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Monday, July 27, 2015

5 Things that make a Big Blockbuster Work


Hello everyone,

Lately, it seems like I've had the fortune and the misfortune of watching a myriad of Big Blockbusters. Some of them were pretty good (Kingsmen, Mad Max: Fury Road), others were somewhere in the middle (Jurassic World, Fast and Furious 7) and one was absolutely abysmal (Jupiter Ascending).

The funny thing is I watched all these Big Movies right after I attended the Nantucket Film Festival where I saw countless indie movies. I realized I can put into words what makes a good, high-brow drama but when it came to blockbusters I was limited to "Dude, it was fucking awesome!" despite it was obvious I enjoyed Kingsmen considerably more than, say, Jupiter Ascending. I feel like this lack of vocabulary is something that creates the rift between the critics and the audience, because an esteemed, scholarly film critic can't just write: "DID YOU SEE THAT GUY WITH THE FLAMING GUITAR?! THAT WAS COOL!" and print it. Despite this though, they know a good blockbuster when they see one. Notice Jupiter Ascending has a 40 metacritic score, whereas Mad Max has a solid 89.

So I decided to do some thinking and come up with some elements the good Blockbusters shared and the bad ones, thankfully, didn't.

1 - Make sure the Cool Shit in your Movie is Actually Cool

"Cool" is a pretty elusive concept. Dictionary.com has 29 different definitions for it, but just like bad acting, we know it when we see it. Case in point: A car jumping from one skyscraper to the next or the Dino WWE at the end of Jurassic World was cool for me, whereas Channing Tatum rollerblading on air (?) while being a dog (??) was decidedly not cool. And it's a weird thing because the line between "cool" and just plain "goofy" is a very, very thin line.

Case in point: Definitely goofy.
Obviously you need to give it to the Wachowski's, The Matrix is one of the best blockbusters ever made and the whole bad-ass trench coats and crazy karate aesthetic could have easily been goofy as fuck. But they pulled it off. Here is what it looks like when it is NOT pulled off properly. (That clip is from the Turkish TV Series Mr. Cloud. Not one of our proudest moments.)

In Jupiter Ascending though, they have a half dog rollerblading on the air. If you can't type it without being self-aware about how stupid it sounds, perhaps you shouldn't do it.

2 - Give Me An Action Sequence I Haven't Seen Before!

These types of movies are style over substance unless they are done by Christopher Nolan. And that's completely fine. The audience doesn't want a deep theme or characters, but that doesn't mean the screenwriter's job is easier. They have one job: Give us big set pieces we haven't seen before.

That sounds easier than said. How do you write a car chase that is different than the thousands of other car chases in the history of cinema. Well, see, that's where Fast and Furious 7 succeeded with their jumping through the skyscrapers sequence or the Drone Chase sequence.

Or how do you do a fight scene we haven't seen? Set it in the Westboro Baptist Church and have Freebird play over it!
3 - Stylish Characters 

Nobody in their right mind expects deep character work from a big Summer blockbuster. A lot of time you would spend on building characters interaction  are spent on the aforementioned car chases and such. And yet, some characters are obviously... better than others. Han Solo isn't more "deep" than the Anakin Skywalker of the prequels -- I would even argue that Anakin Skywalker is deeper than Han Solo -- but Anakin Skywalker is the cinematic equivalent of getting a root canal and Han Solo is a best friend/big brother/President for Life rolled into one.

I think the word is style. Galahad, for example, might not be a deep character, but the movie is very clear as to who he is: He's the ultimate old-school gentleman, both in the action sequences and during his interactions with the other characters. ("Manners Maketh Man") Here's maybe a choice that's more controversial: Vin Diesel's Dom in Fast 7 has style to spare. He's a cool, macho guy but we don't get this only from Vin Diesel's performance, but also from surprising character work. For example, when his lover Letty goes to her grave and ruminates about her lost memories... what does Dom do? He shows up with a motherfucking sledgehammer to destroy her headstone.

Strong choice. Strong style. Obvious in every character interaction and action sequence.

Weirdly, Eddie Redmayne's Balam Abraxas in Jupiter Ascending definitely has a lot style as well. He's the only interesting part of the movie, over-acting at an operatic frequency only by whispering and screaming at the top of his lungs. Does it work? Maybe. But both the screenplay and Redmayne definitely commit to the insanity of the ten thousand year old character.

Poor Balam only gets to poop once every ten thousand years!

4 - Know Your Style

Fast and Furious is aware of how goofy is and runs with the over the top action pieces. Mad Max: Fury Road attempts to deliver an adrenaline shot of insanity directly into your veins and peace out afterwards. The very meta Kingsmen can get away with (spoilers for Kingsmen) killing its main character half way through the movie.

Some movies can't nail what tone they are supposed to be. Avatar Last Airbender, a.k.a. shit in its cinematic form, is unrelentingly grim whereas Jupiter Ascending probably could have had less levity.

And then there are movies that have no idea what tone they are supposed to be at all. On that end, I give you Jurassic World that's 4 different movies for each quadrant of the audience. It's sometimes a sentimental Spielbergian drama about two brothers who discover how boring they are, sometimes it's a romantic comedy about a polar opposite couple, sometimes it's heavy conversations about what it means to weaponize animals and, during the Lauren Lapkus and Nick from New Girl segments, is an improvisational Judd Apatow comedy.

5 - Bonus Points for Something Unexpected

This is really tricky because Blockbusters need to be for everyone, so you can't ruffle too many feathers. Creative risks are discouraged, but, at least, on the visual front, directors can take on interesting visual challenges and give people something "they haven't seen before" -- see the insane single takes of Gravity or the weird dream imagery of Inception. But, on the content level, it's very rare when a hero does a morally dubious thing or the movie ends in a dark place. Because of this, personally, while I find myself liking blockbusters, I'm rarely surprised by them.

(Following paragraph is a spoiler for the Kingsmen) 

So imagine my surprise when Galahad got executed by the villain halfway through the movie. I love moments like these and, I assure you, there is nothing that delights a reader more than being surprised. I read for major studios and, %95 of the time, things went exactly as how I thought they did. So, if you can throw a curve ball... Do it.

This is especially great if you're writing a spec script. See, Spiderman isn't going to die halfway through the movie. Harry Potter is never going to be defeated. There are constraints to writing a piece that is connected to an IP (intellectual property) but, in a spec script, you can do things those big movies can't do! So experiment! Do crazy shit!

But nothing as crazy as the costumes in Jupiter Ascending, please.
Can you think of more elements/variables I missed? Have any favorite blockbusters that break these rules? Feel free to discuss these in the comments! Thanks for reading!

Levin

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Letter To A Screenwriter on The Ledge

Wait, don't jump.

Think for a second.

Your job is to write stories that make utterly ridiculous and implausible fantasies appear real. You've gotten really good at it. So good that right now your using the same tools of your imaginative craft to tell yourself a story about yourself. In fact, you've told so it so well that your ridiculous and implausible story about victimization, inauthenticity, and failure actually seems real.

It's not.

It's all cheap special effects, formulaic plot twists, and cliches cribbed from Save The Cat.

Step back, be your own best studio executive and demand a rewrite.

It's a movie in your head. It's not your life.

With love,

- Sean

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Great Job/Shitty Job -- a Breakdown of the Good and the Bad of Jurassic World


Post by Levin Menekse
Welcome to another edition of "Great Job/Shitty Job" where we take a look at movies that are neither stinkers or classics and find out what we can learn from them, both good AND bad. You can check out the first installment, on Interstellar, over here.

Which brings me to Jurassic World; a movie I simultaneously enjoyed and got frustrated by, as if I was eating a bad watermelon on a really, really hot day. It hit the spot on some accounts (Childhood Nostalgia! Dinosaurs!) but made me squirm aplenty. So, what are some lessons we can take away from this movie?

#1: Great Job, Jurassic World -- "Pretty Cool Set Pieces"

For the uninitiated, a "set-piece" is a sequence that is more elaborate than the other scenes in the movie. They usually involve a lot of "fortunately/unfortunately". For example, in Jurassic World, one of the major set-pieces is the Dinosaur WWE at the end -- let's break it down, shall we?

Unfortunately, our characters are cornered by the raptors! / Fortunately, Chris Pratt comes in and he's so charismatic the Raptors can't bring themselves to eat him! / Unfortunately, the Big Bad Dino -- Indominus Rex -- shows up. Uh-oh. Meal time! / Fortunately, Chris Pratt charms the shit out of the Raptors and they attack the Big Bad Dino instead! Wohoo! / Unfortunately, the Big Bad Dino is a bad-ass motherfucker and it seems like the things are going to shit! Bad bad bad! / Fortunately... it's time to break out the T-Rex! BIG FIST BUMP!

And so forth. You get the gist of it.

The movie handles these sequences with a deft hand. Not only are they gorgeous, they are also surprising. I, personally, did not see the "HERE COMES TO T-REX!" moment and might have squealed a little when it happened. Plus, you want every "Fortunately/Unfortunately" iteration to escalate the tension... until it explodes with a nice, fist-bump-y roar at the end. And, my friends, the eventual demise of the Big Bad Dino is such a fist-bump, "holy crap!" moment, it closes the Dinosaur WWE set piece with style to spare.

Yup. I googled "Dinosaur WWE". Internet never disappoints.
Plus, Jurassic World manages to implement character development into these set-pieces: When the Big Bad Dino attacks the two distant brothers while they're traveling in the Pokeballs, the set piece forces them to bond together, furthering their character development. Similarly, when Claire goes HAM in the end and pulls out the T-Rex from it's cage, she has come so much further than who she was at the beginning of the movie.

#2: Shitty Job, Jurassic World -- "Shitty Character Development"

I know I just praised the movie for using its set pieces to tell character stories and further character development... So why does the Jurassic World get a "Shitty Job" for Character Development?

Of all the filmmakers in the world, the studio went with Colin Trevorrow, a small indie filmmaker. His only credit before this was "Safety Not Guaranteed" which is a romantic comedy that excelled in intimate character work. Which, I assume, is why Trevorrow was hired -- after all, there are so many blockbusters out there these days and distinct, unique, fresh characters give an edge to the box office potential of these movies.

And some of it shows in the movie. Irrfhan Khan's quirky billionaire seems to have some sort of an inner life. Vincent D'Onofrio might be playing a villain, but, hey, he gets the screen time to explain his motives and some of his points are actually salient. He's not some sniveling selfish guy, he just fashions himself to be a realist among all these naive idealists who think dinosaurs are cute.

Unfortunately though, for the majority of the movie, we're either stuck with the two Boring Brothers or Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard's cute couple.

Hey! We heard something interesting was going on! We're here to put an end to it!
Two Boring Brothers are Boring. Look, I'm completely on board with some old-fashion Spielberg family sentimentality, but can we not to do it in the most non-specific, general way possible? Start with the older sibling being bored by the younger one, end with them holding hands and avoiding danger together and throw in some cliche "Remember how I protected you when the monsters came to get you at night?" big-brother stuff and... wow. Just typing that bored me.

When I write a big budget movie, here's a litmus test I usually use for my characters: Would this person be interesting without the plot of the movie in motion?

In Jurassic World, some characters pass this test: Yes, I would actually watch a movie about Irrfhan Khan's conflicted billionaire charmingly irritating his employees. I don't know if I'd like to run into Vincent D'Onofrio's character in a Christmas party, as we'd probably butt heads but, hey, he seems to have some pretty unique POV on the world.

The Boring Brothers definitely and unequivocally do not pass this test. Look, I get that they are young, I get that they are not going to have interesting ideas but... Their parents are divorcing. That's an interesting angle to explore them from. Instead, we get the most general "they are distant because...uhhh..." and "now they love each other. Yay!"

Which brings me to Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard's characters. Sigh.

But we're so good looking and charming! What's not to like?!
I don't want to beat a dead horse here. Everyone from Joss Whedon to Gawker pointed out how sexist the movie is. I agree with that -- it's as if someone went "Mad Max was so feminist, we need to do something to balance out the summer!" -- but let's look at all this from the lens of screenwriting:

In a big movie like this, you expect certain stereotypes. The stuck up, non-nurturing career woman thawing and becoming more maternal is a goodie, but that's not necessarily the problem if we're looking at it solely from the screenwriting perspective.The problem is how these two characters reflect on each other: We know Claire's journey, it's very pronounced. Owen's journey, on the other hand is... being awesome and being told that he's awesome and become more awesome as a result?

That's not solely sexism, that's also bad storytelling. Couples are much more interesting when they grow together and bring out the best (or the worst) in each other. It's really fucking boring -- and a waste of the talented Chris Pratt -- when he's on the same frequency the entire damn movie! There is a bit of an attempt at some sort of arc when he has to take out the raptors to track down the Big Bad Dino but even then the movie makes it very, very clear that he has no choice.

Extremely simple: No Choice and No Change makes for a Boring Character.

#3: Shitty Job, Jurassic World -- "WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?"

The Writer's hand is never more explicit than when a character makes an incredibly stupid choice just to get the plot rolling. And the thing is, characters making stupid decisions is one of those things, like Bad Acting or Bad Dialogue, that just ruins the movie experience in a fundamental way. You won't need to know anything about screenwriting or directing to yell "WHY?!" at the screen. (Hopefully in the comfort of your own home.)

Let's play the Jurassic World, Spot the Dumb Decision

- One day, you come to work and can't find a genetically engineered killing machine Dinosaur in his cage! Do you:

A) Look around the cage for any footprints and other signs from a safe distance?
B) Fill the cage with sleep gas / food to prod him out if he's in there?
C) Check the GPS Locator you have implanted into the predatory Dinosaur just in case something like this happened?
D) JUMP INTO THE CAGE, UNARMED, AND DO NOT CHECK THE GPS LOCATOR UNTIL YOU START GETTING EATEN BY THE SAID DINOSAUR.

"Yup. We know that we shouldn't let our dicks burn, but it was written into the script!"
Dumb dumb dumb. And if you're thinking: "But Jurassic World made so much money, obviously nobody cared..." I assure you that the producers reading your spec script are not going to be as generous. The thing about sequels and remakes, and part of why they make so much money, is that the audience WANTS to like these movies. As they step into the theater, they're already enticed by the previous memories associated with this product.

When a Producer or a Reader reads your script, s/he is staring at a 1/100 chance of this script being good. There is no such goodwill. S/he is probably tired, even annoyed about this task of reading through yet another screenplay. And a "dumb character moment" is the easiest way to annoy a reader because it pops right off the page and shits right in the face of your story.

#4: Great Job, Jurassic World -- "A fresh POV"

You'd expect a rinse and repeat mentality in the 4th sequel of, arguably, the biggest movie franchise in the history of movies. But Jurassic World actually tackles the franchise in some fresh ways and raises new questions. For example, the morality of using dinosaurs in the military? Fresh concept. A zoo keeper who is the Alpha to a pack of Raptors? Fresh concept. Seeing the Jurassic Park completely operational, in all its glory? Fresh concept.

When a Studio or Producer approaches a writer about working on an IP (Intellectual Property -- a book, a sequel, a remake etc.) the writer has to choose how to attack the material. This is called the "take" as in "her take on the material". You know how we always talk about a writer's "voice"? Well, a writer's voice manifests itself at these instances. A hundred writers would have written Jurassic World in a hundred different ways, but Connolly and Trevorrow came with fresh ideas on how to attack the material and got chosen out of that hundred.

You're probably thinking "Well, I'm not at that level yet, nobody is asking me to write Jurassic World!" but this goes for even the most basic of movies. Ask yourself: Is my perspective on my story "fresh"? If you're writing a horror movie, for example, how is it different than the other horror movies waiting patiently on an agent's desk? What are you giving us that we haven't seen before?

Alright, that's it for now. I hope you enjoyed this article and if you have any thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below!