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How to Build Your Film: Character versus Concept

July 19, 2011 Leave a comment

One of the hardest things to do as a screenwriter, or any writer for that matter, is to remember where the emphasis of your story should be placed. Frequently you’ll come up with a great new concept, something you’ve never seen before. It’s Twilight (2008) meets Robocop (1987), and you know the audience will eat up this new mashing of genres.

What if Bella was torn between Edward and...

...this man?

Every writer is different, but for me the concept always comes first. It’s the world where everything takes place, and provides the backdrop for your story. The thing that becomes difficult is moving past the concept. You have a world, Twilight meets Robocop, and you have a story, a robot that is half man hunts vampires to protect humanity and unwittingly falls in love with one of those who he hunts. What you don’t actually have are characters.

Yes, you know the names of your characters at this point and what they need to do to move the story forward. What you need to do now is delve deeper and discover who your characters are, and what they want. No matter how great your concept, people won’t attach themselves to your film unless you give them characters they can care about.

Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom in The Curse of the Black Pearl

Look at a film like Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). When the film was initially released, it was the first mainstream pirate movie in a very long time. Fans of the genre flocked to theatres to take it in, but mainstream audiences weren’t enthralled with the concept of pirates on the big screen. What did enthrall audiences was the portrayal of the characters. Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa, Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swan, Orlando Bloom as Will Turner, and Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. Excuse me, that’s Captain Jack Sparrow. These were deep and layered characters, each the hero of their own film, and each vividly portrayed on film. To support our main cast, an equally vivid cast of supporting characters was created, ensuring our attention through the course of the film.

While Jack Sparrow steals the show, it's characters like Barbossa and Elizabeth Swann that give depth to the film.

These characters helped make Black Pearl the massive success that it was, but what of a film with underdeveloped characters? That very issue can take a surefire hit and turn it into a flop. A film like Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) demonstrates this.

Poster for Highlander II: The Quickening

Taking over from the original cult classic Highlander (1986), The Quickening almost immediately destroys the mythic and characters that were set up in the first film. Gone is the tortured soul of Connor MacLeod, as it turns out he’s actually an alien. This bizarre recharacterization not only loses sympathy from the audience, but actively destroys the characterization from the previous film, leaving even fans of the series without a straw to grasp at.

Connor MacLeod's carefully crafted story is turned on its head in the Highlander sequel.

But how do you give depth to your characters? Once I’ve determined my concept and story, I sit down and write character bios for everyone in the film. This lets me delve into the character, focusing on them instead of the script as a whole. With the understandings I gain from that process, I can move on to actually crafting my screenplay.

But there is no right or wrong way to create a screenplay. How do you get to the root of who your character is? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images and videos are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

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Categories: Writing

Lovable Losers: How to Create A Sympathetic Protagonist

July 8, 2011 Leave a comment

While I was in Chicago last weekend, I was able to take in my first Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field. The entire place was ripe with history, and the lack of a scoreboard let you know that this park was meant for baseball. Not spectacle, not show, but baseball, the American pastime.

Wrigley Field

Of course, while thinking about that history it’s hard to not remember that the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. But that legacy didn’t seem to put a damper on the fans at all, as everyone showed up to root on the Cubs against the hated cross-town rival White Sox. Naturally, this translates perfectly to film.

Chicago Cubs Logo

As an audience we all want to cheer on the underdog, the lovable loser. All successful protagonists have been a loser of some kind, whether they be a loser in love, business, or any other facet of life. When creating a protagonist, it is essential to set up that they are the underdog in some respect and have something they need to change in their lives. Otherwise, why would we cheer them on?

R.P. McMurphy

Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), R.P. McMurphy is the quintessential loser. To avoid a jail sentence for battery and gambling, he decides to take the ‘lesser’ sentence by feigning insanity and ending up in a mental institution. However, the plan backfires as he ends up under the care of the brutal Nurse Ratched, and begins to sympathize with the fellow patients.

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched

A classic arc, we can clearly see the growth of the character of R.P. McMurphy. He begins as a loser for being completely narcissistic and working only for his benefit. We root for him to grow and change because we can see the persecution and terrible conditions the patients are living in. McMurphy’s growth is complete when he performs the selfless act of sacrificing himself for the others, ending up in electroshock therapy. The R.P. McMurphy we knew is gone, literally.

Butch and Sundance

Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

There is perhaps no greater overthinkers in film history than Butch and Sundance from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Legendary for their ability to rob banks and trains, they are losers not because of themselves, but because of the world around them. Times change, and they are having a hard time keeping up. As the law gets closer and closer Butch hatches his final plan: leave America for the greener pastures of Bolivia. Even significant other Etta Place realizes this is a bad idea and leaves Bolivia, stranding Butch and Sundance. In a final act of desperation, Butch and Sundance take on the entire army of Bolivia.

The Final Shootout

The case of Butch Cassidy is an example of a character with a need to evolve and change, but the complete inability to. Where R.P. McMurphy evolved to his sacrifice, Butch fights right until the end. We root for Butch for nostalgic reasons, cheering for a simpler time. We root right alongside him, but we know he cannot win. Nothing can stop the tides of progress, and Butch and Sundance pay the price for that.

Jake and Elwood Blues

Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in The Blues Brothers

I would be hard pressed to not end a Chicago inspired blog without using the example of two of their native sons. From The Blues Brothers (1980), Jake and Elwood are struggling to pull their lives back together after Jake ended up in jail. The characters already know they need to change their lives, but they’re not sure how. Instead of getting on the right side of the law, they end up staying right where they were, but on a ‘mission from God’ instead. In an increasingly rare twist in modern film, Jake and Elwood find religion in their own quirky way, and they take to their new task the same as they used to take to crime. They get the band back together and lead us on one of the wildest road trips to ever hit film. In the end their faith ends them right back where they started, Joliet prison.

Car Chase through a Mall in The Blues Brothers

Another example of characters fighting against changing times, Jake and Elwood embody a bygone era. The rhythm and blues days are gone, but that is all Jake and Elwood know, so they keep ploughing forward, even getting their friends to buy into their illusion. The charade keeps up despite stolen bookings, and an increasingly large hoard of police on their tails. This lack of a change, however, is a change. Unlike in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jake and Elwood have a reason not to change. They need money to save an orphanage, and this gives us cause to root for them through the entire film. It also gives us and the characters cause to accept their arrest at the end of the film, with their mission having been completed.

All in all, we always cheer for the underdog. The term ‘loser’ may be harsh, and may not apply to all characters, but the rule holds true. Characters need to have something to change internally before they can be sympathetic to an audience.

How do you craft a sympathetic ‘loser’ protagonist? What are some of your favorites? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images and videos are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

Categories: Movies, Writing

Breaking In: Perfect to the Letter

June 19, 2011 Leave a comment

A short blog topic today, but one that apparently needs to be written. I can’t say the number of applicants I’ve dealt with that should have read this blog, but there are a lot.

When you are trying to break into the industry, I’m dealing with film and television even though this rule applies to every industry, you only have one chance to make a first impression. Thanks to this, most people will show up for their interview in clothes far nicer than they would normally wear, and on far better behavior than they would normally display. That’s all fine and good, but that is not your first impression.

Trust me, your first impression is far before that and, if you mess that up, you’ll never get to the interview stage. Your first impression comes when you submit your resume, spec script, treatment, or anything to your potential employer. But that’s not even the document that makes your first impression! The first impression comes directly from your cover letter.

Because of this, there are a few rules you need to follow when writing a cover letter. They are as follows:

1) When talking about yourself, even if your cover letter is an email, the correct spelling is ‘I’ and not ‘i.’

This seems to be a growing concern in cover letters I read. Communication is becoming more casual as it becomes more accessible, and I’m fine with that. But if you are submitting a professional portfolio, this is the first sign that I shouldn’t call you back.

2) Every word needs to have a space before and after it.

I recently read a letter with not one, not two, but three instances of this. Seriously, you need to make sure to space your letter properly, which leads to…

3) Proof read your letter.

Sounds simple? It is? After you write your letter, put it aside for a while and then come back to it. Depending on the timelines, you could put it aside for 10 minutes, or 10 days. Just be sure to put it aside so you can come back and edit it with fresh eyes. If you don’t, you’ll fall prey to the grammatical and spelling errors that companies looking to hire don’t like.

That’s it. It’s short and it’s sweet. These rules apply everywhere, but I hold writers to a higher standard than most. If you are claiming to be a professional writer, then you should never give me a reason to critique your writing in a cover letter. Your letter doesn’t have to blow my mind, but it does have to show me that you are competent in your chosen profession.

What do you think? What are some of the best cover letters you’ve read? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images and videos are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

Categories: Breaking In, Writing

Stranger than Fiction: When Real Life Becomes Film

April 17, 2011 Leave a comment

With the upcoming release of DisneyNature’s African Cats (2011), I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how we approach the concept of fiction. The overall assumption is that everything is made up. From out of the blue, creative people come up with creative ideas and creative solutions. While this is possible, I would hardly call this the norm. Ideas come from experiences and observations. Sit in a park and watch people walk by, inevitably a story idea can come to mind just by observing real life. Nothing trumps experiencing life when trying to come up with story ideas.

African Cats (2011

This then takes me back to African Cats. Walt Disney was a firm believer in this concept, believing that nobody could ever create the stories that could be given to us by nature itself. Indeed, this was one of the inspirations for the Jungle Cruise attraction at Disneyland. Walt initially wanted the ride to include live animals (something found later in the Kilimanjaro Safaris in DisneyWorld), but backed off after being convinced that animals wouldn’t ‘perform’ throughout the day for guests. Instead, the attraction went with animatronic animals.

The Jungle Cruise at Disneyland

But Disney was able to use this concept in his highly successful series of films titled True-Life Adventures(1948-1960). A series of short documentaries, the films brought viewers into the world of wild animals and gave viewers an opportunity to sympathise with them. By humanizing these animals, wild and natural experiences took over the narrative. Some controversy still exists over how many of the scenes were faked, and how many violated animal cruelty laws, but the theory is still sound: by observing the behaviour of wild animals, Walt Disney was able to attain stories that he never could have sitting behind a desk. As a side note, many of these documentaries were used as research and inspiration for the animal creatures in Disney’s animated features.

The Title Image for True-Life Adventures

Fast forward to the modern era and the Walt Disney Company has returned to it’s roots by starting the production studio DisneyNature. From this we have viewed such well received films as Earth (2007), and Oceans (2009). This studio holds the values from True-Life Adventures at it’s very core: there is no more human experience than that of animals.

Two Whales from DisneyNatures Oceans (2009)

As a concession, the humanizing of these animals comes from some creative editing and storytelling largely assisted by voice over, but the stories could not have come out had we not been observing in the first place. But of course this theory doesn’t only apply to documentaries. There are several examples of successful films based on real-life encounters.

Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward in The Fighter (2010)

Sporting films are a market traditionally served by basing films off actual events. To only look at boxing films Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (1979) is loosely based on the life of Chuck Wepner, while films like Cinderella Man (2005) and The Fighter(2010) are far more literally based on their real life counterparts, James Braddock and Micky Ward respectively.

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941)

There’s also the biopic, whether it be fictional or not. Both examples can be seen by looking at Citizen Kane (1941) and The Social Network (2010). The former takes the fictional approach and creates Charles Foster Kane to act as a surrogate for the real life character William Randolph Hearst. The benefit from this approach is the ability to create your own ending, and not be tied to a literal close. The Social Network, instead, stays grounded in our reality. With no fictional character, the film has to stay more or less true to the actual events that inspired Mark Zuckerberg to create Facebook.

Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010)

While there is no right or wrong way to craft a story, most people will agree that to find that story, you have to experience and observe the world that happens around us. So what stories do you find the most intriguing? The versions that literally translate actual events, or the versions that fictionalize them for the purpose of the story? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images and videos are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

Categories: Movies, Writing

Who Owns a Character? – Iconic Portrayals in the Batman Franchise

February 5, 2011 2 comments

We see it time and again, great movies succeeding based on great characters. A lot of times we even remember not so great films simply on the strength of a memorable character.

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones

Film franchises have been built entirely on a character. Who can forget when Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) premiered and introduced us to Indiana Jones? Each film after that became serialized and was introduced as Indiana Jones and the Insert Mythical Object Here. This isn’t to say the films don’t stand on their own, the success of The Mummy (1999) proves the Indiana Jones universe itself can engage an audience, but the films would not have been the same without Indy headlining.

 

Brendan Fraser takes on Arnold Vosloo in The Mummy Returns

But who owns these franchise characters? Not legally speaking, but artistically? Every character goes through so many hands to get to the screen, who has final ownership? Is it the writer? The director? The actor? While logical arguments can be made for all of the above, it’s hard to go against the actor. Their face is ultimately tied to their character and audiences the instant the film is released.

But even with that acknowledgement the answer isn’t that simple. While, so far, Indiana Jones has only been played by Harrison Ford, what about other iconic characters that have more than one actor? As a case study for this article, I thought we could look back at the many faces of The Joker of Batman fame.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight

If you were to ask most people right now who their favorite Joker is, I’d be willing to bet that more people would cite Heath Ledger than not. His brilliant portrayal of the sadistic madman in The Dark Knight (2008) shone a new and different light onto the character. In Christopher Nolan’s Batman universe, The Joker is a convincing, scary and frighteningly realistic psychopath.

Any cartoonish nature of the character was gone, and The Joker lived for once in our reality. Right now, the popular vote has to go to Heath Ledger.

But how much does the popular vote count for? Let’s not forget in 1989 the popular vote would have swung another way for another fantastic performance.

Jack Nicholson as The Joker from Batman

When Batman (1989) came out, it was in a dry spell for super hero movies. Nobody watched them and the genre had grown stale. So Warner Brothers hired a visionary impressionist director in Tim Burton to bring Gotham City to the big screen and he chose legendary actor Jack Nicholson to play his Joker.

Nicholson’s character lived in Burton’s fantasy world and wasn’t subject to normal laws and realities in the same way Ledger’s was. Nicholson was able to turn up the crazy while dialing down the realism. In other words: Nicholson’s Joker was completely off his rocker. Where it always felt there was more than meets they eye to Ledger’s Joker, Nicholson’s wore his plan on his sleeve. He was going to take over Gotham and kill everyone. No grander scheme. Simple. Crazy.

But his Joker wasn’t entirely original. Many of his comedic elements can be traced to yet another man’s portrayal of The Joker.

Cesar Romero as The Joker from the Batman TV Series

Who can forget the way that Cesar Romero played The Joker in the 1960’s Batman TV series? One of the first mainstream portrayals of the character, Romero made him much more of a comedian than villain. That’s how the universe was set up for the 60’s Batman franchise, however.

The campy, cheesy series was made that way entirely on purpose and succeeded because of it. The villains on the show had to have completely ludicrous schemes for the show to work. The more outlandish the scheme and character, the more fun it was for the viewer to watch. Romero took this ball and ran with it.

So, the nostalgia vote has to go to Cesar Romero. But there is still another vote we haven’t considered.

 

Mark Hamill as The Joker from Batman: The Animated Series

Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) can be credited with keeping the Batman franchise alive in the early 90’s. DC Comics did fantastic work parlaying that into Justice League (2001-2006) and other cartoon series. In those series can be found yet another iconic Joker performance: that of Mark Hamill.

Many people graduating right now grew up with Mark Hamill’s Joker moreso than Nicholson or Romero. Hamill was able to draw on both Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero for his performance. However, thanks to the animated format, he didn’t have to worry about taking people out of the performance by being too over the top. Thanks to this, Hamill’s Joker may be the most delightfully over the top of all four. He gets the nerd vote.

But, in the end, which of these four performances is the definitive Joker? Which actor owns The Joker? Does the popular vote, the nostalgic vote, or the nerd vote count for the most?

There is a poll below for your vote, expand your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

 

Categories: Acting, Movies, Writing

The Undiscovered Nemesis: How to Finish a Franchise

January 21, 2011 1 comment

For years the question has plagued the minds of series lovers: what is the best way to end a beloved franchise? How do you go about trumpeting the end of a run for beloved characters who we have grown to know and love? Many filmmakers have been faced with this issue, and it sticks with you from pre-production straight through to the life of the film on DVD. Did each character get their due? Were the consequences high enough, or did we let hem off with a final fluff piece?

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

The ending of a franchise only gets more difficult as you add in a longer run before the finale and more memorable characters. All of a sudden you have an ensemble cast of characters that all deserve screen time in a send-off film. You can learn a lot by looking at the way Star Trek brought their major film franchises to a close in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country (1991) and Star Trek: Nemesis (2002).

Both franchises faced the issue of how to give each character their own unique send off. When all the characters of both the original series (TOS) and the Next Generation (TNG) are so beloved by the fans, it would be a crime to not see all the characters in the final journey. But before we go into characters, lets look at the way these stories are translated for the last film.

TOS was always a Space Western. Going from the TV series to the film series only set the Western on a grander scale. Kirk and his band went around dispensing good, old fashioned frontier justice. They battled the Klingons constantly, as well as a colorful rogues gallery. So it would seem fitting that their send-off would have them running against the one thing they can’t fight: peace.

Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

With the Klingon Empire facing extinction on their home planet, years of conflict are inevitably coming to an end. For the first time the crew of the Enterprise is forced into inaction. The knee jerk reaction of heading straight into a gunfight won’t work this time, and the crew must remain complacent while awaiting results. Any action taken by the crew could plunge the universe into an interstellar war.

As a Trek fan, this is the last great battle that you could have hoped for. We all know at this point who will win in a firefight, but we’ve never seen the crew forced into a cold standoff where patience will win the game.

Kirk Meets Klingon Chancellor Gorkon

In Nemesis, the TNG crew is forced into a similar situation. For years on television, and films, the crew of the Enteprise-D paraded for peace. They could handle themselves in a firefight if need be, but it was always a last resort. Nemesis faces this crew with a situation that requires quick, aggressive action; something the crew is not entirely accustomed to.

Because of this, each member of the crew gets there own chance in the spotlight to prove that they are the crew we cell in love with over 7 tv seasons and 4 movies. This format is almost beat for beat the same as The Undiscovered Country, and I don’t mean that in an insulting way. Right down to the Star Trek jokes, both films include an illegal Romulan Ale joke, this fish out of water scenario creates a fitting send off for the franchise.

The TNG Crew Debates their Next Move

But what about individual characters? As an audience has grown to know and love characters over the series run, each character deserves their own send off that fits them personally.

The Enterprise and Excelsior Fire on Chang's Bird of Prey

Let’s look at James Kirk first. The last bastion of Western martial law. His send off has him struggle with the end of his era. But his era goes out with a bang, literally, as he calls for the Enterprise to fire, destroying the Klingon Bird of Prey. Thusly, Kirk has an interesting arc but still gets to go out as the character we all remember.

But what about right hand man Spock? Spock is also forced from his comfort zone when he needs to disobey federation orders to save his friend, Captain Kirk. But, in the end, he too is able to return to his logical ways, figuring out how to make a photon torpedo that can track emissions from a cloaked ship. There is even a nice play on the conflicting relationship between Spock and McCoy as they perform ‘surgery’ on a torpedo together. This gives McCoy his send off, and also gives the audience one last glimpse at these two characters on their own.

The TOS Crew on the Bridge

Each character is given their own finale by having their moment of confusion or conflict followed by their moment of triumph. Chekov demonstrates this by not understanding why the killers couldn’t have been vaporized. His moment in the sun comes later when he imparts this knowledge to McCoy.

Perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments of Star Trek VI is the feeling of closure and continuation it achieves at the end of the film. As the Enterprise sails off into the sunset, the Excelsior, under the command of Captain Sulu, sets off to continue their missions.

The Enterprise and Excelsior Ride Off Into the Sunset

This leaves the audience satisfied with the ending of the series, and happy with the promise that this will not be the last of Star Trek.

Nemesis also follows this model. Each character gets their own moment to shine: Riker faces off against Shinzon’s number one, while Troi takes on his telepath.

Troi's Foil: Viceroy Vkruk from Nemesis

Captain Picard faces off with Praetor Shinzon

One major difference between the two films is the yin/yang concept seen in Nemesis. Instead of each character getting a clear cut moment in the sun, as in The Undiscovered Country, each member of the crew is given a dark version of themselves to defeat, the most obvious of which is Picard as he fights his literal clone in Praetor Shinzon.

By facing off against the characters they could have been, the audience is allowed a trip down memory lane to reflect on the events that made these people who they are. The culmination of this is Data’s noble sacrifice in the end to save the crew, harkening back to another familiar beat from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

In the end, the filmmakers use Data’s sacrifice to bring closure to the film and the franchise for the TNG crew. But a sense of hope and continuation is also given when the memory implants from Data in B4 seem to suddenly begin to work, possibly resurrecting Data.

B4 Begins to Take On Data's Personality

So what can we take from how Star Trek closed off it’s franchises? Did you think they were well done or was something lacking? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

Removing Reference: Disorienting the Audience in Black Swan

January 16, 2011 1 comment

Some of the most intriguing films have always been projects that leave you wondering what happened. Horror films like The Ring (2002) have lasting power by not explaining everything. The story completes, but something from the overall concept remains unsolved. In The Ring we learn that we weren’t supposed to help Samara, but it is never explained why. What makes this more confusing for the audience is that the only way to save yourself is to make somebody else watch the cursed video tape, essentially helping Samara spread her message.

But even in films with twist endings, and unexplained mysteries, the audience will normally remain rooted in their reality. You may be confused, but that comes from trying to figure out how this film is interacting with everyday reality. When we try to find a murderer in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), we wonder who actually killed Chancellor Gorkon, but the rules of the Star Trek universe have been laid out well beforehand so we do not become disoriented in this reality.

When a film like Black Swan (2010) comes out, it succeeds in disorienting the audience by removing these established rules and realities. While I try to remain as vague as possible, it is worth noting that this blog contains some spoilers regarding Black Swan, so you have been warned.

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in Black Swan

Black Swan, described as a ballerina thriller, seems to be a normal narrative at first glimpse. It follows Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) as she tries to land the leading role in her company’s production of Swan Lake. She struggles with the expectations of the demanding director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), achieving her mother’s broken dreams, and her own goal of perfection. Throughout the first half of this film, the audience is introduced to Nina’s mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey), as one of the many villains of the film. She pushes Nina hard, and forces her to live by her rules in her house. Erica pushes Nina hard to strive for perfection, the perfection that Erica herself could never achieve in ballet.

On the other side of the coin is Thomas Leroy, who pushes Nina in the exact opposite direction. He encourages her to let go of her pursuit of perfection and, instead, just live in the moment and enjoy her performance. From the audiences point of view, Nina is being pulled in two different directions and is on the edge of a breakdown because of it. Cue Lily (Mila Kunis), the yin to Nina’s yang. Lily is impulsive and completely free. She wouldn’t make as strong a White Swan as Nina, but she could be the perfect Black Swan.

Thomas Leroy (Cassel) seduces Nina

To this point, the audience is still in this film, believing this to be in a standard reality. No rules have been broken yet, and anything out of the ordinary can easily be attributed to dream sequences or imagination. It is at the point when Lily takes Nina out to a bar that things start to become disorienting.

Lily (Kunis) takes Nina out for drinks

At the end of that sequence is the scene where Lily seduces Nina. This is the point where Nina lets go, becoming her own person. She no longer cares what her mother thinks. Nina is emerging as her own swan, and the audience is cheering her on as she goes. The next day, however, we learn that Nina and Lily never had sex. It was simply a wet dream created by Nina’s mind. This is when things start to become disorienting for the audience, as the lines between reality and Nina’s dream world are blurred.

Lily seduces Nina

Writer Mark Heyman succeeds in making this world exceptionally disorienting for the audience as he slowly tears away each and every point of reference for the audience. If Nina and Lily didn’t have sex, who’s to say that anything else we see on screen is actually happening? Heyman exploits this as we go along by continually shifting between the two realities without cueing the audience as to which reality we are in. When things become violent between Lily and Nina, we can’t know if they are fighting in real life or if the conflict is entirely internal in Nina’s mind. Lily has become the anti-Nina in effect in Nina’s mind, so the audience has to deal with both reality Lily, and dark Lily, the Lily that eventually allows Nina to portray the Black Swan.

Lily and Nina fight over who gets to play the swan

Without a point of reference in the film, Black Swan becomes a fast paced, disorienting and downright thrilling film. But this is definitely not the first time we have seen this style used. Removing reference is a tried and true method to confuse an audience.

The lines blur as Nina becomes the Black Swan

In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer epsiode Normal Again (2002), a demon gives Buffy a hallucinogen that makes her wake up back in her original reality. Instead of being the Slayer, she is committed to a mental hospital thanks to her delusions of fighting demons. Her parents are still together and everything is as it was before she moved to Sunnydale. She spends the entire episode flip-flopping between the two realities.

Buffy in the hospital in Normal Again

In the end, Buffy choses to exist in the Sunnydale reality and returns fully there to help her friends. While we are clearly cheering for her to return to Sunnydale, it is left ambiguous as to which reality is real. There is no reason to not believe Buffy is actually in a mental hospital, and the doctor makes convincing arguments as to why the hospital is in the actual reality.  To add to the effect, the show ends in the hospital reality with the doctor informing Buffy’s parents that ‘she’s gone.’

These are only two examples of how you can enhance the effect TV and film can have on an audience by forcing them to try and figure out the world that surrounds them. How about you? What are your favorite examples of this process? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

Categories: Movies, TV, Writing
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