Things I Learned from… Godzilla

Now, you know me. I like a good monster, stomping around tearing down the scenery and being scary and tragic in turn. A great monster movie stimulates all the senses and delivers on the full cinematic experience – emotions, sound, visuals, awe and surprise. So it’s hardly surprising I liked the new Godzilla a lot.

The decision to hold Godzilla back for as long as possible – half seen, hinted at, glimpsed on a TV screen – works tremendously well. Personally, I would have liked just a little more monster-fighting in the third act, but you can’t please everyone…

(SPOILER WARNING – discussion of plot points follows)

But the problem with monster movies is, the human characters are not driving the plot. Pacific Rim and all its anime forebears find a way for the humans to fight the monsters, involving them in the action – but if you’re not going down that route, then your human characters are necessarily excluded from driving the narrative. Their job is simply to survive what’s happening around them.

This makes it pretty hard to involve the audience with your central character. Sure, they want to survive: but doesn’t everyone? If they’re not driving the story – and they can’t, that’s the nature of the genre – why are they the hero of this movie?

Godzilla flirts with this question constantly, but never seems able to commit itself to an answer, and ends up fatally weakened by its own indecision.

Ford Brody (a name only marginally more believable than Ford Prefect, let’s face it) starts the movie as a bomb disposal tech newly arrived back from active duty. This creates immediate heroic expectations – the US military will save the day!

Better still, he’s effectively predestined to this – his father Joe was a nuclear expert present at the most recent Godzilla sighting, and it’s that connection that drags Ford from San Francisco to Japan, and to his first encounter with giant mutated monsters. So far, so good.

(Though I do wish we’d had time to explore the connection between father and son’s professions, and the implications for their relationship. If you lose your wife in a nuclear catastrophe, and your son then chooses a career defusing bombs, you’d feel a little conflicted about that, wouldn’t you?)

Right, so we’ve got a hero who has a family connection to the monster, and bomb disposal skills. That’s all going to come in handy, right? That’s what binds him to the action, that’s what makes him our hero?

Well, no. Mostly. Ford knows nothing about the creatures, either from his past, or even from what he saw today. He has nothing to offer the military/scientific response team beyond one revelation which would have become apparent within a few hours anyway. He’s actually sent home – and it’s pure dumb geography that his route intersects that of the creatures, keeping him around to be our viewpoint character.

But wait! He’s a bomb expert, and here’s a giant nuclear bomb on a train! Ford Brody is about to become important to the plot again!

Sort of. The team travelling with the bomb think he might come in handy, rather than being vital. Then the bomb becomes a problem rather than a solution, and poor unwanted Ford finally has a job to do – shut it down –

Only when he gets there, the team declare after a cursory examination that the bomb casing can’t be opened and the bomb will have to be sent out to sea to explore harmlessly (!) rather than being defused. Ford does some stuff, but frankly, anyone could have achieved what he achieved – and we’re left wondering why this guy merited our attention for the last two hours…

What’s the lesson here? Your hero should be the only one who can save the day. Whether it’s skills, courage, insight or compassion, your hero is the only person with The Right Stuff to get this particular job done. If s/he wasn’t there, the world should have ended, because no one else could have done expected what s/he did…

An everyman hero is great, but some circumstance, character flaw or strength, or determination needs to make a hero of them. And poor old Ford is, in the end, simply a guy with a few things to offer that turn out not to be needed.

Advertisements

Always Mind Your Surroundings

So, as you’ve probably heard already, comic-book-movie screenwriter David Goyer has got himself into some hot water in front of a live audience while recording the Scriptnotes podcast (which is usually excellent, by the way). You can check out the details for yourself, but, with a little help from Craig Mazin, in the midst of a debate on how certain superheroes should be adapted into movies, he managed to suggest anyone in the audience who’d heard of Martian Manhunter was too geeky to have had sex, and call She-Hulk a ‘porn star’ created for Hulk to have sex with. (Eeeww, dude, they’re cousins!)

Does this matter? Is this just some guys getting carried away in the midst of banter and saying something dumb?

We’re all human, and we all take the piss and say off-colour stuff we don’t really mean under certain circumstances. The atmosphere in a writers room can get pretty silly at times, and we live in a culture that values laddish behaviour and sarcastic humour. Writers are far from being the worst offenders – I’ve done a lot of jobs over the years, and writing has by far the most inclusive, affirming and tolerant atmosphere that I’ve ever worked in – but still.

But in the end, it is part of a writer’s job to value what they do, and the people who respond to it.

None of us want to gush about how ‘important’ what we do is – but you know what? It is bloody important. Books, films and TV programmes have changed the attitudes of individuals and societies. They’ve contributed to improvements in civil rights for racial, sexual and social minorities. They’ve forced government action on social issues, led to the setting up of charities and pressure groups, and given individuals the inspiration and courage to change their lives. Art matters.

So the way we talk about our own work, and the people who enjoy it, matters too. If we imply people are dumb for liking this or that, we’re undermining all art, including our own. If we imply characters of one gender, race or sexuality are less important than others, we’re making a statement that has an effect on the society we live in.

And some criticism is more powerful than others. If you call Superman a porn star, you’re dissing a white, heterosexual American male, a group that has enough power and enough representation in art to handle some trash-talk. But when you start attacking a female hero on the grounds of appearance, you’re adding your voice to a tidal wave of cultural pressures and expectations that already warp the young minds exposed to them. There’s no heroism, and precious little humour, in an easy target.

Like it or not, as a content creator, it is a part of your job to learn to understand, tolerate and live alongside all humanity. That’s what’s going to make you a great writer – knowing and caring about people. It’s a part of your job not to be a douchebag. So, y’know. Get on that.

And if you can’t, at least remember Ducard’s advice from Batman Begins (which Goyer co-wrote) and don’t do it in public. “Always mind your surroundings.”

The Blog Tour!

My blog today is part of the blog tour, where writers answer the same four questions about their work and career. Sally Abbott has passed the baton to me – or rather, passed on the four vital questions…

 

What am I working on?

Right now, I’m in the gap between finishing one series of Wolfblood and (hopefully!) starting to write a new one in the autumn – but I’m certainly not short of work! I’m writing an episode of a certain detective series (more will be revealed in due course.) I’m expecting to go pitch again to another existing series in a few weeks time, so I’m preparing story ideas to present to them – always a fun challenge, figuring out which of the many stories you could tell with the characters appeals most to you, and why…

Then there are new projects to be written! I’m starting to pitch ideas in the US now as well as the UK, so I’m working on a new feature script, an espionage thriller, for the US market, as well as ideas for the UK. Combining the two really is the best of both worlds for a writer – different markets, different kinds of stories, different ways of working…

How does my work compare to others of its genre?

I write a lot of different genres – science fiction, supernatural, action, adventure and thrillers – across TV and film, so that’s quite a complicated question. I’m undoubtedly a populist writer, someone who writes for the Saturday night blockbuster audience rather than the arthouse audience, but I still want my work to have depth and resonance. Some of the most profound and human fictional stories in the world are unabashed ‘genre’ pieces, that entertain as well as saying something about human nature, and that’s what I aspire to.

Why do I write what I do?

On a purely practical level, because my mother made the totally uncharacteristic decision to take me to see Star Wars when I was very young. And yes, she’s been regretting it ever since!

But really, I’ve always written to find out what it’s like to be someone else. I already know what ‘everyday’ life is like – now I want to know what it’s like to go into space, to be a soldier or a spy, to have superpowers, to deal with moral dilemmas no human has faced before. And by writing that story, I can live that story for a while.

How does my writing process work?

The more I write, the more convinced I am that careful preparation is the key. Though my process changes slightly from project to project, I usually start with a file box, and throw in everything I find that might relate to the project – photos, newspaper articles, scribbled scraps of dialogue or ideas for a scene. Then I’ll progress to index cards, each with a scene noted on it, and rearrange the order until I have some kind of structure and have filled in the gaps.

Then it’s time for the scene-by-scene outline – an outline so detailed it’s basically a script with no dialogue. This is a technique I’ve learned from writing for television, and now use on all my projects, because it encourages you to tell the story visually, and to iron out story problems before starting the script. Then, maybe after a few polishes of the outline, it’s time to begin the first draft…

Change It Up

So, one of the things I decided to do to my new script was to change the genders of the main characters –  protagonist and mentor-antagonist – to female. Because more decent roles for women are good, because anything that makes a genre script stand out from the pile is good, and because who doesn’t want Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Lawrence (for example) in their movie?

What I hadn’t anticipated was how thoroughly it would refresh and reinvigorate the other characters. Every character in this script has become more interesting and more nuanced, because they’re now working with a team leader who’s not the usual jaded middle-aged male. And that’s without even resorting to the cliched “woman in a man’s world” stuff. The way the protagonist relates to her new workmates and friends is subtly different. The fractious relationship of authority, friendship and betrayal between the two characters feels much more fresh and original too.

And this is why people keep asking for more female characters, more people of colour, more gay and lesbian characters, more of anyone who isn’t a straight white middle-class male. It’s because audiences crave new experiences – and changing up your characters also changes up your story, delivering novelty, interest and surprises on all levels.

So if your idea feels a little cliched, a little samey – change your characters!

The Scene By Scene Outline

The scene-by-scene outline, or step outline, is a major part of the television development process. Every script moves from an initial, less detailed outline to a scene-by-scene before reaching script stage. This allows the writer and the script editor to examine the structure of the episode before adding the additional complication of dialogue, and to ensure that the number of scenes is workable for the shooting schedule.

As an example, here’s a snippet from the scene by scene outline for Wolfblood season one, episode five:

EXT. FIELDS – NIGHT – 22:08 

Wolf-Maddy and wolf-Rhydian bound away into the night, playfully enjoying every second of the full moon…

INT. CORRIDOR/ THE K’S ROOM – HOTEL – NIGHT – 22:45

Shannon goes to bed. She peeks in the open door of the K’s room – they’re flapping round and chattering – and Maddy’s bed is still empty. This is deeply suspicious…

EXT. TOM’S ROOM – HOTEL – DAWN – 06:00 DAY TWO

Tom has fallen asleep propped up against the bedroom window, looking for Maddy. And there she is, sneaking back to the hotel – but luckily he doesn’t wake up until she’s gone…

INT. HALLWAY – HOTEL – DAWN – 06:05

Tom tiptoes downstairs – to find Rhydian explaining himself to Mr. Jeffries. “I must have been concussed after all, sir – I don’t remember anything after leaving the quiz, and then half an hour ago I woke up in a field!”

Jeffries is suspicious, but he settles for threatening a trip to hospital the moment they leave the island. Rhydian says he’ll make sure the Vaughans take him for a check-up… Unable to prove Rhydian’s done anything wrong, Jeffries stalks away.

Tom asks Rhydian a few questions of his own, playing matey with him – “You can tell me” – But Rhydian’s defensive. He particularly denies that Maddy was outside with him last night. Suspicious, Tom watches him pad upstairs to shower, bare feet leaving muddy footprints.

 

As you would expect, it’s a basic summary of each scene in order, without dialogue as such. These are fairly short scenes – dialogue-heavy or complex physical scenes like chases or fights would require more detail – but you get the idea.

They’re normally a feature of TV writing, but I’m increasingly convinced of the advantages of a scene-by-scene outline for all kinds of writing, including movies. And here’s why.

It forces you to be specific. It’s fatally easy in an outline to write, say, “Freda searches the house for the stolen money”, and then get to script stage and be unsure how to tackle that. In the scene-by-scene outline, you have to decide which rooms she searches in which order, what she finds and doesn’t find, and how she reacts to it all. No more fudging details.

It encourages you to be visual. When you know you’re not writing any dialogue yet, your creative mind compensates by supplying visual ways to tell the same story. I find I have a far stronger idea of what a scene’s going to look like and feel like if I write a scene-by-scene outline first.

It speeds up the process. The agonising thing about writing a brief outline is that it’s not a ‘real’ story. It’s a sort of extended TV Guide blurb, and it’s nowhere near as fulfilling as writing real scenes. The agonising thing about jumping straight to script stage, though, is that it’s so slow that it’s easy to lose the energy and the dramatic thread of your story. The scene-by-scene outline falls halfway between the two. It’s close enough to a script to feel satisfying and fun to write, but without dialogue or the full detail of description, you can get it down on the page much faster, allowing you to keep up the momentum at this difficult stage.

It forces you to define how the story advances in each scene. Yes, that scene in the Hagia Sophia is going to look wonderful – but what actually happens in it? What is the scene for? What changes during it? If you don’t know what to write in the scene-by-scene outline for this scene, chances are you don’t need the scene.

It gives you a real sense of the shape of your story, without the distractions of beautiful dialogue. The scene-by-scene outline is all about plot, and this is your last chance to get the plot sorted before you layer all that lovely dialogue and get over-attached to the current version of things…

So if you have trouble moving from the ‘good idea’ stage to the ‘first draft’ stage, scene-by-scene outlines might just be the tool for you!