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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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…

Don’t Take The Long View

It used to be that the place for a complex story universe was on television. Multiple characters, interwoven stories, a rich social, economic and political culture, a window on the problems and triumphs of a whole society instead of one or two representative characters – that’s television. If you don’t believe me, try imagining The Wire as a two-hour movie…

One of the positive things the rise of the movie franchise has achieved is the opening up of cinema to wider story universes. It’s no accident that one of the first summer blockbusters was Star Wars, with it’s rich tapestry of character, backstory and alien worlds. The Indiana Jones movies are a deliberate throwback to the Saturday Morning Serial – essentially, television before television existed – and though they’re not serialized, they also have that sense of being of a continuing adventure.

In the last decade or so, the move towards the franchise has gathered pace. Off the top of my head, I can name The Lord Of The Rings, The Matrix, the Batman trilogy, the Bourne movies, Transformers, and perhaps the ultimate example, the cluster of individual Marvel Studios movies leading up to The Avengers. And the failed attempts to start major franchises would take all day to list!

There are even flashes of ingenuity to be spotted among the franchising sausage machine. The Bourne Legacy initially felt like flogging a dead franchise, but advance reports suggest that the film runs concurrently with The Bourne Ultimatum, with characters and plotlines moving between the two films in the manner of an avant-garde multi-stranded drama. Whether it works remains to be seen, but it’s a fascinating use of the franchise format.

So, what message can we as writers take from this? It’s that complex story universes are the way to go, right? Come up with a sprawling world full of locations, characters, backstories and potential drama, and you can spend the next ten years digging into it on film, right?

Strangely, no. The message we should be learning is not to start with the universe. Keep it small. Stick with the character, their want and their need, and the one situation they find themselves in right now.

One thing I’ve learned from bringing Wolfblood to the small screen is that, in an ongoing series, you never pin down any element of the story until you have to. For example, one of the characters was separated from their parents at a young age. When we needed that character’s mother, we sat down and created her. We’ve had no use for the father yet, so we’ve made no decisions about him.

Why? Because every time you make a decision about your story universe, you close off other possibilities. If we’d had someone say on screen that this character’s father was a Glaswegian bricklayer, that’s fine – until we reach an episode where we could have got a really good story out of him being, I dunno, the British Ambassador to Jamaica. But now that story could never happen, because we’d written ourselves into a corner for the sake of some spurious ‘completeness’.

Define elements of your wider story universe when they’re useful to you, when they have a dramatic weight and a meaning, and not before.

And secondly, writers who think too broadly about their wider universe end up not concentrating on what’s right in front of them – the chance to make this one movie as good, as rich, as emotionally compelling as it possibly can be. And if this one movie isn’t utterly brilliant, those sequels you’ve so loving planned will never happen.

Assuming you don’t actually kill your hero or have certain types of twist ending, a good movie written without any thought of a sequel can usually spawn one – and a good one-off story will always have the potential to expand into a complex story universe. Just make that first installment as good as you can, and the rest will take care of itself.