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.

Things I Learned From… Gravity

Gravity is a remarkable film by any standards. It’s a science fiction film (yes, it really is! Science fiction = fiction about science, it’s that simple) that’s attracting art house audiences.

It’s effectively a resurgence of the 1970’s big-budget disaster movie: the top stars of the day, the best special effects that money could buy, and a near-unimaginable disaster that forces the characters to reassess what’s important in their lives and instills in them new hope and a determination to survive.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about it is how lightly it wears its technical artistry. The special effects and visual effects teams on this movie have done remarkable things – but at no point does that threaten to pull you away from the plot. It would be perfectly possible to sit through Gravity and never realise the effort that had gone into creating the illusion of being in Earth orbit.

Hollywood movies have always shifted form to take advantage of the latest technologies. The great screen musicals were a direct response to the invention of the ‘talkie’: now we have sound, what’s the most dramatic use we can make of it? Technicolor, Dolby sound – even my least favourite development, 3D – all changed the creative elements of the movies as much as the technical ones.

And new visual effects have made it possible to tell stories we could never have told previously. Jurassic Park, Avatar, The Matrix, Pacific Rim, all stories it would have been impossible to tell effectively without CGI.

What Gravity seems to suggest is that we’ve now reached a point where those effects are no longer a selling point – because they’re simply another storytelling technique. They’re exactly like sound and colour: something we simply accept as part of the fabric of the movie.

This may make it harder to sell those big blockbusters previously marked on the quality and novelty of their visual effects. But it places the story back at the heart of film-making – and that can only be a good thing.

Qualities Of The Great Blockbuster Movie, part two

The dialogue in action scenes doesn’t consist entirely of people yelling each other’s names, or saying “Come on!” or “This way!”

Pointless dialogue is the number one sign of a blockbuster in crisis. And by pointless, I mean people speaking because no one’s said anything for a while, and a movie needs dialogue, right? Or yelling to draw attention to things, or clunkily convey or reinforce information.

Bad action dialogue can spring from a failure in the visual storytelling – or at least, a failure to trust visual storytelling to do the job. Someone forgot to show us a sign saying control room, or a trinket on the desk that would tell us this is the villain’s lair, so someone has to blurt “This must be the control room”. Someone didn’t trust the audience to remember that the heroine always wears purple and therefore this must be her jacket, so someone has to remember that aloud on our behalf.

It can also spring from a lack of personal goals for the characters. As we noted before, you get better scenes when your characters are strong individuals. And if they’re strong individuals, they’ll all have different goals and motivations, which they’ll have to argue for as the situation develops.

Think about the scenes on the Death Star in the second act of Star Wars. Luke wants to rescue the princess, as does R2D2. Han Solo wants to get his precious ship the hell out of here. C3PO just wants to survive. Obi-Wan is well aware of the coming confrontation with Vader. They all work together to survive, but  the things they say to each other are driven by their differing motivations and their desire to get what they want or do what they have to do.

So trust the visuals, and give your characters their own angles to work, and your dialogue will immediately improve…