Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Hail! .... HAIL CEASAR. Brilliant!

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

Writers/Directors: ETHAN COEN, JOEL COEN
Eddie Mannix: JOSH BROLIN
Baird Whitlock: GEORGE CLOONEY
Laurence Laurentz: RALPH FIENNES
Thora & Thessaly Thacker: TILDA SWINTON

I went for a lark.

I thought I'd go to the movies just this once for fun. No analysis, no timings in the back of the theater with my iPhone taking notes and risking getting kicked out. Pam was gone for the night, so I ate a Wendy's Apple Pecan Salad in the Emagine Theater parking lot as it started to snow. Went in, bought my Senior Discount ticket, got some chocolate covered almonds (Hey, Lent starts tomorrow), and sitting in my seat put in my new hearing aid so I could understand the dialogue.

I was expecting a brainless, escapism, night at the movies.


Here's a hint.

Hail, Caesar! is (at the same time) all about the fragility and splendor of being human. It is about the inability of humans to do what is right and their perseverance in trying to be better. It's about the darkness of life and the candles we can ignite to bring light into that darkness.  And, it's about how incompetent Hollywood can be and how, at the same time, utterly brilliant and talented the people there are. It's about the difficult of doing what is right and not what is easy.  And all of that under the mercy of our creator. It is a pure movie about the human condition and how we help each other in this dark valley of tears.

HAIL, CAESAR! was entertaining (after a while). I cringed at first...it took a while to figure out what was going on. Hey, it's the Coen brothers and they are two smart directors, but you have to stick with them—they will make you work. There were moments of profound seriousness and scenes that seemed obscure at best. And yet, there were scenes I could not stop laughing (although many of the jokes for me were filmmaking inside jokes. I've directed actors enough and been in editing rooms enough (even with upright Moviolas), that the moments were gut busters...with many homages to the greats of the industry.   There were repeated sends-up of Hollywood and it's ridiculous attempts to get things right but didn't. (When you see the rear view of Jesus on the Cross is not satire of Christianity, it's satire at Hollywood trying to tell the
story of Christ....big difference....don't be confused). There is a dance number that puts Gene Kelly to shame, and Esther Williams's grand water choreography makes an appearance. Enjoy the respites of talent, they're there to remind you of humanity's goodness and how the struggle is worth it.

Thus, I identified easily with the protagonist and his arc....Eddie Mannix, the CAPITAL studio head played by Josh Brolin. Watch him carefully. The movie is NOT about George Clooney's character Baird Whitlock, although Baird's predicament is what drives Eddie's primary, physical goal.

I'll watch it again and do a little amendment on the Moral Premise later. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Why LITTLE BOY Was a Bomb

LITTLE BOY (2015) PG-13

DIRECTOR: Alejandro Monteverde
PRODUCER: Leo Severino (Metanoia Films)
EX PRODUCER: Eduardo Verastegui, Sean Wolfington, Mark Burnett, Roma Downey

Tom Wilkinson (Fr. Oliver)
Cary-Hioyuki Tagawa (Hashimoto)
Emily Watson (Emma Busbee)
David Henrie (London Busbee)
Kevin James (Dr. Fox)
Jakob Salvati (Pepper Busbee / Little Boy)


I am asked now and then to talk more about movies that fail because of a false or misguided moral premise.

So, a couple years back, I girded up my loins and analyzed and blogged about some big MOVIES THAT FAILED. It was hard work, looking at all that money and talent being wasted. Terrible storytelling. Clear, obvious, universal, common sense story rules were just thrown out the window by filmmakers and studios alike... because, it seems, they come up with an ironic hook. But irony has to support the story, not just be ironic for entertainment's sake. Ionic stories (with good hooks) yet without the proper story foundation will always fail.

Tonight, in order to test out a new hearing aid...I've lost a lot of my high frequencies...I turned on our Apple TV, Netflix, and New Releases (for Netflix, not in the theaters). The first movie on the list was Metanoia Films' LITTLE BOY. Metanoia is run by some talented devout, Catholic filmmakers that I've had the opportunity to meet and talk to a few times.  But I had not seen LITTLE BOY, so, Pam and I settled down to watch and listen (as long my new hearing aid worked...and it did.)

As a period piece, the production values on LITTLE BOY are fantastic. The art direction, prop department and carpenters all deserve some sort of award. The photography and editing are eye-popping good.  The supporting actors are wonderful, and the overall direction is tight and purposeful, and who can deny that watching Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, David Henrie, and Kevin James is anything but a joy. And Jakob Salvati, as Pepper, the  Little Boy, held his own as the protagonist.
There are scenes that will make you cry...my wife was taken numerous times with heavy tears. The movie is just plain captivating.

But at the end, I was left with this awful empty, contradictory feeling. Why, I wondered? I couldn't put my finger on it for a while. I ran to the computer and checked what I had remembered about the box office being mediocre. BAM!!!  Yes, something was seriously wrong.

With an estimated budget of $20M-$30M (in Mexico no less where things are a lot cheaper to shoot), the U.S. Domestic Box office was a trifle $6.5M (rounding it up) with apparently no International distribution.

Folks, this is horrible. For a movie that has so much going for it in terms of production value, and scene value—there are wonderful sequences with deft parallel editing, scene-after-scene are just fabulously made—why would this film not connect?  First weekend it opened in 1,000 plus theaters and does a modest $3.3M. Not great, but if the movie was really as good as it looks, it would have dropped only 30% by the next week. But it dropped 62.3%. Fatal. Word of mouth was tepid at best. In later weeks it dropped three successive weeks by 50% and in 8-weeks it was history.


The reason this movie about Christian faith did not connect, even with it's Christian/Catholic target audience, has everything to do with the Moral Premise and common sense storytelling's black and white rules.

THE STORY, on the surface is about a little boy who is learning about how faith as small as a mustard seed, can movie mountains. In the movie, he tries and sort of succeeds to move a mountain. It's also about the hateful prejudice some Americans showed American Japanese during WWII. The little boy's father is called off to war and Pepper, with the astute help of Fr. Oliver (Wilkinson), passionately and actively pursues an increase in his faith (through good works) so that his father will return from the war safe and sound. THAT IS THE PHYSICAL GOAL OF THE PROTAGONIST (Pepper / Little Boy....TO GET DADDY HOME ALIVE. Making that goal tangible and visible is well executed in the film. Pepper's family lives in a town on the West Coast of California and there are scenes where Pepper holds up his arms toward the setting sun over Japan (which at that moment may be the Rising Sun of Japan), grunting and shaking in a Star Wars'esque effort to morph "Christian faith" into "The Force." The atheistic Mr. Hashimoto challenges Fr. Oliver to stop the charade and protect the boy psychologically. But Fr. Oliver...is having his own crisis of faith, and doesn't know what to tell the kid. Admittedly, the movie makes no attempt to suggest that what Pepper is doing is Christian faith. But neither does the movie define Christian faith, otherwise. So the audience is left to wonder based on what is shown. And what is shown is logically invalid and subliminally the audience figures that out.

Thus, when the first atomic bomb lands on Japan (shortly after one of Pepper's arm shaking episodes aimed at Japan) the town wildly celebrates because they believe that is was Pepper who was responsible. Why? Because his nick name around town is "Little Boy" and the nickname of the atom bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was "Little Boy."  Immediately thereafter and for solid minute there is great rejoicing. The film suddenly shifts to the somber destruction and the celebration stops. To make things worse, the family hears that Dad is taken as a POW, and then that he is killed. But through mistaken identity, the soldier that is killed is not Dad. And Dad returns home at war's end shell shocked but reunited with family.

IT'S A HORRIBLE MISTAKE for a movie that tries to battle prejudice to turn to celebration the killing of hundreds of thousands of Japanese in the shadow of what the little, smiling and celebrating Pepper believe is "Christian Faith." Even when, moments later, the movie puts on the appropriate somber moral mood for the bomb, a bitter taste is left in the mouth. A scene like that in any film, least of all a purported Christian film, is like a moral sin. It's nearly unforgivable. It's abhorrent. As one commenter on IMBD wrote "Christian Faith Nukes Hiroshima"  Of course the filmmakers don't say that...but (Damn It!) they SHOW it.

As bad as that scene was conceived, it is not what kills the movie...although the movie deserves to die because of it.

What kills the movie is something more subtle and at once obvious. To explain that I have to take a stab at the moral premise....that sentence that should be controlling everything about the story and it's presence on screen.

[NOTE TO FILMMAKERS OF ALL STRIPES: If you understand an apply the moral premise, your films won't go bust, assuming everything else is well done But when you screw this up, money will never save your investment.]


There are two possible moral premise statements for LITTLE BOY based on the explicit issues portrayed:

Moral Premise A
Racial hatred and lack of faith leads to hatred, separation and death; but
Brotherly love and faith leads to friendship, family and life.

Moral Premise B
Racial hatred and lack of faith leads to Daddy not coming home; but
Brotherly love and faith leads to Daddy coming home.

Moral Premise A would be a good statement if the movie had a protagonist with some goal that related to life and friendship within the community and physical efforts were put to that end.

But LITTLE BOY is about a little boy who wants his father to come back from war. The kid is not motivated to make the town better. 

Having made that clear (I hope)...

All successful stories MUST follow a few simple rules. Let me mention one of the most important:

  1. The inner transformation of values that the protagonist experiences, logically motivates the action that causes the physical transformation.  Psychological Motivation ALWAYS leads Physical Action...and the connection better be logical. 
  2.  The protagonist's physical action toward the goal, logically causes the goal to be achieved. The goal cannot be achieved by any other action than that of the protagonist. 
If you need to understand this, take my Storycraft Training Online. There's not the room here.

A story cannot succeed if at the end of the plot, the protagonist steps aside and someone else saves the day. The protagonist must do the hand-to-hand combat, not another less important character. Thus LITTLE BOY fails due to three violations of these Natural Laws of Story Structure.


There is no direct acton that Pepper takes that remotely effects the return of his dad.  It's as if all though the movie Pepper pursues his goal with various actions, but at the end, a superhero swoops in and rescues Dad. The superhero being the guys on the Manhattan Project...some would say, far from innocent lads. Audiences subliminal are left dissatisfied. The catharsis is cut short and quick, if there's any at all. (Bad word of mouth #1.)


There is a hidden theme in the story that "innocence trumps reality." In other words, as the audience, we want the kid's wishes to come true BECAUSE and only because he's an innocent kid. If an adult acted like Pepper we'd call the character selfish, narcissistic and self-absorbed. Pepper's not wanting his Dad to come home for a selfless noble purpose. This is not "A Wonderful Life" where George Baily's presence in the community benefits the good of all. Yes, we can see that Mom (Emily Watson) is sad and that she's being stalked by the friendly doctor in town (Kevin James). And we recognize that Pepper's older brother is getting in trouble because Dad is gone. BUT NONE OF THOSE have anything to do with Pepper's motivation for wanting his Dad back. That is, Pepper doesn't want Dad back because the Savings and Loan has to be saved for the sake of the town's livelihood. He wants Dad back for himself, alone. And we buy it because the kid is young, and sweet and  innocent. But the kid's motivations are not pure, they are filled with vice.  Subliminally, audiences see that. (Bad word of mouth #2.)


The moral premise also demands that it's the vice or weakness in the protagonist that creates the bad consequences, and that a transformation of that inner value to a virtue or strength will bring about the good consequence. But what does this movie do? Pepper achieves his goal, and we're led to believe in some way that it was his Christian faith that brought his Daddy home. But that's not true and Christians and non-Christians subconsciously know such an idea is fable and heresy. (Bad word of mouth #3.)

And ironically, I'll bet almost no one leaving the theater could explain any of this. It's a feeling, a sense, that something isn't quite right, and quite right they are.

Consequently, Little Boy was a Bomb.

Come on guys and gals out there making movies. READ MY BOOK at least, and try to understand this stuff. I'm not making money off these books, but you could. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Eunice Cofie and Nuekie...a Good Story

Here's a good story.

Today I was contacted by EUNICE COFIE the founder of  a cosmetic company in Florida. She  is President and Chief Cosmetic chemist of  NUEKIE, which provides innovative dermatological products for women and men with skin of color. Eunice and her company have been cited repeatedly as a model startup businesses by both state and national organizations including Forbes Magazine. 

She asked me if the principles of the Moral Premise "can be applied to developing stories for TV commercials as well as developing stories for medical textbooks?" She wrote that she wants "to find innovative ways in using storytelling through TV commercials for my company as well as through medical textbooks."

Of course, I told her "Yes," since the moral premise effects all aspects of all stories' structure to guarantee it will connect emotionally with audiences.  But the storytelling rules that relate to the crux of a story (the moral premise) are layered. The more of them that are followed, the more successful the story and communication will be.

Ironically, there is a story about Eunice on Nuekie's website and how she happened to start NUEKIE in 2013. With her permission I've shared it below. It follows the core principles of the moral premise very well. It's worth watching. In fact, I couldn't help but think a narrative movie about Eunice and Nuekie founding might find an audience. The elements are all there.

Enjoy! Learn! Stories are so great.

Thursday, January 14, 2016


This post will be periodically updated as long as this red notice appears. 

Post 1-14-16: Here is the proof of what a number of us story gurus have been preaching for years. LIGHTWAVE (TM) has measured the emotional response of an audience watching THE REVENANT. I've been able to talk with Rana June, Lightwave's CEO. She supplied the higher resolution image below than was first disseminated to the news bureaus (click on it), and I'm attempting to get more information so I can correlate my forthcoming beat analysis of THE REVENANT to this chart. The wrist band that LIGHTWAVE has come up with to collect the biometric data and the data manipulating that they do will change how movies are written.

I predict that this wristband will be worn at table reads, or silent individual reads of the script. The analysis effort some of us provide can ensure this emotional response so the "slow middle" and other problems with stories, can be effectively eliminated. Just compare the structure of THE REVENANT biometrics with the chart I've been using for years, below.

Here is the chart we try to get filmmakers and novelists to follow. Look at the similarities. And I can tell you how to get there.

Post 1-30-16:  
Prompted by the Northville Screenwriter's Meetup Group I started in on analyzing the beats of REVENANT. I watched the movie for a second time from the back row, my iPhone's stopwatch giving me timings and a light to take many pages of notes of scene breaks and action. I then overlaid my notes on Lightwave's charts, here overlapped.

I've turned the chart below on it's side so the action/scene/sequence descriptions can be easily read, and I've put in the far right margin the traditional major story beats. They line up very closely if you have an idea about what the story is really about....there's a hint in my notes. I'll write a blog about this in the future, and on April 23, 2016 I will present a workshop on this at the Rochester Writer's Conference at Oakland University

In the meantime, (1) click on the image for a larger size, and then (2) download it for your own study. Again, a major hit movie follows the moral premise beats, whether or not the writer and director knew anything about them from my book or work. This doesn't prove anything about me, but rather about the natural law of good stories. As one Pixar writer/director told a friend of mine recently who was exposed to this stuff..."We didn't know any of that. We just kept working at it until it felt right." Exactly. Perseverance will get you there if you have enough smart people in the room and put in the time to do it. But knowing what makes good stories work...can get you there faster. I love this stuff. Writer better, write faster. Know the Moral Premise of your story and apply it to everything. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Storycraft Training Christmas Sale





10  EPISODES (20 Videos)   LENGTH: 408-min.   SLIDES: 268   CLIPS: 32

The Moral Premise Storycraft Training series provides practical understanding of the Natural Laws of Story Telling as they pertain to structure and how audiences emotionally connect with a story's characters. The training applies to any media type and genre, although for illustration purposes motion pictures are used for examples.

The series is based on Stan Williams' book THE MORAL PREMISE: HARNESSING VIRTUE AND VICE FOR BOX OFFICE SUCCESS, as well as Stan's workshops and story and script consulting work in Hollywood since 2006. The series is composed of 10 programs or Episodes that link 20 separate videos. Together they deliver the core content from Stan's two-day workshop, but condense the material into about 7-hours of content delivery.

Consistently structuring a story around a true moral premise is the crux of all successful stories. In these ten episodes (and 20 videos) Dr. Williams explains how irony, hooks, log lines, a conflict of values, character traits, dramatic beats, over all structure, a moment of grace, and character transformation are designed into the arcs of characters, plots and subplots.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

No Limits: Ubiquitous Irony


Irony is the most important ingredient in all successful stories. It must be present in the story's setting, plot, character arcs, theme, style and tone.
I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.  (Jane Austen)
Irony must be obvious in the hook, the conflict of values, the moral premise, dialogue, wardrobe, landscape, and attitudes. Irony is the ever present dilemma in the heroine's mind as she can't decide to marry the guy or kill him.
Would you like me to press the wrinkles out of this shirt or burn it?  
There is situational irony, verbal irony, dramatic irony. In short there has got to be conflict in everything you write. Irony provides the emotional roller coaster that gives your reader (and you) the thrill of reading (and writing).
The meal was scrumptious. For desert let's put strawberry drool on shortcake and watch Silence of the Lambs. 
Irony supplies tension, suspense, intrigue without which you have no story.   In short, there is no limit to where irony must be used in your writing.


Like multilevel marketing you can make irony work at every turn. It works to engender interest at the level of WORDS with TURNS OF A PHRASE:
Clearly Confused * Pretty Ugly * Living Dead * Great Depression * Honest Politician
Or, on the level of SENTENCES, as exampled in my opening salvo, and here:
His compliment felt and smelled like an elephant sitting on my head.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness... (Charles Dickens) 
Or, on the level of PARAGRAPHS:
Fearful that God would cast me into utter darkness or subject me to dismemberment, I frequently ran ahead too quickly. I often scribbled my first name in a rush...then recognize my error.  To me it looked like I had spelled SAINT...but then friends pointed out that I had scrawled STAIN. I could only hope that the errors in my life would be overlooked as typos. But alas, all too often they were real mistakes. (from the Preface of the writer's memoir, Growing up Christian.)
Or, on the level of chapters and entire books where the characters are struggling to overcome a weakness or some vice in order to achieve some noble goal. Such techniques make use of an ironic hook and a consistently applied moral premise. Here's one from my host's 2009 novel AUTUMN RAINS (Myra Johnson):
Trusting in one's own wisdom and knowledge leads to a dreadful imprisonment; but
Trusting in God's wisdom and knowledge leads to a pleasant freedom.
I have many examples of moral premise statements that guide the writing process on a page devoted to  the listing of Moral Premise Statements.

For me one of the great proofs of the importance of irony in stories is the public's obsession with the real lives of Hollywood Stars and celebrities. The irony is their glamorous on-screen persona juxtaposed to the tragedy of their off-screen and real lives. On screen we adore Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, but we're engaged in their real life battle to keep their marriage together.


The key to understanding and using irony in our writing is the ability to see it in everything around us. Back on November 17, 2014 I posted a pictorial essay on IRONY and NATURAL LAW, INSEPARABLE.

The point of the five (5) illustrated juxtapositions (in that post) was to show how, in just a few hours of careful observance what I expected and what actually happened were much different. When reality conflicts with expectations we end  up with drama, intrigue, suspense and the stuff of good stories—ta da—irony.

I'll let you visit that post later, but for now I want to get more mundane to demonstrate common every day drama and irony that literally surrounds us. What I'm going to next describe and SHOW YOU (I'm trying not to just TELL you), you can do everyday of your life. The more you do this, the more you'll find you can write ironic material that intrigues and engages your readers. So, here's what I did. On the morning I was scheduled to first start thinking about this blog post, I took a camera and walked around my house looking or irony in nature.  I was looking for things we normally think are normal, but finding in them or near them the abnormal, the juxtaposed irony, the conflict that creates tension and motivates us to action. My point is that these are mundane, nearly inconsequential. If there's irony in such lower-caste things, imagine the irony waiting to be tapped in the stuff that really matters, like people's lives.

The rose at left was probably prettier a few days before, but soon it would end up like its sisters on the right. The beautiful and the bald, part of the same plant. What character's are like that? I expect beautiful roses, but I find something else. Timing is everything,.

The patio outside my office door wall. Looks nice until you look close. Then, grime, moss, and cracks appear. Are their characters that seem good until you look close? 

Brown "Bunny Tail" plant looks attractive in my wife's front yard circular garden, until you look close and see the dreaded wrap-weed invading the plant. Do you have a character that is very attractive until you discover he or she's overly involved in another's life and willing to inhibit their growth?

Our backyard brick paver patio. It can look inviting, if I were to clean it up and blow off the leaves. But not obvious are the dangers: a tangled hose ready to trip, the lid to the septic tank which isn't so bad until during an patio lunch a guest asks what the blue lid is for—"It's where we put guests who are too inquisitive," And, the edge of the bench that is ready to tear-up your pants or scratch your leg. These are all juxtapositions that create tension and lurking drama. Do you have welcoming families that have hidden drama in every corner of their lives. 

There are good things too. On the left is the hostas plant that's been taking up space under our front window for years. Suddenly, we're surprised to find this red fruit hiding under several leaves. Perhaps you have a character that has a hidden gift, or a forgotten treasure in that storage unit about to be auctioned off on reality TV. BEtter get over there and look inside. (On the other hand, this red thing that appeared this summer may be extremely poisonous.) 

Ah, and then there's the irony of golden rod and their daily visitors. Don't get too close to smell the flowers, your nose may never smell again. Do you see it? Irony is like that. You don't see danger until it flies up your nose. 

This is suppose to be a 6-second Vine post. (My first.) It's the scene I walked out on as I was starting this blog.  The expectation is that my van would start.  But the reality is it won't. This tow truck arrives and it does what is improbable—speeds my inoperative van back along the road—albeit riding piggyback.


This is so important it is the subject of the very first episode of my on-line Storycraft Training Series, described at the end of his blog with a code you can use for 30% PFF the regular price.

Aristotle, in POETICS, is known for his insights on narrative theory. For me the most important is his challenge to write stories that are PROBABLE IMPOSSIBILITIES, not improbable possibilities. The Probable Impossibility (of the main plot) is the story HOOK that maintains the interest of your reader and even maintains YOUR interest was you write.

But the concept of a probable impossibility, or ironic hook, should pervade every aspect of the story. In successful stories you'll find irony in the setting, plot, character arcs, theme (the moral premise) style, and tone. It is well worth your time to think and study this so much that it becomes automatic. When you get this down, it will be hard to write any sentence without juxtaposing opposite concepts.
The wolf looked so dainty in grandma's bonnet.  


The following two slides (from my workshop on Goals, Subplots and Irony) illustrate how a proper moral premise statement can keep your writing ironic, on all levels.

Dramatic Irony (whether it's found in a word, sentence, paragraph, chapter or novel) involves a goal that a character is trying to achieve. The successful author will set up the story so that the goal seems impossible to achieve. Imagine the hook for the story of David and Goliath: Near naked shepherd boy meets war-hardened, armored giant. Applying natural law and removing the cleverness of the author (or the grace of God), the natural expectation is that David will be quickly dismembered.

But through the cleverness of the author and the grace of God, that is not what happens. 

David slays Goliath and cuts off his head. The opposite of the expectation is achieved.

The moral premise sets up this expectation and the path to unexpected success:

Egotism leads to death and a rout; but
Meekness leads to victory and pursuit. 

The moral premise, of course, articulates inner values and outer consequences. Meekness is metaphored in David's physical appearance. Egotism is metaphored in Goliath's appearance.

Here's a tip: In your writing don't set up the irony by telling your reader what the the inner values are (Egotism and Meekness), that would be TELLING your reader what is going on. Instead, make your reader work by describing the physical appearance of the setting, character, etc, and ensuring that you're establishing a metaphor for the inner values that drive the drama. Juxtaposing egotism and meekness is ironic, but you SHOW the personification of those values in your descriptions of appearance and actions...and of course consequences.   

A final reminder of the potential and on-going irony in your stories is this cyclic model.

In achieving our goals, all humans (and all your characters), will continually follow this cyclical sequence:
1. VALUES you hold, will lead you to a...
2. DECISION, that when mature causes you to take an...
3. ACTION, which results in a...
In pursuit of a goal you, or your character, will repeat this cycle over-and-over again, until your goal is achieved, or the goal is given up for lost.  You can start anywhere in the cycle, but I like to explain it by starting with an inherent value the character holds. The VALUE and the DECISION are mental processes. They are invisible. (In a novel you still have to SHOW values and decisions through description of physical metaphors or effects—a tense forehead, tight lips, nervous shaking, speechlessness, mismatched socks, or an askew wig.) The Decision causes your character to take an ACTION, which results in some CONSEQUENCE, which are both physical and visible.

Notice that the Value, Decision and Action are ALL under the control of the character (or you). But that the consequence is NOT under the character's control. It is solely determined by Natural Law.

Now, the cycle repeats. The Natural Law consequence informs the person's value by reaffirming the original value (making it stronger), or challenging the value (making it weaker or different). If the consequence is good, the value will be reinforced, if the consequence is bad, the value is devaluated or changed.

The irony occurs on two levels.
  • The action may have been meant to change something outside of the character, but the consequence made it worse. That's irony.   
  • The action may have been meant to change another person, but the consequence changed the person who took the action. That's irony. 
  • The consequence is not controlled by the action. This is the opposite of what we expect. That's irony. 

This cycle is also very present in the Scene part of the Scene-Sequel Model where a character begins with a goal in mind, takes action and pursues the goal, then natural law takes over and a conflict results ending in some disaster. That disaster (which keeps the reader turning pages to find out what happens) is the irony that the character did not expect when the goal was first embraced.

DISCOUNTED OFFER....and Final Example

Last year I posted a 10-Episode (7-hour) Video On Demand training series at Vimeo called Storycraft Training.  It's the equivalent of a 2-day workshop. The very first episode deals with IRONY and expands on Aristoteles's 6 PILLARS OF A GREAT STORY. Visitors to this blog may Buy or Rent the Entire Package of 10, for 30% of the regular price. This offer is good from October 15, 2015 through November 14, 2015. You can purchase the sessions and download them to your computer to have forever. Or you can rent and stream them. You may share the promotional code with your friends. The code is "SEEKERVILLE" and the readers of this Seekerville blog are the only ones to know it…so far.


Now, there's a contextual reason I mention the memoir. It's really about irony. And I'm using irony in its marketing. One would think that a memoir about a guy's journey of faith would be a serious didactic tome on theology and religion. Well, it is a tome, and it is about religion and theology...but I knew I had to make the journey and the writing ironic. So, let's just say I had some fun. Here's the back cover copy. These are the hooks...also known as early promotional blurbs.

“Thanks, Stan. I now have work for the rest of my life.” (His libel Attorney)
“We'd excommunicate him, but we're not Catholic.”  (His former Pastors)
“We had an accident...and I can’t remember a thing.” (His Nephew)
“None of this is true, and I have the scars to prove it.”  (His Sister)
“I had no part in it. It’s a comma disaster.” (His exhausted Editor)
“I tried to put him in jail, but he was too young.”  (His cop Aunt)
“Just goes to prove that he's just uneducated.”  (His Mom)
“I had no idea what to do. He was beyond me.”  (His Dad)
“Where do they bury the survivors?”  (His Wife)

If that copy is interesting to you, then the use of irony has NO LIMIT.


Stan Williams

Monday, September 21, 2015

Silver Linings Playbook Moral Premise

Writer/Director: DAVID O. RUSSELL

BRADLEY COOPER - Pat Solatano Jr.
ROBERT DE NIRO - Pat Solatano Sr.
JACKI WEAVER - Dolores Solatano
BREA BEE - Nikki

8 Oscar Nominations
1 Win (Jennifer Lawrence Best Actress)

122 over all nominations, 96 wins.
Something should tell you this is a good movie.


In Silver Linings Playbook (SLP) Pat. Jr. (Cooper) has just been let out of a mental hospital, where he was diagnosed with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) after almost murdering his wife's lover who he discovers in the show with his wife.

Out of the hospital he comes to live with his parents, played by De Niro and Weaver. Pat Jr's goal is to win back his wife, Nikki, who has a restraining order out against him. But Nikki wants nothing to do with Pat Jr., whom she has probably never loved anyway. So, Pat's obsession is with something (Nikki), over which he has no control.

Similarly, Pat Sr. (De Niro), has an obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles, for which he has become a bookie, in a last ditch effort to get enough money to open a restaurant with his wife's cooking. Pat
Sr. is NOT on medication for his OCD betting issue as he tries every good luck charm and ritual in the book to get the Eagles to win, including his son's attention to the game. But Pat Sr. has no control over the Eagles winning or losing, nor much influence over his son's attention to the game.

Similarly, Tiffany (Lawrence) is a recovering OCD sex addict whose husband had recently died. She's trying to get her life back together and develops an obsession with Pat Jr. and literally chases him around town (as he's trying to get back into shape by running). Tiffany tricks Pat Jr. into becoming her dance partner for a competition by claiming she knows Nikki and can get a love letter to her for Pat Jr, who can't approach Nikki due to the restraining order. But, of course, Tiffany has no control over Pat Jr.'s affections or attention.

There are other minor characters for whom we might argue also have OCD issues, but Pat Jr., Pat Sr., and Tiffany are the main three with whom we become emotionally attached and root for. In essence all three become protagonists, and all three become each other's antagonists.  For those of us who suffer from Story Analysis OCD, it's a wonderful love triangle. Each has an obsession over which they have no control.  Like a good romantic comedy, the boy and girl are both antagonists to each other's protagonist. But when we throw into the mix, Pat Sr. (the boy's Dad), we get an added protagonist-antagonist dynamic that I'll explain below.


Ironically, although Pat Jr. is supposed to be on OCD medication, he probably doesn't need it. It's a misdiagnosis. I mean, we all have OCD to some extent. We all have rituals we follow, and things we do repeatedly to obtain our goals. But Pat Jr. does not come off as disorderly obsessed the way Tiffany does about Pat Jr, or the way Pat Sr. does about the Eagles. We get the impression that Tiffany is no longer on meds, and probably should be, and Pat Sr. is never been on meds and probably should be. So, we have three OCD characters who are all off their meds, whether or not they were ever prescribed.

But the movie is not out of control, as we might expect, at least not to the extend that I've known OCD persons...one who was a brilliant engineer, and lost his job because the meds either made him impotent when he was on them, or crazy when he was off them. My friend (a neighbor) would come over to my house and try to convince me to harness my NASA connections (I used to train astronauts) and go to Mars to mine minerals. My friend talked about it obsessively as if it was as easy as driving over to the abandoned rock quarry in his pickup to find a chunk of limestone. But we don't see quite that level of insanity in SLP. In fact, we can easily identify with each of our character's main goals....as normal and understandable....and obtainable.


The concept of a silver lining is that of a dark cloud that obliterates the sun. The dark cloud appears to have a silver lining...a white edge that indicates bright sun on the other side. Thus, SLP is a movie about optimists who battle the dark clouds in their lives, and never give up believing there is a silver lining to their desperate situations.  They are OCD in a good way, they're optimists.

But sometimes our characters (like us) don't see the silver lining. They, like us, keeping looking at and pursuing the dark clouds, trying to get the dark cloud to turn puffy white. But that will never happen (according to this movie) until we look PAST the dark clouds and get on the other side to find the bright sunshine.

Thus, it is for Pat Sr. He's obsessed with good-luck rituals that must be followed for the Eagles to win. With his son out of the hospital, Pat Sr. adopts a new ritual...Pat Jr. has to sit with him, watch the game and rub a good luck token every time the Eagles get the ball. Pat Sr. believes it's even better if his son attends an Eagles game. But when Pat Jr. does attend an Eagles game, Pat Jr. gets arrested for a fight, the Eagles lose, and Pat Sr. looses all his money. Tragedy. It's not until Tiffany shows up for dinner that she explains to Pat Sr. that the ritual is not what Pat Sr. believes but something entirely different. She explains that Pat Sr. has to let go of his son, and let Pat Jr. be with HER.... dancing, and then, perhaps the Eagles will win. Tiffany explains that the silver lining to not for Dad to possess his son, but for HER to possess his son. In essence, Pat Jr. hanging around home becomes the dark cloud, when in fact it's letting Pat Jr. go, to move out of the way, and reveal the sun behind—Tiffany.

Tiffany and Pat Jr. square off. Between them the "normal"
ideal of a family...her sister, Veronica, and Pat Jr.'s best friend,
Randy. The story question is can Tiffany and Pat Jr become
as normal as Randy and Veronica...or should they even try?
After all, Veronica has an OCD issue all her own. Look at
that "perfect" picture. Is it real? Or the consequence of OCD?
And, thus it is for Pat Jr. He's obsessed with doing what he always did before to get his wife back. Pat Jr. is obsessed with a dark cloud called Nikki. And it's not until Nikki slides out of the way )again with Tiffany's help), that Pat Jr. sees Tiffany as the love of his life.

And thus it is for Tiffany. She's obsessed with Pat Jr.. And here is her anchor, and the anchor for the story. It's Tiffany who is the hero of this movie, although Pat Jr. is the protagonist. Tiffany is the hero-antagonist, who battles both Pats. They both think they have their game down "pat." But Tiffany has come to realized that the silver lining playbook is when you move past your faux obsession and pursue something that is really worth pursuing. If you're going to be OCD about something, then let's do something worthwhile, is her philosophy.

So, it is that in SLP, it's Tiffany that is pursuing the silver lining, and trying to get the other characters to do the same. She has and is following the playbook, and like most good antagonists she is powerful, ubiquitous and does not arc. She's the anchor. And as in all good stories, it's the antagonist that forces the protagonists (the two Pats) to change. Sometimes the antagonist is a good guy (like Tiffany) and sometimes its a bad guy (like Hans Gruber in DIE HARD). This turning the story elements inside out while still maintaining their essential character is one of the reasons SLP is so good. It follows the rules, but seems to break them in a new way.

So, here's the moral premise for this wonderfully redeeming movie:

Obsessing over dark clouds leads to disappointments and an unfulfilled life; but
Obsessing over silver linings leads to satisfaction and new hope.

If you have a different idea for this movie, please let me know in the com box below.

Blessings. Bestow Hope and Vanquish Fear (as the SLP does so wonderfully).

P.S. This blog was in response to a question from C.S. a Munich Germany Film School student. Thanks, C.S..

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Francine Rivers and Tamera Alexander Consult the Moral Premise

I received an email to day from friend and client Tamera Alexander (on the right) with this picture attached.

That's best selling author Francine Rivers on the left. The picture was taken at their annual writer's retreat with 9 other writers who meet at one of the writer's lake house in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.  Francine has written 30 published novels in the last 40 years, and she's still working hard.  She's best known for Redeeming Love

I was very honored that they have found TMP helpful. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

SUSPECT (1987) Moral Premise

Pam and I are investigating murder mysteries, looking for the Protagonist, Moment of Grace, and Moral Premise. We were challenged to do by Michael, a fan of the the Moral Premise, who lives and writes in South Africa and who noticed that I had not analyzed any murder mysteries.  (Even I was surprised by this observation.) Michael is writing a murder mystery and needed some help understanding protagonist arcs in the murder mystery genre.

While it is true that not all murder mysteries may have a clear protagonist and an arc, I will suggest that the movies that have both, emotionally connect with audiences.

Tonight we watched SUSPECT (1987) which is a great film noir, detective story that is a text book example of following many of the genre's rules, but switching enough of them around to make the movie interesting and satisfying right up to the end. It was a good investment of time.

No spoilers here, but I will share a few things that will make the movie more satisfying to watch.

The story in short from IMDB (Sami Al-Taher):
A judge commits suicide, and his secretary is found murdered. A homeless deaf-mute man, Carl Anderson is arrested for her murder. Public defender Kathleen is assigned by the court as his lawyer. She sets to find the real killer, and gets help from the congressional advisor, Eddie Sanger who is called to be on the jury panel. Together they discover a dangerous circle of corruption in high places.
Kathleen, a public defender, is the protagonist.
She has a clear arc and a Moment of Grace at the 50% mark.
Kathleen (Cher) is a public defender in need of a vacation. She's ordered to defend a homeless man, Carl (Liam Neeson), who's a deaf-dumb Vietnam veteran on trial for killing court clerk, Elizabeth Quinn (Katie O'Hare) for $9. A cocky lobbyist, Eddie Sanger (Dennis Quaid) ends up on the jury. Eddie is also an amateur detective, and recognizes that Carl could not have killed Elizabeth. To pursue justice, he violates the law and makes contact with Kathleen to give her clues that he's independently uncovered.

So, here are a few things to make the movie even better to watch:

Protagonist: Kathleen Riley (Cher)

Moral Premise: 
Embracing the law for what is false leads to guilt; but
Breaking the law for what is true leads to innocence.
Moment of Grace explanation:

The scene right after the Moment of Grace, which demonstrates
Kathleen's willingness to accept help from Eddie. Here she
returns the grace he offers by bandaging him up.
When Eddie begins to take an interest in the case he begins an independent investigation and tries to meet with Kathleen secretly to pass information to her. She shuts him down because his contact with her is illegal. She tries to obey the judge's orders to a "T" but she's not happy about his uncooperative nature. Kathleen suspects that her client, Carl, is innocent, but she is willing to let him be convicted of murder because she has so much respect for the law and the judge that she dare not break the law, even if it means discovering who the real murdered is.

But Eddie is persistent. In the middle of the story (at the 50% mark) another drifter who knows Carl, threatens Kathleen's life, and is about ready to kill Kathleen when Eddie shows up and saves her. Eddie's appearance in this scene in saving Kathleen from death is the moment of grace. Eddie brings "GRACE" to Kathleen in two ways: (1) by saving her life, and thus convincing her to risk disbarment for the ruth; and (2) let him help her for the second half of the movie by being her investigator.

Thus, Kathleen arcs from embracing the law and letting Carl be found guilty, to breaking the law so they can find Carl innocent.  AND IN THAT, we have a good hook:
Harassed public defender breaks the law to procure justice.
There are many other beats in SUSPECTS that match traditional story structure.

Highly recommended.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Architectural Stories and Fonts

Good architectural Story Structure adheres to several principles and techniques, not unlike the rules of architectural hand-lettering:

1. Honor your audience's need to understand something about every scene. Keep your style consistent.

2. Use a clear and unencumbered beat sheet where reversals and turns are obvious.

3. Emphasize the beginning and end of scenes, sequences and acts. Avoid ambiguity.

4. Give your scenes, sequences and acts a slight upward lift of hope and redemption.

5. Give turning points a roundness of possibilities. Don't limit your character's options.

6. Give careful attention to the rhythm, allowing an ebb and flow of quiet to noise, fast to slow, introspection to decision, action to consequence.

(Inspired by Matthew Frederick's 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School)

Friday, May 8, 2015

Moral Premise Workshops Now On-Line

Moral Premise STORYCRAFT TRAINING is now up on it's own mobile adaptive blog.

SOURCE MATERIAL: The episodes were originally developed for live workshops presented at conferences across the United States, most notably in Los Angeles and S.E. Michigan. 

The training offers extended and updated material based on my Hollywood story structure book: The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success and years of story, script, and manuscript consulting. 

The episodic presentations are divided into bit size video chunks for easy assimilation. 

TARGET AUDIENCE: Professional and amateur writers, directors, producers, and storytellers (as well as consumers) of all media and genres will find this Storycraft material helpful.

MEDIA FOCUS: The lessons focus particularly on major motion pictures and occasionally clips from the same for ease of illustration. The episodes predominately contain many colorful graphics that ease learning of sometimes hard to grasp concepts. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

First Image vs. Final Image

Blake Snyder, in his famous book on screenwriting, adds two beats to the traditional thirteen: The Opening Image and the Final Image.
OPENING IMAGE: The very first impression of what a movie is — its tone, its mood, the type and scope of the film — are all found in the opening mage. (p. 72)
The FINAL IMAGE ... is proof that change has occurred and that it's real.
Now comes Jacob T. Swinney with a collection of supercuts via his Vimeo Channel and this one which he titles First and Final Frames.  Blake is smiling in heaven at this one.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

NOAH: Book from Rizzoli on Aronofsky's Masterpiece

A picture book with a screenplay in the back is available from Rizzoli, New York.
A quick review is in order.

As you may know from my longer posts on Aronofsky's NOAH (contributed over several weeks when the movie came out) I found the movie, from a Moral Premise standpoint, good and challenging in many ways.

So I bite my lip and paid for the book and the novelization. I'm not into novelizations, but since I coach writers a lot, I thought this one might be interesting to look at sometime in the future. But first the picture book. It's worth a few comments.


No doubt, in part a dig at Aronofsky's "Christian" critics who claimed the movie was not Biblically accurate, the editors chose to use ONLY Scripture as textual explanations in the picture portion. Insistent critics will no doubt point out that the Scripture text used is not from any modern translation but rather a "translation" or "paraphrase" by Aronofsky and Handel found in their screenplay. Such criticism is disingenuous, however, because no modern day translation is inerrant or infallible—
labels that can only be assigned to the original manuscripts none of which exist. And, if a Christian writer were to paraphrase a passage of Scripture to make a point, his work would be accepted as inerrant or infallible, e.g. Peterson's THE MESSAGE from Navpress.

But the presence of only Scripture in the picture book reinforces the effort Aronofsky and Handel have repeatedly claimed, that their intent was to take the Biblical record as true and authentic and to then fill in
the gaps of the record with gleanings from other oral and written traditions, being careful never to step on the literal Scriptures. Much of the argument against the film by Christians concerned the incorporation of such material, as if it could never be true. But, as my longer post points out, Aronofsky has proven to be the more honest Biblical scholar and not given in to those Evangelical ideologies not found in the Bible.  The vast differences in Protestant doctrine, supposedly all based on the Bible, creates a vacuum for such arguments. The movie is based on the Bible and here the writers and publishers remind us of that.        


Normally, in this blog, I'd have nothing to say about "print quality." I try to stand apart from commenting on aesthetic elements and stick with story structure. But that is what I'm doing here. It's clear that the editors/producers of the book made a decision that their creation would reflect the tone, arc, and structure of the movie by how they printed the inside pages. I got a kick out of this because I've said from the beginning of writing The Moral Premise, that the concept applies to ALL aspects of a story, right down to the marketing,... and now I can say it can apply to the printing techniques of the ancillary picture book.

The beginning and end of the book is printed with glossy stock that allows the ink to lie on top of the paper providing sharp edges, and  rich color as the light is able to reflect it all back to the eye. But the center of the book is printed on drab, ink-absorbing, matt. The photos are washed out, lacking in color and sharpness. The contrast is low, and the blacks are gray. The center is truly ugly and depressing to look at.

But this was on purpose. It's not a budget consideration. Indeed, the turning point up front, is a spread that changes from beautiful to ugly. It is in a section where Noah and his family (particularly Ham) come to grip with the sin and ugliness of the world around them. In the photo below, compare the left page with the right. The left is bright and glossy and the right is dull and matt.

This is the spread that follows Noah reflecting on the world's condition as described by this Scripture:
 The World was filled with violence. And the Creator looked upon the World and saw it was corrupt for all flesh and corrupted his way upon the World. Genesis 6:11
The spread above shows Ham and the girl he tries to rescue from the World's violence and from a mass grave. But as the story unfolds in the minutes that follow, the girl is lost to the mob and Noah pulls Ham to safety and the ark.  This is the ugly side of humanity...it seems that all is lost.

Near the end of the story, the ugly pages end and transform back to the beautiful pages. This spread occurs precisely at Noah's Moment of Grace, where he realizes and accepts the truth of the Moral Premise. Examine the photo below. Notice the transition from dull and matt (left) to bright and glossy (right). This too, on the right, more viscerally reveals the blood that has flowed to the surface of Noah's skin.

The center of this spread is Noah's Moment of Grace, when he finally figures out that God does not want to destroy all humanity, but rather give humanity a second chance by saving Noah's family and his off-spring. The pages on the left will be re-created later by Abraham when Abraham believes that God wants him to kill his only son, Isaac with a knife upon an altar of wood. And here is Noah, foreshadowing that later scene. On the left, because Noah is righteous he is determined to obey God. His righteous does not come from omniscience and understanding God, but from obeying what he understands. And so, Noah, like Abraham, prepares to sacrifice the two baby girls on an altar of wood (the top of the ark). 

But right in the middle of this spread (and I think the middle two pictures are actually a single frame), is the moment when Noah looks at the babies and (later explains): "I looked down on those girls and all I had in my heart was love." He puts down the knife and kisses the babies with his blessing. This scene can only remind us of the anguish that Abraham must have experienced in preparing to follow God's command to sacrifice Isaac. 

Now, notice again, what the editor did with the printing. The left is the last of the ugly pages in the book. And on the right we have the bright, glossy beauty restored. This is the moral premise realized in the books' production:

Justice without mercy leads to dread, death, and annihilation (UGLY); but
Justice with mercy leads to hope, life, and a new creation (BEAUTY).


The included screenplay is a big disappointment, although it is smaller than normal (6.5" x 8.5") and is cleverly inserted in a box built into the back cover.

The disappointed is due to its violation of many screenplay formats rules that the industry demands for practical reasons of reading, scheduling and budgeting.  And because those of us in the industry read so many screenplays, picking up this small monstrosity is distracting and provides a wrong role model for aspiring screenwriters.

Among the violations:

  • The slug lines are CENTERED and BLUE.
  • The transitions are CENTERED and STRUCK THROUGH
  • The action lines are nearly the same width as dialogue making it difficult for the eye to quickly distinguish the difference. It's easy to confuse the two.
  • The action lines are fully justified, creating awkward gaps between words.
  • The dialogue lines are centered.
  • The character tags are centered. 
  • The page numbers are at the bottom of each page and centered.
  • The page is 23% smaller than normal. Not easy to read. 
  • But HEY, the font looks like Courier. (what a concept).
My advice to Rizzoli, whoever made this decision, correct them. We want real looking screenplays that we can share with students. What you published is very much in keeping with the ugly world of Noah that needed to be destroyed. In Hollywood vernacular you "sinned."

Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln loved the play. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

BIRDMAN - The Moral Premise and Arcs

EMMANUEL LUBEZKI (Cinematography)
EMMA STONE (Sam, Riggan's daughter)
EDWARD NORTON (Mike Shiner, Riggan's method acting antagonist/Mel, Nick's friend and Terri's husband )
NAOMI WATTS (Lesley, Riggan's protégée/Terri, Mel's wife)
ANDREA RISEBOROUGH (Laura, Riggan's girlfriend/Laura, Nick's wife)
ZACH GALIFIANAKIS (Jake, Riggan's co-producer)
LINDSAY DUNCAN (Tabitha, the critic that is going to "kill" Riggan's play)
AMY RYAN (Sylvia, Riggan's wife)

Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence

4 Oscars (Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture) Plus 157 other wins out of 158 nominations.


BIRDMAN explores this classic conflict: Achieving our greatest desires often requires that we overcome our greatest fears.

An actor standing before a crowd, an announcer sitting before a live radio microphone, an entrepreneur pitching an idea to investors, or a writer facing the blank page…all carry the excitement of opportunity and achievement…if we can access a confidence that is greater than our fear of failure.

That is the struggle between Freud's ID and EGO. Here the ego is not to be confused with narcissistic egotism. It is the ID that drives our dreams and passions, often unbridled and without constraint. It is the EGO that struggles to conform the ID's dreams and bring them to some form of reality. Wanting something badly enough requires that we face the reality and the difficulties that stand in the way of our dreams.


In BIRDMAN, our protagonist, Riggan, wants to prove to the world that he's not just a celebrity "actor" hiding behind a mask in a birdman suit through the magic of Hollywood's special effects and elaborate editing, which is what he is known for through a series of movies about the superhero Birdman. Riggan wants to get out from behind that mask of his former identity and prove that he's a real actor. That is, he wants to achieve acceptance by appearing on stage, in the raw, without the protection of costume, special effects, or the editor's cutting that maneuvers around bad performances. The movie questions are, therefore: Can Riggan's dream of being a respected New York actor (not just a Hollywood celebrity) be realized? Can his ego find a way for his id's passion to be realized? Can he produce, direct, star in and finance a Broadway show and achieve critical and financial acclaim?

Critical to all successful stories is a clear physical goal with elements of underdog irony. The answer to these movie questions, according to nearly everyone around him, is "No, he cannot. It's too big of a challenge for anyone."

At the same time this is the same answer that Alegandro Gonzálex Iñárritu received from many in the industry when he approached actors and financiers to make BIRDMAN. So, in many ways the emotional and moral obstacles Iñárritu confronted in the making of BIRDMAN, Riggan faces in making his play. The movie becomes, therefore, a metaphor for both the play, and the filmmaker's lives.

The story is universal because the question it proposes is one we all face multiple times during the day. BIRDMAN suggests that the juxtaposition of our wishes and fears is epitomized and metaphored in the life of an actor… someone like Riggan. (In a backdoor sort of way, BIRDMAN argues for compassion on actors and live performance creators.)


BIRDMAN takes those story questions, and applies ithem to the various subplots, which are not just interwoven horizontally like subplots normally are in a story, but vertically in overlapping realities. There are(1) the filmmakers (Iñárritu as director, Lubezki as cinematographer, Keaton, Norton et al as actors), (2) making a movie about a play's production (Riggan as director, and Riggan, Mike et al as actors), who (3) are staging a play adapted from a book (written by Carver, but starring Riggan as Nick, Mike as Mel, et al).

In Riggan's stage paly (with Nick, Mel, Terri and Laura), as well as in Riggan's life (with Sylvia, Mike, Sam, Laura, Lesley and Jake), and in the movie (with Keaton, Norton, Watts et al,) no one can hide behind cutaways and special effects…it’s pure acting. And this is probably the biggest reason the filmmakers won BEST PICTURE. (next paragraph, please)

To bring this fear and the reality of stage performances to the forefront of the movie's production, Iñárritu and Lubezki use long takes, 10-20 minutes in length with dozens of actors, props and locations in each. All of the traditional movie making pillars that actors and filmmakers hide behind to assuage their fear and give them a "faux" confidence, are gone. BIRDMAN, the movie, is like Riggan's life and Riggan's play. It's raw, it's exposed, it's like running down Broadway Ave. in your underwear to make a cue on stage. No one should criticize the scene of Keaton trying through the public in his underpants.  It is the ultimate metaphor for what actors must do every night on the stage...well, actually what actors do might be better metaphored if Keaton was naked.

In each of these dramatic vertical layers, the battle is between their id's passion to achieve at any cost and their ego's efforts to bring it off within the confines of their world's reality. Stated another way they are all battling their fear of failure vs. their confidence to succeed.


The greatest fear of an actor is that his character will be perceived as pretending. The greatest wish of an actor is that his character will be perceived as real. That is a paradox on the roof's ledge of contradiction, which we also have in a few scenes. 

Therefore, the long version of BIRDMAN's moral premise could be stated this way:

Hiding behind a mask of other's expectations, and avoiding vulnerability leads to fear (of self, of others, and of life) and if fate is favorable you'll become a celebrity with no talent. But, removing the mask of other's expectations, and embracing a raw vulnerability leads to a love (of self, of others and of life), and and if you work real hard you'll become a real actor with talent. 

or this shorter form:

Self-fear leads to fake performances and fake bananas, but
Self-confidence leads to real performances and bloody verisimilitude. 


Leading with Id lifts the lid (exposing you as fake) and puts you on page 12, but
Leading with Ego reveals the glow (establishing you as real) and puts you on page 1. 

or,  coming at this from a method acting  perspective, which is what Ed Norton's antagonist character demonstrates:

Pretending leads to rejection; but
Actualizing leads to acceptance. 


Riggan's protagonist has two antagonists that come from opposite directions and force him to transform from wishing to doing, from fearing to taking charge as if he is god of his play. The first antagonist is the fear of his alter ego (the Young Birdman) who tells Riggan he's washed up and amounts to nothing in his present endeavor. The Young Birdman wants to maintain Riggan's status quo and remain a masked celebrity. This, however, is what Riggan is trying to shake off; although it's easy to fall back into such motivations.

The second antagonist is the absence of fear of Mike Shiner, who is the epitome of the method actor's demand that everything should come from within, everything should be real, not fake. Mike doesn't need the script because he believes that a correctly written script will be in tune with his natural, inner soul and the next line will naturally come to him. (And mostly it does.)

The Young Birdman initially teases and harasses Riggan to stick with the status quo of celebrity ambiguity, but it’s Mike Shinner that forces Riggan to really change. Riggan has a great deal of fear at the beginning of the story. Mike has no fear. Mike strips naked for his fitting in front of Riggan’s daughter and others. Mike (as Mel) tries to actually make love to Lindsey (as Terri) on stage in front of a full house. Mike also Riggan to essentially use a real gun without the red stopper in the barrel... to make it believable. In exposition dialogue we learn that Mike has no fear of being fired nor does he fear ruining his reputation by quitting projects.  He's guilty of both. When he joins Riggan's project, Riggan is thrilled and nearly worships Mike’s availability. Why? Because Mike is a real actor, which Riggan is attempting to be. And indeed, Mike’s fearlessness ("I own this town") is what makes him a great actor and consequently he get’s front page cover in the NYT Arts section, which may be the Moment of Grace for Riggan (Riggan's story is pushed to page 12.) This occurs on page 65 of the 118 page script.

There's also a Moment of Grace for Mike, when he tells Riggan in a bar that he owns the town and suddenly a fan approaches Riggan for his autograph and ignores Mike. That also signals a change that the antagonist's pressure is changing the protagonist. (this occurs on page 44 of the 118 page script)


The essence of the story, then, is that being an actor, especially on stage, requires a confidence that is greater than the fear being an actor creates. Riggan must acquire a confidence that he is the omnipotent god of his play and of NY. He can make things happen. He imagines that he has telekinesis powers just as an actor choses action verbs to telegraph his inner motivation to bring physical change to a scene and the other characters on stage he opposes.

This god-like, inner confidence and belief in oneself is equal to jumping out of a window and flying, yet WITHOUT the Birdman suit, which represents the fake and special effect side of acting.

Riggan learns that pretending to levitate in his underwear in his private dressing room where no one can see him, isn't enough. To have the confidence for his ego to acquire his id's dream he has to gain enough confidence to "literally" fly above 5th avenue fully dressed in public…or run through a crowd outside a theater in his underwear…a metaphor for his need to be totally vulnerable on stage. Successful acting requires extreme, emotional and physical vulnerability. You can have no fear of exposing yourself to ridicule and public criticism. The movie says that a Hollywood celebrity dresses behind a costume and externally becomes the character, but a real actor can go naked and internally becomes the actor. Only when Riggan acquires that inner motivation can he become the ACTOR he intends.

When Riggan confronts Tabitha (the critic) in the bar he tells her that she has no idea what it’s like to be an actor-director-producer-financier of a play, which is equivalent to being a god…you can kill actors with a sand bag, you can create a war on the streets of Manhattan, you can stare down fire breathing dragons, you can fly, and you can shoot yourself in the head and live again to do it again the next night. A critic (like Tabitha) can only use external labels which cost them nothing. Actors, o the other hand, risk everything to become their creation.

He says to Tabitha in reference to her use of labels to criticize his play:

None of this cost you fuckin’ anything? The Fuck! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! I’m a fucking actor! This play cost me everything.

That scene occurs on pages 92-93 which is a far cry and arc from what and where Sam says the same thing to Riggan on page 50.


Riggan’s arc is his transformation from being the young Birdman who can “fly" (with the help of a mask and special effects —not real acting…it’s all make believe) to his resurgence as a real actor running down Broadway in his underwear, drawing real blood on stage, and, telling the young Birdman to “Bye-bye. And fuck you." (Our last glimpse of the Young Birdman is that he's no longer hovering over Riggan, but sitting silently on a crapper having been finally put in his place.)  Riggan has learned to turn the characters on stage into real, life—the epitome of verisimilitude.

Riggan's need to arc is emphasized during a public preview (of the play), when Mike rants about how nothing on stage is real "It's all fake. The milk is fake, the butter if fake…Your performance is fake…" and he tears the set up (page 34). Mike is an example of the method actor, where the internal emotions drive the physical action and because the actor actually senses his environment as real. Mike is fearless on stage, where as Riggan (in his past) hid behind a mask and special effects.

The question is, can Riggan be like Mike. Can he top Mike. (Indeed can Michael Keaton get out from behind the Batman mask and be a real actor without special effects and cutaways?) Can he move from page 12 to page 1 in the NYT Arts section. We ask ourselves once again, can Riggan become the character... a real actor?  Blowing off his nose with a real gun is his own proof…he can now fly.

At the end of Act 2 (Near Death), Tabitha accuses Riggan of being a Hollywood celebrity and that she's going to kill his play. But once Riggan pulls out the stops, at the very end, when he's recovering from blowing off his nose, Jake reads Tabitha's glowing review of Riggan's "super realism" and praises the play.

Moments later, when he's alone in his hospital room's bathroom, Riggan removes the mask of bandages is a reprise of what he has done earlier internally, at the beginning of Act 3 (removing the mask and willing to become a martyr for the cause.) That the bandages looks like the bird man costume assures us that Riggan in fact has come out from behind his mask of being a “celebrity” to being an “actor”

In this same scene we also see the culmination of Sam's arc. Where earlier Sam despises her father's attempts to make the play succeed, they have this exchange:

RIGGAN: Listen to me. I'm trying to do something important. 
SAM: This is not important. 
RIGGAN: It's important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me... To me... this is - God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something. 
SAM: ….Well, there's a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn't even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist. You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter. And you know what? You're right. You don't. It's not important. You're not important. Get used to it.

But at the end of the movie, Sam has come around and we're shown it this way. After Riggan removes his bandages, he goes to the hospital window, looks down at the media frenzy that has gathered, looks up at the sky and birds "dancing" in the sky. Then he steps up and out the window wearing only his hospital gown, open in the back.

The camera moves from the window to the hospital room's door.

Sam returns from getting a flower vase, which she now does lovingly as opposed to the angry errand she ran for her Dad in the first scene. She looks for her dad who's nowhere in the room. The last paragraph in the script says this:

She spots the opened window and registers the sounds from outside. Tentatively she walks toward the window. She gets there, summons her courage and looks down. Nothing. Slowly, confused, she tilts her head up and looks up into the sky. A smile, filled with pride, begin to wash over her face.