Thursday, December 31, 2009

Writing a Sherlock Holmes Pastiche

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


The following is from some pieces I wrote for the website of my book, The Pandora Plague. I thought it might be of interest to writers in light of the release of the new film, Sherlock Holmes. While this is about novel-writing, rather than screenwriting, it offers some points that are common to both disciplines when it comes to recreating another author’s style.

I saw the new Holmes film over the holiday weekend, and, it may surprise folks, I liked it. Let me first state that it took all kinds of liberties with the original conception of the characters, not to mention the Holmes story template, but I knew that going in, and, to quote Alfred Hitchcock, “It’s only a movie.” Remember how incensed some people got with the re-makes of Psycho, The Thing, and The Day The Earth Stood Still? Well, those films are all receding from memory, and the originals are undiminished. So, f’geddaboudit!

As a movie for today’s super-hero-crazed adolescent audience, Sherlock Holmes fits right in. The critics, in many cases, are wailing about the thin or simple plot, but they tolerated such simplicity when it came to films like the Iron Man franchise or the Batman films. We tend to forget that, with the exceptions of the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood, and maybe, Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes was the first super-hero since Thor and Hercules. But Holmes’s super-powers tended to stay mostly within intellectual boundaries.

Still, he knew the martial art of Baritsu (sourced in the actual hybrid martial art of Bartitsu, created by an English engineer inspired by ju jitsu - Doyle mis-spelled it). And he was a proficient single-stick fighter, swordsman, and bare-knuckle boxer. So Holmes was no slouch when it came time to take out his opponent.

As for the plot, the same as in my own story, it’s merely a contemporary thriller disguised as a period adventure. Had they delivered a Holmes tale identical in style and template to the originals, it would have had to show on television rather than in the multiplexes, as there would have been too little audience to support a feature film. And, indeed, we have the original approach in the Jeremy Brett series that has played on PBS for over twenty years. So, again: get over the need to be true to the original. Queue up a Brett episode (or a Peter Cushing or Arthur Wontner film) on Netflix.

Unlike the Guy Ritchie film, my novel, tried to stay closer to the originals. This is because I didn’t have to appeal to a majority audience of video game players. Mine were actually Holmes fans, familiar with the original Holmes canon, and expecting something that both fits in and surprises. So that’s what I set out to offer them. 

A "pastiche" is a literary work based on another writer's work(s) or style. Essentially it is like a forgery, except that the writer does not claim it is by the author from whom it is drawn. Instead the writer "comes clean" and admits his/her authorship (1). In the art world, it would be like producing a Van Gogh painting, but admitting that you, as the painter, faked it. There's not much market for such things in that world. But in the literary, the world of books...

Writing a pastiche of another writer's famous work is a difficult and unique exercise. It has the advantage of its own story full of twists and surprises to add to the attraction of having a new work in the style and spirit, and with the characters of the original. It's not seen in a single viewing, a glance, like a painting, but rather read over time, a "bigger meal," if you will accept the allusion.

This is only possible if the writer of the pastiche has the approval of the original author or the author's estate, or if that author's work has entered the "public domain," that point in the life of any copyrighted work when its subject and/or characters are no longer protected by copyright law. So, should a writer devise a story worthy of the original author's works, and that writer is able to "mimic" the original author's style sufficiently well to create a reasonably accurate imitation, then that pastiche can be an enjoyable reading experience. It even has the added effect of helping to keep the original works in the public consciousness such that their own value is enhanced and extended.

When I wrote The Pandora Plague I little realized the advantages a book trading on the pedigree of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes would have in the market-place. I had seen the success of Nicholas Meyer's best-sellers, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The West-End Horror, and The Canary Trainer, but I knew that a number of other writers had followed with their own pastiches soon after those books, and the market was threatening to become saturated. Still, for myself, I believed that I had a viable project, and at least a worthy start to a writing career.

But what I failed to realize was the "boost" producing a book in a bona fide genre and with classically-famous characters would gain for an unknown author. Where most naïve new writers produce wholly original works and have to fight and scrap for every smidgen of attention and recognition they can get, I had a work that fit squarely on one of the most popular bookstore shelves, and thanks to my last name's spelling, right beside the Meyer books in the very same fiction section (mystery) as the originals. Buyers would know exactly what they were holding once they saw the cover. And aficionados of the genre would buy it in a heartbeat, knowing that, at the very least, it was a new story with their favorite detective in it. This was "golden" for a new writer trying to get established.

Somewhere, however, deep inside, I knew that whatever I wrote would have to pay its audience back for plopping down that cover price. Along with the recognition of the famous characters and series pedigree, there would be an expectation by the reader of the book that it would be a worthy entry into the series. Here I felt my basic story premise was perfect, for it fit the world of the original source quite well and it had the advantage of also fitting a modern audience. It had a story that had the requisite mystery tropes; it had actual famous historical characters in magician Harry Houdini (2), 19th Century actor and playwright, William Gillette, and Nobel Laureate scientist, Madame Curie; and it was a big-event, contemporary-styled suspense tale. I saw it as a modern thriller disguised as a Sherlock Holmes adventure. So the only reasons it would fail to satisfy a buyer was if the writing failed to match the standard set by the source, or it failed to meet the reader expectations set for suspense-thrillers.

Therefore, it was of primary importance to me to meet those expectations. I re-read the entire Sherlock Holmes series of books: 56 short stories and 4 novels. Then I read from among the scholarly books "about" the Holmes stories. There is a large body of scholarship on Sherlock Holmes, and I studied the best of it, making detailed notes. Next I studied Holmes's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, reading several biographies and specialized studies. I did the same for my other character, magician Harry Houdini, and his profession of magic. I even read a psychological biography of the magician in order to get beneath the surface and render him completely, warts and all. Then I researched subjects from among which my book would draw its story, including anarchism, biological weapons, nuclear radiation, Madame Curie, and Holmes-portrayer, William Gillette. Eventually I produced an invaluable card file of data that I retain to this day. By the end, I had read over 60 books, and because of the intensity with which I attacked these subjects, I was forced to begin wearing eyeglasses. But, at this point, I could effortlessly write in the Doyle style. I was familiar with the streets of London, the English train schedules in 1902, the frequency of mail delivery in central London (5 times or more a day!), and hundreds of other bits and pieces of 19th Century British minutia. But that wasn't enough.

I had determined that I wanted to re-create Doyle's style so completely that I could produce whole stanzas that he might, himself, had written had he ever gotten around to it. So I looked at what might be called Doyle's "meta-patterns." These might be described as particular scenes and situations, as well as narrative patterns Doyle repeatedly employed in the construction of his stories. I conceived and structured my story with many of the same scenarios, many of the same patterns. Then I got down to the "granular-level." I developed a database of his characteristic sentences, sentence patterns, and word choices. I devised parallels to these, employing his rhythms, his word choices, his sentence construction. I wove these things into my narrative at key points throughout the book, so that Doyle, himself, might have wondered: had he written the tale, but forgotten? Friends told me that I had even begun talking like Sherlock Holmes or someone from England a hundred years ago. Finally, aware that Doyle had, here and there across the length and breadth of his stories, employed a distinctive, 19th Century style of British humor, I worked to re-create this, also. By the end of this process, I felt I had a novel that so closely resembled Doyle's originals that it would be indistinguishable to every, but the most informed reader.

Once these details were in place, I then made it a goal to reduce the material to the point that it was a fast read, at the same time that it offered new insights to and details for the principle characters. This was so that it offered new and fresh things to even those "in the know," but wouldn't lose those who just wanted a good old adventure. The actual writing came about like this: I had a collision of thoughts in which, while reading a Holmes story at the same time that I had been researching old magicians for a documentary film I wanted to make, I wondered what might have occurred had Sherlock Holmes ever met Harry Houdini. As I will thoroughly examine in my forthcoming book, Lateral Screenwriting: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Write the Great American Movie, this was the result of a kind of lateral collision of ideas, a creative mechanism that I believe is responsible for most or all of creativity (and which one can cultivate and develop so that it can be employed "on-demand"). I was seized by the thought of this combination of two characters, one real and one fictional. It was akin to Nicholas Meyer’s pairing of Holmes and Freud (3), but with an energy and milieu - the world of magic - that offered richer visual possibilities. It had much greater dramatic potential - no "additional" adventure need be tacked on as in the Meyer book (4). It seemed to me that it couldn’t miss to find a willing reader, perhaps eventually a willing movie audience.

I had a magician friend, David Seebach, who had been booked in upstate New York for several small performances that meant that he would not be traveling with his usual company of assistants and props. He asked if I wanted to come along, just for the fun of it. I agreed, and as we headed down I-80, east of Chicago, I began to describe my idea. Soon we were crafting what became the basis for the beginning of the story. Along the way, we stopped in Cleveland and elsewhere to get research materials: books on Houdini and the world of Sherlock Holmes.

Later, David dropped out of the process, attending to his performing career. But I stayed with it. I began to outline my story on 4 x 6 index cards, but by the fortieth card, the outline had transformed into pure narrative. Since I didn’t believe I could sustain the narrative and would eventually fall back into outlining, I stayed with writing it on the cards. The stack grew to hundreds and hundreds of cards. Eventually I had a complete novel-length story, entirely hand-written on index cards! All that was left to do before typing it up was to fix the opening (that part was still in outline format). So, that done, I then transcribed the cards via typewriter - PCs were just appearing at that time - and I ended up with a first draft novel almost three hundred pages in manuscript. Then I re-wrote it, adding to it and fixing it, so that it became almost four hundred pages. Finally, I produced a third draft, and it became the final product. It took 18 months from that first day driving to New York until it was a novel in final draft.

Along the way, I looked for more ways to give the book the patina of authenticity. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had in his stories occasionally referenced other cases Holmes and Watson had investigated. Most of these had extremely tantalizing, even humorous, titles or descriptions (5). So I introduced two new ones in the same spirit: The Adventure of the Caramel-Worker’s Passion, and The Queer Affair of the Demolitionist, Alfred Nobel, and His Renowned Manservant (the last living Neanderthal). Certain Holmes scholars had noticed anomalies or paradoxes in the stories, so I added to them. In one case, where all scholars had agreed about an insight, I "undid" it, so that the ambiguity would be restored. And wherever possible, I attempted to make the story authentic by weaving in real, historical people and incidents. All of this made for a book that I felt would stand head and shoulders above the competition while contributing an adventure that matched the source stories as well as could ever be done.

Most of this goes right over the head of the average reader. But should the story succeed in awakening reader interest in Sherlock Holmes, and should the reader ever return to the book, he/she will then notice these "touches," and get new enjoyment and insight into the tale and its milieu. And for the Holmes fan, the book will meet that fan's more discerning eye, and, with luck, join that fan's list of great Holmes pastiches. But for me, the challenge of writing something with such care that it could fit into the original "Canon" of tales as though it was one of them was the greatest fun of all.

So the process of writing a pastiche is far and away a greater undertaking than merely writing a novel. But as a way to break in, I recommend it because the audience is already pre-sold on the genre and characters of the story, and publishers have a niche in place from which to sell. #

End Notes:

(1) Okay, I admit it. In my Foreword, I tried to scam the reader into believing it was a newly-discovered “lost” adventure. But it was all in fun, using the Nicholas Meyer template (see 3, below), and inspired by Doyle, himself, with the untold tales locked away in that “battered, tin dispatch box” at the bank of Cox & Co., Charing Cross, London.

(2) After my book appeared, another was published with the same basic idea: what if Sherlock Holmes and Harry Houdini had met? This was Sherlockian and magician, Daniel Stashower’s novel, The Adventure of the Ectoplasmic Man. Stashower continued to write Houdini adventures (sans Holmes) in the years since.

(3) The Seven Per-Cent Solution (1974; still in print). This was the first modern pastiche that claimed to be a “found” manuscript, hidden, in part, because of its “shocking” revelations. The ruse was continued in such later books as Richard Boyer’s The Giant Rat of Sumatra, Loren Estleman’s books, Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes, my own book, The Pandora Plague, and the series of books by Larry Millett covering Holmes’s adventures in America, among others.

(4) The cocaine-addiction cure of Sherlock Holmes by Sigmund Freud was insufficient to the scope of a novel, so Nicholas Meyer created a case that arose involving Freud, his Jewish ancestry amid the Austrians of Vienna, and a political plot to push Europe into war.

(5) The Full Account of Ricoletti of the Club Foot and His Abominable Wife, The Giant Rat of Sumatra (of which the world is not ready to hear), The Adventure of the Amateur Mendicant Society, (whose members held a luxurious club in the lower vault of a furniture warehouse), The Singular Affair of the Aluminium Crutch, and The Case of Wilson, the Notorious Canary Trainer (not to be confused with the Meyer book, The Canary Trainer, a different story entirely), among many others.


Lee A. Matthias 

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Auteurs Behind the Guy... Behind the Guy – Part 2

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


In the last post I offered some techniques toward getting information across in screenplays by other means than the obvious ones such as explicit direction and/or technical jargon. Such methods alienate the other contributors on the film. But, perhaps even worse, they reduce a script’s readability. This is because they pull the reader out of a deeper immersion in the narrative. Yet, writers need to tell us their movie. Not some recipe for a movie, but, as closely as can be rendered on the page, the experience of the movie, itself. I am not referring to writing every detail within the universe revealed by the eventual film. I mean writing a written version of the movie as it should play, the movie in the writer’s head.

So writers need to get across their vision of the movie that the script represents. It’s not good enough to write it in some style-neutral (or style-neutered) manner, wherein they just indicate the dialogue and action in such an antiseptic way that there is no point-of-view. As I’ve said, filling a script with CUT TOs and DISSOLVEs and EXTREME CLOSE UPs and BEATs and DOLLY BACKs and RACK FOCUS and PAN UP and TRACK LEFT, etc., etc. makes it a tough read. Fine-grained set and character descriptions make it far worse. So I suggest writers show us the images they see in their head.

In my screenplay, The Sleep of Reason, a prequel to the original Stoker story of Dracula, I tell Renfield’s story. I had always wondered how, in the original novel, the vampire, still aboard ship, having never set foot in England, was able to know and communicate with the lunatic, Renfield, aged 52, and locked away in the madhouse. I theorized that they had met before, long ago, when Renfield was a sane young man. But then, the question of how Renfield escaped the fate of the undead arose. There lies a tale, I felt.

So, I divined it: Renfield, a young solicitor, meets and saves the life of a young American woman. They fall in love, and, against his father’s wishes, they marry. Renfield’s family cuts him off. Heading to the continent for their honeymoon, they embark on a “back-country” tour of Europe on-the-cheap. Somewhere in Romania, they take a room at an Inn. The journey, up to this point, has been growing ever-more romantic.

It is a warm night, and Elsbeth goes to the windows, opens them, and stands, looking at the view:

A winding, rushing stream on the opposite side of the road stretches into the gathering darkness with black silhouettes of the huge Carpathian mountain peaks looming endlessly beyond.

(calling out to the night)
Hello night... Hello Romania...
Hello Carpathians. I want to see
all of you. I invite the moon, 
the wind, all of Transylvania
all of your magic, to join us 
tonight, right here in our room 
at this quaint little inn. Come 
to us, be with us. We want to 
see and know and experience... 
Renfield watches her, amused. He can’t help smiling at her innocent enthusiasm.

Rising, he moves to their door.

I’m going down to get some pipe
tobacco from the Inn-Keeper. 
I’ll return straight-away. You’re
not to leave with either the wind
or Transylvania because I’ve my 
own plans for you.

She just laughs, enjoying a sudden strong breeze as it blows the curtains inward, sending her blond curls flying.


Renfield exits the room and closes the door, the SOUND of the LOCK turning in the door.

With the dark shape of the Inn surrounding her, Elsbeth stands at the window, looking out. And, downward, seen through the front window of the floor below, Renfield comes down the stairs, steps up to the desk, and speaks to the Inn-Keeper.

Renfield is handed a pack of tobacco, and he pays with a coin, waving off any change.

Renfield turns and heads back up the stairs.

Above, at their room’s window, the curtains now hang outside the sill. Elsbeth is no longer at the window.

As Renfield re-enters, using his key, he sees that she is now gone, the window open and empty where she stood.

He calls for her, looks about the room, and then at the key, still in his hand.

He moves to their window, a small figure peering out, looking for his bride. But she is gone.

He remains there, framed in the little Inn’s window, a tiny figure seeming to shrink even smaller, alone and helpless, a victim of forces beyond his ken.

As the village goes to sleep around the Inn, the streets now empty and darkening, he moves about the amber-lit room, then back to the window, again and again, peering out, into the same darkness which has begun to fill his soul.

I wanted to convey a feeling of intensifying loss: First surprise; then shock and fear; followed by a sense of utter helplessness, utter despair. The idea I had was to describe the action in such a way that it suggested a single initial shot.

So, we are outside, some distance back, looking in. Elsbeth is at the window, surrounded by the Inn. But, looking down, we can see the action of Renfield below her, too. When we look back up at the window, she is now gone. All in a single shot. Then Renfield enters, sees she is gone, looks for her, comes to the open window and gazes out, into the dark night.

The last three paragraphs then convey an increasingly wider view of the same shot, Renfield in the window, a small, lost figure, surrounded by the frame of the open window. Renfield in the window, surrounded by the little Inn. Renfield in the window, the sleeping town around him. All of this was told without a camera direction, without a PAN or CUT TO. Instead, it directed the reader/viewer’s eye, what they would see, and as each paragraph transitioned to the next, this was greater and greater real estate. It conveyed my vision of the event.

The second example is from my screenplay, The Jupe. This is a haunted house story set in an old movie palace. A family, on the run from killers, is hidden in a small town by U.S. Marshals. The father is given a job in a theater chain in Kansas City, but first he is asked to learn movie exhibition by re-opening an old movie theater in a small town as a revival house. So the family begins the process of re-vitalizing the Jupiter theater. But they are living in fear, knowing their pursuers are hunting them. And their fear awakens something worse in the Jupiter theater, itself. They have two kids, one of whom is an 8-year old girl, studying the violin in a Suzuki program. The entity awakening in the theater feeds on fear, and over time it begins to physically manifest. In this scene, the daughter, C.C., practices her violin.  


Alone, C.C. practices her violin.

The large room encloses her. She plays around a musical phrase.

Gradually, her playing becomes sparer, of fewer notes, and slower. Almost obsessively, she repeats the phrase... carefully... empha­tically.

She sits in her chair, her legs crossed before her, her jaw grimly set in a dark scowl.

The musical phrase has changed, now. It has distorted, become a brooding, animal sound, a low moan. The notes are there, but the pitch and length of time they are held has become dif­ferent, almost bizarre.

Her hand works the bow, her fingers the strings, as her small frame remains eerily motionless.

C.C.’s eyes are cold, now, her head tilted to keep the violin to her chin. She seems to eye US, staring right at US, but seeing someone, something--else. Her expression is almost menacing, matching the angry tones from the instrument.

Rock steady, her eyes impale US, STARING RIGHT THROUGH US.

The idea here was to do the scene in a single shot, one that begins across the room and gradually moves in on C.C. until it finishes on her eyes, staring straight at the viewer. It was intended to chill us, as her playing, simultaneously, has taken on a distorted, menacing quality, supporting the eerie tension built by the visual. Again, there were no technical directions. And yet, the scene was directed for the eye in the action descriptions. Each paragraph moves us incrementally closer to her. This is almost subliminal, as it merely tells us what is seen, but in nearly each case that is less than the paragraph before it.

Now the director may well ignore all of this. But with such techniques, a vision is put across, and in a way that is readable and supports the tone of the story. As persuasion for a view of the story, it is far more effective than filling the script with jargon and minutia.

The quote of these posts was by artist, Jackson Pollock: “I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.” It means rendering the thing not some once-removed aspect about the thing. If they see the film you tell them, they just may make it. #


Lee A. Matthias

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Auteurs Behind the Guy... Behind the Guy – Part 1

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


New writers struggle constantly with the issue of how to tell their movies. The savvier ones know that they must leave out the jargon and the tech-speak. They know that they must tell it briefly. They are told to never direct the actors by including parenthetical instructions in the dialogue unless it is not obvious in the context already. They struggle with the amorphous notion of subtext and how to get it across. They want to write visually. They want to include every one of those zinger-lines of dialogue they came up with. They want their movies to exhibit a voice, a vision. But they’re told not to worry, just tell their stories, and if they’re any good it’ll be enough. Then their scripts come back with, “Thanks for letting us see this. Good luck with it.” Everyone knows the established pros can do whatever they want. It’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

So let’s look at some ideas and techniques for getting your vision across in your script. First, I’ll offer some advice from two established pros, Don Roos and John Logan. After that I’ll discuss a technique for getting the protagonist’s thoughts into the script without voice-over narration or clunky inserts and close ups. Finally, in a following post, I’ll offer two examples from my own scripts that illustrate how to control the way the scene is experienced by the viewer.

In David S. Cohen’s, Screen Plays, p. 184 - 5, Writer-director, Don Roos (Diabolique [ver. 2], The Opposite of Sex, Bounce) describes his method of getting his vision into the script:

“Unfortunately, screenplays have to sell off a read (for spec sales), and the readers and buyers are often the people who want everything spelled out in the dialogue. As Roos explained, few of them really grasp the power of film. ‘There are very few film enthusiasts in Hollywood, really, at those levels. Very few people who have favorite films, who are moved by films or understand remotely what film does. It’s difficult talking to idiots, it really is.’

“How, then, to get the subtext across to those ‘idiots,’ when they’re responsible for deciding whether to buy your script?

“‘You put it in the action lines,’ Roos responds. ‘Here’s a scene: two characters, Linda and Steve. Linda comes in, she says hi.

“‘Steve says hi.

“‘Linda says, ‘I’m going upstairs to bed.’

“‘Steve says, ‘I’ll follow you.’

“That’s the actual [dialogue] that will be in the scene. [But let’s say] I mean it to be a love scene. I have to put all of that in the subtext in the action lines:

Linda enters the room. She sees Steve. It’s the moment she’s been waiting for, but she can’t trust herself to speak.


“You do it that way, so that people understand what you’re trying to do, but you don’t commit the sin of putting it into your actor’s mouth. Because I guarantee you, by the time we get to that Linda/Steve scene, we know how Linda feels about Steve. We know how she feels when she comes home and he’s sitting there. It’s everything she hoped for. So we don’t want her to say, ‘Hi, Steve, it’s everything I’ve hoped for to see you here.’ We don’t need her to say that. We want her to cover that. It will be much, much more powerful.

“Writing this way, Roos said, can be ‘very liberating. And it’s very simple. It’s a novelistic approach. In the action lines, you can actually be the director, conveying the subtext of the characters. (Other than for the action, that’s) what they’re for—subtext.

“Roos learned this approach long ago, even before he became a director. ‘I would get notes very early on: ‘Your main character is unlikable.’ And literally, I would put in the action line, ‘Sam enters. Although abrasive, there’s something strangely likable about him.’ And then Sam’s dialogue would be, ‘You fat bastard, go f--k yourself.’ But it doesn’t matter. Because I’ve put that ‘strangely likable,’ they know that even though he says something awful, he’s a likable character. It’s obvious, but it works.’

“But isn’t that cheating? No, Roos said. ‘Because what those action lines are supplying is the actor’s face, the direction, the way that somebody says something. It is cheating to put it into dialogue, because then you’re pretending it’s a radio play, instead of a movie.’”

So Roos commits one of the priesthood’s Cardinal Sins: he includes more than merely the action and the dialogue, he includes the direction, the performance, and whatever else cannot be carried by the dialogue and action alone.

And Roos is not unique. In Screen Plays, p. 261, screenwriter, John Logan described how he inserted nuance into his script for Martin Scorsese’s film of The Aviator:

“[Logan suggested] the tone of a scene with a simple line of scene description, without having to spell out details he knew Scorsese could conjure on his own. (For example, when [Howard] Hughes visits Katherine Hepburn’s family in New England, Logan writes, ‘Dinner with the Hepburns is a thrilling experience, if you like juggling axes blindfolded.’”

I recently watched a film that, if not for It’s a Wonderful Life, might have become THE Frank Capra film they show for the holidays: Meet John Doe. At first it hardly seems like a holiday choice, but by the end, it’s squarely in the Christmas film genre. It also has a lot of relevance to today’s economic plight.

It tells the story of a newspaper reporter, played with a lot of moxie, by Barbara Stanwyck, who is about to lose her job to downsizing. So she invents a news story about a guy she calls John Doe, who has a lot of common sense to say about the way things are, and announces that, because of it all, he will jump off a building on Christmas Eve at midnight. The paper picks it up before it knows it’s not true. Then, after she tells her editor, she keeps her job by telling him how the paper can survive the crisis: hire a bum to become the fictional Doe. 

So, they bring in a bunch of bums and pick one, a down-and-out ball-player who washed out due to injury, played by Gary Cooper. He doesn’t know the full extent of the deception, but accepts the job because he and his “buddy,” played by Walter Brennan, are hungry. From there the deception snowballs when Stanwyck pulls speech material for the Doe appearances from her late father’s diary—outspoken rants on society. The public goes nuts for the stuff. John Doe clubs form to put the ideas into action at the grass roots level. Doe decides he’s had enough and goes on the lam with his pal. Stanwyck and her editor hunt them down and convince them to keep it going. And so the story goes.

Well, the key to the story is the deception perpetrated on Doe, not to mention the public. And Doe is not stupid, just uninformed. So, after awhile, he begins to put things together. But, had the film not done one thing as it did, the Doe character would have come off as a complete patsy. As the audience, we needed to sense Doe was a reasonably intelligent and honest man who was keeping his own thoughts “close to the vest,” as the saying goes. So the problem facing the writers was how to communicate this. In lesser hands this would have been done via narration or some ham-handed old-Hollywood technique to reveal inner thoughts. But writers Richard Connell and Robert Presnell, Sr., found a far more elegant solution: they split the character. To begin, they gave Doe’s inner impulses to his pal, the Brennan character. Whatever he thought about doing but didn’t, the Brennan character did instead. As the story progressed, this role transferred from character to character at key moments. In each case, however, it was clear that they were surrogates for Doe’s true feelings. By the end, Doe had come off as a thoroughly rounded and developed character despite the fact that he was played by everyone, not to mention the system, itself.

So, one way to communicate a character’s internal conflicts and feelings is through the people around him. Don’t give him business, additional dialogue, or, Heaven forbid, a narrative voice. Diminish him enough to reveal such things through his closest characters. Meet John Doe is a clinic on this technique.

In the next post I’ll offer two examples from my own works that suggest ways writers can get their vision across without resorting to jargon and overt direction. Instead we’ll see how it can be done inside the narrative meat, itself. #


Lee A. Matthias

Monday, December 21, 2009

AVATAR and the Cult of Personality

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


In line with the new film, Avatar, by James Cameron, I wanted to raise some issues I’ve sensed may be on the horizon: first, the potential for creativity in Artificial Intelligence; and second, the commoditization of personality. The digital special effects and the non-human characters in Cameron’s film have both reached new states of realism for the movies. While, for Avatar, they are thrilling and the movie is a very entertaining piece of work, they imply things which may alarm some people. To wit:

“Your Services Are No Longer Needed”

Some developments at IBM have gotten me to wondering how long it will be before the above headline essentially comes true for writers.

Consider this blog post by Larry Dignan from Nov. 18, 2009:

IBM said Wednesday that it is making progress toward cooking up a computer system that emulates the human brain and simulates abilities for sensation, perception, interaction and cognition. The end goal: Create a computing system that thinks like the human brain.

In addition, IBM announced that this “large-scale cortical simulation” and the algorithm behind it rivals the brain’s power, energy consumption and size.

A new algorithm, dubbed Blue Matter, was developed with Stanford University and maps and measures all the connections in a brain. Blue Matter rides on IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputing architecture. There’s still some work to do though: IBM’s system thus far can emulate the brain of a cat, but that’s progress over previous efforts.

 Dharmendra Modha, manager of cognitive computing for IBM Research, said in a blog post:

The brain is fundamentally different from and complementary to today’s computers. The brain can exhibit awe-inspiring function of sensation, perception, action, interaction, and cognition. It can deal with ambiguity and interact with real-world, complex environments in a context-dependent fashion. And yet, it consumes less power than a light bulb and occupies less space than a 2-liter bottle of soda.

Our long-term mission is to discover and demonstrate the algorithms of the brain and deliver cool, compact cognitive computers that that complements today’s von Neumman computers and approach mammalian-scale intelligence. We are pursuing a combination of computational neuroscience, supercomputing, and nanotechnology to achieve this vision….

Cognitive computing seeks to engineer the mind by reverse engineering the brain.  The mind arises from the brain, which is made up of billions of neurons that are liked by an internet like network. An emerging discipline, cognitive computing is about building the mind, by understanding the brain. It synthesizes neuroscience, computer science, psychology, philosophy, and mathematics to understand and mechanize the mental processes. 

Cognitive computing will lead to a universal computing platform that can handle a wide variety of spatio-temporally varying sensor streams.

IBM’s aim is to figure out how to build a cognitive computing chip and “explore the computational dynamics of the brain.” There are a bevy of resources available for a deeper dive, including a paper on the process and background on BlueMatter.

As an observer, it’s hard not to think that these developments are interesting—even if they can only simulate a cat for now. However, if it weren’t for those Terminator movies I’d be more enthusiastic. Only half kidding there folks. Something about a computer that thinks like a brain makes me nervous.

When will it be possible to emulate the human brain? Sometime around 2018 assuming Moore’s Law holds.

For all those folks out there who pooh pooh the idea that creative functions can ever be done by artificial intelligence, I would ask, where’s your data? To me it looks like that thinking stems from an assumption that creativity is some kind of voodoo magic that can only spring from human brains. And I would wager a large percentage of such thinkers turn right around and dismiss people who espouse religious views of The Creation because it’s nothing more than a western version of Voodoo-level thinking. So, I ask again, where’s your data?

Consider the evolutionist view of creation: life was born from chemical processes that came together under favorable but ultimately randomly-occurring conditions; through Natural Selection, or survival of the fittest, life evolved up through the stages of development to mammalian primates; primates evolved into us; we are creative. Therefore creativity is the result of sufficiently-extended random chance. Enough monkeys typing for a long enough time will type the works of Shakespeare. Computers are the new monkeys. We will eventually reach a point where “those monkeys” will be able to type the yet-to-be-written works of Shakespeare, the ones he didn’t get to yet, on demand.

Having studied the creative process a good deal, I can tell you that it is closer to a quantifiable process than some may realize. Once lateral approaches to idea-generation are encoded as protocols and algorithms in A.I., I’m not so sure that human-type writers won’t become scarcer. Consider how many writers Hollywood throws at some projects. And many of the uncredited “script-doctors” brought in are paid far more than the originals and/or credited ones. When there’s a dollar to be saved, don’t under-estimate big media’s willingness to save it.

Imagine a future when all a writer can sell to Hollywood is a pitch or a synopsis or maybe only a logline! Imagine a time where only the top shows are written by living, breathing professional writers; where as soon as the ratings drop below a certain level, A.I. is brought in to finish out the show’s run. I’m not saying the sky is falling, but I’m not so sure tomorrow’s rain won’t be a little yellow, if you catch my drift.

This doesn’t just apply to writers. Parallel to the advances in A.I. are the advances in computing power. And this shows no sign of slowing. Software is only being held back by computing power. Artificially-generated human avatars are getting closer and closer to being indistinguishable from their human counterparts. Remember Max Headroom way back in the ‘90s? Funny-looking, wasn’t he? The next Max Headroom may look like you or, heaven forbid, me. And his best-kept secret may be that he’s artificial!

Imagine a future where actors are replaced by personalities that license themselves as avatars for entirely software-based motion pictures. Imagine new pictures starring favorites like Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, James Dean. How about Heath Ledger? Michael Jackson? Elvis? Think it can’t happen? Ask the estates of those dead stars if they wouldn’t consider licensing the likenesses of their star if the money was right, or even just, if there was money. Jackson owed a lot of people when he died. His new movie won’t come close to settling those debts. Nor will all his new record sales. And even if the debts were gone, would the estate pass up a new cash cow?

The first generation of avatar-viewers may reject the practice. But it really only depends on what you’re used-to, and the next generation may not be so discriminating. Remember the “colorizing” flap several years back? Those movies are still out there and are now finding happy viewers. What happened to the outrage? All it may take is one or two good avatar-starring films to turn the tide. We could end up with a two-tier system in which human-starring films are available at twice or maybe even ten times the standard ticket price. The star system would be back in force, and, unlike the scandal-ridden days of its beginnings, completely manageable by the system.

And it could extend to writing, too. New Shakespearean plays. An avatar-completed edition of Dickens’ last work, The (never finished) Mystery of Edwin Drood. An avatar-created completion of the Chinatown trilogy. What’s to prevent a working writer’s pirated avatar program from competing under a different name with the writer? Hollywood could finally realize one of the golden age moguls’ fondest wishes: to say to all their writers, “Your services are no longer needed.”

And then, paralleling what is happening today to the record business, the studios, themselves, could be rendered irrelevant by an empowered body of pirate creators on the web. Let’s not stop there, however. How long before they, too, would step aside, as the avatars, themselves, took over and sent their creators – us - to some neutered, matrix-like, purgatory? How long? Maybe by 2012.
Okay. We can all wake up. Nightmares can be such scary fun. #


Lee A. Matthias

Thursday, December 17, 2009

MEMENTO - A Multi-Level Structural Analysis

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


“One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.” – Rita Mae Brown

This is my eighth and second to last post in this series on structure. The film analyzed here is the most unusual to be put to the test of exhibiting multi-level structure. Because of its unique assembly I will discuss it in greater depth than I have with earlier titles.

Christopher Nolan’s remarkable film, Memento, is perhaps the ideal example of how structure is a function of character. Why? If story structure is linked parts in causal progression, Memento is backwards. But, if story structure is three proportioned parts linked by causal meaning to a growing hero/viewer, then Memento is the example that “proves the rule.”

This is because the conventional plot-based view of structure fails to account for Memento. As I said, it’s backwards. And a plot that is structured backwards is not merely a film backwardly structured. One can’t just pick up the film, turn it around, and plop it down, back-to-front and front-to-back. This is because a story is a construct one enters with little or no understanding, gaining it as one goes along. If it were akin to a building one entered from the rear rather than from the front, one would enter the rooms from the wrong way, not knowing where for certain one was, seeing people in relationships and activities one might not understand. Meaning would, if ever, be achieved at a greater cost in time, and then, probably only a part of what is required. Then there’s the issue of time. It, too, would have to run backwards. In Memento, except at the outset, it doesn’t. But a growth in illumination occurs as the film progresses. It’s just that while the growth is about the protagonist, it isn’t only within the protagonist. Additionally it is in the mind of the audience.

The film tells the story of Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator whom we are told was injured when an intruder broke into his home and murdered his wife. Shelby suffered a brain injury, specifically to his hippocampus, and this has resulted in Shelby’s inability to make new memories. Known as Korsokoff’s Syndrome, the condition leaves him with no short-term memory retention beyond the first few minutes. As a result, Leonard has been plunged into a world in which he is constantly at sea, unable to know for certain where he is, or what he is doing. His last memories, in fact, are of the events of his injury, and the rape and murder of his wife. Because of his plight and his final memories, he is determined to have vengeance, both for his wife, and the bleak and empty life with which he is left. He has single-mindedly set about that process, finding all sorts of ways to create alternative sources of memory. He uses a Polaroid camera to photograph key details leading him on his path. He writes notes to himself, incessantly. And, most bizarrely, he has had established facts tattooed on his body so that he can’t lose them.

Writer/director Nolan then sets out to tell Leonard’s story in such a way as to put the audience into Leonard’s own predicament. He re-orders his script and film so that the major sequences each run forward in time, but are assembled in chronologically-reversed order. The film opens with the final moments of the final scene—Leonard’s killing of Teddy (this part even plays onscreen backwards, signaling what lies ahead). Each reverse-ordered sequence begins with the very moment at which the next reverse-ordered sequence ends. This effectively keeps the audience from total confusion. And yet it also keeps the viewer off-center, uncertain what could be coming next, despite the fact that they are the very moments which got them there. It’s like a cinematic version of the game show, “Jeopardy,” where one hears the answer, and then must divine the question that yielded it.

Amazingly enough, on a meaning level, the story assembles itself correctly in its audience members’ heads, even as it goes along, yet unfinished. Nolan gives the audience needed mental breaks between each reverse-ordered sequence. He does this with recurring black-and-white scenes, shot mostly in Leonard’s motel bedroom as he talks to someone—eventually we learn the caller is a cop, the character of Teddy, in fact—on the phone. In this manner, Nolan gets out important back-story, even as the audience, reeling, rights itself and readies for the next reverse-ordered sequence in this bizarre narrative.

If one applies the Fieldian and our own notion of structure to Memento, reverse-ordered and all, the structure that emerges is nonetheless front-ordered, and a function of the hero, Leonard Shelby. This is because, when all is said and done, structure is not in the film so much as it is in the mind of the audience, assembling, as the mind does, disparate facts, and attempting to make sense of them, no matter what order it receives them. (1)

The thing to remember, in this case, is, it may be a movie on the screen, but it’s a story in your head! To illustrate this, imagine looking at a movie unspooled across a long corridor floor. You can’t see the story even by looking at all of the shots of the film unrolled before you on that floor. It only becomes a story when the mind relates the scene or idea presently before it to ideas or scenes from the past, or, anticipated scenes or ideas from the future. The connection happens entirely in the mind. So, in effect, there is no meaningful story structure in any film. Story structure, in fact, is only a construct of the mind, the mind of the audience. (2)

For the audience, the story structure of Memento assembles as follows: Leonard executes Teddy in the abandoned building. We want to know why. As the first quarter of the film progresses, we learn Leonard’s amazing plight, how he deals with it through notes, photos, and tattoos. We learn that he can trust no one, not even his motel desk-clerk. Everyone takes advantage of Leonard’s disability. We learn that Leonard has managed to connect Teddy to the mysterious “John G.,” the person his notes tell him killed his wife.

So, how is the connection made? Precisely at the Fieldian 25% mark, just under half an hour into this nearly two hour movie, Leonard receives a copy of Teddy’s driver’s license, identifying him as John Gammell—“John G.”—complete with photo, from the bartender, Natalie. This is the part-2/part-3 transition, and we assemble it in our mind that way because we know that we are seeing the story from end to beginning. We trust the story to tell us its secrets in its own manner, and accept the reverse-ordered dénouement because we can order it correctly in our heads even as we assemble it in the reverse, as it is given to us.

The film continues to unfold, and we re-gress (chronologically backward; meaningfully forward) from part three into part two, getting to better know Natalie, the woman Leonard tries to help, but whom we discover is using him just like everybody else. We learn the details of the case which serves as a model for Leonard’s memory-loss problem, the Sammy Jankis sub-plot. And we encounter the man Leonard must confront for Natalie, possibly a dangerous drug dealer named, Dodd. Eventually, this is confirmed, and Leonard’s rough treatment of him is justified, as we watch Dodd try to kill Leonard on their initial meeting.

Regressing deeper into part-2, after we watch him destroy the few possessions left to him of his wife’s, we watch Leonard cope with his condition by trying to fool himself into believing his wife is still alive. With the help of a prostitute, he creates a warm bed and the fleeting scent and presence of a just-departed woman to which he can awaken. Later, we watch as Natalie’s true colors emerge, and she is seen to be manipulating him for her own purposes.

We learn that Sammy Jankis’s wife, not believing that his condition was genuine, had gone to Leonard when he was the insurance investigator on Sammy’s case, and begged him to tell her what he really believed: was Sammy faking it, or is it a real condition? Leonard confides that he, in fact, doesn’t believe it. Sammy’s wife, a diabetic who receives daily injections of insulin from Sammy, then sets out to test her husband to expose his charade of memory loss. She has him repeatedly inject her every fifteen minutes, expecting that if he has lied, he will come clean, and if he has not, she will let him kill her because she can’t face life with him in such a state anyway. Her test succeeds, Sammy isn’t lying, and she goes into an irreversible diabetic coma convinced that their life together is, indeed, over. This gives us a clear sense of the hopelessness of Leonard’s condition. It effectively exonerates Leonard from the evil act we’ve seen him commit. Or, so it seems.

Then, just past the 75% mark, ninety minutes into the film, from within part two, we reach the part-1/part-2 transition. Teddy—here revealed as the cop Leonard talks to on the phone in the black and white scenes between time changes—gives Leonard the initial information on John G. This will send him on his quest toward eventually deciding Teddy, himself, is his wife’s killer. Acting on Teddy’s information, Leonard lures Natalie’s boyfriend, Jimmy Grantz, the drug dealer working with Dodd, to an abandoned building. Believing him to be John G., Leonard kills him, strips him, puts on Jimmy’s clothes, and takes his wallet and car keys. Then his memory fades. Running outside, Leonard encounters Teddy - a stranger, once again - and now, having forgotten what he’s just done, and believing he’s found someone who may be hurt, he asks for help.

Inside, Teddy identifies himself as a cop. Suspicious of Teddy, because of his memory problem, Leonard knocks him over the head, takes his keys and gun. Stunned, Teddy gives himself away by calling the so-far unidentified Leonard, “Lenny.” So, Teddy’s forced to come clean to Leonard: he’s a cop who set Leonard up to kill Jimmy, a drug dealer working with Dodd. Jimmy was someone he wanted to “rip off” and then kill. Teddy tells Leonard that the Sammy story is a lie Leonard’s told himself and others to cover up the truth: that his wife survived the attack, was, herself, a diabetic, and that Leonard, suffering just like his “Sammy,” actually (and unwittingly) killed his wife with an insulin overdose. She had descended into depression and couldn’t face the memories of the attack and rape, nor the prospect of life with her “new” memory-less Leonard.

Teddy explains that he helped Leonard kill his man - “the real John G.” - a year ago, but that Leonard forgot, and continues to look for him incessantly. The guy he killed a year ago was only a rapist, not his wife’s killer. Leonard was. Leonard has a memory flashback of himself injecting his wife, and realizes Teddy is telling the truth. Finally, Teddy tells Leonard that his own real name is John Gammell—my mother calls me Teddy”—and that there are lots of John G.'s in the world “for us to find.”

Leonard can’t deal with this. He does the only thing he can: he throws Teddy’s car keys into some brush and runs. But as he flees, with Teddy behind him, scrambling through the scrub, trying to find his keys, Leonard realizes the way to free himself. It won’t give him his memory back, but it will free him from Teddy’s manipulations forever. Tearing up a note he’s just written to himself that he’s “done it,” he’s avenged the death of his wife, he writes a new one, deliberately identifying Teddy’s license plate as his wife’s killer’s. Teddy’s fate is sealed. And Leonard will finally get some measure of revenge, even if it can’t be against his wife’s killer.

So the arc-of-transformation hinges on Leonard’s quest to find the murderer of his wife. In Memento-time, he links the photo of Teddy to the name John Edward Gammell, or his quarry, “John G.” Further on in Memento-time (but earlier in real time), he learns from Teddy that the killer is a “John G.” But we are filtering all this through our increasing body of memories informed by our knowledge that Leonard kills Teddy. We are seeing Leonard being set up, time after time, and suspect “Teddy,” already a manipulator, to be a liar. So, we watch, gripped, waiting to learn the truth. And, when Teddy comes clean late in the film, and Leonard is told he killed his own wife, we are tempted to disbelieve. The conspiracy theorists among us probably still do.

But, if we do, if we disbelieve Teddy at this crucial point in the film, we have nothing left to us toward understanding Memento’s story. It becomes a meaningless exercise in which Leonard merely goes through his motions, forever unaware. And since he is unaware, is he a murderer, or merely a force of unbridled nature, run amok? But Leonard doesn’t disbelieve. He realizes Teddy is telling the truth because of his flashback. And in that single realization, Leonard creates for us the needed final “act” crescendo: he sees a way to achieve some level of success, not revenge for his wife, but freedom from Teddy and his manipulations.

Let me digress for a moment. In the Limited Edition DVD for Memento, there is an Easter Egg, or hidden feature, that allows one to watch the film re-edited into chronological order. It is an interesting exercise, but it points up the necessity for assembly as it was in the released version: the story holds few secrets or surprises. It becomes a dreary and odd tale, one quickly forgotten even by the viewer. Ironically, it recalls the Lewis Carroll quote: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backward,” suggesting that here, for us, it may be the best memory. But it also points up the remarkable level-upon-level of structure operating within this film’s world.

For Leonard, the film of Memento, re-edited into chronological order, is a kind of third act in a larger story, the first 2 acts of which extend backward into the period before the start of the film. These, perhaps, consist of an act-1, which includes the rape and death of his wife, with Leonard’s killing of her concealed in his memory loss. And an act-2, introducing Teddy helping Leonard find and kill the real John G., followed by Leonard being unable to remember it, and Teddy taking advantage of this to have Leonard do his own dirty work. All of this comes to Leonard (and us) in a rush in the final minutes of the film.

As such, the information at the end of Memento in which Leonard remembers his own killing of his wife, and his determination to end Teddy’s manipulations, is a 3rd act crescendo both for our larger Leonard movie and for our own understanding of Memento’s story as we assemble it in our heads. This, then, is how the film’s “act-1” (edited to be at the end) is our story’s “act-3.” And that, in turn, is how Memento structures around its transforming hero.

In this way, the three parts about a transformation, have fallen into place, and the structure - a hero-in-transformation structure - emerges. The transformation only happens given all of the information we’ve gained over the entire film, information we’ve re-assembled into coherent meaning despite the assembly of the film. Effectively, then, the only valid or useful structure Memento has is Fieldian and Transformational. The Campbell-Vogler model, however, seen in reverse, is present. Interestingly, the archetypes all alter as the film progresses, but the patterns are present. Teddy is, in Memento-time, initially the Mentor, later the Trickster. So, too, are the others. The elixer is the connective information of John G. eventually linking back to Teddy. A conventional, plot-based view of structure, also works. But, like Campbell-Vogler, it only works backwards.

The really delicious irony of Memento is that we believe Teddy’s ultimate story at the film’s end because we see the flashback of Leonard and his wife with the insulin. It must be true because Leonard remembers it after Teddy reminds him. But Leonard also remembers the entire Sammy Jankis story in flashback earlier in the film. Both flashbacks were equally real, but at least one is false. Which one? It is left to us to decide, and, for my money, I’ll take the latter. Only then does Memento make sense structurally.

“A lot of people mistake a short memory for a clear conscience.” – Doug Larson

I have attempted here to look at story structure with fresh eyes. It has been so completely obfuscated by the successive waves of guru publications (Field’s evolving paradigm; Truby’s system; et al) and vogues-of-the-moment (Christopher Vogler’s journeying hero; Epstein’s and McKee’s de-emphasis of structure), that writers are left much like Leonard in Memento: disoriented and set adrift to find their own way. Ten distinctive films have shown that we can apply a single conceptual model to describe and understand all of commercial narrative film. That model is multi-level structure, and it is the primary tool writers can use to fashion their stories.

This, then, is the eighth and second to last article on what I have to say about narrative film story structure. I invite reader comments and/or questions. I am willing to prepare a single, albeit lengthy, document of all nine of the posts, combined, should anyone want a copy emailed to them for reference. Let me know at the address accessible from my bio page. Thanks for staying with me through these posts.


(1) This is how Annie Hall’s post-production assembly during editing, with time jumps, and causal time-ordering almost entirely ignored, nonetheless remains comprehensible.

(2) In the case of Pulp Fiction, both the past and the future aren’t even the real ones! Instead they are versions constructed by the mind in order to render meaning to the story’s non-causal events!



Lee A. Matthias