Film as Industry vs. Film as Art

Here’s a thought: why study films? There are other art forms that tell stories, that make us feel specific emotions, and that promote a sense of beauty and the spectacular. What, then, separates film from any of these other mediums?

Prose fiction is the obvious example of another narrative art form, but we can also point to graphic novels, poetry, music, and even painting. Now, admittedly only two of those habitually tell stories these days, but that doesn’t mean that the others are incapable of conveying some kind of narrative. Poetry is one of the oldest and finest narrative forms, despite the fact that these days it trends towards emotional snapshots rather than plot. The Iliad, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and even The Jabberwocky can all attest as much. Music, likewise, has often been used to tell stories. Among my favorite examples is Loreena McKennitt’s The Highwayman. As for painting, still images though they are, paintings have often be used to tell stories. Napoleon’s court painter, Jacques-Louis David, was also one of his chief propagandists. Many of the paintings David made told idealized stories of the Emperor’s triumphs, and thereby helped to craft Napoleon’s public image.

Any of these art forms is also capable of conveying any emotion that film can convey. Novels and graphic novels are again obvious in this, given that they are typologically very similar to film. And no one is going to argue that poetry can’t instill feelings of loss and fear, joy and hope, heroism and cowardice. Music, meanwhile, may be the most interesting and complex of all these emotional mediums, along with being the oldest. If there are limits to its emotional range, we haven’t found them yet. And, as for painting, no one who has ever seen a painting by Caspar David Friedrich is ever going to argue that painting is not the emotional equal of its peer mediums in both range and complexity.

So how does film stand out? What makes film special? The answer is that it isn’t an art form, as such.

Right now you might be rolling your eyes at me. “Not an art form? What is it then? A bar of chocolate? God’s gift to mankind?” Or maybe you’ve already gleaned what I’m going to say from the title of this post.

Film isn’t an art form because it’s an industry. That is to say that narrative film is not a singular act of artistic expression. Instead, it’s a collection and repackaging of many different creations. Individually, writing, cinematography, lighting, acting, composing, etc. are what I would consider pure art forms. But film, in aggregate, really isn’t about any one of these. It’s about the collection, intermingling, and coordinating of their individual effects. It’s meta-art, or, to put it another way, art made industry.

Okay, so why does that make film interesting? There are two major reasons that I can think of:

First, as I discussed in my post on Films vs. Books, the output of information in a film is different from that of its component art forms. Essentially, every moment of watching a film is made up of lots of different kinds of art, all of which are trying to tell you something at the same time: there’s the framing, the lighting, the acting, the music, the dialogue and so on and so forth. Our brains process all of that information, but its hard for us to be consciously aware of all of it at the same time. The mixing together of these different art forms, and their changing over the film’s runtime, makes for an emotional experience that is often far less cerebral and far more visceral than any one art form can produce on its own. In other words, a well-assembled film can be greater than the sum of its parts.

The second reason this industrial view of film is interesting, is that it is almost always the work of many different artists. We often speak about films as though they were the solitary productions of directors: “Have you seen Tarantino’s new film? Spielberg’s done it again,” and so on and so forth. But that is a gross simplification. The director’s job is a creative one; it’s true. But it’s creative in an odd way. The director, in some senses, is the film’s curator. His/her job is to coordinate the efforts of dozens (often hundreds) of different artists into a cohesive whole, to “direct” in fact. In many ways that’s the lynchpin role of the whole project, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of ascribing sole authorship to the director.

That means that a finished film does not consist of a single voice. Just as film is an aggregate of many different art forms, an individual film is an aggregate of the efforts and creative visions of all the different artists who contribute to its creation. True, the director’s vision comes through stronger than the others. As, often, does the producer’s. But everyone contributing to the film has a hand in crafting its message and steering its course.

There is something exciting, organic and enigmatic about a process where no one person can completely control the form the final work takes. Because it has multiple creators, a film takes on a kind of life of its own. And that can be both a great curse and a great blessing to the quality of the finished work. Sometimes the organic messiness of this process leads to a finished film that seems to lack integrity, or that simply does not hold together. But other times, especially in the hands of a skilled director, the multiple artistic voices that go into the film harmonize together to create something more beautiful than any one of them could have managed alone. And that, I think, is a phenomenon worth studying.

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Beauties and their Beasts (Part 2): Film Review

In my last post I discussed Disney’s new live action remake genre and its business/consumer implications. This week I’m going to take a closer look at the new Beauty and the Beast and the reasons it fails to deliver, at least from a critical perspective.

Part of the issue is a simple matter of botched design: animated character design, and live action costuming. In the original film the characters were stylized, as one would expect from an animated film. That gave the artists leeway to make them quite appealing. We look at Lumière, for instance, and we see a figure that we accept as human, despite the fact that he is a candlestick. In the live action version the artists were constrained by the fact that everything needed to look realistic, or the animated characters wouldn’t mesh with the presence of real live people like Emma Watson. Lumière, Cogsworth, Mrs. Pots and all the rest therefore had to look far more like real candlesticks, clocks and tea-kettles than they did in the animated version. That means that they looked less like people, and that the character design was far less personal. Of course, there was almost certainly a way to design around this problem. At the very least, the filmmakers ought to have swapped out the original film’s furniture characters for something they could do well (so long as it wasn’t the weird puppy gremlins from the recent French film). In any case, the character design on all the furniture creatures was unpleasant to look at and failed to fully communicate the humanity of the characters involved.

The human characters in the film also suffer from bad design. I’m mainly talking about the poor costume design here, but the lighting, the sets and the cinematography all compound the problem. Garish and clashing colors combine with mediocre lighting to make the live action characters into no less of an eyesore than the animated ones. What’s more, we get so many of them on the screen at once, generally with little attention to visual rhythm and negative space, that the film’s visual space gets overloaded with ugly and chaotic imagery.

Of course, all of this is little more than window-dressing. No matter how garish the film might look, a well-written story would have made up the difference. Here, the new Beauty and the Beast falls victim to its own mandate to be. The original animated film had a brilliant and tightly written story. On the one hand, Disney clearly wanted to imitate that structure and recreate its success. On the other hand, the filmmakers recognized that they had to offer some kind of variation and new content other than the shift from animation to live action. They had to make a film that was the same as the original, but different.

The new version therefore features such variations as Belle’s backstory, altered secondary and tertiary characters, new dialogue, and different lyrics for some of the songs. These are all superficial changes. So how is it that they have such a tremendously negative effect on the film’s narrative?

My answer to that is simply that they distract us from the underlying strength of the original film’s structure. The discovery of Belle’s somewhat grim backstory, for instance, is made into a major story beat within the new film. But that backstory has no purpose within the structure of the film, and little enough meaning in relation to the film’s themes and conflicts. It produces nothing more than drag on the story’s emotional flow. In other words, it’s pure fat that should have been cut in the name of narrative economy.

Then we have the altered characters. Maurice is now an artist/clockmaker instead of an inventor, Lefou is now gay, Mrs. Pots now has a husband, and the wardrobe is now a demented singer/avant garde clothing designer. The film goes out of its way to give all of these characters tangible features and histories, but in doing so it ignores the deeper behaviors and characterizations that made them compelling in the first place. The truth is that deep and believable characters don’t emerge because we know extra facts about them, or because we spend more time exploring their backstories. A character with one line, or no lines, can be more compelling than a character with over a dozen. What matters is a character’s situation, and the way he or she brings that situation to bear upon the story’s conflicts. Knowing more about these characters, ironically, makes them less believable because it insulates them from their role in relation to the story’s main conflicts. They become caricatures, not because we spend too little time with them, but because we spend too much. What’s more, all that extra time exploring these unimportant characters is time not spent exploring the film’s central conflict.

I would argue, therefore, that the new Beauty and the Beast’s great failing is not that it attempts to imitate the formula presented by the original. Instead, its failing lies in the inclusion of new material that does not suit the old. In an effort to make the new film different, the filmmakers added in all of the fat and messiness that was no doubt sacrificed to make the original film so strong. Their new material, instead of adding to the film’s good qualities, distracts from them. It obscures the underlying power of the story beneath a mountain of small weaknesses, and renders the final film tedious rather than enjoyable.

Of course, my reaction will not be everyone’s reaction. I’d love to hear from anyone who loved or even liked this film. What made it compelling for you? How did the new material help to build upon the original film? After all, the film was quite successful in theaters. So no doubt Disney was doing something right.

Beauties and their Beasts (Part 1): Disney’s odd new genre

I finally got around to seeing Disney’s new live action Beauty and the Beast. Anyone who knows me will know that I was not looking forward to this film. Part of my lack of anticipation came from the trailers, which exhibited the film’s poor design and cheap production quality; part of it came from my earlier experience with Cinderella and The Jungle Book, both of which I turned off halfway through. But mostly I just found the appeal of such a project incomprehensible. Disney’s original animated version of Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite films. I understand remakes of old films when their visual style or the surface values they present have become outdated. But, to my mind, the original Beauty and the Beast is as relevant and watchable today as it was when it first came out. Why would I want to see a newer and less finely crafted version, when I could simply go back and rewatch the old one?

The reasons that Disney would want to create such a film are obvious. It’s an existing piece of intellectual property, with a story arc that, at its core, has already been tested and proven at the box office. Disney is a large company, devoted to doing whatever turns a profit. There is nothing immoral, cheap, or surprising in the company’s interest in taking an old property that no longer delivers blockbuster returns and reviving it to its original profitability.

What shocks me is that so many of Disney’s customers seem eager to consume this refried material. Of course, it’s nothing exclusive to Beauty and the Beast. Maleficent, a botched half-way retelling of Sleeping Beauty, made around $250 million domestically in 2014. The next year Cinderella made $200 million domestically, and in 2016 The Jungle Book did even better than its predecessors at $364 million domestic. And now Beauty and the Beast has topped them all at roughly $500 million. What’s more, all of these films also did rather well in foreign markets. Clearly, therefore, there is a market for this style of re-adaptation of old films, despite the fact that the adaptations in question better reflect the quality of 2011’s Conan the Barbarian remake than that of their source material.

Why are people going to see these films? The honest answer is that I can only speculate. It could simply be a factor of how fondly the originals are remembered: people go back to see the new films because the old ones moved them so much and they want to recapture a piece of that old feeling in the theater. That explanation, however, begs the question of why every such remake doesn’t prove similarly profitable. Hitchcock’s original Psycho (1960) was the wonder and terror of the theaters. In 1998, Gus Van Sant directed a remake that failed to even cover its own costs. The quality of the remade film, while low, was certainly no lower than that of the new Beauty and the Beast.

Is it simply that Disney can do no wrong? That answer, to me, seems to dodge the question. If Disney can do no wrong, that is because Disney is doing something right by its audiences. People out there are seeing these films, time and time again, and coming back, time and time again, for a nearly identical experience.

Let us therefore assume that the films succeed, at least in part, on their own merits instead of on the merits of the originals. When I watch these films, all I see is a tedious narrative with a visual style that hurts my eyes more than it pleases them. But someone out there likes the films enough to keep coming back. Of course, the same might be said of the Transformers series. They are universally reviled by critics and yet people invariably keep going to see them. What is it the critics are missing? That is a question that requires a great deal more research and a future post. Odds are that the attraction of Disney’s live action remakes and of the Transformers series is completely different for their respective audiences.

What fascinates me about them, however, is how completely I find myself on the outside of those audiences. That total foreignness is somewhat new to me. Romantic comedies, for example, will never be my genre. But I can still watch a romantic comedy and understand what makes someone appreciate it. And there are well made romantic comedies that I truly love despite the fact they belong to a genre that often does not appeal to me. The same goes for superhero movies, horror films, and all manner of different genres. But I truly do not understand what makes these particular films popular. If you have an idea, or better yet if you think you’re a part of Disney’s target audience with its live action remakes, please let me know. I’d be very interested to hear what you think.

Later this week I’ll put out Part 2 of this post, in which I’ll discuss the new Beauty and the Beast in more detail, showing where I think the filmmakers went wrong from a critical/narrative perspective. From a business perspective, they are clearly doing something right.

The Death of the Epic

“A cast of thousands,” announces the hokey voice on an old trailer, “The greatest adventure story ever told.” Hyperbole aside, this is the calling card of the old Film Epic: do it bigger, do it better, make it the most incredible thing anyone has ever seen. Wikipedia defines an Epic as having “large scale, sweeping scope, and spectacle.” To that I would add that the classic Epic genre, which peaked in the ‘60s, trends toward long films, usually over three hours. The expense that goes into producing these films has always made them difficult prospects for filmmakers and studios to undertake, but the genre used to enjoy a popularity that has since seemed to fade.

Only a few recent films fully conform to the genre’s definition. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is far and away the best example (The Hobbit movies also technically fit the bill, but we’re not going to talk about them). Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar comes in at two hours and forty-nine minutes, and its sweeping scope and spectacle certainly fit the genre’s characteristics. There are also a few films that fulfill all of the characteristics except the length. Dunkirk springs to mind, at just under two hours.

But most of those spectacular three to four hour Epics seem to be gone, if not for good, then at least for the foreseeable future. Spartacus, The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia – it’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything like these.

There are a number of reasons behind that trend. For one thing, historical adventure stories have largely given way to a preference for fantasy, science fiction, and superhero movies. As The Lord of the Rings and Interstellar prove, there is nothing intrinsic about these genres that prevents them from being made into Epics. And they are excellent genres in their own rights. At the same time, the overall lack of historical films today does mark an extraordinary departure from the stories told by the Epic genre at its height.

More important, I think, is Hitchcock’s famous assertion: “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” And we should probably assume that the bladder in question belongs to a human who forgot to use the restroom before walking into the theater. In other words, any film stretching much past the two hour mark is inviting a form of impatience that comes naturally to all of us. The old Epics of the ’60s accounted for this human shortcoming by including an intermission after two hours: five minutes of pleasant music during which the audience could get out of their seats, stretch their legs, and answer any higher callings that occurred to them.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the human bladder that these films strain. Four hours is a long time to be watching a film. To put it in perspective, your work day is likely only twice the time it would take to see one of these films. That’s two extra hours that the audience could be spending in any way that they see fit. And we must add to that the extra cost to the studios of making one movie the length of two. The opportunity cost of an Epic, both from a viewer’s perspective and from a producer’s perspective, is therefore much higher than that of a traditional two hour film. And that is why I think these tremendous productions have become rarer and rarer in recent times.

Nevertheless, there are aspects of the Epic genre that I miss (admittedly this is coming from a guy in his twenties, who never experienced the genre’s heyday). The pageantry, the great sweeping scores, and the sense of truly massive adventure are hard to match in films half the length. I even miss the old overtures and intermissions that would open and then punctuate the films. They were like palate cleansers, ten minutes of beautiful music to clear our minds and our expectations of the clutter of our daily lives, thereby setting the tone for the movie to follow. And I miss the fantastic adventures that came with the genre, adventures which only seem to be hollowly echoed by the majority of today’s superhero and action films.

In truth I’m not lamenting some golden age of filmmaking. There were good epics and bad ones, just as today there are good films and bad films. But I do feel that we could stand to learn something from that old genre, both in terms of spectacle and in terms of the kinds of stories that they told. They managed to combine a sense of the spectacular with a kind of grounded quality that these days seems rather rare. But don’t take my word for it. The next time you find yourself with four hours to spare, think about tracking down a copy of an old Epic, be it Spartacus, Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia, or whichever strikes your fancy. I’m willing to bet that you won’t regret it. 

The Flow of Information: Film vs. Books

In my last post I mentioned that, while books can describe more types of sensory stimulus than screenplays, that wasn’t necessarily true of film. This week I thought I’d describe a little bit of what I meant by that.

Obviously, a film can never show us tastes, smells or the feelings of physical textures, and cinema has never been very good at literally representing thoughts either. But, with the slight exception of thought, books don’t show us these things any more than films do. Instead, they describe them. They provoke the reader to imagine what cannot actually be experienced through the page. The medium of prose isn’t sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and thought. It’s imagination, triggered by words. In that sense books actually have a smaller sensory repertoire than films do: words, compared to both sights and sounds together.

You might argue that this is no more than an academic comparison. After all, books are books, and films are films. But I think there’s an interesting observation to be had out of it on the nature of the two mediums.

It has to do with the flow of information. At the end of the day, both books and films are about communication. Each is designed to tell a story, and stories are made up of information. Every little fact we know about the characters, every development in the plot, and every sight, sound, thought and feeling we experience while reading or watching is a piece of information. The difference between the two mediums is how that information gets communicated. In books, we construct it ourselves based on the blueprint present in the words. The author essentially gives us instructions to produce approximately the correct information for ourselves. In films, we interpret this information through the sensory reality presented to us via sight and sound simultaneously.

So what’s the big deal? One is about imagination, while the other is about physical experience. Case closed, right? Well, not quite. If we dig a little deeper, we see that this difference imposes important limitations on each medium.

Let’s start with books. Because books communicate through words, effectively giving the reader step by step instructions to create a different reality in his or her own head, the flow of information in a book is extremely limited. No matter how quickly you read, you are reading one word and one sentence at a time. That means that only one piece of information is being processed by your brain at any given time.

And that limit in the flow of information has two important implications. First, it means that, at any given point, the reader must look where the author is pointing. You can skip ahead, and you can reread, but at any point in the book’s chronology there is only one piece of information to absorb at a time. Filmmakers try to mimic this focus of attention through composition and lighting, but even when they are successful the viewer always has more freedom of where to look than when reading a novel. Second, because words communicate meaning in a very direct way, and because the reader only has one piece of information to process at a time, that information tends to be processed in a very conscious way. The reader is almost always extremely aware of the information he is consuming and of how it is affecting him.

Films, on the other hand, communicate information through sound and image. That means that cinema is a far more sensory experience than prose. We interpret film through the same stimuli that we interpret the world we live in.

From that we can take two major lessons. First, our understanding of meaning in film is much more instinctive than our understanding of meaning in prose. Sound and image, by their very nature, work on us in a different and less conscious manner than the written word. Second, the flow of information we receive from a film is much broader than that of a book. Instead of interpreting the work one word at a time, we are inundated with many different stimuli: music, shape, depth, movement, etc. All of these communicate something to the audience, all at the same time. Even if we are aware of how individual pieces of that cloud of stimuli are affecting us, we can never be consciously aware of all of them at once.

I would argue that this difference in the flow of information makes film a much more subconscious medium than prose. Not only is the information presented through stimuli that we interpret more instinctively, but the large amount of stimuli that we are forced to interpret at once means that much of what we are seeing and hearing affects us below the level of conscious thought. Film works best when all of those stimuli come together into an illusion of reality, when we forget the music and the image and sink down into the very subconsciousness of the medium. Books, on the other hand, rely upon our awareness of the medium to deliver information, which in turn constructs the illusion within our minds. Both cinema and prose do their best to entertain, and to move us emotionally. They both try to create a seamless illusion of reality, but the way that they set about this goal is very different. One medium seeks to influence us below the level of our consciousness, while the other seeks to highjack our consciousness for its own purposes.

The Screenplay Format

I thought I’d take a break from talking about specific movies to address a particularly important piece of the movie-making process: the screenplay. I’ve divided this post into two parts. The first will talk about what makes the screenplay a unique medium of writing, and the second will provide a basic explanation of the format and some links to great screenplays past.

What is a screenplay?

I’m going to be talking specifically about Speculative (or Spec) Scripts. These are movie scripts designed to picture a film before any of the practical physical design of the film is put into place. Put simply, it is less a blueprint of a finished film than a sketch. Like a novel, a spec script is all about imagination. It asks us to form an image of what a film could be entirely in our heads, tracing out the action, the dialogue, and anything else that may be relevant to telling the story. Later on we get the cinematography, the casting, the musical choices and so on and so forth, but for now the only things that matter are the story, the pacing, and the descriptions necessary to communicate them.

But a spec script is not a novel. It’s a writing medium all to itself, and the differences between screenwriting and prose writing can be very revealing as to how screenplays actually work:

1. Economy:

Shakespeare once wrote that brevity is the soul of wit, and all forms of writing at least attempt to take that lesson to heart. The idea is simple. The length of the work, and of each line of description in it, should never be more than is necessary to effectively communicate its meaning.

But this principle of economy applies differently to prose writing than it does to screenwriting. In prose writing, the experience the author is trying to produce is comprehensive. Put another way, a novel is a finished work, whereas a screenplay is only the suggestion of what the finished work will look like. That means that the author of a novel has to provide the entirety of the experience: the sights, the sounds, the colors, everything. The writer of a screenplay ought to do no more than describe the bare minimum necessary to understand the narrative.

The net result is that, where a novelist can sometimes devote multiple pages to a single item of action, dialogue, or description, a screenwriter must condense that same experience to its most essential components and leave the rest to our imagination. Screenwriting therefore takes the universal principle of economy in writing and pushes it to an extreme that only poetry can outdo.

2. Rigid timescale:

A novel can be any length. The shortest novels tend to be around 200 pages, while the longest can be over 1,000.

A screenplay, on the other hand, is limited by the feasible runtime of the finished film. The rule of thumb for screenplay pages to film minutes is one to one. Every page will equal about one minute of screen time. And that’s quite an important restriction. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” In keeping with his advice, most films don’t stray too far from the two hour mark. That means that most screenplays have to be between 110 and 120 pages.

The result of this restriction is both a very strict pacing and, ideally, more economy. A screenplay should contain story content equal to that of a novel distilled into a far more concentrated form. Anyone who has ever tried to adapt a novel can’t have helped noticing that the same scene in their screenplay will usually be much shorter than it is in the original prose. That’s because all of the extra dialogue and description that goes into the novel gets condensed to its most essential components in the screenplay.

Of course, you might also have heard of writers “padding the runtime” of a film. That means that the writers didn’t have enough content to make the film reach feature length, and so they filled the screenplay with lots of useless extra material to increase the runtime. This is also called bad writing.

3. Limited palate:

The sensory palate of a novel is much wider than that of a screenplay (this does not necessarily hold true for novels vs. films, however, as I plan to address in a future post). A novelist can describe sights, sounds, smells, feelings, even the thoughts that a character experiences. A screenwriter is limited to just two of these stimuli: sights and sounds. At least until someone makes the mistake of Smell-O-Vision again. 

I would argue that sight and sound are the most important stimuli to telling a story, but it is nevertheless a massive restriction compared to the sensory palate of a prose writer. The art of screenwriting, therefore, while not exactly visual, is all about making the absolute most of that limited palate.

What does a screenplay look like?

Screenplays have a very specific format that often catches first time readers off-guard. Here’s a quick primer on the harder to understand components of screenplay format:

1. The scene heading, or Slugline:

Reading a screenplay, you’re going to see scene headings. By and large they look like this:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.15.59 AM

The purpose of a scene heading is to quickly tell the reader where we are and what time it is. The first part of the heading will always be either “EXT.” (exterior), or “INT.” (interior). That, amazingly, tells us whether we are outside or inside. The second part of the heading tells us where specifically we are, whether that’s an abandoned castle, the moon, or my living room. The last part of the heading tells us whether it is “DAY,” or “NIGHT.”

2. The action:

Most of the important stuff that happens in a screenplay comes under the heading of action. It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.16.47 AM

All of the important visual information in the screenplay appears as action, as does any sound that isn’t dialogue.

3. Dialogue:

Dialogue consists of the name of the character centered above a block of spoken text, as you can see below:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.17.19 AM

Sometimes a small parenthetical will appear between the character’s name and the dialogue:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.17.55 AM.png

This means that there is some essential information on how the character is behaving or speaking the line that is not evident from the line itself and the action around it. The parenthetical fills in the gap. However, parantheticals are rarely necessary and most screenwriters try to avoid them.

Other times, you might see either an “O.S.” or a “V.O.” appear next to the character’s name, like this:

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 10.18.55 AM.png

An “O.S.” in this position stands for “off screen.” Basically, it just means that the character is speaking the line from a position where they will be physically present in the scene, but not visible onscreen. “V.O.” stands for “voice over,” which means that the character speaking is not physically present in the scene. Narration is usually done this way.

4. Examples and suggestions:

And that’s all you need to know in order to understand and start enjoying screenplays. You can find the screenplays to many of your favorite movies online. Some fun ones are Notorious, The Usual Suspects, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

You’ll note, as you read them, that the story often changes significantly between the original screenplay available online and the finished film. Screenplays inevitably change and develop as the project progresses. I often find it interesting to spot the differences between the initial screenplay and the finished product: sometimes the changes are for the better, sometimes not so much.

Finally, if you want to try your hand at writing some screenplays of your own, you can find free screenplay templates for Word or Pages online, or, if you’re really serious, you can spring for a professional program like Final Draft. I’d also recommend that any aspiring screenwriters read Robert McKee’s book Story, and (with a grain of salt) Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.

Where Game of Thrones Goes Wrong

No one is going to deny that Game of Thrones is a financial success: HBO’s big money maker. In the past that status has felt earned. The production value was off the charts, the special effects and action sequences were uniquely ambitious and believable for television, and the story was, at its worst, passable. Unfortunately, while the production value, special effects and action have all enjoyed a steady increase in quality over the years, the quality of the story has gradually eroded away until the climax of this latest season played more like bad fan fiction than a legitimate part of the series. So, without further “gilding the lily,” as A Knight’s Tale’s Geoffrey Chaucer would say, let’s take a look at some of the places that Game of Thrones goes wrong.

Here there be spoilers.

A lot of people have pointed to Season 7, Episode 7, Beyond the Wall, as the worst episode that the show has ever put out. The criticisms that I’ve read about the episode mostly focus on its geographic improbability. Jon and company go beyond the wall to retrieve a wight, they get into trouble, and send Gendry running back to the wall for help. He gets there, seemingly after ten minutes have passed, and sends a raven south to Daenerys. The message reaches her pretty much instantly, and she hops on the back of her dragon, reaching our besieged heroes after, at most, a night has passed. Given the vast distances involved, the timing of all this strains even the most generous credulity. In other words, it isn’t consistent with the established rules of the world, and the obviousness of the inconsistency is grating.

Beyond this, much of the episode’s action involves mediocre banter arising from the already ridiculous coincidence of having so many interconnected characters turn up in one place at one time. These conversations do nothing to develop the characters involved, serving as little more than lame call-backs to better scenes in earlier seasons. It’s possible that the show runners thought they were increasing suspense by making us wait longer for the inevitable explosion of action at the end of the episode. But, for that to work, the audience needs to be thinking about the impending action. The mediocre banter in this episode does not remind us of the coming conflict. Instead, it distracts us, dissipating any suspense that has been building. Worse, the dialogue does nothing to develop or establish the characters. It flaps about, useless and unmoored, existing only to entertain. As a result, it bores. This poor writing is also in evidence in the season’s final episode, where most of the episode’s long runtime is devoted to mediocre exchanges between characters.

But the biggest problems with Game of Thrones, for me, have less to do with bad dialogue and more to do with poor character development. This takes many forms. Characters who we are told are supposed to be intelligent nevertheless do stupid things time and time again. Our heroes spend half the seventh season coming up with reasons to avoid crushing Cersei despite the fact that they could destroy her at any time with minimal civilian casualties. They actually risk their lives to forge a truce with her, despite lacking any kind of assurance that she will hold to that truce. And when Dany shows up to save Jon after their incredibly foolish plan goes awry, he inexplicably decides to keep killing wights for several minutes instead of getting on the dragon and getting the heck out of there. And these characters are supposed to be intelligent?

Throughout the season, decisions and feelings change without the instigations for those changes being clear. After refusing for an entire season, Jon suddenly and inexplicably decides to bend the knee to Dany at the end of Episode 7. Why? The show never really explains. It could be because of a sudden attack of love/lust for her, it could be because she just saved his life, or it could be because of the tiny little throwaway line Tormund feeds him earlier in the episode about not being too proud. No matter the reason, the show utterly neglects to trace out his thought process, despite the fact that this is a pivotal change for one of the main characters. Jon’s decision strikes us as random rather than motivated. As a result, the audience is left confused and unsatisfied.

Even when the show tries to lay the groundwork for change this season, it seems to do it by half measures. Take the romance between Jon and Dany, for example. To believe that two people are falling in love, we have to see it. But the show doesn’t quite manage to show us a budding romance. We hear some heavy breathing from Dany when she and Jon view the cave paintings together at the end of Episode 5, and when Jon decides to undertake his suicide mission beyond the Wall she stares at him a little teary-eyed. But that’s it. It’s barely enough to suspect she might have feelings towards him, and not at all enough to see that he might have feelings towards her. The writers try to cover the gap with a few throwaway lines:

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But we never actually see Jon “staring at her good heart.” In short, we don’t get any visible signs of them falling in love until they actually fall into bed together. We know its happening because we are explicitly told, not because it is self-evident. As a result, it’s hard to believe all that strongly in the romance between them.

In truth, character inconsistencies have plagued the show for much longer than just this season. Jon’s behavior during The Battle of the Bastards in Season 6 seems miserably out of character. And Stannis’s decision to burn his daughter as a sacrifice in Season 5 comes even further out of left field than Jon’s decision to swear fealty to Dany in Season 7. In both cases, it isn’t so much the decision itself that I find fault with. I can easily imagine a world in which it feels correct to their characters for Jon to bend the knee and for Stannis to burn Shireen. But in both cases their characters simply weren’t ready to make that leap yet. If the audience does not see a character change and develop to the point where he or she could reasonably be expected to make a choice, then that choice will feel random and unbelievable.

In other situations, the show has taken otherwise believable characters from the books and altered them to the point where they are no longer internally consistent. In the books, Shea is a selfish girl that Tyrion falls for despite knowing that she doesn’t love him. When she betrays him, we believe it. When he kills her for betraying him, we believe that too. But the show changes Shea’s character in the first four seasons, making her into a compelling and honorable woman who truly cares for Tyrion. And there’s nothing wrong with that change; it actually makes her a much more interesting character. There’s no rule that the characters in the show have to reflect the characters in the books. But a change in character ought to come with a change in the actions that character takes. Because the Shea we see in the show is a different and more honorable person than the one we see in the books, it feels out of character to us when she betrays Tyrion in the fourth season. It seems wrong, random and unsatisfying. And Tyrion killing her seems even more unbelievable given the nature of their relationship. The writers took steps to try and bring them both to that point, but it was not enough. In order to make the change in Shea’s personality work, they ought to have changed her ending to better fit her character and relationships.

The show of Game of Thrones started out with an excellent roadmap for character development in the form of A Song of Ice and Fire. George R.R. Martin’s books are full of compelling and believable characters. Every decision those characters make feels motivated, and every thought in their heads is internally consistent. That is not to say that the show could never have been as good as the books, merely that it took on a set of extremely well-crafted characters whose stories and development arcs were already largely in place. In the early seasons the show stuck to those arcs rather closely, and clearly benefited from the strengths of the series’s original creator. But the show seems to be having trouble standing on its own without the scaffolding provided by the books. The further the show gets from Martin’s work, the less smoothly the characters develop, and the more holes appear in the narrative. On some level it feels as though the show has fallen victim to its own reputation, substituting action, surprise deaths, and gratuitous violence for what made it compelling in the first place: a well crafted story, complete with believable characters. HBO has one more season to turn it back around; with any luck they’ll learn from their mistakes and deliver an ending that was worth the wait.

In the meantime, I highly recommend that you check out Martin’s original book series: A Song of Ice and Fire

Dunkirk, and the Importance of Movie Trailers

I went to see Dunkirk this past week. The film itself is very well put together, though not at all what I expected from the trailers.

(Some minor spoilers below)

Dunkirk’s trailers imply a sense of tension, but they also emphasize the “miracle at Dunkirk.” Phrases like, “When they couldn’t get home, home came for them,” and, “Survival is victory,” spring to mind. The emotional balance implied by most of the trailers is therefore a kind of pendulum, swinging back and forth between the horror of defeat and the heroism of the British civilians out to rescue their troops. The trailers make us expect a film that will pit those two emotions against one another more or less equally: we will experience horror, then heroism, then horror again.

But the emotional balance present in the film itself is very different. If it is a pendulum between horror and heroism, then the pendulum remains stuck on horror for much of the film. It actually reminds me a little of a nightmare. In a nightmare, no matter what you do you end up in the same unpleasant situation, over and over again until you wake up. And so, the vast majority of the film shows characters being stuck in this horrifying situation, waiting for a rescue that seems impossible. We know (from the trailers if not from our knowledge of history) that a good ending is on the way, but we cannot see from the film how it could possibly happen. And then, almost at the very end, we wake up from the nightmare. The civilian boats arrive, there is a tense climax, and the British forces go home to the tune of Churchill’s famous speech: “We will never surrender.” One brief moment of relief at the conclusion of a movie that otherwise grabs hold of your gut and clenches unrelentingly for almost two hours.

This is actually an incredibly interesting tension model, using the intense contrast with the long nightmare to make the brief awakening all the more powerful, but it isn’t what the trailers sold us. And that hampers the success of the film’s model. If the trailers had emphasized the nightmare, then the resolution might have been an incredibly satisfying culmination of that nightmare. Instead, the final frame left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied: “It’s great, sure, but it’s not what I thought I was going to the theaters to see.”

That isn’t a criticism of the film itself, but I do think it’s interesting how often the experience of a trailer affects the experience of watching a film. A good trailer can set us up to experience a film even more powerfully. A bad one can actually take away from the ultimate experience of watching the film.

Take another example: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I actually really enjoy this film. It’s cheesy, goofy, full of bad accents, and so on and so forth. And, for all that, it’s also a lot of fun. But I didn’t like it all that much the first time I saw it. Why? Because the trailer showed the whole film. It told me too much, and so the experience of watching the film turned into checking boxes off of a list provided by the trailer. I felt like I’d seen it all recently. The trailer sabotaged its own film.

Some of my favorite trailers actually have nothing to do with films: they are cinematic trailers for video games. Like movie trailers these can be good or bad, but they take an interesting approach to the problem of selling the larger experience. In the case of movie trailers, segments of the larger work are cut down into a smaller one. In other words, we see the physical pieces of what we are buying. But cinematic game trailers often take a different approach. They take the characters and themes of the game in question, and they create a short film that tells the audience what those qualities are. The images onscreen are only circumstantially related to anything in the actual game, but that doesn’t matter. So long as the characters and emotional tone make an appearance, we get an idea of what we are buying (at least on a story level). For examples, check out the original cinematic trailer for Assassins Creed 2, the “Rendez-Vous With Death” trailer from Gears of War 2, and the “Killing Monsters” trailer for The Witcher 3. The principal at play is this: tell a smaller story, to make the viewer want to experience the bigger one. When done well it can be incredibly effective, and I’d be interested to see more feature films make use of it.

The bottom line is that a good trailer should give us an accurate picture of a film’s emotional content without exhausting it. It’s an emotional snapshot, giving us a taste of what we’re buying. That’s all marketing. The idea is to get peoples’ butts into theatre seats. But it’s a mistake to think of trailers solely as marketing. Because trailers can’t help infecting that first pristine viewing of a film. They are our prior experience. On some level we judge the final film by its trailer. Trailers aren’t just a marketing ploy; they are actually in dialogue with the films they represent.

Making use of that dialogue both for better marketing and to improve the audience’s experience of the film is an exciting and under-explored area of the filmmaking process. It isn’t set in stone that a trailer has to be cut from the same footage as the final film. As we see in the games industry, a trailer could be a short film in its own right, one designed specifically to give an idea of the emotional tone set by the larger piece. Such a trailer might resemble something like the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a separate but related story that informs our experience of the larger adventure.

A trailer might also bend the truth when it comes to what happens in its feature film. Many films reach for big reveals, but how many of those are undermined by the content of their trailers? The trailer shows too much, and suddenly the reveal isn’t such a big surprise after all. But that sword has two edges. I can easily imagine a film trailer being used to mislead the audience, presenting a sequence of events that would suggest (though not state outright; we don’t want anyone to feel lied to) that, say, “The butler did it.” When the truth lies down a very different path. In such a case, the filmmakers would actually be using the trailer to create a set of expectations, reinforcing the surprise we feel when those expectations are shattered. It’s a classic filmmaking technique taken a step beyond the contiguous body of a single film.

The possibilities for making interesting trailers are extensive compared to the run-of-the-mill work that we see on a day to day basis. There is a great deal of competition out there, all vying for our movie dollars, and if filmmakers want to get ahead of the pack they ought to take a more creative approach to creating movie trailers. Like films, trailers tell stories and express ideas, and that makes them an essential part of the filmgoing experience. It’s a cliche, but, so long as the trailer shows us what kind of emotional experience to expect from the finished film, the possibilities really are endless.

The Problem with Frozen

I’m not going to make many friends with this one. When I first watched Frozen, I thought it was tedious, bloated, and just about the worst Disney musical ever made. Yes, that includes Princess and the Frog. A lot of people feel very differently, but, like I said: I’m not here to make friends. For a while I was actually convinced that I must have missed something; I must have blinked through whatever little spark transformed this from a half-baked film with admittedly beautiful visuals, to something worth seeing in the theater. So I decided to read the screenplay. The “final shooting draft” is 112 pages. A screenplay that length usually takes me between two and three hours to work my way through. This one took me the better part of a day, and I fell asleep three times. Maybe I’m still missing that little spark of wonder at the heart of this movie. If I am, please tell me what it is. In the meantime, however, here’s a short list of the film’s most important weaknesses.

1

First up, we have Olaf, the talking snowman. He exists for comic relief. That’s right, he has no purpose in the story other than to crack insipid jokes about his butt and to sing a rather annoying song about his hopes and dreams. Is it funny that he’s a snowman dreaming of summer? Yes. Is it a funny enough joke to stretch across an entire musical number? No. Olaf’s presence adds nothing to the film’s conflict, and, on the contrary, continually dumbs the story down by distracting us from what is really at stake with repetitive and quasi-scatological humor. His presence is pandering to the idea of a children’s film at its worst (for more, see my post, Little Grownups).

2

The Rock Trolls. On a structural level, the rock trolls are symptomatic of something that Olaf is also guilty of. The question of the hour: “Why are they even in this movie?” They have nothing to do with the film’s conflict, although, unlike Olaf, they do fulfill a couple of essential plot functions. First, they provide the initial exposition as to the downside of Elsa’s powers, causing her and her parents to freak out about the dangers, and thus creating 90% of the story’s problems to begin with (thank you, Rock Trolls). Second, they provide the second round of exposition about what Anna’s frozen heart means, and how to break the spell. These two bouts of exposition are undoubtedly necessary, but we didn’t need an entire colony of rock trolls to deliver them. One would have done it, or a witch, or a fairy godmother. Or Disney could have been even more efficient and gone with a narrator.

What else do these trolls do? Like Olaf, they provide so-called comic relief. And they also perform an unnecessary musical number about how Anna and Kristoff should get together, thereby foreshadowing, if the word can apply to something so heavy-handed, the main characters’ inevitable romance. Also, I can’t be the only one whose flesh crawled during that song. The message seems to be: “He’s not good enough for you, he’s broken, but you should be with him to fix him. Your self-worth is irrelevant.” But I digress.

I’m picking on Olaf and the rock trolls, but in truth they are simply the most prominent examples of a larger trend within the film’s story. It is bloated, stuffed full of characters, jokes, and musical numbers that are only loosely connected to the main conflict. Look at my favorite Disney musical, Beauty and the Beast. Every song in that film has something essential to do with the plot. From Belle’s initial song about how “there must be more than this provincial life,” to “Be our guest,” which initiates the transformation of Belle’s role in the castle from prisoner to guest, they all do something. The ice-cutting song, and Olaf’s little dream sequence only try to distract us, like a red-dot pointer in front of a cat. The end result lacks focus.

Hans. Before you reach for your pitch-fork, I have no problem with the inversion of the handsome prince trope. On the contrary, revealing Hans to be a dastardly villain in the third act is probably the most interesting thing about Frozen’s plot. But the set-up for this big reveal undermines the reveal itself. Something like that has to be foreshadowed. It needs a foundation to rest upon, even if that foundation is simply a moment’s hesitation or a casual glance. There should be something there to make us look back and think, “Ohhh, it was there all along, and we missed it!” Otherwise, it just feels random. It’s like showing the Red Wedding without showing the immediate fallout of Robb’s marriage, or without Tywin saying, “Some wars are won with swords; others with quills and ravens.” The lack of foreshadowing for Hans’s villainy detracts from what otherwise might have been an excellent and compelling reveal.

4

Finally, we come to Frozen’s biggest fault, the structural problem that undermines its entire story: It is about the wrong sister.

At their deepest level, stories are about conflict. We have a character. That character has a problem she wants to solve. And some obstacle stands in her way.

Frozen’s conflict really centers on Elsa. She has dangerous magical powers, which have the capacity to hurt those she loves. Her subjects fear her and, more importantly, she fears herself.  She wants to control her powers, and to gain a measure of stability and acceptance. What she really needs is to accept herself. This is actually an incredibly compelling conflict: a young woman attempts to escape her curse, only to find that what she thought of as a curse was really a gift all along. As Faulkner would put it, the human heart is in conflict with itself.

So what does Disney do? They shunt this compelling and dramatic conflict aside in favor of – drumroll please – nothing very much. Anna is undoubtedly the film’s protagonist in terms of sheer on-screen time, but what problem is she trying to solve? She’s a little lonely, she’s a little love-struck, and she wants to help solve her sister’s problem. The first two of these are legitimate conflicts, but they both pale before the importance and drama of Elsa’s conflict. The third relegates Anna to the position of a supporting character in her sister’s story.

In practice, this means that the vast majority of the film’s runtime is spent following a character whose conflict is secondary to that of another character. As a result, the film seems to chase its own tail. We sit there, waiting for Elsa’s story to advance, and instead get more and more of Anna’s side-plot.

So that’s my rant on the highest grossing animated film of all time. Did I miss something? Do you think it’s all much ado about nothing? Let me know in the comments below.

Little Grownups

You’re watching Princess Mononoke, a Japanese animation from the same creators as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Japanese it may be, but it’s still an animation, right? Still a kids movie. The main character shoots an arrow, and you prepare for it to either miss or bounce harmlessly off the target’s armor. You know that something will happen to shelter children from the realities of death. Instead, the arrow hits, and the target’s head pops clean off his shoulders. Death.

For an American audience watching that scene, the violence it depicts poses a problem of classification. We are used to thinking of animations as kids movies, although many of the people who go to see animated movies are actually in their twenties (which is of course a topic for another day). But, at the same time, we’re used to thinking of kids movies as clean and innocent. Filmmakers purge them of issues and images that we view as too grown-up for children: sex, violence, sacrifice, death and loss. A movie, like Mononoke, that challenges those expectations in an animated format therefore seems unusual, fresh, and even a little edgy.

We could attribute this edginess to the fact that the film is Japanese. Maybe standards are different in Japan. Maybe animations there are aimed at adult audiences. Maybe the issues kids are thought mature enough to wrestle with are simply different in Japan. That question itself, however, invites us to examine the animated films produced in our own culture.

Surprisingly, the best animated films produced in the West do not stray too far from Mononoke’s mark. I’m not talking about recent Disney films like Frozen and Moana, which follow the kiddie pattern to a fault. But you don’t have to go that far back to find something like The Incredibles, which, when you strip away its superhero bells and whistles, is about a mid-life crisis. Why aim a story about a mid-life crisis at kids? They’re still in the middle of their early-life crisis (don’t ask me when life stops being a crisis; I’ll let you know when I get there). More than that, the film addresses issues like adultery, betrayal, death and violence. Take a look at the following speech one of the characters gives: 

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This is more than a clever speech written for one of the characters. It tells us something about the world of the film, and how it differs from the worlds of similar films. Simply put, the issues on the screen are going to be real adult issues, despite being marketed at children. And because of that, even if the kids watching miss the little references to adultery, there is a sense of reality and danger to the world of the film that most kids stories can’t come close to emulating.

The same is true, to a greater or lesser extent, for all of my favorite kids movies. Renaissance Disney did a particularly good job with Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, and many others. Ratatouille incorporates its fair share of the adult world into the world of the film, although, like The Incredibles, it sometimes has these issues lurking beneath the surface (as when Colette reaches for her pepper spray after Linguini starts talking about his “little chef”). The best, most long-lasting kids films all seem to shy away from the conventional wisdom that movies for children can only address children’s themes.

A while back I read a quote from Miyazaki, the man behind Princess Mononoke, that I think brilliantly sums up the truth at the heart of this trend. I can’t find it now, and I’d love it if someone could point me in the right direction. That said, the content of the quote was as follows:

Children’s stories try too hard to cater to children. And in so doing they miss the issues that children actually care about, because the issues children actually care about are the same issues adults care about. Children are not ignorant of death, or hardship, or the darker content of the world. What they lack are the tools and experiences needed to process these ideas on their own.

And that’s where stories come in. Stories serve as a framework for kids to lay to rest the real things that go bump in the night; they help kids process. So, when a kids story refuses to address its audience’s real-world questions, it fails.  If the makers of kids movies want to earn the trust of both children and parents, they cannot coddle their audience. Instead, they ought to treat kids like what they are: little grownups.