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.

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.”

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…