Thursday, January 13, 2011

Telling the same story from 8 points of views

To illustrate the power of the N-of-8 story process, I often use the movie Vantage Point, a thriller about an assassination attempt on the President of the United States as seen from 8 different points of view.

The story screenplay was written by Barry Levy and stars Sigourney Weaver, Forest Whitaker, Dennis Quaid, William Hurt, and Matthew Fox.  This film was directed by Pete Travis.

In the story, the president steps up to deliver a speech in a city square in Salamanca, then gunshots ring out. An American tourist has captured footage of the would-be assassin on videotape, and now, as the stories of the other witnesses unfold, each essential piece of the puzzle quickly falls into place. Only when all of the stories are told will the chilling truth to this shocking crime finally emerge.

The film portrays events taking place within a period of approximately 25 minutes, starting at 11:59:58 on the day US President Henry Ashton is in Salamanca, Spain to promote an international treaty designed to combat global terrorism. Each time the clock rewinds and the episode unfolds from a new vantage point, additional details are added, until the complete story of what really occurred is unveiled at the end.

In an interview on "Good Morning America," Dennis Quaid cited the “Rashomon effect” of the film, a reference to the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film of that name in which events are recounted from several perspectives. Unlike Rashomon's emotionally-charged points of view, Vantage Point deals only with their physical convergence.

When the movie was first released, our company conducted an exercise that was past training and part team-building.  We divided into teams and went to the movie with a listening guide to follow each character’s perspective of the same 15 minutes’ events immediately after the shooting.

Using an N-of-8 Story Development template, each team was assigned a character to watch:
  1. William Hurt as the American president
  2. Dennis Quaid as battle-scarred Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes
  3. A second Secret Service agent, played by Matthew Fox
  4. Forest Whitaker as a foolhardy American tourist
  5. A little girl with an ice cream cone
  6. A Spanish cop
  7. An anti-American operative
  8. Sigourney Weaver as network news producer
In the training tool, we watched our characters for these key visual and verbal cues:  key messages, language and figures of speech, props, symbols and metaphors, key motivations, and actions.

Here are a few findings from our own N-of-8 analysis:
  • The opening scene in which the events are captured by a CNN-like news channel speaks to the manipulability of "truth."  Yet almost all the sequences use virtually identical camera angles. So, like a Rubik's Cube of images that are arranged and then rearranged – often even further from the facts than before – they still form 8 unique cohesive story lines.
  • In each perspective, certain details were denied the viewer, such as what a character might have seen or what they might be reacting to.  In one opinion, none of that technique enhanced the story's mystery or suspense; rather, it was irritating. (A good lesson learned to avoid over-complicating copy or visuals.
  • In terms of the characters, few of the actors express any real emotion on screen.  As a result, the thinness of their characters was a challenge to create a believable person. Quaid's character Barnes benefits the most from film's otherwise minimal expository dialogue, but essentially Fox's Taylor is the respectful replacement who took over Barnes' Presidential post, Whitaker's Lewis is a father and husband on a sabbatical, and Noriega's Enrique is a jealous lover torn between his police duties and his romantic insecurities.
  • That we're never really told anything more about any of these characters means we never become invested in anyone's point of view.
It was both fun and instructional to experience the principles of the N-of-8 process – that only when all viewpoints are considered can a most compelling, truthful story be developed.

(This is just one example from my next new book due out this spring, N-of-8: A Creative Group Innovation Model for Health, Science, & Technology Brands.)

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