Thirteen (2003) Film Study

Thirteen movie poster

Thirteen is a 2003 feature length indie film which punches above its low-budget weight thanks to expert storytelling and characterisation. Director Catherine Hardwicke co-wrote the script with her erstwhile step-daughter Nikki Reed, who also stars as Evie Zamora. Hardwicke has known Nikki since Nikki was five.

At the time this film came out I was teaching at a girls’ high school and this film impressed me for its realism. The realism is terrifying, in fact. I taught girls who idolised the young heroes in this story, and one who had been burning herself with cigarettes hoping to ‘be just like’ Tracy. This is definitely a film that needs to be watched with parental commentary, but it should be watched anyhow. This is realism for many adolescent girls. The intense relationship between Evie and Tracy, one built on dominance as much as it is built on love, is highly recognisable. Not all teenage girls get into one of these relationships, but many do. As Rachel Simmons writes in her book Odd Girl Out (published around the time this film came out), a relationship dynamic like Tracy and Evie’s is grooming Tracy up for relationship abuse later, when she gets into a romantic relationship. Better she learn some basic lessons now, while her mother is there to protect her somewhat.

This is why young women should see this film. Better they process it from the other side of a screen.

LOGLINE OF THIRTEEN

Sometimes I wonder if thirteen is considered unlucky because being thirteen-years-old is so hard.

A thirteen-year-old girl’s relationship with her mother is put to the test as she discovers drugs, sex, and petty crime in the company of her cool but troubled best friend.

 

GENRE OF THIRTEEN

Hardwicke first intended to write comedy, but soon realised after talking with Nikki that she couldn’t make a single thing up more interesting than what was going on in teenage girls’ real lives, so the film turned into a harrowing drama. So there’s an interesting insight into how much a story can change between conception and final draft. Stories can leap from one genre to another.

The actors say that in the theatre at the Sundance screening they heard uncomfortable giggles throughout the film, especially at times of high intensity. They possibly got as many ‘giggles’ as they would have had they produced an actual comedy. Audiences are weird like that.

Thirteen is not a thriller — it is a straight drama. But the structure involves the coming off of a mask, which makes the structure similar to transgression comedies and also noir thrillers. For much of the movie, Tracy Freeland is acting as a pseudo-adult, ditching her mother who she still needs very much in favour of a girl who has not been so well protected from the world. How does Hardwicke wrap up this story? It’s a story chock full of conflict — arguments with Tracy’s mother, father, brother, teacher and former best friends. Therefore the ‘battle sequence’ needs something extra. In this case it’s the coming off of the mask. After rejection from Tracy’s mother, Evie Zamora outs Tracy to everyone as a thief, self-harmer, drug abuser and all-round evil person. While this portrait of her is not quite right either, it is in this scene that Tracy’s mother finally gets the full picture regarding what’s been going on with her daughter. The mask is finally off. In the outtake scene we see Tracy on a roundabout (a regression to childhood), emitting a primal scream. The torment of keeping up this facade of rebel has passed. 

STORYWORLD OF THIRTEEN

Continue reading “Thirteen (2003) Film Study”

Pixar vs. DreamWorks

Compared to many people I am no great fan of Pixar, partly because of their continued use of The Female Maturity Principle of Storytelling, partly because I think their films a bit more hit and miss than many critics will admit. But I will say this about Pixar:  in comparison to Dreamworks they’re awesome.

IMDb has ranked the Dreamworks films from best to worst. Can you guess what comes at the top of the list? And at the bottom?

And here are the Pixar films from best to worst.

Pixar’s 22 Storytelling Tips

You’ve probably seen Pixar’s 22 Tips on Storytelling because it’s done the rounds, but in case you have not here they are. I’m doing something a little different with it — I’ve divided the tips into ‘tips for the writing process itself’ and ‘storycraft tips’.

STORYCRAFT TIPS

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___. [This is just a little simplistic. See How To Structure Any Story for more on this.]
  3. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free. [If you’re trying to simplify your cast, take a look at John Truby’s concept of ‘character web’.]
  4. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal? [This is them basically telling writers to give main characters moral weaknesses, psychological weaknesses, ghosts and desire, then putting them through the wringer during the battle phase.]
  5. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience. [See this post on why your characters do not need to be likeable, even in stories for kids.]
  6. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against. [This is echoing advice from everywhere — put your character through so much crap that they come to the precipice of death.]
  7. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. [‘Avoid deus ex machina’ is related to this tip.  In children’s stories, don’t get adults to fix kids’ problems, either. It’s not unheard of, but hard to make that work.]
  8. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there. [By ‘essence’, they mean the designing principle. For more on that see John Truby’s Anatomy of Story.]

INSPIRATION AND THE WRITING PROCESS ITSELF

  1. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
  2. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  3. Related to theme, why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  4. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  5. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  6. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  7. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  8. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like? [Yep, that’s what this blog is for.]
  9. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  10. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  11. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  12. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  13. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  14. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

Here are four of these tips in more detail.

Gravity (2013) Film Study

gravity-movie-poster

Gravity is a science fiction film from 2013, with a strong mythological, Christian influence.

Logline: A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

Tagline: (seen above) Don’t let go.

Arc word: ‘let go’. “You’ve got to learn to let go,” Matt tells Ryan. We’ve also got the visual motif of Ryan letting Matt go irretrievably into space.

Designing Principle: A middle-aged space engineer learns to appreciate life again and believe in herself after a series of narrow escapes in space.

Theme Line: When you feel all alone and about to give up, fortify yourself by finding some imaginary person to give yourself some comfort.

Story World: Floating around in space

Symbol Line: ‘Tethered’ (grounded) versus being ‘untethered’ (lost and all alone, with nothing to hold onto).

Mooshing The Science

See: Getting Science Right In Film: It’s Not The Facts, Folks

This is a good example of a SF story in which the writers hired a science advisor, then picked and chose which parts of actual science would help and which would hinder their storytelling. They ended up with a film which can really annoy scientifically literate fans of mimesis, but for viewers who are able to suspend disbelief, and who enjoy predictable plots, this is a well-crafted sci-fi thriller with a satisfying character arc.

Gravity hair

The writers of Gravity seem to be following the advice to ‘dazzle the audience with pyrotechnics’ as a way of hiding the improbabilities, which Michael Hauge offers as one screenwriting technique in his article on how to create believable stories, but as he says himself, ‘This is definitely the last resort solution to the problem of credibility.’

Continue reading “Gravity (2013) Film Study”