One of the biggest and most common issues I have seen in student films – and I have seen many student films that fall prey to this – is the lack of a good screenplay. Learning a technical craft such as editing or cinematography is a skill – sure, the amount of talent one has determines if he will stand out from the legions of other educated and equally skilled technicians. But eventually, there are certain technical qualities involved with crafts such as editing or cinematography, and even acting, that can be learned, studied and perfected (more on acting next week.) But ask any filmmaker or film student what the most difficult part of movie making is, and most will answer the same thing: writing a good script. Even the greatest directors agree. Frank Capra is quoted as saying “Scriptwriting is the toughest part of the whole racket… the least understood and the least noticed.” Fact of the matter is, scriptwriting is indeed probably the most difficult part of creating films. And things are made even worse when you realize that without the script, which is the backbone, the blueprint of the entire project, you have nothing. Numerous books have been written on the subject, with great minds from Syd Field to Robert McKee dedicating their entire lives to understanding the subtle and elusive art that is scriptwriting. And yet, true writing talent remains one of the most rare and scarce things in filmmaking, and especially in film school.
One thing that all those who have written about writing have in common is that they all stress structure. This has been understood as the most important part of writing even back in ancient times. Aristotle wrote in 350 B.C. in his Poetics (which we had to read as part of our introductory screenwriting class at NYU), that “Most important of all is the structure of the incidents.” Two thousand years ago, it was clear that solid structure is what makes the difference between good and bad storytelling. The problem is that structure is probably the most difficult aspects of screenwriting to truly master and understand. My screenwriting class is divided into two portions: lecture and workshop. In workshop, we get weekly writing assignments, bring them into class, and then discuss what works and what doesn’t. But more on that later. In the lecture component, we watch films and then attempt to dissect their dramatic structure. This proves more difficult than it would seem. We are given a set of tools, elements to look for – inciting incident, break into act II, mid-point, break into act III, and climax. But the class doesn’t always agree on where exactly these points land. That is because they are extremely difficult to spot. But they are very definite and are very much there, at least in the good films. The problem is that they are often missing in the lesser films, and in most student films I have seen.
After acknowledging that structure is the most important aspect of scriptwriting, one must discern what helps create the structure of the film. What drives the inciting incident? The break into act II? The midpoint? The answer is simple: All of the various beats, reversals and turning points in the story all purport to the character. The character is the driving force behind the story’s structure. The most basic statement of a film’s structure is as such: A character wants something badly, and has to overcome various obstacles in order to achieve its goal/get what it wants. The structure derives from various reversals in the character’s journey. If a character is very one-note, has a very simple and obvious goal, and only has say one obstacle to overcome to get it – that still doesn’t make a good story, although even something as basic as that is often missing from many films. This is where things get complicated. Because the more complex the goal and the more difficult the obstacles, the higher the drama and consequently, the better the story. If a character has a very easy time getting what it wants and doesn’t have to sacrifice or make any changes to itself in order to achieve it’s goal, there is no drama and thus we get an uninteresting narrative. Drama is created by reversal, by change within the character. There are also multiple planes of desire within the character – he could have an external goal but also hold a different internal goal. By the end of a film, a character might fail to achieve its external goal but discover that it achieved a more important inner goal. These are all important ideas to understand, and they are drilled into our heads from day one of our scriptwriting class. So how come so many student films completely fail to deliver on all of these very basic and essential notions of structure and character?
The simple answer is that it’s just tremendously hard to write something that fits these sensibilities without falling into the pit of formula and cliché. Stories have been told for thousands of years, way before the invention of cinema. In his book The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, Georges Polti proposes that there are only thirty-six different plots to tell, and that all stories are variations of those same thirty-six plots. This is a very limiting notion. The trick is to find a combination of circumstances – character, setting, and premise – that have never been combined before, and thus, creating a new variation of one of the plots. Problem is, true inspiration like this is extremely, almost unbelievably elusive and rare. Some writers spend their entire careers finding it. So is it such a surprise that most student films fail to deliver on this level? They can have the greatest camera-work and acting in the world, but to see a student film with a genuinely good script is truly rare. I think that part of the problem is that we are so informed by all of the movies, books, plays, stories and media that we consume that we find it increasingly difficult to think outside the box of what we already know.
But it’s not that simple. Fact of the matter is, many student films fail on an even more fundamental level: structure. I saw a screening of the top three best senior thesis projects from last year’s graduating class at NYU, as voted for in the official NYU senior thesis film festival. All three of them suffered from the same problem: the characters didn’t change, didn’t come to any new realizations about themselves, and the films all lacked third acts. Even the first place winner, which was actually an extremely well made, well-shot, well-acted and well-written drama about two inner-city high school kids dealing with a down-on-his-luck teacher who takes out his frustrations on them, suffered from the same problem. It created compelling characters, featured realistic dialogue, and showed an interesting progression as the kids got more and more in trouble with this teacher, until it climaxed with the “good boy” of the two lashing out at him violently in a very tense and harrowing scene. But then, the film just ended. There was no resolution, no change, and no third act. At least that film tried, though. Because the biggest problem I see in many student films – and in many regular films as well – is that most directors just honestly don’t care about the script. This sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. The number of aspiring directors who are only interested in “getting cool shots” or telling a quirky story with a twist or a gimmick is mind-boggling. And looking over the crop of movies created both in the Hollywood system and independently over the years, this seems to carry over even into feature filmmaking: Directors caring more about the imagery than the story and the structure. One can only hope that if they keep emphasizing these points in film schools, eventually we will get a new generation of filmmakers who are fully aware of these notions and assimilate them regularly. Well, one can hope, can’t one?