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?

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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.

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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…

Making The First Draft Better

One of the weird things about being a screenwriter is that, while films and TV shows in their finished form are everywhere, the things you’re actually going to write –  screenplays –  are not.

Anyone who wants to be a novelist can walk into the library, pick up a novel and get the general idea of how one is laid out and structured. But a screenwriter is reliant on those few sites that make screenplays available for “educational purposes” (circumventing legal issues), and on the quiet passing of scripts from hand to hand among fellow professionals.

Which is a way of saying that I was recently slipped an early draft of one of my favourite films, and this got me thinking about how a screenplay changes from first draft to finished, filmable product.

I’m not going to name the screenplay or discuss it in detail: one of the reasons it’s so hard to get hold of screenplays is that writers are understandably reluctant to show the world what is effectively unfinished work. You wouldn’t ask an actor to rehearse in front of an audience, or a novelist to invite readers in to look over their shoulder as they typed – early draft screenplays deserve the same kind of protection. However, as one actor might learn from another in rehearsal without exposing them to public scrutiny, screenwriters discretely reading one another’s work without exposing it to the public can learn a lot from it.

And I thought many of the changes that had been made in subsequent drafts actually laid down useful principles for rewriting. So what did I learn from this particular screenplay about moving a story from first draft to finished product?

Make your characters distinct. Though the main characters in this first draft have different backgrounds, they’re quite similar in life experience, personality and motivation. In the final draft, they’re far more different, and more stronger because of it.

Structure your opening to show the audience your world. The first draft took a lot longer to explain and open up the story world than the filmed version, which just dives straight in there and shows us the world through an action sequence.

Focus on what’s happening now. There’s a lot of backstory in the early draft. In the filmed version, there are similar conflicts and character arcs, but they’re been shifted forward into the present (for example, by having a similar conflict but with a different character, or in a different situation).

Look for ways to make the central relationship more interesting. In the early draft, the two main characters have simple and slightly predictable reasons not to want to work together. The development process made their relationship much more interesting and unpredictable, enriching the movie.

Make it hard for your characters. In the first draft, a character simply has what he needs to achieve something difficult. In the finished version, he has to go out and find it, creating an entire new subplot with excitement, intrigue, danger, and character growth for him.

Merge, clarify, simplify. Do you have several, say, politicians, or police officers, or park rangers, all serving the same plot function? Cut them down to one person.

On the other hand, add interesting minor characters. Many of the most interesting characters in the finished film are minor characters, and they’ve been added in intervening drafts to enrich the story world.

None of this is criticism of that first draft, of course. Early drafts are just a process of getting the raw material down on paper, of turning all the jigsaw pieces face-up before you start assembling them. All our first drafts are riddled with half-formed ideas and missed opportunities.

That’s why the development process is so important. At it’s best, it’s not about changing things – it’s about chipping away the surplus marble to uncover the beautiful statue already hiding inside…

So what have you learned about writing from comparing early draft scripts to the finished movie?