Choosing To Like Things

“I guess I just like liking things.”

-Abed Nadir

After two years of film school, my 20-year-old self had come to a conclusion: Modern blockbuster filmmaking sucked. Give me Criterion or give me death!

Film study is wonderful in what you can learn about how great movies came together. You get to peek behind the curtain and see how the great magicians do their tricks. You also become painfully aware of when a film doesn’t live up to its potential. That understanding of what could/should be happening makes you acutely not only aware of when a film is bad, but you can rattle off 34 reasons why. Couple that with youthful exuberance and, well…

I became a snob. Sometimes an insufferable one.

But then, something happened. Friends dragged me to see the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. And I had fun. I cut down on the snobbery and thought about how any film that finds an audience must have some value. To connect with one person is hard enough. Imagine what it takes to connect with millions.

But once you’ve peeled back the curtain and looked at what’s there, you can’t undo that. The desire to point things out that don’t work, or tear things down if they’re particularly offensive, can rear its ugly head at any time. The reasons can range from failures of narrative clarity to issues of representation. These feelings become even more acute when you add in your hopes, and there have been many times (this summer, especially) where I’ve had hopes dashed.

A well-argued post that champions something on its merits has a greater potential for value than a negative post working to tear something down. Even if that argument is sound.

I’d rather like things. I don’t want to remain silent about things I see as destructive or offensive, but I don’t want to engage them here. I’d rather talk about what works. The spectacular things. The times when narrative challenges without becoming inscrutable. Where films bring us real, dimensional humans instead of an amalgamation of tropes and stereotypes. Where the audience gets to witness a true spectacle.

I’ll leave you with a clip. This is the scene that I saw for the first time when I was… maybe 12? My dad sat me down to watch the PBS affiliate’s weekend movie: The Third Man I was already enjoying it, but then this scene happened, and it gave me ideas about what I needed to do for the rest of my life.

That’s the kind of movie I want to spend my time talking about.

On not knowing what it is

Per my previous post on avoiding writer’s block, I’m working on more than one project right now. One of these scripts is brand new, though some of the ideas have been percolating in Evernote and a previous script for a while now. And it’s at this point, where I’m making the transition from idea to actual pages that I’m running into an issue:

I don’t know what this script is for.

It could be something low-budget. Possibly even something I’d want to produce myself. It could be a little more action-packed and blockbuster. It might not even be the story that I thought it was when I committed to figuring this one out.

This is the part where I bring up the fact that I’m bad at Buddhism. This kind of thinking is focusing on the end result and not on the act of writing. It’s a less mindful approach than working to discover the story and see where it needs to go as opposed to figuring out what kind of box I’m trying to place the finished script in.

Coming from a film school background, there were plenty of late nights working with specific limitations. “We only have 15 seconds worth of film left.” “What do you mean we can’t shoot on the shoulder of the freeway?” “How can we show that in a way that doesn’t involve 1,000 animated paper cranes?” These were concrete obstructions imposed by the need to have something to turn in by the end of the semester.

Sometimes a lack of constraints can be a frustration. I need to be reminded that in this draft I can write literally anything, and that’s OK. It’s all wide open. It’s a time to remember that if the first draft shows promise, external constraints will come soon enough.

What We Do When The Sky Falls

Consider these four films that all start from the same basic place: When Worlds Collide, Armageddon, Melancholia, and Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World

All of these movies have a big thing in common: Something large is headed toward Earth and will obliterate it. That’s it. Half a log line. But the characters the narrative focuses on, the degree of agency they have in the chain of events, and the tone the film chooses to take make each one unique.

When Worlds Collide focuses its story on a group of scientists and survivalists who discover that a star named Bellus is moving toward Earth and will consume it. They propose to build spaceships to take settlers from Earth to Zyra, an Earth-like body orbiting Bellus. With no hope for the Earth to survive, the movie puts its focus on the scientists, pilots, and engineers involved in the escape effort. The core conflicts involve the construction of the rockets to take people to the new planet, deciding who will be able to make the journey and who will be left behind, and the gamble of whether or not the escape from Earth will succeed.

Armageddon has a slightly smaller object hurtling toward Earth, but one that will still wipe out all life. Like with When Worlds Collide, the focus is on people whose efforts impact more than just themselves. NASA recruits a drilling team to go up and detonate the asteroid before it can hit Earth, and the conflict of the story focuses on whether or not this mission succeeds (since this movie offers the possibility that Earth may survive).

Melancholia opens with a flash-forward, showing that the Earth is definitely going to be crushed by a giant planet entering its orbit. There is no hope of escape. No chance of averting extinction and destruction. And then it cuts to a wedding. The movie focuses not on people who have any particular connection to astronomy, the government, or the military. These are people whose understanding of what’s happening is filtered through reports that they hear and strange events that they witness. The movie focuses on how these people deal emotionally with the certainty of impending doom; people who have no position or ability to alter the larger course of events. Because of their lack of agency against the large object hurtling toward them, their story comes from the way they interact with each other, and how they work toward resolving their interpersonal conflicts before the inevitable collision.

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World is similar to Melancholia in that its main characters lack the ability to stop the inevitable extinction of life on Earth (For example, Steve Carell’s Dodge is an insurance salesman). However, the tone is different, and the focus more hopeful. Instead of waiting out the end, this is a movie where the main characters are looking to reconnect with others before the end: a long lost love, an estranged father, distant family members, etc. Despite the certainty that by the end of the movie all these characters will be dead, the movie plays out as a romantic comedy.

Doubts will come up about your writing, sometimes about whether or not you’re saying anything original, or if you’re doing anything different enough to get noticed. Similarities to other stories or conflicts don’t necessarily mean that you’re telling the same story. Elements like giant asteroids/planets hurtling toward Earth, vampires, terrorists, or the breakup of a marriage are jumping off points. Unique storytelling is all about who and how.

Who do we focus on in this situation?

How do they tackle the obstacles presented to them?

Put Them All Inside The Haunted House

Let’s say you have a haunted house and a group of unsuspecting teens. Would you rather watch the movie where they go one at a time into the haunted house, or would you rather watch the one where they all go in together?

Either way, you’ll get your scares, your gore, and plenty of screaming. However, if they go in together, you also get character conflict.

Picture that moment where the group stands in the main hall of the massive haunted mansion, everyone’s eyes darting around to check the shadows for something sneaking up on them.

“We need to get out of here! Does anybody remember how to get back to the entrance?”

“No. These spirits aren’t trying to hurt us. They must have some unfinished business. Maybe we can help them cross over.”

“You’re nuts. Ghosts aren’t even a thing. I think I saw a sword and some other weapons back in one of those rooms. Whoever’s doing this is gonna wish –”

“They’re. Not. Human. We’re dead. We’re all dead.”

By forcing these separate individuals together with their different viewpoints on what’s going on and what to do about it, you’re not just creating additional conflict for the characters to deal with, but further defining each character for the audience. The more we know about the character, the more we attach our hopes and fears to their actions. This isn’t just about learning facts about the characters that endear them to us, but about seeing how they behave under pressure, and seeing how that behavior reveals their character.

It also applies outside the horror/slasher genre. Taking characters that don’t always get along or agree and jamming them together is a way to build tension in any genre. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting if Ferris wasn’t working to get Cameron to loosen up. In The Godfather, does Sonny Corleone decide unilaterally how to deal with Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey after the second attempt on his father’s life? No. Michael, Tom, and Sonny are all in the room together hashing out the decision, and the existing conflict is magnified by the friction between their personalities.

If you have characters whose personalities rub each other the wrong way, are you doing everything you can to force them together? If you have characters that already spend a lot of screen time together, are they too often on the same page, or is there room to create friction between them?

Do you have the time?

Years ago, when I was still using a dumb phone, I stopped wearing my watch. It was a decision to use the clock on my phone and not have two things on my person for the same task.

The watch was left on my desk. Then a series of drawers. By the time I moved to Boston, it hadn’t seen the light of day for over a year. Being a watch with a solar battery, that lead to it having some issues. But it didn’t matter to me. I’ve gone through three cell phones since I stopped wearing the watch, and the upgrade to an iPhone hadn’t changed the belief that if I have something in my pocket that can tell the time, why do I need something on my wrist that only tells the time?

My wife sent my watch to be repaired for my birthday this year. I had almost forgotten about it. She told me that it was a nice watch and we should see if it could be fixed.

The thing that I hadn’t counted on was how different things had become since I first made the decision to stop wearing a watch. Now, my phone isn’t just a clock, phone, and source of text messages. It’s a portal to Twitter, Facebook, Tiny Wings, Instapaper, and the entire flipping internet. Checking the time easily becomes checking seven other things.

But you’ve probably heard that before. It’s trendy to give up on smart phones, or to nerf some of their features so that you don’t distract yourself. But that doesn’t say why I’m changing my mind about wearing my watch.

When I check the time on my phone, it’s a static digital readout of the hours and minutes of the day. It tells me that I am at one particular moment in time, and this is how I should orient my thinking.

When I look at the watch, I get the same information about what time it is, but I also see the second hand. I see motion. I see time moving forward, and I remember that I should be moving with it.

It is a nice watch.