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Okay I can’t keep it in anymore!!!
I have to speak about The Last Jedi!!!
The newest Star Wars entry is having its premiere tonight. This will be followed by tons of positive social media reaction since Disney will stipulate that you can only tweet if you loved the movie, with Patton Oswalt and Kevin Smith leading the charge.
The film will make 200 million opening weekend solely because it has “Star Wars” in the title.
But then what?
But then what indeed.
While I have my reservations about the film, I love that it’s given us no shortage of things to talk about.
For starters, what nobody’s discussing is that an entire new trilogy is resting on the fate of this film. Everyone’s acting like that trilogy is a foregone conclusion. But mark my words, it won’t be if this movie doesn’t hit 500 million domestic (half of what Force Awakens made).
The magic of Star Wars films has always been in their re-watchability. If a Star Wars movie delivers, nerds like myself will keep going back again and again, pushing that domestic number up higher and higher. If a Star Wars movie doesn’t deliver, someone who was planning on going eight times only goes one. Do the math.
Here are some reasons why this Star Wars may not deliver.
First of all, this is the only Star Wars movie so far that Kathleen Kennedy didn’t clash with the director on. She even clashed with JJ, for goodness’ sake, the nicest guy on the planet. From all accounts, her and Rian Johnson became best friends on The Last Jedi. That may be great for future Christmas Card lists. Not so for creating a good movie. Good movies tend to be born out of conflict. The battles between sides tend to result in the best ideas winning. When everyone’s copacetic, there’s no stimulation to push yourself. The original Star Wars was famous for these battles. I remember reading about a producer – I think the guy who produced The Bridge on the River Kwai – who so believed conflict produced greatness on productions, that if a production was going too smoothly, he would deliberately stir shit up.
Second, the casting on this movie isn’t just bad, it’s uninspired. The three new faces we got are… Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro, and someone named Kelly Marie-Tran. Is the casting of any of these actors getting you excited to see this film? Think about how exciting the casting was for Awakens, particularly Adam Driver, who was a nobody when he got the role. Del Toro is the most interesting of the bunch. But he was just in another space opera movie. Guardians of the Galaxy. Usually, uninspired casting leads to uninspired movies. Not a single sexy casting choice. That seriously worries me.
Third, the running time. We’ve been told that this will be the longest running time of all the Star Wars movies at 2 hours and 30 minutes, which shows a decided lack of understanding of what makes a good Star Wars movie. The best Star Wars movies have tight running times (Star Wars, Empire). The worst have long running times (Phantom Menace, Revenge of The Sith). Long running times usually indicate a writer-director who’s undecided about where he wants to take the movie, so instead of making the hard decisions to focus the story, they instead leave everything in and let the audience make sense of it. This attitude is what led to Matrix 2 and 3, all three prequels, and numerous other bad films.
Is there anything that gives me hope? One thing and one thing only. The trailers are so decidedly average that I’m hoping a decision was made at the studio level to hide all of Last Jedi’s best parts until the movie came out. I imagine a conversation that went something like, “Empire, another second film of a trilogy, became what it was because of its surprises. Let’s do the same thing here.” So I’m hoping I walk into that theater and 90% of what I see is stuff that wasn’t in the marketing campaign. If that’s the case, not only will I be ecstatic, but I’ll give Johnson and Disney major props for doing something that not a single studio has had the guts to do in two decades.
Oh, and I want to see Luke and Kylo have an awesome lightsaber battle.
And I want to see Luke and Snoke have some sort of trippy Force-showdown. That would be cool, too.
Oh, and I want to see this thing kill someone.
Okay, I’m done now.
And a Yoda sighting would be nice, too.
Premise: (from IMDB) A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.
About: This is Luc Besson’s dream project. Back when he made the quirky yet beloved Fifth Element, this is the movie he really wanted to make, but didn’t have the budget or the technology to do so. Much like when George Lucas felt that technology had caught up to his imagination with The Phantom Menace, Besson decided that the same had finally happened with Valerian. Unfortunately, without the brand power that Star Wars has, the film couldn’t make an impact at the U.S. box office this weekend, taking in just 17 million dollars. Not good for a film that cost 200 million dollars, even if Besson claims he has discovered the magic formula for making giant movies that have zero financial risk. All is not lost for Valerian, as it is yet to open internationally, where outlandish sci-fi does a lot better. It’s probably not inaccurate to say that everything depends on China. China is known for liking wacky weird fantastical movies, which is exactly what Valerian is. If it can somehow pull in 200 million there, Valerian may turn into the franchise Besson so desperately wants it to be.
Writer: Luc Besson (based on the comics by Pierre Crhistin and Jean-Claude Mezieres)
Details: 2 hours and 17 minutes
I often wonder why we feel so good when a movie does so bad?
Whether we like to admit it or not, for most of us, there is a rush of satisfaction when a film fails. We’re infused with a hit of ‘bomb adrenaline’ and we can’t wait to discuss the failure with our film buddies.
I hate that feeling. I always have. Why can’t we celebrate movies whether they succeed or fail, particularly since we know how difficult it is to make them. No matter whether you’re making Short Term 12 or The Bourne Identity, you’re told a thousand times “No no no no no no. It’ll never work because a, b, c, d, e, and f. Quit now.” And yet someone believes in that project so much that they persevere, say ‘fuck you’ to the haters, keep fighting, somehow get a director involved, somehow get actors, somehow convince a studio to pony up the budget, somehow pull another 500 craftsmen out of the woodwork over the course of six months to make that thing that was once just a series of images in their head.
Why can’t we celebrate that?
I think I know.
When Hollywood gets it right, it means they don’t need us. The aspiring writers, aspiring directors, aspiring editors, bloggers, reviewers. If every movie did well, it would mean that they don’t need our help. And that’s the most threatening thing you can say to someone who wants to make films: “WE DON’T NEED YOU.”
Every time a movie bombs, it’s validation that they do need us. It’s our chance to say, “Seeeee! Even with your billion dollar marketing teams and partnerships with toy conglomerates and number crunching boardrooms, you still get it wrong.” Which is why you need us. We can tell you how to get it right.
Which brings us to Valerian and all the hatred the movie is receiving for bombing spectacularly this weekend.
Guys, Valerian is not deserving of our ill-will. Not in the way a Pirates 8 or a Snow-white and the Huntsman 4 is. This film was not calculated in a boardroom by marketing people. This is a passion project. This is a film that the filmmaker has wanted to make for fifty years. FIFTY YEARS! This is a movie that a man was willing to bet his studio on.
So Valerian doesn’t deserve scorn for its failed box office. It is, just as much as Dallas Buyer’s Club, Moonlight, or Spotlight, a project that someone cared about with all their heart.
So then why the hell is it so bad?
And not just bad, but bad in the way that you feel nothing when it’s over. Ironically, the main reason it’s bad is because it’s trying to be the very thing it claims it isn’t – a studio film. A studio film with one thing missing – studio oversight.
Isn’t it bizarre? The thing we claim harms so many movies is actually the thing that could’ve saved this one? More on that in a sec.
Valerian opens on the planetary equivalent of Hawaii, a gorgeous beach with humanoid aliens who all look like intergalactic runway models. Now these aliens have a pet, a sort of iguana like creature that – stay with me here – shits pearls. But not just any pearls, pearls that contain limitless energy.
While the beach aliens are enjoying a typical day on the most beautiful planet in the universe, a bunch of ships or meteors or something start crashing into the planet, destroying it. Our poor runway model race is wiped out. Or so we think.
Cut to years later across the universe where we meet Agent Valerian and Agent Laureline, young strapping intergalactic agents of, um, something. Valerian is a ladies man who finally wants to settle down with Laureline, but she’s having no part of it, having seen him bang too many chicks during their adventures. Or so we’re told.
The two are called in to retrieve a stolen item from an alien mob kingpin, which is where they come across one of those iguanas – you know, the ones that shit pearls. Valerian does some research and discovers that the iguana comes from a planet whose history is protected by a top secret classification protocol. There’s no way to find out what happened there.
Naturally, he wants to know more, but before he can find out, Laureline gets kidnapped inside the piece-mailed-together space station where they’re headquartered, a giant sprawling hub of alien activity known as “Alpha.” Valerian will have to go save his partner, and along the way learns why this space iguana and that planet are so damn important.
God was this movie mis-cast. Like oh-my-god-what-was-Luc-Besson-thinking mis-cast. You’re talking about two teenagers (or near-teenagers) being the best space agents in the universe? Who’s going to buy that? That may be the biggest reason for why this movie bombed. You saw those two in the trailers and thought, “I wouldn’t trust those two to do my laundry, much less save the universe.”
Why is that relevant on a screenwriting website? Because every script is dependent on its characters. If the audience doesn’t believe in the characters, it doesn’t matter what the plot is. The audience has already decided that they’re not crossing your suspension of disbelief bridge.
And this is where some basic – I’m talking Screenwriting 101 – studio notes could’ve helped Besson. Take Valerian the character. Valerian is a ladies man. This is what we’re told, anyway. However, when we look at Valerian, we see a skinny dorky dude with the presence of an alternate on the Debate Team.
THIS guy is a “ladies man???”
Okay, now. There are different types of men who attract women. Not all of them have to be buff and look like Bradley Cooper. But, if you’re going to present us with someone who doesn’t look the part, you must SHOW US (“show don’t tell”) how he charms and beds women. If we see him skillfully seduce anyone, we’ll be converted.
But Besson never shows this. He assumes we’ll take him at his word. This is such a basic screenwriting mistake it practically guarantees that everything we’re about to see from here on out will be similarly hackneyed. If you can’t even get basic character introductions right, why the hell should we trust you to take us through a sprawling complex space opera?
Indeed, that’s exactly what happens. The plot here is incomprehensible. There is no main goal to keep things focused (i.e. Get R2-D2 to Alderran), but rather a series of shifting goals that are either too small or too vague to care about. Oftentimes a goal would be set and within five minutes, I’d forget what it was we were after.
And then when the goals were clear – such as when Laureline got lost in the Alpha station and Valerian had to find her – they didn’t contribute to the plot in any meaningful way. In fact, they often felt like stalling, a device Besson would use to spend more time exploring his Alpha station.
And this doesn’t even get into the weird miscalculated plot points Besson included such as the pearl-power shitting space iguana. The idea is so juvenile as to make you think it came from the mind of a 5 year old. And this plot point is what’s powering the entire movie!!! That would’ve been studio note #1 right there. “Get rid of the space iguana that shits power pearls or we’re not making this film.”
That’s the thing with studios. Yes, they strip away riskier choices that may have resulted in a more compelling film. But they also protect us from cataclysmic mistakes like this one.
Valerian is a weird movie based on a weird screenplay. This might have been a classic case of getting lost in the forest of your idea, something that can happen if you you have too much time to think about something. You know what helps in those cases? Feedback. Getting someone who understands story to look at your script and help you identify its problems. Besson never did that and this was the result.
Wrapping this review up, let me ask you something – cause I know there’s a lot of Avatar hate out there (I’m not one of the haters, by the way). Would you rather watch something like Avatar, big sprawling sci-fi with a safe generic “studio-like” approach to the story? Or would you rather watch Valerian, big sprawling weird sci-fi with no filter or studio influence at all?
[x] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The audience will NEVER take your character at face-value. That’s not how storytelling works. You don’t get to say, “Character A is good at his job,” and the audience responds, “I’m sold.” The writer MUST SHOW THE AUDIENCE THAT THE CHARACTER IS GOOD AT HIS JOB. Only when we see it for ourselves will we believe it.
Edit: This draft going around is not the Scott Brick draft, but rather a chopped-up version of another writer’s draft of Rama (one of the risks of reviewing older scripts). Now we need to find the official Brick draft, as Coming Attractions says it is great.
Premise: When a giant mysterious cylindrical ship is spotted barreling through the solar system, a small team of astronauts goes to inspect it.
About: This project was a hot property for a few years in the early 2000s as both David Fincher and Morgan Freeman really wanted to make it. This was going to be Fincher’s make-up film for Alien 3. Unfortunately, it never came to be due to them never getting the script right. This is why good screenwriting is so important. A good script can thrust a project through a green light. A bad one can keep you at that stoplight that always stays red. And big directors only have so much patience before they blow the light and move on to the next big shiny thing. I still think this film will get made at some point. It’s too cool of a premise not to be. A lot of writers have tackled Rama. This draft was written by Scott Brick and is said to be one of the better offerings.
Writer: (edit) Philip Whitcroft (again, someone cut sections out of this script, so this isn’t the full representation of Whitcroft’s screenplay)
Details: 103 pages (2001 draft I think?)
I’ve known about this script for almost a decade now. The only reason I never read it was because I heard the book was good. So I wanted to read the book before I read the script. Well, I finally read the book!
And what a strange book it was. Rendezvous With Rama is a book with, maybe, the least amount of character development I’ve ever seen in a novel. Characters are only given cursory backstories and no meat whatsoever.
The reason, however, that Rendezvous with Rama is so revered is because it contains the most compelling mystery of any science-fiction novel ever. This is something I love to remind screenwriters about. Your script can be shit in one area as long as it’s really amazing in another. When Harry Met Sally has zero story. It’s just people talking for 2 hours. But it has the best romantic comedy dialogue ever.
Anyway, back to Rama. I never finished the book. Even though the mystery was, indeed, fascinating, the author had an excruciatingly annoying habit of describing the orientation of the characters. Since we’re inside a cylinder, he loved discussing whether the characters were not quite facing up, and not quite facing down either – TO THE TUNE OF 100+ TIMES! At a certain point, I was like, enough is enough, dude. This isn’t orientation porn. It’s a sci-fi novel. So I bailed.
Which is great news for me going into this script, as I can finally find out what happened! Let’s get into it…
It’s way way off in the future. We’re at the point where we have cities on each of the major planets in the solar system. Commander Norton is one of the best space pilots in the business, based out of Mars. Just as he returns from a routine mission, his science buddies hit him with a whopper of a discovery – there’s an alien ship shooting through the solar system, heading straight for the sun.
Due to the trajectory of this thing, humans will only have a brief window to inspect it. And the closest folks are Norton and his Mars team. So Norton’s team hops on their ship, the Endeavor, before shooting towards what the media is now calling, “Rama.” Unfortunately, they leave a little too fast, as ZOINKS, Norton’s 12 year old daughter, Myrna, was able to stow away on Endeavor, joining the mission!
The group gets to Rama and finds a giant streamlined sphere. There’s only a single blemish on the sphere, which they realize is a way in. So they land next to it and head inside. The hollow Rama goes on for hundreds of miles, so they can’t see it all, but it appears to have several giant cities inside.
However, when they get closer, they see that these aren’t cities at all, but rather giant featureless rectangles. This is commonplace on Rama. Everything has the appearance of life, and yet is completely dead. They see a giant sea, except when they get to it, it’s like one enormous piece of plastic. What the hell is going on??
The teams split into two to explore, and that’s when shit gets crazy. Rama begins to heat up, and as it heats up, things change. That plastic sea begins to melt into a real sea. Also, out of nowhere, various robotic entities the groups deem “biots” begin appearing. For example, spider biots skitter about, grabbing debris and disposing of it. It seems as if Rama is preparing for something. But what?
As our group gets closer to the answer, they realize they are in great danger. If they don’t get off of this ship soon, they’re going to be casualties of this Rama transformation. A good 100 miles away from the exit, that escape begins to look like a pipe dream.
Rendezvous with Rama was… frustrating.
I think I liked it. But I hated the first act so much that I’m not sure I can give it a passing grade. This was one of the shittiest first acts I’ve read in a long time. The writing was terrible, to the point where I thought I’d been duped and that this was a fan script. Luckily, the stuff on the ship (Rama’s mystery) redeemed the story. But only barely.
So why did I hate the first act so much? Let’s start with the first page:
Where the f*&% are the character introductions???? Are we just supposed to know who these people are telepathically? And does Norton have a first name? That’s a mystery ready for its own novel.
Things get worse when we meet Myrna, the commander with no name’s 12 year-old daughter. Myrna appears to be a character constructed just for this screenplay, a bad producer note likely suggested to expand the demographic. Because, oh yeah, a hard science-fiction movie about an alien invasion isn’t complete without a precocious 12 year old daughter who stows away on the ship. What is this? An episode of Star Wars: Rebels?
Anger reached a crescendo when the Hermians (the people who live on Mercury) threaten to blow up Rama with a nuclear bomb. That’s when I almost put the script down. However, once the script moved past those problems (thankfully, Myrna the Menace stays in the background for most of the story), it got good.
And it got good because Rama is awesome. The ship I mean. It’s just such a great mystery. What is this thing? What’s happening to it (why is it heating up)? What’s coming? If this is an alien race, what do they want? As each new mystery is introduced, I found myself thankfully forgetting more and more about the first act.
But if your script is only as good as its weakest link, this one needs an entirely new setup. For starters, the weight of finding an alien freaking space ship for the first time in history needs to be built up! We need to feel the importance of this moment so that we know how important it is to go and investigate Rama. The discovery of Rama in this screenplay is given as much focus as finding a dollar bill in the dryer. “Oh look! I found a dollar!”
From there, there seems to have been zero outlining. With a discovery this big, the first thing that would happen is a giant question and answer session with the media so humanity could find out what’s going on. Instead, that moment comes when our group is on the ship, almost at Rama, a clear sign of, “Oh yeah, I forgot to include this scene. I’ll just do it now.” It fed into to the laissez-faire approach in which the script was written and in which all the characters seemed to approach Rama.
I mean it’s only the biggest discovery of mankind.
The time period for this is also wrong. We’re staked a couple of hundred years in the future, to the point where we have cities on all the planets. That in itself is amazing achievement, which dilutes the amazingness of discovering an alien ship. This needs to be set as close to present day as possible.
Not to mention, get rid of this nerdy Mars nonsense. Not only is it not 1954 anymore, but we need to be able to feel the shock and awe from people that this ship has been discovered. We can’t do that if we’re camped out on Mars.
And finally, we need a writer who understands character. The characters here are so thin. I’ve already pointed out that the main character doesn’t even have a name! Late in the script (spoiler) a “major” character comes back to life. It’s supposed to be this huge moment but we’re like, “Uhh, I don’t even know you, dude.”
It’s frustrating because this is a movie that could be great. This is a movie that someone should make. But we need a screenwriter who knows how to write. That’s going to be the first step towards giving Rendezvous with Rama a rendezvous with reality.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: NEVER. EVER. take character introductions for granted. Give us a good description. Have the character perform an action that defines them as soon as possible. Have them talk and say things that let us know what their personality is immediately. And start feeding in their backstory as soon as you can invisibly do so. If we don’t know your characters, your script is doomed.
Today’s writers take the most classic love story of all time and ask, “What if Romeo art tho The Huntsman?”
Premise: A new take on Romeo and Juliet that expands the famous Capulet and Montague feud into a full-scale war.
About: This script was picked up last year by Sony and Joe Roth, who is looking to expand his Huntsman franchise with a take on Romeo and Juliet that’s in the same spiritual universe. While The Huntsman sequel did not do well, Romeo and Juliet is its own property and, therefore, still has a chance of being made. If Neil Widener and Gavin James, the writers of today’s script, sound familiar, it’s because they’re blowing up big time. The two are writing San Andreas 2 and Now You See Me 3. But unlike the high profile overnight success stories you read about on some screenwriters, Widener and James’s success is more tied to reality and what the majority of screenwriters experience. Widener has been at the game for 15 years and James nearly a decade.
Writers: Neil Widener and Gavin James
Details: 113 pages
I want to ask an honest question.
Is there any purpose to Valentine’s Day other than to guilt men into buying something for their significant other?
I’ve never met a man who was like: “YES! VALENTINE’S DAY! WOO!” In every case, the man goes out to buy something or sets up a dinner so that their girlfriend or wife doesn’t make their evening a living hell.
Unless, of course, it’s less than 3 months into the relationship. Then, of course, guys are all about Valentine’s. I’m all for other points of view. But this has been my experience.
And with that, let’s review a script about Romeo and Juliet!
It’s 1945. I mean 1495. Northern Italy. France is on a tear, taking over every country it can get its grubby croissant-smeared hands on. And it’s got all of Italy except for one section. Verona!
That’s where the regal Capulets are warring, once again, with the crude and dirty Montagues. But these are not the Capulets and Montagues you are familiar with. These families encompass entire armies. And their war has been going on for generations.
When the Montagues find out that the Capulets are planning to marry off their princess, Juliet, to France’s Prince, which will allow them to crush the Montagues for good, Prince Romeo, a young Braveheart-like figure, comes up with a plan. Go to the Ball announcing the marriage and assassinate Juliet.
Everything’s going swell until one of those dances where everyone wears masks. Juliet and Romeo unknowingly get paired up, and it takes less than a couple of minutes and one kiss for the two to fall in love.
When Romeo realizes moments later who his new love is, he’s torn. But not torn enough to kidnap Juliet back to the Montague fort, where Romeo is chastised for not keeping it real. He and Juliet escape into the forest then secretly get married in the hopes of uniting the Capulets and Montagues so they can fight off the French.
But since this is Romeo and Juliet, you can guess how well that turns out, and where our famous young couple ends up. Or can you!?
While there are some compelling topics of discussion when it comes to Verona, I want to ask what I believe to be a far more pressing question for screenwriters.
What is it about Romeo and Juliet that allows it to be so popular generation after generation?
This is a question screenwriters should be asking for every story that’s still told after a century. There is something in the DNA of these stories that appeal to audiences no matter how much the world around us changes.
The easy answer with Romeo and Juliet is love. Love is universal. It’s always been around and always will be. But let’s be honest. Watching two people in love is fucking boring.
When it comes to drama, it isn’t the love that entertains. It’s what stands in the way of that love. If you can create a strong obstacle that keeps two lovers apart, you can tell a good story.
But I’m going to take that one step further. A strong obstacle is nice. But an IMPOSSIBLE obstacle is better. Because it creates a situation that the audience is genuinely compelled by. How the hell is our copule going to end up together when this impossible obstacle is in their way?
And Romeo and Juliet has one of the greatest impossible obstacles of all time – two families who hate one another. It is clear from the beginning that this relationship is doomed. And that’s exactly why we watch. Because we hope, against hope, that they’ll somehow find a way.
Contrast that with, say, one of these dopey modern day romantic comedies where the obstacle is, I don’t know, money. One lover is rich while the other is poor. Sure, that creates some doubt. But it’s far from feeling impossible. And that’s what you’re shooting for when you’re writing one of these: THE IMPOSSIBLE OBSTACLE.
What’s interesting about Verona is it proves that even a great setup such as Romeo and Juliet is not impervious to the trials and tribulations of screenwriting. While Verona sticks with our general conceit, even amping it up from a feud to a war, it makes a mistake I see often when you expand a smaller story.
It gets lost in its plotting.
There is so much plot here, I couldn’t stay engaged. We have the Montagues taking on the Capulets. We have France coming in. We have France trying to align with the Capulets via marriage. We have a Ball announcing the marriage where Romeo while try to assassinate Juliet. We have the two escaping into the forest. We have them being shunned by the Montagues. We have them secretly getting married so the families can unite against the French. We have them having to go back and tell the Capulets they’re married. And it keeps going from there.
Plot is fine. But when every other scene exists only to explain a new direction that the story is taking, it feels less like entertainment and more like work. I’m sitting there going, “Okay, where are they at now and what do they have to do again? Is it tell their dads they’re married?”
In order to understand how to avoid this, you need to understand the two components of plot.
The first is logistics. Plot is there to tell us where we’re going and why we’re going there. On its own, it guides us, but it doesn’t entertain us. That’s where the second part of plot comes in: entertainment. Each moment when we’re told where we’re going and why we’re going there should be FUN. The reveal should excite us, entertain us. If all plot is doing is saying, “Characters must go from A to B,” we’re gettttttinnnnngggg sleeeeepppppyyyyy.
So Verona’s over-plotting could’ve worked if the plot beats weren’t so technical. They needed more entertainment value to keep us excited about the story. Or at least me excited. I tend to bet bored easily.
So that was my main gripe here. Verona was well structured and I loved that they found a new take on an old story. But the plot bogged us down without giving me enough moments to say, “Ooh, that was cool!”
[ ] she loves me not
[x] she gave me her number but didn’t respond to my text
[ ] we’re going on a date
[ ] we kissed
[ ] she loves me
What I learned: Let me give you an example of plotting that uses only logistics, and plotting that uses logistics and entertainment. What movies am I going to use? Star Wars movies, of course! An example of plotting that is only logistics is the Tax Federation stuff in The Phantom Menace (for those who’ve forgotten, and I don’t blame you, the Intergalactic Tax Federation is blocking trades out of Planet Naboo). Tax blockage is information we have to log in order to understand what’s going on. But beyond that, it contains no entertainment value. On the flip side, when Luke, Obi-Wan, and Han Solo get to Alderran to deliver their message, only to find out it’s been blown to bits and that a strange space station is there in its place, that’s plot that’s doing two things. It’s moving the story along AND it’s an exciting plot point that entertains us. So always make sure your plot beats are doing both.
Here are 10 movies I walked into and came out of a more knowledgeable screenwriter.
Matrix: Reloaded – I’ll never forget how excited I was going in to this movie, and how devastated I was walking out of it. Matrix: Reloaded taught me one of the most valuable screenwriting lessons there is. You can’t rush a script. Good scripts need time to breathe.
Deadpool – Deadpool reminded me that one of the best ways to write a hit movie is to locate the end of a trend and then write the opposite. A series of superhero movies that take themselves too seriously? Write a superhero movie that makes fun of itself. A bunch of serious horror movies are dominating the market? Write one that’s not so serious. And make no mistake. When all these Deadpool clones take over the airwaves, the first guy who writes a comic book movie that takes itself seriously again will have a mega-hit on his hands.
American Sniper – I had as much confidence in American Sniper doing killer box office as I did Chris Kyle making an appearance at the premiere. But American Sniper (and more recently, Sully) taught me the value of a real-life hero. America fucking loves their heroes. Find a real life hero in America’s history (don’t bother trying to find a current one – Hollywood’s got’em all locked up) and tell their story. If you do an even halfway decent job, you’ll get a sale. We just saw this with the spec sale, Mayday 109, about a little known heroic deed from JFK. MURICA!
Forest Gump – I still watch Forest Gump today and marvel at how a movie with no structure and a main character who succeeds through the entire film works so well. Wanna know its secret? The disadvantaged protagonist who keeps fighting no matter what is a bulletproof hero. Let me say that again. A disadvantaged hero who never gives up is IMPOSSIBLE TO DISLIKE. An audience will always root for that character. And by “disadvantaged,” I don’t mean retarded. Just that life’s cards didn’t fall in his favor.
Elysium – Remember how excited everybody was for Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9? Holy shit. I thought this was going to be the bee’s knees. Then I started hearing whispers: “The script’s thin.” I refused to believe them. Maybe they were looking at an early draft. Nope. Elysium was terrible, and it taught us what a half-baked idea looks like. Elysium’s mythology was barely explored. As a result, it felt like a mansion with only half its rooms furnished. Know every inch of your world, guys. It doesn’t all have to appear on the page. But as the writer, you need to know how it all connects.
The Phantom Menace – The Phantom Menace taught me one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned. That just because you build your story around deep things, it doesn’t make your script deep. Lucas believed that because The Phantom Menace was covering politics, it would somehow make this Star Wars adventure more intellectual and thoughtful. The only thoughts anyone had, however, occurred during their REM cycle once the second act rolled around. The Phantom Menace also reminded us how valuable urgency is to a story. If you look at the four best Star Wars movies (4, 5, 6, 7) they all have urgency. You look at the worst 3 (1, 2, 3), they have no urgency. And no, Episode 3 is not better than 4-7. Stop promoting that overblown pointless film with one of the worst climaxes (“I HAVE THE HIGH GROUND, ANAKIN!”) in sequel history.
Hancock – Hancock had one of the best setups for a superhero movie ever. A drunk superhero? Talk about a conceptual goldmine. The finished product, however, was a disaster, and it taught us a valuable lesson: AVOID OVERDEVELOPING AN IDEA. A lot of times, we’re with our scripts for so long, we become numb to them, and feel like we need to add bells and whistles to keep them exciting, instead of staying true to what was great about the idea in the first place. Hancock felt that pressure and added the ridiculous twist where a local housewife had the same mythological powers as Hancock did, and the movie never recovered after that. When you have a good idea, trust it. Don’t overdevelop it with a bunch of stupid add-ons just because you’re bored.
Cast Away – Cast Away was one of the riskiest movies of the decade. Sure it had Tom Hanks, but he was all by himself! How do you keep that interesting for two hours? Cast Away taught me the power of the mini-goal. The mini-goal is the tool that keeps your character active for 10 minute chunks at a time. Tom Hanks must make fire to survive. There’s a ten minute chunk. Tom Hanks must learn how to fish. There’s a ten minute chunk. Tom Hanks must figure out how to utilize all the Fed Ex packages. That’s a chunk. Mini-goals keep the movie moving 10 minutes at a time. If Tom Hanks doesn’t have anything he has to do RIGHT NOW, that narrative stops and we get bored.
World War Z – World War Z famously filmed a giant war climax between humans and zombies that wasn’t working. They had to stop production, bring a new writer in, and write a new ending. That ending had humans avoiding zombies in a lab-like maze while they looked for a cure. It was a solid sequence that ended up saving the film. The lesson? When you’re writing a big movie, sometimes the answers aren’t big. Sometimes they’re intimate. So make sure you consider both.
Pearl Harbor – Pearl Harbor was trying to be the next Titanic. It succeeded. If you mean it quickly sunk to the bottom of the box office. Pearl Harbor taught us that you should never prioritize an idea over characters. The movie was an obvious excuse to film a set-piece (the Pearl Harbor bombing) with the characters being an afterthought. The reason Titanic was so successful was because James Cameron wanted to explore the depths of his two main characters first, and the depths of the Titanic second. Nobody knows that about Cameron – how much he values character. But it’s precisely why he’s the king of the box office.
Mini-Lessons – The Dark Knight taught me the value of grounding extraordinary characters. The Hangover taught me the importance of finding new ways to explore stale ideas. The Sixth Sense taught me that an audience will be patient as long as your heroes’ objective is compelling enough. Silver Linings Playbook and 500 Days of Summer taught me that the traditional romantic comedy is dead, and that you need some quirky take on the genre to get Hollywood interested. And Ghostbusters taught me that audiences aren’t stupid. If they feel that you’re pushing something other than entertainment (in this case – a social agenda), they won’t show up.