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?

Your Galaxy Is Too Small

I know Guardians Of the Galaxy was the big film of last year, and it made a gazillion dollars and everyone loves talking raccoons and dancing baby Groot. Hell, even I love dancing baby Groot. But don’t you think it was a bit… limited?

Here’s what I mean.

Life on earth comes in myriad forms and displays all kinds of behaviour. Life across the galaxy, we must assume, will be even wilder and weirder. And Guardians Of The Galaxy was sold as the weird, out-there, fantastical end of the Marvel cinematic universe, leading us to expect that diversity and variation in the movie.

But what we got was a white heterosexual guy shagging alien girls and saving the world.

You know what, I’m prepared to give them a pass on the lead character – because maybe we need someone identifiably human to lead us through this alien world. So okay, let’s say we accept Peter Quill for the cishet meatball that he is –

But what about everyone else? Where were the aliens with six genders and eighteen kinds of sexual preference? Where were the aliens with no gender at all? The aliens with mindsets we didn’t understand, and who didn’t understand our hero’s morals and emotions? The aliens who were, well… alien?

The whole point of science fiction, it seems to me, is that it’s the ultimate “what if”. Every other kind of fiction is limited by human behaviour, world history, and the laws of physics. Science fiction doesn’t need to be. It can resign everything and everyone involved to surprise, challenge and delight an audience.

But modern movie sci-fi doesn’t seem to be interested in redesigning its characters, only its artifacts. The spaceships and the CGI change, but the faces and the sexual relationships don’t. It’s serving up the same tired white male saviours, the same ‘sleeping with lots of girls is cool as long as you settle down at the end of the movie’ relationship narrative, the same twelve-year-old boy’s view of the world. And that’s not a “what if” at all.

There are exceptions. Pacific Rim, whose white male hero must literally venture inside the mind of his near-opposite (a younger Japanese female) and achieve mutual understanding in order to save the world. Snowpiercer starts off appearing to embrace the white male savior, but ultimately [MILD SPOILERS] Curtis realises that he’s not the change that’s needed, but an obstacle to that change…

But we need more exceptions. More challenges, more imagination. Because if science fiction can’t tell new and unusual stories, what hope is there for the other genres?

Book Review: Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays

photoScript editor and screenwriting tutor Lucy V. Hay has another book out, and this time, it’s all about drama screenplays.

As Hay herself is the first to admit, “drama” is a very slippery term in the world of film. Often it’s used just as a catch-all for any project that doesn’t have a specific genre. Even when properly defined, it covers everything from biopics and historical true stories to grim contemporary stories of sink estates and despairing teen mums (that last being a category she sees far too often in the submissions pile!)

But one of the most interesting points Hay makes is that this nebulous definition is actually freeing for the screenwriter. There are no tropes for drama, no set story conventions and structural plot points to hit. Drama lends itself to non-linear storytelling, and to portmanteau stories, more readily than other genres do. In other words, it’s a great place to experiment and to tell the story you really want to tell.

Another interesting feature of Hay’s book is that she takes the position that drama is a hard sell – harder to pitch, to market and to attract major stars to – and treats this as a positive. If your story is going to be hard to produce through the traditional route, why not try another route?

Building on this, she includes a number of case studies of US and UK films, both shorts and features, examining how they took unconventional routes to the screen. If you’re having difficulty getting noticed in the industry and are considering less conventional ways to built your career there are some good examples to follow here, whether you write drama or not.

And of course, drama (more than any other genre) lives and dies on its characters, and Hay digs into how you can use different character types in your screenplay. Crucially, she notes that a drama protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to have the transformative arc so beloved of Hollywood movies…

If you’re interested in writing drama, particularly for the UK film market, the book is a great overview of how this genre works, and how to make it work for you. Definitely a recommended read.

Writing & Selling Drama Screenplays, by Lucy V. Hay, is in the Creative Essentials series from Kamera Books (camera

Character and the Audience: The Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow

Yaay, it’s another occasional series! I’m becoming very interested in how certain kinds of characters, particularly those that break the traditional norms of race, gender and sexuality, can change the appeal of a film to an audience. So, assuming I can find enough of them to write about, I shall…

(SPOILER WARNING for Captain America: The Winter Soldier…)

Today’s character type, the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow, takes its name from a twitter comment that, alas, I have long since lost. If you think it was you, let me know who you were talking about, and with which screenwriter, and I’ll be happy to credit you…

The Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is always male, and he’s that guy who can kill a roomful of people without breaking a sweat – but who is massively emotionally vulnerable, has no social support system, and is incapable of interacting with civilized society. Frequently he’s physically or temporally displaced, and while perfectly adapted to his reality, struggles to map his skills and experiences onto ours.

One great example is Kyle Reese in The Terminator. Reese is perfectly adapted to the future, where killer robots roam and humanity scrabbles to survive and resist. But his skills transfer imperfectly to the 1980’s, and his emotional connection to human savior John Connor, and then John’s mother Sarah, whom he’s come to save, makes him immensely vulnerable and sympathetic.

A more recent, and hugely instructive, example is Bucky Barnes, aka The Winter Soldier, in the eponymous Captain America movie. The Winter Soldier is a human being erased right down to the skull, a bundle of reflexes and conditioning with no memory and no personality – until he encounters the one person with whom he has such a strong enough emotional connection that his true self starts bubbling up…

What interests me about the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is the character’s immense appeal to the female audience. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has created a massive, and hugely engaged, female audience for Captain America movies that simply didn’t exist before. If you doubt me, search for the fan art and fan fiction… And for all the emphasis on Arnie and on a strong female lead, Kyle Reese was a huge part of The Terminator’s success.

So why are these characters so attractive to the female audience? Two things, I think…

Firstly, they provide female viewers with a double experience – a character they can simultaneously desire, and empathise with.

There’s little common ground between any viewer (male or female) and a traditional muscular action hero, a stuffed shirt quipping his way through gunfights and embracing a ‘girl’ as a prize at the end of the movie. Their skills attract us, but their emotionlessness shuts us out.

(See this excellent post by Alex Epstein for a related examination of why this means that women make better action leads than men… http://complicationsensue.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/cryface.html )

But the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow displays both the “male” physical capability, and the “female” emotional vulnerability, to evoke envy and empathy simultaneously. The audience can share the character’s experiences on all levels.

And secondly: the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is, of necessity, a character locked into a complex, passionate and constantly evolving relationship. He has an opposite, a partner, a second self without whom he is incomplete.

Kyle Reese needs Sarah Connor’s help to survive as much as she needs his. Where she is weak, he is strong, and vice versa. He’s not a savior, he’s a partner.

And whatever your ‘shipping’ preferences for the Captain America movie universe, there’s no denying that Steve’s relationship with Bucky is the formative, deepest and most vital relationship of his entire life. Indeed, from Captain America: The First Avenger onwards, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have been reshaping the origin story, and Ed Brubaker’s original Winter Soldier storyline, to deepen this connection and increase the ways in which the characters’ lives, feelings and experience mirror one another. They are opposites, mirror images, unbreakably connected to one another, whether you view that connection as having a sexual component or not.

In other words, the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is a creature of relationships. It’s a cliché to say female viewers embrace the relationships in a movie rather than just the ‘cool’ stuff, but it’s true –

And you know what? Male viewers love relationships too. They just don’t define their reactions in the same way. Any male viewer who says “Wasn’t it cool when Cap faced the Winter Soldier on the helicarrier?” is reacting to exactly the same character points as a female viewer talking about the tragic emotions of the ending. They’re just using different terminology.

So what’s my point here? My point is that Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrows bring in a female audience for movies that are traditionally male (and yes, that’s a generalization anyway, but…) without ever alienating the male audience.

So why isn’t there one in every action, adventure, spy or superhero movie? If you want to double the audience for your movie, you now know what to do…

Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the New Hollywood Paradigm

From unpromising beginnings – “He’s a WW2 soldier who fights Nazis and literally dresses in the US flag?”  – the Captain America movies are proving to be the most intelligent, dependable and daring features of the Marvel Studios multiverse. The Winter Soldier is a smart, right-wing-baiting conspiracy thriller that starts off as a terrific action romp, and suddenly develops a raw emotional heart that’s delighted fans and played surprisingly well to those with no knowledge of the backstory (which includes me, to be honest).

I’m probably going to have things to say about the Winter Soldier himself, if you know what I mean, but I’ll give you a little longer to catch up before venturing into spoiler territory. For now, let’s take a quick look at the movie and how it illuminates Marvel Studios’ wider aims.

It’s a hugely enjoyable and hugely emotional movie, but in some weird ways, it’s strangely un-movie-like. (Yes, I know that’s not a word. It’s Sunday afternoon, cut me some slack…)

For a start, The Winter Soldier is unashamedly open-ended. While other story lines begin, develop and resolve as normal, the arc involving the two title characters reaches an emotional peak, but not a conclusion. (In traditional screenwriting parlance, that particular story is only at the end of act two – the ‘dark point’ or ‘all is lost’ – as the film concludes, and one of the credit scenes would play well as the beginning of act three, the moment where new information triggers change…)

The movie also splits its screen time between multiple characters without losing focus or audience interest. In other words, it’s a team movie in all but name. It namechecks and references a wider universe, even featuring characters who’ve been bit players in previous movies as major players. It ends by turning the dramatic universe upside-down, and then sets its characters going in new directions. They are not satisfied and changed, as movie characters are supposed to be: instead they’re in transition, going on to new challenges.

All of these are elements that you find in television drama – many commenters have called Marvel Studios supremo Kevin Feige the most powerful TV showrunner on the planet – but there’ s somewhere they’re even more common…

In the individual storylines and limited runs that make up comic book continuity. In a very real sense, Marvel Studios is not creating movies – it’s creating a new comic book universe, one that just happens to be made of actors and film rather than paper and pen.

Of course, comic books have been turned into movies before: some successfully, some… not so much. But until now, the basics of the story have been taken out and shaped into movie form. It feels to me that Marvel Studios are increasingly abandoning that approach, and instead shaping our perception of movies into something more like what we experience from long-term comic book reading.

Can this approach succeed? Possibly. There are dangers. Lack of closure is traditionally considered fatal to a movie. The Winter Soldier has a hugely powerful emotional hook, which helps, and it also plays to our perception that “the second in a trilogy is always open-ended”, as established by The Empire Strikes Back. But will other, similar movies succeed without those advantages?

There’s also the “you have to collect them all” effect, where audiences  feel that if they miss a movie in this wider universe, they’ll no longer understand what’s going on, and they lose interest. And they may even resent being manoeuvred into paying out for two or three 3D movies every year to keep up with the story world.

But the biggest danger is one that’s haunted comics for years – lack of consequences. If character X turns up as a guest in character Y’s comic and then seems to be in danger of dying, is she going to die? Of course no. She has her own title, and she’s a guest star in character Z’s title next month. She ain’t going nowhere.

Franchises already suffer from lack of consequences; it’s hard to imagine Mission: Impossible killing off Ethan Hunt, say. An expended movie universe, where every creative decision has an affect on the profit margins of five upcoming blockbusters, may finally leave us floundering in a story world where no one ever dies, and therefore, nothing ever matters.

And yet this expanded movie-comic universe has a lot going for it, too. Rich characters, intertwined stories, a depth of worldbuilding that’s rare in movies. I’m very interested to see how all this turns out…

Frozen and the New Hollywood Paradigm

I’m not normally a huge fan of animated movies, but I’m delighted to report that Frozen, co-written and co-directed by the prodigiously talented Jennifer Lee, has become the first film (co-)directed by a woman to make a billion dollars in ticket sales.

Think about that. Every single billion-dollar ever made – and nowadays, your movie’s nothing if it doesn’t at least get near that milestone –  has been directed by a man. And I bet there aren’t many female screenwriters represented in that total either…

And then let’s think about Frozen for a moment. Because Frozen does not conform to the typical Hollywood movie paradigm.

It splits the protagonist role interestingly between the two sisters: it’s the story of Elsa’s redemption, but Anna has the active, questing ‘heroine’ role. It suggests that (mild spoiler) the prince-and-princess ‘love at first sight’ cliche may not actually be a stable foundation for a romance – indeed, that it springs more from the damage an isolated royal upbringing does than from healthy desires. It ends with one heroine in the early stages of a romance, but the other quite happy without a man. And by far the strongest relationship in the film, the relationship that drives the story, is not romantic, but sisterly.

In short, Frozen became only the second animated feature to pass the billion-dollar mark by breaking all the rules of the Disney Princess romance. Yet more proof that the Hollywood paradigm is changing, and you don’t have to keep churning out the same tired plots with the same white male heroes to make money…