Just Do It – Lessons from Author Stephen King

Last Monday I was watching Stephen King’s biography. I was fascinated at his remarkable life story. For those who don’t know him, King is one of the most famous and prolific fiction authors of all time. King has written and published 49 novels, and his books have collectively sold more than 350 million copies. If you don’t know why I bringing King up in a blog for filmmakers, please bear with, there are a few morals:

Work Without a Pay

King’s story is one of struggle and perseverance. Writing a novel is not much different than writing a script or making a film. To begin with, they are both creative endeavors. You start with a vague idea and know not where it will lead you. You may give up half way through it. Or you might run the distance and finish with a compelling product, or a crappy one. As a beginner, you work and you don’t know if you will profit from it. You invest your time without assurance of a paycheck. Many people can’t handle this.

Sometimes to break into show business, you have to work without earning much, if anything. You do this when someone offers you a good position or internship that you wouldn’t otherwise get it. You have to show your work and diligence first to be granted admission at the Hollywood pantheon.

“Just Do it”

In King’s biography, one of his former professors said, “Many students here aspire to be writers. But the most fascinating thing about King is that he’d just do it” [paraphrase]. The professor was referring to the fact that king had a column at the campus paper. Little did the professor know, King was also constantly pounding words at home as well. This is king following his dream.

Every so often, I meet students who claim they want to be filmmakers, yet there’s nothing about their lifestyle and habits that suggests that. Liking movies is a requirement to become a filmmaker, but it is hardly the education you need. It is chiefly a hobby. If you are working two jobs, studying full time, and taking care of the kids during breaks, then, in that case, you are excused. However, if you spent most of your time watching reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond or playing solitaire, odds are filmmaking won’t come knocking. Be mindful of how you spent your time.

I agree that making movies is impossible by oneself, so use this as excuse for not making movies and that alone. But there’s no excuse for not learning filmmaking or honing your craft. Experiment with your camera, write screenplays… Something. Anything. But just do it.

Don’t Victimize Yourself

Before his big break, King eventually got married and became a father. He was then surviving with a meager paycheck as an English teacher and working a second job. He situation wasn’t good. In several occasions, King or his wife had to call the telephone company to have their telephone disconnected. Despite all the hardship, King persevered. He was frustrated at his life. But such frustration could not preclude King from writing; and he knew it.

Drinking with friends might alleviate pain, but does not open doors. Life is not easy. Like my good friend Alfredo from Cinema Paradiso (1988) would say:

Life is not like the movies, Toto. Life is much harder.

Indeed it is. I understand that all of us have different problems. Some have more problems than others. But don’t let them stand in the way of your dreams.

There you have it. Some little lessons from the King of suspense. He inspires us, don’t you agree?

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Two major updates on the last week of 2010:

In my opinion, a MacGuffin is one of those obscures screenwriting  techniques that some screenwriters (especially newbies) haven’t heard much about it, let alone applied it.

For some silly reason, screenwriting books hardly ever mention it. I don’t know why; they should. But the MacGuffin’s importance is immeasurable. It can’t really save a horrible screenplay, but it can refine a mediocre story. Hitchcock fans will find it particularly interesting. Read here.

What is Cinema? has been updated, now including The Film Scholar’s Insight with a brief clarification on the definition of actualities and documentaries. Check it out.

Happy 2011 everyone! Hope this new decade is filled with peace and many accomplishments to all of us.

Best of luck,

Gabriel Moura

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Movie Review: “Black Swan” (2010) A+

Black Swan Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman plays the Black Swan

I left the movie theater four hours ago. In my mind there is but one thing: Black Swan. Darren Aronofsky’s new film was intense and riveting. I was transfixed by what is definitely one of the year’s finest movies, featuring one of the year’s best performances.

Black Swan deals with a particular kind of struggle that demands completeness. One plot hole would shatter the entire atmosphere the filmmakers so exquisitely created and send the movie head first into the dumper. But fail they did not. The type of struggle I’m referring to is the internal struggle. We all suffer with it in different degrees. For dramatic purposes, the struggle in the film was heightened exponentially. But it worked.

Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a ballerina in a New York City ballet company.  The movie opens with Nina on the stage performing a beautiful choreography. Portman is ravishing. Her talent transcending acting into a flawless dance. Aronofsky’s floating camera also intensifies the dance.  The next scene reveals that it was just a dream. This foreshadows the film’s main facet: it is internal and psychological. Nina is a dedicated performer, but her desire for perfection becomes a burden that takes over her life. As reality and fantasy blend together, Nina loses control and succumbs under pressure. The villain is herself. Contrary to what she assumes, no one is trying to play dirty to replace her. This becomes her demise.

Evincing Nina’s passion and determination, the movie jumps from the ballet company to Nina’s house and vice versa, back and forth. These are the only two locales she knows. Only two major scenes betray this dynamic: the first is in a gala dinner when Nina is announced as the Swan Queen; the second is when Nina accepts to go to a bar to loosen up a bit – something she does reluctantly. Also, everyone in the movie is connected to ballet. This is the only milieu she enjoys and the only life she knows.

Mila Kunis plays Lily, the dancer who’s selected to be Nina’s alternate. She’s also the one best suited to embody the Black Swan in the ballet. But Nina is still the director’s first choice because the dancer has to be able to perform both the White Swan and the Black Swan – and Nina does it better. One of the audience’s favorite scene is when Lily and Nina engage in some lesbian lovin’. Or do they?

Natalie Portman's nemesis is herself.

Tchaikovsky’s Black Swan is the predominant leitmotif. Clint Mansell composed the rest of the score. His music provides the intensity the movie requires. It is magnificent. Natalie Portman owned her character. Her every expression, every step, every move was a delicate beauty. Portman, along with Tchaikovsky’s opera, Mansell’s score and Aronofsky’s mise-en-scène, sucked me into Black Swan and refused to let me go.  They made me feel something I hadn’t felt for a while in the movies. They convinced me it was real. I found myself worried about Nina and rooting for her. Silly me, I was even concerned about the company’s future, worried about whether or not they would go bankrupt. Interesting…

Back in the Summer, Inception astonished me as much as Black Swan did five hours ago. But it was too extravagant to be real. It’s verisimilitude was none. Black Swan, on the other hand, felt true, visceral. It is a strong contender for some Academy Awards, at least nominations, with Portman definitely receiving hers.

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Movie Review: “True Grit” B

Jeff Bridges True Grit

Jeff Bridges plays Marshal Cogburn in "True Grit" (2010)

It takes one star and one star only to carry a movie and entice an audience. In the 2010 remake of True Grit, that star is Hailee Steinfeld. Now, mind you, at 14 years old, she’s a faint star… but a star nonetheless. I believe the little girl’s got enough talent to fuel a bright career in Hollywood.

In the Coen brothers’ new movie, Steinfeld was given the role of Mattie Ross, a sharp-witted, brave young girl who seeks to avenge her father’s death. I don’t think the role was extremely demanding per se, but that’s not her fault. Her expressionless stare is interrupted only by moments of distress and panic, when she acts convincingly intimidated. Her resoluteness, however, was solid and intense. If she can play comic roles as well as she can play dramatic ones, we will be seeing more of her for decades to come.

Most of the movie’s appeal should be credited, if not to Steinfeld, then to the character she was playing. Mattie Ross evokes interest. She’s a strong, peculiar girl right from get-go when she refuses to kiss her dad’s body, claiming that the soul had departed. She also becomes a merchant’s worst nightmare because damn this girl can haggle. Mattie is important to the movie because she sets the story in motion and refuses to detach from it. She hires Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to pursue and kill her dead’s assassin, Tom Chaney (Josh Broslin). Mattie goes with him.

Along comes La Boeuf (Matt Damon), whose purpose on the movie is almost negligible. As the script was written, La Boeuf seems needed but not really organic to the plot. He comes always on the right moment to do the right things… or the right moments to do the wrong things depending on what the writers need him to. He feels like an effortless device employed to make the story function as the writers desire. For me, the movie would work better with more emphasis on the relationship between Mattie and Cogburn, without distractions over petty arguments between Cogburn and La Boeuf. And Cogburn need not be drinking as well.

Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit

Hailee Steinfeld delivers a fabulous performance.

The first part of True Grit introduces us to this amazing character, Mattie, and her objective. The third part delivers what was promised; I wasn’t disappointed. However, the middle portion feels like a pointless ramble, filled up of Cogburn’s babbling.  The Coen brothers know how to write dialogue, hence the speeches aren’t awfully boring, but some are not needed. At its core, True Grit is another cat-and-mouse movie. The main difference being Mattie, who provides a grain of novelty to an overused formula.

True Grit feels nothing like a Coen brothers movie. This is a classic Western in every aspect. I recommend it.

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Three major updates this week:

Understanding Film Form is one of those scholarly articles that might not interest some filmmakers or film student, although I think that the conversation on form and patterns is a valid one. It is, I agree, quite basic.

Writing Compelling Dialogue is long overdue. This new lesson is of extreme importance for budding screenwriters. Granted, writing dialogue is not easy, and I know many people suffer with it. But so many times I see young writers struggling with dialogue that has no reason to exist. This is a big waste time. Make sure you read this new article to see what to write. Don’t let me forget, I must also write a guide on Writing Realistic Dialogue.

Blocking – Why is it important? has been expanded with two new subsections titled “Sketch the Scene” and “Attention to Body Language.” Two additions that completely change the feel of that article.

Check them out and let me know what you think. I hope you all had a Merry Christmas. Now we look at the New Year!


Gabriel Moura

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“Bah, humbug”

And the All Time Best Christmas Story Award goes to…

A Christmas Carol, and all the 30+ versions out there. Yes, that’s right. Charles Dickens’s novella has perhaps been adapted more than any other Christmas-themed narrative in history.

There have been plays, operas, TV specials, and movies based on it. Famous franchises like Disney, Flintstones, and Barbie also have their own renderings of the story.

As for me, I think it is a glory well-deserved. Whenever one of the several versions is on TV, I try to watch it. The poignant story of Ebenezer Scrooge illustrates how greed can be the downfall of men.

Mickey’s Christmas Carol is my favorite version. I don’t think it is particularly better than the others, but it was the first one I saw and fell in love with. I watch it today with a tinge of nostalgia for a time when I didn’t know there was a writer named Charles Dickens.

“Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”

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The Fairy Godmother Technique

Cinderella Godmother

"Don't cry. Your Fairy Godmother is here."

I’m still trying to digest the ending of The Tourist (2010), which I watched  just this past weekend. The problem isn’t that it was unexpected or implausible. In fact, one could make an argument that is was both. However, it was just too damn easy from a screenwriting perspective. The problem here is poor craftsmanship.

If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t mind having the ending spoiled, this is what happens:

At the movie’s climatic showdown, we find Elise (Angelina Jolie) and Frank (Johnny Depp) cornered by four armed gangsters in the living room of a lavish Venice apartment. Frank, the proverbial hero, wants to protect and save Elise, who, as the classic damsel in distress, is being held hostage by the mafiosos. On the rooftop of surrounding buildings, snipers stand by. What do the mobsters want? They want the combination for the vault, or course, but neither Frank nor Elise is capable or willing to tell them. As the stakes get higher and the suspense intensifies, the resolution of this scene betrays craftsmanship.

How so? Well, the snipers finally receive orders to shoot. As they fire, a slo-mo effect lingers on the screen… Surreal… Silent… It’s almost as if the filmmakers want to make sure that we really understand what’s happening. Well, we do. It’s crystal clear. But that’s just not what we want. As I mentioned in my review of The Tourist, what I really wanted to see was the drapes of the living room being slide shut by the gangsters. Leave the snipers out of this, and let Frank and Elise find a way out.

By poor craftsmanship, we mean carelessness and negligence – a lack of professionalism and skill towards creating the scene the movie deserved. The filmmakers were remiss by allowing those snipers to fire. We wanted to see Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp – two of the most famous and prolific actors of our generation – find a way to overcome that precarious situation without external intervention. What if the drapes were shut already? Would they have died? Would the cleaning lady be guilty for the killing?

What the filmmakers did was evoking the Fairy Godmother. Remember Cinderella (1950)? When all is lost, the Fairy Godmother comes to her rescue.  In both Cinderella and The Tourist, the natural progression of a well-crafted narrative brings the main character to a situation of distress and helplessness. Bringing the Godmother works in fairy tales but is unacceptable in serious, grown-up movies. In the The Tourist, the Fairy Godmother was wearing a bulletproof vest and holding a rifle instead of wand. Not really congruent, is it?

Well, the purpose of this post is not to vent my frustration. Rather, I want to alert screenwriters and directors of some pitfalls that can be overlooked. There’s no telling whose fault was it, so let’s not point fingers. After all, it’s Christmas Eve’s eve.

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“True Grit” on TCM

John Wayne in True Grit

John Wayne in "True Grit" (1969)

Have you heard of the new Coen brothers’ movie True Grit? It is airing on TCM right now… the old version that is, with John Wayne and a young actress that reminds me of Justin Bieber.

When I saw the preview for the Coen brothers movie I was excited, assuming that we should be prepared for another Coen originals. Now, we know better. The 1969 True Grit was already an adaptation of a Charles Portis novel.

But the Coen brothers are big boys, and I expect nothing less than an exceptional movie. Actually, Ethan Coen said that their version will be a more faithful adaptation of the novel because it assumes the little girl’s perspective, which sounds interesting already.

The original True Grit earned John Wayne his only Academy Award.

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Review: “The Tourist” C+

The Tourist Train Johnny Depp Angelina Jolie

Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in "The Tourist (2010)"

I was quite pleased until the contrived ending in The Tourist ruined the film for me. What a disappointment it was. Yes, The Tourist has some cliched elements: gangsters, spies, the Interpol, and a case of mistaken identity (or is it?). But I was enjoying it. After all, it’s entertainment.

When I signed up to see the first Jolie-Depp onscreen marriage I wasn’t expecting a thought-provoking, multi-layered film, no. Not at all. We’re talking about an actress who played Lara Croft and an actor who is still playing Jack Sparrow (The Pirates of the Caribbean is coming back for a forth installment). No question they’re talented, both having remarkable filmographies, but their sex appeal has entranced audience for years, and studios know how much buzz and dough is attached to them.

The Tourist had a nice blend of action, adventure, and romance. Angelina Jolie played the femme fatale, and she did it with the exquisite delicacy the part demanded. Her name, Elise Clifton-Ward, almost sounded as the one of a duchess, which contrasted nicely with Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp), a Wisconsin math teacher. Elise was sexy without being risque. Frank was uncouth without being a savage. A fabulous dyad.

The scenery of this tale was Europe. The movie opens in Paris but quickly transgresses to Venice. It was delightful to listen to Jolie speaking French and humorous to hear Depp speaking Spanish as he pathetically tried a conversation with Italian authorities. The attempt of the filmmakers to make language be a problem for the protagonist only serves to highlight another letdown – everyone interacting with Frank speaks English (except for a concierge).

The plot is another story of boy-meets-girl-but-girl-is-using-boy-as-a-decoy-to-protect-her-true-lover. At the movie’s beginning, Elise is going to a cafe in Paris, while being spied on by agents of the Scotland Yard. At the cafe, she receives a letter from her lover, Alexander Pearce, giving her instructions to catch a train and deceive the police by using any guy that has his same height and build.

Well, you can see where this is going. The bulk of the movie happens in Venice, with everybody trying to find where the hell the real Alexander Pearce and his fortune are. And with poor Frank mistaken as Alexander, his life must be in danger somehow.

Now the ending, which was source of much distress. Years of cinema has established that conflict is the core of drama. If the screenwriters and director of The Tourist had attended Screenwriting 101, they would have learned that the protagonist can never have an easy way out. But clearly they missed this lecture…

Paul Bettany and Johnny Depp in The Tourist

You think that being handcuffed inside a van with three highly trained Scotland Yard and Interpol agents would be enough to hold someone captive. Well, the filmmakers of "The Tourist" would disagree.

As the stakes get higher, we find the delicate Elise with a knife at her throat. Frank is also there. The couple is surrounded by armed gangsters. Through the open windows, Interpol snipers observe this unfolding as they follow order to hold their fire. At this moment, a brilliant storyteller would have shut the drapes and excluded the snipers from the equation, leaving Frank and Elise to figure a way out.

If the curtains had been shut and a plausible ending delivered, I could bump this movie’s score to a solid A. But the “easy way out” mars the movie with incredibility in what should be its most intense scene. The homogeneous gasp of the audience assured me that I wasn’t the only who felt that way.

This was but one of the most contrived scenes in the movie. Also, the revelation that follows it was clearly planted as twist, but its effect is counterproductive as it shatters the plot we had, so to speak, fallen in love with. If you don’t mind having that spoiled as well, I’m referring to the fact that Frank is in fact Alexander Pearce. The story functions without that. I liked it when Frank was just a tourist caught on all this international intrigue by accident. He was likable as a math teacher. The moment he becomes Alexander I lose the empathy I had for him. I’m not sure why. I just do.

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Preface to Movie Reviews

When I first conceptualized this blog, one thing I knew I wanted to have for sure was a Movie Review section. But this frightened me. I used to think: How am I supposed to compete with, say, a critic as famous and as productive and  as well-read as Roger Ebert? My challenge is daunting at best. The bar was set way high by Mr. Ebert and his colleagues.

I use Mr. Ebert as a reference for three main reasons: (1) he is one of the most famous film critics in the world, (2) he’s won a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, (3) and I adore his body of work. In fact, I like his work because occasionally we disagree. Whenever we were in accordance, satisfaction took over me because that meant my mindset matched his. However, our occasional disagreement used to discourage me. But now I’ve made peace with it as I realized something…

It is related to the words of the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky. Gorky was perhaps the first film critic in the history of the world. In 1896, Gorky watched a program of early one-minute films shot and projected by the cinematograph (which had been conceptualized and manufactured by the Lumiere brothers years before). His review of the event imparts one of earliest descriptions of cinema. Gorky wrote:

If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Every thing there—the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air—is dipped in monotonous gray. Gray rays of the sun across the gray sky, gray eyes in gray faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen gray. It is not life but its shadow. It is not motion but its soundless spectre.

Gorky’s review has been reproduced in many books and websites. I suspect that I will never produce anything that will be as far-reaching as what he wrote. Yet it’s incredibly outdated. However, I understand the obvious: Gorky’s review is representative of his generation and his personality. Whatever I write will fit inside this same category. Which brings me back to Roger Ebert.

Mr. Ebert has seen more movies than, perhaps, I will in my lifetime. Don’t get me wrong. I too am a cinephile, but we’re talking about a guy who has fun for a living. And it’s too much fun. But back to what Gorky taught me… I know for a fact that my reviews won’t always match professional critics. But that doesn’t matter because I am able to impart different insights.

There’s no question that filmmaking – like any other art form – is subjective, and people have different opinions on any given work. So let’s share ours…

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