The Blind Side: How To Suck all the Drama Out of a Dramatic True Story

As a writer, my weakest point is story structure. I can come up with a pretty good premise and strong characters, but I have trouble crafting a story in a way that continues to move forward and leads to an exciting conclusion.

In an effort to improve my story structure writing skills, I decided to analyze a film and write it down – scene by scene – to see how it builds tension. I sat down to watch THE BLIND SIDE with a stopwatch and a notebook in an effort to study the film’s structure and pacing. All I really knew about the film was that it was based on a true story and that it was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress and for Best Picture.I wrote down each and every scene to try to follow the movie’s progression to determine what makes the tension build and what makes you want to keep watching.

Instead, what I found was a film that was fairly devoid of tension and was more a lesson in missed opportunities in developing suspense and conflict.

The trick with this story is to separate fact from fiction, but not in the most obvious sense. There will always be fabricated events even in films that are “based on a true story”. This is understandable and necessary. Even in the most amazing real life tales, reality can be boring sometimes. The true story premise of THE BLIND SIDE: rich family takes in poor boy, poor boy goes on to be a famous NFL star is truly inspiring. The facts of the story are uplifting. For me, the film itself was not. Whenever I felt truly moved by this story, it was because my mind and heart was remembering that at least some of this really happened. If this film was not a true story, I doubt people would have liked it nearly as much.

Leigh Anne Tuohy did a really gutsy thing. She defied society by taking in a homeless black teenager and raised him as her own son. There’s just no way that was as easy as this film makes it look for either Leigh Anne or for Michael.

As I watched the film and studied my notes afterward, I found the following opportunities that were glossed over instead of mined for greater conflict and tension: (WARNING: Spoilers)

1. Fear that having a stranger – especially a poor, black stranger- in the house could be dangerous. Politically correct or not, it would have been more realistic if they had at least explored this a little more instead of just mentioning it in passing.

 2. Alienation by society as a result of a rich, white family taking in a poor, black teenager. This was shown briefly with Leigh Anne’s friends, but little was said about the rich, white schoolmates of Leigh Anne’s son and daughter. It was mentioned briefly, but showing this conflict would have been much more effective.

3. The idea that Leigh Anne might be grooming Mike to play for her old alma mater was not set up well at all. Had we had an inkling throughout that this could be her ulterior motive, it would have added suspense and tension. Is it true? What happens if Mike finds out? To me, it was introduced too late and it felt tacked on.

4. Leigh Anne says Mike changed her life, but we don’t really see how. Maybe if we had seen a little more of her shallow existence beforehand, we could have deeper insight into how Mike changed her life.

 5. Through flashbacks, we see clearly that something bad has happened in Mike’s past, but we don’t really know what. Knowing what terrible things happened to him would have more clearly defined his character. This is a particularly damaging omission as Michael is flunking out of school and is nearly mute. If we had a better idea of just how badly he had been abused and neglected, we could understand why he was in such bad shape. As it stands now, the film seems to indicate white = rich and smart and black = poor and ignorant. There are no positive black characters anywhere to be found. They couldn’t even toss in an intelligent black teacher at the school?

 6. Leigh Anne comes across as nearly perfect. She’s beautiful, smart, sassy, brave, charitable, etc. There’s little conflict in her character. The scene where she told off the scary folks in the bad neighborhood could have been rife with tension: Will she get hurt? Will they retaliate later? Is she being too haughty – not having any idea what it’s like to live in a neighborhood like that? None of these questions are raised. She just comes across as all-powerful – she can take on a neighborhood where we all would fear to tread. She also takes on the drunk rednecks at the football game. There is no fear of danger or suspense at all. In addition, she seems to know everything about football. She seems to know everything about everything. We could identify with her / empathize with her more if she were more vulnerable sometimes.

7. Leigh Anne’s son is nearly killed in an accident when Michael is driving. Instead of reflecting again on the possible danger of the situation, Leigh Anne seems okay with this as well…. I will admit that it was touching when she said “my kids are in that car!”  referring to both Michael and S.J. The accident could also have been used as a time of fear and tension on Mike’s part. He could ponder the impact that his presence has on this family, not just the other way around. Nope! By the next scene, it’s all good.

By far the greatest strength of the film is Sandra Bullock’s performance. I believe she deserved the recognition she got for the role, but I’m not too thrilled about the movie’s Best Picture nomination. Had this been an original screenplay and not based on a true story, I wonder if the film would even have gotten made. People would say it’s just not believable enough…

Quick Review – The Dilemma

I attended an advance screening of THE DILEMMA starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James. It was a nice, kind of sweet story about the bonds of male friendship. The titular “dilemma” is that Vaughn’s character, (Ronny), finds out that his best friend Nick’s wife has been cheating on him. Ronny has to figure out how to tell him.
I doubt that this film will do very well in the theaters. Fans of Vince Vaughn and Kevin James will be disappointed because the film is not very funny. At all. It’s not that the humor fell flat; there was just very little comedy to begin with. For a large part of the film, they weren’t even trying to be funny. By far the biggest flaw is that the tone is all over the place. It goes from a little comedy to a lot of drama and then back to comedy again. Some of the moments between the two friends were genuinely touching, but there were a lot of dramatic moments that came off as heavy-handed.
It’s just one of those movies that wasn’t sure what it wanted to be so it doesn’t really come together very well. Vince Vaughn showed surprising range and was able to get at least a little bit outside his usual “Vince Vaughn” character that he plays in so many movies. Channing Tatum’s portrayal of the “the other man” was a riot and was, for me, the highlight of the film. If there had been more confrontation and interaction between Ronny and him, it would have made the film funnier. Queen Latifah makes an appearance as well, though she is also underused.
I suspect the film will do well when it opens this weekend, then will drop off substantially as Vaughn and James’ fans are warned that if they are looking for a good comedy, they won’t find it here.

Today’s Success Could Be Tomorrow’s Bad Review…

I just finished a new draft of my latest screenplay, MATRIMANIA, this morning. It’s come a long way from the original draft – or at least I think it has. I have already submitted it for its first professional review to my trusted script analyst, Scott.

It’s always risky to submit a piece of writing for review immediately after you have completed it. You sweat over it for weeks, months, or even years. You barely have time to celebrate the accomplishment of completing it before the review comes back telling you it needs a lot of work. I’ve been down that road before. It happened with the outline for this very script. I’m pretty good with character and dialogue, but I have some difficulty with plot and, in particular, structure. By structure I mean how the story is told. This includes pacing, building tension, etc. Rather than hash out an entire script, I’ve taken to writing an extensive outline, giving it to Scott to read and review, and then do another outline. Maybe several outlines before I’m ready to write the actual screenplay.

I worked for several months on the outline and then I finally gave it to Scott review. I felt that I was improving as a writer – maybe I am – but the outline needed a fairly complete overhaul. I think I got the review back the same day that I sent it to him. Disappointing, to say the least.

The good news is that, over the years, I have gotten very used to getting criticism. I’ve had LOTS of practice in this area. It doesn’t upset me anywhere near as much as it used to. There was a time where I would never have submitted a script for review in December. If it was a terrible review, it would ruin Christmas! That idea is almost laughable to me now. I’m stronger than that. I’m proud to say that I know that no matter how bad a review might be, it won’t upset me for long.

I have a system. First, I read the review quickly, my heart racing. I said I’m getting used to criticism – that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still scare me. The worst moment is when it pops up in my inbox (or arrives in the mail). That first flash of fear never goes away. That dreaded feeling of “Oh, no, it’s here…”. And I have a terrible track record of NEVER being alone when I receive it. Whether it was when I lived at home with my parents, or now with my kids and my husband, or sometimes it arrives when I’m out with friends. And I have to read it right away! I just wish I could be in private to deal with it – whatever it is.

The first skim of the review is the “how bad is it?” The second review is where I slow down and actually read it to really understand what it says. By the third time I read it, I’m already mentally working on the rewrite. That’s the best part. I get over the initial shock and start really thinking about the suggestions that were made. Often, I realize how true they are. I can start to see how much better the script will be once I revise it. AGAIN.

I probably won’t post the whole review here when I get it, due to professional courtesy. I don’t want to give away Scott’s brilliance for free (though I know the review might not make sense anyway, since you haven’t read the script). But I promise to post the highlights and the lowlights. I always try to be honest about both my successes and my failures. I won’t just brag about good reviews – I will be honest when I get shot down as well.

Wish me luck….