Monday, February 17, 2014

Best of 2013 #3: Gravity (Motivation, Rules, and Ticking Clocks)

When I was arguing to a friend that Leo gave a terrible performance in The Great Gatsby, one point I made was that he 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:
  • 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. 
Next: Number 2, Part 1!


j.s. said...

Are the rules of ticking clocks really that absolute? Did the first and second settings of those watches really promise the watch-setters total immunity from death until the time was up? Maybe I'm slow, but I certainly didn't take either one that way. In an older more conventional Hollywood film perhaps...

I'm surprised by your praise for Bullock's backstory intervention. She may have had the right instinct in spotting the first draft cliche of her wanting to live to return to a child but she prescribed a solution that was almost even worse. Her sappy monologue grinds the film to a halt. And it adds zero feeling, at least to my viewing experience. In fact, by being yanked out of the film in that way, I almost started to care a little less about her. This decision actually reminds me a bit or your New Yorker cartoon caption thesis. Here's a solution the filmmakers seemed to pick as "best" just because it didn't look like all the others. In this case, really the sailing movie ALL IS LOST has the correct solution -- we don't care what happened to the hero back home, because, hey, guess what, we're kind of caught up in a moment right now pretty effing interested in the basics of whether she's going to survive to the next one.

Here's my new rule: Don't Over Explain Under-Motivation. That is, if your only child's dead and you've got nothing to live for but yourself and your own freely chosen action in this here existential moment, for god's sake don't TELL us that (or drone on footnoting the whys). Just, you know, shut up and take some ACTION.

We haven't really talked about Bullock's serious rookie problem either. An astronaut as inexperienced as she is has to have an expert Clooney constantly prodding her about what to do. Even if it's a ghost Clooney.

One might see this as a weakness when you compare it to something like ALL IS LOST, where the protagonist is skilled enough to at least attempt to figure out the solution to most of his problems. But to the extent that you're right about the obviousness of most sailing dilemmas vs. the need for explaining space challenges, it's actually pretty smart. Unless you commit to voiceover, one person can't really talk to themselves explaining what they are doing. Two astronauts as experienced as Clooney wouldn't have the need to talk or explain so much. They'd be more like two quiet Redford types. So, in GRAVITY's case, the audience almost needs an inexperienced hero more than the story does.

Though of course, as ever I'm skeptical of rules and limits. I'm not sure that you couldn't push it more, tell an ALL IS LOST type solo survival story in space. One astronaut. No backstory. No voiceover. There are a couple of scripts with this premise floating around and one really promising new novel that takes on a similar challenge.

Parker said...

I have to agree that Bullock's "this is my motivation" speech was a bit jarring. Yes, I'm glad they didn't play it up more, and yes we do need to know something about who this woman is, but to me it felt forced into the story. In this case, might it have worked never to reveal her exact backstory but to just let her make some veiled allusions to it? I think that might have been more intriguing, and more in line with this type of plot, but I can't say for sure if it would have been enough for a broad audience.