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.

Advertisements

Things I Learned From… Jack Reacher

There’s no doubt that Jack Reacher has been a disappointment at the box office. The big question, as always, is why. With a solid fan base for Lee Child’s novels and Tom Cruise in the lead role, this should have been a solid earner with sequel potential. So what went wrong?
There are probably a lot of contributing factors. Maybe Tom Cruise isn’t the star he once was, at least not without an established franchise. Maybe the marketplace was too crowded over the Christmas period, with higher profile movies mopping up Reacher’s potential audience.
But I do wonder if part of the problem is the nature of the story.
Jack Reacher is adapted from the novel One Shot, which has an intriguing enough premise: an ex-military sniper guns down five random people, leaving a trail of evidence any idiot cop could follow, and when arrested, says only one thing. “Get Jack Reacher.” And when former military policeman Reacher begins investigating, the situation turns out to be a lot more complicated than it appears…
So what’s wrong with that? Compelling central character, a mystery to solve, a man going to jail for something he may not have done, a conspiracy headed up by an interesting villain…
Here’s what I think. Human beings are drawn to the unique. We all remember the one time it snowed at Christmas, the one time we missed the train home, the one time we witnessed a terrible, newsworthy event in person.
Movies appeal directly to that urge by giving us storylines that appear unique, memorable, even startling. The one summer a man-eating shark prowled the seas around a holiday resort. The one Christmas terrorists took over an office building in LA, not knowing a NY cop was inside. The one time the alien ’invading’ Earth was actually just a lost child who just wanted to phone home.
It’s one reason why biopics and true stories always sell well. They have that element of uniqueness. Most people will never have to escape the Iranian Hostage Crisis, or survive a tsunami – but here are some people who did. Or they have the “one guy” factor: here’s the story of the one guy who stood up to racism, the one girl who took on the establishment, the one family who defied the law.
These are not everyday occurrences. They’re not even the most memorable or eye-catching of a series of everyday events, like a cop or a firefighter recounting the stories he remembers best, but which in the end are no more or less dramatic than the rest of his career. They’re game-changers. They’re historic. They’re genuinely unique.
And Jack Reacher isn’t.
Viewed objectively, it’s the story of some cops and lawyers untangling a difficult case, with help from an unusual source. Next week, they’ll probably have an equally difficult case, with different complicating factors.
Even viewed from the protagonist’s point of view, these events are pretty much business as usual for Reacher. The movie goes out of its way to suggest Reacher is a man who can’t turn his back on trouble, whether it’s large-scale injustice or a man beating his wife. Even if you weren’t aware of the other novels, it would be easy to surmise that Reacher spends a lot of time getting caught up in things that ’don’t concern him’. This one may be a little larger in scale, but it’s business as usual for Reacher –
And “business as usual” is television, not film. Why may explain a lot…

Things I Learned From… The Bourne Legacy

Ah, franchises. Tricky business. Get them right, and you’re rolling in money; get them wrong, and you’re a laughing stock. But like it or not, they’ve been the lifeblood of Hollywood for thirty or forty years, and I don’t see it changing any time soon. So we all need to learn how to get to grips with them.

One of the skills we’re going to need is the ability to effectively reboot or revitalize a franchise that’s lost a major player – a name actor who’s heavily identified with the franchise’s success (say, Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible series), or a director credited with keeping a consistent tone and maintaining quality across installments (Christopher Nolan and the Batman trilogy).

The Bourne franchise has now lost its lead actor and star director, and as Lady Bracknell might have put it, to lose one is a misfortune, but to lose both looks like carelessness. What they do have is long-term franchise screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who also steps in as director for this installment. So what decisions has Gilroy made while reinventing the franchise, and how have they turned out for him?

A few spoilers, obviously…

Aaron Cross is not Jason Bourne.  No memory loss, no emotional trauma, product of a very different program, Cross is a clean break with the past. In principle, an excellent choice. No one wants to see another actor, however talented, rehashing exactly the same emotional journey as Bourne.

The problem is that Bourne’s intriguing and often moving journey to recover his true self and atone for his past is replaced by… well, I’m not really sure. Cross seems to be planning to break free of the program long before it turns on him –  why would he hide his meds and try to obtain replacements, unless he was trying to build up a surplus so he could abscond? – but we’re never sure why. Forced  on the run, he has excellent outer motivations – stay alive, maintain his enhanced abilities – but his inner desires and thought processes remain obtuse, and that’s a major story problem. We need to understand what the character wants and why (even if he doesn’t!), what his inner journey is, or how can we measure his success or failure?

There’s a shift towards a new sub-genre. While changing genre between installments is risky  (for every Alien/ Aliens, there’s a Highlander/ Highlander 2), a shift within the genre can revitalize a flagging franchise. The genetic enhancement plot shifts us from espionage thriller to scientific thriller, and the plot structure sticks firmly within this new sub-genre; I think I’m right in saying that Cross engages in no on-screen espionage of any sort.

Does it work? I quite like it. The science is reasonably solid, it seems like a plausible development for ‘the program’ to move onto after Treadstone, and it opens up new story and action possibilities. Unfortunately, again, Gilroy doesn’t exploit it as well as he might. Are Cross’ physical and mental abilities shown to be far in excess of Bourne’s? Well, not really. Which leads me to my next point…

There’s a real danger to Cross’ survival and mental health. Unfortunately, there’s no way dramatically to go there.  Yup, I’m talking about the blue pill and Cross’ baseline IQ. Potentially, this is a really interesting idea – Flowers For Algernon territory, great dramatic stuff. But there are some things that even the greatest actors in the world can’t pull off, and suffering a catastrophic diminishment of IQ in the middle of an action movie is probably one of them.

Here’s the thing. Flowers For Algernon works as a story because we meet and empathize with Charlie before his intelligence is enhanced, and follow him through the story – and because that’s what the book is about. We came expecting that. The problem is, no one goes to an action movie to watch the hero abruptly get – to put it crudely – a hell of a lot dumber. The moment Cross’ mental abilities start to crumble, the premise of the story crumbles with them. We jump plot templates from super-spy to King Kong, or more accurately, Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk: a dumb but powerful creature on the run, paired up with a smart and compassionate woman. Which is fine, but it’s not what the audience came for. And promising one thing and delivering another is the fastest way to disappoint your audience and ensure bad word-of-mouth for your movie.

I think Gilroy’s smart enough to know he can never allow Cross to lose his mental enhancements. He just teases us with the possibility. Which means we have a major threat to Cross  – apart from assassination by Agency goons, the only real threat –  but we’re never going to go there. So it’s false jeopardy. So what’s the point?

What’s my point in all this?  If there’s one thing I’m realizing about story, it’s that you have to push every idea to its limit – not just in your head, but on the page.

As a new writer, we all have the urge to cram our scripts with every cool idea we’ve ever had, and every fun character we can think of. In fact, what we need is to find that one idea that forms the core of our story, dig into it and explore every facet of it, and work it into every scene of our script. The same with character; you don’t need dozens of cool characters, you need to choose four or five and explore them, test them, push them to their limits and force them to show us who they really are.

Less really is more – if you get everything you can out of it.