Monday, May 23, 2011

Emails #46: Ways To Mangle A FIlm

BEN: I would say, if you want to work more by inspiration than linearly, chose a spot where you feel most interested at the moment. Like when I was feeling "Cap Goes Home" I wrote it. You're right that there is a evolution of Cap that is more intricate than most people might realize.
Maybe we have to view this as Cap's life story up-to-now instead of trying to make it fit a formula. If we establish a mythos, we can pull from it. Actually, a friend of mine who is a screenwriter recommends against writing without an outline and I agree to an extent, but if working another way is more comfortable or more fun, I say go with it. If you want to write it in prose, do so. If you want to write it in script form, here's some info for that. I've never used Celtx, but it comes recommended. It requires OSX 10.4 I'm thinking it should be pretty straight forward, but let me know if you run into trouble. So...

  • If you want to look into the crystal ball or magic mirror to see him as a child, go for it. Stevie at the theater watching newsreels with his dad before cartoons or Flash Gordon. Who is his father? How did his job or their relationship effect Stevie? His mom? Were his grandparents around? Part of me wonders what's been written about in the comics.
  • There are also his teen years where his idealism is born. Denied for service.
  • Then he gets juiced. Assuredly a frightening process. Was it just POOF or was there a period of pain or fear of the unknown?
  • WWII. The real formation of Cap. The fast-forward tempering of the steel all men go through in war. Instant adulthood. Blood, sweat and tears. Guilt. Fear. Must be strong for the men. They're the real heroes. I'd die for these guys. They don't realize how amazing they are.
  • Red Skull. Where did he come from? Do we need to see his childhood? Why is he so angry?
  • Battle of the Skulls.
  • Freezing.
  • Unfreezing.
  • Danger, battle, we need you Cap!
  • Reality. The 40's are long, long gone. Cap is an adult now. Is he cool with all that? Does he feel or is he numb? Culture shock. Retreat or over-indulge? Cap searches for his new self. Does the government use him? Over-use him?
  • Skull returns. Was he frozen? Was he trapped somewhere, but was able to survive? What's the opposite of what happened to Cap? He hatches his plans to once and for all take over the world.
  • Battle Skull agents. Cap finds out about Skull.
  • Has Skull infiltrated the gov? Was the president his Manchurian Candidate? Dirty bomb justifies a clamp-down?
  • Cap gets beaten. Bad. Turned into an Enemy of the State.
  • Cap must find himself. He realizes it's been inside him the whole time. Friends in the government remind us of the Constitution and the men who wrote it.
  • Cap returns as Skull engages his plan.
  • The final showdown.
  • Cap has learned something. America has learned something. Skull has learned that terror doesn't pay.

Or, of course any deviation of anything here :)

RICK: Your screenwriter friend is correct. Working from an outline is the only way to go. However, it is sometimes the question of which came first the outline or the story. When tackling large or complex subjects like WWII and Cap an outline is essential in order to properly corral the elements needed for your narrative. No doubt about it. Yet, I am not suggesting to write THE story or THE outline. If we throw a few scenes out there, real scenes of Cap in his situations I am thinking that this act alone will better solidify the vast, shambling material we have collected. While a strong emphasis on outline is key, the real culprit has got to always be character. Character must drive the story. Character must inform and transform the story. In the case we have here, Cap has decades of source material available. Cap, on my watch needs to have a simple, non-magical personal narrative that has internal logic even if fantastical. I think that up to date, Cap's unfolding has found us searching for his character, his voice, and for his reason for being. I am NOT satisfied that we have the answers we need to suggest that we have 'nailed' the character, 'nailed' the story or the outline. What we honestly (and proudly) have assembled is a compost heap. Snippets and colorings and anecdotal evidence of character or scene or story. My contention is simply that we could remain in a holding pattern and continue to pile peelings onto the compost heap which would be fun and continue as a neat mental exercise OR we can branch out into creating the structure needed to write a finished narrative. We have fiddled with outlines before (and I don't think we are ready to do it now). The outline process is supposed to free you to add meat to the bones you create. It works well in many circumstances and will eventually work well here. Several things need to happen:

Cap's character needs to be solidified. Sure, we have a lot but the strength and breadth of his personality must be firmly in place.
  1. What story do we want to tell? From what we have talked about, hummingbird-like, our focus has gone from WWII to Bucky to the Avengers and a million places in between. Why should we be trying to fit 60 years of mythos cobbled together with our own take into a 2 hour and 5 minute film?
  2. Red Skull. We don't need to know his childhood. Yet we need to know more. As a direct foil to Cap whose virtues oppose Cap's or mirror them, this villain must inevitably be drawn into a life and death conflict. Even from Red Skull's point of view, the prospect of destroying Cap must be more than whimsy or practicality. It must be clear that it is an absolute.
  3. Continuity. We have been dropping snippets all over the spectrum. It is only when you dissect the frame that you realize Steve Roger's must be sixteen or seventeen when he tries to enlist. Maybe 20 when he gets frozen in a block of ice. This is such an immutable and important fact that writing for his character as being in his twenties or thirties or older does not do anything but spring him from weak boy to super patriot elder statesman without any time allotted for that growth to actually occur.
  4. How faithful do we want to be to the source material? I think we have talked about this but not with decisiveness. It is certainly okay to cull facts and characters from the grand mythos that is Cap. How much do we need our vision to mesh with previous visions?
  5. What is the underlying and all consuming theme that needs to run through the story? We have so many potential themes slithering around it is like a snake pit.
  6. I sound like CSI but if you want to write an outline for this (and we have a couple floating around) are you attempting to make the facts fit the theory or the theory match the facts.
  7. The biggest complaints I have ever had with any film has been the story, not the genre, not the VFX, not the actors, not the locations... I know that there are a lot of ways to mangle a film during its lengthy, turbulent production but starting with a story that doesn't work is the easiest. I also know that the process of writing can be a very messy one with lots of revisions and drafts. We are not going to get what we want in the script during the first pass or perhaps second...
We've written over 19,000 words here, more than will be in the finished screenplay. Think about it Ben.

Hahaha. No doubt. I'll have to ruminate a little more on your words to get a real perspective on this. To me, a man is a mix of nature and nurture. Steve's genes were bad. His parents were... good? People he knows as a child and his personal trials will always inform his actions as an adult. Yes, he becomes a statesman several years after his unfreezing, but all he really knows while he's still young is idealism. An ideal that has to be established early on and that has to comfort him. What I'm saying is for me, to know who Steve is as a character, I have to know his back story. In WWII does he really know enough to make speeches or does his idealism and his knowledge up to that point inform his experience in war. He has to have the basic molecules of a warrior poet if he's to be one while still in WWII. The serum can only give him the opportunity to act on his sense of honor, duty and sacrifice. It can't in itself create a hero.

There is no reason to believe that Steve Rogers was not near the top of a short list for project Rebirth. The ultra patriotism was a bonus. It could be enhanced for propaganda purposes and used to manipulate. Those involved in Project Rebirth had worked only for this moment, when success would claw through years of failure. The number of dead and ruined lives would all be wiped away and forgotten in one bright instant.

Steve's childhood is not so interesting compared to what happens later. It is a series of broken bones, infections, sicknesses, seizures, heart problems, intestinal problems and much more. If there was sickness going around, he caught it. The number of times he came close to death from health issues was more than several dozen. He missed a lot of school and had difficulty socially. Steve had an active imagination and spent hours drawing and painting.

Could he make speeches?

Yes. It is the leadership skills that allow him to do it. His hard upbringing has in effect inoculated him to some of the devastating hardships of war. He was taught to have faith and hope and to fight instead of quitting. If he had not learned these lessons as a child, he would not be able to cope with what awaits him on the battlefield NOR would he be able to speak with passion and inspire others with his sincerity.

Agreed. He would also have spent a lot of time schooling at home which would likely mean a more focused education. He'd read and read so, in these dark times it would make sense that he read the Constitution, Bill of Rights and deeply into the lives of Washington, Arnold, and other generals plus, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln... (Although, the literature of the day probably would be a little less accurate and a bit rosier.) As well as comic strips and movie serials of heroes like Superman, Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. He'd play chess with his mom or dad... all things that could not only build his knowledge and skills at strategy, but also add into his idealistic view of America. I'm sure the propaganda of the time would also encourage him to be patriotic and as a teen, he may even say we should enter the war. They probably even had debate class or teams so, he may have even debated with his father or mother in mock debates. Perhaps thinking about law school and/or becoming a Constitutional Scholar...

Cap would like this:

Wait. Is that a tear? Okay, when Thomas Jefferson jumps up on the table for his violin solo he is telling the king, "We are through fiddling around." Hot. I wish CAP sang so he could do a kick ass video - you know, after the thaw, in modern times where there are videos...

HAHA, awesome.

Bucky and the the Avengers could all be backup singers.

An enemy generally says and believes what he wishes.
-Thomas Jefferson

Do you want to know who you are? Don't ask. Act! Action will delineate and
define you.
-Thomas Jefferson


  1. Nice piece about writing (as many others have been). Thanks for posting these.

    I think the best outlining tips I've come across were in a book called The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray. He uses Aristotle's Incline for plotting. It's a 3-act play structure which focuses on 5 key scenes (opening, plot point 1, midpoint, plot point 2, cathartic scene and wrap-up). Those are written out of order and the rest filled in from there. Though before that, you get a feel for your characters through various exercises. I've found the method resonates with how I write better than others I've run across.

  2. Imaginings -

    Thank you for for your comments. They are appreciated. Every writer needs to find the techniques that work best for them. What is thorny about what Ben and I have amassed is that we never intended to write anything. Our conversations by email which encompass the Cap material spanned over three years. My personal style is to make endless notes and write and rewrite until I get something. Once I have achieved that I sometimes have to start all over again. Very efficient. On the other hand, I have been blessed with knowing, on occasion a story whole clothe before starting. Using outlines and structure to tame my thinking has been a lifelong process of which I am not always successful.

    I first time I had to write a long form comic book story was a 40 pager for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was confident I knew what to do and that just made my resulting struggle that much more painful. I had to create a method of writing and notation that worked for both dialogue and art and do it from scratch trying many unsuccessful combinations before figuring it out. In the end, the material came out pretty good but I was left with a writing/notation method which I still use today to write comics.

    For novel writing (a few tucked away never to be seen), I often know the overall story but not the details. This enables me to write chapter by chapter. For some reason I usually focus on one or a small number of characters per chapter which each section having it's own cliff hanger. I can move chapters around or write them without rewriting the whole book. Thankfully the computer is handy for editing and I find myself striking a lot of description and unneeded dialogue.

    I haven't spent enough time with screenplays yet. I am not afraid of the form and actually do most of my thinking in sequences of pictures anyway. I am reading more scripts to get a feel for cadence. Ben, also, has sent me scripts to look at for years. Every once in a while I will actually make a helpful comment. I am not sure screenwriting is for me. Like other forms of writing, it is harder than it looks, takes long hours of thought and writing and only results in a map that studios, directors, producers and increasingly actors will trample on the way to making a film.

    On that happy note... Cheers. Thanks again. RICK

  3. Rick,

    I'm always interested to read how other writers work. For what I do, mostly essays and short stories, I rarely outline in any formal way. I start with an idea, usually a character and situation, often fully formed in my mind, then research details to bring it all to life. I write out short descriptions, lines and snippets of dialog as they come to me then move them around almost as an outline. I don't tend to do massive rewrites, though I will pause for sometimes long periods while my mind goes into problem solving mode. Then I go back and reinforce themes as necessary. Not particularly efficient either.

    With novels, I do more outlining and take more notes on scenes because I can't hold all the details in my head. Though even there, I know when I can move forward because I can see a scene in my head.

    As an old gamer, I see film-making much like table-top role-playing. It takes the combined vision of everyone involved to bring a creative vision to life. Ok, maybe more like role-playing in Vegas now because of the corporate interests and monetary stakes involved. I'm not sure I'll ever be a screenwriter. When Ben reads something I've written, he always has very astute questions with an eye toward what would be necessary to introduce it to an audience visually and make them understand. A very different medium from what I do.

    Thanks again for sharing your vision(s) with the rest of us. Fascinating.


  4. Edward/Imaginings -

    The writing process is indeed a curious beast. No doubt about it. Aside from the joy I get while drawing, nothing beats the exhilaration of writing a good passage. It is unfortunate that this comes only infrequently. Rarely will I edit something into being great but more times I have accidently flattened something with an edit. Still, in this modern age, the ability to edit has indeed made it easier to write but not necessarily easier to obtain good results.

    Curiously problems that I see in my own writing tend to eventually find their way back to character. In comics, the interplay between words and pictures can convey a lot of information but it's visual nature lends itself toward location, prop, action, close-up, etc. and it is weak in showing emotion, inner thought, tension and nuance. Building a character should be more than putting a figure in a costume and giving it "powers."

    In novel writing, the amount of words or expressions you can use to describe an action or character are limited only by imagination. The ease of writing subtle, dramatic or emotional content in this format is amazing. For film, less imagination is required of the viewer than with someone reading a novel. It is very physical. Subtlety is determined by the skill of the actors and the crew.

    I have been guilty in the past of putting a design over a mannequin and calling it a character. Part of the lesson learned by the Captain America experience is not how to do research, take notes or blend fact and fiction but rather what to look for. What is the key to the character? Every premise you make about a character needs to be tested and evaluated.

    Thank you for your thoughts. Feel free to share more with us. The blog is scheduled to run through June or July with three posts a week. There is indeed more to come. Thanks again.