Tag Archives: script

Don’t Think Twice – When scripting a movie, a story is not the same as a plot.

Five days; two movie previews; two bizarre starts.

Last week, before a movie preview, comic Richard Gadd persuaded me he was half-Finnish and starred in the film. Neither was true.

Last night in London, I went to a preview of the movie Don’t Think Twice. I had not actually been invited. I was a last-minute stand-in as someone’s +1.

I arrived well before they did, explained to the PR people who I was and who I was with. We got right through to the point where my name badge had been written out, put in its plastic sheath and handed to me when I – for no real reason – asked: “This IS for the Don’t Think Twice preview, isn’t it?

It was not.

It was for a New Statesman talk on Brexit and Trump.

I was tempted to go to that because I actually HAD been invited to that event and had not been invited to the film preview.

But I took the movie title to heart and went to the Don’t Think Twice preview.

It was what used to be called a ‘talker’ screening and is now apparently called an ‘influencer’ screening. In this case, an audience of comics and comedy industry people.

Afterwards, one comedian told me they loved it. Another told me they thought it was awful. Yet another told me that, as long as they remained within the confines of the building, they would say it was very good.

As I wasn’t officially invited to this screening, I feel I can actually be honest about my thoughts.

The story is about a New York improvisational comedy group – they are middling fish in a small pond – all of whom see their next career step as being invited to be one of the regular performers in the TV show Weekend Live (a not-really disguised fictionalisation of Saturday Night Live). The publicity says the movie “tells a nuanced story of friendship, aspiration and the pain and promise of change”. And therein lies the problem.

Well acted, well-directed, well-intended, but only an OK script

Mike Birbiglia is the director/co-star (it is an ensemble piece). He is a comedy performer as are most of the cast. It is shot in a successfully easy-going style. But it falls prey to the problem of a movie created by actors about and for actors.

Actors are interested in building atmosphere, character and relationships.

Which is good.

But that ain’t plot.

The movie tells a story – Which, if any of them will get on the TV show? There is a sub-plot about their live theatre closing and the father of one of the performers is dying. And there is the thought: Will success spoil existing relationships?

But those are stories, not a movie-movie plot.

Clichés are clichés because they tend to be right.

The cliché plot structure is:

  • You start with a major unresolved problem. That is the ‘hook’.
  • The body of the film involves the unravelling of the problem.
  • The problem is resolved at the end of the film.
  • Along the way, the hook is refreshed and additional subsidiary temporary hooks are inserted and resolved while the main plot continues.

A subsidiary ‘rule’ in a movie-movie is breadth of scale and that, ideally, the entire set-up of the movie, the main characters and the hook are established in the first 2-4 minutes. (The best example I have ever seen of this is the original Die Hard movie in which everything is set-up, including an important back-story, under the opening titles.)

Don’t Think Twice starts with sequences which establish the main characters and the general setting but the main hook (the not-quite-strong-enough Saturday Night Live Will-they?/Won’t-they? plot) is brought in far too late.

The film is high on atmosphere and fine on characters. Good.

It has a story.

But not a gripping plot structure.

There is nothing particularly wrong with it as a piece of entertainment. It will probably feel better watched on a TV or computer screen at home rather than in a cinema because it is not a movie-movie. It is a TV movie or (in olden days) a straight-to-DVD movie.

It got some laughs of recognition from the rather industry audience I saw it with. But, at its heart, it is a movie created by performers, about performers and for performers. Average punters Dave and Sue in Essex or Ohio, in South London or East LA have no real reason to be gripped.

‘Story’ is not the same as ‘plot’.

But – Hey! – What do I know? I did not like the multi-5-star-reviewed Finnish film The Other Side of Hope and liked Guy Ritchie’s $175 million mega audience disaster King Arthur.

Don’t Think Twice was shown in the US last year. It opened on one screen in New York City and grossed $92,835 in its opening weekend, the highest per-screen gross of 2016. Rotten Tomatoes currently gives the film an approval rating of 99% based on 111 reviews.

What do I know?


Filed under Comedy, Movies, Writing

Why most stand-up comics could learn something from movies, rabbits and sex

(This blog was later published by the comedy industry website Chortle)

Around now – just three weeks before the Edinburgh Fringe starts – there is a glut of desperate stand-up comics performing Fringe preview shows in London.

Well, they are not so much preview shows – more often a desperate cobbling-together of last-minute ideas, trying them out in front of an audience and seeing what may or may not work. One already excellent comic I saw recently was performing 18 dry-runs of material and still not totally secure in what his Edinburgh show would contain.

I’ve seen four of these Edinburgh ‘previews’ recently: two by very experienced performers; two from less experienced comics.

All four had almost entirely good material but, even with the best material, over the course of an hour, the pace sagged slightly in places – the comedians meandered because they hadn’t totally nailed-down the best structure to make their shows work.

That is fine. That is what try-outs are for. The comedians had and have no real problem beyond the natural in-built self-doubt and insecurity without which they would not be comedians in the first place.

It does seem to me that the greater the neuroses, the better the comedian.

I am not a performer, but inexperienced ignorance has never stopped me giving advice.

I have edited most of my life – scripts, books and, in particular, video. I think stand-up comics could get some help from the movie industry.

When comics have problems structuring their hour-long shows, they worry because the details don’t work. They get mesmerised by the details. It is a near-definitive situation of not seeing the creative wood for the trees.

They are mesmerised by the complexity of their own show’s structure and they would benefit from thinking of what, in the movie business, is called The Elevator Pitch.

It would allow them to clarify the whole into which the details fit.

In Hollywood, the theory of The Elevator Pitch is that, if you have a movie idea which you want to sell and you accidentally get into a lift (which our Colonials call an elevator) with a studio executive, you have to pitch your entire movie idea to him (or her) by the time the lift/elevator gets to the next floor, the doors open and he/she gets out.

The conventional wisdom is that you have to pitch your idea to him (or her) in 10 or 12 words.

When comedians are structuring a one hour live comedy show, they will not get anywhere fast if they are mesmerised by the complexity of the structure.

If you try to think How do I fit joke A next to routine F and do I put H or C in there before I use my ‘banker’ punchline X? it is like trying to put together a jigsaw made of pasta.

But, if you can explain to yourself in 12 words or less the single central concept of your show, then it concentrates your mind. Every part of the show has to be made to be relevant to that 12 word raison d’etre.

If a section of the show cannot be made to be relevant to that one central idea, then cut it out, no matter how funny. If the choice is between getting some good laughs for three minutes with that one section but screwing up the overall pace and narrative cohesion of the hour-long show, then dump that three-minute section immediately.

If it really is THAT good, it can be used some other time. By using it here you are slowing, skewing or de-railing the overall show.

If you try to build an hour-long show looking from the details outwards, you get mesmerised by the trees and cannot see the over-all shape of the wood.

If, however, you look from the outside inwards and constantly have the overall shape of the wood in mind, then you can plant the trees within that overall shape.

It is a tad easier on the creative brain.

I am also reminded of a schoolboy teaser:

How far can a rabbit run into a wood?


Halfway… After that, it’s running OUT of the wood.

Which is another way of saying…

If you create a narrative comedy show – and, at one hour in length there needs to be a linear narrative to avoid the audience getting flummoxed – you need to be aware of one legendary but vital cliché.

You need a beginning, a middle and an end.

The Elevator Pitch gives you an overall key theme to which 100% of the show must be relevant – if it isn’t relevant, cut it.

The rabbit-running-into-a-wood analogy means that you have to know the central core towards which you are running and – unlike the war in Afghanistan but like sex – you should have an exit strategy and know where your final climax is.

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The truth about “A Clockwork Orange” and why some movie critics deserve a colonoscopy

In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned actor Rutger Hauer’s famous death speech in Blade Runner and someone complained on my Facebook page that, in fact, I should have credited the film’s writers – the screenplay was written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

In fact, it’s almost inconceivable but true that Rutger Hauer actually made up the speech off the top of his head. I saw a TV interview with the film’s director, Ridley Scott, where he said Rutger just went over in a corner and came back with the speech in its entirety:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

It wasn’t in the script; it wasn’t in the book; the director didn’t write it; the actor made it up.

But the guy who complained about my crediting the actor not the writer is quite right in general. People tend to overlook who actually creates movies: the writers. Without them, zilch. A director may be brilliant – for example, David Fincher with Fight Club and The Social Network – but the 1950s French-spawned cult of the director is just as stupid as any other piece of intellectualising about movie-making.

It never fails to amaze me what pseudo-intellectual bullshit some so-called critics spout about the movies. When you create an academic subject, it seems that reality goes out the window and, rather than look at the movies, some people just look up their own arses

Last night, I went to a special screening of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 movie If…. introduced by Sir Alan Parker. He had chosen If…. as the movie which had most influenced him, despite the fact that its director Lindsay Anderson didn’t much like him and had once (with John Schlesinger) sued him in the courts for defamation of character over a cartoon he had drawn.

In fact, it seemed, Alan Parker had mostly chosen If…. because he greatly admired its director of photography Miroslav Ondricek, not its director.

A lot of film criticism is utter twaddle written from the bizarre ivory towers of academia. I can never get over the stupidity of film courses which claim that the ideal movie is Casablanca and therefore, by extension, people should follow the example of Casablanca when writing a film script.

Casablanca was a terrible mess of movie production. The truth is that the actors – along with everyone else on the movie – had no idea what was going to happen at the end and had no idea if the Ingrid Bergman character was going to go off with Humphrey Bogart or Paul Henreid in the final scene, so could not tailor their performances accordingly.

Virtually each night, after completing a hard day’s shooting, they were given new script pages and script rewrites for the next day’s shooting. Neither the director not the producer and especially not the writers (credited as Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch with an uncredited Casey Robinson, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison) – nobody – had any idea what was going on.

So the ideal way to shoot a movie would be (in this ludicrous theory) to start shooting with no finished script and actors who have no idea what their characters think or feel.

Much has been written about the fact that If…. has some sequences in colour and some in black & white. I had heard this was because they had run out of money and (surprisingly in 1968) it was cheaper to shoot in black & white.

Alan Parker said last night that he had heard the interiors of the church were shot in black & white because shooting in colour would have required much more lighting and, as a relatively low-budget film, they could not afford that, so Miroslav Ondricek shot with faster black & white film. The rest of the black & white sequences appeared to be simply random and done on a whim.

As for the auteur theory that the director creates and controls everything, at the summit of this must be Stanley Kubrick, who was a legendary control freak. There are stories of him going to suburban cinemas with a light meter and taking readings off the screen so he would know the intensity of light with which his films had to be screened for optimum viewing by ordinary audiences.

He insisted on take after take after take of scenes – sometimes 50 times for one shot – so that the lighting, framing, acting et al were perfect.

A Clockwork Orange is one film of his that has been written about endlessly

But, last night, Alan Parker said the star of A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell, had told him that, when cast in the lead role of Alex, he wasn’t sure how to play the part and had asked Lindsay Anderson for advice. Anderson told McDowell to remember the slight smile he had put on his face as the character Mick Travis when entering the gym for the beating sequence in If…. and to play the character of Alex like that throughout A Clockwork Orange. McDowell said it was the best piece of direction he had ever received.

The auteur theory?

Academic film critics?

They might as well get a colonoscopy and stick the camera up their arse.

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