COCO (Part 2) – The Power of Vignettes
As we discussed in Part 1 of this podcast, sometimes it only takes one moment to find the structure of your script— the moment where everything comes into clarity and you understand where your movie is really going to live.
For the writers of Coco, that place was the real meaning of Dia de Muertos. The real theme of the story. It was that theme that drove every creative decision they made, every structural turn in their character’s journey.
But that structure didn’t grow from a big idea about Dia de Muertos, even though that big idea helped to guide the writers.
The structure of Coco grew out of a single moment, and a single song: Remember Me.
In fact, it’s from the execution of the very first performance of that song that the whole structure of Coco, and the whole structure, not only of Miguel’s journey, but also of Ernesto’s and Imelda’s and Abuelita’s and Hector’s and every other character’s is formed.
You can think of writing as a process of excavation. It begins by searching for the right place to dig, (which often requires, as we discussed in last week’s podcast, digging in many wrong or seemingly unrelated places).
And once we find that right place to dig, the place where the story really lives, it’s about digging as deeply as possible, right in that same place, so we can fully excavate every bit of beauty that lives there.
There’s a great anxiety that often overcomes us as we seek the place where the story really lives— a fear that the script isn’t good enough or the idea isn’t good enough or that our craft isn’t good enough, or our structure isn’t good enough or that we aren’t good enough.
And that anxiety causes us to look outside of ourselves for the answers— trying to find the right plot or the right characters or the right trick ending or the right idea for what the heck is supposed to happen!
And as a result, rather than finding inspiration, we end up finding cliches.
Rather than finding the story that only we could tell, we end up finding the story that everybody else is already telling, rather than finding the characters that already live inside of us, we end up finding the ones we’ve already met in other movies.
Because ultimately, the real answers don’t lie outside of our scripts. They don’t lie in formulas or outlines or plans or plots.
The real answers reside inside. Inside the scenes you’ve already written. Inside the scenes that resonate most truthfully for you.
If you ever feel like you don’t know what needs to happen in your script, the problem is not “out there” it’s “in here.”
If you don’t know where to go, it means you don’t know where you are. It means something is not fully executed, fully true, fully resonant, fully excavated in the pages you’ve already written.
Because once you’ve got that one element of truth, that one thing that you know is right, it will not only show you everything else you need to do, it will also show you exactly how you need to do it.
Which is why it’s so important to be fully present with your characters and yourself as you write each scene of your movie.
Not to be serious with it or forceful with it, or heavens forbid to manipulate it toward the plot point you’ve planned for the future.
Not to get it right in the first draft, but rather to look at the first draft as research— a place to find that crazy little detail (like the fact that a Xolo dog’s tongue tends to loll out the side of his mouth) that eventually is going to bring your scene totally to life.
The goal is not to control the scene, but rather to explore it.
To hold it lightly in your hand and simply observe it. To see, feel and hear everything, searching not for the things you planned but the things that surprise you, the things you didn’t expect to happen, or that cause an unexpected, strong emotional reaction in you— a laugh, a tear, or even a feeling of shame or failure.
It’s in those moments that your script really lives. Those are the areas you truly need to excavate. Those are the areas from which all the answers will eventually spring, if only you give yourself the time and space to truly look at them, to see hear and feel everything. To explore them. To get curious about them.
And most importantly to capture them in the most specific, unique way possible, by seeing, feeling, and hearing everything, and then capturing it exactly the way you see it on the page.
This is a technique that Francis Ford Coppola calls a Vignette. And for you as a writer, a Vignette is the most powerful building block of structure.
Your first, and most important Vignette is the one you use to introduce each character.
Rather than using descriptions (Joe has brown hair, a great smile, and a glimmer in his eye) or costume design (Joe wears a brown jacket, cashmere sweater and ferragamo shoes) or character traits (Joe’s a no nonsense businessman with a heart of gold), a Vignette introduces the character with action.
More specifically, a Vignette introduces a character with a specific, visually compelling action that they are doing in a way that only they could do it. An action that reveals character.
It could be a specific line of dialogue, that only they can say. A specific action that only they could do. A specific image, that only they could experience. Or even, as in the case of Coco, a specific lyric, that only they could sing.
What’s great about Vignettes for readers and audiences and producers and directors and actors is that Vignettes take them out of the position of “thinking about” the character “hmm… what does that cashmere sweater look like on Joe” and into the position of experiencing them.
“Joe picks a piece of lint from his cashmere sweater”
“Joe sticks his finger through a hole in his cashmere sweater”
“Joe shovels spaghetti into his mouth, splattering sauce on his giant belly which peeks out from his cashmere sweater”
Notice how each Vignette gave you a completely different Joe– how much of a story about Joe you started to tell yourself without even thinking about it.
Notice how much work the Vignette did for you.
That’s why audiences and actors and coverage readers and directors and producers love Vignettes.
Because Vignettes allow them to get your characters in an instant, without any need for creativity. To play your story on the little movie screen in their minds. To director-proof and actor-proof and production-proof your script– to guarantee you’re going to get the shots you need to tell your story and not end up trying to piece something together in the editing room.
But for writers, the Vignettes serves an even more important purpose.
Vignettes show you where to dig for your character’s journey.
Vignettes are a magical place where the creative power of the subconscious mind, and the process of the conscious mind meet.
Because once you have that first Vignette, all you have to do is keep digging in the same place, and you will effortlessly discover not only who your character is, but where your character has to go. You will discover the metaphors and the theme from which your movie will grow.
Even if you haven’t done a single bit of planning or outlining or thinking about your script. Even if you have no idea what happens in your plot, Vignettes will show you the way.
Let’s take Joe the lint picker for example.
If the first time we meet Joe, he’s picking lint off his Cashmere sweater, we can already tell ourselves a certain story about who he is. We can tell he’s a bit fastidious, maybe even a bit obsessive compulsive. Maybe he’s a man of a certain income bracket, who can afford a Cashmere sweater. Or maybe this is the only piece of clothing of any value in his closet.
We don’t know yet. We don’t have to know. All we have to do is start digging around that first image, until we discover the truth about Joe.
And the way we start digging is to ask ourselves a simple question:
If this is true, what else is true?
What’s another Vignette we can create, inspired by that first Vignette, that would help us feel the trajectory of Joe’s journey?
If it’s true that the first time we see Joe, he’s picking lint off his Cashmere sweater, maybe there’s another scene where Joe carefully mends a hole in that sweater, sewing it by hand.
And just in those two images, you told yourself a story about Joe. A story about what that sweater means to Joe. A story about how Joe might change.
And if it’s true that there’s a scene in which Joe picks that lint off that sweater, and a scene in which Joe carefully mends that sweater, maybe there’s also a scene where a lover tears that sweater off of Joe.
And now you’re starting to see a journey.
Arrange those scenes in this order.
Joe picks lint off his cashmere sweater
Joe carefully mends a hole in that sweater, sewing it by hand.
A lover tears the sweater off of Joe.
And it’s a story of a pent up man surrendering to passion.
Arrange those scenes in another order.
Joe picks lint off his cashmere sweater
A lover tears the sweater off of Joe
Joe carefully mends a hole in that sweater, sewing it by hand.
And it’s a story of a man who can’t let himself surrender to passion. A man trying to hold an old life in the face of a new one. Or a man repeating the same pattern again and again.
Those three images tell a story. And depending on how you arrange them, you get an entirely different structure. Enough to build a film around.
And we could keep on going.
Maybe there’s also a scene where Joe gives that sweater to his lover.
Maybe there’s a scene where his lover throws that sweater into the fire.
And now we’ve got a tumultuous love story– all from that one little Vignette. All from that one little sweater.
Maybe there’s also a scene where Joe runs butt naked through the office.
And you know why– don’t you?
You know why because this scene also grew from that first moment picking lint from the sweater. Because it grew from that initial Vignette.
If you’re going to harness the power of Vignettes in your movie, you need to get specific with every moment of action, every visual image, every line of dialogue.
You need to make sure every moment is revealing the how of your character, and to make sure it’s not existing alone in a vacuum, but rather growing from and resonating with all the Vignettes that preceded it.
And in so doing, leaving yourself a trail of bread crumbs, not only for where you are, but for where you are going to go. You’re giving yourself an easy way to generate your plot, and your structure, and know it’s going to work, because it grew organically out of itself, like a flower opening to the sun.
So how does this work in Coco? Fittingly, it all starts with a song.
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, little Miguel is a child with a musician’s spirit, who comes from a family of shoemakers who (as my good friend Judy Mam points out… for no culturally sensible reason, have declared a fatwa against music).
But assuming you can accept that little cultural hiccup in the story’s foundation… here’s the reason behind it.
Ever since Mama Imelda, many generations ago, was abandoned, alone with her child, Coco, by her no-good musician husband, the family has reviled music and forbidden each other to even listen to it.
And all Miguel wants is to be a musician, even though his family will never allow it. He feels trapped by his family’s love, his responsibility to them, and his love for them. Cut off from being who he really wants to be.
Secretly, when he’s not sharing his dreams with his ancient, barely conscious grandma, Coco. Miguel spends his time secretly watching videos of his hero, Ernesto, the greatest and most beloved musician of all time. The man who just might be the father he’d always wished for… the one who could actually understand his creative dream.
We first meet Ernesto in a fabulous Vignette as Miguel watches the video of Ernesto’s final performance, of his most famous song, Remember Me.
And the whole thing is played for a joke. Because Ernesto has no idea that the gig, quite literally, is up.
But we know, as Ernesto sings Remember Me while ascending the vertigo inducing heights of a ridiculously tall escalator, that this is not going to end well.
And though somehow Ernesto does survive his ascent, no sooner has he reached the summit, than a giant bell falls on his head, striking him dead.
In an outline, this might have looked like this:
- Ernesto dies during his performance
In a “rough draft” script by a lesser writer it might have looked like this:
- Ernesto sings a song. As he reaches the last lyric, a bell falls on his head and he dies.
But without the how of that Vignette- the exact, moment by moment specificity of each hilarious step of Ernesto’s dramatic exit. Without the specific lyrics of his songs and the thematic significance they point to, none of the rest of Coco could have been built.
Because we are going to end up hearing this song at least 5 times.
And we are going to end up riffing on the specific elements of that first performance at least 5 times.
And each time we hear it, and each time we see it, that song and those elements are going to be played for a different experience, a different tone, a different structural value– just like that cashmere sweater in the example I shared with you.
In fact, those 5 different versions of that one little scene are going to end up telling us the whole story of Coco, the whole journey of its characters.
So for those of you who haven’t seen the movie, what happens next is this. On the night of Dia de Muertos, when the family is supposed to be remembering its lost loved ones whose pictures they keep on their ofrenda, Miguel accidentally breaks the frame of Mama Imelda’s picture, and discovers that Ernesto may be his great grandfather.
Convinced that his destiny is to be a musician, he sneaks off to perform in the town talent show, and ends up transported along with his dog, Dante, to the land of the dead, where he and a no good hustler, Hector, team up to infiltrate the alternate world version of the talent show, escape the angry spirit of Mama Imelda, and reconnect with his great grandfather, Ernesto, whose blessing is his only hope of returning to the real world alive.
And there’s that song again.
Needing to blow away the competition in order to get entry to Ernesto’s exclusive post Dia de Muertos party and finally meet his great grandfather, Miguel plans to perform his favorite song– Remember Me– only to discover that’s the same song everybody is performing.
And of course that’s the song they all love, because it speaks to the desire of every single spirit in the land of the dead– the desire to be remembered. The only thing that keeps them “alive”.
Just like everyone who has ever wanted to be an artist has that part that wants to be remembered as well.
So it’s another joke, but it’s a different kind of joke. Because for Miguel, it’s the moment of realizing that the thing that’s been special for you isn’t actually so special. The irony of a thousand voices all crying out to be remembered. That without even realizing it, you’re following the crowd. And it’s the beginning of finding his own voice and his own way.
It’s the feeling of being an artist, and realizing that you have to take another step, to stop following the crowd, and really step into your voice.
So the feeling is that the song is a funny song. But the value of that song is changing.
Just a warning, there are some spoilers ahead…
Because as the story unfolds in the land of the dead, it soon becomes very clear that Ernesto is not actually who Miguel imagines him to be– that Hector is Miguel’s real great grandfather, and Ernesto is a murderous man who stole both Hector’s life and his songs, taking credit and being remembered by millions for something that was never his in the first place, while Hector has been forgotten by everyone except his daughter Coco… his now ancient daughter, whose fading longing for her papa is the only thing keeping Hector from dissolving into nothing.
As Hector tells Miguel the truth of his story, the song comes back in the memory…
It’s the song that Hector once sang to his daughter, baby Coco– the song he sang as he was leaving to pursue his dream. And the song that drew him back towards his family in life… and continues to do so even in death.
And once again, the value completely changes. Because the song is no longer funny. It’s now the saddest song ever. The song of a father separated from his child. The song of an artist separated for his art. The song of a forgotten man longing to be remembered.
Just as in the first two variations, the lyrics are being used ironically, but for a completely different emotional effect.
And structurally, for Miguel, it’s yet another step toward learning who he really is, learning the difference between how someone is remembered, and who they really are. Learning the tricks that memory plays on all of us.
Then, after everything has gone wrong, and Ernesto has unwittingly incriminated himself in front of all his adoring fans while trying to kill Hector and Miguel– there’s that song again.
Ernesto tries to win back his enraged fans by singing Remember Me again– only to be drowned out by their boos.
And we feel the resonance of that moment, not just for the moment itself, but for the way it resonates up against all those related moments. The way, once again, the value of the song, and of the way Ernesto’s desire to be remembered, is shifting.
And we experience the joy of watching yet another riff on that first Vignette, when Ernesto’s afterlife is ended in the same way as his life, by a giant bell.
But it’s not the image of the bell that makes that moment so compelling. It’s the way that image resonates up against all those other images. The way that Vignette resonates up against all those other Vignettes from which it grew.
The writers just keep on riffing on that same image, and you can see in those simple related moments, they actually tell you the whole story of the movie, and Miguel’s relationship with Ernesto, and his desire for a father figure who can understand him, and the difference between the way we perceive our idols and who those idols actually are… the difference between being an artist and being a celebrity… between playing for them, and playing for what really matters to you.
Which brings us to yet another riff on the song, when having escaped the land of the dead and returned to his family, Miguel sings Remember Me to his aging grandma Coco, just like her father once did… reminding her of Hector’s love for her, and her memory of him.
And that’s when the tears come. Not just for you, but for the character. Because that version of the song is resonating up against all the versions that came before it, reminding you of all the places you’ve gone with these characters and reminding them of all the places they’ve gone together.
It’s that resonance that makes us feel what really matters in this movie– that underlying source of inspiration called the theme.
But that theme didn’t grow from some big, high-falutin’ idea.
It grew from a little bit of research into Dia de Muertos and one little Vignette built around one little song.
It grew from digging, not in the big places, but in the little ones. Getting so specific that the characters had no choice but to reveal themselves. Allowing one image to grow from another, so that they had no choice but to add up to something. Saying yes to everything you see, hear and feel, so that the real movie you’re building can reveal itself to you.
In Coco, that little Vignette, that one little song, adds up to a lot: a theme that’s both inspiring and devastating. A theme that wrestles both with the beauty of family and the pain of loss. That wrestles with the desire we all have for fame and success, and the way it gets in the way of our real gifts as artists.
As writers, we all have the desire to be remembered. And sometimes, like Ernesto, we can find ourselves singing other people’s songs, or stealing other people’s structure, because we don’t trust ourselves enough to find that beauty in ourselves. To find the little Vignette that can grow into the powerful structure.
But as Hector explains in yet another riff on the “Remember Me” song, “I didn’t write this song for them. I wrote it for her.”
And that’s what I’d like to encourage you to do for yourself.
Don’t write your movie for fame, or fortune or success. Because the truth is, you can’t control any of those things.
Write your movie to capture something that matters to you.
And if you don’t know what the big thing is. Look for the small thing.
That little Vignette, that little moment of inspiration, that one little step, that can lead to the only question you need to find your structure.
If this is true, what else is true?
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