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.




A Look at the Western Genre: ‘The Salvation’ and ‘Unforgiven’ (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

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.

Director Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Unforgiven (screenplay by David Peoples) is also set in the American west of the 1880s. In this film, a local prostitute in the small town of Big Whiskey is brutally attacked by two cowboys. When antagonistSheriff Little Bill Daggett lets them off with the condition they give some ponies to the saloonkeeper, the outraged prostitutes pool their money and offer a $1,000 bounty to murder the cowboys. A young man, known as the Schofield Kid, goes to the home of William Munny, an aging former outlaw, to convince him to team up with him to win the reward. Having sworn off his violent past, Munny first turns down the offer but changes his mind.

Both The Salvation and Unforgiven share not only the settings of the American west of the 1880s and themes of greed and revenge, the protagonists are vengeful heroes and the antagonists are ruthless. Protagonists must make key decisions that will propel the narrative forward and shape your plot. The steps leading up to Unforgiven’s Munny making the significant decision to join The Schofield Kid, by going back on his pledge to his late wife that he will never again pick up a gun, advances the narrative, and continues to build as he must face antagonist Sheriff Dagget . In The Salvation, the steps leading John to change from peaceful pioneer to a man seeking justice for his family’s murder are underscored by his unwavering stance against Delarue. Antagonists Dagget and Delarue are the villains whose objective is to prevent the protagonists from achieving their goal.

Following the conventions of a genre is imperative when writing a savvy screenplay. Watching films and reading scriptsin the genre in which you are working will help to guide you to deliver on film executives’ expectations.



‘Ballet 422′ and Cinema Truth (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

by Susan Kouguell

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‘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.

In Ballet 422, there are no re-enactments, voiceovers, or talking heads — there are only a few lines of superimposed text that offer only brief background information about choreographer Peck, who shows minimal emotion throughout the film. Peck is focused, confident, and demonstrates only glimpses of nervousness as the premiere date approaches.

A vital element of cinema vérité is spontaneity. The director is the observer, witnessing the action without interfering in it or controlling it. Portable equipment (handheld cameras, and so on) allows the cameraperson and sound recorder to go to the subjects rather than the subjects going to them. Another cinema vérité element seen in Ballet 422 are several quick moments where there was a boom mic in the shot, or a mirror reflection of a camera person filming the dancers.

Director Jody Lee Lipes and Producer Anna Rose Holmer at the Emelin Theatre in Mamaroneck, New York discuss the Writing Process and Influences

Producer Anna Rose Holmer: “The film’s influence is Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. When you focus on people, you learn a lot about what makes them tick. The drama is there. There were no tantrums. The quiet storm was happening.

Director Jody Lee Lipes: “Letting people in the film dictate it is better than what you can write. We sketched out ideas of the story arc. The biggest change was in the end when we learned that Justin was dancing in another piece the same night of his premiere. The writing process happened in the editing room. One of the storytelling devices the editor and I used to make it feel move forward was to build on each rehearsal — we see Justin alone, Justin with one dancer, then the whole corps, and then the entire cast. The first time we see Albert (ballet master) and Justin walking on stage, because of that progression of scenes, we know we’re getting closer to the premiere of the ballet.”

There is not the expected or anticipated drama or melodrama of a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the New York ballet world.

Lipes: “Justin, the subject, doesn’t change with the camera on him. That is the real Justin. This is why I made the movie; I love watching someone really focused on what they’re doing.”

Your Next Steps

Watch documentaries that share your aesthetic, ideas, and sensibility, and then note down what makes your project different. As you develop and sketch out your ideas think about who your main characters are, their goals, desires, and agendas, and what your significant message is.

You can leave everything to chance or adhere strictly to your script. The choices are up to you. Your mantra to keep in mind when writing and sketching out your ideas for a documentary? Truth is stranger than fiction.


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