HBO's "The Leftovers" A Good Journey to Where?

About a month ago, I recently started watching the  HBO's series, "The Leftovers." At the time, the jury was out as to whether to recommend this series.  The verdict is now in: watch it.

It's co-created and co-written by "Lost" creator Damon Lindelof (an NYU grad) which partially explains why it's reminiscent of that series. This show, like the island drama, is enveloped in a huge mystery that exists outside of the natural world--as we understand it. There are a dozen or so hovering dramatic questions that never seem to get answered, but I imagine viewers will watch "The Leftovers" with the expectations that all will be explained in the end. Given our "Lost" final resolutions, I am not wholly convinced that we'll get them.

Yet, like "Lost," this show features some great acting, genuine characterizations and has a bizarre, yet ultimately engaging, plot. The show features the cop-with-an-edge, the faithful preacher, a mystical man impregnating Asian women and a creepy cult whose members incessantly smoke cigarettes.  Where is it all going?  I ain't sure--but the trip ain't bad.

"Cloud Atlas" Review

The term sprawling would underrepresent the expansive nature of Cloud Atlas. The story canvas covers six tales (and one smaller one featuring Tom Hanks as a gangster novelist) from 1849 to 2346.  The film is certainly entertaining but at times confusing.  It's not that the audience gets lost in the frenetic action of good guys versus bad guys, it's the why of the situations that often confounds.  Couple that with the often unintentional garble of the future-speak of the story set in the far far future and at too many times we don't know why the hell the characters are doing what they do or what they're talking about. 

But if you simply go for the ride without getting entangled in directors Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski's sometimes florid, more oftentimes banal philosophies  ("...when you close one door you open another...") then you'll be fine because one thing these directors do know is how to stage scenes.  Many of the set pieces are charged with an abundance of energy and breath-taking tension that holds together very well. It's just that the movie itself, taken as a whole, does not neatly piece together.


Is that the intention of the filmmakers? I think not, since the subtitle reads: Everything is connected. So they do their best to conjoin parts of a jigsaw puzzle that feel as if they came from different boxes.  


For years, David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, proclaimed that his novel was unfilmable.  But here it is, on film, and it looks pretty darn good.  The cinematography is top notch, the production design is visually arresting, costumes are spot on and the acting, except for an occasional thespianistic stumble by Halle Berry, is first rate.  She, Mr. Hanks and the other actors seem to have very good time playing multiple roles in this movie.    

And audiences, if they're patient enough to sit through the three hour running time, will have a good time too.  One critic of this movie writes that [Cloud Atlas] does not have the power to stir an audience to rethink their own lives. I agree.  So don't wear your thinking caps when you enter the theater.  

Dem Bones of Dramatic Structure

I think I've always known I was going to teach--professionally.

But to be honest, I imagined that my professorship would occur in the winter of my years, where I would  sport a white beard, smoked a pipe and tossed a scarf around my neck for dramatic effect. But time and circumstance don't always adhere to our plans, so I find myself in the early fall of my years, still a strapping young man, happily working my professional gigs and teaching in a college or holding workshops in various communities. 

Even in my youth there was always a particular joy I got in breaking things down, de-constructing them and then explaining them in a way that people understood how the darn thing actually works.  This is what I do in my screenwriting or film and TV related courses.
I stand on the premise that there is structure and there are fundamental elements in dramatic writing.  It's not just an outpouring of formless inspiration.
Of course there are some filmmakers or writers who make it look easy--who just pour it out like the final project was pre-made and they're just laying it down.  The reason they can do that is because the fundamental and often intrinsic structures that give shape to well-wrought drama (or comedy) has been grafted into their DNA.  In other words, the underlying foundational elements of good dramatic structure has been so molded into their consciousness, that they can often crank out good work instinctually.  That is not to say they don't work hard to do it or make it better, it's just that they've mastered the fundamentals so darn well.

Dem dramatic bones!
How else can Woody Allen (please try to divorce your feelings about his personal life from his professional achievements!) crank out movies year after year, or J.K. Rowling write such world building work or Stephen King hammer out books like he's a one-man printing press?  It's simple: they know the fundamentals.

That's what I teach in my class.  I like to say I give students the bones of dramatic structure. Then, through the individuality of their own creative expressions, they will put the skin and muscle (or fat!) on those bones. Thus each body of work will ultimately differ from the other as you and I differ from each other.  No need to go further with that analogy. You get it. ( I hope! If not, write me.)

So, in the pursuit of building those bones I always start with the number one guiding principal for me when it comes to writing movies.  I'll discuss what that is, and more, in my next post.