Su-City Pictures East, LLC

Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Month: February 2015


IDA: The Search for Identity
and Creating Captivating Characters

by Susan Kouguell
“You’re Jewish.”

These few words are revelatory in the Oscar-winning Ida, written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski.   

The setting; 1962 post-Stalin Poland.

A few days from taking her vows at the convent where she was raised, Anna, a naive orphan and young novice, learns the existence of Wanda — her aunt. A former state prosecutor, the cynical Wanda is part of the Communist elite.  

These two women are distinct characters . Wanda drinks heavily, chain-smokes, and has one-night stands.  Indeed, she is the opposite of her niece; worldly versus sheltered, atheist versus believer.  

Wanda reveals key secrets from Anna’s past: Anna’s birth name is not Anna but Ida, and her true religious identity is that she is Jewish.  This revelation  advances the narrative forward, prompting Wanda and Ida to venture together on a journey to discover what happened to Ida’s parents during the Nazi occupation.

Characters’ specific journeys — their experiences as they attempt to achieve their goals and what they learn about themselves and others—are the basis of defining a screenplay’s themes.  The theme is what your story is about; it is the central idea or dominant subject matter that reoccurs throughout your screenplay. Examples of themes include redemption, survival, empowerment, alienation, and triumph over adversity.   In Ida, the two central themes are identity and secrets of the past.




The Western Genre: The Salvation and Unforgiven

A Look at the Western Genre: The Salvation and Unforgiven

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Film industry executives have expectations. The most obvious expectation is to discover a brilliantly written screenplay that can be made into a film that will garner lots of attention and yes, lots of money at the box office. Executives also expect, if not demand, an engaging, plausible screenplay that follows the rules of the writing genres. Understanding genre conventions (characters, settings, events) and applying this knowledge to your script, will help you to sharpen your plot and characters, and deliver on the readers’ expectations.

Let’s take a look at one of the classic genre — the Western.

From my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays:

Western Ride ‘em, cowboy…or cowgirl! Whether your protagonist is faced with violence, robberies, shootouts or stampedes, typical Western heroes are courageous, tough, self-sufficient, honorable, independent, and/or moral with an expertise in physical skills and abilities that will enable him or her to survive. Generally, the settings for westerns are the American frontier with sweeping landscapes, rugged terrain, and ranches or the small town streets containing the local bank, general store, barbershop, and saloon. Themes include revenge, lost love, greed,man versus man, good versus evil, man versus nature, law enforcers versus criminals, and new settlers versus homesteaders. Research the iconic symbols of the time period in which you set your story. From lassos, to cattle drives, to sheriffs and their sidekicks, you must be historically accurate.

western genre

A Look at Two Westerns

In the 2014 film The Salvation, written by Anders Thomas Jensen and Kristian Levring, director Kristian Levring pays tribute to the classic western. Inspired by Nordic sagas, The Salvation, is set in the American west of the 1870s. John, an ex-soldier and Danish settler, kills his family’s murderer, unleashing the fury of notorious gang leader Delarue. Betrayed by his corrupt and cowardly community, the peaceful pioneer turns vengeful hunter. John slays the outlaws, as he attempts to cleanse the town’s black heart.


‘Ballet 422′ and Cinema Truth

My article for Script Magazine:

‘Ballet 422′ and Cinema Truth

The truth about documentary is this — there are many categories and styles — from investigative to personality-driven, to topics that expose cover-ups and catastrophes, to — well, yes – the list goes on and your imagination is the limit.

Many film theoreticians and documentarians differ on their interpretations over what elements should or should not be included when categorizing the various styles of documentary films, but what they do agree upon is this — there are no strict rules one must adhere to when making documentaries.   And so, one can say there is often an exception to every “rule” when labeling and categorizing the various styles of documentaries.

So, if one truth is that there are no hard and fast rules in making documentaries, how does the writer know how to write a documentary?

In writing and/or sketching out the ideas for a documentary you can present ideas objectively, subjectively, or let the subject and/or subject matter speak for themselves/itself. You can follow the traditional 3-act structure or a non-traditional narrative format, or use talking heads, stock footage, dramatic reenactments, voiceover narration, still photographs, live action, animation, put yourself in the story or just allow images and your subjects to convey the story. You can use some or all of these choices, or create something else. The choice is up to you.


Choosing Cinema Vérité: Ballet 422 and Cinema Truth

Director Jody Lee Lipes describes his new documentary Ballet 422 as Cinema Vérité. Translated from the French, this term defined as “cinema truth,” is also referred to as Fly on the Wall or Direct Cinema. The “truth” is underscored in this definition; the filmmaker captures what is happening in front of the camera without artifice.

Some of the elements that are seen in Cinema Vérité include the use of handheld cameras, natural lighting, direct sound, and location filming — while elements not generally seen are the utilization of voice-over narrations, talking heads and extensive background information. Examples of this filmmaking category are the 1973 PBS series An American Family, which followed the daily lives of the Loud family for seven months and Grey Gardens (1975) directed by Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, about a mother and daughter reclusive socialites, living in a decrepit Long Island mansion.

From first rehearsal to world premiere, Ballet 422 goes behind the scenes at the New York City Ballet, as it follows Justin Peck, 25, a dancer with the NYCB and up-and-coming choreographer, as he creates his new work “Paz de la Jolla” from its first rehearsal to world premiere. This commissioned ballet is NYCB’s 422nd new ballet — hence the film’s title.

Justin Peck is the main character and the film takes the viewer on his journey, offering glimpses into the ballet world and Peck’s work process as he collaborates with fellow dancers, orchestra musicians, lighting and costume designers.

– See more at: READ MORE HERE