19 May 2014

12 in 12: Schooling for "Education"

One thing I've been dealing with while writing scripts in different genres than I'm used to is trying to write the script right.  By that I mean less about finding the proper words to use and more about establishing the appropriate tone, mood, and atmosphere -- what I like to call the flavor of a script/movie.

Probably the definitive revisionist Western.
With The Education of Tobias Smith, I've been watching a lot of Westerns.  To be honest, I've got maybe dozen Westerns I really like and watch more than I actually care to admit.  For the most part, the films would fit the revisionist sub-genre.   And to be honest, that's probably where Education will fall into:  Most revisionist Westerns are non-Western Westerns because of how they approach the generic tropes established by traditional/classic Westerns.  Good guys don't always wear white hats, the outlaw has more ethics and morals than the law enforcer, Native Americans and Mexicans aren't necessarily bad because they're a minority.  Beyond something like Stagecoach, which didn't invent the genre but has since defined the genre, I subscribe to the school of thought that the best Westerns are revisionist Westerns.

Katy Jurado as Helen Ramirez.
How she didn't get an Oscar nomination is one of the
many mysteries of the 25th Academy Awards season.
One thing I'm trying to do with Education is create a couple of strong female characters.  One of them is modeled after who is arguably the strongest female character in the entire Western genre:  Helen Ramirez from High Noon.  This is a woman who runs the town without anyone really knowing it.  She owns the hotel and is a silent partner in the town's grocery store.  But she has an unsavory reputation -- being Frank Miller's lover, for one -- and is pretty much ostracized by the rest of the town.  Yet in every scene she has with a male character, she's the one in charge; she lays down the facts and truth even if the man doesn't want to hear it.  She's a powerful and enigmatic woman.  If the character I'm writing from Helen's mold comes out at even a tenth of her depth, I'd be happy with my work -- I mean, it's a first draft so there'll be plenty of time to smooth out the edges.

One thing I like about revisionist Westerns is how you can bend characters to whatever whim is necessary to tell your story.  So long as the actions and motivations make sense, the possibilities of creating three-dimensional characters is expansive.  

Here's an example:

How is this guy...
Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper in an Oscar-winning performance), High Noon
...all that much different from this guy...?
Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman in an Oscar-winning performance), Unforgiven
Both are intent to keep disreputable men out of their respective towns.  Both appeal to the town in some fashion to help in that task (of course both towns fail to do so).  Each man has a distinct and simple moral code which they follow to the end -- for Kane, it's the death of the Miller Gang; for Daggett, it's his death.

Now that I'm thinking about it, I did write an essay about Unforgiven for a class.  I should find it and see if it's worth posting -- since, you know, I'm writing a Western and all.  It won't stick out as much if I was to post it whenever.

One film that I'm really studying for this script is The Ox-Bow Incident, which I highly recommend whether or not you're a fan of Westerns.  It's a simple, simple story that carries an incredible amount of depth -- all the more impressive when you consider it's run-time is 75 minutes.

This was shot on a sound stage.
Not that you notice since the story is so captivating.
What's so powerful about the film is that you know how it's going to end about 10 minutes in.  It's a given that's barely disputed.  And when the inevitable outcome is opposed, the arguments only postpone what's to come.  Fatalism and cynicism are two of the strongest factors that drive revisionist Westerns:  things are the way they are and there's nothing to be done about it.  The endings of the films are what everything is rolling toward, and often times those endings are not only hinted at within the first few scenes/minutes, but can't be denied by us, the audience.

Seriously, see this.
We know there's going to be a showdown between Kane and Frank Miller; we know William Munny is going to kill Little Bill; we know that the mob will hang the suspected cattle rustlers.  But that doesn't matter because it's the characters that keep us interested and pull us into the world of the film.  It's Munny's descent back into violence that compels us to follow him; it's Kane's determination to save a town that doesn't want him to that grabs us; and it's the mob ignoring Mr. Davies' voice of reason that frustrates us.  But there's nothing we can do about it, nothing the characters can do about.  It is what it is, yet we still come out of the movies with a deeper sense of morality.  

What's interesting about the three films I've mentioned above is how each uses their law enforcement:  In High Noon, Marshal Kane is about doing what's right.  In Unforgiven, Sheriff Daggett is about doing what's right, but in a way that makes his point clear.  And in The Ox-Bow Incident, Sheriff Risley doesn't show up until it's too late for him to be effective.  With Education, the sheriff is present and does his job as he can, but he has no real power -- there are a couple of scenes in which other characters disrespect him and he just lets it slide because he's only a figurehead.  And while I'm sure that's been done in a Western before, I can't recall seeing it.

Which brings me to the thesis of this post:  I'm trying to watch Westerns as I write The Education of Tobias Smith.  I want to immerse myself in the history and traditions of the genre and find ways to exploit little-seen or unseen tropes and conventions.  I know I'm not going to get to many in this first draft.  Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if this initial pass is all cliche-ridden and predictable (in the bad ways, completely unlike the above films), but at least I'll have it written and be able to re-write anything that feels worn and unoriginal.

But to do that properly, it'll be necessary to find out what is cliche and what isn't.  Though I suppose the easiest way to do that is to just watch films that spoof the genre -- Blazing Saddles and the upcoming A Million Ways to Die in the West -- since the main purpose of parodies is to expose and ridicule over-used tropes.  But if I do that, I'll never get the script done since I'll be over-analyzing every last detail.  

And that's just not good writing.

I'll end on this since it's such a great shot.
Even if you can see bits of modern (in 1952) L.A. in the background...

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