Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lessons from Terry Rossio

This is a tough AFF post to write because I could ramble on and on about Terry Rossio. He was spoken of again and again during AFF as the best reservoir of screenwriting information available at the conference. One film student, who was standing behind me in the overcrowded Friday Night Lights production session and expressing frustration about certain panels, commented to her friend that so far, Terry Rossio had been the only panelist she'd heard who seemed to understand what it was writers really wanted and needed to know.

Terry knows what we need to know and doesn't hesitate to share it. He's been at this mentoring thing for years and doesn't waste his breath and your time on information that won't help . Humble and genuine during the sessions, Terry has a gift for making each person in the room feel like he came just to give them the direct, sincere and personal attention they were looking for. I'll discuss three of his topics but seriously, I could babble on and on.

DIALOGUE - Terry explained a rude awakening he faced when he was working on Aladdin and realized for the first time that his dialogue, when storyboarded, often resulted in the characters just standing around doing nothing for what seemed like interminable periods of time. Animated characters not being animated? Bad. Very bad. That was a turning point for him in his on-the-job education about making films visual and expressing dialogue through action as well as speech.

I had heard this story before on a podcast or DVD commentary somewhere so it didn't surprise me when it came up but then Terry added something else - that it would be helpful for writers, regardless of whether your screenplay is animated or not, to visualize storyboards of your scenes as a sort of litmus test to see if your characters are actually doing anything. That was a Homer Simpson "Doh!" moment for me so genius in its simplicity that I was embarrassed that I hadn't thought of it myself.

SECOND CONCEPTS - This is a new (but not new) theory Terry is planning to put into a Wordplay column and when the subject came up, all I could think was "oh geez, I can barely wrap my brain around HIGH concept, now I need to do it twice?". Well, yeah. That's pretty much the idea. Except it's not necessarily high concept twice. It's just GOOD concept or STRONG concept twice.

Terry's theory is that films with more than one equally compelling concept are twice as compelling. That's about it. Pretty simple. Why have we never discussed this before? Most films have more than one concept, don't they?

For example. Men in Black is basically about an agency that manages the affairs of aliens on earth. That's the first concept. But, it has a second concept, too. The alien crime concept is not a big War of the Worlds type invasion. It's day to day investigating like in Law and Order or CSI that exposes that the world is in danger.

Another example is Terry's own film that he wrote with Bill Marsilii, Deja Vu. The first concept is the capability to fold time for a certain period and witness events while they take place in order to solve crimes. The second concept is a detective falling in love with a girl as he investigates her death.

LINES OF FORCE - This theory is another new theory and difficult to visualize. Terry plans to write a column about it but don't hold your breath. He's a busy man. Three years ago, when I met Terry at AFF for the first time, he told me he had three new columns ready to post on Wordplay. Those columns were just posted this week. He got distracted with a couple of little pirate movies.

Basically, the theory works like this: a line of force is every combination of people, motives, and actions that move a certain event forward (or any other direction) into or away from existence. For example, in Evan Almighty, everything that works toward helping Evan build his ark by September 22nd is one line of force. Everyone whose motives line up with his, all events that move it forward - the arrival of the animals, the purchase of lots so there's room to build, etc - are on a line of force making it possible to build the ark. Everything working to prevent the building of the ark- wife objections, bulldozers, events designed to embarrass Evan, everything that plants a road block- is an opposing line of force.

If we drew these two opposing lines of force, they'd crash some place in the third act. Not all lines of force crash or intersect while some films have several lines of force that all intersect.

Terry suggests that mapping out the various lines of force in a film gives the writer a more holistic understanding of the story elements, their value, and their purpose and will better help the writer convey those ideas to producers, directors, and people holding purse strings and project reins when the need arises.

Of course, I could have taken poor notes and have every bit of this all wrong. You'll just have to wait for the Wordplay columns to find out.

FAVORITE LESSON FROM TERRY ROSSIO - There's no possible way I can list everything this writer has taught me over the years, but at AFF, we can count lessons about dialogue, second concepts, and lines of force among my school-of-Rossio education. However my favorite lesson is one he didn't verbalize but taught by example - that writing tools, methods, and theories are not finite. There's always another way to look at something.


Rochelle Smith said...
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Rochelle Smith said...

Hi, MaryAn!

Glad to hear that you had a good time at the festival. My own experience with AFF (unfortunately) was rather disappointing but I do agree with you on the subject of Mr. Rossio. His "Tell Your Story" Panel on Sunday was by far the most inspirational event for me.

What (if any) were some of your favorite films?


MaryAn Batchellor said...

I only saw a handful of films since they were usually in the evening and I was hopping back and forth between AFF and the hospital where my brother is still hanging out in rough shape. Plus, couldn't walk TOO late to my truck because I usually parked by a homeless shelter. Anyway, I may still see a film or two but I did miss the animated shorts. BUMMER. Liked Reservation Road a whole lot (Mark Ruffio and Joaquin Phoenix) but wanted to see both of the Philip Seymour Hoffman films.