Monthly Archives: August 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird – Movies For Lawyers – The Act Of Communication Point Of View

26 August 2011

From Alan:

Adaptation is very difficult. And to move from one form, a novel say, to another, like film, is even more difficult. Each form carries its own rules and structure. And within each form achieving a high level of expression requires different techniques and a different kind of storytelling. Coleridge once said that great literary criticism is a poem in response to a poem. With adaptation, the same is true. So, the film of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is quite a masterpiece of both storytelling as a film and of adaptation.

If you speak to most lawyers of my generation and before, I am almost 59, the novel of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD often serves as an inspiration…both for lawyering and for the quiet, gentle, active nobility of spirit and deed for which men strive. Having just reviewed the wonderful documentary HEY, BOO about the novel, film and the life of Harper Lee, it seemed fitting, actually necessary, to review the film of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

I had not seen this wonderful film in many years. The artifice and style of the time made it seem quaint to me when I was a young, arrogant actor. Well, now that I am older and slightly less arrogant, I was startled by the immediacy and contemporary quality of the film, the acting and the story. Of course, there are some moments that seem “old fashioned,” but overall this film far exceeds so much of contemporary filmmaking.

What can lawyers learn from this film? Gregory Peck’s character, Atticus Finch, is the man who defends people no one else will defend. The neighbor, beautifully played by Rosemary Murphy, says something like, “There are people who do all the things none of us wants to do but that need doing…your father, Atticus, is one of those people.” That character trait is what inspires so many lawyers. And yet there is something else to be learned here. Something about telling a story.

What struck me most watching the film this time was how much silence there is. Between characters, within scenes, within exchanges. What is left out, what is not said and not shown has so much impact. The space in between. Silence and gesture where language is felt by us, the audience. The filmmakers have allowed room for the audience to fill in the emotional and narrative story by leaving out words.

Even in the filmmaking itself there is much omitted. It is customary in modern films to usually “turn around” and show the reverse angle in a scene. If we see one person talking, the camera will usually flip so we can see the reaction and watch the other person talking. In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD these “reverses” are very rare. We watch the character’s back. We “make up” the response. We hold on the “empty” space of someone’s back or in a wide shot and this allows us, the viewer, to participate; to supply so much of the story. In the silences and in the empty spaces the listener, the audience, the jury, fills in the story.

Of course, this requires a lot from the storyteller. Leading up to and away from these silences, these “empty” spaces, the story must be succinct, compelling and strong. Active, in both an emotional and narrative sense. And if you have created such a story, then you must learn to welcome and value the silence.

TIP: Are you letting the jury particpate and become involved? Do you value the silence and use the empty space as part of your story?

The Help – Movies For Lawyers – The Act Of Communication Point Of View

16 August 2011

From Katherine:

Remember how much I loved the adaptation of the novel WATER FOR ELEPHANTS? Stand back. I love the adaptation of Kathryn Sockett’s amazing novel. From the moment our creative team member, Shilpa Mysoor, put it in my hands I was hooked. A brilliant new voice in the wonderful tradition of Southern American writers! I looked at the movie poster the first time I saw it with more than a little bit of trepidation…I hate it when my favorite books turn into horrible movies. Thank heavens that my fears were assuaged from the first frames of the film – just like the novel, the film of THE HELP had me at “hello.”

What can attorneys learn from seeing this amazing film? So much – but I am going to concentrate on only one aspect. It is the amazing portrayal of how people get other people to tell them their stories. This is what attorneys do with their witnesses all the time. I am especially moved by one of these relationships we get to follow in the film. It is between the young would-be journalist, Skeeter (Emma Stone), and her first interview subject, the maid Aibilene (Viola Davis). The arc of the relationship reflects how sometimes, as a lawyer, you have to “hang in there and keep trying.” Emma has to first learn that getting the story wasn’t going to be easy. She then has to be willing to be quiet. To listen. To be open. To earn the respect of her “witness.” How often have I been brought in to “open up” an Aibilene because a Skeeter hasn’t been willing to put aside ego, preconceived notions of how things “must be,” and to put her/his honor on the line to earn trust. The arc of this relationship changes each of them individually, their relationship, and ultimately this country.

TIP: Are you willing to find the way to get this witness to “open up” and tell you the story?


From Alan:

I most certainly agree with Katherine. THE HELP is a remarkable film with outstanding performances. Performances that stayed with me.

What I want to talk about here is RELATIONSHIPS. What we follow, as an audience, are the relationships among the characters. The stronger the relationships, the more they change and matter to us, the more we care about the story. How we follow a story is through the development of these relationships.

In this film, the relationship between the two main black women, characters played by the stunning Viola Davis and the equally compelling and strong Octavia Spencer is what helps propel the narrative…the story. And their relationship with the character played by Emma Stone, the development of that relationship is what makes us care and helps drive us into and through the story.

What can lawyers learn from this? What the jury follows is relationship. To an outsider, a juror, the courtroom is a foreign world. Despite all the lawyer shows on TV, we all come into this world with expectations, preconceptions and distortions. Part of your job is to be our guide. To take us, and take care of us, through the journey of the trial. And we will learn about this world and about the story you want us to follow through how you treat your client and your witnesses. And also, how you treat the judge and bailiff and all the all the other characters who populate the world of the courtroom. Your relationship to all of them and to us, the jury, will inform and shape our understanding and caring of your story.

And make no mistake. Do not underestimate the effect of your behavior, your relationships with everyone in the courtroom – and in the lunchroom, in the hallway, in the parking lot. You may be observed and those observations will lead to judgments about you and your case and your story.

TIP: Are you aware of your relationships with your clients and with your witnesses? Are you aware of how these relationships are perceived and of what story they tell?

We Are The Stories We Tell Ourselves – Lectures For Lawyers – The Act Of Communication Point Of View

11 August 2011

From Alan:

This week I bring you another remarkable and insightful talk from the TED conferences. Take some time and browse their site for the more than 900 lectures they offer….your time will be well rewarded.

For this week, I am offering Shekhar Kapur’s talk about storytelling. It is called, WE ARE THE STORIES WE TELL OURSELVES.

Those of you who have followed our work understand that story is at the heart of what we teach. Indeed, we believe story is at the heart of the way humans interact, process and understand the world. Here, a remarkable filmmaker talks about his understanding of story and how he arrives at the story he tells.

In breaking down his approach, he talks about the many levels of story: the psychological, historical and mythological. These levels are found and revealed in so many of the stories that we know from our childhood, our religious texts and of course in our films. And, they are all present within any one story and, as Kapur points out, they are sometimes at odds with one another. Finding the harmony within these levels of story is the conscious and most importantly unconscious job of the audience, the listener, the jury.

We have spoken often of the need to find the story within your case. And we have spoken often of the need to find many ways to tell that story – narrative, visual, emotional — and here, Kapur offers the idea that these various ways need not be repetitive. In other words, the visual story may be complementary to the narrative as well as illustrative. The emotional story may be underlying the narrative and even at odds with the visual. In finding the truth of each of these the truth of the whole story will be made clear to the listener….the jury.

TIP: While analyzing your case, determine what is the story you want the jury to come away with. What is the “tune you want them singing” as they leave the courtroom.

Legally Blonde – Movies For Lawyers – The Act Of Communication Point Of View

3 August 2011

From Katherine:

I know, you were really hoping that instead of giving you new information about an attorney favorite for the Dog Days of Summer that I would write about the new Smurf movie. Actually, one of the guys in my playwrighting group tried to convince me that I should go because he claimed there is a new character called “Legal Smurf”. Thank God I’m not that blonde.

Okay. I love LEGALLY BLONDE. Love it! I find it amazing that when I ask attorneys what their favorite movie about the law is that they don’t all shout out that title in their top hits. I love the story of Elle Woods (played by the extraordinary Reese Witherspoon learning that her skills of being sharp, savvy, compassionate and discerning can be used to help others by becoming an attorney.

But why I want you to watch it this time around (other than to have a fabulously rollicking time) is that I often use this film as a homework assignment for witnesses. With many witnesses, answering “too quickly” is an issue. People get nervous, the stakes are high, and they tend to “speak first and think second”. After I help cure them of the habit, I recommend that they watch the film, paying close attention to the cross examination of Enrique (the brilliant Greg Serano) by Emmett (the wonderful Luke Wilson).

The following dialogue is delivered at breakneck speed:

Emmett: Did you take Mrs. Windham on a date?
Enrique Salvatore: Yes.
Emmett: Where?
Enrique Salvatore: A restaurant in concord, where no one could recognize us.
Emmett: How long have you been sleeping with Mrs. Windham?
Enrique Salvatore: Three months.
Emmett: And your boyfriend’s name is…
Enrique Salvatore: Chuck.
Emmett: Right.
[Everyone gasps/laughs]
Enrique Salvatore: Pardon me, pardon me. I thought you said friend; Chuck is just a friend.

I can’t tell you how often any speedy witness “gets it” from watching this scene. We all have a good laugh and the lesson is solidified thanks to Enrique. I am happy to report that in the stage play based on the movie, LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL, that scene gets a big laugh every night. Even though we all know it is coming, the audience still gets the biggest kick out of it! I think we all recognize that “speed kills” each and every time we experience it in this scene – whether on stage or screen.

TIP: Help your speedy witnesses by having them watch the cross examination scene from LEGALLY BLONDE.