The Anatomy of Story - Episode 1

Development Exec Angeli MacFarlane untangles storytelling with a group of filmmakers who had submitted to the Postroom.

23 June 2016
This is a BFI.NETWORK podcast and I'm Matimba Kabalika -
in May, Development Exec.
Angeli MacFarlane came in and shared her brilliant tho
ughts/ideas/tips with a group of emerging
filmmakers who'd submitted to the Post Room.
We just couldn't let this opportunity go by without ma
king sure we grabbed it and popped it on a
podcast, but we've broken it down into three chapters f
or you (you're welcome) - it just means
that you can factor in coffee breaks, trips to the loo a
nd calling your Mum in between hearing
about how to develop your story.
So - here it is. Let's join Angeli in Screening Room 1
in the basement of the BFI - this episode
she talks about structure: People, places, problems and ch
anges.
Transcript
 
Matimba: This is a BFI.NETWORK podcast and I'm Matimba Kabalika - in May, Development Exec. Angeli MacFarlane came in and shared her brilliant thoughts, ideas and tips with a group of emerging filmmakers who'd submitted to the Postroom. 
 
We just couldn't let this opportunity go by without making sure we grabbed it and popped it on a podcast for you, but we've broken it down into three chapters (you're welcome) - it just means that you can factor in coffee breaks, trips to the loo and calling your Mum in between hearing about how to develop your story.
 
Let's join Angeli in Screening Room 1 in the basement of the BFI - in this episode she talks about structure: People, places, problems and changes.
 
Angeli: Okay. So shall I start? When Matimba and I talked about how we're going to make this day work, you know we talked about this sort of idea of the anatomy of story and how we can talk about film making and storytelling in such a way with you guys that we can really think about, you know, what are ways that will unlock certain mechanisms in your thinking and in your development process that will help you as you move forward.  
 
So that's what I'm doing is the anatomy of story, or as I said I wished I'd trained to be a doctor and then I'd earn more money and have a regular life but hey. Or maybe not with this government but anyway that's another whole issue.  
 
What we need to do is...what we're going to do is kind of wander through the process of storytelling today and look at sort of I feel anyway about the issues that writers face. When I mean writers, I also obviously mean writer-directors, but the director with the writing hat on. Is what are the issues that you face and how do we best approach the process? Where do you start? I always ask the writers I work with, "What do you start with? Do you start with an image, do you start with a setting, do you start with a problem, a person?" And when people say issues, I'm like, "Hmm, okay, that's the trickiest one of all. It's not impossible but it's the trickiest." 
 
But everybody has their own way in and everybody has to find their way in. But then once you've decided what it is that you think you want to write about, how do you then structure your work? How do you structure the process in such a way that you're more likely to get where you need to go, a, quicker and b, in a better way? And then once you've done it, how do you push through that material several times over? Because you have to in order to get it again to end up finding exactly where you want it to be or as close as possible in terms of where you'd like it to be.  
 
So we've all read the screenwriting books, yeah? Yeah? Some of them, most of them? I mean I run kind of a diploma course for the National Film School and one of the things that we do is get the students to read screenwriting books. It's about script development so I've had to read them and then they keep coming so I have to keep with the new ones. And of the things that screenwriting books are really big one is structure, structure, structure, how do you plot, how do you structure? 
 
So I want to look at that today. I want to look at, it's not a dig or denigration of anything that's out there but it is thinking about how do you organize that material in your own head? What is the best way to approach some of the incredibly useful chapters and books on things like that? Well not so much now but there seem to be kind of a big rush to work out how many structures there are. How many story types are there, how many ways can you kind of cut the cloth of a movie which is sort of 90 or 100 minutes which in and of itself creates a restriction which is both extremely useful and limiting? 
 
So, you know, there seem to be this kind of big things about well is it three, is it five, is it seven, I think John Truby said it was 22, and all of those things. They're all really, really interesting because they all give us insight into the breakdown of how a story is put together.  
 
But I think what matters more than anything is for us to understand what constitutes structure, rather than how do you divide it up. Because the division of structure, in storytelling terms, for me is something that mostly is suited to the story and it's not a generic thing. And therefore, you are the best person to decide what is the best way to structure your piece. Given you're all extremely well versed in the notion of storytelling structure then I don't worry about that.  
 
There's a point in the development of the project where I do worry if things are not working out but I don't worry in early development because it isn't important then. It really isn't and the idea of writing a beat sheet early on for me is an anathema because for me, the way to get into story is not that way and that's my way of doing things and I just can only be me in this context.  
 
So does it matter? Of course, it matters but you've got to know when, when it matters. That's the thing about everything in life really, isn't it? Does it matter now to scream at your partner about putting the bins out? No, because the baby is in the washing machine, you know, by accident by the other child. So is it appropriate to scream? No, no. So right now that doesn't matter. So there's an order of events in which things matter. Sorry about the washing machine example, that's really horrendous. Sorry, I don't know why I brought that up. I just sometimes say weird things.  
 
Okay. Why does it matter when it comes to building a script? Well obviously people, and I've deliberately used sort of non-film words here, you know, because the normal thing is character conflict. So I just got rid of that for a second and gone, this is what matters, people, places, problems, and change, that's what matters. That's what story is about. It's about people and I like to think about my characters as people because, not that you don't, I'm not saying that for a second, but they are people and they are people with whom I am having a relationship. And that relationship is going to change and evolve over the course of the development but it is a relationship.  
 
And therefore, if I see it in that way rather than me constructing a character then it helps me to recognize from the word go in the development process that this person that I have created is an entity in his or her own right. And therefore, that person needs the respect and the due diligence that is required for an entire human being that you have to treat in a way that is gonna get the best out of them, right? Because that's what you want from your people, you want the best out of them. And if the best is terrible, that's not quite, that's a moral judgment thing. It's not about what kind of person they are but it's getting the best out of them in terms of what they need to do for your story to work. So that's a kind of way of looking at it.  
 
Places, there is nothing about a story that is going to work without the specificity of the story setting and the story world. And the idea of there being generic story detail is again to me very problematic. So when I hear or I read in the script, it could be anywhere, and I go well, maybe then my reactions could be anything and that's not what you want from me. What you want is a very specific reaction. You want me to engage with the material in a very specific way. You want me to have a certain reaction to the place, to the problem, to the person that you are in control of. So if you're not in control of the shape of the story in the physical world then also, I think it's much harder for a director. And it does tend to be writers who do that rather than writer-directors, I have to say, because writer-directors tend to know straight away that they can't film anywhere. They have to film somewhere. So that is a really important consideration for you. 
 
And problems, okay, so characters have problems right, and there are two types of problems that characters have. They have and this is how a story structure tends to divide up and we'll come to that. And this is my big thing here really is that it's the problems that drive the story because characters have two problems. They have the problems inside of themselves and the problems outside in the world. And we like to talk about them in three ways really which is internal problems, external problems, and then interpersonal problems. So that's the sort of the connectivity between the external problem and the internal problem are people. So it's the way we relate to each other that creates another level of problem. 
 
So if we think about our characters in that way straight away, we say to our self, "Well, my character cannot be acting all the time out of an internal problem because the audience will find that very hard to understand." If I'm filming a character going, "I really hate my mother, I really hate my mother," it's like will I throw a plate on the floor? How am I going to know? If I've just had a conversation with my mother on the phone and she drove me crazy, yes, I get it but you've externalized it, you've made it interpersonal. It's no longer internal. Do you see what I mean? 
 
So there is a tendency I think sometimes for writing to drive a character's actions through their internal problems and therefore their internal need. And I would put it to you right now that actually nobody does that in the real world. You know, when we ask ourselves, "Why did I do that?" We go, "Oh, god, yes, now, I've just suddenly remembered why. Prior to that, I had a really difficult phone call with so and so and it made me go out and drink more pints than I should have done. But I didn't at the time think because I went to the party and I wasn't going to have fun and then my mate was saying I hadn't seen him for ages and I went, 'Oh you know what,' and then I sort of..." It turned into a whole other thing. Do you see what I mean? 
 
So what is driving the action is not the phone call or rather the internal need that creates the phone call. What's driving the action is meeting somebody who wants to drink with you. Do you see what I'm saying? So we really do have to think very carefully about the audience's understanding of a character's problem and what causes them to behave in a certain way.  
 
So we'll come on to character in a minute, in a little while, about half an hour. But the internal drive of a character acts as motivation but the reason for acting is usually real world. So we need to make sure that our stories are doing both of those things at any given time.  
 
Now change, there has to be change. Movies are about transformation. The nature of the moving image in and of itself is...I mean I know that images don't move, the digital image doesn't move quite the same way as the old movie image moves through the projector. And that sort of sense of motion picture and movement it's very intrinsic in film language. And I think it's quite helpful leaving aside its reality and going back to its symbolism. It's really helpful to think about film story telling at its very essence is about transformation. It's about moving and moving a character through space and time and filming them moving through space and time and telling us something as you move them through space and time that transforms our relationship with the person, that's movement number one, and transforms the character's relationship with the world, that's movement number two, and then movement number three is putting those two things together and creating an emotional experience that we didn't know we were going to have when the film started. Do you see what I mean?  
 
So it's all about movement. So if there is no change, there's no storytelling. That does not mean that your character has to change. That does mean that you need a positive outcome. It does not mean that you need conclusive transformation. That's not what I'm saying at all. And that are...you know, you look to me like a really clever, quite well-established bunch of people in your own worlds. I can sort of...I'm getting this vibe of, you know, "I've done this before and I want to listen but I've got a bit of a toolbox here. I do know what I'm doing," which is cool because I think what we can then bump into when we talk personally as well really specifically is, "Well I've had this problem, how would you have solved that? I did this on my last film and it didn't work out for me. In my script right now, blah," do you see what I mean?  
 
So we can be quite specific about stuff like this because the generic nature of talking about story can in and of itself be wonderful. But then you go and you go, "What? How do I apply that to my thinking?" It's quite [inaudible 00:11:47] ending is all about saying to your audience, "That was the journey. It makes sense so there's credibility there and I give you this. This is my gift to you." And I walk out of the cinema feeling something or I shut down my laptop having experienced something. And that's my gift to you because that's what I do, right? If I'm a filmmaker, why am I a filmmaker? Because I want to give my audience something that's not, I'm not doing it hopefully to make my mom happy. I keep talking about moms, I don't know why.  
 
There is no other reason, I think, apart from that desperate, desperate need to say something. And then the job of making the film is to find out how to say it. And then the job of actually completing the film is deciding how that communicates to the audience. So it's just a process, isn't it, as we're all aware? Okay. 
 
So what is your real beginning point, how do you start? Okay. So I think there are various places that you start. As I said before, I think you recognize your building blocks so we're not talking about structure, we're talking about building blocks and I like that because I'm kind of quite into the whole idea of using architecture and music to think about story because they're all in... The way that we create is all interrelated. The way that we build music or we build a ballet or a dance or the way we build a building is all, has at its heart, a desire to communicate and to express a need that is felt both in the person who is the creator and anticipated in the audience, the user, right? So the bridge is between those two things.  
 
So we have to find a way to get this. So what are the building blocks that might get us there? So translating back what I was just saying into film speak, of course, is that people are your characters. So your first building block may well be your characters and your second building block may well be your setting or story or whatever you refer it to. Your third building block may well be the what if, the problem. Well what if John, you know, decides one day he's going to do this and then this happens? So you start with a problem. You're not starting with action. You're starting with a problem and that's what's really important to remember is that what you don't then have to do is go well if that happens then this has to happen and that has to happen and that has to happen and then that has to happen. And drive yourself crazy spending your early development days trying to work at how to connect the events. Disastrous.  
 
Someone like me will come along and just go, "Do you know I did this once?" I took a script in front of some students. I tore it up and I did it very spontaneously. It wasn't rehearsed. I wasn't putting on a show. I can be a big show, but that wasn't a show. I did it to show them that it really didn't matter what they've done because it was all in there, it was all felt, it was all understood but the script really wasn't working and we didn't need the script to make the movies so we had to start again.  
 
And I didn't anticipate the level of horror and shock that I would create, I really didn't. I mean I learned a long time ago for example to never...you know, if I've got a script that I've printed which I rarely do these days, sadly for my eyes but better for the trees, is when I do print out scripts, I learned many years ago never to write on them in red pen because that's very teacherly and it's like whoa, you know? So you learn to sort of treat people's work in such a way that as perceived by the writing, you're not denigrating or disrespecting their efforts. To tear a script up in front of a writer is well that's basically quite disrespectful, isn't it? But as I said, I did it. I just did it and then it took me quite a while to unpack my own behavior and to sort of obviously seek forgiveness for this heinous act.  
 
But I have to say I reside by my intention which was to make them understand that the plot mechanisms by which they had laid out the story were not where the magic was at. And they could lose it and start again and it wouldn't matter. They would still have...and in fact that was my point. You need a better film. There's a better film in there. That's not the one, get rid of it, go away, we don't need you. Plus of course it's on their computer so ripping it up is gestural. It's symbolic and not real. I'm not going to do it again because having done it, obviously I am a nice person, I realize that that was not an appropriate way to behave. But the point is made, okay.  
 
So problems, you know there are sort of four stages of a problem in a movie and this in and of itself creates your structure. So you know already sort of how you're going to, what structure is. So then you just fit plot to it and I know that make that sounds easy but I will break that down in terms of how I feel about it, how I think when I'm working on scripts. So your problems are that you have a conflict at the start, the what if so and so happens, okay now what? 
 
So the now what is then escalated into a series of events that will create a crisis for the character and probably more than one crisis. And the obvious crisis that obviously comes out of the original problem and other crises that don't, such as side crises. But they're necessary sidesteps in order to take the character back where they need to go which will result in the world providing a focal point, a climactic point where everything needs to come together and the crisis is addressed fully, followed by resolution.  
 
You know so I know this is...I didn't make this up. I'm not being clever but this is essentially what your building blocks are. So when we come to look at structure, we need to think about how do you plot those and where are they? And it's quite interesting, for example, at treatment stage to do the right thing in treatment writing which is to get the story down. Who are these people, where are they, what is the problem, how does it feel to be in their world, what is my relationship with the world? And let's sort of get them to the end and we can hop, skip, and jump over a few of the avenues that we're not going to go down yet because we don't know exactly how this is going to play out.  
 
Then what we can do is we can go back and having talked about that and discussed the character's relationships with each other and inner need versus outer want, you know, all of those kinds of things that we talk about, we can do another treatment where we can actually say, "Okay, try and see if you can nail those turning points. Where are they and have a look?" Don't rethink it, just do it. And break your paragraph down of your treatments in such a way that it becomes clear where the conflict starts, where it escalates, where the crisis occurs, where the climax occurs, and where the resolution occurs. See if you can see where they are, okay.  
 
In a short film, it's just truncated. It's no different. It's just there are fewer beats inevitably and one problem. That's my big thing about shorts, one problem please, one big idea, one problem. Any other problems, they're interconnected. Give a character two problems, suddenly you've got half a movie and too much in a short film script. So you make a choice, okay. 
 
And then back to the emotive ending thing, that's where you're connecting with the audience. So the ending delivers, okay. So the ending of a movie is not when the plot ends. The ending of a movie is when you say to the audience, "And this is my gift to you." This is what I'm saying. This is how it feels to be that person right now having been through what they've been through and I see them driving off in the bus or I see them holding hands with their lover or whatever it may be. That is the moment when I go, I get it, I feel it. I felt it all the way through but now I feel it and I understand it. Yeah? So we connect heart and head in that moment.  
 
You know because a lot of screenwriting is about that brain work. You know, a lot of screenwriting, a lot of the talking we do in development is all about the stuff that you're never going to see. It's all about informing what will be seen on the screen in such a way that everything is completely clear. Okay.  
 
That doesn't mean to say that it's not complex. Clarity does not necessarily denote simplicity. So you know, because obviously, I've been in this situation quite a lot talking to people and I know that people say to me, "Yes but, yes but, yes, but my story is different, it's much more symbolic than real. My story is this. You know, my story, I don't want a happy ending. I want an open."  
 
I go, "Yeah, that's cool." All of those things I can work with still using this structure because there's something much more important than the level of obviousness if you like versus ambiguity that a writer needs to employ, okay. It's a bit like that kind of [inaudible 00:20:36] isn't it, of, you know, you learn the rules and then you break the rules. But learn the rules and execute them and then break them, really, ideally. Because that way you know that you're in charge of your breaking process.  
 
Okay. The writer's voice, this is my big thing. What am I trying to say? How am I using the tools the screenwriting said? How am I connecting to my potential audience?  
 
I want to start over the bottom note that my voice is my primary tool. The anatomy of my voice is the anatomy of my stories. I worry a lot when people say to me, "I want to do something different." And I go, "Different to who? Different to [inaudible 00:21:15]? Different to Jane Campion? Different to me? Different to your last film? What do you mean? Different to what? Are you saying that you want to be unique and that you want to say something no one has said before? What are you saying? What do you mean?"  
 
There's nothing wrong with saying that but you need to identify what do you mean by that? It's not okay to say that because it's meaningless. It's like saying I want to make a film about love. All films are about love in some way. Well the worst one is I'm going to make a film about identity. Films literally always are about identity so that's not helpful to me. I get you're thinking what are you going to say about identity?  
 
So what do you want to say in terms of being different, what do you mean? How are you going to be different? What is your intention? And is your intention to be unique because if it is, then I think you should stop trying right now. Pointless. It's like me getting up in the morning and just pretending to be someone else. Why would I do that? I mean I might do it for a laugh, confuse my kids, but you know, as a storyteller, the most important thing I need to do is actually say, "I do have a voice, what is it? What am I saying?"  
 
And that's not sitting there being self-analytical in a, "You know, I can't write if I don't know what I'm about," type way because I think the process of creating anything is a process of feeling your way towards understanding yourself. When you get to the end of that journey, you think, "Oh, good, well I've understood that about myself" but that frees up a whole heap of other questions about who I am and what I do and why I am the way I am. Oh, no I need to make another film, you know, or make a piece of it. Whatever I need to do, I need to that. I need, it's the imperative, it's the drive, it's the creative drive is a need. It's not a passion on its own. It comes from a deep rooted need. 
 
I was working with someone the other day, a young writer. We were talking about this, about the process, about the discipline of writing and she said to me, "Oh good, the writing bit is not a problem. I write every single day. I couldn't possibly not do that because otherwise I'd die," I went, "That's what I want to hear. That's exactly what I want to hear." You know so she knows already that she needs to write and if she doesn't write then there's something about her identity that is lacking. Therefore, she already knows that she has a voice but she doesn't know how to use it yet so the processes of understanding what it is. And that's partly the physicality of film making allowing you to have something concrete to say through your actors and the settings that you create and the way that you use the camera and the techniques that you use etc., etc. So all the toolbox of film making becomes a series of mechanisms through which your voice is projected.  
 
So as I said you don't have to invent it, you have to find it. And as I said, I don't think it's necessarily going and saying, "Oh, this is my voice." This is saying, "This is what I want to say. This is what I care about. This is what matters to me. This is why I am so exercised by things."  
 
You know one of the things I say to filmmakers I'm working with particularly when I'm teaching is write about; you don't say write about things you know about. Yeah, I think there's value to that particularly when you're starting out perhaps. But I say write about things you care about. That's really important because if you need to go out and do the research because you actually don't know a great deal about fracking for example. God help us if we make a film about fracking.  
 
But I've realized more and more the films that I've worked on and the writers and directors that I work with, the people that I work with and choose to work with again and again and again is because everything they bring me, I don't necessarily know that I wanted to know more about that subject matter. But the way they bring it to me makes me want to know more. Because their connection to it is so strong and so meaningful already even if they have no idea what they're trying to say about the subject matter. But there's something meaningful in their connection to it and the desire to see it realized that gets me excited about they're trying to do.  
 
I mean obviously that's partly intellectual curiosity but it's not just that. It's about trusting the voice of the person you're working with. To use the rigor and the discipline and the effort that is required as a writer to get somewhere with the material, and to shape it in such a way that it'll end up being interesting for the audience. That's the voice.  
 
So the person is not saying to me, "Angeli, please come out to my house and listen to my voice." No, they're saying, "Please come around. I've alighted on something and really, I think it's great. I really think there's something in this. Do you agree with me? Let's have a look, let's dig around, let's see what it's doing." And this is really early days development where there's nothing. There's just a character or an idea, you know, a place and a person perhaps. Maybe there's more. Maybe there's a book I need to read. There's a process undergoing which is absolutely about my trust in that person using, using the story to find more avenues, more corridors, more chambers in which their voice can resonate. Right? They didn't talk about that but I think about it like that because I know that that's what's happening.
 
Matimba: There are two more episodes from Angeli’s talk - thank you to Angeli, BFI Network Team and producer Marie as always. There’s more to read, watch and hear at the BFI Network website. Thank you for listening and you’re always welcome to tell us what you think of our podcasts because we make them for you – so tweet us @bfinetwork.