Saturday, December 1, 2012

Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure by Dan O'Bannon & Matt R. Lohr

Whenever Dan O’Bannon’s creativity has broken through the movie genres of science fiction and horror, they have undergone revolutionary changes. Those fantasy film landscapes were changed forever by Alien, Total Recall and Return of the Living Dead - the three titles cited on the cover of the upcoming book “Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure,” which arrives January 1st 2013 from Michael Wiese Productions.

O’Bannon’s screenwriting career has, for those who’ve followed it, always been a struggle to preserve the integrity of his ideas and hold onto the credit. He was equally as critical as complimentary towards even the best productions of his stories – Alien most notably – and at times merciless towards the worst. A 1983 Starlog magazine interview excoriates the producers of Blue Thunder for transforming his and co-writer Don Jakoby’s “Taxi Driver in the skies” thriller into typical action film fare: “If I can’t get something to direct soon, I'm gonna get out of this business and be a novelist or something.” A year later, he made his feature directorial debut with The Return of the Living Dead, which that needs no introduction for horror fans and which is my personal favorite film.

Inspiringly, the writer who nearly had his credit for Alien taken away from him has written this guide to screenplay structure without a trace of polemical bitterness or cynical formulae. "The rules embalm screenplays” he warns, and “No script sells every time. But I will tell you how to write a script that WORKS every time." Published posthumously through the efforts of co-writer Matt Lohr and wife Diane O’Bannon, this book is a “guide” in the truest sense of a history lesson and a survey of dramatic writing theories, as well as summating what the author has found to work best in the traditional three-act structure of movies. Being a man of science (fiction) O’Bannon’s methods are steely-eyed and straightforward, inviting the reader to test his theories over and over again upon a variety of famous film stories from Citizen Kane to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But as anyone who’s seen Dark Star or Return of the Living Dead knows, O’Bannon is a pip and the conversation he holds with the reader never turns dry. There’s a real love of cinema on every page, and the construction of a solid structure for a screenplay is framed like a fun logic problem to be solved rather than magic trick to be conjured.

The book also becomes a memoir when O’Bannon recounts the thrills of early success at using his “system” in the brutally tough arenas of work-for-hire script doctoring and selling original stories. For him the “eureka!” moment was discovering that effective screenplay structure can make an otherwise uninspired story watchable. This might sound like a claim to creative alchemy, but in pointing out that the goal of any film is to grab and hold the interest of the viewer, he’s positing that the ebb and flow of events in a screenplay are its most measurable quality and therefore the most critical.

Recounting a schlocky script called Phobia which he and co-writer Ronald Shusett were hired to improve, O’Bannon recalls the breakthrough: "Apparently [the system] had the power to transform a sow's ear I didn't want to watch…into a sow's ear I DID want to watch." Ultimately the film’s producer wound up throwing their work away, but if a writer knows how to make a screen story engaging, at least there’s a fighting chance for the creation of an enjoyable movie. There’s a liberating reductionism at play here, one which boldly asserts that the only bad movie is a boring one. As a lifelong fan of “bad” movies, this offers a neat rationale for why a movie such as my favorite Alien ripoff, the very cornball Forbidden World (produced by Roger Corman, who pens the book’s forward) is such a successfully entertaining film. There are a hundred other Alien knockoffs out there that are utterly abysmal, but Forbidden World (aka Mutant) probably has the closest fidelity to what O’Bannon called the “dynamic structure” that gave the story of Alien its internal momentum.

“Dynamic Structure” is O’Bannon’s trademark phrase throughout the Guide, and at first glance those words suggest an increasingly escalated conflict, until the pot boils over into denouement. What is actually prescribed is carefully measuring the progression of shocks to a viewer’s psyche – knowing the value of restraint, which is something Hollywood movies have increasingly abandoned as special effects have made near-constant distraction more affordable. The argument that spectacle has overshadowed substance in motion pictures is a criticism as old as Ben-Hur but I’m only bringing the argument up for myself. Far away from any speechmaking podium, O’Bannon’s book states that the committed fantasist’s goal to dazzle and amaze – but NOT let the fantastic become mundane through overexposure or overshadow the integral human elements of character and dramatic conflict. It’s telling that O’Bannon’s keystone criticism AND commendation of Alien stems from the fact that Ridley Scott’s visuals were so sumptuous they threatened to bog down the pace.

Despite the trail of blood trickling down the front cover of the Guide to Screenplay Structure, O’Bannon’s rules are meant to apply to all genres of film. He spends a large portion of the book applying his criteria to a dozen films ranging from Casablanca to Lawrence of Arabia and courageously, he admits that when analyzing a film like Dumb and Dumber (which he does) it’s apparent that a comedy with muddled, confused story structure can still be entertaining and successful with audiences if other factors are outstanding – such as the casting of Jim Carrey. Or in the case of Psycho, the most infamous screenwriting rule-breaker of all time, you can potentially sell the radical narrative turn of murdering your leading lady if you have a character as fascinating as Norman Bates and an actor as talented as Anthony Perkins to play him. The point being, such shortcomings or creative gambits need miracles or perfect execution and the vast majority of films have neither. Borrowing great dialogue and direction couldn’t make Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho a worthwhile film. A poorly or bizarrely structured story will only work in the hands of genius, and a professional working screenwriter certainly can’t count on THAT.

O’Bannon doesn’t purport to reinvent the wheel with his system. He asks us mainly to reconsider the definitions of two common denominators in storytelling philosophy, whose meanings are taken for granted: drama and climax. As with the classic films inventoried to test “dynamic structure,” the Guide also devotes a lengthy page count to sampling the thoughts of drama gurus across millennia, from Aristotle to Syd Field. It’s not giving away the game to paraphrase O’Bannon’s conclusion that most dramatic theory is “striving-based” whereas his approach is “Fight-based.” Fans and detractors who’ve followed his oft-contentious collaborations with John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Walter Hill and Clu Gulagher can insert their own jokes here: (         ). But the man has a point, and the history tour by which he arrives at this distinction exposes a big rift among storytellers since the dawn of man: those who believe that drama originates from characters and thematic ideas, and those who see action and conflict as the skeleton inside any story of interest.

Espousing conflict as the engine powering an audience’s interest in drama, O’Bannon cuts through a lot of circumstantial fog regarding the motivations behind characters in a drama: it is not interesting merely to see someone attempt to solve a problem, since we already know their efforts can only either fail or succeed. The compelling angle is the process by which methods are chosen, and this opens up an infinite variety of potential drama between protagonists and even internally for one character alone. Furthermore, the acknowledgement of conflicting interests between protagonists and antagonists harkens to one of the oldest pieces of advice in storytelling: that your “villain” should not merely be evil for evil’s sake. In even the most black-and-white fairy tales of good and evil, the really great films always make at least a small allowance for evil’s legitimate motivation – the Wicked Witch of the West had the righteous indignation that Dorothy’s house dropped on her sister. O’Bannon stresses the establishment of credibility in conflicts, and conflict as the force behind all drama - action and reaction. In other words, what can Newtonian physics do you for YOU, Mr. and Mrs. American Screenwriter?

The reconsideration of “climax” is something with which O’Bannon describes his struggle as he developed this system around the time of Alien. Every screenwriter is told that the “climax” of a story brings the conflict to some kind of head, or the “darkest hour,” or any other hoary expression you’d care to substitute. O’Bannon asks forthrightly: Well, what exactly DOES the “darkest hour” mean for where your story ought to be, before the final act? How can a story continue to be more and more exciting when things have already gotten as bad they possibly can? How can the resolution for an extreme “worst case scenario” be found without resorting to a deus ex machina? The answer given by the Guide is an elegant one: that the climax of a story need not be the “darkest hour,” but rather the point when a conflict has been rendered INESCAPABLE. Using Alien as an example he identifies the “climax” as the “point of no return” for the hapless astronauts – the infamous “chest-burster” scene. This is not the crew’s first encounter with the alien nor will it be the worst attack the star beast has to offer them – but it is the point at which Ripley and company have NO CHOICE except to deal with this interloper onboard.

O’Bannon admits on page one of the book’s introduction that “The shelves groan under the weight of all the books out there on how to write a screenplay.” This is why the bulk of his guide invests the reader in checking and re-checking every idea about the propulsion of a story. These ideas are rooted in the agreed-upon structure of three acts – but ever the scientist, O’Bannon also briefly introduces a concept from the world of human behavioral study called “hedonic adaptation.” We learn in an afterword from his wife Diane that this theory was almost left out because he regarded it as a kind of secret weapon too good to give away, even in a tell-all how-to. It is as disarmingly pragmatic as anything else in the guide: simply put, human beings are uniquely wired among all other life forms on Earth to adjust their expectations of reality in the aftermath of shocking changes. In narrative terms, this means an audience can be drawn further into the progression of a drama if they and the characters onscreen are given a pause to catch their breaths before the next twist or turn. This may not sound like brain surgery, but the principle goes a long way towards explaining why films containing non-stop action can be such bores - or why an intriguing story premise can run out of places to go before even reaching the halfway mark – or why sequels and remakes inherently feel like so much wheel-spinning. The Matrix Revolutions, indeed.

I’ve done my best to summarize this book’s ideas without giving everything away, and it should go without saying that O’Bannon and co-author Matt Lohr do a better job of explaining them than I ever could. Beyond discovering his system, however, there’s an equally attractive reason to read "Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure": you get to read Dan O’Bannon’s thoughts on movies and the art of writing. As mentioned, The Return of the Living Dead is my favorite film of all time. It’s also the rare genre film in which the humans are truly the stars – and unbelievably, there are a dozen of them!  Three older men and eight teenagers, all playing off one another as the script masterfully intertwines their initially separate paths throughout the course of one fateful night of the living dead. The screenplay to “Return” has remained maddeningly hard to get a hold of, but one has to assume that with O’Bannon as director, he got his voice into those characters just as well as he planned the structure of the story. This brash, sardonic voice has been heard in the handful of interviews O’Bannon has recorded in recent years, and a version of his ornery personality was immortalized on film in Dark Star when he played Sgt. Pinback. Biographical information on O’Bannon was virtually nil until Jason Zinoman’s terrific “Shock Value” (2011, Penguin Press) and while “Guide to Screenplay Structure” doesn’t tell us much more about his life, that inimitable voice is heard on every page.

In criticizing the anticlimactic ending of the original Dracula:

"I understand that an early Hollywood talkie couldn't very well shower the audience with gore at the end, but we deserve a little better than the horror-film equivalent of a champion prizefighter taking a dive."

And in describing Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels’ characters in Dumb and Dumber:

"Picture Bert and Ernie if they didn't get enough oxygen at birth."

O’Bannon’s wicked smart sense of humor also extends to casual observations about the art and artisans of dramatic storytelling in general, as in this aside on Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka:

"That the comic nature of Kafka and Beckett's work does not register for most of us as comic demonstrates that if it is to connect with its audience, comedy must match that audience's own fear level. Persons with mild, unthreatened lives require a commensurate humor. If your worst fear is an unruly lawn, you will laugh when Fred Flintstone mows his grass with a lizard."

…And mocking the idea of placing importance on even length for your screenplay’s three acts:

"I can just hear the word of mouth now: 'Hortense! You have got to see this movie! THE ACTS ARE ALL EXACTLY THE SAME LENGTH!'"

“Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure” is a must-have for anyone interested in the craft, yes, but it’s also a must-have for readers of great writing on film and especially for fans of O’Bannon. There’s even a Benson, Arizona reference for the intrepid Dark Star fans out there. Go ahead and pre-order.


How long has this book been in the making?

DIANE O'BANNON: Dan had some version of this book in the back of his mind for a long time. Back around 1974, I was going through some of his papers, and among his notes I found a single sheet titled “O'Bannon's Rules of Writing.”  That page only had one rule on it: “Never Bore Your Audience.” At that time, it was clear that Dan was going to continue from there with different rules, but the message was obviously a central and simple one.

Really, like Dan says in the book, this project was thirty-five years in the making; his whole career was part of the writing process. The basic discontent Dan had with his own work is something that hits the heart of writing, and is essential to his method and really to writing in general. He was never satisfied, never complete, always open to suggestions, and all of this gave his work a distinctive fluidity. Many writers are like this. Sam Hamm, the writer of Tim Burton's Batman, sent me a blurb for the book, and later revised it because he wasn't happy with one word. Writing is a living communication that changes over time, and Dan understood that.

MATT R. LOHR: I came onto the book in 2001, and at that time, there was already a manuscript that was fairly far along. The main sections still in the completion phase were the film analyses and the breakdowns of the other major screenplay structural systems that Dan chose to include in the book. I spent the majority of my initial time with Dan (about two years working with him directly) mostly concentrating on those sections. And of course, the intensification of Dan's illness and his eventual death led to the book being delayed even further.

What were the challenges in completing this book for publication after Dan passed away?

Diane O'Bannon: When Dan first came to what he felt was the end of the book, I sent the manuscript around and got a brief sniff. At that time, I was told that nobody wanted another screenwriting book; the market was considered to be over-saturated. Michael Wiese Productions was not yet as prominent in the film book market, and were not on my radar. Naturally, if you were starting to submit a book like this now, they are the first people you would take it to.

I had one publisher who was interested, but they wanted us to lose the chattier parts of the book, where Dan discusses the Hollywood lifestyle. They were looking strictly for “how-to” books. I went through the manuscript myself and excised those parts of the book, but I felt that what was left was frankly somewhat dull. This was non-negotiable for the publisher, and we came to an impasse. It wasn't until some time later, after Dan's death, that Wiese came across the manuscript and approached me about publishing it. And when they had their own suggestions and ideas for revising and updating the manuscript, I said, “homina, homina, where's Matt?”

Matt R. Lohr: I came back onto the project in the spring of 2011, and at that time, there was a manuscript that was, I would say, about 90% ready. The main issue to be addressed was that there were a few sections that sort of ended mid-stream, and the ideas of those chapters needed to be resolved. The section on hedonic adaptation in chapter 10 was a late edition to the manuscript.

Diane O'Bannon: I had talked to Dan about including hedonic adaptation in the original book, but he had wanted to keep it for himself. “I can't give away all my secrets,” he told me, in that slightly mischievous way. But once he was gone, my feeling was, well, he's in a place where keeping it to himself won't benefit him now.

Matt R. Lohr: So Diane provided me with some research that Dan and she had compiled on the subject, and I finished off that section. One of the film analyses in the finished book is also brand new, and we took out a few that had already been written. We had an analysis of The Godfather in the original manuscript, and also Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, which Red Letter Media's Mr. Plinkett has since covered in more exhaustive detail, and with far more humor, than we had. (A lot of his conclusions are the same, though. Man, that is really not a good script...) We also had a section on Dan's evolution from typewriting his manuscripts to dealing with some of the various computer writing programs on the market, but the technology had leaped so far ahead since we originally wrote that section, it was severely outdated, so we just excised it.

The biggest challenge I faced was simply not being able to discuss ideas and edits with Dan, and also when I had to add something to the book, making sure that it was in Dan's voice and not my own. It was an interesting challenge, and not easy, given Dan's very erudite, sometimes sardonic tone, but I think the resulting book reads as all of a piece. And there were also some housekeeping issues to be addressed, mainly finding attributions to the various quotes in the book. Logged in some time at the library and on GoogleBooks taking care of that. You can actually find Plotto, an archaic story-structuring book Dan read while writing Alien, on GoogleBooks.

Was it Dan's idea to do all the analytical exercises based on classic films?

Diane O'Bannon: The analyses were in the book from the start. The major after-the-fact addition to the book, other than the stuff Matt mentioned, were the exercises at the end of each chapter. These were a suggestion from Ken Lee at Michael Wiese Productions, and I think they enrich the book and take it from being an interesting read to a really workable tool for writers looking to beef up the structural strength of their work.

The book has a lot to say about screenwriters from Hollywood's golden age.  Were there any screenwriters whose work Dan admired as his contemporaries?

Diane O'Bannon: Interestingly, considering some of the comments Dan makes in the book about directors, many of the screenwriters whose work he respected were people who also wrote their own films. Kubrick was his favorite director, and he co-wrote most of his films, and Robert Towne, who did some directing as well, was also someone Dan admired. He liked the kind of movie where the director's vision was essential to the finished product; Kurosawa and Hitchcock were two other favorite filmmakers.

Most of Dan's produced screenplays had co-authors, several by Ronald Shusett and later Don Jakoby.  How did he feel about the challenges and rewards of having co-authors while screenwriting?

Diane O'Bannon: Every writer Dan worked with brought something to the table that Dan appreciated. Ron, who was also a producer, had a strong commercial sense, in terms of what would play with an audience, and Dan had a lot of respect for Don as a writer of dialogue and characterization, and as someone who was not intimidated by the blank page.  Writing is a lonely business, and Dan enjoyed collaborating with other writers. He was never the type who felt he had to have the last word; he liked to bounce ideas off other people and see what came back to him.

I saw Dan work with people, and quite's not that every idea was his, but those people were so much better when they spoke to my husband than when they spoke to anyone else. And so was I. I was a better person, and a smarter person, for having known him. He was brilliant. He had a great synthetic mind; he would take ideas from all over, something he heard in the news, a science fiction story, and synthesize them. If he deigned to work with you, it made you a better writer and a better person. You became brilliant by virtue of the fact that you worked with my husband. And it's not that people didn't have good ideas or say interesting things, but he needed someone to spark off, that give-and-take, so his mind could play. He brought everything to his work, his years of reading, everything from Aristotle to Spongebob Squarepants.

Matt R. Lohr: I knew Dan later in his life, and by that point, his creative process had become so innate. He had such a sense of what he knew and when he knew it, that it was very natural for him, and he was able to transfer that knowledge to you almost by way of osmosis. I honestly can recall very few didactic moments with him, moments where he took me by the metaphorical hand and said, “Here's what you need to know and how you need to use it.” But just like Diane said, just by virtue of working with him, I know it has improved my sense as a writer and a storyteller. It's very much a sitting-at-the-feet-of-the-master sort of effect, and I experienced it firsthand. Just...the vibrations in the room changed when Dan spoke, and it works even now that he's gone. When I was working on the book, I would frequently read something back to myself, and I would hear it in my head in Dan's voice.  That's when I knew we were okay; Dan approved, and was sharing his approval with me in his own voice.

Dan was not shy about voicing what he felt were mishandlings in the production of some of his screenplays.  Which films did he feel were the best productions of his scripts?

Diane O'Bannon: Dan always thought everything could be better, even his own writing. He was always reluctant to turn in a draft and was always grabbing it back to try to take it to another level and make it better. He was fair in that he held everybody to the same creative standard to which he held himself. He could have been a little more diplomatic sometimes, but he was a “true nerd” and he sometimes couldn't understand how others could see it differently. Like when he struggled to understand the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid in Total Recall.

Matt R. Lohr: Isn't the character named Quail in the original story?

Diane O'Bannon: Right, which is a much more fitting name for a milquetoasty everyman, the way the character is in the original story.

Matt R. Lohr: I remember Premiere Magazine saying that if you were casting that story based on what was actually on the page, Woody Allen should be playing the lead.  Can you imagine that?  “Cohaagen, how can you steal the people's air?  That that that that that's cray-zee!” (laughs)

Diane O'Bannon: Alien and Return of the Living Dead were probably the most satisfying experiences he had, in terms of his vision making it onto the screen more or less as he saw it. The original drafts of Blue Thunder were more science-fiction oriented, less of a straight action story, and Total Recall was a project that went through dozens of drafts over the years, both with and without Dan's involvement.

The Return of the Living Dead and The Resurrected share the distinction of being Dan's only scripts which he directed himself. Did the storylines of either film undergo many revisions from script to screen?

Dan had some of the typical complaints about the end results of both of these films. The Resurrected was actually written by Brent Friedman; Dan was the director only. That film was re-cut against his objections and released without his approval; it was re-edited without the humor that Dan had attempted to put into it. That film was more or less lost in the collapse of Orion Pictures. It was one of those final films of theirs that trickled out in the midst of the company's death throes. That's just one of the many disasters that can happen to your flick. The last moment at which they can fuck you over.

He was happy with Return for the most part. Dan's original ending was lopped off. The film was originally supposed to conclude with people picking up infected dirt and putting it in a train car, and the zombie fluid leaking from the train. In the end, Dan was like a lot of writers. He was never happy about any of it. He didn't see any of the sequels to Return. He did see Aliens, and we went to the premiere of Alien Vs. Predator, but that was the extent of it. He wasn't interested in the sequels.

Comparing Alien with Prometheus, the big difference between the films seems to be that Prometheus is deliberately obtuse about the causes behind each twist in the story. Is there a place for deliberate obtuseness in movie storytelling? If so, did Prometheus accomplish this successfully?

Diane O'Bannon: Matt and I have discussed Prometheus at great length; we actually did an online presentation on this very subject for the Michael Wiese Productions website back when the film was first out. In the book, Dan says that the concept of “entertainment” has to be thought of generously, that it encompasses a lot of different things. Everyone finds different things entertaining, which is why there are so many different kinds of films to begin with. Some people despise horror movies; some won't watch anything but horror movies.  It's all entertainment, and the idea can take on many different kinds of things, including an obtuse narrative approach.

That said, Dan was not much for deliberate obtuseness in his storytelling. He wasn't afraid to withhold information when he felt it would add to the suspense or mystery of a piece, but he wasn't one for keeping things vague just to make it difficult on the audience. Prometheus seems to spend a lot of its running time holding back information that the audience could honestly use just for the sake of being mysterious and taking a stab at profundity. If that's not done well, it just gets an audience frustrated, and all the online response to Prometheus after its release seems to bear out that frustration. People had dozens of questions, and no feeling that the film had any desire to answer those questions for them.

Matt R. Lohr: There's this sense in a lot of modern cinema, especially potential tentpole films like Prometheus, that the filmmakers can hold back more narratively than they otherwise might under the assumption that, “Oh, we'll get to that in the sequels.” Well, if you're only going to tell us half a story, then really, we should only be paying for half a ticket.  I remember about ten years ago, when someone told me that I wouldn't entirely understand the Matrix sequels unless I had played the Matrix video game through to the end first. My response to that was that the filmmakers should have sold all the tickets a month in advance and sent you a copy of the game along with your ticket. I don't have any moral objections to the concept of synergy, but if it keeps me from being able to enjoy your film on its own, that's a problem. I don't want watching one film to turn into a part-time job, and Prometheus is a film that could very well have gone that way.

Diane O'Bannon: Yeah. “What do you do? I watch Prometheus.

Matt R. Lohr: “That's my hobby.” (both laugh)

Regarding the recent remake of Total Recall, Dan is still credited with screen story. Does the new film adhere to his and Ronald Shusett's story outline any closer than Paul Verhoeven's film?

Diane O'Bannon: The ending of Paul's film was substantially different than Dan's original version. In the film, Quaid never truly remembers everything that has happened to him, and there's still this ambiguity about whether or not he is truly dreaming all this. In other words, he never really has total recall. The new version more or less tries to do this as well.

Truth be told, every version of this story is a fairly strong deviation from Phillip K. Dick's original short story, which is extremely short. It basically ends with Quail going in to get his implant, he's under the spell, and the Rekall people realize he's actually a secret agent. In other words, the end of act one of both films is basically the end of the actual short story.  Everything that happens after that, in both films, is invention.  I believe that I still have Dan's original draft of the screenplay, and I will attempt to locate it and put it up on Dan's website,

What is the Dan O'Bannon Writing Workshop™?

The Writing Workshop will be a presentation by me of Dan's dynamic structural concepts in an interactive live classroom-style format. I will take the audience through a breakdown of Dan's principal ideas from the book, the particulars of his three-act structure, the different types of conflict, the idea of positive and negative antagonists. We will also do structural breakdowns of films, as in the book, though the classes will focus less on the classics and more on contemporary films that are in theaters at the time of the presentation, allowing the class to illustrate how essential Dan's core concepts are to the bedrock that propels cinematic storytelling even today.  We hope to present the Workshop at different venues, conventions and seminars throughout the world; the first Workshop we have booked is on March 23 at the ScriptWriters Network in Los Angeles. You can follow Dan's book on Facebook or on Twitter @DanOBannonBook for all the most current updates on upcoming appearances and events.

Sincerest thanks to Matt R. Lohr and Diane O'Bannon for this interview.

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