Sweeney Todd and The Line

In a rare event, Michelle and I actually went out to a movie last weekend. We drove to see There Will Be Blood, which, of course, was sold out. Sweeney Todd started 5 minutes later, so we decided to just see that instead. Now, we’re both Johnny Depp fans, and we were both fine with seeing it in a casual “whatever” kind of way, but neither of us had any particular passion or drive to see it. And it turned out that this may have been just what I needed.

The movie was very good… but not great. And this exact status – of being “very good… but not great” – has inspired a lot of thinking, mostly about some of the themes I’ve tried to get at here. This will be the first post of a couple inspired by the movie.

First off, I need to get back into a groove of seeing more movies. A lot more movies. I can’t return to my pre-parenthood pace, I know that, but I really need to do all I can to see more. And not TV – that doesn’t count. I watch more TV now than I ever have, and there is some great material on TV these days, but TV is different. I need to see more movies again – I need to become reacquainted with The Line.

The Line is an informal mental shorthand I use to combine some big screenwriting principles into a single idea, one which I’m currently struggling with, especially with Dead Guy. The idea may or or may be referred to as “The Line” in any screenwriting literature, it’s certainly not a new idea or anything – that’s not the point. The point is that I need a big reinforcement of it, and Sweeney Todd had it.

What is it? Momentum. Drive. Specifically momentum along a clean, clear sequence of cause and effect: a line. Now, other writers may just read this and say “well, duh, that’s structure,” but it is more than that for me, it is structure plus plot plus more. It is the idea of simplifying everything and laying it out cleanly, simply, directly, not just in a sequence but in a line. And not a blurry line or a fat line or a wandering line but a direct and fine line, one molecule thin. Dead Guy, and even Psycho Ex really, is currently a vague cloud of ideas, of themes, characters, dialog, semi-events, and moments. Now all these elements are important and essential and good to have… but what I really need is a line. Sweeney Todd had a line. Maybe not the best line, I don’t know – that’s not the point. The point is that in my casual, dispassionate viewing, I was able to see the The Line very clearly and focus on how it went straight ahead, aligning all the elements into a driving force of structure/plot/character/moments/themes all together into a unified and lean unit. I could really use one of those.

The Line has always been a struggle for me. For me, the inevitable Act Two problems and The Line are closely-related issues. Screenwriting books (Linda Seger’s comes to mind) talk about “scene sequences,” series of scenes which link together to create drive and momentum, but really the entire script has to be one giant scene sequence, one steady Line from beginning to end. Of the scripts I’ve written, I have only been truly happy with The Line in 2 cases: my Outer Limits spec and Supervillain. Supervillain has a damn good Line (for me, anyway). Not coincidentally, Supervillain has been my biggest success so far.

When I got the idea for Supervillain, the premise immediately led to a bunch of ideas for gags. Plot. So I got out the index cards and wrote them down, one gag per card. After a while I had a lot of gags, big high-concept moments with jokes and action, immediate stuff that could go right into the trailer, and luckily it was a pretty straightforward process to lay the cards out in a sequence which moved the plot forward while escalating the stakes and action. Because the premise was a plot-heavy one, Supervillain was probably the easiest of all my scripts to outline. Successful screenwriters think instinctively in terms of these plot-heavy high-concept premises. I could use more of these.

But despite a fairly easy-to-pitch premise, Dead Guy (and Psycho Ex to a lesser extent) becomes a cloud in my mind of theme and character. There aren’t many “gags” there, memorable moments or set pieces. Or maybe there are (of course there can be and will be), but for some reason I don’t gravitate toward those, I move instead toward that theme cloud, and think about that more than anything. One cop-out is to say that maybe this idea is better suited to a novel than a movie, but that’s just lazy – a novel needs a Line too. Maybe not as direct and lean a Line as in a movie, but stuff still has to happen and move the story forward. Magnitude and direction at the same time. That’s really a vector and not a Line, but I digress…

Anyway, 2 things: (1) I need to get my head out of the fun obsessive Dead Guy theme-fest and use the territory I’ve chosen to come up with plot, gags (it’s supposed to be a comedy, right?), and Line. (2) I was fairly impressed with the script for Sweeney Todd (not sure how much of this was in the stage version vs. the adaptation) at how well it distilled plot from the central idea of the story – the guy’s obsession. There weren’t many characters, it was fairly limited in locations (from the stage original), but there was enough there. And – very importantly – no clutter. It felt… minimal to me, especially after the vague cloud of Dead Guy I’ve been living in. The central character was fairly limited (more on this in an upcoming post), but the story got just the right amount of mileage out of this to create a lean plot and Line.

A minimal Line. I could really use one of those.

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