- Don’t Over-Motivate: By all accounts, the greatest aspect of this story came from Sandra Bullock. Here’s an interview she did with “Entertainment Weekly”: “The whole thing with the character losing her child? I said I didn’t want her going back to a child, because of course someone’s going to fight for that. So what if she had absolutely nothing to fight for—she’s lost a child, there’s nothing back home, she’s a person who’s basically a machine? That was my idea, and Alphonso was so open to it.” This was a brilliant change, and flies in the face of every screenwriter’s instinct. Writers are under tremendous pressure to over-motivate their characters: It ups the stakes, ups the urgency, and makes everything move faster...but it also takes away all of the hero’s agency. Drama is about choices, and over-motivated heroes never get a chance to choose. Bullock knew that it would be so much more powerful if her character had nothing but pain to go back to and had to will herself to live again.
- You Have to Make Rules to Break Rules: Several years ago, I wrote on this blog about the difference between writing a foundering sailboat movie vs. writing a founding spaceship movie. That was just a hypothetical at the time, but no longer, because this year we had very pure examples of each. What I said at the time was that we all understand what can go wrong on a boat without talking about it, and we all have an instinctive fear of drowning, but we don’t understand what could or couldn’t happen in space without a lot of talk, and so the danger is too abstract. Well guess what, I was wrong! ...Okay, not really. In this case, the sailboat movie decided that its situation was so self-explanatory that it didn’t need to explain anything, which was a little too cocky. The spaceship movie, on the other hand, explained its jeopardy quickly and eloquently, then stranded its heroine as soon as it could (then came up with a neat trick to have her explain one last thing to herself). Beautifully done.
- The Power and Peril of the Ticking Clock: This movie had a really nice example of a ticking-clock...but then it ran into a problem. After the first junk storm, Clooney warns Bullock that it’ll be back in 90 minutes and they set their watches accordingly, adding one more source of impending doom for the middle of the movie. Sure enough, it hits again just in time to create a spectacular sequence...but then my wife Betsy noticed something that I missed: Bullock resets her watch to 90 again...but this had the opposite effect the second time: Betsy found herself relaxing, sure that nothing bad would happen until that second wave hit. Why did the effect flip? When they set their watches the first time, that meant that at least one of them would last 90 minutes, but we could still worry about the other (with good reason, as it turned out). But once Clooney was dead and Bullock was alone, and the movie foreshadowed another storm in another 90 minutes, then it had the opposite effect, because we only had one character left alive, so that meant that the one bad thing that could happen (the only remaining character dying) wouldn’t happen until then. When Betsy pointed this out to me, I was glad that I hadn’t seen Bullock reset her watch.
Monday, February 17, 2014
Best of 2013 #3: Gravity (Motivation, Rules, and Ticking Clocks)
should have insisted that his character not say “old sport” 59 different times, and instead he should have forced Baz to cut out at least 40 of those. The other writer was aghast: “Actors have no right to do that!” Yes, they do. At the risk of getting kicked out of write-club, I say that actors have both the right and the responsibility to demand script changes in order to enrich their performances. Baz was clearly shooting a lazily slapped-together first draft, and it was Leo’s job to put his feet down and refuse say a lot of that lazy crap. Unfortunately, Leo couldn’t be bothered to do that. What does this have to do with Gravity? That brings us to #1: