Pacific Rim and the New Hollywood Paradigm



I confess, I’ve been following the development of Pacific Rim for a long time. Why? Because the story of this movie is the screenwriter’s dream.

Once upon a time there was an up-and-coming screenwriter named Travis Beacham, who’d written scripts that everyone loved but which weren’t getting made. It wasn’t his fault: that’s just how the business is when you’re starting out, a lot of near-misses.

But he did something about it. One day, he sat down and wrote the movie he’d always wanted to write – the movie that was so expensive and so crazy that it was never going to get made. And then one of the very few directors with both the commercial clout and the slightly offbeat vision to make that movie read the script – and it actually happened.

That could be our takeaway from the movie right there: sometimes the best advertisement for your skills is just to write the thing you really believe in.

As usual, I have a bunch of other stuff to say about this movie – including, once you’ve all had a chance to see it, digging into the very interesting character choices surrounding the female lead… However, what I want to talk about today is how Pacific Rim seems to be dividing audiences.

I absolutely bloody loved Pacific Rim. So did many other people I know, in the industry and out of it. But equally, for every glowing review I’ve seen, there’s been someone who hated it. It’s a Marmite movie if ever there was one…

So what’s going on?

What really interests me here is that people are having violently different reactions to the same elements of the movie. It’s not like, say, the fans like the characters, but the critic hate the action sequences, or vice versa.

Some people are saying the characters are nuanced and empathetic, some are saying they’re clichés. Some people are saying the plot is boring, while others hail it as original and constantly surprising. There’s not one element of the movie that isn’t being derided in one corner while being praised in another. And this interests me a great deal – because good is good, right?

Well, yes and no.

There are techniques for telling a story that have always worked and always will work. They’re hardwired into our brain.

But when we put them into practice, we have to make them very specific – and inevitably, we start to think it’s that specific expression of the technique that works, rather than the broader technique.

And then the specific expressions perpetuate throughout film culture. If a character behaves in this way, he’s well-drawn; if he behaves in that way, he’s a cliché, or unbelievable. This is a good plot twist; that’s a bad one. We see something work in a movie, so we do it in ours. And thus it becomes normal. It becomes “good”.

But that leads us to a very narrow definition of ‘good’ storytelling techniques. And there are other paradigms, other characters and plots and ways of telling a story, that we’ve neglected for a long time, and which are due to re-emerge and change the way we view story. There are probably paradigms that we haven’t even discovered yet.

A few voices in the industry have been saying for a while that the way we tell stories on screen is changing. Linda Aronson may be the best known theorist on the subject, but she’s far from the only one.

So what if, with its fresh and surprising plot choices and character traits, Pacific Rim is the first of the New Paradigm Hollywood Blockbusters? What if Pacific Rim is the future?

That’s a future I want to be part of. And from now on, I’m deliberately setting out to raise my game, find out what these new storytelling techniques are and use them – and maybe make a few of them up as I go along…

Game on, people! Who’s playing?

Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Maps

I’ve been thinking a bit about screenplay structure recently. Particularly, about something I tend to find happening to stories as I get into the final stages, the last two or three drafts. The fact that the structure and the carefully chosen turning points seem to fade away.

What I mean is this. After a bit of initial brainstorming and throwing random ideas around to see what emerges, my first treatments and drafts are very focused on putting the structural elements in the right places. My inciting incident has to be here, and not there or there. My ‘all is lost’ moment had better be right at the end of Act Two, or else. I want eight sequences, I want them all roughly the same length, and I want them in the right order.

But after a few drafts, once I’ve got the story into some kind of shape, I start to forget exactly what I was calling my inciting incident, let alone what page it’s on. I’m not too bothered about the dividing lines between sequences, or the fact that the dividing line between them is a bit vague. There’s a bit between sequences three and four that isn’t really part of either, and I don’t even care.

Is that normal? What’s going on there?

Here’s what I think.

Screenplay structure is a map. It tells you which things to look out for in order to get where you want to go. When you’re making a journey for the first time – writing that treatment or that first or second draft – a map is incredibly important if you want to get where you’re going with reasonable speed and efficiency.

But a map is just a way of looking at the terrain. It’s not part of the, and the terrain exists even without the map. The grid reference and the compass bearing aren’t part of the hill –  they’re a way of understanding the hill.

And once you know the way without the map, that way of understanding the terrain is unnecessary.

So it’s perfectly natural for the labels we use to identify parts of our screenplay to drop away as we become more familiar with the story, because now we’re not looking at the map. We’re understanding the story as a whole, navigating by eye and ear through it, appreciating it in a new way.

So maybe we shouldn’t get too overexcited about those structural labels. If they’re useful to you as you explore the new and alien landscape of your story, use them. If not, don’t. They’re only a temporary reference anyway. Soon, you’ll know the story landscape for real.