“Dear George Lucas
Thank you for submitting the first 10 pages of your screenplay ‘Star Wars’ to ‘The First 10 Pages Film Festival’. We read the extract with pleasure and as promised here are some notes.
As you know we assess the first ten pages on 5 criteria:
It is clear from the initial exchanges between your main character C-3P0 and his sidekick R2-D2 that you’ve decided to bring a light-hearted comedic tone to the sci-fi genre – essentially a buddy comedy in space. But whilst the banter between the two characters is enjoyable not much else is very funny. Perhaps you should consider other avenues of humour i.e. Princess Leia seems very serious – is there any way of lightening her up?
C-3P0 is the archetypal reluctant hero dragged into an adventure by his diminutive companion R2-D2. His flaw is that he is self-serving and it is clear that through the story he is going to learn how to sacrifice himself for the greater good. What isn’t clear is how the obvious implied romance between C-3P0 and Princess Leia is going to develop. Is Princess Leia really an android or is there a handsome young man beneath C-3P0’s metal head? Perhaps you could make this clearer by showing some loose wires in Princess Leia’s neck or a lock of hair poking out of C-3P0’s helmet.
You adeptly establish your busy galaxy with various races and planets and the battle between the evil Galactic Empire and the Rebellion. What I think might be confusing for the audience is that you write in your opening caption that it is a galaxy far, far away a long, long time ago. It might help the audience empathise more with the action if the story takes place in a galaxy not so far away at some point in the near future.
The delineation between good (C-3P0) and evil (Darth Vader) is very clear and you have expertly set up your climax in which they will meet in a final battle – machine against machine – with C-3P0 emerging victorious and winning Leia’s hand. What we need to know, in addition to his emotional flaw, is C-3P0’s physical weakness – does he need to acquire a solar pack or some other energy boost before he can face his mortal enemy?
The dramatic situation – will Leia manage to deliver the Death Star plans to the Rebels – you set up well but it isn’t clear what C-3P0’s opinion is on the matter: was he aware that Leia was carrying the plans or not? If he really is the reluctant hero perhaps we should see him question the safety of Leia’s scheme and then he can be vindicated when Darth Vader attacks.
Whilst your 10 pages were an enjoyable read, I’m afraid you haven’t made it onto the final shortlist. We wish you luck with your screenplay.”
Of course, I’m being facetious.
But in Lucas’ final version of ‘Star Wars’ we don’t meet Luke Skywalker until sixteen minutes in and we don’t learn about the Force until 30 mins into the film. It wasn’t always like this: in an early draft Luke on Tatooine is intercut with Vader’s assault on the Rebel ship. And an even earlier draft of the script wasn’t about Luke at all but told the story of Annikin Starkiller – but even he was on page one.
So why did Lucas decide to delay the introduction of his main character for sixteen minutes? He realised, as Akira Kurosawa did before him, that revealing the world and introducing the story through the eyes of the most disenfranchised characters in the story is an effective way of drawing the audience in – because most of us aren’t the messiah, most of us are C-3P0 or R2-D2.
And that is why, when we watch Star Wars, we don’t lambaste Lucas for not introducing us to his main character in the first 10 pages, not setting up Luke’s conscious desire and not letting Luke be the one to help Princess Leia. The story kicks off immediately – the Rebels have stolen the plans to the Death Star and Darth Vader is hot on their heels -, the sense of cinema is breath-taking and the characters are all engaging especially R2-D2 and C-3P0.
So you can look at Star Wars in one of two ways: that it is a rare exception to the rules governing the first 10 pages or that the first 10 pages should be judged on a single criterion: has the storyteller managed to engage his or her audience?
“I’ve already sent the script to a couple of gurus,”
said a writer to me at the New Renaissance Film Festival. I’d just delivered a masterclass in storytelling and I think the implication was that I was a guru – or a demi-guru at the very least. I must confess that I don’t think of myself as a guru – or a doctor, or even an expert as the film festival brochure so flatteringly described me. I’m just someone who’s read a lot, watched a lot, written a lot, had the good luck to work with people who are a lot more talented and has learnt a lot from people who are a lot more knowledgeable and articulate. And if you spend as much time as I do thinking about stories, how they work and why they matter, occasionally you like to put those thoughts out into the world to see what other people think. Some agree, some don’t; some are inspired, some aren’t. And that’s how we learn and grow.
But beyond the subtly flattery, the writer’s comment implied something much more important. Why had he sent his script to a couple of gurus? Had the first guru not given him the feedback he’d expected? Was he hoping that the second guru would be more in tune with what he was trying to say? Had the first guru been unable to articulate his critique in a way that made sense to the writer so he’d felt compelled to send it on to someone else? And how many gurus was he planning to send his script to before he’d had his fill of gurus and their opinions?
It seemed to me that the writer was searching for something - something that is as elusive as a good idea and as precious as a perfectly constructed sentence: he was looking for his own Tay Hohoff. It is generally accepted that without Tay Hohoff ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ would not exist in the version we all know and love. It was Tay Hohoff, in her role as editor at the publishing firm J. B. Lippincott & Co., who looked at the earliest draft of ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ and recognised a talented writer who hadn’t found the right story. And it was Tay Hohoff who guided Harper Lee through three years of re-writes, three years in which Lee lost faith more than once and even threw the manuscript out of her window, until ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ was the book we know today.
Every creative needs their own Tay Hohoff – that person who can look at what we’ve made, what we’ve toiled over, what we apprehensively hand over and can see what works in it and what doesn’t. That person who, with knowledge and tact, can show us where we’ve gone wrong and guide us to the road that will make it better. That person who can say ‘This is good but I know you can do better.’ That person might be your agent, who after years of working in the industry, has a sixth sense for what works and what doesn’t; it might be a young editor fresh of a literature degree who just loves stories or it might be a guru who has made a career of analysing stories and advising writers. Whoever it is, we all need that person because telling a simple story well is an inordinately difficult thing to do and most of us can’t do it alone.
Just how important, precious and fragile this relationship is was highlighted for me by the writer Michel Faber whose Tay Hohoff was his wife, Eva. In an interview in The Guardian Faber explains how it was Eva who pulled him out of a depressive funk when they met in Melbourne in 1987, how it was Eva who convinced him to move to Scotland away from the harsh Australian sunshine that gave him migraines and how it was Eva who “supplied characters for the novella The Courage Consort, demanded a “more luminous” ending for The Book of Strange New Things, and helped to shape the mood and plot of all his books. “I would have been a different writer without her,” he says.”
Eva died in 2014 and Faber ends the interview: “I’m still trying to write a bit…I would like to think that in the future, if something has to give it’ll be the writing, rather than being a human among other humans.”
We all need our own Tay Hohoff: that person who has faith in us; that person we can trust completely. That person who can say ‘This is good but I know you can do better.’ And, for our own sanity and for them, we will.
“Ghost: If thou didst ever thy father love-
Hamlet: Oh God!
Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
so goes the exchange between old King Hamlet and his son Hamlet amongst the battlements of the castle in Denmark. King Hamlet’s desire for his son to kill the man who poisoned him sets in motion a sequence of events that doesn’t end well for anyone – except maybe Fortinbras. I’ve seen many Hamlets over the years: Mark Rylance found the humour in the character whilst playing the part in his pyjamas; Daniel Day-Lewis at the National Theatre in London collapsed because he immersed himself so deeply in the ‘antic disposition’ he saw his own dead father; Jude Law was a towering presence, not necessarily a good thing, in the West End; Rory Kinnear was competent at the National again – there have been others. But the one man whose career seemed to be hurtling towards a definitive Hamlet was Mel Gibson.
Gibson? you say. But he’s no Laurence Olivier, no John Gielgud, no Kenneth Branagh.
No. But very early on Mel Gibson found his niche and he was very good at it.
Gibson was in his early twenties when he appeared in George Miller’s 1979 film ‘Mad Max’. ‘Mad Max’ is the story of an idealistic young policeman in a dystopian near future whose battle against a marauding bike gang becomes personal when they kill his child and fatally wound his wife. In ‘Lethal Weapon’, Richard Donner’s 1987 film, Gibson’s Martin Riggs is struggling to cope with his wife’s death and in the 1989 sequel he discovers who killed her and gets his revenge. In his own 1995 film ‘Braveheart’ Gibson’s William Wallace is a pacifist until an English soldier kills his wife. The IMDb summary of Gibson’s 2000 film ‘The Patriot’ reads: ‘Peaceful farmer Benjamin Martin is driven to lead the Colonial Militia during the American Revolution when a sadistic British officer murders his son.’
Gibson might have made other films – enjoyable comedies such as ‘Bird on a Wire’ and ‘Maverick’; slight character pieces such as ‘The Man Without a Face’ and ‘Forever Young’ - but time and again he returned to playing an avenging angel who sets out to revenge the foul and unnatural murder of someone he loves.
So it was inevitable that he would play Hamlet. There’s no Macbeth in Gibson, no Lear and certainly no Caesar. But Hamlet’s angst he seems to have in spades. So why, in 1990, in a film by Franco Zeffirelli – whose ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was the first film to make me cry and whose ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is the definitive story of Christ even for an orthodox atheist – did Gibson not light up the screen in a role he was clearly born to play?
He failed to bring a still intensity to the role that defined Olivier’s Hamlet; he completely missed the humour that Rylance brought to his interpretation on the stage; there was no sense of an epic struggle that Branagh tried to capture in his four-hour wide screen version.
Perhaps the reason is simply that Gibson was playing the wrong Hamlet.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is not an avenging angel. He is a man of letters who is trying to be a man of action: he wants to fulfil his father’s command but he needs to return to Wittenberg and his studies. Time and again he comes up with reasons not to kill his uncle and in the end he only acts when he is dying, along with Laertes and his mother. It’s hard to imagine any of Gibson’s heroes needing that much motivation.
Hamlet, King of Denmark, the father, is the avenging angel. King Hamlet is the one who wants revenge against a brother who poisoned him and now sleeps with his wife. He appears on the battlements, in full military garb, governed by the same passion that Stephen King wrote of his antagonist in ‘Christine’: a single-minded purpose, an unending fury. It is the same single-minded purpose, the same unending fury that drives Mad Max, Martin Riggs, William Wallace, Benjamin Martin.
What a Ghost Gibson would have made: that manic intensity, that barely controlled rage, that burning need to capture his enemy and kill him. But this time frustrated because he is imprisoned in death; this time forced to abdicate the role to his son.
‘Hamlet’ is a character driven story about a young man who cannot act and that isn’t Gibson’s strength. But you can imagine that if the boot was on the other foot and it was King Hamlet who was tasked with avenging his son things would be very different: King Hamlet would drive the plot like a large stake right through head of the man who killed his son – and that was Gibson’s niche and he was very good at it.
“Unfortunately no one can be told what the matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”
Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus tells Keanu Reeves’ Neo in the 1999 film by Lana and Lilly Wachowski. I am reminded of this line every time I stand up in front of a class of students or conduct a workshop or masterclass. So many faces looking back at me as I explain the inciting incident or the turner points or the fourth act climax; so many faces eager to learn, to find the answer – but not quite getting it. Faces that mirror exactly my face as I sat through Robert McKee’s Story Seminar or John Truby’s Screenwriting Masterclass. What they say makes perfect sense in principal – of course something must happen to get the story going, of course your main character will be faced with choices, of course it’s all leading to a climax – of course it is, otherwise it wouldn’t be a story. But what do any of these beats in a story actually look like?
For me the moment of revelation came when I sat down to watch Frank Capra’s 1946 film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. I’d heard of it, of course, as the story of a man who gets to see what life would be like if he’d never been born, but, as with so many of the classics - films and books alike - it takes a while to find the time to watch them.
‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is full of many perfect moments but the moment in the story that branded itself onto my brain is the mid-point. How many times had I read about the mid-point in script writing books? How many times had I heard it mentioned in masterclasses? How many times had I looked out for it but not seen it? And then suddenly there it was in front of me, perfectly realised.
To understand the mid-point of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ you first have to realise that ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is not the story of a man who gets to see what life would have been like if he’d never been born – that is the story of the final act. Instead it is the story of a good man who spends his entire life trying to escape from the only place in the world where he truly belongs: his home.
One of the first things we learn about George Bailey when we meet him as a young boy is that he has ambitions of being an explorer: he has subscribed to National Geographic and he’s leaving Bedford Falls just as soon as he possibly can. That is his conscious desire and it is reiterated again and again: when he is a young man, now played by James Stewart, he’s off to college – but then his father dies and he has to take over the Bailey’s Buildings and Loan; when his younger brother returns after going to college, George is hoping to get a job that would allow him to travel - but his brother has gotten married and his father-in-law has offered him a job. Every time George Bailey thinks he’s about to get away from Bedford Falls something stops him.
This constant anticipation and disappointment brings us to the mid-point and to Mary played by Donna Reed. Mary and George have had a thing for each other ever since they were children but nothing has ever come of it…until now. Still mulling over the fact that his ambition to leave Bedford Falls has been thwarted once again, George takes his mother’s advice that he should go say hi to Mary who has recently returned. The meeting is awkward: she tries to recreate the joy they had felt the last time they’d seen each other but he is distant and taciturn. He leaves in a sombre mood and she smashes a record she’d hoped would remind him of the happy times they’d had together. Then the phone rings: it’s an old school friend. And George returns having forgotten his hat. The old friend has a business proposition for both of them and the only way they can hear him is by sharing the phone.
And that’s when it happens: the mid-point.
Trapped on the phone, imprisoned in 4:3 aspect ratio of a 1946 film, the two forces that define George Bailey collide and you see it etched in every muscle on his face - because George Bailey wants to leave Bedford Falls but George Bailey needs to stay. We see the emotional agony of this collision in every fibre of James Stewart’s performance.
And that’s when I realised what the mid-point in a character driven story looks like: it looks like the expression on George Bailey’s face as he struggles to choose between the woman he loves and the dream he has had since he was a child.
Of course, I can tell you what story beats are until I'm blue in the face. But only you can see them for yourself.