In my cherished writer's group, I've always been known as the Structure Stickler. As if that's a bad thing!
(I mean, it kind of sounds like a Batman villain's name, right? That's good thing, isn't it?)
Seriously, in my humble opinion structure is where writing thrives. My favorite writer, William Goldman (two time Oscar winner for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "All the President's Men") says that structure is what writing is all about. Every classic screenwriting book from Syd Field to Michael Hague to the current screenwriting bible - Blake Synder's "Save the Cat!" - have their own take on proper structure, and really they're all the same with just slightly different tweaks and labels.
Inevitably, though, anytime I talk with other writers (even a lot of seasoned ones) they complain about how structure is so restrictive and cramps their style and it makes writing too predictable.
The two Deadpool movies - and especially the recently released Deadpool 2 - sure have their share of shocks and surprises and yet... they're both actually tightly structured movies. Take that haters!
Since it just came out, I'll look a little more closely at Deadpool 2 (also I haven't seen Deadpool: The Original in a few years and I don't want to rewatch a two hour movie before I write a blog about this).
I guess I'll just say a big SPOILER ALERT right now since I sort of have to discuss plot points to make my argument.
Right off the bat, I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that this movie is crass and irreverant and surprising. However, it carefully plots its twists and turns down a well defined path and that gives it focus and keeps the movie humming along.
Eesh! Deadpool just blew himself into tiny pieces. (At pretty much the exact 10% mark that "Save the Cat!" recommends a Catalyst moment).
Yowza! Deadpool just shot a pedophile orderly in the head to protect an abused kid even though it's in defiance of Colossus and the other second-string X-Men. (I think Syd Field would agree that's a break into Act 2).
Zlam! Splotch! Clammy! Deadpool just gathered together a team of misfits to create X-Force in an effort to overcome Cable and save Fire Fist. (Right where Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey would place its "Test, Allies, and Enemies" section).
Bwoom! Deadpool is teaming up with Cable - who we thought was the bad guy - to try to stop Fire Fist - before he goes full bad guy - and get around Juggernaut - who's the only true bad guy. (And that, my friends, is the Act 3 break).
(Side Note: Boy, comic book writers really get to make up silly, simplistic, but fun character names!)
Even knowing all of this, I could sit and watch Deadpool while being thoroughly entertained and even surprised. The clear structure didn't weaken the movie or make it overly predictable. In fact, it did the opposite. It kept the movie on track and moving, and the writers clearly used the structure as a challenge for themselves to come up with the unexpected. They knew they needed an "All is Lost" moment, so they figured out how best to turn it on its head while still being satisfying, and they chose to have Deadpool literally be torn in half and lose half his body.
So, once again and always, I say "Yay for structure!"
But, wait, you say, "Green Lantern also had solid structure, and it bombed hard!"
(To which Deadpool says, "Low blow, right to the shirt balls.")
It's true, though. Green Lantern used solid structure - but chose beats that were pretty much always totally expected. However, knowing where to place twists and turns doesn't have to lead to boring predictability as long as you have the guts to keep taking the unexpected turn. When people expect you to turn left or right, try digging a hole in the ground and going down instead.
That's what Deadpool does and his movies are awesome!
And if you want a great counterpoint, check out Batman v. Superman - that things structure is all over the place.
Over the past few weeks, as is our habit, my wife and I have been unwinding at the end of long work/school weeks by checking out the latest movie offerings.
[Quick side note: If you're a movie-lover (or even just a movie-liker), go get yourself a Moviepass right now. Here's the link (https://www.moviepass.com/). Seriously, stop reading now and get one. We get to see so much stuff that we couldn't afford otherwise. And who knows how long it might be around - if you read the news it could implode any second. End of (not so) quick side note.]
Our current movie theatre of choice is a small-ish Regal Cinema (just a few minutes from our house). Being on the smaller side, it mostly gets comedies and kids movies, while the bigger movie (just a few minutes further from our house), gets the bigger blockbusters and wannabe blockbusters.
Anyway, it gives us a great chance to see comedies that we might not see otherwise because we can't always justify the cost. [Seriously, Moviepass is amazing]. Over the past few weeks, we saw two average-to-above-average comedies, that I've been thinking alot about because they seemed to go about their screenwriting in very different ways.
So - ding, ding, ding - let the battle begin.
It's OVERBOARD vs. LIFE OF THE PARTY!
Right off the bat, I will say that I laughed a lot during both of these movies. I didn't think they were great, and neither of them will probably work their way into my all-time favs or even a movie that I'll watch more than once.
But I liked them both. And I didn't feel like I wasted 90 minutes on either. And that's not nothing.
"Life of the Party" was a perfect vehicle for comedy genius, Melissa McCarthy (who doesn't love her?). She journeys down the well-worn path (notably also journeyed by Rodney Dangerfield) as an adult returning to the wild and crazy life of a college student. I don't want to give much away (because I feel like built up expectations are killers of good comedy), but there were points where I was crying laughing. Some of the funniest stuff I can think of ever seeing were in this movie. My stomach hurt from laughing at times.
Wait a second... Didn't I lead you to believe this movie was just okay?
Yes, I did. And, yes, I still stick by that.
The big problem with "Life of the Party" is that it just feels like a loose collection of funny bits. It created a general premise (again perfectly tailored to the talents of Ms. McCarthy), but then didn't hold them together all that well. Character development was almost nil. Side characters were basically just different versions of "odd and unusual" with no real pay-offs. Challenges arose more or less out-of-the-blue, only to inspire another hysterical bit, but were then quickly overcome without leaving much of a mark.
Now, people are wondering, "Did he actually think this was a good movie?"
Yes, I did. And, yes, I still stick by that.
However, with as funny as it was at times, I think this could've been a great movie if it had put a little more effort into developing a stronger thru-line with real character growth and story. It seems to me that Ms. McCarthy and her co-writer/director husband, Ben Falcone, fell back on their background as sketch comedy artists (they met and fell in love in The Groundlings - L.A.'s premier playground for improv and sketch). This movie feels like a series of (again SUPER funny) sketches with only a thin plot guiding us from one sketch to the next. I laughed and laughed and laughed at parts, but since I didn't really know or care about the characters, the movie dragged during the weak connective tissues.
"Overboard," on the other hand, gave a lot of thought to its plot and character growth.
I like Anna Faris, and although I had never heard of him before, I was willing to give Eugenio Derbez a chance. But (SPOILER ALERT) they're not as funny as Melissa McCarthy (almost no one is). Both Anna and Eugenio made me laugh a bunch, but I was never making my popcorn saltier with my tears of glee.
Still, at the end of the day, I think that "Overboard" was a better movie.
In this movie, the screenwriters had the difficult task of making unlikeable characters likeable, and I think that gave them focus. Let's be honest, this is a movie about a stuck-up billionaire manchild, who gets kidnapped and manipulated by an angry mom looking for revenge. That's not necessarily the recipe for a laugh riot - it sounds more like a dark thriller.
The writers knew that and worked hard to overcome it.
[Full disclosure: I'm not a huge fan of the original "Overboard," for a lot of the reasons that I just outlined. That movie seemed to work solely based on the chemisty and charisma of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell who are just so damn charming that we didn't care that they are both absolutely horrible people in that movie.]
Anna Faris and Eugenio Derbez don't have the personal relationship (re: chemistry) or the fame of their original movie counterparts (who were two of the biggest stars in the world when the original "Overboard" came out), so instead they needed a better story. Anna Faris is a mom who is literally about to fall over from trying to give her kids a good life. She works two jobs. She goes to school. Her mom isn't helping at all. Her house is falling apart. How could we not want her to succeed (even if she has to do dubious things to achieve it)?
Eugenio, on the other hand, is taken in the opposite direction. He is so terrible, and treats everyone so badly, and is so obnoxious, that we don't mind at all seeing him get forced to perform menial labor and sleep in a shed where he has to pee in a bucket. Then we can come along with him little by little as he evolves.
This movie also wisely uses its side characters to carry some of the load. It's not Anna Faris's plan to kidnap the jerky billionare (like Kurt Russell does); instead it's Eva Longoria who comes up with the plan and all but forces Anna Faris to go through with it. In the same way, Anna Faris doesn't just steal Eugenio from the hospital, his much worse sister abandons him there, which paves the way for Anna Faris to almost perform a good deed by saving him and giving him a home.
Are people thinking, "He must've really loved this movie!"?
I didn't. Because, while it had some good laughs, it wasn't SUPER funny. Just enjoyable.
But I was invested in the characters. I wanted to see Anna Faris succeed and get to go to school. I wanted to see Eugenio Derbez evolve into a good person. I eventually even wanted them to end up together. I wanted to go along for the ride.
In the end, I would recommend (and have recommended) people go see both of these movies. Like I've said many times, they're both legitimately funny and a good time at the movies. [Plus if you have a Moviepass, they're basically free. Seriously, if you haven't already, get a Moviepass. I'm not paid by them, I just love mine]. And in the end, I love comedies and I love to laugh. Both of these movies succeed at that in varying degrees.
In the end, though, the point I really wanted to get across is:
In the battle of jokes vs. story, I think focusing on story will make a better movie everytime.
Thanks for reading! (I promise I won't talk about Moviepass in every blog. Probably.)
When I was a little kid, my best friend in the whole world lived just up the street from me. There were maybe twenty houses between his and mine - maybe it was a quarter of a mile. In ten minutes or so, I could run up the street, bang on his door, and play for hours in his backyard.
I loved it so much that the older kids on my street would sometimes play a trick on me. They'd tell me that my best friend was looking for me and wanted to play. Like a dog going crazy for his favorite frisbee, my six-year-old self would lose it at the thought of playing with my best friend. At the word from the older kids, I'd sprint up the street and start playing.
I also got in trouble for it. A LOT.
One time, after disappearing again for a few hours without telling my parents where I was going, I got grounded for a week. That stuck with my little kid brain.
I finally began to understand that couldn't just do whatever I wanted.
I needed permission first.
My parents did it to protect me, and I'm truly happy that they did. It kept me safe as a kid. And let's be honest, they always let me go play with my friend, they just wanted to make sure that I asked first and that they knew where I was. It was good, sensible parenting.
As life goes on, though, I still finding myself asking for permission. And it's not always easy to get anymore.
I lived in Los Angeles and worked as writer for over a decade. I made some money, but rarely enough to live on without having other jobs. It's because I was always waiting for permission. I needed permission to go out for the dream gig. I needed permission to ask for big money. I needed permission to write the screenplay that I wanted.
The thing is... I'm an adult now. I'm in charge of my own life. And even though my parents are still around (and just as supportive and loving as they've ever been), in a very real way, I'm my own parent now.
I can give myself permission.
I can say "YES!" to myself.
As a writer, it's been an exhilarating gift, because throughout my career the things I've always taken the most pride in are the things that I chased after with my whole heart despite whether people thought they were a good idea or not.
I think we all should say "YES!" to ourselves.
One of the truly great things about being a writer today is that it's never been easier to take control of your career. With the advent of self-publishing, and with Amazon at our disposal, I can decide what I want to write, and I can decide when it's ready for the world. I can pursue the adventures and the stories and the characters that I want. I can do with them as I please. I don't have to wait for an agent or a publisher or an editor to give me permission.
That's not to say that traditional publishing isn't helpful - I hope to do more with it in the future. It comes with huge advantages, and it gives resources that a person working alone simply doesn't have.
But you have to get the permission from people who don't often like to give it.
So in the meantime, I won't wait for permission like I did for all of those years in Los Angeles. I was always waiting for a producer or an actor or a director or an agent to tell me "Yes" so that I could move forward.
I don't need that anymore. I can say "YES!" to myself.
It creates confidence. It builds up a belief in myself. It give me the power in my own life.
For any other writers who might be struggling with those early breakthroughs, or who might feel like their careers have hit a lull, or who are sick of following the conventional wisdom while ignoring the music in their head, I encourage you to say "YES!" to yourself. Put something out into the universe. Tell the story that you want to tell.
I'd give you my permission to do so... but you've already got all the permission you need.
We can all say "YES!" to ourselves.