Sunday, October 09, 2016

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Just Say “Because of Course It Does”

Every genre has certain gimmes, and that’s great, so you need to accept those gimmes gracefully, and not fight back against them. I mentioned this before when discussing the Daredevil Netflix show:
  • But I felt like the show’s biggest mistake came when DD finally graduated to a real superhero costume at the end and they felt the need to explain that it was simply necessary body-armor...with horns, for some reason. Ugh. Please don’t pretend that this is logical. Ultimately, there’s only one good reason to wear a superhero costume: Because of course you would. That’s it. Either you live in a world where costumed heroes make sense, or you don’t. But [don’t] try to make it make sense in our world.
The showrunners said, “No thanks, we don’t want your genre gimme, we want to get there from scratch,” but they didn’t succeed.

Frozen smartly accepts its genre gimmes. One thing that kept coming up in the notes process was “Where do her powers come from?” and so they kept coming up with explanations, but ultimately they just said the right thing: She has these powers because of course she does. Here’s screenwriter Jennifer Lee on the Scriptnotes Podcast:
  • Jennifer Lee: it was an exhausting process coming to the simplicity of her powers. At times we had a narration by a troll…we had this whole explanation like when Saturn is in this alignment with such-and-such on the thousandth year a child will be born and blah, blah, blah. And then —
  • John August: Ultimately you almost throw it away with one line. So, the line is just like, “Was she born with the powers or was she cursed?. And it’s born with it and that’s the last piece of it.
  • Aline Brosh-McKenna: It’s so great.
  • Jennifer: And that’s it. But I think part of what it was is if anything about us felt like it was like, “Oh, god, like okay, we have to say this,” then we didn’t want to say it. And then also we found the more you explained the more questions you had about magic and the rules. It was like, argh. You know?
You just have to say, “This is the kind of world in which the bizarre thing happens,” without trying to hold the audience’s hand and lead them there. In this case, Lee basically said, “Hey, it’s a fairy tale, this is a gimme, so let’s take it,” and that worked just fine. Never be afraid to say, “Because of course it would.” Cash in your genre gimmes wherever you can.

(But wait, right after that line, there’s another aspect of the magic that they do have to explain, and it’s awkward, but it’s ultimately the right thing, so let’s get to that tomorrow…)


Harvey Jerkwater said...

A challenge here is knowing what the genre requirements are and aren't.

Superhero stories have this problem a lot, because many who want to work with it are embarrassed by its requirements. "People with amazing powers" is not a requirement of the superhero genre, but "trying to be a superhero is not rock-stupid behavior" is. Much of the worst work in superhero fiction came from trying to dig into "what it would mean to have super powers," not "what would it mean to be a superhero." The first question gets you SF; the second superheroes. Trying to split the difference gets you misguided dreck like Man of Steel.

A micro-rant: misunderstanding of genre is why so much neo-noir is terrible. Too many people confuse the classical trappings of noir -- private eyes, rainy streets, femmes fatales -- with its one actual requirement: dread. The appeal of noir is, to quote James Ellroy, "doom is cool." One of the great film noir is the domestic drama Mildred Pierce, for crying out loud.

Matt Bird said...

It's interesting that "Man of Steel" was an attempt to do for Superman what "Batman Begins" did for Batman, but I would say that BB is the only movie that has ever *successfully* rejected the super-hero genre gimmes and created a logical-seeming superhero story from scratch. Come to think of it, I would say that Daredevil was also trying to follow in the footsteps of BB, but neither it nor MoS succeeded. BB pulled off the nearly-impossible.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Gonna keep this derailed train a'movin:

Batman Begins didn't reject the genre conventions. Bruce Wayne, angry young man, sees his city sinking deeper and deeper into Hell on Earth, and he decides the best solution is to dress like Dracula and throw metal boomerangs at muggers. At no point does anyone point out how ridiculous this is. (There may be a snarky aside from Alfred or Lucius Fox that I'm forgetting, but no real attempts to say "Are you a moron?") Much like a thriller, a lot of BB is spent in setting up a situation where his choice to do the ludicrous feels correct, and it does so by getting us to ask the right questions. It plays with the genre conventions, but it never really denies them.

Man of Steel gives us a different story entirely. Clark Kent, confused young man gifted with Powers and Abilities Far Beyond Those of Mortal Men, doesn't know what to do with his gifts. The superhero genre avoids the question "what should I do with my super powers?", because it must. The audience could think of a hundred answers, very few of them involving punching dudes while wearing a Depression-era circus strongman costume and pretending to be a nerd in your downtime. Most of the audience's ideas would also make more sense in a realistic world.

Superman's a particularly tough character to approach from a non-superheroic angle like Snyder did. Without the massive behavioral and logical restraints created by the genre, he's a goddamned nightmare. Sure, he's saving the day now, but what happens if he has a bad day and decides to take it out on Chicago? The DCCU tries to follow this logic (Suicide Squad and BvS were rooted in it), but man, once you pull at a support beam of the genre, it's hard to make the stories work. And the more fantastical the setup, the more the genre trappings are required.

MOS was like remaking a Fred Astaire movie in which characters look at the leads like lunatics for breaking into elaborate song and dance numbers in the real world. Said song-and-dancery repels folks for its weirdness and leads to crises of conscience. You could make that movie, but why?

Matt Bird said...

I didn't mean that BB rejected genre conventions, I meant that it recreated them from scratch, instead of relying on our good will toward the genre to leap over the oddities. They explained why he made every decision and how he did everything every step of the way. Yes, it's still ridiculous, but we at least understand Bruce's logic.

Apparently, if you have super-powers, you should ask your priest what to do with them. Seriously, how inane is that movie? If you want to meekly hand yourself over to Zod, then hand yourself over. If, on the other hand, you want to fight Zod, then you should also go to where you know he's going to be. So what's to debate? Either way, you're going to show up at the appointed time.

Some of my favorite Superman comics came in the first year by Siegel and Schuster, where he was dangerous capricious with the use of his powers, like the story where he suddenly decides to declare war on bad drivers. He was scary, but not in a "we have to stop him / legislate against him" kind of way, but in a "let's try to keep him on our side and not acting crazy" kind of way.

Hey, I once started to write a musical about a guy who hated musicals but got stuck in one and kept freaking out when everybody would break into song.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

A related part of your book (just arrived; order from Amazon today, kids!) sparked two half-finished ideas...

Per your analysis, "Pacific Rim" suffered from "presuming the premise." The filmmakers never explained the logic of the weird premise enough for the audience to stop asking "why don't they just [nuke the monsters or other logical step] instead of building Giant Fighting Robots?"

But as this very blog piece points out, genre allows a certain level of presumption. Why does Elsa have ice powers? Because it's a fairy tale!

This suggests two things:

1. Maybe the creators of "Pacific Rim" thought that "giant piloted robots versus giant monsters" is an existing genre, and they were taking advantage of the genre's built-in features to "skip to the good stuff." This probably isn't what happened, but it fits the evidence. It may be a genre already -- a lot of Japanese animation seems to be a genre of "piloted giant robots fight" -- but if so, it's not popular enough for its cheats and assumptions to be accepted by the larger public.

2. An analysis of the difference between embracing genre tropes/assumptions and "presuming the premise" might be interesting. They aren't quite the same thing, but they're related.

Digging the book. Congratulations on its publication! Hope it sells well.