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The Responsibility of Writing Suicide

The show Thirteen Reasons Why has received a lot of mixed responses.  In a recent IndieWire article, Hanh Nguyen discusses a program adopted by Oxford High School in Michigan called “Thirteen Reasons Why Not,” where students can submit a sort of “confessional” tape like Hannah uses in the show, but after talking about things that happened to them, they talk about and thank someone who helped them back from suicide, focusing on the non-inevitability of the act.

While Nguyen starts off the story talking about the controversies surrounding the show, the response made by Oxford High is framed as something positive which has come from the show, and finishes the article about how this school felt the need to put an active campaign up to combat damage done by the hopeless and unbalanced portrayals in the show, by linking readers to Netflix as a promo for the show itself in case they want to watch it.  Which seems so strange.  To talk about how a show has caused some suicidal people to self-harm or go further, and a school trying to do something about it, and then link to it.  Which makes me wonder how we are supposed to handle these things.

I haven’t watched the show myself because I really didn’t want to.  Several friends have, and all similarly hated it for its exploitative lack of hope for suicidal people and portrayed forced inevitability, glorifying of revenge suicide and the act of self-death, and ignoring of the medically recommended approaches to talking about stuff like this, even down to things as simple as using it as a way to include emergency response numbers and help sites in the work.

Suicide isn’t a fun gimmick.  It can be a very drawing thing.  Which doesn’t make it bad to talk about or portray suicide–that’s important–but the way it’s done is crucial.  I guess my biggest question is why, with all of this readily available feedback about their show at hand and knowing what’s at stake for some people, why content creators wouldn’t stop defending their product, and start considering making a change.  Because, even in a business industry, when you’re writing a topic like suicide, it shouldn’t ever be just for a profit.

There’s a responsibility to not wound your audience.

Farewells to Adventure Time

In a recent article for Indiewire,  Eric Kohn wrote a very well-made and thorough piece on the upcoming end of Adventure Time, a CartoonNetwork show created by Pendleton Ward that revolutionized contemporary cartoons.

I’m sad to see it go, but Eric’s article reminded me of everything the show has done.

Now, I haven’t seen every episode of Adventure Time.  But it’s still made an impact.

The very first time I heard about it at all, I was in a theater.  I think I was going to see How To Train Your Dragon, back in 2010.  My sister and I were in a not yet dark theater, watching pre-show trailers for early viewers, and a mom with a little boy, maybe five years old, came in and sat down front.  I remember a commercial for CartoonNetwork coming on and the little boy started hopping up and down in his seat, and pointing at the screen, beaming and saying “Adventure Time!”  I thought he was excited for the screening.  I didn’t know until a week later Adventure Time was the name of the show we were seeing a commercial for.  It was such genuine joy.

Not too long after, I was in a play, strangely enough it was the very serious The Glass Menagerie, and the guy who played by brother, Tom, was a big fan of Adventure Time.  When we parted ways after the show, he got me a scarf from a show I liked, and I got him Finn’s hat from Adventure Time, completely unknowing what the other was planning to do.  The show gave us a goodbye present.

Later, only a few years ago, I cospalyed Princess Bubblegum and my sister did Marceline at a con, and I had little kids really excited to see us and wanting to take pictures, and it was such a wonderful experience to get to ping-pong some of the joy created by a show like Adventure Time.  Again and again that’s what I’ve seen, the show making people happy.

Cartoons were sort of in a dark place around 2010, but the insane success of Adventure Time opened the door for new and more varied content.  It started a creative boom.  People moved away from what they thought was just “safe,” and started to experiment.  It’s thanks to the success of Adventure Time that we got Regular Show later that same year, with its original, college-life quirky commedy feel,

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that Disney took a new chance with dark fantasy-light family-off the walls mystery Gravity Falls in 2012,

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or Steven Universe got its premiere in 2013.

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Adventure Time told stories in a new way.  It had a lot of complex issues going on, and deep life commentary, but through the lense of a light-hearted fantasy world that just sort of flowed to its own beat. Image result for adventure time sucking at something

But through that world, it told all sorts of complex stories, including a spot on male entitlement, where a character kidnaps and tries to force one of the main women to marry him, and when she beats him up, and he falls back on a “I just did it because I like you” kind of response, it cuts him less than no slack.

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I’m glad Adventure Time will be with us until 2018, and when it finally goes, I hope it receives the send-off worth of a show that changed things as much as it has.

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Franchises and Re-Structuring

In episode 297 of Scriptnotes, John August and Craig Mazin do some followup on things from previous episodes, then talk about franchises like James Bond which can move from studio to studio.

I didn’t know James Bond was a free-agent franchise at all before this, but that’s kind of fascinating.  I hope it stays that way.  I mean, Disney has been able to do a lot well with its recent acquisitions like Star Wars and Marvel, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I just get a little wary about anything acquiring so many properties, because then what happens if things ever go sound with that one parent company?  And creative control.  It reminds me a little of how actors used to almost belong to one studio for huge chunks of time.  It seems like it’s better from creativity if things work more as free agents that rent out from place to place, but of course I have no control over any of this whatsoever.

And there are obviously upsides to being acquired.  And not just financial.  A well-established company overseeing production of material that used  to be more freelance can provide easier funding and more options as far as materials for storytelling, as well as a huge amount of marketing help.

Anyway, I hope James Bond does stay a free agent.  Also, while it was only brought up once, the most interesting part of this episode to me was Craig Mazin’s pitch for a movie about young in World War II, and the early days of spying–like that sounds like a great movie.  I would watch the heck out of that.  That pitch 100% sold for me.

They also spend a considerable chunk of time talking about reshoots and restructuring movies, which I didn’t know a lot about the technical side of, so that was very informative. To finish, they cover One Cool Things about a digital version of Adams Family Pinball, “Important, Not Important” a newsletter hitting news highlights, and Butcher Billy’s artwork covers made from Pop Song titles from the 80s and 90s, re-imagined as Stephen King book covers.

Broken Night and Decision Trees

Filmmaker Magazine recently ran a fascinating piece about a VR thriller called Broken Night currently playing at Tribeca.

VR is in and of itself an engrossing platform to study. I’ve never gotten to experience it firsthand, but I would love to.  What made Broken Nights sound especially intriguing though, was its use of choice-based gameplay.

I’m a huge fan of decision-based games.  It’s almost weird to go back to traditional storytelling games after a long stint, starting with Until Dawn, of engrossing myself in decision-based games from Heavy Rain and Beyond two Souls, to Life is Strange, Fallout 4, and almost every title Telltale Games has produced.  I think the first traditional game I played after my choice-based marathon was either The Last of Us, or the Uncharted games 1-3.  It was weird, especially The Last of Us, because while Nathan routinely chose to do what I’d have done anyway, Joel and I were often not on the same page, and he kept doing things in cutscenes I would have definitely avoided if I was playing The Wolf Among Us or something.  It’s not a bad thing though, The Last of Us is a great game, it’s just a different type of storytelling.  Similarly, Broken Night’s choice to let player decisions influence the retold story of the wife, but not the true ending to the story isn’t something I think takes away from their VR game at all.  While I would disagree that branching stories with different endings get “gimmicky” quickly, it’s true telling “16 or 32 good stories with different endings” that impact the player is difficult, but if you can pull it off, like Heavy Rain, which doesn’t even offer game-over second chances, but instead a multitude of game endings, you get a truly fantastic experience.

I think their company’s ultimate goal with their choice-based storytelling, however, couldn’t be more spot-on.  Interactivity is, at the heart, all about “getting the emotional impact of the story,” and Broken Night sounds like a VR story it would be fantastic to experience.

Tv and What’s Up

In this episode of Scriptnotes, 296, it’s Craig’s turn to be absent for an episode, Damon Lindelof of Lost and The Leftovers joins John August to co-host the show to fill his place.

This was a very informative episode about writing for television, something I haven’t heard as much about, but am definitely interested in.

 

It’s such a collaborative process, and everyone hears that, but it was great to get so many firsthand accounts from Damon.  I haven’t really learned much before about the process of moving up in tv writing, and it was interesting to hear his story about writing an episode Wasteland and turning it in, and his advice about finding that perfect time to jump in in a way that helps.  I think I knew that some tv writes sort of as they shoot, and some shows do the whole thing ahead of time, but I didn’t realize the schedules that frequently got that down to the wire.  I have a newfound respect especially for tv actors—not that I didn’t before, they’re fantastic, but I didn’t realize often how little time they have to prep.  It’s truly incredible what tv shows accomplish.

 

I also really liked hearing Damon and John talk about the paradox of fans wanting everything planned out from day 1, but also wanted the creators to listen to and adjust for fan input, and it’s true that you can’t have it both way.  I mean, you can have some details of the whole plot solidified from day one and then adjust for fans as you go, but you definitely can’t give even 70% of one while giving as much dedication to the other request.  I think a lot of times people get too critical of shows for writing as they go.  I mean, sometimes that criticism is merited, for sure—if you do it enough it feels like you keep putting asterisks next to your world building and using side notes to try and lawyer your way out of your own plot, like the second time weeping angels are used in Doctor Who and they just up and become a completely different species for horror factor, which was totally unnecessary anyway as the fandom at large still agrees that Blink is one of the scariest episodes of all time, despite being one of the only episodes ever where no one is killed during the course of the episode.  Copious amounts of death is cheap horror, if that’s all you have to offer.

 

Oh the positive side, shows and movie franchises that respond to audience desires in general are, I think, going the correct route.  Media is a give and take experience, it should be collaborative including with the fans, and there’s nothing wrong with a show listening to its audience, and figuring out where it’s going to go.  I doubt when Supernatural introduced Crowley they had any intention of him ending up where he is now, and similarly I’m fairly certain Gabriel was just a trickster the first time he was introduced, not Gabriel, but I’m not giving any complaints and neither is their fandom at large.  They’re taking what people like, and what they like, and building on it successfully and carefully, and it’s turned out tremendously well and profitably for them.

 

Anyway, after a lot of helpful info about tv writing, the episode ends with One Cool Things about the show Occupied and the show City Girl, and a bonus cool thing about John Hodgman.

The Overlook Film Festival

A recent Indiewire article announced Blumhouse Productions has some great events lined up for the brand new Overlook Film Festival.

The Overlook Film Festival is a four day event which calls itself a “celebration” of horror.  Isn’t that a fantastic way to describe something?  Not a convention for, or about, but a celebration of?  The festival will take place in the historic Timberline Lodge, which most people know as the heautifully haunting and horrifying Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  

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It’d be hard to top that location for a festival like this.  It’s a showcase not only for new films like Akiva Goldsman’s Stephanie, but also includes screenings of classic horror films, and “interactive” and live shows.  It sounds like the ultimate horror event–I wish I could go.  Maybe some other year–something as promising as this has to keep going.  I’m sure its first convention won’t be its last.

If you are fortunate to have money and transportation, I’d definitely recommend the celebration.  It includes a huge lineup of everything from The Bad Batch Related image to The Bar,

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Paranorman,

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The Killing Ground,

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and Terror 5.

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Also a party, a first ever screening for Stephanie, and a showing of Blumhouse’s favorite Paranormal Activity film. They also have plenty of panels, events, and other activities.  The celebration offers different packages, of vastly different prices, which do a nice job of catering to all kinds of incomes and dedications to the event, as well as several really awesome looking interactive horror games.

 

Tips for Screenwriters

In episode 295 of ScriptnotesJohn has to step out because of equipment lost on a flight, and Malcolm joins the show to fill in with Craig.

Malcolm and Craig answer a lot of listener questions, and it was really fun to see the variety of things people ask about, but to start off, they give a little follow up to the Beverly Hills Screenplay Competition. 

The questions ranged from “Why don’t we see more sexual acts that don’t include full-on sex, like blowjobs or handjobs?” to “do I put too much punctuation in my dialogue?” and “Is my psychotic manager right about having a claim to money I make after firing him?”

The sex acts questions was interesting because it’s true–I hadn’t thought about it much, but you usually only see kissing or full-on sex in television and film, unless it’s a villainous character doing the other sexual act.  Gotta wonder why.  I agree with Malcolm and Craig that if we see something like a blowjob on screen, the connotations for the character receiving are usually negative, but I have no idea how that portrayal started.  Or why?

It was nice to hear them talk about writing action sequences with specific martial arts techniques, and the level of detail you should include, because I was curious about that.  I wonder how many people have gotten jobs teaching writers and performers of tv shows about specific martial arts recently, since there’s been a boom in action.

I was disappointed but not surprised to hear about Sasha’s problems with her managers, and that those kinds of things happen not uncommonly to new writers.  I think it’s important to be aware of the danger out there, as well as how not okay that is.  Similarly personally useful was the commentary on punctuation in dialogue.  I probably put too much in, but I do it with the expectation that my actors will ignore it.  Because I’ve acted and I know they will.  It’s just so the original intentions of the character and scene are clear to a reader, so on a first run-through they understand the emotion and intents behind what is said.  I actually didn’t even do this as much when I started writing, but on one of my first scripts in school, my teacher commented on a scene where my protagonist was talking to a friend in passing at a store, and the friend invited him to something, but he said he couldn’t, and the friend told him all he ever did was work, which I intended to be friendly teasing, but my teacher read as uncharacteristically mean.  I’m kind of glad I’m more specific in parenthetical and punctuation now–I mean, I still try to use it only if I think it could be read two very different ways, but I feel like it’s helped my clarity.  This still kind of makes me wonder though, if I’m wrong and I do it too much?

There are several other topics, like why writers in Oscar acceptance speeches don’t usually mention other writers of the script drafts, world building for giant sci-fi worlds, and no dialogue sequences and how to keep them engaging, but the most interesting to me was how to format things going over or in the middle of credits, because that’s something I need for a script I’m doing right now–so thanks, Scriptnotes!  I needed to hear that one.

They end with One Cool Things about a Skyrim story about a lengthy journey to keep a dog safe, the game MLB The Show 17, and Fantastic Negrito.

Benefit of the Doubt

In Scriptnotes episode 294, John August and Craig Mazin discuss several listener inquiries in depth, and focus on screenwriting mistakes and tricky questions.  They also bring up the live show again, which is currently (at this writing anyway) set for May first.

They start by discussing Aaron Sorkin’s lack of realization that racial minorities and women have more difficulty finding work in Hollywood than straight white men do, and the huge explosion of social media platforms like Twitter dragging him for it.  I hadn’t heard about any of this story before somehow, so it was an interesting topic to listen to Craig and John discuss, as was their ripping apart of the Beverly Hills Screenwriting Competition for being a fraud, but after those two topics were over they got into some things I really, especially enjoyed hearing about.

One was if a writer should or should not capitalize “God” in dialogue.  I’m inclined to agree with John, in that I write upper or lower case depending on the intent of the character speaking.  (So, a highly religious person saying “Oh God” in horror at something is probably actually asking for help, while someone who isn’t is just using it as an expression and I’d write it “Oh god.”  I hadn’t really thought abstractly about how or why I write that before though, so it was fun to think about.

Another interesting topic was mistakes.  Things that are under-researched, or false, or stretched (in-show examples including things like knocking over the king when winning Chess and messing up plays in a Baseball anecdote).  I tend to over-research, I think.  I once spent four hours going through the history of Catholic Saints for a play about two homeless men living in a basement, just because I wanted to be pulling from some things with character names, and I did the same thing to get the exact timing and scenery of a train ride from part of New York to another part, even though it wasn’t specified in script the exact start or end points of the character moving.  I just like it–it makes the world more real I guess–but even so, I’m sure I have glaring mistakes in some things I write–making some mistakes is unavoidable (at least when solo writing).  I’d be inclined to agree with John and Craig that you should try and research and avoid mistakes as much as you can, but sometimes you need to change things for timing and narrative reasons, and you should try to be forgiving of understandable mistakes, because they do happen. Definitely.  To all of us.

There was also a discussion about over-used film elements, like splashing water on your face, or putting your hand over your mouth when shocked, or leaning against a door and closing your eyes, or staring at the phone receiver after getting bad news.  I thought it was funny, because I have actually unironically done the thing where I get somewhere “safe” and lean against the door and shut my eyes–it feels good.  But now I wonder if the reason I do that is because I’ve seen it in films so many times, I think it’s a normal response and subconsciously adopted it?  And while I’ve never stared at a phone receiver or splashed water on my face to calm down, I routinely cover my mouth when shocked or appalled by something.  Again, I wonder if that’s something I do naturally, or if I learned it from movies.  I definitely want to ask other people about this and find some answers.

There was one topic discussed I disagreed on, though.  John and Craig talked about languages in Game of Thrones and about having people speak in non-native languages so the audience doesn’t have to deal with subtitles–which I understand, I know some people refuse to even try subtitles–but Craig described constant use of a different language as “annoying” and they both agreed there is a “natural disconnect” between an audience and characters speaking a language they do not understand.  And that’s wrong.  I’m sure it’s true for some people, but it isn’t for everyone, and certainly not for me.  And it’s not a “natural” disconnect, if anything it’s an “acquired disconnect.”  I’ve watched foreign films in plenty of languages I don’t know, and a whole lot of Japanese animation, and it doesn’t bother me at all, there is no disconnect.  In fact, there are several shows I can think of right now that I would have to look back and check to be sure that they really were in Japanese instead of English, because it is so easy for me to get into the story through subtitles that I literally don’t remember it as being in Japanese. I remember guying my sister a DVD copy of Gyakuten Shoujo Nozaki-Kun, an anime about a manga artist, and looking for one with an English dub (because I thought that’s what we’d watched) for half an hour before realize the show had never even been dubbed in English and I was just remembering it wrong.  Just now it took me a minute to remember if I saw Free! subbed or dubbed before I remembered that I watched it before the dub came out.  It doesn’t matter.  Good stories and good characters are good stories and characters, and people who care enough to try (and of course have the privilege of not having any processing disorders which make something like reading a sub while watching a film difficult) won’t have a “natural disconnect.”

Anyway, they finish with the one cool things Jonathan Coulton’s video to All This Time, and a site called Every Noise at Once.  My beef with subtitles aside, it was a fun episode to listen to.

The Thor Franchise and Genre Switching

With the recent release of Thor: Ragnarok‘s teaser trailer, IndieWire writer Yoselin Acevedo made a short article about the upcoming addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I was excited to see this, because Thor is one of my favorites out of the Marvel superhero movies franchises going on.  What’s been especially interesting to me though, is that Thor seems to be deeply invested in something the other Marvel franchises aren’t.  Genre switching.  While the other franchises build on each of their films, certainly (for instance, The Winter Soldier is more spy-thriller than historical adventure, unlike Captain America: The First Avenger, and while Tony Stark gets more character development each movie and there are slight mood shifts, all three Iron Man films seem like a very similar part of the same cohesive whole).  On the other hand, Thor takes on a new genre each film, and yet somehow without changing its world drastically and while staying true to its characters.  For instance, Thor is basically a Shakespearean drama with superheroes.  Kenneth Branagh has himself commented many times on his intention to make it Shakespearean, as have cast members of the first film and reviewers.  Meanwhile, Thor: The Dark World took a very different approach, going less for a Shakespearean drama approach, and presenting itself more as a sci-fi adventure, but at it’s core has been often discussed as a brother movie, or buddy film and marketed itself as such, heavily focusing on Loki and Thor’s relationship.  This left me, and probably a lot of other fans of the franchise wondering how the third film was going to be made, and we have our answer now: 90s-early 2000s teen movie.  If you don’t believe me, check the music-backed, fast paced editing, explanatory voice over, rapid and straightforward conflict introduction, and joke timing in the new teaser and compare it to the marketing in trailers for Mean Girls, or She’s The Man.  It even almost starts with the now infamous-overly-memed *freeze frame* “Yep, that’s me–*insert name here*.  I bet you’re wondering how I got in this situation.”

I personally think it’s great.  I love that the Thor movies constantly jump around and try not just different stories, but wildly different storytelling techniques and genres for their superhero, and bring in new directors to tell their own kinds of stories.  I’m excited to see where Thor: Ragnarok takes us.

If you haven’t seen it yet, here is the new teaser Thor: Ragnarok. (For fun, compare it to the heavy focus on the brother relationship in the trailer for Thor: The Dark World‘s trailer and heavily Shakespearean language and thematics highlighted in the trailer for Thor.

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