Friday, June 18, 2010

Day 71: The Mexicans wave

I’ve just got up from the TV having watched Mexico beat France 2-0 at the World Cup in South Africa, all-but putting Les Bleus on the Air France plane back to Paris....they’ll need an act of Dieu to see them through to the next round.

Mexico have always hung around the fringes of World Cups - they hosted the competition in 1986 and, for me and many others of my footballing generation, famously in 1970; maybe they’re having a mini-renaissance on the football pitch this year?

There was certainly a regeneration of Mexican filmmaking and filmakers a few years back, with successful films like Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Comes Too), the film which introduced us to the charismatic young actor Gael García Bernal, then Salma Hayek with her successful film Frida. But the pick of the piñata has been the collaborations between director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his screenwriting partner Guillermo Arriaga, the exciting combination that brought us Amores Perros, 21 Grams and the towering achievement that is Babel. Unfortunately, the last I heard, director and writer were no longer talking to each other and going in their respective creative directions; talk about life imitating art?

Babel is a wonderful, wonderful film, it’d be in my top 10 for sure. Babel is “a film made up of 4 stories in 3 continents and in 5 languages”. The continents are (North) Africa, (Central & North) American and Asia (Japan). Señor Iñárritu talks of the film being about the complex relationships between parents and children, the cultural borders that divide us and the “real borders within ourselves that can only be erased by compassion”. It’s also a film about the inadequacy of our words and language.

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett paly a married couple desperately trying to put their marriage back together, after the death of an infant, by going on a bus tour of Morocco. It is here that Susan (Blanchett) is accidentally shot by two boys, from a distance, with a rifle just traded for a goat by their peasant father. That rifle had been a gift, to the Berber who sold it, from a Japaneses business man who’d been on a hunting trip to North Africa. That Japanese man, now back in Tokyo, is having the toughest of times rebuidling his relastionship with his daughter (Rink Kikuchi). And in America, whilst Richard (Brad Pitt) is trying to save his wife Susan, from dying, their children have gonen missing in the desert near the USA-Mexico border whilst under the care of their Mexican nanny.

Iñáritu and Arriaga juggle the stories with dexterity, using the same structural format that they employed in 21 Grams, that of flashback narrative, multiple protagonists, tandem narrative, parallel narrative and sequential narrative. They use every trick in the book and the result is sublime. Actually, let me just back up there a minute as I'm doing these two brilliant filmmakers a disservice and a discredit. There’s no “tricks” here at all, they are simply employing scriptwriting tools that are in every screenwriter’s tool bag....but be warned, they are not simple tools to use, you have to be at the top of your craft when working with them.

The best reference book for understanding this style of screenwriting, is one I’ve mentioned here before: 'Scriptwriting Updated' by Linda Aronson. I can’t recommend this book enough, if you apire to write films like Babel, The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan), Crimes and Misdemeanours (Woody Allen) and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino).

What Babel looks like on screen, is four stories, in which the writing partnership of Iñárritu and Arriaga, took their pile of Index Cards, threw them up in the air and told the story as and where they landed....that’s what it looks like to the naked, untrained eye. Maybe it's exactly what they did?? Surely not?

Day #71 Tip: Organise your story
For 70 days, I’ve been assembling my pile of Index Cards, gradually building moments and scenes in my film, looking to assemble about 200 or more to give me 40-60 to create the Story Outline of my screenplay. It’s getting near the time where I’ll be sitting down and assembling them into an order, a story flow, the narrative skeleton of my script. It’s a good time to have a quick flick through what I’ve got so far.

I know the rough story structure of my film, I ‘ve talked here (in the early pages) of the need to delineate Acts, create an Inciting Incident, First Act Turning Point, Progressive Complications and a Climax (I’m still to talk about the Second Act Turning Point, the Crisis and the Resolution/Denouement). So, I have a rough idea of the shape my story’s going to take and, flicking through the cards, I can get an idea of where in the story I’m deficient or where I might have an embarrasment or riches. For me, a quick tour of those cards and I can tell that I’ve got plenty of material for the First and Third Acts but I’m a little light in the middle, the Second Act. Browsing the cards now, will tell me where I need to turn my attention to in the coming two or three weeks left in this stage of my process.

That’s all very good, straightforward, logical and uncomplicated, but what if you want to do what Iñárritu and Arriaga did with Babel? I don’t know how to answer that question and neither, really, do I know how to ask it. My point is this: are the new and non-traditional screen storytelling structures employed because the story demands it or because I, the writer, demand it? I can only come back to McKee’s question of “what’s more powerful for my screenplay” and reach for my copy of Linda Aronson’s book to understand a little more.

I just need to remind myself that Tower of Babel was a tower built by man in an attempt to reach heaven, which God frustrated by confusing the languages of its builders so they could not understand one another (Genesis 11:1-9).

This storytelling business, Mexican or otherwise, is quite a task, is it not?

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