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By Rob Edwards · December 11, 2014
Last week we talked about the importance of breaking down the styles of other filmmakers. We said that, if you intend to write something Hitchcock-esque, it's good to watch a little Hitchcock and break it down. It's not only a great way to learn from the legends, but emulating the icons is something that professional writers are frequently asked to do. In fact, I've been asked to do it at least a dozen times this year. Either way, breaking down styles is a good skill to have in your back pocket. Think of it this way, if you're going to play Paul in a Beatles cover band and you don't know that he plays left-handed Hofner violin bass, you're committing malpractice. Similarly, if you're trying to take Judd Apatow's style and adapt it to a zombie movie, it's good to have an approach to the hours of homework ahead of you.
Remember, the producer you're meeting with has already done his research and is probably a huge fan of the filmmaker or genre he's asking you to dive into. Cutting corners won't help you. You'll just end up doing a lot of work only to get nailed when they poke at the one thing you decided not to examine.
So, let's get to work…
I'm a bit of a structural purist. I eat structure for breakfast. So that's the first thing I take a look at. We all know that movies are supposed to start with character introductions and then move into an INCITING INCIDENT about 12 minutes in, right? We know that because we're writers and we know what movies are. We also know they break into ACT II at about 30 minutes, etc. If you don't know that stuff, go to my blog, I'll get you caught up. In either case, knowing not only what rules are being broken, but how they'e being broken will really help you understand the idiosyncrasies of most artists' styles.
Some filmmakers, like The Coen Brothers and Aaron Sorkin, like long luxurious character introductions before the INC/INC. Others, like J.J. Abrams and Kurtzman and Orci are like clockwork. Then you look at a movie like The Devil Wears Prada where Aline Brosh McKenna puts the INC/INC in the second scene and you start to see what I'm talking about.
Also, third acts are like fingerprints for most filmmakers. Many, including myself, have a specific idea of how a good movie should end if it's going to have people laughing, crying and cheering. Everybody goes at it differently, but a comparative study of third acts will give you tremendous insights into the overall structure of the film (you understand what's being said if you understand how it's paying off.)
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. Most iconic filmmakers tend to gravitate toward the same actors. They're also drawn to the same types of protagonist. Some like anti-heroes. Some, like me, prefer dynamic characters that are the best in the world at what they do. Taking a look at them will give you a tremendous amount of intel.
Let's look at three different characters from three of James Cameron's movies. Ridley from Aliens. Sarah Connor from The Terminator. Princess Neytiri from Avatar. You can tell that James Cameron likes a certain type of amazing badass chick. If I was going to write something James Cameron-esque, I'd probably start there.
I'm using the term environment here. Not location or setting. I'm talking urban versus rural. Futuristic versus historical. Innocent nostalgic worlds versus cynical angry ones. Racial or cultural subsets. Most writers write what they know so, even if the setting is the old west, if the world you know is Chicago during the 70's, that's the environment you're going to write.
The environment for a Scorsese western is still New York Italian. A Terry Gilliam office comedy is still going to have hints of Monty Python cut-out cartoon, etc.
If you've ever listened to a show called "The Treatment" on KCRW, hosted by a film critic named Elvis Mitchell, you would discover two things 1) Elvis Mitchell has total recall of every movie ever made and 2) Elvis Mitchell has an uncanny ability to sum up the entirety of a person's career in one bite. We're all telling the same stories over and over, in different ways, hoping that someone will listen. Elvis, who is like the best therapist in the world, would cut right to the chase.
Rob Reiner tells father and son stories because that's what's important to him. John Lasseter tells stories about the important balance between work and family. A quick look at what drives Ariel, Aladdin, Hercules and Tiana will tell you mountains about the themes that inspire two brilliant directors that I've worked with, Ron Clements and John Musker.
Did Brian De Palma watch a lot of Hitchcock? Does Peter Bogdanovich know his way around Orson Welles movies? How about J. J. Abrams, a dash of Rod Serling, a pinch of Steven Spielberg? We all have influences. If you're breaking down styles, avoiding this step is like trying to figure out apple cider without taking a look at an apple. Look at the influence in its purity and then look at what it's evolved into. Even in television, knowing what other shows the Executive Producer / Creator has worked on can tell you volumes.
This is where Wikipedia can help you. Any biographical material will help. I caution you to do your own homework and make sure you've found things. Sometimes the critics get it wrong.
The musician Prince used to record all of his instruments himself. He'd get frustrated that two different musicians might be thinking two different things and end up ever so slightly out of sync. Later with his band, The New Power Generation, he embraced the funkiness. Yes, I'm a huge Prince fan… but the point is that the "funkiness" is often the key to success. The broken rules. The asymmetry. What seems sloppy may be intentional.
Some filmmakers switch protagonists once or twice during their films. Some introduce their antagonists first and make you wait forever before you meet the movie's hero. Some write straight-ahead, paint themselves into structural corners and then burn the building down to get out of their third acts.
It's important to note here that most of the quirks used by the masters are things mortals like us would get pilloried for if we put them in our specs so proceed with caution here.
Okay, so now that we have the methods. Let's take a look at this in action. I recently broke down Quentin Tarantino's style because A) He's awesome, B) I desperately wanted to try to figure out how he adeptly mixes dramatic tension and humor because those are two things I'd like to develop within my own style and C) I had a little time on my hands. I joyously poured over his movies for weeks. And what did I find? It would take a book or to for me to share all of it with you, but I'll give you the juicy bits next week. See you then! Class dismissed!