You went searching for it, didn’t you? You went on a trek down the internet yellow brick road, through all its dark corridors and unsavory crevices, in search of the return of Mish-Mash Monday. You’d enjoyed it so much the first time, you just had to have more. It was like a moist Betty Crocker yellow cake with that chocolate frosting that’s light enough to float. I’d promised it would be back. So then why? Why did it disappear?
Well I have wonderful news for you, folks. Mish-Mash Monday is back! The special “Huge Screenwriting Advice” Edition. I’ll get more into that later, but first, I wanted to discuss one movie I didn’t see, and one movie I didn’t want to see, all in hopes of understanding this craft a little bit better.
It all starts with Spider-Man 2, a film I’d planned to see this weekend but couldn’t muster up enough enthusiasm to do so. I don’t know what it is about these Spider-Man movies, but if they were Christmas trees, they’d be that strand of lights right around the middle that’s always going dark. And no matter what you do, you can’t fix them.
I don’t know if it’s Andrew Garfield, who looks too tall and goofy to play the part of the web-slinger. I don’t know if the domination of the Marvel super-hero universe has made Spider-Man less relevant? I don’t know if the coolest aspect of Spider-Man (those fun POVs of him flying through New York) has run its course, not unlike Matrix bullet-time? But something’s definitely missing.
One thing that drives me bananas about these films is all the villains. Populating your superhero film with lots of villains so you can sell a bunch more toys is not a new idea. But Spider-Man always seems to go overboard with it. They almost look desperate, like they’re calculating, right there on the screen, that if they don’t have that third or fourth villain, they’re making 15 million less on toy sales and there’s no way they’re okay with that. I remember Sam Raimi complaining about this very problem in his last Spider-Man directing effort.
What the suits don’t realize is that this DOES affect the film. The justification for why a character is in a story is embedded into the very fabric of storytelling. The second a character feels wedged in for reasons other than the story itself, something starts to smell fishy to the audience. As writers, our job is to hypnotize. It’s to make the audience believe in what we’re telling them. And if you start planting things in that don’t make sense, the hypnosis starts to crumble, and before long, they’re no longer under your spell.
I watch these Spider-Man 2 trailers and you have Green Goblin, Rhino, Electro. It feels unfocused, like they’re unsure what the movie is actually about. That’s not to say other famous super-hero movies haven’t done the same. The gold standard for superhero franchises, Batman, had Two-Face and The Joker. But, for the most part, Nolan gave us one villain per Batman film, and he made that villain the star villain.
That’s the other thing. When you focus on one villain, you can actually give them depth. You can make him a worthy adversary to your hero. When there are two or three other guys, we’re only getting the bullet points of each villain. You don’t have enough time to delve into them, and the films feel more surface level as a result. So I’m not surprised to hear that’s a criticism these last three Spider-Man films have faced.
On the flip side of that world is a small movie I saw last week. You know a movie’s good when it doesn’t need pyro-technics or VFX wizards or a half-dozen car chases to keep you entertained. All it needs is people and words. Which is why, so far, Philomena is my favorite film of the year.
For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s about a journalist, Martin, who’s recently lost his job. He somehow gets sucked into a human interest piece about a former nun, Philomena, who was forced to give her baby up for adoption 50 years ago by the nuns at her convent. Philomena wants to find her son and meet him for the first time.
The first thing I loved about this movie was the RESISTANCE they built into the main character pairing. Any time you team up two people to find something (in this case, the woman’s son), you want to create resistance between them (from one, the other, or both), as it adds conflict. It’s not overdone here. This isn’t Ride Along. But Martin isn’t happy that his career has devolved into escorting a rambling senior citizen around the country. It adds such a charming sense of humor to the relationship, that even if there were no story at all, you’d still enjoy watching these two, something every “two-hander” should strive for.
But it was the MYSTERY that got me. I thought this was going to be one of those non-dramatic self-important indie films where two mismatched people drive cross-country and learn something about each other. But it was much more than that. I’ll tell you why.
It coincides with the exact moment I got hooked, which was when Philomena and Martin go back to the convent to ask for the records on her son. The Head Nun is very skittish and borderline rude, almost to the point that she seems like she’s hiding something. Hiding something is ALWAYS good for screenplays. Secrets are what make drama go round.
The nun tells Philomena that all those old documents were destroyed in a fire. There’s nothing they can do. She does, however, locate something Philomena signed a long time ago, where she promised never to go looking for her child. While they’re able to convince an old woman easily, Martin’s not so sure. Curious, he points out, that this ‘great fire’ destroyed every single piece of information that would help Philomena find her child, yet has preserved the one piece of paper that would prevent her from doing so.
I don’t know what it is about this simple set-up: bad people trying to screw over good people, but if you do it right, it’s so damn effective. However, Philomena finds a way to add a turbo boost to that tried-and-true setup, one you, as a screenwriter, should always keep in your bag of tricks as well: IRONY.
If these were, say, big corporate assholes preventing Philomena from finding her son, we’d be upset, but we wouldn’t be surprised. Men like that are expected to act that way. It’s that this a group of NUNS who are doing this that gets us. The people who are supposed to be the most trustworthy are screwing our main character over. That’s what draws us in, that terrible people masked as righteous people are screwing a poor helpless old woman over. That’s why we want to stick around. Irony. Never forget how powerful it can be!
Ahh, but that isn’t the only lesson you’ll learn today. I have one more mish-mash story I’d like to add to today’s post.
Awhile back, I was chatting with a writer whose script I’d read. The script was pretty good, but it had a big problem: It wasn’t marketable. Based on how these movies had done in the past, I didn’t think anybody would go and see it. When I tried to explain this to the writer, he vehemently disagreed. He insisted lots of people would show up. I made my arguments. He made his. Then at some point, we realized that neither of us were going to change each others’ minds, and we moved on.
Many months later, a movie came out that was very similar to this writer’s script. It wasn’t the same idea, but it was the same genre, same tone, same dark main character, same TYPE of story across the board. The movie did poorly at the box office, but I was long past proving my point. It was just something I passively noted.
Not long after, I ran into the writer again. After catching up, I remembered the film and I was curious about what he thought of it. I didn’t bring up any of our previous conversation. I just asked, like you would any movie, “What did you think?”
To my surprise, he replied, “I don’t know, I didn’t see it.” “Didn’t see it?” I thought. What did he mean he didn’t see it? This was the exact kind of script he was trying to sell.
And then it hit me. He didn’t go see it because he wasn’t interested in it. He wasn’t interested IN THE VERY TYPE OF FILM he was writing. I pointed this out to him and at first he was dismissive. He made some comments about how the two plots were different.
But as the night went on, I could see his mind working. Finally, it dawned on him. That movie WAS very similar to his, and he’d never even considered checking it out. If HE, the very writer WRITING these kinds of movies, wasn’t interested in seeing this film, why the hell would he expect the general audience to do so?
It was a valuable lesson to both him and myself: Don’t write a movie that you wouldn’t go see yourself. It seems like the most obvious advice in the world, yet I’m constantly reminded how many writers ignore it. I remember this guy who used to write all these goofy comedies that never quite got the tone right. It occurred to me after awhile that I never saw him actually go to any of these movies. So I asked him one day, “When was the last goofy comedy you actually paid for?” He thought about it for a moment, then conceded he couldn’t remember. Of course you’re not going to get the tone right if you’re not even interested in watching those kinds of films.
Guys, you have to be realistic. If you’re not paying your hard-earned money to see the very types of movies you’re writing, then why would you expect anyone else to? It’s hard to put butts in seats. Hollywood spends billions of dollars to figure out how to do it. But the cheapest research is also the most telling. If your movie can’t even get you to show up, you shouldn’t be writing that movie.
Mish-Mash Monday out!