Monday, August 4, 2014

To Include or Not to Include–That is the Memoir Question

I have recently seen two biopics played by the same actor, Chadwick Boseman. The first was 42, the inspirational story of how Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson broke through the color barrier. The other was Get on Up, that followed James Brown throughout his impoverished and violent youth to becoming the Godfather of Soul.

I liked them both, even though they presented themselves in totally different ways.

Many times, I’ve been approached by someone wanting to write a memoir—either their own or a beloved family member. I cringe because most of the time, these well-meaning people don’t have the writing skills to pull off such an important task. They often want to put everything in, from the spank of the newborn’s bottom to the casket being lowered. Every conversation the subject has ever had to every accomplishment they’ve ever done. More often than not, there are wonderful stories to be told, important stories that must be chronicled. And if simply chronicling these stories is the ultimate goal, than I say, have at it. Write down everything.

But if the author wants to publish this work, they must approach it much differently. No publisher in their right mind will take on a five-hundred page memoir. So what must be done to make it marketable?

Pick a theme.

42Jackie Robinson was more than a phenomenal athlete in baseball, basketball, track and field, and football. He was also a political force.  According to Wikipedia

“(Robinson) chaired the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) million-dollar Freedom Fund Drive in 1957, and served on the organization's board until 1967. In 1964, he helped found, with Harlem businessman Dunbar McLaurin, Freedom National Bank—a black-owned and operated commercial bank based in Harlem. He also served as the bank's first Chairman of the Board. In 1970, Robinson established the Jackie Robinson Construction Company to build housing for low-income families.

The one constant in Jackie Robinson’s life was his activism toward equality for his race, championing African-Americans in many walks of life, not just sports.

Robinson led a full and fulfilling life. How do you put all of that in a limited number of pages or contain it within a couple of hours at the cinema?

In the movie, 42, the writer smartly concentrated on the time in history when Robinson broke through the color barrier and became the first black player in major league baseball. The theme throughout the film is “equality.” The story comes off clean, threading the theme throughout with an expert hand. 42 is a hard, but beautiful movie to watch.

Get on UpNow let’s switch to Get on Up, the story of James Brown’s rise to fame.

The theme of this movie is “overcoming.” It clearly portrays Brown’s almost savant  ability to overcome his circumstances through music. The approach is different than 42. It is rather vignettes of Brown’s life in non-chronological order and was, for the most part, well-done—once I realized what they were doing. It starts with the already famous singer having a meltdown over someone using his private bathroom in his place of business. The scene was vulgar, long, and drawn out. The scene ends with him shooting the ceiling with a shotgun and then leading the police in a chase. We find out later why he had the meltdown, so hang in there. The scene then changes to Brown as an eight-year-old, and shows his impoverished beginnings as the child of an immature mother and abusive father. The movie then continues to hop around from decade to decade, but what the writers did correctly was put his life in themed chapters. These chapters, that are titled on the screen, pull from many aspects of Brown’s life. It sounds confusing, but I was able to follow, and for my ADD brain, that’s something to note.

To Hell and BackTo further highlight the approach that 42 took, another movie comes to mind. To Hell and Back is the account of actor Audie Murphy’s illustrious military career. It never deviates from its theme. In fact, I don’t believe it even goes into his life as an actor, however, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it. I do remember that it follows one theme, “humility,” or how Audie Murphy managed to stay humble as he became a decorated war hero.

This is how a memoir is supposed to be written. Pick a theme, and follow it.

The moral is: When writing a memoir or biopic, choose one theme from the subject’s life. If they’ve done tons of exciting stuff, then write tons of books. Don’t confuse the reader with things, albeit important things, that don’t speak toward that theme.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Justifiably Villainous

VillainJoss Whedon (writer, producer, director) has said, “Every great villain is the hero of his own story.” I also submit that every great villain is the victim of his own story. While the protagonist works to overcome his victimization, the antagonist grovels in it. It becomes his excuse for everything thing he’s doing.

Think of all the famous villains we’ve seen in movies over the years.

  • In Falling Down, Michael Douglas just wants to see his daughter on her birthday. He laments: "I'm the bad guy? How’d that happen?"
  • In The Wizard of OZ, the Wicked Witch of the West is the victim of sibling rivalry. Rather than let the “good” sister get the shoes the Wicked Witch always wanted, she vows to kill the little girl wearing them. She is further justified because this same little girl just killed her favorite sister with a house.
  • King Kong is kidnapped from his home, thrust into an unfamiliar environment and put on display.
  • In Star Wars, Darth Vader’s backstory is revealed in episodes I, II, and III. Born a slave and separated from his mother at the age of nine, young Anakin Skywalker trains under Jedi masters, but eventually falls into the wrong crowd. 
  • I hate to admit it, but Thor’s foster brother, Loki is dear to my mother-heart. Found by Odin, he was raised alongside Odin’s son, Thor, but was an outcast because of his small stature. He didn’t have the strength and size of his brother, but he had the gift of sorcery. Because he never felt he belonged, he began to “act out.” And when gods act out, it can have major repercussions!
  • In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum is the original owner of The One Ring, named so because it is the one ring to rule them all. When he lost it, he went mad.

My inspiration for this villainous article came when I recently watched the newest Superman movie, Man of Steel. The character Zod intrigued me in thisMan of Steel version of the Superman story. He seemed to have more purpose than a vigilante, still frightening, but I saw depth to him. In an interview with, Michael Shannon, the actor who plays Zod, said, “Terence Stamp [Zod who played against Christopher Reeve] was like the Robert Plant [lead singer of the rock group, Led Zeppelin] version of General Zod. He’s like: I’m sexy, I’m badass, I’m gonna yell at you and tell you what to do. I’m more like the Woody Allen version of Zod: I’m worried, I’m upset, there’s bad things happening, what am I going to do? I’m trying to be threatening, but inside I have my doubts.” I saw this clearly as he battled the man of steel.

We must remember that Zod was, at one time, Krypton’s most dedicated and honored warrior. He was a programmed soldier, his only loyalty lying with his planet. And he became who he was because of this power. Toward the end of the movie, and the end of Zod’s time on earth, he has a heartfelt and painful monologue directed toward Kal-El (Superman, played by Henry Cavill.)

Zod: Look at this. [He holds out his hand letting earth’s dust slip through his fingers after all the destruction.] We could have built a new Krypton in this squalor. But you chose the humans over us. I exist only to protect Krypton. That was the sole purpose for which I was born. And every action I take, no matter how violent, or how cruel, is for the greater good of my people. And now, I have no people. My soul—that is what you have taken from me!

After pouring out his vulnerability, he briefly rallies and vows to make the people of earth suffer, taking them all from Kal-El one by one, as punishment.

This is how to portray a good villain. Give him purpose, give him identity, make him a victim, then allow him to implode on himself.

Monday, February 24, 2014

After Earth–Thinking Outside of the Box

After EarthTo continue my theme of “What do they want/What do they really want?” or the inner need of the character, I take you to a hostile planet—Earth. Or more specifically, After Earth, the sci-fi starring Jaden Smith and his dad, Will Smith. This story is about thirteen year old Kitai, played by Jaden. He is the son of the Prime Commander, Cypher Raige, played by Will, a somewhat absentee father who is ready to retire so he can be what he needs to be for his family.

They are transporting a very bad alien called an Ursa when their ship is hit by an asteroid shower and they crash land on Earth. The only survivors are Kitai and Cypher, who is incapacitated. It is up to Kitai to travel over rough terrain to find the rescue beacon that has become separated from them.

In the beginning of the movie, we see flashbacks of Kitai and his older sister. Remember the ten-minute rule I talked about in my last article? This one happens at around thirteen minutes. Something is wrong in what looks like their home, and she places him in a large terrarium with a clear bubble top. In a later flashback, she calls it a box. Something scary is happening, but we don’t know what yet. We only know that Kitai is in a box.

Kitai is a cadet whose main goal is to become a full-fledged ranger like his dad. He doesn’t pass, however, and is told to try again next year.

Before the ship goes down, Kitai wanders and ends up where the prisoner, the Ursa, is being held. One of the rangers on duty tells Kitai they are going to use the alien for “ghost training,” a trick to become invisible to the enemy. Ghosting “is when you don’t have a trace of fear.”

The ship crashes and Kitai leaves his injured father to find the beacon. The first part of his adventure proves that he really is too young for this sort of thing. He’s frightened at most every turn, but he presses on because if he doesn’t his father will die.

His father can communicate with him from the damaged cockpit. Kitai asks him about ghosting. He tells him he had been attacked by an Ursa and that after landing in the bottom of a river, he knew it was trying to drown him. As he watched his blood in the water mingled with the sunshine, he thought it looked pretty. His fear ebbed away and the alien let him go. And moreover, it couldn’t find him. He realized then that fear was the true enemy, and the alien could smell it. “Fear is not real. The only place fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity, Kitai.” He goes on to clarify that danger is real, but fear is a choice.

After several conflicts and one huge victory where Kitai stands up for himself and refuses to take orders to abort the mission and save his life, (Kitai had followed “orders” when his sister had told him to stay in the box,) he finally reaches the beacon. However, it seems that Kitai and his father weren’t the only ones to survive the crash. The Ursa is alive and well, and intent on killing Kitai.

We learn in the flashback that an Ursa had killed Kitai’s sister while he watched helplessly from the box. Kitai’s inner need is to be let out of the box where he can fight. Throughout the movie he proves this over and over again that despite his age and size, he needn’t be placed in a box. He has worth. He has skills. Had he known then what he knows now, his sister would be alive.

As the Ursa attacks him, he uses the ghosting technique he’d been told about. He lays still, and hears his deceased sister whisper to him that he’s still in the box and it’s time to come out. He also hears his father’s voice teaching him to ghost. “Root yourself in this present moment. Sight, sound, smell. What do you feel?” He becomes one with his surroundings and the fear ebbs away. The Ursa passes right over him. He then stands, opens his cutlass and lops off the Ursa’s leg. As he attacks the Ursa, he becomes the ranger that he’s always wanted to be. He’s stepped outside the box, and despite his size and age, he is a warrior. He kills the Ursa, grabs the beacon and sets it off. Rescue is on it’s way thanks to this brave young man.

At the end, as the medics are working on his father in the rescue ship, he receives the respect he now deserves. Cypher demands the medics to stand him up so he can salute his son. I love what happens next. Instead of saluting back, like the ranger Katai now is, he runs to his dad for an embrace and receives the love he hadn’t felt before.

Katai has come full circle. He’s gained love and respect from his father, and he’s stepped outside his box to become the ranger he so desperately wanted to be.

The final two lines are priceless. Katai, while still clinging to his father says, “Dad, I want to work with Mom.” And Cypher says, “Me, too.”

I think they’re both hanging up their ranger cutlasses.

Monday, February 17, 2014

And You Thought It Was Just A Movie About Penguins

Mr. Poppers Penguins

Who doesn’t love a movie about penguins? Especially obnoxiously cute ones that plague a person until he finally accepts them. That’s what this story is about, right?


A while back I heard of a script-writing rule where, on page 10, there should be some hint as to what the hero wants. I would like to go a step further and use the character prompt that I’ve learned: What do they want/What do they really want? This suggests that even the character may not know what he really wants by page 10, (which translates to ten minutes into the movie,) but the audience should get some hint. I have found as I’ve researched movies, that this ten minutes isn’t a hard and fast rule. However, certainly within the first act, stories often reveal the inner need to the audience without the character’s realization.

As a novel writer, I want to portray my characters as realistically as possible. Often, people don’t know what they really want. And if you want a believable character arc, you probably shouldn’t have them figure it out too soon, either.

In Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Tom Popper, played by Jim Carrey, is an obsessed businessman who has fractured his family because he was never there for them. (Haven’t we seen this story premise before? Liar, Liar perhaps?) This is ironic, because as we see in the first few minutes of the film, Popper’s father was never there for him, either. But he loved his son, keeping in touch as best he could via short wave radio and giving him really cool stuff from his adventures. At this point, we can see what Popper’s issue is, but does Popper?

Something happens that suggests Popper is on the cusp of self-discovery. No, it’s not when the penguin arrives from Popper’s deceased father. This moment does kick off Act 2, however. Popper’s ordinary world is about to be rocked. But, about 15:30 minutes in, Popper meets Mrs. Van Gundy played by Angela Lansbury, who owns Tavern on the Green, a restaurant in Manhattan. He is going to try to talk her out of her property for the firm for which he works.  They approach a table near the window which she has had reserved for their meeting. He asks to have their conversation at another table. Why? We don’t know yet. I love that the writers set up a little mystery here.

During the course of their discussion, Mrs. Van Gundy tells him she doesn’t want to sell to just anyone. The staff is family to her. Popper says, “There is nothing more important than family.” This comment slips on by without much notice. However, the astute audience can see that Popper’s family, both the one in which he grew up and his present family are broken. Even Popper, himself, doesn’t realize what he’s just said. Mrs. Van Gundy presses him about his family, and we find he doesn’t want to talk about his father. Upon mention of his father, he glances toward the empty table where he and Mrs. Van Gundy were going to meet. Ah. We know something has happened at that table, and it probably has to do with why Popper went from a starry-eyed child who idolized his dad to the cynical adult who can barely talk about him.

Enter several more penguins due to a communication glitch, and Popper’s small problem has turned into a big one. He has to get rid of six penguins (and later eight as two have had eggs hatched.) During the course of the movie, Popper goes from trying to get rid of his new charges to fully accepting them. This could be in large part because the penguins are bringing his family together. His teen daughter doesn’t think he’s lame anymore, and his ex-wife is seeing a different side to him that she likes.

At approximately 55 minutes into the movie, he and his ex-wife have decided to have dinner together. The Poppers have their “date” at Tavern on the Green and are offered the same table where he had previously refused to sit. He again makes excuses not to sit there, and he opens up to his wife why he doesn’t want anything to do with that table. It seems, when Popper was a kid, his father would take the family to Tavern on the Green whenever he’d come to town and they’d sit at that table. It was the only time he could see his dad and where he received cool souvenirs from far off lands. Now, I thought something horrible had happened at that table, but I was pleasantly surprised when he tells his wife, “It’s actually a good memory. Sometimes they are the worst.”

This little insight and the hints dropped up to this point reveal the protagonist’s inner journey. We saw the first glimpse back in the beginning when he refused to sit at the table. Does he hate his dad? Not really, just disillusioned. He wants what any kid wants—to have his family together. (Of note: a scene prior to this shows him having dinner at his own table at home with the penguins. It’s chaotic, but totally comfortable for Popper because he is with his new family.)

As is the way with character arcs, the character must begin at one point and finish at another. Popper was pretty low before his penguin family moved in. His family was broken, his ex-wife was dating someone else, his teen daughter could barely be in the same room with him. He had, however managed to maintain a relationship with his son, which I find refreshing. There was one person who believed in him, just as he had believed in his own dad at that age. By the end, Popper’s family is whole again, and he even takes them to Tavern on the Green where he has reserved the dreaded Table. He no longer has to avoid it because he’s completed his character arc, and can make good memories with his family. He begins with a line that his dad had probably said to him many times. “I’m going on a trip, and I’m going to be gone a very long time.” His son looks dejected, just as Popper no doubt did every time he heard this from his father. However, he springs a surprise.  He tells his family they are all going with him.

Where? Popper has arranged to return the penguins to their native Antarctica. What the Poppers witness is a huge family reunion as each penguin finds its own family unit they had left behind. What once was broken is now together again. And that is what this movie about penguins is all about.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Last Man Standing–Wonderful, Until It Rains

Last Man Standing

I love Last Man Standing, starring Tim Allen playing Mike Baxter. The humor is quippy without being clichéd, the characterization is spot on for each member of the cast, and it’s set in Denver. What more could I want?

I’ve enjoyed each episode, (and yes, I’ve seen every one of them since 2011,) but the one that aired on January 31, 2014 entitled “Taser” had one plot element that stuck out like a sore thumb hit with a hammer. (Nod to Allen’s previous sitcom, Home Improvement.)

This particular episode is set during Valentine’s Day. About midway through, there is a steady rain pouring outside the kitchen window. Did I mention this was set in Denver. And it’s Valentine’s Day. February. According to, Denver’s average rainfall in February is 4% for light rain, 1% for both drizzle and moderate rain. It didn’t even tabulate heavy rain, which was in the episode. Buckets of rain, the likes you would see in late April or May. . .or in the upcoming movie Noah.

So, just as I rhetorically asked my husband, “Why is it raining in Colorado?” the doorbell rang in the Baxter household on my TV screen. As often happens in this family, no one answered it right away. When someone finally opened the door, the character, Kyle, boyfriend of one of the daughters, was standing there soaking wet. To understand what happened next, I have to tell you that Kyle had carved a little bluebird out of a bar of Irish Spring soap for girlfriend Mandy for Valentine’s Day. He enters the house dripping wet, and when he sees Mandy, he reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out bubbles. Lots and lots of bubbles. “Oh,” I said to my husband. “That’s why it’s raining!” To make matters worse, it stopped raining immediately after this scene. The next scene took place in the kitchen where two of the characters walked in from outside bone dry.

Yep. Even TV giants like Last Man Standing can screw up a good story. I can hear the writers as they story-boarded.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if Kyle carves a bird out of soap, and then it rains and dissolves in his pocket?”

“But, it’s February in Denver. It would be snowing, not raining.”

“Yeah, but we need lots of water to make the joke work. No one will notice.”

I’m standing on my writing craft convictions with my hand raised yelling, “Ooo! I noticed!” These professionals used a contrivance to make something work. Now, I’m not saying I’m never guilty of that. On the contrary, I’m famous for trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. (And apparently for using clichés, but I digress.) That’s probably why I’m sensitive. If I can’t get away with it, neither should people getting paid a kratillion more dollars than me.

So, I think the takeaway here is obvious. Don’t make it rain when it should be snowing just to make something work. But, do watch Last Man Standing. It is one of the few family-friendly shows that isn’t afraid to discuss today’s issues in a hilarious way. (Hopefully that keeps me out of trouble with the network. . .as if they would actually read this.)