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Thursday, May 19, 2005

Since you ask, Larry:

All That Jazz
Cabaret
Annie Hall
Some Like It Hot
Bladerunner, theatrical cut
Casablanca
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, theatrical cut
Braveheart
Moulin Rouge!
Groundhog Day
Sleepless In Seattle
When Harry Met Sally

My point about structure, though, John, wasn't that you can't find three acts. My point was how does it help you to call the first two sequences the first act? Does that mean you're doing all your setup only in the first act? That all your characters are introduced by the end of the first act? That the plot's on train tracks by the end of the first act? I can find three acts in Hard Day's Night too, if I decide I want to find them, but then I'm just shoehorning a few sequences into each act. Three Act Structure doesn't inform that movie. Nor does it Forrest Gump. It seems more meaningful to talk in terms of sequences for some movies, because the story does naturally break down into sequences. I don't think Bob Fosse was too worried about Three Act Structure when he wrote/edited/magicked up All That Jazz. Do you?

8 Comments:

ALL THE JAZZ and the other two you mentioned are not "classic stories." Although, if you talk to Zemeckis he might debate it.

Annie Hall, Some Like it Hot, Casablanca, Bladerunner, Groundhog Day, and those Ephron films are all absolutely traditional 3-act stories.

Read Vogler or Campbell, or check out John Truby or Stephen Cannell or other guys that talk about stucture on their web sites.

It sounds to me like you're equating the classic 3-act with some kind of "rules" that someone said you had to impose if using it. Just because a character is introduced 50 pages into a script doesn't mean the structure isn't 3-act. And perhaps the plot doesn't have to be "on train tracks" by the end of act one, but if you don't know what the story is 12-25 pages into a script, you've got a bad script.

IMHO, when you start talking sequences in films instead of story/structure, you are getting into why there are so few good movies made today as opposed to 25+ years ago. A good sequence or set of sequences has trumped a good story because of the presumed ADD of the ticket buying audience.

By Anonymous Guyot, at 11:19 AM  

Excellent point, Guyot. May I add that Scorsese is a firm believer in sequential structuring; with the exception of Raging Bull, most of his films have a sort of touch-and-go feeling, which combined with his camerawork and actors, makes it feel fresh and exhilirating, even 25 years later.

Three act structure is not up for debate. Every narrative has a beginning, middle, and an end. How you fill the space--or even, in the case of Annie Hall, what order the beginning, middle, and end come in--is up to you.

By Blogger Larry Fouch, at 12:05 PM  

The other main reason for talking three-act structure is the fact that 90% of the time, the person looking to break it isn't doing it from a tortured-genius-constricted-by-the-form point of view.

I taught a very introductory "baby" structure intro screenwriting course at a Canadian university and inevitably the guy (and for whatever reason, it was always a guy) who wanted to NOT talk about three act was someone who ... well .... let's just say I haven't seen any of THEIR movies on anyone's all time best lists.

I used to say, "you understand that when ee cummings broke all rules of punctuation, it's not because he didn't know what those rules were but eventually I stopped saying that because it took too long to explain ee cummings.

Okay. I'm depressed now. Bring me a Michael Bay film.

By Blogger DMc, at 4:26 PM  

This is great stuff. I love reading this stuff.

At the end of the day, if the script is a satisfying page turner, that's a good goal to have no?

Keep on talking guys, this is great stuff!

And Incredibles is still yet to be fathomed, it is so great. Some of the camera moves in that film, are beyond what was once imagined, and the sheer excuberance of the visual story telling reminds me of the kinitic City of God, but I don't want to confine it to just that one reference.. and a thousand saturday childhood mornings watching TV on the seventies carpet.

By Anonymous Michael, at 7:30 PM  

Larry,

I like what you said about Scorsese's filmmaking. The reason I loved The Aviator, Good Fellas, Casino was that even though they were long movies (approx. 3 hours each, I think) not only didn't I care about the length, I was so wrapped up in the narrative that I would have enjoyed an extra hour or so, or a sequel or whatever. I got comfortable with the characters and enjoyed their trials and tribulations in various circumstances.

Such works are heavily sequence-based, but very much the opposite of ADD. I wonder if the fact that they are so heavily character-based as opposed to "this character has one specific goal"-based that allows for that kind of scope. In all these movies, we stick with the characters for decades, but it's not like they want one specific thing, which could then be solved in some movie-logic way.

I recently also watched The Right Stuff again, and I remember William Goldman talking about it in one of his books, as to how he broke down the acts. It wasn't that he got all abstract about it, but more that he knew which stories he wanted to tell (Training was one, Gus Grissom's disaster was another), and once he had that list, he more or less worked his way through it.

I would call The Right Stuff an episodic film, but not exactly a cure for ADD. To me it feels more like a novel.

Guyot does have a point re. the sequence approach having a negative impact on movie storytelling, the most topical example of which would be a comparison of the two Star Wars trilogies.

By Blogger Electroglodyte, at 2:19 PM  

I'm going to try to answer the question of why the three-act structure is helpful, but I think, Alex, that by asking about the first act you're missing the point.

The key to understanding the three-act structure usefully is the second act. The establishment of the main tension that drives the movie. The first act is everything that leads up to the establishment of that tension, and the third act is everything that follows it's resolution.

Now, what I like about looking at sequences (of seven acts, or eight, or however many you find in a given film) is that it emphasizes the turning-point nature of good screenwriting. Tensions are constantly being created and resolved, and that's good - and if looking at it in terms of sequences helps people do that, great.

But the weakess of that approach is, IMO, that it tends to result in scattered storytelling. A strong story is MORE than just a series of twists - it is a series of CONNECTED events. I think that when you neglect a three-act approach you tend to come up with a film like "Gangs of New York" - a film which has many virtues, but, narratively, it's a mess.

Scorsese has written that he's not a fan of the three-act structure (or rather, he talks about it in a book of interviews I have with him) and I think, unfortunately, that's not surprising given the major weakness of his movie; they tend to be sprawling, messy, and unfocused.

The idea of the first act is that you have to establish the status quo, introduce the problem of the story, and push the protaganist to a moment of irreversible decision. That's a lot to do in 25 pages.

But thinking in terms of those specific problems can help you get your story moving forward quickly, and yes, definitely has value.

By Anonymous Hotspur, at 12:56 AM  

Please let me just say THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for your recommendation for All That Jazz. It was one of those movies I had ignored just because it looked... well... corny, I guess. But wow. Amazing. So thank you for the recommendation. And to any of you out there confused as to why this is on Alex's list, GO WATCH IT!!!

Sorry, I'm a little excitable. Just wanted to say thanks.

By Anonymous brock., at 1:33 AM  

It seems as though the only person who can truely determine the "acts" of a movie is the one who wrote it. Otherwise we're just trying to use certain sequences to estimate where one act begins and another ends.

By Blogger Jason Sanders, at 4:10 AM  

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