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Directors Tell the Story
Master the Craft of Television and Film Directing
By Bethany Rooney Mary Lou Belli
Focal Press Copyright © 2011 Bethany Rooney and Mary Lou Belli
All right reserved.
Chapter One Breaking Down the Script for Story
The late great director Sydney Pollack said, "The director is the teller of the film, the director tells the movie, like you would tell a story, except in this case you're telling a movie." So how do you become a good teller? One of the most important skills a director needs is to be able to read well! The director's first task is to interpret the script, so it is critical that you develop the ability to read and understand the material. You have to be able to break down the story into its parts and map out how those parts add up to the whole.
The good news is that people have been telling stories forever: Homer writing about Odysseus, troubadours singing epic tales, cowboys spinning yarns around campfires. Storytellers intuitively knew what the writers of television scripts try to achieve with every episode they create: that a story is a journey.
As the director, you must read the script and be able to see how to take the viewer along on the trip as you tell the story. You want to inspire your audience to feel as you did when you first read the script—to experience the highs and the lows, the tears or the laughter that the screenwriter inspired in you—while they are watching the pictures you created in our visual medium. Ideally, you will not only recreate the script in picture form but also elevate it by making the words come to life.
The first step in accomplishing this goal is reading and interpreting the script.
READING WELL: YOUR SECRET WEAPON
So how do you, the director, acquire this basic tool in your arsenal of needed skills? You read ... a lot. In fact, you read everything you can. You go along for a ride with each and every book, story, and script you read. Then you look at the ride that you took and figure out how you got there. By analyzing every story you've read, you'll start to see the similarities and differences between them. You'll notice that some engage you and others don't. You'll see why our brethren in the Writers' Guild are to be respected and admired for their skill at constructing a script that has an interesting plot and enough pathos to engage us for an hour (including six commercial breaks).
You know that basic dramatic structure has three parts: the rising action, the climax, and the dénouement. An inciting action can kick off the story and complications keep your attention. Once you are engaged and along for the ride, there will be more complications and turning points to keep you interested, and it will all build to one big moment: the climax of the story. The resolution, or dénouement, brings you home or completes the story. The basic concept is to make sure that the story points follow each other logically. You should ask yourself whether each event leads to the next and provides both the information and the emotional arc that you need.
You might ask why a director has to know about screenwriting and dramatic structure. The simple answer is that an architect cannot design a beautiful building without first having the knowledge of how to build that structure. Otherwise, he will design a building that will fall down. A director similarly needs to know how a story is structured in order to tell it beautifully.
Without the building blocks of structure, a story will collapse. If you are lucky enough to direct a script that is already in great shape, you can move on to your other directing tasks, explanations of which constitute the rest of this book. But if the script needs work, your efforts will be more complex. Either way, the director's first job is to break down the script for story.
READING FOR FUN AND TO GET THE BIG PICTURE
How do you begin? You read it. Your first read should be just for fun. It's Mary Lou's favorite read because this is the only read when every element of the story is a surprise. You will hopefully have an emotional response to the story. Notice where that happens; it will be key to your directing the episode and the choices you make. You want your audience to experience those feelings at the same places in your completed film. Next, summarize the story for yourself in one sentence. Writers call this the logline. You've seen these one-line summaries countless times in TV Guides or on your TiVo summary: So and so does so and so and it results in so and so.
Also ask yourself: what the idea is behind the episode. Sidney Pollack gave a great example of this when describing one of his critically and financially successful hits in which Dustin Hoffman, in a brilliant comic turn, portrayed an unhappy, out-of-work actor who impersonates a woman in order to get a job. Pollack often said, "The idea in Tootsie is that a man becomes a better man for having been a woman."
In the television shows like Grey's Anatomy, which Bethany has directed, and Sex in the City, it is simple to identify the idea behind the episode: the voiceover at the beginning of the episode tells you. What the show is about, or its central theme, is important to keep in mind while you're directing, so every scene helps illuminate that concept. But it's also important to keep in mind that the theme is not the plot; the theme is illustrated by the plot. Pollack gives you an example in the "better man for having been a woman" phrase. You should be able to describe the theme simply: for example, an underdog classic, a faith versus science struggle, a tale of redemption, a fish out of water story. We are using the same themes today that the ancient Greeks and Romans employed; a TV director today is a modern-day Homer. The plots are most definitely different, but the themes are universal.
There are other things that you should also note during the first read, beginning with the basic structure of the story. If it's a procedural drama, there might be a tried-and-true formula that is the spine of every story. Let's take the popular and well-crafted Law & Order and its many spinoffs. It starts with a crime that is investigated by the officers (the Law part) who find the culprit who has perpetrated the crime. Then the lawyers (the Order part) prosecute the suspect; it ends in the climax, when we find out whether the culprit is going to jail for the crime. The episode concludes with a quick wrap-up based on the verdict of the trial.
While you are doing that initial read of a procedural or law-based drama, you should be curious about who did the crime. Law & Order purposely leads you down a circuitous path before the story reveals who actually did it. It makes the viewer feel clever for following along, and it gives him insight into the way the police officer's mind and job work. Once you know who did it, the viewer should be rooting for the culprit to be taken down and then either rejoice in the satisfaction of justice being served or empathize with the prosecutors and detectives who got ripped off if the culprit goes free. After the first read, you should know the emotional arc on which you want to take your audience because you've just experienced it yourself. Regardless of the genre, take care to note your emotional reactions at each point of the script, because from this point on, the director is the stand-in for the audience.
You are creating a story and orchestrating every single element so that the audience will have the same emotional responses you had when reading the script. Everything you do as a director is intended to duplicate for the audience what you first felt when you read the script.
IDENTIFYING THE VARIOUS STORIES
Next, you need to identify the basic plot or "A" story. In a Law & Order script, it might look something like this:
1. Someone is found murdered.
2. The police investigate witnesses. (This plot point may have several subdivisions.)
3. The police make an arrest.
4. The prosecuting attorneys introduce their witnesses; the defense attorneys pick them apart.
5. The defense attorneys introduce their witnesses; the prosecuting attorneys pick them apart.
6. The attorneys make their closing arguments.
7. The jury gives the verdict.
8. The murderer goes to prison or is set free.
After figuring out the "A" story, see if there is a "B" story or a "C" story or subplot(s). These often have something to do with a character's personal life. Sometimes they echo, replicate, or complement the "A" story. Other times, they stand completely on their own. Let's take a "B" story from Cold Case. The actor Danny Pino plays Scotty Valens, a detective whose mother has been raped, but she has not told anyone. He learns about the rape through another case he is investigating. Over several episodes, the detective uses his influence and accesses enough information to figure out who committed the crime and sees the rapist suffer for the pain he inflicted on all the rape victims, especially the detective's mother. This "B" story is ancillary to the main plot. In this case, it is a serial "B" story because it plays out over many episodes. Regardless, it is the director's job to make sure that the plot points are clear for the main plot and the subplots. The director should also ask to read the episodes in which this serial subplot is introduced to track its progress over many episodes.
When Mary Lou was deciding to morph her career from acting into directing, she went to the AFI (American Film Institute) library many times a week. She was not a student there, but the library was (and still is) open and free to the public. Mary Lou created a do-it-yourself "film school" for herself. She either read a book in their collection (often recommended by the librarian) or listened to prerecorded lectures of visiting speakers that AFI had available from their archives. One of those speakers was Mary Lou's favorite director, Sydney Pollack, who was quoted earlier in this chapter. Pollack started as an actor, became a dialog/acting coach, and then became a director. Mary Lou emulated his path and hoped it would be her own.
In one of Pollack's lectures, she recalls him saying that he "named his scenes." That is, he gave each scene a short name that reminded him how each scene moved the main plot forward. It was just a thumbnail sketch but also a critical reminder to him of the underlying importance of every scene to the whole, not just what the conflict was between the characters in each individual scene (something we will explore in the next chapter).
BUILDING YOUR STORY ONE SCENE AT A TIME
Once you have a handle on the big picture, the main plot, and subplot, it's time for you to dissect the subtleties. Read the script again. Get out your pencil. Jot down your ideas in the margin. Notice all the individual plot points and how they logically and sequentially build on the previous point. Bethany usually lists the named scenes on a separate sheet of paper, breaking it down into columns for each storyline, which essentially provides an outline of the script. It also serves as a "cheat sheet" during the shooting when you need to ask yourself, "What is this scene really about?" (See Figure 1-1 for an example.)
A television script typically has six acts, though the trend seems to be a five-act structure. (Until about 1990, television shows had four acts. Many movies and plays are in three acts.) These are separated by commercial breaks, so each act must be a unit that can stand on its own. (You'll learn in Chapter 7 that you should visually design a beginning and ending for each act.) These acts are the building blocks of the episode. Act 1 typically introduces the subject and main characters and jump-starts the audience's interest. Identify for yourself who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist of the "A" story. The protagonist is the central character, the hero, the leading role. It is nearly always a series regular, that is, a person who appears in every episode. The antagonist is the rival, the bad guy, the enemy. This character is often played by a guest star who is contracted for only that episode or the number of episodes it takes to tell his story. Ask yourself, "What is the antagonist doing or what has he done to the protagonist?" Their journey together is the conflict within the script; they are at cross-purposes, and the stronger the conflict, the stronger the story. We'll talk more about their relationship in the next chapter when we break the script down for character. Just note how the act ends. Ask yourself what will compel the audience to come back and find out more.
Excerpted from Directors Tell the Story by Bethany Rooney Mary Lou Belli Copyright © 2011 by Bethany Rooney and Mary Lou Belli. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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