ
This past week my thesis for my screenwriting emphasis arrived in the mail. I opened the box and there, carefully wrapped inside was my thesis project bound in a hardback cover. I opened it up, and inside I found my analysis of screenwriting and my walk through the process, as well as my screenplay for Bonnie in script form. I can’t tell you what a sense of accomplishment that made me feel.
If you’re interested in my analysis or the screenwriting process, you can see the blog adapted version of those portions of my thesis in my four part series, The Making of a Screenplay: The Creative Process: Part 1 covers story origins and the tools used to shape an idea into a movie plot, Part 2 discusses the tools used to sell a screenplay, Part 3 covers the research that goes into writing a screenplay, and Part 4 talks about rewriting.
I turned in my thesis back in August, and there was a sense of accomplishment in doing that, but to see my script in print just about made me burst with pride. Glancing through it reminded me of what a really good script Bonnie is. Now I just have to figure out a way to get it in front of someone who will read it and fall in love with it as much as I am, and want to make it into a movie.
That’s the hard part. There’s some tough competition out there and it’s hard to get a foot in the door. Bonnie has commercial value and I need to get someone in the business to recognize it,There are those who claim it can’t be done unless you move to L.A. (“Hollywood Game Plan” Prepares Upcoming Screenwriters to Hit the Ground Running) Although I really want to sell Bonnie, and many other screenplays, I don’t see such a drastic move happening in the near future.
Most of the screenplay competitions are a bit more expensive to enter than my pocketbook can afford, so I have to be careful to pick the contest that are the best for my screenplay. In the literary community, you face the same challenge. You must determine which publisher is best to submit to, matching your work to a publisher, agent or writing contest.
The only way I know to solve the puzzle and match story or script to contest, or find a publisher or a producer who might be interested in your work, is good old fashioned research. These days it’s easier. Because of the Internet, we have the information at our fingertips now, where we didn’t thirty years ago. To find the right contest, or publisher, or producer today, we can sit down at the computer or pick up our phones and find out what kinds of work they are interested in to see if ours is a good fit, or check out their track record to gauge how successful they are. All it takes is a little time.
I’ve entered a short screenplay in a screenplay contest, and submitted a couple of my scripts to production companies, and I’ve collected a few rejection slips from them. I was almost ready to give up on the screenwriting and concentrate exclusively on my fiction. Even though I know rejection is expected in this business, and a lot of it, it doesn’t make the sting any less when it happens. On Jeff’s God Complex Wednesday, he offers some really good ideas that make sticking with it in the face of adversity much easier. I took it and felt refreshed when I sat back down in front of my laptop again.
Receiving that bound copy and seeing my thesis script reminded me of why I went for the second emphasis in my degree. I am just as passionate about my screenwriting as I am about my fiction. I know my work is good and it’s only a matter of time before I sell a script or a book. I’m currently negotiating a contract for my western novel, Delilah, so I’m not just being optimistic here. It’s is easier to move forward in my career when I have a real sense of accomplishment, and my bound thesis reminded me of that.
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This will be the last reflective post of the year. Next Monday’s post will find us in 2017. For my writing career it has been a slow take off, but I’ve seen progress. In July, I completed my Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. With emphasis in both genre fiction and screenwriting, and two completed novels, Delilah and Playground for the Gods Book 1: In the Beginning, two full feature film scripts and one comedy series pilot script in hand, I eagerly jumped right in to get my feet wet in either the publishing and/or screenwriting industry. I began submitting my work to agents, publishers, and competitions like crazy. I received mostly rejections, as expected, and although I still haven’t found a home for either novels or scripts, I did manage to find a home for two poems and two short stories. Not too bad. While the poems, Aspen Tree and Yucca! Yucca! Yucca!, appeared in print, (in Colorado Life (Sept.-Oct. 2016) and Manifest West Anthology #5 – Serenity and Severity, respectively), my short story, I Had to Do It was published on Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry, and my not so short, short story, Hidden Secrets was published on Across the Margin.
2016 has been a pretty good year for Writing to be Read. The revamping of the blog site was completed in March, I’ve managed post things on a fairly regular basis, we were honored with guest posts by my friend Robin Conley, and my visits and page views have risen, with almost 2000 visitors and over 2,500 page views. Looking at this, makes me feel pretty good about the blog, as a whole. Another good change is the addition of screenwriting content, which I believe has drawn a larger audience by widening the scope of the content.
The top post of 2016 was my book review of Simplified Writing 101, by Erin Brown Conroy, which is an excellent tutorial on academic writing, including writing advice that every writing student should know. After that, the reflective post Writing Horror is Scary Business would be second in line. Other popular posts include my four part Making of a Screenplay series,( Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4), my Tribute to My Son, and What Amazon’s New Review Policies Mean for Writing to be Read. More recently, my ten part series on publishing, Pros and Cons of Traditional vs. Independent vs. Self-Publishing gave me the opportunity to interview some awesome names in the publishing industry: self-published authors, Jeff Bowels, Tim Baker and Art Rosch; traditionally published authors Stacia Deutsch and Mark Shaw; independently published author Jordan Elizabeth; and children’s author Nancy Oswald, who has published under all three models; as well as Caleb Seeling, owner of Conundrum Press and Curiosity Quills Press – with the final installment summarizing the conclusions made from those interviews.
Many of my posts were reflections of my own writing experience. These included: Why Writing is a Labor of Love; Fear is a Writer’s Best Friend; I’ve Come A Long Way, Baby; Writing the Way That Works For You; Creating Story Equals Problem Solving; What’s A Nice Girl Like Me Doing Writing in a Genre Like This?; Acceptance or Rejection – Which Do You Prefer?; A Writer’s Life is No Bowel of Cherries; Write What You Know; Discouragement or Motivation?; What Ever Happened to Heather Hummingbird?; How You Can Help Build a Writer’s Platform; and Why Fiction is Better Than Fact.
Sadly, I only attended two events that were reported on, on Writing to be Read in 2016 – the 2016 Ice Festival in Cripple Creek, and the 2016 Writing the Rockies Conference in Gunnison, Colorado. What can I say? I’m a starving writer. This is something I hope to improve on in 2017 by attending more events to report on. One possible addition to the 2017 list that I’m very excited to think about is the Crested Butte Film Festival. The details are not ironed out yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Screenwriting content included this past year seemed to be popular. In addition to my Making of a Screenplay series and Writing Horror is Scary Business, Writing to be Read also featured Writing Comedy for Screen is a Risky Proposition, and a book review for Hollywood Game Plan, by Carole Kirshner, which I can’t recommend highly enough for anyone desiring to break into the screenwriting trade. Robin’s Weekly Writing Memo also included several writing tips that could be applied equally to literature or screenwriting.
Another project I’m particularly proud of is my ten part series on publishing, Pros and Cons of Traditional vs. Independent vs. Self-Publishing, which I just finished up last week. In this series I interviewed nine professionals from within the industry to get the low down on the three different publishing models. My interviews included self-published authors Jeff Bowels, Tim Baker and Art Rosch, traditionally published authors Stacia Deutsch (children’s books) and Mark Shaw (nonfiction), and independently published YA author Jordan Elizabeth. To balance things out a bit, I also interviewed children’s author Nancy Oswald, who has published with all three models, Clare Dugmore of Curiosity Quills Press and Caleb Seeling, owner and publisher at Conundrum Press.
One of the great things about doing book reviews is that you get to read a lot of great books, in with the okay and not so great ones. In addition Simplified Writing 101, my five quill reviews in 2016 included Jordan Elizabeth’s Runners & Riders, Mark Shaw’s The Reporter Who Knew Too Much, Nancy Oswald’s Trouble Returns, Carol Riggs’ Bottled, Jeff Bowles’ Godling and Other Paint Stories, Janet Garber’s Dream Job, Art Rosch’s Confessions of an Honest Man, and Mark Todd and Kim Todd O’Connell’s Wild West Ghosts. I don’t give out five quills lightly and every one of these books are totally worthwhile reads.
Of course, not all books get a five quill rating. Other books I reviewed that I recommended with three quills or more include three short story anthologies: Chronology, Under a Brass Moon, and Cast No Shadows; two poetry collections: Suicide Hotline Hold Music by Jessy Randall and Walks Along the Ditch by Bill Trembley; Escape From Witchwood Hollow, Cogling, Treasure Darkly, The Goat Children, and Victorian by Jordan Elizabeth; Dark Places by Linda Ladd; Chosen to Die by Lisa Jackson; Wrinkles by Mian Mohsin Zia; Full Circle by Tim Baker; The 5820 Diaries by Chris Tucker; The Road Has Eyes: An RV, a Relationship, and a Wild Ride by Art Rosch; Hollywood Game Plan by Carol Kirschner; Keepers of the Forest by James McNally; 100 Ghost Soup by , and A Shot in the Dark by K.A. Stewart. I also did two movie reviews: Dead Pool and Point Break.
I feel very fortunate to have had Robin Conley join us with her Weekly Writing Memo and her guest movie reviews. The useful writing tips in her Weekly Writing Memos covered a wide range of topics including critiquing, using feedback, ways to increase tension, Relatability or Likeability?, 3 Types of Plot, story research, what to write, making your audience care, world building, handling feedback, writing relationships, establishing tone, editing, word choice, How to Start Writing, endings, queries, Parts of a Scene, making emotional connections, the influence of setting, Building a Story, Inciting Your Story, movement and dialog, Writing Truth, time, Overcoming the Blank Page, Networking, character names, theme, set up, cliches, parentheticals in screenwriting, horror inspiration, and Learning to Write. Robin’s guest post movie reviews included Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Batman vs. Superman, Miss Perigrin’s Home for Peculiar Children, and The Neon Demon.
I am thankful for Robin’s valuable content and am glad that she will still be contributing Memos on a monthly, rather than a weekly basis. Although I was sad to lose her weekly content, I am happy for her as she moves forward in her own writing career and I wish her well in her writing endeavors. For those of you who looked forward to her weekly posts, you can catch more of her content on her own blog, Author the World.
2016 was a great year for Writing to be Read, even if it was kind of rough for the author behind the blog. You readers helped to make it a good year and I thank you. Now it’s time to look ahead and see what’s in store for 2017 Writing to be Read. I mentioned some of the things I hope to achieve above: more posts pertaining to the screenwriting industry, and coverage of more events throughout the year are two of the goals I have set for my blog. I also plan to add some author, and hopefully, screenwriter profiles into the mix. I had good luck with author profiles during my Examiner days, and I think they will be well received here, as well.
I also hope to bring in some guests posts by various authors or bloggers, or maybe screenwriters, just to give you all a break from listening to me all the time. I believe Robin plans to continue with Monthly Writing Memos, which will be great, too.
I look forward to all the great books that I know are coming my way in 2017, too. The first reviews you have to look forward to are a short memoir, Banker Without Portfolio by Phillip Gbormittah, a YA paranormal romance, Don’t Wake Me Up by M.E.Rhines, a Rock Star romance, Bullet by Jade C. Jamison and a short story, How Smoke Got out of the Chimneys by DeAnna Knippling.
I hope all of you will join me here in the coming year. Follow me on WordPress, or subscribe to e-mail for notifications of new posts delivered to your inbox. Have a great 2017 and HAPPY WRITING!
I’m not someone who is particularly a fan of movies that are more about being artistically beautiful than having a solid plot, but after seeing The Neon Demon claimed to be horror, and several friends recommending it to me, I knew I had to see it. A great movie to me is one you can get lost in, either because of the plot, or the characters, or the setting/world, or even because it’s so visually stunning that you just want to stare and don’t care what’s happening. I wasn’t sure about The Neon Demon from the few trailers I saw beforehand, but it looked like it had potential so I decided to check it out despite it not being my typical choice of movie.
The Neon Demon is a movie that has so much about it that is so brilliantly, beautifully, and boldly done that it’s impressive. I could go on for a long while about some of the amazing craftsmanship that went into this movie (and I will below), but I felt like the movie also had one amazingly large fault—its plot. As I said above, a great movie for me is one I can get lost in, and while I can appreciate a lot of the talent, craftsmanship, and just pure artistic awesomeness of this movie, I couldn’t get lost in it for several reasons. I know I am not the target audience for this style of movie so I don’t fault it in the least, but I do want to discuss the things that I loved individually, as well as the things that kept me from loving the movie as a whole.
Cinematography and Sound
I am pretty sure that at least 90% of the shots in this film could be captured into a still frame picture and hung on a wall somewhere as art without question. It’s beautiful, and scene by scene. It’s captivating in that you want to look at it. The balance of colors and costumes, makeup and posing, works so well throughout that it really is enticing to look at even amidst the gore and violence. The opening shot of Elle Fanning as Jessie laying “dead” on the couch immediately has you intrigued because of the surprising prettiness of it all. You don’t know whether it’s real or a photo shoot and you can’t look away. The trend of that alluring beauty carries throughout the film, and it fits well given The Neon Demon’s themes of narcissism and vanity.
Right along with the cinematography was the sound throughout the film. The music used worked incredibly well to create these intense moments during scenes, but what I loved just as much was the use of silence. There are these intense moments where the silence is distinct, and it makes you focus even more on what you’re seeing. Many films or shows don’t use silence in a noticeable way and there’s always some kind of sound going on, but The Neon Demon embraced it at times to heighten moments such as the scene where Elle Fanning is at her first “real” photo shoot. I also appreciated the silences between characters in dialogue because, while they were long at times, I felt like they were used at appropriate moments for emphasis on specific elements or events.
The other major thing I have to say I enjoyed in this film is that I felt like every actor was captivating in their own way. The characters themselves may have had some flaws in their development (or lack of), but the actors who played them were amazing. Elle Fanning managed to walk that mysterious line of whether her character was predator or prey perfectly, and Jena Malone as Ruby was simultaneously disturbing yet sympathetic. Surprisingly, though, was the fact that Keanu Reeves almost stole the show. It’s not surprising because of who he is—he’s had plenty of great performances—but it’s surprising because of his minimal amount of screen time. Maybe it was just me, but every time he was on screen I felt like he stole the show. Some of it could be that his character was the most physically expressive of them all, and the most distinct personality-wise of all the characters, but I think a huge portion of it just has to be Keanu Reeves as an actor and his abilities.
As shown above, so much about this movie was great and worked incredibly well. I think the first area things really faltered for me was the flow. As I said before, if I’m going to get lost in a movie I have to have something to get lost in. For The Neon Demon, the most likely element for that would have been the pure beauty of it all, but the flow kept that from happening for me. While almost every shot was stunning and perfectly crafted, the flow between shots wasn’t always coherent of consistent. Just as I was being lured in by the imagery and about to stop caring about the plot, the tone or the story thread would abruptly shift and throw me out, leaving me wondering what the heck was going on. A great example of this is when Keanu Reeves’ character breaks into Elle’s room during the dream/vision sequence. At that point, the film’s tone and pacing shifted abruptly changing everything. We are in this vain and edgy world of modeling for 2/3rds of the movie and then suddenly we have potential rapes, necrophilia, murder, and cannibalism.
This is the real area that is the main flaw of the film. There isn’t much of a plot built up other than the idea of a young, new girl in town getting into the modeling industry and being preyed upon by others in LA who want something from her. I could handle that as a plot if that’s all it was, but there are so many elements in it that seem to lead somewhere only to be dropped away and forgotten, never explained, or not fully utilized. Because there are all these little threads and elements that are thrown in for either artistic pizzazz or random impulse, and because the main plot is so sparse, things get muddled.
An example of the random plot elements are things like the mountain lion appearing in Elle Fanning’s room. It is really used as an excuse to give Keanu Reeves’ character more screen time and to give her “boyfriend” and excuse to go pay off her debt and be her lapdog. In general, though, the whole set-up of the mountain lion randomly getting into her bedroom just seems weird, and like it’s going to be some kind of plot line later that is explained but never is. I did get the sense that it was supposed to sort of be symbolic that there are predators everywhere she looks lurking in the shadows for her, but that was obvious from the moment Jena Malone’s character laid eyes on Elle Fanning in the first scene and the film didn’t need an actual mountain lion to nail the point home. If the film just had the straight simple plot without the random side unexplained elements, like the mountain lion scene or the scene where Jena Malone’s character seemingly gives birth after eating Elle (which was also never really explained or returned to), then I think it would have been much better off.
Overall, while there was so much brilliance to The Neon Demon and some truly amazing craftsmanship that made me want to love it, it was hard to do so when I was kept from being immersed in it. I could go on for a long while about different aspects of this film, but instead, I’ll end with a final thought I had when thinking about what to write here. The Neon Demon is primarily about beauty, vanity, and narcissism, and the film itself manages to be narcissistic. The film is so focused on being beautiful in every moment that it forgot to add real depth. Some could argue that the metaphor and symbolism of the film could be considered depth in place of a plot, but I’m not so sure because so much of that symbolism was not subtle.
Ultimately, whatever I think about the plot or flow, the film is definitely worth watching for anyone who appreciates cinematography, unusual art, or the just plain odd. I can almost guarantee you’ll be asking yourself “What the **** is going on?” at least once during the film, but I can also almost guarantee you’ll find yourself entranced by the beauty of some of the camera shots and scenes. Just keep in mind it does get pretty dark, and as mentioned above there are scenes of murder, necrophilia, and cannibalism, so it’s definitely not for everyone.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays and shares an occasional guest review on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
I asked Robin to do a post on theme for last week’s Writing Memo, as a compliment to my post here. She did a great job of explaining what theme is and how to bring it out in your story. She talked about how to identify your theme, how to bring your theme out in your writing and how multiple themes can be, and often are, woven into a single story. After reading her post, it sounded so easy.
One of the most difficult parts of writing, for me, is determining what my story’s theme is. The theme is what your story or screenplay is really about, and it isn’t always obvious. Often you really have to think about the story as a whole and look for the underlying theme. Or at least, I do.
Die Hard is a story about a man, John McClane, (Bruce Willis), trying to save his marriage, but when her office party is taken hostage, it becomes a story about survival – survival of the good guys, as well as survival of the marraige. (Yes, I see the irony in the fact that Robin and I both chose to use Die Hard in our examples.) Survival is what the story is really about.
Lethal Weapon may be a buddy cop movie about the two cops getting the bad guys, but Roger Murtaugh, (Danny Glover), is struggling with aging and his approaching retirement, and his partner, Martin Riggs, (Mel Gibson), is struggling with the loss of his wife and certain suicidal urges. Dealing with aging and the end of life is what the movie is really about. But the underlying theme is not always easy to pick up on under all the shoot ’em up, good guy – bad guy stuff.
While pursuing my screenwriting emphasis for my M.F.A., one of the things that I was taught was how to breakdown the structure of a movie into different parts, or beats. My professor and screenwriting advisor, J.S. Mayank, had us use the structure model presented in the Save the Cat books by Blake Snyder. Professor Mayank had us watch a lot of movies and read a whole lot of screenplays and break their structures down, and one of the things I learned from this, is that in almost every movie, one of the characters states the theme in their dialog, usually by page five. As a general rule, it’s true. And if you can figure out what the movie is really about, you can put your finger on which line of dialog that is, however, that’s not always an easy thing to do.
For one thing, the line of dialog that states the theme usually doesn’t do it outright. To do so would make the dialog feel forced, untrue to what the character would say. For instance, the line that states the theme in Lethal Weapon is, “Your beard is getting gray. It makes you look old.” Coming from Roger Murtaugh’s daughter, as his family serves his 50th Birthday Cake while he takes a bath works well, but it doesn’t come out and say, “You’re getting ready to retire and your life is coming to an end. How are you going to deal with it?” It’s said and gone, and most viewers probably didn’t even catch that it was the theme stated unless they were looking for it.
These exercises in screenwriting were very helpful to me, but they required that I view movies in a whole new way. (We did a similar thing in my genre fiction classes, dissecting different novels to see what methods the authors used to portray their stories and how effective they are. And when you critique as you read, it’s a lot different than just reading to enjoy the story.) Most people watch movies for entertainment, right? I always had. But when you are doing structure analysis, you have to concentrate more on how it’s put together than you do on what happens in the story. And to figure out what the theme is, you have to watch, or read in the case of screenplays, with a philosophical eye to discover what the story is really about.
That’s where I had problems, especially when I was watching the actual movie, rather than reading the screenplay. I always sat down to watch a movie and immediately immersed myself in the story. Before I knew it, I would look up and realize the first five pages of script must be long past and I had failed to identify the line of dialog in which the theme was stated. It was the thing with reading screenplays. I found myself reading and re-reading those first five pages, searching desperately for the line that would tell me what the whole movie was about. I didn’t understand how I could be expected to pick out a line of dialog that stated what the movie was really about before I’d read the entire screenplay. And the sad thing is, I was no better at picking out theme in my own writing and writing a line of dialog to state it.
Here’s where I digress from Robin. You cannot decide what you want your theme to be and then write a story to fit. At least, I can’t. It won’t work. For me, theme must evolve from the story naturally, not the other way around.
When I decided to write, Bonnie, my screenplay for my thesis, I thought I was writing a story about two young kids who chose to live on the wrong side of the law in order to cope with the circumstances of living in the depression. But Bonnie is different than other renditions of the Bonnie and Clyde story, because it is told from Bonnie’s perspective, and before I had finished it, I found that what it is really about is Bonnie’s love for Clyde. Their love is my underlying theme. Just as love is the underlying theme in a story about a huge ocean liner that hit an iceberg and sank into the ocean, sending most of the passengers to their deaths. And just as it worked for James Cameron, when he wrote Titanic, I think it works for Bonnie. Love is what it is really about, the underlying theme.
The point here is, I didn’t set out to write a story about a young girl’s amazing love. That is what evolved from my story about a young couple’s choice to embark on a life of crime. Love was Bonnie’s motivation. Undying love was my theme and I didn’t even know it until I was more than halfway through writing the screenplay. This is why I say theme is the most difficult part of writing for me, whether I’m writing a novel or a screenplay.
But, I still say writing to the theme is more difficult. The theme must emerge naturally from the story, whether you’re writing for the page or the screen. If I just write the story, being true to my characters, the theme will come to the surface of its own accord. But, that’s me. Obviously, it’s different for Robin, who likes to identify her theme before she begins the story and finds ways to bring the theme out. Which comes first for you?
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We’ve looked at how a screenplay goes from idea to beat sheet or outline in Part 1. And we’ve seen that the tools used to sell your screenplay, such as the logline and the pitch, are created before you ever start to actually write the script in Part 2. Last week, in Part 3, we looked at the type of research that goes into writing a screenplay. Today, I’d like to look another important step in creating a finished script.
The final step in completing any writing project is rewriting, or revising, to make sure that the finished piece you’re going to submit is the absolute best it can be. In literary writing, it’s called revision, and there may be several revisions before the piece is ready to be sent off in hopes of discovery. But you finish the first draft, before you start revising, or at least some writers do. Me, I’m a firm believer that the more things I fix as I go, the less I will have to fix later, so I do some revision during the writing process of the first draft. In screenwriting, it’s called is rewriting, and it actually takes place all the way through the writing process, which is more in sync with my writing style.
Once the draft for ACT I is finished, you look it over, get feedback from other screenwriters, if available, and then make changes and adjustments to the sections that aren’t working for whatever reason. You repeat the process when you’ve finished the draft up to the end of ACT II, but this time, you also watch to be sure that the two acts flow together well, in addition to ascertaining that ACT II works well. Again, after ACT III is finished, but on the final rewrite, you must be sure that it work as a whole, the flow of the beats are smooth and you’ve maintained a constant tone throughout. If you’ve done a good job on the prior revisions, there may be very little rewriting to do at this point, and it’s really just a matter of fine tuning your script.
For my thesis, I originally wanted to lead viewers through the story with a series of voice-overs by Bonnie, which included imagined journal entries and letters, as well as some of the poetry she actually wrote. I knew I wanted to do this from the start. However, on the last read through, my peers and my instructor brought it to my attention that the way my script was written, I stuck the poetry into scenes where I thought I wanted it, but the way it was written my audience would be looking at a blank screen while they listened to Bonnie’s voice-over, which was not the way I intended it to be.
The majority of my final rewrite was positioning these voice-overs, especially those with the poetry, some of which were quite long at strategic sections where they would seem to refer to what was happening in the story, and to keep the action going during them. In one scene that meant showing Bonnie writing the letter while the voice-over tells us what that letter said. That’s one that I had right. Other scenes needed to have the voice-over over the action, like a car chase. And in some, like at the end of ACT III, I needed the voice-over to play in sync with a montage of single snapshot scenes. There are different ways to write it, so that the voice-over is played the way I wanted it to in each case, and a good portion of my final rewrite consisted of tweaking the scenes with voice-over so they would play the way I wanted them to.
In the end, I came out with a screenplay that flows together well, tells the story I wanted to tell in a compelling and original way, and has a lot of commercial potential. Maybe someday you’ll see The Life and Times of Bonnie Parker on the marquee at the theater as you’re driving down the street.
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Many students of literary writing issue moans and groans when it comes time to do the research for their book. After all we’re writers, not researchers, right? But the fact is, that in order to write the story, even though it may be fictional, you half to know your stuff, and with literature, that could mean being familiar with the time period you’re writing about, or when certain items or words came into use, or being familiar with the place in which your book is set. If you’re writing a science fiction novel, you must at least be somewhat familiar with the science of the technologies you’re writing about, and even in fantasy works, you must be familiar with what the fantasy creatures you’re writing about are capable of.
It’s no different in screenwriting. You need to be familiar with the time period and location your screenplay takes place in, as well as being familiar with what the tropes are for your genre and what has been done that is similar to your story. But, I haven’t heard screenwriters complaining, maybe because the research is a little bit different than literary research. In fact, research in screenwritng can be fun.
In Parts 1, I talked about how the story goes from idea to beat sheet and/or outline. In Part 2, I described the tools used to sell a screenplay. Now, let’s look at the research that goes into a screenplay, and don’t shy away, because in screenwriting, the research is the fun part.
Both literary writing and screenwriting require research. The type and extent of research required depends on what you’re writing. I watched every documentary on Bonnie and Clyde that I could find, as well as every DIY film on YouTube I could find, in order to get a feel for who these two people were. This helped a lot in determining what their bios would look like and how they would be portrayed in the film. I also visited websites with information on them and websites on the depression era, where I picked up slang from the 20s, which I salted my screenplay with to give it the proper feel.
But there’s a different kind of research you do in screenwriting, in addition to the research mentioned above. In screenwriting, you examine movies that are similar to yours in some way to learn what’s been done, and what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes you may chose a movie just because it has a scene similar to one you’re trying to do and you want to see how they went about it. This is one of the neatest things about screenwriting, you get to sit around and watch movies and call it work.
For my thesis, obviously any fictional portrayals of the outlaw couple needed to be on my list, but I also wanted to watch other gangster type movies to get a feel for the lifestyle, and the era. I watched biographical pictures to learn how they make real life events fit into the screenplay formula, and buddy love films to see how they allow one character to lead another into things, without portraying the leading character as a villain. It was amazing when I realized the different things I learned from each one.
- Bonnie and Clyde, 1967, written by David Newman and Robert Benton – this was the original movie that we all think of when we think of the outlaw couple. It glamourizes Bonnie and Clyde, what they did and how they lived, and portrayed them as cold, blood-thirsty killers. This was not how I wanted to portray them, and I didn’t want to do what had already been done, so this film showed me what I didn’t want to do.
- Bonnie and Clyde 2013 miniseries on the History channel – this portrayal of the couple really played up the cold blooded killer image of all of them, Blanche and Buck, as well as Bonnie and Clyde, and it’s a ruthlessness that I don’t believe was truly there. Again, I learned what not to do. I wanted my screenplay to be very different from this.
- Donnie Brasco, 1997, adapted by Paul Attanatio from the book by Joseph D. Pistone and Richard Woodley– I found this to be one of the best mob movies I had ever seen. I was truly impressed with the craftsmanship seen in this film. I chose it because of the similar situation, getting caught up in circumstance and events beyond the character’s control.
- Black Mass, 2015, written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth – Not only is this film a crime drama, but it is a bio-pic, based on the true story of the criminal career of mobster Whitey Bulger. The similarity here was found in the way the character Whitey Bulger rationalized his actions, which I considered when having Bonnie rationalize her actions, and what she was willing to do in order to be with Clyde. I also looked at this film in regards to how they set the events to the beats in the film.
- Dillinger, 1973, written and directed by John Millius – Not only is this a bio-pic, but they make mention of Bonnie and Clyde in this movie, which gave me the idea to make mention of Dillinger and other well-known gangsters of the time in my own screenplay as a means of marking the time period.
- Scarface, 1983, written by Oliver Stone – This is an excellent movie, but I didn’t take a lot away from it which could be used in my screenplay. Bonnie and Clyde weren’t anywhere near the big time criminal that character Tony Montana a.k.a. Scarface, was in this bio-pic.
- The Untouchables, 1981, written by David Mamet – This movie gave me a feel for the times, and the public sentiment towards the criminal element which was prominent in the times.
- Public Enemies, 2009, written by Michael Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman – This is a period film that was set in the same time period as my own screenplay. It deals with the gangster subculture of the times, of which Bonnie and Clyde ran on the fringes.
- Thelma & Louise, 1991, written by Callie Khouri – This buddy love is similar in circumstance to my screenplay in that the protagonist gets swept up in the circumstances, and that the circumstances were created by the choices the protagonist makes, and that they both die in the end.
- The Falcon and the Snowman, 1985, from the book, The Falcon and the Snowman: A Story of True Friends and Espionage, by Robert Lindsay and adapted by Steven Zaillian – I viewed this movie for some of the same reasons I viewed Thelma & Louise. The protagonists gets caught up in circumstances of their own creation, brought about by the choices that they made, which send them on a downward spiral. Plus it is a biographical film, based on a true story.
- Natural Born Killers, 1994, written by Quentin Tarantino and revised by David Veloz – Although this movie is very bizarre, the protagonists are lovers on a crime spree. Like previous portrayals of Bonnie & Clyde, these two are portrayed as cold-blooded killers, ruthless, killing for the fun of it. That is not the story I wanted to tell, therefore this movie showed me more of what I did not want to do in my own screenplay.
- Blow, 2001, adapted by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes from the book by Bruce Porter, Blow: How a Small Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellín Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All – This is a biographical film of cocaine smuggler Gorge Jung, so I was looking at how the events were shaped to make up the beats of the movie, and it is another story where the protagonist gets caught up in the criminal elements due to the choices made, and their life spins out of control in a downward spiral.
- Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1980, written by George Vecsey as an adaption of the biography of country singer, Loretta Lynn – In this film I was looking for how the events were molded into the beat sheet formula of screenplay, as well as the romance elements.
- What’s Love Got to do with It?, 1993, adapted by Kate Lanier from the book I, Tina, by Tina Turner and Kurt Loder – This biographical film tells the story of how Tina Turner found the courage to break out of an abusive relationship. What I took away from this film was the way that Tina rationalized staying with her husband, Ike, how she kept telling herself that things would change, which is very similar to how my Bonnie rationalizes staying with Clyde, first believing he will change and go straight, and when it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen she allowed herself to believe they would go away to California.
Of course, this type of research, the fun stuff, has its equivalent in literary writing. It’s always good to read books in your genre to see what’s out there and know the tropes. The real difference is that in literature, the author is always trying to come up with a totally original idea, but in screenwriting, its acceptable, in fact encouraged, to use movies that have already been done successfully in describing what your movie is about in the logline or pitch, where you explain how your movie is the same as (a movie that’s already out there), but different. It is common practice in Hollywood, apparently, to describe your movie or television series as: (Title of existing movie) with a twist. For example, I described the pilot series that I wrote, titled Unhappily Ever After, as “A reverse Once Upon a Time combined with a humorous Into the Woods.” You can tell a lot about my pilot series from that, but I’ll have to save that for another post.
The point here is, in screenwriting it’s okay to do the same story someone else has done, as long as you give it some kind of twist to set it apart from the rest. For my thesis, I told the story from Bonnie’s perspective and that made it a very different movie from the other portrayals of the same story.
Next week we’ll take a look at the last step in creating the finished screenplay, rewriting. A screenwriter rewrites constantly, for as many drafts as it takes to get the desired results and make her screenplay tell the story she wants to tell, the way she wants to tell it.