Friday, July 31, 2009

Back at last! With another installment of How I Do It

Sorry for leaving the blog unattended for so long, but I had a lot of urgent screenwriting to do!

That's done now, so I can finally spend some more time on the blog again.

So, with no further ado, a new practical (I hope) writing tip!

While writing the current script, there was one scene which gave me problems. Of course, it was the most crucial scene in the script.

During this scene, the protagonist of the episode, who has been a relentless womanizer and visitor of night clubs and expensive brothels all his life, has to realize that since he's always paid for love and affection, it's possible that most if not all of it has not been sincere. This is supposed to lead to the crisis of the entire episode and it's the final nail in his coffin, as all what he thougt to have accomplished in life is shown in previous scenes to be hollow and worthless (yes, it IS a comedy, folks).

The problem with the scene was that I knew what the emotional trajectory had to be, and I had a clear idea of the stops along the way. But when I started writing it, it just felt wrong. All the necessary elements were in the scene, but the order in which they showed up (the way I structured the scene) just didn't convince at all.

Looking back at what I got, one of the problems was that as I was building the main spine of the scene, I introduced a tangential element which was related to the spine (the most important love affair the character had had during the series), but which took over once it was introduced. And once that 'bit' was finished, it proved to be extremely hard to return to the original throughline.
On the other hand, just deleting the element wasn't a solution either, as it was something which had to be dealt with or the loyal fans in the audience would wonder why it hadn't been talked about.

So the way I finally cracked it was to go back to the beginning of the scene (again, as I'd tried several different versions already) and wrote a long version - a version which was deliberately too long for the finished script, but where I made sure that I put in every little step of the psychological process the protagonist had to go through.

As the context of the scene was an interview about the protagonist's love life, I also had to make sure that the character doing the interview managed to

I also made sure that the tangent wasn't introduced at a point where it derailed the scene, but at the moment where it amplified and complemented the main thrust of the scene.

Then, it was just a question of cutting back the excess dialogue and exposition. It's amazing to discover just how much material you can cut without losing the point you need to make. However, you usually do need to spell matters out first, before discovering the more concise version which is the right one.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Perils of Preaching

All screenwriters have probably been bombarded with the golden rule: don't preach in your script - or, in (probably) Samuel Goldwyn's immortal words: if you want to send a message, use Western Union.

This is one of those rules which you don't want to be true, but when you break it you realize just how valid and universal it is. Yet some filmmakers still persist in doing so - and the finished product, whether film or TV show, always suffers as a result.

Case in point, the Dutch political comedy Vox Populi, which I watched yesterday.

Vox Populi is about a radical left-wing politician, leader of the fictitious Red-Green Party, who is doing very badly in the polls. Largely because of the presence of a populist right-wing party with an explicit anti-Moslem message.
He then meets the father of his future son-in-law, who is a blue-collar car salesman, politically incorrect, often aggressive but fundametally honest and warm-hearted guy. Though shocked by the raunchy humour and crass comments of his new near-relative, he realizes some of them have some merit and he starts parroting them to the media.

The result is that he becomes extremely popular (except with his parliamentary colleagues and his existing voters) and his party, which was on the verge of disappearing, shoots to the top of the polls.

The film actually muddles this set-up by having the politician be manipulated by an ex-Yougoslavian son-in-law of the car salesman, who has made a bet with his brother(?) that he's going to make the Red-Green Party the biggest political party in Holland come the election. There's never any real pay-off of this extra level in the plot.

Anyway, eventually our 'hero' is caught on tape telling a raunchy anti-Moslem joke, an extremist faction wants to kill him, and he has to go live in a safe house. Just before the general election, he decides to address the nation, and gives a long speech to the nation.

And here, of course, he stops being a character and becomes the mouthpiece for writer/director Eddy Terstall. He denounces his own behaviour, dissects the problems in contemporary Dutch society and declares he is leaving politics and the country, but imparts his wishlist of how Holland should face the challenges it is confronted with now, like a wise old man providing life lessons for his wayward pupils.

Of course, this is an inherently non-dramatic situation. That's one handicap. But more problematically, what the character says, does not correspond with how he has behaved throughout the movie.

He's been a hypocrite through and through (relentless womanizer, recreational drug user, liar, narcissist), and the audience has never got a really good handle on what he actually does believe in apart from his original ideals. And to have such a character suddenly declare the moral message of the film, without any clear indication of how he acquired these insights, just undermines whatever the filmmaker tries to say.

To attempt to make the turnabout of the protagonist slightly acceptable, the character declares before delivering his message that he's had a lot of time to think in his safehouse and has come to realize some things... and no, it doesn't work.

The regrettable thing is that, with a different approach to the plot, the same message could have been put across. In a far more convincing manner. How? By dramatizing the content of the message. By creating situations, dilemmas and conflicts which put the main character through the wringer, and force him to make a difficult choice, the result of which shows his true character and makes it clear to the audience what the filmmaker wants to get across.

Why, you can even have big message-laden speeches if you really want - as long as you put them in a dramatic context. Preston Sturges was a master at this - check the finale of Hail The Conquering Hero, for instance.

Or, sabotage the big speech, because of the dramatic context it is placed in, as is the case in The China Syndrome, when Jack Lemmon's character finally gets the chance to air the truth on television.

But whatever you do, don't get the character up on a soapbox, and definitely don't have him come to certain conclusions or assume the moral high ground when throughout the entire film his mentality and behaviour have been diametrically opposed to what you want to convey. You're just going to ruin whatever effect you're hoping to achieve.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Book Review: Inside Story - The Power of the Transformational Arc (Dara Marks)

Dara Marks has been one of the most prominent script doctors in Hollywood for years. A good thing, then, that she's decided to write down her theories and share them with the world, so that every screenwriter can benefit from her approach.

Since the subtitle of the book is The Power of the Transformational Arc, it's pretty clear from the start what Ms. Marks' main focus is going to be. And you may think 'Hey, I know about that stuff already'. And you'd be right - you do know about the concept.

However, you do not know how Dara Marks approaches it. And even though I've read literally hundreds of screenwriting books, and some of the concepts used here were very close to some of the material in Keith Cunningham's The Soul of Screenwriting, reviewed here a couple of weeks ago, I still learned quite a lot from this book.

Or rather, the new concepts (or, more correctly, the new dimensions added to concepts) are explained so well and convincingly that you immediately take them on board. This, to me, is the mark of a truly effective screenwriting manual - after one read, you have the concepts down pat to a degree that you can immediately start applying them to your work.

The first part of the book looks at the central concepts in Ms. Marks' theory; the second part then applies them to screenplay structure.

As we're talking about the transformational arc, it's no surprise that much of the theory is about defining and using the fatal flaw in the main character. What makes Ms. Marks' approach particularly useful is that she stresses that the fatal flaw must be intimately related to the main conflict of the script. In so many flawed (pun intended) scripts, the protagonist has to overcome a weakness which bears no relation to the external story goal. The result is that the transformation of the protagonist is gratuitous and clichéed. When the transformational arc does coincide with the story goal, it becomes an indispensible part of the storytelling experience (Casablanca, anyone?).

There's also a lot of good material about creating characters and about finding (and using) the theme for your story. The book also takes the three-pronged approach we found in Soul of Screenwriting: the A-story is the external conflict, the B-story is the internal conflict within the protagonist which leads to the transformation (or, in a tragedy, to the lack of same) and the C-story is about the relationships the protagonist is involved in, and how they are affected/changed by the transformative process. It's very good to have these things spelled out so clearly, because especially this third level is overlooked far too often by screenwriters.

The example films used here are three big movies from the '80s: Romancing The Stone, Lethal Weapon and Ordinary People. These films were chosen for a very good reason: they each have a different approach to their protagonists. Romancing has the traditional single protagonist, Lethal has co-protagonists and Ordinary has a group as the protagonist (the family).

This is probably the thing in the book I'll be most grateful to Dara Marks for, for the rest of my writing life: yes, you can have more than one protagonist. What really matters is the goal - if two people work together towards the same goal, they are co-protagonists (all the buddy movies). And if a group of people are working towards the same goal, the group is the protagonist of the story.

This is such a breakthrough in thinking about screenplay writing, it cannot be emphasized enough. It absolutely helped me conceptually with a script idea which I'm convinced is extremely powerful, but which confused me structurally because, as it's about a family in dire peril, I couldn't get a handle on who the protagonist was going to be. Because each family member took the spotlight at different points during the story. Now, considering them as a single entity striving towards a common goal, things are falling into place very nicely.

Oh, and there's much, much more on how to apply this concept practically in the book. Don't worry, I didn't spoil it for you, I just gave you a little taste of what's in store.

The second part on screenwriting structure is both surprising and traditional. Very traditional, indeed, because where structural points are concerned, Ms. Marks harks back to Syd Field in a pretty basic form: two plot points and a midpoint, that's all you get.

However, she adds a lot of content to the model. Not in terms of 'points to hit', but in how she describes what is happening to your protagonist during each act (act 2 is, once again, divided into two parts). The transformational process is described in painstaking detail.

The graphical representation of the screenplay is quite different from what we usually see - instead of a mountainous range, it's a bell curve, created by folding open a circle. Each quadrant of the circle (an act) has its own descriptor to indicate how the protagonist is 'feeling' with regards to the transformation at that point. So it's quite clear, visually speaking, though I personally don't like that the third act is on the same level as the first act. However, no one ever wrote a bad (or a good) screenplay because of a visual representation of a story structure, so this is merely a personal nitpick.

Throughout the book, the writing style is excellent: professional in tone, but very clear and easy to read without ever feeling dumbed down. It's a perfect example of a textbook, combining readability with content. There are some spiritual passages in the book, but they are never overbearing or preachy, and quite limited in number. Interestingly, though Ms. Marks has a Ph.D in mythology, there's very little Joseph Campbell in this book, and no explicit mention of the Hero's Journey whatsoever.

There's but one thing I truly disagree with in here (well, two things - I really really really don't like the ending of The Piano), and that's the analysis of Million Dollar Baby. I think the shift in the third act of that film is a stroke of genius, turning what seemed to be a very good version of a formulaic story we'd seen many times before(rags to riches) into a scarily realistic tragedy. Ms. Marks finds the shift too far removed from the story of the previous acts, and claims that Hilary Swank is the protagonist up to that point - but she's really not, it's Clint's story all the way. As the third act makes poignantly clear.

But this quibble aside (and who knows, you might agree more with her analysis than with mine), I wholeheartedly recommend this book to any screenwriter. And especially for beginners, this should be the second, third or fourth book you read when you're starting out. Because it will teach you a lot of important concepts which you will need to use in some form or another throughout your entire career, and it does so in an exemplary manner.

So, what are you waiting for? Get it here:

You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Know Your Ending

What do we mean exactly by 'know your ending'? Is it just 'James Bond foils Goldinger's plan and kills him'? Or do you need to know more? And how does knowing the ending help you construct your screenplay? Doesn't that take all the fun out of it?

Let's tackle this last question first. There are some writers out there, who do not outline in any way, and who do not want to know where they're going when they start out on the journey. And a very small number of them actually succeed in finishing their scripts and getting them filmed. They are either natural storytellers who just know how to tell good stories well, or they are idiosyncratic writers who have established close partnerships with directors and/or producers who share their same aesthetic - and in many cases they are actually writer-directors.

For the huge majority of writers though, knowing where you're going to is actuallu a prerequisite for finishing the script. It focuses the mind, helps you invent characters, incidents, thematic images etc. and it allows you to build a story with definite forward movement because you know where you're going.

And as for the fun being taken out of it if you know your destination - well, don't forget that during the writing process, you can change your mind whenever you want about what the ending should be. In fact, in many cases it will! And the journey to the ending will definitely add so many details, so much knowledge and so many opportunities to your story, that it will evolve naturally into something different than what you first imagined it would be.

Now, on to the meat of the question - when do you know your ending?

First, when we talk about the ending, in this case we mean the climax, i.e. the moment at which the dramatic question which powers the script is answered. To take Star Wars as an example, the dramatic question there is: will Luke Skywalker succeed in defeating the Empire? The answer to that question is: yes. That's a no-brainer.

Casablanca has a trickier dramatic question to answer: will Rick get Ilsa back? Here you have more options as a writer. Yes, she goes back to her true love, no, she stays with her husband, no, he dies, no, she dies, no, her husband dies and she becomes a nun out of guilt, yes, but Victor comes along for the ride and they go through life as a happy threesome... So answering your dramatic question in this case is quintessential to being able to write a compelling script.

So depending on the story you're telling, this basic answer can be quite hard to determine. And determine it you must, to know how you're going to build up to that answer.

Secondly, once you have your central answer to the dramatic question, you need to know some details about your climax. Not just the 'what', but also the 'how'.

To take the Star Wars example again: Luke will defeat the evil plans of the Empire, but the modalities of this event could have been totally different. There could have been an infiltration of the Death Star, or a strike on the governmental buildings on Coruscant, Grand Moff Tarkin could have been assassinated which might have thrown the entire military operation in disarray, Luke could have faced off against Vader face-to-face... Instead, Lucas chose to build the climax around a bombing run, and made Luke's choosing the Force over technology the crucial moment which cemented his internal transformation.

But as I mentioned earlier, it's perfectly natural for the 'how' (and occassionally the 'what' as well) to change during the writing process. In the case of Star Wars, George Lucas had developed several completely different drafts over the years before settling on the story he finally shot. (Many elements of the earlier incarnations of the story -unfortunately- showed up in the Prequel trilogy.)

Looking at Casablanca's climax, the importance of knowing your theme becomes especially clear. If, say, Rick had sold Victor out to the Nazis and remained in Casablanca together with Ilsa, the theme of the film would have been that true love is more important than moral integrity, or the end justifies the means. If Rick helped Victor escape but then told him that Ilsa was staying with him, that would be another theme altogether. The actual ending cements the theme that altruism (in this case also linked strongly to patriotism) is the highest ideal. A different climax means your story has a different underlying message.

So, knowing your ending means knowing how you are answering the central dramatic question, and how your protagonist and antagonist are going to interact during the climax of the story. And ideally it also means knowing the theme your story expresses, and expressing it through the details of the climax - though in quite a few cases, you will only discover your real theme in the course of the writing process.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

We Get Requests - Getting past Go (or Act One, to be precise)

Here it is - the first topic suggested by a reader of the blog!

And it's about a situation I've found myself into more than once. I just hope that my musings and suggestions on the matter are of interest and can help you out somewhat!

When I was a kid, I loved writing stories. It was one of my favourite pastimes.

Well... I loved writing the BEGINNING of stories.

You see, I was going to be this amazing science fiction author, and I had a couple of books full of pulp magazine covers of the '20s and '30s - wonderfully evocative pieces of popular art which couldn't help but get the heart and imagination of a twelve-year old pumping. And these covers inspired me to dream up my literary masterpieces.


As soon as I sat down at the typewriter (my god, was I ever that young??), and started typing away, by the time I reached the end of the first page, I had a 'far better' idea for another story. Which I started right away - this was the one I was going to tell, no matter what!!

Except... ad infinitum.

More than thirty years later, I still struggle with the same problem. Not when working on a TV series, but when working on my own spec projects and ideas. I'll go over the same part of the story ad infinitum, and end up with nothing but a first act that's all dressed up and has nowhere to go.

So what's at the root of this problem?

There are a few causes. First and foremost: FEAR.

Fear of failure makes us subconsciously sabotage our own projects. How does this work? Well, if you don't finish something, no one can reject it... (I actually pulled this stunt some 10 years ago, when I had the opportunity to write the pilot script for a new comedy series I'd developed with a producer for the network... stupid, stupid, stupid)

How to overcome this - well, apart from realizing the psychological mechanism at work in yourself and then getting REALLY ANGRY about it, the best ways I have found are 1) get a definite deadline, so you're forced to get on with things

2) get a writing partner. If you're working on a script with two people, there will always be at least one to keep things moving - even if only by goading the other half of the partnership into action. The very fact that someone else is counting on you to write the stuff, is a great motivator.

If you don't want a writing partner, a reading partner or some sort of coach could also do the trick - although you have to be careful with giving someone access to your script or story before it's finished. Because then another self-destructive psychological mechanism can come into play: you've already told your story, the creative urge to communicate has been sated, and you let the project drop because 'it's been done'.

Now, on the level of writing the script, there's also a reason why you can't get past Act One: you haven't done sufficient homework.

It's relatively easy to have an idea for a great opening to a movie, or to invent an inciting incident/plot start which really upsets someone's apple cart and has great promise for becoming an exciting, engaging screenplay.

It's far, far harder to think of an amazing finale for a movie. How many times have you come up with an incredible climax, and then thought 'hmmm, what story would fit this ending'? I'm betting it's a very rare occurence. (granted, if you're dreaming up a new Bond or Indy or Godzilla adventure, you might have more chance of this).

And that's pretty easy to explain. Dreaming up a climax means that you're answering a dramatic question. Which is very difficult if you don't know what that question is and who or what it involves.

Conversely, coming up with a basic dramatic question is far easier. It's also the logical starting point for the creative experience.

And it's easy to get lost in the excitement of the moment. At times, it may seem as if all the parts of the script puzzle are falling into place automatically. But certain aspects of the puzzle don't come quite that easily.

Most importantly: how unique is your protagonist? Has s/he got a real personality, with quirks, flaws, dreams, needs and goals? Or is he just Generic White Male Heroic Tween #245 who's only fit for the lead in Transformers 3 - It Gets Worse?

And secondly: what's the theme of your story? And does the psychological make-up of your main character fit this theme? Similarly, what about the antagonist - how is s/he related to the theme and the values it expresses?

The reader who asked me to tackle this topic said that he once he hit Act 2, all he could come up with were clichés or things he'd seen before or considered trite. That, to me, seems like proof that the above elements probably weren't considered sufficiently in order to create a unique and original story (no matter what the genre).

Then again, another good reason for getting stuck once you're past act One is that you don't know your ending, or not well enough - or that the ending you've considered is not the correct one for your story. And once again, this means doing the necessary preliminary work (and it's intimately linked to the previously mentioned elements) before trying to complete your story.

Something which can help you overcome this problem is using a very detailed structural model, such as provided in the Contour software or Blake Snyder's Save The Cat. Because these models are so elaborate and at times very specific, they may help you formulate concrete answers to the story questions
which elude you. However, this won't work for everyone - it depends on how your creative process works. Some people will feel too constrained by this approach, while for others it will unlock ideas they didn't even know they could have.

But, to sum up, in order to get past Act One, you must:

- Know your protagonist (and to a very slightly lesser degree your antagonist)
- Know your theme
- Know your ending!!!

Good luck!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Trouble With Sequels - The Sequel

Yesterday, we looked at sequels which don't work as well as the film which started the franchise. But of course, there are more than a few examples of sequels which do work as well as (or sometimes even better than) the original film in the series.

So how do these films manage to succeed where others fail? And do they have certain elements in common?

First up, the (original) Star Wars Trilogy.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker goes on a very explicit Hero's Journey, moving from callow innocent to seasoned warrior with a special gift (The Force) and a destiny - resurrecting the Jedi.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke turns out not to be the perfect warrior yet- he's just begun mastering Jedi skills, and is sent to Yoda to complete his training. Impatient and headstrong, Luke is not a perfect student, and he rushes off to do battle with Darth Vader long before Yoda thinks he's ready for it. The result is a resounding defeat and the loss of his hand.
So in this sequel, we see the continuation of Luke's growing process - and this time, impatience and stubbornness, two facets of his character which weren't really important in the first film, provide the inner conflict in an organic and believable way.

In Return of the Jedi, Luke has become a full-fledged Jedi, and goes to face his enemies (Vader and the Emperor) on more-or-less equal footing. Seen over the course of the three films, this is the culmination of his apprenticeship; in the film itself, however, Luke has almost no arc left, and his story (except for the finale of the climax sequence) is mainly played out on the external level. Small wonder Return of the Jedi is the weakest of the original trilogy.

Still, what we have here is a transformational arc which takes three films to complete (as they forge one BIG story). This is why it's possible for Lucas, Kasdan and company to keep the audience interested in the way Luke's story is played out. Similarly, Frodo's inner journey in The Lord of the Rings takes the three books and movies to explore completely - and Harry Potter keeps maturing and learning different life lessons over the course of seven books and probably eight films.

Okay, that's trilogies, which tell one story over several instalments. But what about straight-up sequels to a first film which completely finishes its arc?

Let's take a look at Back To The Future. In the first film, Marty McFly faces two problems: stuck in the '50s on the day his parents met, he has to get them together even though his mom has the hots for him; and secondly, he has to return to the '80s.
He succeeds at both tasks, and in doing so transforms the people he's met, resulting in a totally different present when he returns to 1984. Marty himself, though, doesn't change much during the film - he's more of a catalyst protagonist than someone who goes through an arc.

In the second film of the series, Marty suddenly has an important flaw: whenever someone challenges him, he has to take up the challenge - even if it's really stupid or dangerous to do so - because he can't bear to be thought a coward. This button gets pushed several times in the film, and leads to disastrous results. And it's a flaw which doesn't get resolved in the film, either (and it's perfectly acceptable and believable that this is the case).

Now, this flaw fit the character of Marty McFly so well, that the first time I saw the sequel, I was convinced it had been present in the first film as well, and I was flabbergasted when I discovered it wasn't. So that's some really clever and well-done character development: adding a new aspect of the character which feels as if it's been there forever.

In the third film, Marty's flaw finally gets 'cured' back in the Wild West, when he finally realizes it's better to be alive and thought to be 'chicken' by folks who don't really matter, than to be a dead would-be hero. As the problem wasn't solved in part 2, having the arc close in part 3 works - though there is a certain amount of repetitiveness creeping into the whole endeavour.

And then there are the first three Rocky films: in part one Rocky triumphs over his own limitations, but doesn't win the championship; in part 2, he gets another shot at the championship against the same opponent, and this time he wins - the lessons learned in the first film leading him to (wish fulfillment) triumph. And in the third film, he's let success go to his head, which leads to him losing his fighting edge and the moral and psychological strength he had developed. After having everything taken away from him, he has to come back from the pits of despair and reclaim his abilities. Part 4 eschews any real arc and just has the best American boxer beating on the best Soviet boxer in a purely external conflict.

Finally, there's still another option: the movie series with the 'unchanging' hero. James Bond pre-Brosnan, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan... The character is fully formed from the moment we meet him, has a number of quirks and flaws in place which will remain with him throughout the series. The character's attractive to the audience 'as is'. This method can work very well - in fact, all episodic television is based on it. If the lead character is exciting/intriguing/interesting enough, we want to see him go through his paces again time after time after time.

The trick here is to make the character seem rich enough psychologically so that internal transformations aren't necessary to keep us emotionally invested in the proceedings. And to be sure that the storytelling is so strong and inventive that the external storyline is entertaining and exciting enough to entrance the audience.

Quite often, this translates into a (very effective) formula which can be repeated ad inifitum, providing the same type of thrills for its target audience - and if you look at the success of series like House, M.D., getting the formula right is a recipe for long-lasting success. And this formulaic approach doesn't even necessarily mean you're producing an inferior product - House, M.D. is a very effective cross-fertilization of the whodunit story mechanic with the hospital series, for instance, with excellent performances and very effective humorous dialogue.

(As an aside, the reason the Brosnan Bonds don't do the transformational arc succesfully is because they just add random flaws to the character which don't really fit the Bond image.
In Goldeneye, he feels guilty for years because he couldn't rescue his friend/colleague from the Russians. Bond, feeling guilty without doing anything about it? Really?
In Tomorrow Never Dies, he meets an ex-girlfriend he ran away from because things got too serious. Bond the wimpy commitmentphobe, really?
In The World Is Not Enough, he falls in love with the villainess and has to choose between loving her and saving M. In Bond's world, that's not even close to a dilemma.
And in Die Another Day, he has to piece himself together again after having been captured and tortured by the North Koreans for months on end - a process which takes as long as getting a shave and a haircut. All these elements are either tacked on to the character or not really investigated in any depth, with the result that they weaken the quintessential nature of the Bond Archetype.)

So the solution to keeping your sequels as fresh and exciting as the original are:

- tell one larger story over several installments, which keeps your protagonist growing and transforming throughout

- add new but organic flaws to your protagonist and make sure this new internal plot matches your external plot (which might be somewhat more formulaic in nature)

- Have your main character evolve organically from film to film, so that the new adventure is caused by or influences his/her current state of being

- keep your protagonist unchanged but make him/her an emotionally rich character, and either tell only an external story or have him/her go through challenges time and again which fail to change them (the latter applies to comedies, primarily)

And above all - realize that sometimes a character is used up, and either has to be changed fundamentally or should be allowed to retire gracefully in the collective subconcious of global pop culture.
Good luck convincing the bean counters of this, though...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Just a note about comments

Anonymous comments have now been enabled. So post away without any cumbersome logging-in procedure!

The Trouble With Sequels

While reading Dara Marks' Inside Story (review coming up as soon as I finish it), it suddenly struck me why so many sequels don't deliver the goods, despite bigger budgets, more pyrotechnics, SFX, gory kills or extreme comedy situations (since most sequels fall into the action, science fiction, horror and comedy genres).

And the reason is: the story of the protagonist has been told.

In the original film, both the character, the plot lines (external and internal), and the specific style of the film (and this can include the basic formula on which the sequels will be based) are new. The external plot and the internal plot (external conflict and the transformational arc of the protagonist) generally reinforce each other. And the protagonist is transformed at the end of the movie, meaning that his/her main flaw has been adressed and overcome.

Which means that in a sequel, a crucial part of the attractiveness of the original film is no longer available for storytelling purposes (unless the same pyschological problem is rehashed literally).

What remains are the external elements of the original. Which are amped up to eleven, in an attempt to provide the same visceral thrills as the original film - but only more so. However, what made the original special was the interplay between the two levels of storytelling (and, quite probably, the thematic level as well).

So the result in most cases is (literally) more of the same, yet simultaneously less of the same.

The Die Hard series is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

In Die Hard, John McClane has to save his wife from the terrorists who have taken the Nakatomi building hostage. In doing so, and facing the reality he may never see her again, he realizes that he was mainly at fault in their marital crisis. When they are reunited in the climax, it's clear to the audience that this couple has gone through hell and has come out on the other side reinforced and more 'together' than ever before.

In Die Harder, McClane's wife is up in an aeroplane while terrorists have taken the airport hostage. He has to save her once again, but this time there's no internal struggle to engage the audience. The McClane marriage is safe and sound, and the threat against it is purely physical.

In Die Hard With A Vengeance, the internal flaw is back - with a vengeance. The McClane marriage is over, John is now a drunken wreck of a cop who has to save the city of New York which has more or less been taken hostage by a group of terrorists. The internal flaw here is only active in the beginning of the movie, however - once the action starts, McClane sobers up almost instantaneously and performs at peak potential throughout the adventure. And the climax and theme of the film have no connection with his new psychological weakness. Let's not forget that the film was based on a script which had nothing to do with the Die Hard series, and was shoehorned into it at some phase during its development. This may very well explain why there's no satisfactory arc for the McClane character.

In Die Hard 4.0, finally, all attempts at transformation have been abandoned. McClane is an invincible superhero masquerading as an everyday Joe from the start. He starts out as a concerned parent and ends up as a concerned parent. In fact, the character doing the transforming in this film is the sidekick - the irresponsible young hacker who learns to take responsibility for his actions.

So we see that only in the first film there was an actual integration of the external and the internal plots (and to be honest, the integration wasn't 100% perfect - though good enough to give the film its extra emotional and psychological richness).

Of course, seeing McClane patch things up with his wife four times in a row also wouldn't have worked. So, frankly, the sequels were doomed from the start to be inferior to the original - not because of the action being less spectacular (if anything, it got to be far TOO spectacular), but because of the humanity of the protagonist getting lost from the first sequel on out. Because his story had already been told.

And it was precisely this element of humanity which made John McClane such a compelling protagonist, and which catapulted Bruce Willis out of the ranks of 'TV stars making a failed bid for movie stardom' to one of the most succesful and popular film stars of the '90s.