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.

Let’s Go Back To My Place!

As I’m sure you know, there’s a whole species of TV drama known as “precinct drama”. These series follow a group of characters who work in a specific place – typically a police station or a hospital, because, as wiser people than I have observed, stories walk right in the door of those locations, rather than having to be sought out.

The “precinct” provides a location that can be reused from week to week, cutting down on location and set-building costs, and also provides a rationale for the characters to spend time together –  they all work here. And by focusing on the workplace as a whole, rather than a specific family/person/ job title, changes in cast can be managed without destroying the tone or the integrity of the series.

But what a lot of writers don’t seem to appreciate is how much a recurring location can add to a feature script.

For a start, there’s still that whole issue of time and money. If you can set those five scenes between your hero and love interest in the same local diner, rather than five different meeting places, you just saved the expense of four locations, and the time it would have take to move the whole unit four times. Your location manager loves you!

Then there’s the relaxing effect on the audience. Each time you show the audience a new location, that’s something else for them to take in. And any time they’re thinking “where are we?”  or  “is this the bar she was in before, or a different bar?”, they aren’t concentrating on your story. Take them back somewhere they know, they relax a little. Indeed, recurring locations are great for exposition. If you have something really important or complex to get across, doing so in a familiar location gives the audience one less thing to take in.

But reusing significant locations has thematic benefits too. Let’s take a look at the two recurring locations in The Avengers, and see what they’re adding to the plot…

First recurring location: Stark Tower, which appears three times in the movie. The first time we see it, it’s a scene of domestic bliss (of a sort), interrupted by Coulson arriving to ask for help finding Loki.

Note: Tony Stark is the only Avenger who’s seen to be attached to a physical location. Thor comes from another dimension: Banner is a fugitive (and we don’t see his home in Calcutta, only places he’s giving medical help). Rogers has an apartment we never see, but he’s adrift in time, doesn’t belong anywhere in modern society.  Barton and Romanov are out doing their jobs, presumably living out of suitcases. No one has a “home” in the full sense of the word –

Apart from Stark, whose home is so ‘his’ that his name is on the front in lights. We even see him playfully arguing with Pepper about whose name should be on the lease and how much credit she should take for it. The message is clear: This Space Is Mine.

Next, the action moves to the second recurring location: the Shield helicarrier. What does that symbolize for the story? Well, it’s a place where these wandering, homeless characters can come together. It has a lab, and weapons, and space for everyone’s armour and costumes and scientific specialities. In any other version of this story, this would be the team’s  “precinct”.

But this is The Avengers according to Joss Whedon (and Zak Penn, of course), and for him, the military-industrial complex is never going to be a fitting home for these characters. They don’t quite feel comfortable here. There’s a wonderful lab for Banner, but there’s also an inescapable cage. There are locked doors hiding secrets, and computer files full of weapons of mass destruction.  When the helicarrier comes under attack, it proves to be woefully vulnerable, and elements of it (the cage that traps Thor, the fact that The Hulk is on an aircraft with nowhere to run) are as much a danger to the occupants as any enemy action.

The helicarrier, for all it’s initial promise, is not the home these characters are seeking. It stands for the wrong things. It’s a trap, a physical and ethical danger to them – and some of them are a danger to it.

So we’re into Act Three, and it’s time for our second visit to Stark Tower, which has literally been invaded by the forces of evil. The Tesseract is on the roof, opening the portal –  the safety of “home” is under attack from an entire other dimension! –  and Loki has taken possession of the penthouse (Stark’s personal space) and external platforms (associated with the Iron Man suit), which soon become a battleground.

In order to win it back, Stark has to walk defenceless into what should be his own territory and face his adversary  (answering Rogers’ earlier question, “Take off the suit, and what are you?” in the process).  He doesn’t succeed initially. Rather than defending his home, he has to go fight the wider battle before being able to repossess what’s his. Indeed, he won’t fully win back his personal space without the help of the rest of the team.

Third time – and we all know about the magic power of showing things or saying things three times, don’t we? – is at the very end of the movie. The Tower is largely wrecked, but Stark and Pepper are planning to rebuild. And what’s the only letter left in the name on the outside of the tower? A, for Avengers. What was Stark’s private property has now become, at least symbolically, a home for the whole team.

All that thematic resonance, just from a choice of locations!

Oooh, Shiny!

Looking forward to seeing The Avengers again soon – which got me thinking about the first Iron Man movie, and a storytelling flaw that I call the ”Oooh, shiny!” story.

An ”Oooh, shiny!” movie is a movie with an inherent conflict between it’s genre and it’s theme. It thinks it’s making a particular moral statement – indeed, it makes it explicitly in dialogue – but the action and the iconography of the movie contradicts the theme so severely that the audience is effectively seeing a totally different movie.

An example. Eastern Promises, written by Steven Knight, is the story of an idealistic nurse in London trying to protect a baby born to a young Russian prostitute. But I bet the first thing that popped into your head when you saw the title was Viggo Mortensen covered in gang tattoos, menacing our heroine and fighting bad guys.

The movie really wants to be earnest, moral and serious. Often, it is. It has important things to say about international crime, people smuggling and the human cost of the sex trade. But every few scenes, the narrative is pulled off course by the glamour and danger of the Russian Mafia into whose world the heroine is drawn. They’re unusual, visually compelling, carry the promise of  action, conflict and danger. They feel much more like the heroes of an underworld thriller than a nice nurse ever will.

Like a magpie who can’t ignore that shiny object just off it’s path, the narrative of Eastern Promises is constantly being distracted from it’s stated theme and purpose. ”Right, we must talk about the evils of people trafficking… But look, there are gangsters over there! With guns! And they’re all exotic and inscrutable! Ooh, shiny!”

Iron Man has exactly the same flaw – it’s action and it’s iconography are at odds with its stated message. The first act is quite an audacious story for a superhero movie: an arrogant billionaire who made his money from armaments is captured by the enemy and forced to create a super-weapon for them. A fellow prisoner teaches him about the human cost of conflict, and he learns for himself what it’s like to be a prisoner of war. Secretly turning his super-weapon into a means of escape, he returns home to shut down his company’s weapons division and devote his talents, and his newly invented power source, to technology that will benefit humankind.

Splendid. Hand that man a Nobel Peace Prize, right? Well, actually, no. Because while he does a lot of clean energy research, etc, the film is actually about him inventing, refining, and using a battle-suit with tremendous offensive capacity. Not a defensive weapon, mark you, but a means of attack. Not only that, but he doesn’t wait to be threatened: he actively goes looking for trouble in it. With the suit on, he’s powerful, glamorous, and he looks damn cool. He’s a hero. Say it with me: ”Oooh, shiny!”

And Tony Stark does much the same things in The Avengers, of course. But you know what? I have no problem with his behaviour there. Because, unlike the first act of Iron Man, The Avengers isn’t pretending to be a serious exploration of the traumas of war. It’s a straightforward tale of traditional heroism and derring-do, where might and right are intrinsically linked, and while heroes don’t start fights, they always finish them. The vigilante code – ”My courage, physical strength, and personal suffering place me above the law, the only one who can save you” – belongs in a story like The Avengers. It doesn’t belong shoulder to shoulder with an apparently serious attempt to say that war is hell.

So, if you have a strongly stated theme, especially one that equates to a particular social or political standpoint, take a good look at how you’re presenting it, and how you’re presenting its opposite.

Of course you shouldn’t be presenting the other viewpoint as a straw man, only there to be knocked down and ridiculed. But it’s worth asking yourself: when the characters representing the two sides of my thematic argument are on screen, is the audience’s eye drawn to the right one? Is your hero embodying your theme in a dynamic, compelling, and convincing way – or are you secretly feeling drawn to the shiny temptations of the Dark Side…?

Things I Learned From… The Avengers

I enjoyed The Avengers a lot more the second time round. Which may account for it’s phenomenal box office takings, I guess! In my case, I think it took me a second viewing to get over my residual dislike of many of the characters – Thor isn’t authentically Viking enough for my liking, Captain America is dull, and Iron Man’s just annoying (though he comes over as much more rounded and empathetic here than he has done previously)…

So, having got over that and appreciated The Avengers for what it is – a superb piece of screenwriting that deftly balances action, exposition and character arcs, and handles the ridiculous number of main characters it’s inherited with aplomb – what can we learn from it?

Hollywood talks about the four quadrant picture: a movie that appeals to the four main audience groups – young men, young women, older men, older women. (And as usual, by ”older”, Hollywood means over twenty-five…)

The Avengers isn’t a four quadrant movie (though for a superhero movie, it’s doing excellent business among female cinemagoers – as much as 40% of the audience).

But what writer-director Joss Whedon and writer Zak Penn do deliver is a kind of ”four quadrants of screenwriting” movie: a film that delivers on the four essentials that really hook an audience, that draw them back for repeat viewings and have them urging their friends to see the movie too. That considered, the box office numbers shouldn’t be a surprise at all.

So what are these ”four quadrants of screenwriting”?

Characters that we care about. You would have thought that was a given, but many tentpole movies assume we’ll empathise with the lead character just because their name’s in the title. Every character in this movie not only gets a moment where they look cool: they get a moment of humour, of sadness, of vulnerability, of human connection. They relate to one another on an individual level, and not always in admirable ways. And above all, they suffer. They endure physical pain, fear, and loss, and then they truly feel the triumph that follows their sacrifices – powerful human experiences that an audience longs to share with them. As I said, I’m not a great fan of many of these characters –  but I felt deeply for every one of them at some point.

A story that fulfils our expectations – but never the way we expect. Cheating your audience is the fastest way to empty seats yet devised. If you promise scares, or action, or deep human drama, then you’d better deliver. If, as in The Avengers, you have pre-existing characters and relationships, signature moves and dialogue styles, you have to fulfil those expectations too.

But delivering exactly what the audience expects produces a so-so movie, a ”meh” story that leaves the audience unimpressed, even if they don’t know why. So Whedon and Penn take care to twist every expectation. We expect an Asgardian to plunge out of the carrier in the escape-proof cell – but it’s not the one we thought. Black Widow goes to Loki to bargain for a friend’s life, but things are not as they seem. We’ve seen Stark don new Iron Man suits before, but never while falling out of a building… All the way down to the ”who would win?” fights between the characters, all the things we were promised are delivered, but there’s always a surprise, a twist, a new experience along with them.

Emotions, and lots of them. Strangely enough, triggering an emotional response in the audience is the thing that tentpole movies are worst at. Admiring the special effects is not an emotion. Even whooping because something big just blew up in 3D isn’t an emotion, not in any meaningful sense.

Emotions are what we really go to the movies to experience, and they’re the things that we’ll remember long after we’ve forgotten the special effects and the story and even the lead actor’s name. Here, Whedon and Penn deliver by the truckload. Anger, fear, humour, pride, jealousy, love and joy, the full range of human experience. And one of the best measures of a great film is how wide a range of emotions it offers the audience. Ask the woman sat behind me who yelled ”No!” when (REDACTED) was stabbed, or the people who roared with laughter when the over-excited Hulk realised the only person left to punch was his own ally –  and punched him anyway…

A theme that’s played out in the characters, not just shoehorned into a line of dialogue. Too many movies think that spouting a trite line about heroism or sacrifice in the final reel makes them meaningful. But whatever your theme is, there’s only one place it can be played out – in the lives, hearts and minds of your characters. They live the moral of your story. They prevaricate and try and fail, and then, changed by their experiences, they finally do what we’ve always wanted them to do and they always feared they couldn’t. Banner chooses to hulk out, and controls his other self; Stark makes the ”sacrifice play” Rogers said he was too immature to make; even Fury defies the Council because he believes in his ragtag team. And it works, dramatically, because we’ve seen those changes brewing within them and longed to see them realised in action.

So, character, plot, emotion and theme – the four quadrants you can maximise while writing your story. You might not make the money The Avengers is making, but if you can send your audience away just as happy, you’ll have have done your job well…