Thursday, April 28, 2011

How to Create a Compelling Character, Conclusion

This all started with George Clooney on “ER”, and the week I spent attempting to figure out why his chaotic introduction was so compelling, even though I was going through a harrowing medical saga of my own at the time.

The hope is that these eleven steps can help in trying make that sort of connection with an audience. If this still isn’t exactly a recipe you can use from scratch, then maybe it can at least answer the question of why some characters are so much more compelling than others.

As some of you have guessed, I conceived these posts as the outline for a possible book, even though I had doubts about that idea—Does the world really need another screenwriting manual? But I reassured myself that it might be worth doing anyway when I thought about the different kinds of people that need to create compelling characters...

In entertainment, it’s not just screenwriters but also directors and actors (especially if they’re starting with a weak script)... Every type of writer, from novelists to journalists to historians, whether they’re starting from scratch or re-shaping the details of an actual life... Salesmen, speechwriters, activists—anyone who’s selling their own ideas or somebody else’s… For that matter, anyone who’s ever had to write a resume or cover letter…Everybody needs to know how to transform a life story, even if it’s just their own, from a shapeless mess into a compelling narrative.

Allow me one final example from my own story: Shortly after I began chemo, I got a chilling visit from an old college friend who had gone on to become somewhat of a big-deal doctor (Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, etc...) He took me aside and confided an unfortunate secret that he felt I needed to hear: The most important thing I could do to stay alive was to make sure my doctors remembered me, and the only way to do that was to make my story a lot more compelling than their other cases.

Doctors, he admitted, only allow themselves to get upset if certain heart-tugging patients die (new parents, for example), and they unintentionally reserve their best care for those patients. For the rest, they quickly decide that, if this patient dies, it must just be their time.

Why should this be so? Doctors, after all, are paid to care about everybody. And they do care, deeply…about their first fifty or sixty patients. But after that, every patient starts to seem the same: the same backstory, the same symptoms, the same complaints, the same prognosis. Worst of all, a sneaking suspicion comes over them that they care about their patients more than those patients care about themselves. Patients won’t change their lifestyles even when doctors tell them they must to survive. So doctors stop investing themselves very much in most individual cases, just to protect themselves emotionally.

Does this sound familiar? Doctors, it turns out, are a lot like script-readers, who are also supposed to care about the manuscripts they get, but quickly get fed up with generic stories about passive protagonists who can’t even be bothered to care about their own lives—so why should anyone else?

What I took away from this warning was that you can’t just go to the doctor’s office and “seem sympathetic”. You have to create a compelling character. Make it clear that there’s more to you than whatever their first impression was—quirky and unique details that make you memorable. Describe your symptoms using shocking new metaphors they’ve never heard before, so that they can really imagine the pain. Show them that you have a great life with a lot of goals so it’ll be especially sad if you can’t reach them. Let them know you’re motivated and resourceful—that they can trust you to take two steps for every one they take. And most importantly, constantly remind them that you’re facing a very tight (and literal) deadline, so you need them to work with impassioned urgency.

My point is that these are good skills to have for lots of reasons. Wake a doctor up. Wake a script reader up. Wake a publisher up. Wake an audience up. Let them know that this time it’s safe for them to really care, because you have what it takes to magnetically compel them along through an emotionally satisfying journey.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How to Create a Compelling Character, Step 4: Determine their Default Personality Trait

I talked before about one way to determine how a character will talk: their metaphor family. That’s a great way to decide what language they will use, but now I’d like to talk about an equally important tool for creating a believable and consistent personality: Choosing a Default Personality Trait. This is a tricky topic: First I’m going to try to differentiate between three different but related aspects of a hero’s personality:
  1. Their current emotional state (changes constantly)
  2. Their philosophy (changes once)
  3. Their default personality trait (never changes)
First of all, every character has an emotional state that changes wildly from scene to scene. As they go on the most momentous journey of their lives, they’ll quickly pass from frustration to joy to despair to triumph and everywhere in between.

Separate from their emotional state is their philosophy. In real life, this changes gradually over many years, but movies are a little different. One of the main reasons we go to movies is to live out the fantasy that our philosophies can change all of a sudden due to one cathartic incident, as we talked about yesterday. Unlike emotional fluctuations, which happen in almost every scene, characters will engage in one big philosophical change over the course of the story: from selfish to big-hearted, from innocence to cynicism, from loner to joiner, etc…

Because characters are in such an extreme state of flux, it’s tempting to simply declare that they have no fixed personality for the time being. After all, they’re questioning everything, so they’re hard to nail down. The danger is that “no fixed personality” quickly becomes “no personality at all”. You need to find a few hard-and-fast rules that always govern how a character talks, even as their emotional state varies and their general attitude shifts. This is their Default Personality Trait.

Even as our emotions and attitudes change, our default personality trait stays the same. If someone’s default personality trait is “gloomy” then you’ll be able to identify that, even if they happen to be happy today, because they’ll say something like, “I’m oddly happy today,” or “I’m happy for once.” Their mood changes but it still has their default personality trait stamped on it.

When you first meet someone, it can be hard to tell the difference between their current emotional state and their default personality trait, but it becomes obvious over time. A certain overall aspect of their personality will always shine through, no matter what their mood or their current philosophy might be. Movie characters should be the same way.

One problem with stamping a label on someone’s default personality trait is that it often seems like a judgment—but it isn’t. No matter what the trait, it can be either sympathetic or unsympathetic. Don’t believe me? Check out this chart:
(Hmm… I just wrote two screenplays in a row about salesmen, so I assume that that’s why I chose mostly salesman characters?) The point is: even though you’re taking your characters on an emotional roller coaster, and even though the whole point is their eventual shift in philosophy, there still needs to be some small aspect of their personality that never changes, because it’s in their DNA. That way, they’ll still seem like a real person.

NOTE: I revised this piece in March, 2012.  Instead of “Default Personality Trait”, I used to use the term “Verbal DNA”.  (This will help explain the comments.)  I later decided that “Default Personality Trait” is more self-explanatory.    

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How to Create a Compelling Character, Step 9: Give Them TWO Statements of Philosophy

Last time we did this, I talked about how every character needs a false goal and a true goal, but now I realize that there’s a corollary to that. Most screenwriting books will tell you that the hero needs to have a statement of philosophy, preferably in the first scene. So I dutifully followed along and did just that...

But I’ve only very gradually realized that this is no good. I was allowing my heroes to state the overall source of personal strength that was going to get them through the whole screenplay, but my heroes’ characterization felt flat because I was ending the story before it began. When the screenplay begins, heroes shouldn’t yet suspect what they’ll need to know to win. That’s the whole point. They have to go on this journey to figure it out.

But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a statement of philosophy right up front. This is your chance to show how wrong they are. This is your chance to establish their false expectation that life will work a certain way. That makes it all the more upsetting when it suddenly doesn’t. So I still end my first scene with either a blatant or an inadvertent statement of philosophy from my hero, but it’s a false s.o.p. Then, ninety minuets later, after the many stunning reversals of Act 2, they have their hallelujah moment and discover their true s.o.p.

Once I realized this, I started seeing it everywhere, but let’s just focus on two examples: Tommy Lee Jones is a smart actor, and he cleverly stole The Fugitive from Harrison Ford when he ad libbed his own false s.o.p. Ford points a gun at him and says “I didn’t kill my wife.” Jones looks at him like he’s crazy and informs him “I don’t care,” which wasn’t in the script. This sets up Jones’s big reversal at the end nicely. Of course, the most famous false s.o.p. would be Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “I stick my neck out for no one”. Only later does her reverse himself and declare that his problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world.

Screenwriters talk a lot about ways to “raise the stakes” of the plot, but a false s.o.p. raises the emotional stakes. It shows the imposing size of the internal barrier the hero must overcome in order to succeed.

So now your hero has a big journey ahead of them, but before your audience ready to join them, the hero is going to need to show some aptitude, or else your audience will soon give up on them in disgust. We’ll talk about a hero’s resourcefulness next.

Monday, April 25, 2011

How to Create a Compelling Character, Step 7: Let Them Lay Down The Law

Every year there are lots of TV pilots about rookie cops, medical interns, and young crusaders just out of law school, but these shows almost always flop. Why? It’s because these characters are very hard to write. In the end, a hero needs decision-making power, which is one thing rookies don’t have.

This is somewhat counter-intuitive. Everybody loves an underdog, right? And if the heroes are just learning the ropes, the audience is right there with them, learning everything by their side, so that’s a great way into the story, isn’t it? Yes, following rookies through their day is a great way into a new show, but you very quickly get into trouble...

A classic example is “The West Wing”. When Aaron Sorkin conceived and pitched the show, he imagined that it would feature only the President’s staff, but we would never see the big man himself. So he wrote the pilot, in which the staff vigorously debate back and forth about how they should advise the President on a difficult decision, and that worked well enough for most of the episode…

…But then Sorkin got to the end of the story. He suddenly realized that it would be enormously unsatisfying to end the pilot (and the next hundred episodes) with his heroes sending their advice up the chain of command and then powerlessly waiting to see what the outcome would be. Suddenly, in the very last scene, the President walks into the room after all, and lays down the law. This show needed a decider. Before long, it became exactly the opposite of what Sorkin wanted it to be: a show that centered around the President as main character.

And indeed every show tends to trend in this direction: away from the flunkies and toward the bosses. The “30 Rock” pilot was about Liz and Pete with Jack as a mere antagonist. Now Jack is Liz’s beloved co-star, and Pete is little-seen. Stories are about the consequences of decisions, so it’s much easier to write stories about people who actually have decision-making power. There’s a reason why most heroes, even if they’re children, are orphans. They need the ability to commit fully to whatever they decide to do, without anybody swooping in to protect them from danger. They need to be on the hook for the consequences of their actions.
Maybe the smartest pilot of all was “CSI”. We followed a rookie who had just joined the CSI squad as she (and we) learned all about what they did. At the end of her first day, she took her newfound knowledge and went out to her first crime scene, where she promptly got shot and killed. She was a great POV character, but now we needed to put ourselves in the hands of the power-players.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

How to Create a Compelling Character, Step 5: Give Them Something To Fear

Welcome back folks. I wrapped this series up a few months ago, but I quickly started thinking of other essential elements I left out. For instance, the Canadian novelist and writing blogger Margo Berendsen kindly linked to the series as part of a similar post she wrote and I realized that her suggestions should be added to my list (with a little tweak). I held off while I added yet more to the list, but now I’m hopefully ready to finish the series for good this week. (Maybe.) Here goes:
All heroes need at least one big fear, preferably a universal one that most of the audience will share. Fear of failure. Fear of loneliness. Fear of commitment. They shouldn’t have so much fear, of course, that they’re cowering in the corner. We want the kind of fear that gets them moving, actively trying to forestall a dreaded outcome.
No matter what happens in a scene, it will be far more compelling if we know going in that your hero either hoped or dreaded that this would happen. Maybe your hero is forced to face the one thing they most fear (Indiana Jones gets dropped in a snake-filled tomb)… Maybe what happens is the solution to their fear (Luke Skywalker fears that he’s lost his last chance to join the rebellion until opportunity arrives)… Maybe what happens to them is a metaphor for their fear (Jeff in Rear Window is afraid of marrying Grace Kelly so he becomes obsessed with a worst-case marital situation across the courtyard) Either way, the situation they find themselves in is more compelling to us because we know it’s going to tap into their emotional anticipation.
Most heroes have a public, common fear they express openly right from the beginning. In scarier movies, they also have a hidden, unique fear that they hide until halfway through. Chief Brody in Jaws is worried he won’t cut it in his new beach-town job. We find out halfway through that he’s secretly afraid of the water. Likewise, Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs is afraid that she’s in over her head at the FBI, then we find out that she’s really afraid that her dirt-poor background will show through. In both cases, the key to solving their public fear is to confront their hidden, private fear.

The key to compelling an audience forward through a story is to get them to anticipate what might happen next. Of course, your audience will take their emotional cues from your hero, so start the very first scene by asking: what is my hero anticipating? It could be something good of course, but it’s usually a stronger choice if it’s something they dread. Even if your audience doesn’t like your hero yet, they’ll find that they need to know if the dreaded event happens or not. That buys you some more time to get the audience on your side.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #75: Opposition Creates Meaning

Occasionally, friends ask me to consult on reality TV series that they’re pitching. One was about travelers who go to unlikely places, one was about a secret geeky subculture, one was about young entrepreneurs... Every time, I had the same advice: someone onscreen has to be opposed to what your subjects are doing. I implored them to shoot interviews with people who disapproved of this activity.

This advice often meets resistance: “But I want to present what these people do in a positive light! I don’t want to bring negativity into it.” But the only way to show an activity as a positive thing is to show that your subjects are willing to overcome opposition in order to do it. If you just show people doing their thing and having a great time, there’s no story. If you show them doing it despite opposition, only then will we really start to appreciate them.

In my last two editions of The Meddler, on Julie and Julia and Walk the Line, I ran into similar problems. Both movies spent a lot of time on the heroes’ internal conflict, but lacked enough interpersonal conflict. This is inherently uncinematic. Not that internal conflict can’t be the topic of a movie--I’ve praised before on this blog those rare movies that find compelling ways to dramatize internal conflicts, like The Secret Lives of Dentists or Funny Ha Ha. But those were small indie movies. If you want to make a big, satisfying Hollywood movie, you’re need to show your hero overcoming actual opposition.

To re-imagine my Meddler picks, I had to ask myself: Who wouldn’t want Julie to blog? Who didn’t want Johnny to sing his kind of music? It wasn’t too hard to identify genuine sources of opposition in both cases. Once I added those elements into the mix, I was able to imagine versions of those movies that would be far more appealing to me.

Of course there’s a potential downside to this. There was an old Onion headline that said something like: “Area Man Fixes His Thomas Edison Screenplay By Adding A Character Who Insists: ‘How Dare You Invent the Lightbulb! Man Was Meant to Live in the Dark!’” When I read that, I laughed and then I winced. After all, I had just written a bio-pic about another inventor and I had amped up the conflict by highlighting anti-technology sentiments that sound silly today.

The trick, as always, is to do it well. If it seems too silly to your audience to imagine anyone being opposed to some innovation, then you have to delve deeper into that world and immerse the audience in an older way of thinking, one in which that opposition would actually make sense. Everybody who achieves anything faces some opposition, no matter how weird that may seem in retrospect. Your job is to dramatize that opposition.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #16

Join me in welcoming our first Special Guest we’ve had for a while: Jay Stern! I was recently a guest judge for Iron Mule, the long-running short comedy film festival that Jay co-hosts and I was blown away by how funny and well-chosen the films were. If you’re in New York, you must go. Here’s Jay:
Comfort and Joy (1984)
Writer / Director: Bill Forsyth

Scottish director Bill Forsyth is best known in the U.S. for his 1983 feature Local Hero, a quirky, bittersweet portrait of an isolated Scottish community and the Americans who come into contact with them. His follow-up film Comfort and Joy is unfortunately less known here, possibly because it is purely Scottish, meaning there are no American actors in it.

And this is a shame. Forsythe’s movies are great. He’s a gentle filmmaker; his films are touching, simple, and create odd, unadorned portraits of “real” people. They are quiet little films but are always charming, quite often with a healthy dose of bitterness. The deadpan performances only heighten the quality of the humor and pathos.

Comfort and Joy follows Glaswegian DJ Alan ‘Dickie’ Bird as he undergoes the trauma of losing his fabulous girlfriend and becomes caught up in the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars. The Glasgow Ice Cream Wars were a real event in the early ‘80s in which rival drug gangs using cream vans as fronts fought over territory, but the ever-innocent Forsyth took the wars at their face value and presents them here as a rivalry among ice cream salesman. This violent war between purveyors of ice cream provides a wonderfully convoluted foil for Dickie Bird’s life as he tries to find meaning and happiness as a middle-aged man who has lost the love of his life.

There are so many interesting characters in the forefront and periphery of this movie–ice cream gangsters Mr. McCool and Mr. Bunny, the dentist who looks like George C. Scott, the psychiatrist and the station manager who both claim the same story from their navy days–and every throwaway moment is worth paying attention to. This movie also boasts the funniest collection of lame radio jingles you’re liable to ever come across. But be warned–the “jiffy pops” theme will stay in your head for days!

In our post Judd Apatow world, when was the last time you saw a gentle comedy with heart that completely avoids lapsing into sentimentality? We all need more Bill Forsyth in our lives, and Comfort and Joy is as satisfying and unique as an ice cream fritter.

Scoop (2006)
Writer / Director: Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s first British film Match Point left me disappointed and angry. His follow-up movie, however, also starring London and Scarlett Johansson, restored what I love about Woody Allen to the formula.

I won’t argue that Scoop is a great movie. I will, however, argue that it is underrated and certainly the most enjoyable movie of the latest stage of Allen’s career. Some perks to this movie:

  • Johanssen convincingly plays a nerdy and awkward journalist who easily handles Allen’s wordy dialogue
  • The film channels the imaginative quality of many of his early films. The plot is driven by the appearance of a ghost, and there are a few scenes which take place on a boat crossing the river Styx!
  • Allen doesn’t try to play a romantic lead with a much younger woman like he did for most of the ‘90s (a big fear for us confronted with the prospect of an onscreen Allen / Johansson duo) but instead plays a con artist who poses as her father.
  • There are some actual funny jokes in this! And Woody Allen has some fun with placing his shifty American character into high-class British garden parties, providing an element of levity completely missing from the wooden high-class world of Match Point.

Scoop isn’t one of Woody Allen’s greatest, but it’s a fun, pleasing diversion in the realm of Alice, another underappreciated movie of his. But more on that another time.

Sweet Land (2005)
Writer / Director: Ali Selim

“Let us all hope that we are preceded into this world by a love story.” So begins Sweet Land, one of the sweetest movies you’ll ever see, but grounded by a stark, simple Pioneer aesthetic. It’s like Appalachian Spring made into a movie. Or how Terrence Malick would have made Days of Heaven if he cared more about people and storytelling than he does about landscapes.

Set just after WWI among a Norwegian community in rural Minnesota, Sweet Land tells the story of Inga, an orphaned immigrant who has been brought over specifically to marry a local farmer, Olaf. The two haven’t met, and the Minnesota locals are shocked to learn that Inga is not Norwegian but German. The town refuses to accept Inga, and she and Olaf are ostracized when they end up sharing a house together. Forced to harvest their crop alone, the cheery outsider Inga and the grumpy and awkwardly silent Olaf learn to respect and then love each other. And after Olaf performs a reckless and self-destructive act of kindness, they are welcomed back into the community.

Director Ali Selim keeps it simple, letting the images and acting tell the story and never lapses into sentimentality or pity for his characters. Performances are grounded and utterly believable, even when “name” actors such as Alan Cumming and Ned Beatty show up. A double framing device in the present day about Inga and Olaf’s grandson deciding whether or not to sell their house and then recalling the elderly Inga telling him stories about her past, serves as a nice entryway to this place and time that is so underrepresented in movies. There is beautiful period detail of common life in rural America in the early 20th century but the film doesn’t wallow in it or glorify it.

Sweet Land is not only an underrated movie, it just may be one of the best movies from the past 10 years that you’ve never heard of.

In addition to co-hosting Iron Mule, Jay Stern is a writer and director in his own rite, for both stage and screen. He is currently working on his third feature film, the romantic comedy musical adventure The Adventures of Paul and Marian. Go check out the trailer and maybe even sign up to be a co-producer.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #74: The Love Interest Can't Just Be The Love Interest

Dating scenes, or any flirtation scene where the hero is there for no reason other than flirting, can be tough. It’s hard, because the intentions are too obvious, which gives you too little subtext to work with. But if there’s some other context for the meeting, and you add flirting on top of that, then there’s going to be a lot more energy to the scene. You need some other goal for the romantic inclinations to push and pull against.

Ideally, heroes should be required to run into their love interests, even if they definitely don’t want to see them, so that you can have a lot more variety in your love scenes. If heroes just go home to their sweethearts at the end of the day and tell them what’s going on (Like the girlfriends in so many cop movies, such as Bullitt), then those scenes are going to be totally limp.It’s great if the love interest has vital information that the hero needs, or can otherwise be a potential obstacle, as well as an attractor. “Hill Street Blues” had a perfect set-up: It featured a relationship (and eventual marriage) between a police chief and a public defender, which constantly put them at odds. When they argued about the case at work, it could also be a metaphor for their love life. When they talked about their love life at home, it could be a metaphor for the case. Every scene had instant subtext.But Ross and Rachel on “Friends” were a much harder couple to write well. Part of the tension in their relationship was that they didn’t care to hear about each other’s jobs (paleontology and fashion, respectively), but that’s the sort of tension that kills stories rather than launching them. Ultimately, It gave them nothing to talk about except their relationship, in scenes that lacked subtext. In the end, the only way to wring interest out of the relationship was to watch them break up and get back together, over and over and over.

Take heed: there’s a reason why everybody gets worried when they hear the phrase, “Let’s talk about our relationship.”

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Underrated Movie #115: Act of Violence

Title: Act of Violence
Year: 1948
Director: Fred Zinnemann (High Noon)
Writer: Robert L. Richards, from an unpublished short story by Collier Young
Stars: Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor

The Story: A smiling war hero has come home, married a beautiful girl and become a civic hero by building good houses. Then a shadowy figure arrives in town seeking righteous revenge, ready to reveal the horrible things that really went down in the war.

How it Came to be Underrated: For some reason, this was never on VHS and has only just now appeared on DVD. It’s hard not to imagine that this has something do with the harshly subversive vision of the postwar era that the movie presents.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Much has been made of the guilt Vietnam soldiers felt saddled with when America turned against that war, but this movie shows that there was also a downside to the myth of World War II as “the good war”: those who were wracked with guilt over what they done over there had no audiences available for expiating it.
  2. You’ll rarely see any Zinnemann retrospectives today. His films have too much gloss and prestige for genre fans, but, other than From Here to Eternity, they’re too grimy for everybody else. I would say his ability to bridge high-budget and low-budget styles is precisely what makes him so great. He’s the love child of William Wyler and Anthony Mann.
  3. For instance, most noirs are suffused with a uniformly bleak atmosphere that surrounds and traps all the characters. But this was one of the few noirs that seemed to understand, even at the time, what the noir style really meant on an existential level. As Ryan arrives in this sunny town, he brings his own shadows with him (We first see him limping his way against the flow of a happy Memorial Day parade, wearing a raincoat on a sunny day). Whenever Heflin tries to explain what he did in the war, he first retreats out of bright rooms into shadowy ones, fit for a confession. This film reminds us that the noir world is always with us, one closet door away.
  4. The whole cast here is underrated. Robert Ryan is my all-time favorite character actor. No one could pack as much steely determination into every sentence. Every line holds a complex lifetime of hurt, yet with an aggressive swagger that keeps his characters from falling totally into despair.
  5. Janet Leigh is equally great, even in this early role. She co-starred in so many masterpieces (Touch of Evil, Psycho, Manchurian Candidate), but she never seems to get enough of the credit for them. Like Ryan, she’s got a real rawness to her that lets her suffer and lash out in equally good measure, without a self-conscious filter. Mary Astor is also amazing as an over-the-hill prostitute who tries to help Heflin.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Leigh and Ryan reteamed for the equally-subversive western The Naked Spur, Zinnemann showed us another killer relentlessly pursuing quite a different war hero in Day of the Jackal.

How Available Is It?: It’s finally on DVD, and even though it has to share a disk with another movie (Mystery Street), they both get commentaries and documentaries.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Hang This Medal On Your Friends!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What’s the Matter With Hollywood, Part 5: The Strange Disappearance of Co-Stars

As I was saying, star salaries have gone through the roof, and because Hollywood no longer has a trustworthy method for developing new stars, they cough up the money. But these salaries hurt everyone, including the stars themselves.

First of all, some stars have an asking price that no one will pay unless a movie isn’t working. If a script is great, it can attract stars who are willing to act for less just for the chance to say some great dialogue. The only movies that will pay mega-stars what they demand are movies that don’t have anything else going for them. Nicole Kidman had a great year in 2002, making a smart summer thriller (The Others) and then winning an Oscar for her prestige-movie follow-up (The Hours). As a result, her price shot up. So what movies did she make in the following years? See above.

These were all troubled projects that finally got green lights by throwing money at Kidman and borrowing her magical name. But her name didn’t stay magical very long. Soon, she had a reputation as box office poison, because the only movies that could afford her were movies that couldn’t survive without her. (In the end, they couldn’t survive with her, either.)
But if you look at those posters, you’ll notice another problem as well. Where are the co-stars? This is another byproduct of mega-salaries: you may be able to afford one star, but rarely two. Some stars don’t seem to mind this situation too much, judging by their track record. Let’s look at the posters for Will Smith’s recent movies:
And Russell Crowe?
It’s no accident that many of the movies pictured above were disappointments at the box office. Stars need co-stars. Look at Crowe’s A Good Year. This was a classic story: no-nonsense businessman tries to quickly take care of some family business in Provence, but he soon meets his match in the form of a bewitching beauty who offers a simpler life. Hollywood can churn this story out in its sleep. But look at that poster! If he’s met his match, where is she? This movie is a romance! If we wanted to see a romance-for-one, we could have stayed home and starred in our own version of that. 

Stars need co-stars and stories need co-stars. The ultimate storytelling guru was Hegel: Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis. The story only starts when the thesis meets its antithesis. A hero has to meet his match. Smith and Crowe do themselves no favors by crowding their co-stars off the poster, even if that co-star is getting paid one-tenth as much as they are. Let the audience see two people on the poster so maybe we’ll think that the movie is actually about something.

Okay, okay, folks, enough with my negativity. This will be an ongoing series, but I’ll say some positive things for a while before I come back to it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What’s the Matter With Hollywood, Part 4: The Star System is Broken

American movies were studio driven until the mid-‘60s, then briefly director-driven until 1980, then star-driven ever since. Some blame this “star system” for everything that has gone wrong. That’s a little extreme; some great movies have been made along with the bad. But our problem now is that we seem to be entering another transition, because the star system is breaking down and nothing is rising to replace it.

The lack of bankable stars has its roots in some of the problems I’ve been talking about: Movies take so long to get made that imaginary stars are created who never actually catch fire.

It used to be that a star had to play minor roles until the public decided that they liked this person and demanded to see more of them, which is a great way to create a real star. There are still a few stars who get to do that: Amy Adams blew audiences away in Junebug so she got more roles. Emily Blunt stole The Devil Loves Prada, so she got more roles. But with movies now being cast years and years in advance, and with star salaries skyrocketing so quickly, that process frequently gets short-circuited.

Two of the biggest fizzles of would-be superstars in recent years were Colin Farrell and Eric Bana. Both were cast as the lead in five or six tentpole movies only to see every single one flop. Audiences just weren’t embracing them. But at least those two had each starred in minor movies that impressed some critics (Tigerland and Chopper) before Hollywood prematurely anointed them as superstars. Now things have gotten even crazier: Now we have Sam Worthington. Worthington came out of nowhere in 2006 to win an open audition for Avatar, which was clearly going to be a huge movie, three years down the line. In Hollywood’s mind, that made him a bankable star, even though American audiences had never met him. So he got to make two other tentpole movies while waiting for Avatar to finish its effects. Those movies (Terminator 4 and the remake of Clash of the Titans) earned him bad reviews just as Avatar was finally being released, so the promotion for Avatar rarely mentioned him. Even though it was the biggest hit of all time, he got none of the credit.

The irony here is that Worthington actually did a fine job in Avatar (I thought so, anyway). It could have been the foundation of a decent career, if he hadn’t already worn out his welcome. Hollywood needs to go back to letting the public pick our own stars.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What’s the Matter With Hollywood, Part 3: Movies Take WAY Too Long To Get Made

Back in 2005, I read an interview with the writers of the movie Waiting, a low-budget comedy about wacky waiters at a TGI-Friday’s-type restaurant who cause hi-jinks by spitting in the customer’s food.

The writers were talking about the ups and downs of getting the movie made. They mentioned how, at one point, after they had worked on it for years and finally sold the script, they saw the trailer for a new movie that was coming out soon called Office Space. They were worried because that trailer had a big joke in it about Jennifer Anniston being unhappy working at a lame family restaurant. Later, they were relieved when Office Space finally came out and they saw that it had only one scene in that setting.

The moral of the story was supposed to be this: don’t worry too much about competing projects. But I took away a different moral from this anecdote: They spent way too long making this movie! Office Space came out in 1999! Six years before Waiting! This meant that these poor writers had devoted at least seven years of their lives to making this movie.

It’s one thing to hear about Mark Wahlberg spending ten years trying to get The Fighter made, because at least that was an ambitious project. But Waiting?? This was a disposable little comedy that, even if had been well reviewed, wasn’t ever going to be life-changing for anybody who saw it. More importantly, it wasn’t going to make any of the moviemakers rich.

This is insane. In the heyday of the studio system, they made some good movies and they made some bad movies, but most every movie went from idea to execution to release in less than a year. Maybe, at the end of those months, you ended up with Casablanca, or maybe you ended up with Ants In Your Pants of 1939, but either way, you released it and you moved on.

This is a big part of the reason that nobody onscreen looks like they’re having any fun anymore. They’ve grown tired of the material, and all that build-up means that too much is now riding on every movie. That pressure crushes the performances.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What’s the Matter With Hollywood, Part 2: Potential is Worth More Than Reality

Before 1980, very few of the studios were owned by publicly-traded companies. The only way they had to make money was to make a good product and sell it. Then every studio either went public or got swallowed up by a corporation. Once you start offering stock in your company, you quickly realize that there’s more money to be made by selling your stock than there is by selling your product. Soon, whatever you make just becomes a tool to goose your stock price.

I’ve talked before about how embarrassing it is to try to create value from scratch, rather than merely trade back and forth value that already exists. Combined with the stock problem, this brings us to the #2 reason that movies have plummeted in quality: Potential movies are worth more than actual movies. If you create anticipation for a movie, it starts pushing up the stock price, and will continue to do so until the movie is released, at which point, unless it’s a massive hit, disappointment will set in and the air will leak out of the bubble. Perversely, a situation develops in which the most valuable movies are those that never get made at all.

This is the real reason that the studios prefer franchises to original scripts. When you announce that you’ve acquired a bit of value, and then add it to another bit of value, those two bits begin to mate in the minds of investors and multiply like bunnies. But if you announce that you’ve acquired an unknown quantity, like an original script, it’s inert. It doesn’t multiply.

There was recently a major announcement that Taylor Lautner from Twilight would soon star in an adaptation of the Stretch Armstrong “franchise”. Most people have forgotten it today, but Stretch Armstrong was a short-lived toy from the ‘70s: a rubber muscleman whose only notable quality was they you could stretch his arms out and watch them snap back.

What nobody mentioned, but everybody knew, is that they didn’t have any intention of making a Stretch Armstrong movie. Stretch never had a cartoon or comic. He’s never had a goal or a problem or a story. All he has is a name that people are vaguely familiar with, which also happens to be what Taylor Lautner has. Put these two bits of value together and you goose the stock price for a few days. That’s all. Sure, they’ll hire some lucky writers and pay them six figures each to write a few scripts, but the scripts will be terrible and the project will die.

Of course, that payday could have gone to a writer who actually had a story to tell. It could have created a new franchise from scratch, but while they were waiting for that franchise to materialize, the market would punish the studio for pouring money down a no-name black hole. And the market must be obeyed.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the other horrible consequence of development being more valuable than the product itself…

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What’s the Matter With Hollywood, Part 1: All Movies Must Be All Things To All People

No one should trust their own urge to idealize the past. The belief that everything was much better way back when is often a dangerous trap. But anyone can see that Hollywood is the doldrums. Quality is down. Way down. For the first time in the history of the two media, it’s generally accepted that TV is now the smarter artform, while movies, which cost more than ever, usually deliver the same amount of satisfaction that you used to expect from an average episode of “The Love Boat.”

So what went wrong?

Let’s start with the biggest problem, which is the source of all the others: Every movie now has to be all things to all people. This was not always the case. Back in the old days, each studio would make dozens of different movies at a time, each aimed at different audiences. Most lost a little money, but a few made a lot of money, so the studio still made steady profits overall.

Those days are long gone. Though the studios still exist as distributors, they have found a way, like so many other American corporations, to ensure that the profits trickle up but the risk trickles down. They no longer initiate their own projects, but instead wait for independent producers to bring projects to them. This means most movies has at least one person involved who is putting up a huge stake of their own money (or money they raised themselves).

You would think that someone putting up their own money would be more risk-averse, but the opposite is true. In the investment game you have to go big or go home. You’ll never be able to raise the money if your investors suspect you’re hedging your bets. They want to know that you’re all in, that this is a passion project.

It’s easier to convince investors that you need 100 million to make one movie you really believe in than it is to ask for the same amount to make five 20 million dollar movies that may or may not be good, even though the latter would actually be a far better investment. You would have a better chance that one of those five would make at least 100 million, even if the other four sucked. But that’s a harder sell for some reason in our topsy-turvy world.
To see how this works, look no further than the two versions of The Taking of Pelham 123. The first was directed by a no-name TV director, had a cast made up entirely of (great) character actors, and a measly little budget. It was released without much marketing, but quickly built a dedicated audience due to great reviews and word of mouth. It holds up beautifully today as one of the best gritty little thrillers ever made.

The recent remake had not one but two bankable stars, a major director, a huge budget, and a summer “tentpole” release with a massive marketing campaign (in which everybody involved complained about how crappy the original was) that tried to convince everybody that this was an “important” movie. The result was a disaster. Every frame was drenched in flop sweat. You could see on their faces that they knew they had a stinker on their hands but they didn’t know what to do about it.

It took a thousand wrong decisions to make a movie that bad, but it never really had a chance from the start. This is a great little story, but it’s not “important”. And Hollywood doesn’t dare tell great-but-unimportant little stories anymore, because every movie has to convince its investors that this movie is “the one” that’s going to shoot into the stratosphere. So they get inflated into bloated messes that collapse under the weight of their own swelled heads.

We’ll see an even more maddening consequence of this problem tomorrow...

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Meddler #8: My Fixes for Walk the Line, aka Man in Black

Okay folks, like last time, this gets very long, since I’m re-writing the whole damn movie. (And yes, I admit that I’ve compressed and slid around some real-world events, as all bio-pics do.) (By the way, this is a pretty good example of the 30-beat beatsheet I mentioned before. You’ll see what I mean when I say that a beat can include more than one scene, but each beat is one “event”.)

First of all, I’d change the title to The Man in Black:

  1. Cash and his band, in matching black outfits, warm up by playing profane songs, before their big try-out at Sun Records. Cash reminds them that they’ll have clean up their act for audition, he’d be embarrassed for anyone to hear him play that stuff.
  2. They play their gospel stuff for Sam Phillips. Phillips tells them gospel doesn’t sell: “Go home and sin, then come back with a hit.” They stop him from walking away by playing a down and dirty song in their rollicking, sinister style. He loves it and signs them immediately, but, in passing, he jokes that they should add some color to their outfits. Johnny says he’ll see what he can do. (This anecdote was cleaned up in the actual movie)
  3. He goes home to tell his resentful wife, who is not at all happy for him. He promises her that this will make everything better for them in the long run.
  4. He quickly breaks with Sam Phillips, who wants to push him in a more rock-n-roll direction. Instead, he pokes (good-natured) fun at longhaired rock and rollers in his act:

    Then he announces that he’s switching to a bigger label, Columbia, that has promised to finally let him put out a gospel album.
  5. A few years later, he’s strung out on pills and miserable while touring with the Carter family (still wearing black). He complains to his friend June Carter that Columbia still hasn’t let him record a gospel album.
  6. At a meeting with Columbia, they finally agree to a gospel album, then tell him he looks like hell and he should go home to his wife. He tells them that he can’t, he’s got to leave right away for another show in another city.
  7. That night, he’s served with divorce papers. He goes to call his wife to beg her to reconcile, but he stops himself. Instead he goes to June’s trailer and tells her he’s free now. She is drawn to him but she says it wouldn’t be right… yet. He says he’ll wait.
  8. The gospel album doesn’t sell, and his label blames his divorce for alienating the Christian audience he wants. He complains that staying in a bad marriage isn’t what Christianity is all about. They scoff and ask what does being a Christian mean to him anyway, if not family values? He doesn’t have an answer…
  9. June sees how distressed he is and tells him to re-read the bible for answers. He does and realizes that half of the Jesus’s ministry was about mercy towards prisoners.
  10. He meets with a warden before a prison show, who instructs him to only sing morally enriching songs. He reluctantly agrees.
  11. On stage, they start out with a gospel number, and the audience listens respectively. Disappointed with the response, Johnny holds a hasty huddle with the band. They play Folsom Prison Blues (“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die…”) and the crowd goes wild. The warden tries to shut them down, but the prisoners threaten to riot and the warden backs down and lets him finish. Johnny then plays a mournful song about a regretful prisoner, and the crowd, now that they’re on his side, is very moved...
  12. He brings June along to duet at a series of prisons and other venues with the song “Jackson” (“We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout…”), finally he impulsively proposes for real onstage one night. The band wonders what took them so long. They get married that night.
  13. His prison albums come out and he is heavily criticized for having too good of a time with the prisoners. But then he meets a big fan, Merle Haggard, who was an inmate at one of his first prison shows, where he was inspired to clean up his life and become a country singer himself. Cash feels vindicated and helps Haggard with his career.
  14. Haggard scores an unexpected hit with a jokey song called “Okie From Muscogee”, which becomes an unlikely anthem for Nixon-loving middle America. Haggard’s label wants him to follow up with non-ironic right-wing songs, and he asks Johnny if he should. Though Johnny disdains some of the songs they want Haggard to perform, he tell his friend to do whatever will help his family the most. Haggard thanks him and decides to record the songs.
  15. But soon Columbia is unhappy with Johnny as a result. Other country stars are now getting huge crowds in Middle America, putting on rhinestone outfits and singing angry anti-hippy anthems. He still dresses like an undertaker and sings in prisons. He always said he wanted a Christian audience, but now that they’re showing up in droves for more conservative singers, he’s shunning them. Johnny says preachers dress in black and Jesus ministered to prisoners, so if that’s not Christian enough for them, he doesn’t know what to do. He storms out…
  16. Meanwhile, at home, he sees his new marriage is starting to fail under the same strain as his first one did from his constant touring…
  17. He decides to start his own TV variety show so that he can get off the road. He pitches it as a show where he’ll bring on all the greats of country music, including Haggard, and other favorite musicians as well. His reps love it. They feel like he’s finally playing ball.
  18. But on opening night, everyone is furious that he’s invited Bob Dylan, who reached out to him, to be on the program. He stands his ground, and that night Bob is hesitantly introduced to middle America. The audience is uncertain, but Johnny loves the music. Bob enjoys himself but tells Johnny that he hopes he knows what he’s doing…
  19. Johnny continues to discover and feature more long-hair musicians, along with the country greats, on his show, causing the network and his label to get angrier and angrier. They play him some recent pro-Vietnam country hits and demand that he record something like that or they’ll drop him. He supports the war, he supposes, but he discovers that he can’t write or sing anything like that without sounding inauthentic. June tells him that he should go play for the troops over there and find out what they’re really going through.
  20. In Vietnam, Johnny is shocked to find that the troops are frequently long-hairs themselves who prefer Dylan to Haggard. He’s also shocked to see how disastrous the war really is.
  21. That night their camp is unexpectedly shelled and he and June are hustled into an improvised bunker, where they pray with the soldiers, expecting to die any second. June finally tells Johnny he should take some of his pills to sleep through the night. He realizes that he forgot to bring any pills—he hasn’t been taking them much since he started the show. She’s glad to hear it.
  22. He comes back and writes his Vietnam song, but the song ends pointedly with a demand that the war end and the boys come home. He plays it on his show, infuriating the network.
  23. Calls are made to hastily cancel the show.
  24. Johnny finds out the show is cancelled but he doesn’t care. He feels that his burdens are finally lifted now that he’s not trying to please everyone else anymore. He suddenly gets inspiration to write a song that’s been building in him for sometime.
  25. On his final show, he plays his new song “Man in Black,” “You ask me why I always dress in black? Why you never see bright colors on my back? And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone? Well there’s a reason for the things that I got on…” He sings about how he’ll keep wearing black to protest the injustices against prisoners, soldiers, hippies and all the oppressed people in America. His audience, which is now mostly young people, loves it. Backstage, his label drops him. He points out that he’d already sent in his contract termination notice. He heads home with June, who couldn’t be prouder of him.
  26. On the way home, his adrenaline rush starts to fade and with a wary laugh he asks June what on Earth are they going to do now? She says that for the first time she’s sure that they’re going to make out alright somehow.
  27. Ending titles explain that Johhny had to battle his pill addiction and his recording labels off and on for the rest of his life, but he never stopped finding new audiences for his outlaw version of the gospel.