2017 In Film

This year, for the first time, I kept a list of every film I saw at the cinema. Because I always get to the end of the year and think “I know I saw some good films this year, but what were they…?” And now I’ve got the data, I may as well analyse it a bit…

In 2017, I saw 78 films. (And two live theatre broadcasts, Amadeus and Follies.)  I feel that’s a little lower than usual: there were several big franchises I simply didn’t bother with, either through boredom or because of their insistence on casting known abusers. On the other hand, I now have an unlimited cinema pass, and there are several movies I saw because they were basically free, movies I might not have risked money on in previous years. So it may just even out.

Splitting them down roughly into my preferred genres, that’s 26 science fiction, fantasy and horror (including superheroes), 25 action, adventure and thrillers, and 27 other genres (mostly arthouse drama, to my slight surprise!)

Five of the movies were animated, with Captain Underpants and Paddington 2 the stand-outs in this rather small field. Twenty were sequels, prequels and other franchise continuations. Of the ones that weren’t sequels, ten were adaptations of books, video games, myths and legends, and other pre-existing material. Seventeen of the 78 were biopics or true-life stories.

It was a great year for British film, especially films about the countryside and the peculiar stresses of living and working there: God’s Own Country, The Levelling, and the London noir City Of Tiny Lights stood out. A Monster Calls was a difficult watch, but an extraordinary one, and Lion was surprisingly gripping and emotional.

Overlooked gems from the other side of the pond: Loving, The Founder, Battle Of The Sexes, American Made, and Mudbound were all excellent. I had issues with Atomic Blonde and Wind River, but they had a lot going for them nonetheless.

From further afield, Okja, Your Name, The Nile Hilton Incident and In Syria (aka Insyriated) were terrific genre movies that proved popular cinema doesn’t have to be in English.

The well-received movies that just didn’t work for me? Blade Runner 2049, Suburbicon, La La Land and Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 didn’t light any fires, alas.

Movies That Were A Lot Better Than I Expected And I Really Enjoyed? Split, Geostorm, and Beyond Skyline all provided solid entertainment.

And my big movies of the year? Very much the same as everyone’s, I fear. Get Out, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Moonlight, Logan, Baby Driver, Wonder Woman, War For The Planet Of The Apes, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi lead the field.

On to the next crop…

Advertisements

The Last Jedi and Reinventing Franchises

“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”

I don’t think Rian Johnson wants us to be in any doubt about his approach to the Star Wars universe in The Last Jedi. This is not your father’s Star Wars. Nor should it be – for the same reason that Sherlock and Elementary are not identical to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes. Stories exist to be reinvented, to reflect their times, to reach out to new audiences.

There are many excellent articles out there on why it was necessary and right to depart so radically from audience expectations, and how the movie achieves its emotional impact, but I’m going to take a look at it from a screenwriting POV. I think The Last Jedi is an object lesson in how to reinvent an existing franchise – and with more movies and television being drawn from existing material, that’s a skill we’re all going to need.

So what can we learn, as writers pitching to take control of a franchise, from The Last Jedi?

(SPOILERS, obviously…)

Characters are not interchangeable. Rey is not Luke, and Kylo is not Anakin Skywalker. The characters of the new trilogy may fulfil similar plot functions – gifted hero, tormented villain, hotshot pilot, amusing droid – but plot function is only a starting point, a shorthand to indicate intent to the audience. It’s who the character grows into that matters –

Because who the character grows into shapes the story. If Rey was Luke and Kylo was Anakin, then inevitably they would just rehash the same story again. It’s how they differ and who they choose to be that propels us into a fresh, unpredictable story world, because –

Your job is not to tell the same story again. Which is really all I need to say on that point…

The new outweighs the old.  A lot of fans clearly wanted these movies to be about Luke, Leia, and Han. Of course that’s understandable. Every time we fall in love with a character, we want to know everything about them. But that’s not necessarily an impulse that writers should indulge. There is such a thing as too much information!

Characters play their role in the story and then move on. Dragging them awkwardly back into the limelight and constructing a new crisis for them can actually cheapen their original story.

Instead, the new characters must drive the story, and the old characters provide a canvas against which they make their decisions. Poe must decide whether to be Leia, or lead a different way. Rey thinks she’ll be a hero like the ‘legend’ Luke Skywalker, and Kylo fetishizes Vader’s strength: but they’re both forced to confront their own strengths and weaknesses and grow to understand that they can only ever be a better version of themselves.

The story doesn’t know who the hero is. It’s easy to assume, as a writer, that everyone in your story world accords the central characters the same importance that you so. It’s also fatal to your narrative.

Look at the complaints about Vice-Admiral Holdo not explaining her plan to Poe. “If she’d only told him, everything would have been fine!”  Problem is, that complaint assumes that Poe is the most important character in the scene – that is, it assumes the POV of the audience.

In fact, Holdo’s operating according to the rules of her world. A mere pilot doesn’t have an automatic right to know his senior officers’ plans, especially in a combat situation, and with a tracker on board the ship that suggests possible traitors. She’s acting completely logically – and if we feel cheated, it’s because we’re according Poe an importance he  doesn’t actually have.

(The brilliance of this particular plotline is that it mirrors Poe’s emotional journey. He too thinks he’s the most important person in the room, and has to relearn his place and his role in order to truly lead. Nice piece of writing there…)

There are exceptions, of course. Many people in a Sherlock Holmes universe have heard of the great detective. But no one is going cut Mulder & Scully slack during their investigation just because it would be convenient for the story. Your job as a writer, then, is to find a way to place the characters at the centre of the story, so you can tell it easily, without everyone else assuming their importance…

Most great story universes are funnier, goofier and more child-friendly than you remember them being. All those people whining about Poe keeping General Hux ‘on hold’ to delay him? Did they never see this scene?

5c1b05ecb853a3bf4f9c254530ba8ddf.jpg

Every story has a range of tones, from the humorous to the serious. Some stories have a wider range, or lean more to one end of the spectrum, but there’s always variation. Without it, the audience becomes numb to the story, exhausted by unbroken seriousness or bored by constant frivolous comedy. Make sure you’re bringing that whole range of tones with you, or you’re not being fair to the story universe.

Know where the heart is, and how to reproduce it. The heart of Star Wars isn’t space battles or dark lords or farm boys becoming heroes. The true heart is simpler and purer than that: love, hope, friendship, quietly doing what’s right even when it’s going to get you killed.

Bring that with you, and you can kill the Big Bad without ceremony, subvert the bad guy’s redemption scene, make the legend a washout and the apprentice already beyond training. As long as the heart is solid, the world remains recognisable. And if you understand the heart, you understand the universe, whatever else you change.

There Is No Chosen One

The reality show Project Greenlight is, well, a reality show. It has precious little to do with how movies are actually made, and to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t ever produced a critical or a commercial hit. It’s not real Hollywood –

But right now, it is at least drawing attention to some of the very real issues faced by people in Hollywood who are trying to carve out a career with the disadvantage of not being white, male and heterosexual.

There are a lot of things to be said about Matt Damon’s statement, and the situation that led to up to it, and other people are saying them far more eloquently than I could. So instead of adding to that, I’d like to set out a proposal to make things better.

Let’s all remember – there is no chosen one.

In film and television, we recycle the myth of the chosen saviour who’s perfect for this situation, and has exactly the skills required, so often that we start to apply it behind the camera too. Somewhere out there, there’s a director/producer/cinematographer etc who is perfect for my project, and I just have to find them.

The thing is, that’s just not true, is it? Oh sure, there are “names” who’ll bring in funding (and that’s a whole other issue), but if you’re making a low-budget movie, hiring staff for a new TV series, making a web series, or even appearing on Project Greenlight, your choice is not “Ridley Scott or someone unknown”, it’s “someone unknown or someone unknown”.

So, putting aside names and reputations – your choice is always going to be between several people who are both equally talented and equally good for your project (albeit in fractionally different ways). I know, I’ve been there. you never end up with one obvious candidate. Never.

So whether you realise it or not, your decision is going to be largely arbitrary. You’re going to pick the person who made you laugh in the interview, or who you met last week at a party, or who your girlfriend’s brother’s best friend went to college with. (And all of those things are likely to lead you to someone the same race, sexuality, and probably gender, as you.)

Or you could make a different arbitrary decision. You could pick the black cinematographer, the editor who uses a wheelchair, the female director. Your decision is no less arbitrary than one made for those previous reasons, and you’re still picking from a pool of equally qualified and talented candidates – so why not deliberately pick the person who every one else is less likely to pick? That’s not positive discrimination or so-called “reverse racism” –  it’s as good a criteria for a decision between otherwise equal candidates as anything else.

If we all did this for a year, even, the spread of shiny white male faces who accompany every article in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter would start to look very different – and there would be no drop in quality in the films and television we’re producing at all. If anything, these super-motivated candidates seizing what might be their only chance would give more than the entitled guys who can always get a job elsewhere.

So how about it? Shall we give it a try?

One More Draft

Probably the most difficult thing about development is knowing exactly when a script is ready to film. When is the plot exactly right? Do those characters need one more rewrite? What about a dialogue polish?

But the biggest problem is that the decision on when to start filming is not entirely a creative one. If a problem is spotted just before filming, there may not be time to fix it. If actors are contracted for a certain period, delaying filming for one more draft may result in you losing your cast – and losing stars often means the collapse of your funding deal.

And in UK film at least, producers can simply run out of money to pay the writers (and to pay themselves!) Putting the film into production at least guarantees an income for the company – they’ll have a movie they can show to the public, and thus ticket money – whereas another year in development means no money for anyone, and possibly bankruptcy for the company.

But increasingly, I’m seeing big movies which clearly needed one more draft and yet somehow made it into production unaltered.

Tomorrowland is a case in point. The script that was filmed feels more like a writer’s first draft – a long preamble followed by a switch of protagonist, a tone that veers from The Terminator to Interstellar to kids’ comedy, a constant stream of exposition all the way into the third act. Yet somehow that’s what made it to the screen.

Even a mega-hit like Jurassic World arrives dragging the wreckage of previous drafts behind it. Inconsistent characterization, dropped subplots (“Do you still have those matches?”) and forgotten consequences (Chris Pratt walks around all day in clothes that he previously soaked in petrol) abound.

So what’s going on?

I do wonder how much this has to do with the rise of the marketing machine and the ‘pre-sold’ movie. Jurassic World is perhaps the epitome of that. If you saw Jurassic Park when it first came out, you’re sold on this, and if you didn’t: dinosaurs! Everyone knows exactly what they’re getting, and as long as the T-Rex roars and people become dino chow, who cares whether all the jigsaw pieces match up?

In other words, we’ve created a movie-going culture where quality simply has no meaning. You’re either going to see a movie or you’re not, and (increasingly, astonishingly) whether it’s any good or not has nothing to do with whether you go to see the sequel.

The problem with this approach is, an industry that doesn’t have to care about quality can only survive as long as there’s no competition. People in the old Eastern bloc drove Ladas because nothing else was available. As soon as it became possible to import better cars…

And for those of us in the industry, this is an opportunity. We can be that alternative. We can provide the movie that surprises its audience by not only delivering all the thrills and spills they’re seeking, but being full of good characters, interesting plot twists and satisfying emotions… And we can can remember that sometimes, what a movie really needs is one more draft.

Logic Is Your Friend

If there’s one thing writers hate grappling with, it’s plot logic. “But she can’t fly the plane – she’s in the infantry!” “But there are only four hours between these two scenes – how did he drive from LA to the Canadian border?” That’s impossible. That’s illogical. That makes no sense.

This is why so many amateur writers try to ignore it. “Ah, I need that to happen to make the plot work. No one will notice that it’s physically impossible.”

Big mistake.

Of course we have to fudge the details now and then – for dramatic effect, for budget or location practicalities, even to fit the ethos of a TV channel. (The characters in Wolfblood mysteriously reappear from wolf-form fully clothed, because CBBC understandably doesn’t want young actors to film nude scenes. It makes no sense logically, but we cover it as best we can.)

But try to fudge a major plot point, and it will blow up in your face.

So we should hate logic, right? Well, no. The thing about logic is, sometimes it unlocks the entire story for you.

I’m planning a feature script at the moment. Essentially it’s a contained thriller, with a group of people stuck in one location over a long period (and, of course, slowly going nuts). I had a good group of characters and some interesting dilemmas and crises for them to solve. I even had a pretty good ending.

What I didn’t know – what I’ve been going backwards and forwards on for months – was who the protagonist is.

Then I started thinking about the jobs the various characters do – and I realized that one of the characters, purely by virtue of his job, is a regular visitor here, but not a local. The others don’t really know him that well. They don’t necessarily like or trust him, certainly not in a life-threatening situation. He has no roots here, no function, not even a place to stay or any possessions when he gets stranded here. He’s a drain on resources. He’s going to have to prove himself if he wants to survive.

So, of course, he’s the protagonist, because he has the most learning and changing to do.

Moral of the story? Always pay attention to the plot logic, because sometimes, logic is your friend.

Things I Learned From… Man Up

Man Up, the first movie from writer Tess Morris, is out today. Starring Simon Pegg and Lake Bell, it’s the story of an impulsive decision that spirals into the world’s weirdest blind date, between two apparently unsuited people who might just be perfect for each other. As we all know, I’m not a huge fan of romcoms – and I really enjoyed it. Which is quite a recommendation, right? So go see it immediately!

But as a writer, what I took away from it was that changing the norms and conventions of a well-worn genre can make that genre fresh and new again.

We all know how romcoms work, right? The couple meet – and keep meeting, over weeks, months, even years. Some connection between them has been contrived – or maybe it’s just fate – that keeps bringing them back into each other’s orbits, whether they currently like or hate one another. And that’s what gives them time to get over themselves and get together.

Man Up doesn’t do that. Instead, it tracks Jack and Nancy across the course of 24 hours or so. They met by accident, they have no way to contact each other, or even much idea which of the things they think they know about the other are true. This is a whirlwind romance where, when parted, they have almost no chance of finding one another (well, apart from the help of some unlikely bystanders, but every romcom needs some intervention from Cupid…)

And that means the pressure is on. They bond tonight, or they part and it’s over. By placing the relationship in a pressure cooker, Man Up deftly avoids the perilously flabby “will they, won’t they, who cares, plenty more fish in the sea” structure of most romcoms, and raises the stakes without elevating the relationship into some unbelievable, mythic romance. Right now, these two people need each other – and right now is all that matters.

So, the writing lesson here is – how can you break the rules of your chosen genre? What if your sweeping historical epic all took place in one room? Or your contained thriller tracked the same small group of people over twenty years?  What if your action movie had an all-female cast? And most importantly, how can you use this to raise the stakes, bust cliches, and reinvent your chosen genre?

How Many Is Too Many?

So I saw The Avengers: Age Of Ultron yesterday. Detailed thoughts on that will have to wait until the film has opened worldwide, but one thing it did get me thinking was – how many main characters is too many?

Age Of Ultron has eight, maybe nine, lead characters including the villain, significant cameos by another five, and walk-ons from another half dozen or so, familiar and unfamiliar. That’s a lot of people to get your heads round!

So is there a definite limit to how many main characters an audience can deal with? Are there particular factors that affect that? Here are a few thoughts…

Familiarity helps. Obviously a franchise has it easier in this area, because the audience will remember some of those characters from the last movie. You may want to remind people of their core characteristics, but at least you don’t have to establish who they are and how they behave from the ground up.

Can you tell them apart at a glance? Film is a visual medium, and keeping your characters visually distinct will help the audience remember who’s who. (Yet another compelling argument for more women and people of colour in movies!)

Again, comic books have an advantage here. Many of those bold, bright superhero costumes originated in a time when comics were throwaway entertainment printed on rough paper with cheap ink, and however good the original artwork, often the only way to tell the characters apart once it was printed was by their uniforms.

This suggests that setting also has a bearing on how many characters you can use. If you’re writing about the inhabitants of a town, all different ages, races and income brackets, you should be able to have more main characters that if your characters are all nuns, or soldiers, all dressed the same and possibly of similar age and background.

Can you divide your characters into groups? Not putting all your characters on screen together all the time will help the audience get to know them as individuals. The Avengers often split down into teams according to their functions: we might see Black Widow and Hawkeye being spies, or Stark and Banner being science bros in the lab.

But you’re going to want to keep all your characters busy all the time, and there’s a limit to how many plot lines you can run simultaneously. In the all-action finale, we can probably keep track of three teams doing different things to save the world, and any team that’s more than three or four members will have difficulty keeping them all busy…

Do all your characters have a different motivation? Everyone in a movie may want the same thing, but they should want it for different reasons. And while in real life a thousand people may each have fractionally different motivations for making the same decision, on screen there’s a limit to how many distinct motivations and mindsets we have time to explore.

In The Avengers, everyone wants to stop Loki, but for different reasons. Steve Rogers has seen what the Tesseract can do; Tony Stark is as much trying to work out what SHIELD is up to as what Loki’s planning. Bruce Banner doesn’t really want to be involved, but he knows they can’t do it without him. Natasha Romanov is trying to save her dearest friend. Thor wants to save his brother, though he isn’t even sure that’s possible.

So think about how many different motivations for being involved you have room to explore. If you have three characters who really want exactly the same thing, they probably need to be conflated into one character…