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Five Things Writers Can Learn By Watching Catwoman

So, let’s be clear: there are good superhero films, and there are okay superhero films, and there are atrocious superhero films. And then there is Green Lantern. The the Generation X telemovie and the first attempt to do a Justice League film in the nineties, and the version of Nick Fury, Agent of Shield staring David Hasselhoff. And then, somewhere at the tail end of that list, trashing Halle Berry’s career not long after she picked up a mother-fucking Oscar, there is Catwoman.

For me, the quality of the film doesn’t matter. I love comic books, I love superheros. To convince me that I should not only avoid such films, you basically have to attach Zack Snyder as a director and fuck things up for everybody by ignoring…well, basically anything that resembles a film.

In the realm of trashy movies, Catwoman is kind of glorious: a movie so goddamn bad that Halle Berry showed up at the Razzies to accept her award in person and hang some shit on the studio that made it. Because of this, I will sit down and watch it more often than is actually sane, and because I am a waste-not, want-not kind of guy, I will start looking for reasons to justify putting myself through this particular cinematic experience.

And, weirdly, if you pay close attention to Catwoman, there is actually some useful lessons for a writer to pull out of it. It’s like a cinematic what-not-do-do that hammers home some oft-repeated writing advice in a very visual, obvious way.

ONE: DON’T CHASE THE MARKET

Sam Raimi’s Spiderman hit cinemas in 2002 and basically blew away people’s perceptions of what a superhero film could be. Sure, there had been hits in the genre before, courtesy of the X-Men franchise, but for the most part pre-2002 movies featuring superheroes were…well, cheesy and often hampered by the limits of special effects. Also, slightly embarrassed by their source material.

But Raimi? Raimi hit it out the park, making the first-ever film to clear $100 million dollars in its opening weekend and earning a fair amount of crucial success.

Two years later, Catwoman hits cinemas and…well, let’s just say that if you watch Catwoman and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman back-to-back, you’re going to notice a lot of familiar narrative beats and set-ups.

Consider the respective plot-lines.

In Spiderman, Peter Parker is a shy, nerdy high-school student who is given superpowers by a genetically engineered super-spider, and must stop millionaire industrialist Norman Osborn after Osborn is given powers (and driven mad) by some experimental chemicals. Along the way, Peter discovers his true feelings for the girl-next-door and learns some bitter lessons about the responsible use of powers.

In Catwoman, Patience Phillips is a meek, slightly geeky type working for a cosmetic company who gains mystic cat-powers, and must stop cosmetic millionaire Laurel Hadare who has been given powers (and driven mad) by some experimental cosmetics. Along the way, Patience discovers her true feelings for the neighbourhood cop and…well, learns some lessons about the responsible use of powers. Kind of. As best you can, when you’re also meant to be an amoral catburglar.

I’m playing fast-and-loose with details here, but the similarities really do stack up as the films progress. You can literally hear Catwoman’s producers in the background screaming MORE LIKE SPIDERMAN, THAT SHIT MADE MONEY.

And they do it regardless of whether it makes any sense for the character of Catwoman, or the story that is being told. Beats from Spiderman are more-or-less shoehorned in for the sake of having them, and what works well in a coming-of-age story about a teenage geek doesn’t work anywhere near as well here.

Catwoman utterly fails to capture the success of Spiderman. And because it’s trying to hard to do so, it also utterly fails to be the interesting film that it could have been if someone had actually set out to make a Catwoman film.

Don’t chase the market just because something hit it big. Tell the story that makes sense for the character you’re writing about, and do the things that will make the story yours.

TWO: RESPECT THE AUDIENCE EXPECTATIONS

If you were at all familiar with Catwoman from the comics, you were probably baffled by the Catwoman film. The same is true if you were familiar with Catwoman from the Adam West Batman TV show, or Batman: The Animated Series, or Tim Burton’s Batman Returns take of the character from 1992.

Basically, Catwoman was a character who had been around for a while, in various incarnations, and the basic strokes were pretty-well established: amoral cat-burglar who flirts with Batman, wears a lot of leather, and uses a whip. She might not have the cultural cache of Superman, Batman, or Spiderman in terms of sitting in the public consciousness, but Catwoman was a character who had fans and expectations.

And while you don’t have to meet those expectations, it can behove any creator working with a particular established character or genre to figure out what it was people actually liked about said character/genre, and what they expect from a movie.

This is a particular talent, among writers. And somewhere, in an alternate universe, the folks who made the Catwoman movie probably did something sensible when they decided to reboot the character. They recognised that comics and superheroes weren’t a genre unto itself, but characters that fit into specific types of genre, and they worked accordingly. Let’s do a heist film, they said. Or let’s do a super-powered film-noir homage.

Essentially, let’s tell stories that fits with people’s core expectations about the character, because Catwoman is a pretty terrible character to use for a coming-of-age story, what with being, you know, adult. More specifically, an amoral adult that has a tendency to be highly sexualised, which just gets weird in a coming-of-age superhero narrative where you basically learn that with great power comes great responsibility.

If you’re going to tell a story, respect the expectations the audience is bring to it. We are attracted to certain types of stories because they deliver a particular experience, and audiences react poorly when the experience doesn’t mesh with their expectations.

It can take an otherwise good film (I’m looking at you, Die Hard with a Vengeance) and kill it dead because your ordinary-guy-against-the-world story has just gone all buddy cop. It can take an utterly atrocious film (I’m looking at you, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and make it considerably worse, ’cause you’re not only bored, you’re feeling vaguely insulted.

Respect the audience expectations, even if you’re going to subvert them. Hell, especially if you’re going to subvert them. You don’t need to slavishly meet every audience demand when it comes to casting and narrative, but don’t cheat people of the experience they think they’re going to get.

Catwoman basically riffs off the Burton Batman films rather than the comics, in terms of it’s mythology, and that mythology worked fine in Burton’s films despite being utterly weird and insane, largely because the spirit of the character still came through. Catwoman was amoral. She was possibly insane. She was an anti-hero, in the end, and a natural counterpoint to Batman as a character driven by revenge.

The Catwoman in this movie is, theoretically, driven by the same revenge…were it not for the fact that she’s much more interested in getting into the pants of the male lead, despite the fact that someone killed her and mystic cats licked her back to life.

It’s…not a particularly satisfying take on the character, even with Benjamin Bratt doing his damnedest to be a credible Mary-Jane Watson.

THREE: AN UN-BUILT METAPHOR MEANS FUCK-ALL

There is the potential for an absolutely beautiful finale to Catwoman – one that could have been a great set-piece fight-scene that redeemed everything.

The set-up is simple: Catwoman confronts the villain of the film, Laurel Hedare, in the penthouse space where the old Hadare Cosmetics advertisements are stored in what I presume is meant to be a towering monument to her vanity.

I presume this, because they’re not actually something you see at any other point of the film. They’re just…there for the final fight, in this location we haven’t visited yet. If you’re really curious, and don’t want to watch the film, YouTube has you covered:

And I can totally see the metaphor they’re striving for. Laurel Hadare was the face of Hadare Cosmetics in all those old billboards, until she got older and turned to experimental cosmetics to try and preserve her beauty, only to discover that they turned her into a super-strong, indestructible monster instead.  Catwoman confronts her and the two women fight among those old billboards, destroying these giant replicas of Hadare’s face as they brawl, talking about identity and masks as they go.

It should have been brilliant. Loaded with meaning and metaphor. The indestructible woman, who has been retreating from her humanity all film, destroying all these reminders of who she used to be. A hero who has been unnoticed in her ordinary life, and hiding her identity all film, finally getting the cathartic reveal of being seen.

It should have been a moment where we peeled back the onion skin layers of the character, via the medium of an action sequence. A real moment of tragedy when we empathise with the villain, even if we don’t like her.

Instead, it’s just…there. They fight amid old billboards that no-one has seen prior to this point in the film, and they trash them in an attempt to create meaning that no-one is willing to buy. The fight choreography is stale, and we’re reminded again that action means nothing without purpose and meaning behind it.

If you want to use a metaphor like this, you need to build it up for the audience. Given them a few scenes to register its importance before you start pulling it apart. There is the old rule we inherit from Chekhov: the gun that’s fired in the third act must appear on the mantle in the first.

The same applies to your big metaphors: put them in early, so that they mean something when you change them at the tail end of the story.

FOUR: SPEAKING OF VILLAINS…

Oh, Catwoman, no. Dear god, no. Laurel Hadare is a godawful villain. She is so cartoonishly evil she should be twirling a moustache. Poor Sharon Stone should be laughing maniacally and tying people to train tracks, not applying evil facial cream and trying to shoot people with a gun.

Partially this is because the story never commits to which painful stereotype they’re asking Stone to embody. She starts as the amoral corporate villain, releasing a dangerous anti-aging cosmetic for sale despite warnings about its dangerous side-effects; she becomes a jilted woman, murdering her husband after he abandons her as both the face of Hadare cosmetics and takes up with her replacement; she’s then…psychotic? Driven mad by her own use of the dangerous cosmetics? Terrified as her own disintegrating beauty?

Honestly, by the time we get there, I have so little faith in any scene that Hadare appears in that I am basically praying for the quick release of death. This is not the stuff great villains are made of.

I’m not taking aim at any of these stereotypes – any one of them could have been built into something with depth, if they had given Hadare screen-time to do anything more than deliver a line of god-awful dialogue.

It could have been made better by picking one core motivation and sticking with it, letting everything else stem from that single, fatal flaw that the film revolves around.

Consider, for example, Darth Vader in Star Wars – one of the great movie villains.  He comes on screen with a single flaw that drives everything he does – arrogance – and this is reflected in every other named villain in the movie.

Imperial bad guys are arrogantly confident about their battle stations, their plans, their methods of control. They are the minor-league Vaders, giving us little object lessons about what happens when that arrogance meets a more powerful force (hint: it involves being force-choked), so that when Luke and Vader finally square off, we subconsciously know what’s going to happen.

Even better, Vader’s fatal flaw in the film is the thing Luke is struggling with. He wants to run away from his moisture farm and be great, a hero just like his father. He gets that opportunity – literally, running away to become a knight – and there’s scene after scene where his confidence is tested and he’s told to embrace humility. At every step he is humbled – in his training sequence aboard the falcon, when his eyes are covered; when he shoots his first tie fighter, and Solo warns him not to get cocky – and when he accepts that, and follows his mentor’s advice, he is rewarded with victory.

All this sets us up for the final moment of the film, so that when he finally embraces it for good and listens to Ben Kenobi’s whispered advice to trust the force instead of himself, we feel the hero triumphing over the boyish dream that was seeded way back in act one.

Vader and Skywalker are mirrors of one another – two men who need to learn the same lesson, and it’s the one who learns it who ends the movie victorious and the one who doesn’t that’s sent tumbling into space in a damaged tie fighter.

There is no mirroring between Catwoman and Hadare, although there could be with a little work (and, to be fair, there were plenty of writers who knew their shit on this film – I suspect it was there, at one stage, and got written out by the next draft).

Instead, the film is too busy trying to set up Catwoman’s love interest and hang the meaningful exchanges off him, using him as the mirror. could have been made to work, were it not for the fact that he’s not driving the plot, and so the attention is split again and again. There’s the ghost of the old idea interfering with the new focus.

And this is what’s really the problem with Catwoman: it’s villain feels too small. Hadare’s motivations are too pat and on-the-nose. We are told everything, and shown nothing. There is no mysteries to lure us forward, through the story, in the hopes of figuring out why they are like they are.

Similarly, using Bratt’s detective Lone as a foil is similarly weak, ’cause the moment you start a superhero film with the with great power riff, there is no tension is teasing that the hero won’t learn that lesson unless it’s done exceptionally well.

Depth matters, in an antagonist. It can be the dividing line between a good bad movie, and…well, Catwoman.

FIVE: AVOID THE LOW-HANGING FRUIT

If you are attempting to launch a female-lead comic book franchise, do not build your story around evil cosmetics and beauty without any apparent sense of irony.

The conversation about feminism and fandom wasn’t anywhere near as advanced back in 2004, but even then, I sat there thinking no, you’re fucking shitting me. This is what you came up with?

It’s not that you can’t do something interesting with that set-up, but it’s the most obvious of low-hanging fruit, which means you need to fucking surprise the hell out of the audience with every other aspect of your movie. You need to be on top of your fucking game. You can do anything if you’re smart about things, but that’s not this film.

If you’re not going to be on top of your game, at least pick an idea that won’t make everyone in the theatre roll their eyes at the obviousness.

At the very least, when you fuck up, people can respect the attempt.

Six Things Writers Can Learn from Highlander (1986)

Highlander is a terrible movie.

I wanted to get that out of the way early, because it’s the films sequel that famously earns the franchise the vast majority of its grief. People remember the second Highlander film as this massively disappointing experience, an incoherent mess compared to its predecessor, and truthfully it is all those things, but to lay all the blame on the various sequels of the film is a little unfair.

You see, the first Highlander is godawful as well. Actually painful to watch, when you force yourself to sit down and pay attention to everything, rather than just tuning in for the bits you remember fondly.

This truly surprised me when we re-watched the film as part of the Trashy Tuesday movie series. Like most gents of a geeky persuasion, both my flatmate and I had seen the film when we were teenagers and remembered it being all kinds of awesome. There were sword fights. There was Queen. There were mother-fucking katanas of doom. We were actually looking forward to it, when it came up on the Trashy Tuesday list, ’cause we’d watched all kind of rubbish in the lead-up and needed a break.

Then the film started and…oh god. Oh, dear fucking god. MAKE THE FUCKING STUPID STOP.

And yet, I couldn’t quite look away. There are some things Highlander does pretty well, some things it does pretty poorly, and there’s an interesting tension running through a film that you once loved and now find yourself hating. Which is why I came back to it a third time, taking a closer look, in order to figure out what’s really going on.

ONE: THE GOLDEN AGE OF HIGHLANDER IS THIRTEEN

Lets be honest: I demanded far less of films when I was thirteen than I do at thirty-six. Back then, Highlander could have some well-choreographed sword fights, a Queen soundtrack, and a moderately compelling villain and it’d rate up there as one of the greatest cinematic experiences ever. “THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!” didn’t make much sense, but it rated up there with “THIS IS SPARTA” as a cinematic line that everyone remembered and quoted at appropriate moments.

And, hell, lets be honest: it didn’t even need the well-choreographed sword fights or the compelling villain. Getting Queen to do the soundtrack was probably enough for my thirteen year old self (thirteen isn’t just the age where you’re willing to overlook certain flaws in a movie, it’s also the age when Bohemian Rhapsody becomes the most awesome song ever).

There’s a reason the suck fairy seems to visit many of your favourite films from childhood and your teenage years. Partially its because you’ve grown more sophisticated in terms of what you’re looking for in a narrative. Partially it’s because the themes that resonated with you when you were young don’t hold much meaning now.

(And there are some films, if you don’t see them at the right age, you’re never going to get. The Goonies is one of them – I saw it for the first time as a thirty-three year old and it never resonated with me like it did for people who claim it as one of their favourite childhood films).

Your taste in movies change, is what I’m saying. The more stories you engage with, the more you learn about how they work, the more you demand from the things you really enjoy and the harder it is for nostalgia to carry you over the roughs pots.While the adult Peter watches the film and gets bothered by everything – the lack of plot, the terrible acting, the fact that swords seem to make cars and rocks explode every time they make contact – thirteen year old Peter would have been distracted by the music and figuring out the D&D stats for the Kurgan.

TWO: PEOPLE WILL FORGIVE A LOT IF YOU START STRONG AND END STRONG

The beginning of Highlander is pretty well thought out. Strong opening soundtrack; strong opening visuals with the wrestling set-up; quick cuts; minimal flashbacks; a fight scene that hints at the overall mystery at the core of the film, even if there are a couple of elements that are kind of laughable.

The ending of Highlander is pretty solid as well. A nice fight scene with the lives of MacLeod’s girlfriend at stake, with choreography spread across changing terrain, leading into a triumphant win for the protagonist and a big SFX lightshow and exploding windows. Basically, it feels like something meaningful happens, even if you’re not entirely sure what.

The middle? The middle is flashbacks and montages and flashbacks within a flashbacks; this endless succession of infodumping that most films would shudder to attempt, delivering swathes of back story in the least interesting way possible, breaking it up with the occasional sword fight.

Basically, the middle of this film is a fucking mess, but it’s bookended by scenes strong enough that you forgive it the slow parts. Start strong. Finish strong. Even if the middle of your story is pretty average, it’s these two parts that people remember the most.

THREE: HIGHLANDER IS A MYSTERY STORY

I mentioned last week that the narrative impulse behind Tokyo Drift is basically a coming-of-age tale; when you strip away the cars and the narrative trappings, it’s got the same narrative drive as The Karate Kid or, hell, films like Whip It.

When I sat down to re-watch Highlander for this post, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out two things: a) why is MacLeod the least-interesting character in the goddamn film, and b) what’s the narrative impulse behind the film?

Turns out the answer to both these questions is much the same: at it’s core, Highlander is essentially a mystery story (or a whydunnit, if you’re playing along with Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat). It’s just not terribly good at telling the kind of story it’s trying to tell.

How does this relate to MacLeod being dull? Bare with me. For starters, this isn’t entirely Lambert’s fault. All evidence in this film to the contrary, he can actually hold his own as an actor when required,  but it’s never actually required of him by the script. Highlander is just one of those rare films where the protagonist doesn’t have a narrative arc; he doesn’t really change, as a character, in a meaningful way. He doesn’t make the moral choices I keep banging on about that make climax scenes effective.

In this respect, he’s much like the classic Film Noir detective, where the Sam Spades, JJ Gittes,  and Phil Marlowe’s of the story are largely observers who sit at the heart of an unravelling mystery. The protagonist job is to be our stand-in, realising the ways in which social norms have been violated as the mystery unravels. They’re required to be cool and calm, effective at their job, but their not fundamentally changed by their experiences. They’re characters who already know that the world is a grim and grimy place, and the events in their stories merely confirm that.

The main thing that keeps the narrative moving forward in Highlander is much the same: it’s peeling away layer upon layer of mystery surrounding the immortals and the Quickening and the Gathering. We see secret upon secret revealed. The film tries to dress this up by having the bits that aren’t flash-back revolve around a police investigation of MacLeod’s initial kill – but that’s not the mystery we’re really interested in. The mystery at the heart of Highlander isn’t  a murder or a missing girl – it’s the question of who are the immortals and what happens after the gathering?

And this is why the middle of the film is rough, because instead of an investigation, we get an interminable number of fucking flashbacks that reveal little bits and pieces of how Connor MacLeod became an immortal and yet understands very little about what all this means. In a detective story these scenes would be the result of our protagonist proactively investigating what’s going on; in Highlander they’re just…there.

What separates the mystery of Highlander from its narrative cousins like The Big Sleep, All the Presidents Men, Blade Runner, and Chinatown is the nature of the mystery and the way it unfolds, and make no mistake, it’s a pale shadow of those films in terms of its revelations. The way it unpacks information is clumsy, at best, and on-the-nose, at worse.

All of which requires Connor MacLeod to be a moderately dull character, because he’s the guy whose serving as the stand-in for the audience. The guy who needs to seem as normal as possible, who needs to dream small, to feel the pain of living forever in very human ways, so that the possibility of dying actually seems like a win when he finally wins it.

This isn’t an easy thing to pull off, but it’s because Connor MacLeod is so bland that the film gets away with the flamboyant mentor figure, Ramirez, and the cartoonishly evil villainy of The Kurgan. They are the most-definitely-not everymen that counterbalance the audience stand-in MacLeod, showing us what could happen if the mystery shakes out in a different way.

And yet, I constantly find myself wondering how much better this film would have been if the flashbacks revolved around Connor seeking these motherfuckers out in order to find answers, rather than patiently waiting in his Highland home for more experienced immortals to come drop some fucking knowledge on him to advance the whydunnit plot.

FOUR: “HAVING FUN” TRUMPS “RULE THE WORLD” IN BADGUYVILLE

You can get away with a lot if you’ve got a strong and memorable antagonist, and Highlander gets away with a lot: bad acting; bad dialogue; bad world-building; terrible FX; swords that ’cause things to blow up. But we forgive it because the Kurgan, despite his thread-bare motivation, has a distinctive look and the temerity to actually have fun with his immortality, and this makes him remarkably effective as an antagonist.

One of the most common pieces of advice writers get is the antagonist must believe they’re the protagonist of their own story, but there far more to a good villain than that. The Kurgan becomes a great villain, not because he’s convinced that he’s really a good guy, but because he’s so focused in his villainy. He’s not running around talking about how he’ll be the last man standing and take over the world; he’s doing this shit ’cause there’s no-one to stop him.

In short, he’s the guy most people probably would be if granted immortality, which is why we’re rather glad he’s not going to win. This makes him far more memorable than he’d be if he were psychotic for its own sake, or firmly convinced of a grand destiny, and keeps him on par with MacLeod in terms of his long-term planning ability.

Believing in themselves is a great trait for an antagonist. Having fun with their role is decidedly underrated, and few writers seem embrace that particular trait.

FIVE: IF YOU HAVE A SECRET CULTURE RUNNING LIVING THROUGH CENTURIES, MAKE THEM A LITTLE SUBTLE

I have no fucking idea how the immortals of Highlander have survived hundreds of years without being discovered. Going by their actions in this film, they’re remarkably shit-house at hiding their presence from people, particularly in the modern age where there is law enforcement and forensics.

These are the kind of people who stab one-another and leave the weapons beside the body, who get into duels and forget to die, and who pick up women by stabbing themselves in the chest and not dying.

They have magic, rock-exploding swords. They kill one-another and blow out every fuse in a three-block radius.Even the way MacLeod interacts with cops is belligerent and designed to attract attention.

For people who live in secret, they’re remarkably lacking in subtlety. And somehow no-one ever notices. This is one of those things that I’m willing to overlook at thirteen, but actually distracts me as an adult. It’s one of those world-building elements that distracts me fro the story.

SIX: TRUST YOUR AUDIENCE

For all its fault – and there’s a few – Highlander does one thing exceptionally well: it trusts the audience to “get it.”

There’s all manner of weirdness thrown at people through the film, from the immortals to the Quickening to The Gathering, stuff that’s thrown out there and given just enough context for people know that there’s something happening without ever giving a detailed explanation. It trusts you to interpret, rather than explains, which invites the audience into the process of constructing the world.

Writers and film-makers alike tend to get very caught up in their creations, forgetting that story is an inherently collaborative process. It’s one of the reasons phrases like show, don’t tell become part of the advice that gets dolled out to writers, even if it’s rarely put in context. It’s also an art that’s lost in contemporary Hollywood, where films get focused grouped into explaining everything to the lowest common denominator.

Highlander isn’t perfect in this respect – pretty much every time Sean Connery opens his mouth, he’s telling us some background detail – but it still gives away remarkably little, focusing on just enough information to give the action meaning. It’s a delicate balance, but one that’s worth studying and learning how to deploy.

Three Things Writers Can Learn from The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

Poster_-_Fast_and_Furious_Tokyo_DriftOne of the few things I like about being sick? The guilt-free viewing of terrible comfort movies as you’re curled up on the coach, nursing yourself back to health. Which is why I found myself perusing the Quickflix streaming site this weekend, looking for something mindless to watch, and settled on The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

I’m a fan of F&F franchise, in a very casual kind of way. I picked the first two up on DVD a few years ago, planning on studying them to figure out the beats associated with a racing story. I ended up seeing the latter films with my former flatmate and appreciated their outright absurdity and desire to hit exactly the mark they were aiming for in terms of story. One day, when they actually finish the entire series, I’ll probably buy a boxed set…and yet I’d always managed to skip Tokyo Drift. It just wasn’t on my radar.

Partially this is the result of changing technology. With the demise of DVD rental stores, there wasn’t much incentive in tracking down films I was kinda interested in. I either wanted to see things bad enough to risk buying them, or I waited for them to show up in my former Flatmate’s DVD collection. There was no middle ground.

In that respect, my Quickflix subscription is a godsend, since it returns the middle-ground of films to my viewing repertoire. And as it turns out, Tokyo Drift is the perfect kind of sick day movie. Big, bright, loud, and aggressively dumb.

And, as trashy movies always are, kinda interesting to watch with regards to what it can teach us about writing.It lacks the pathos of the first film, which is one of those truly good movies, much like Bring it On, that gets written off because of it’s subject matter. It lacks the good humour of the second film, and the over-the-top “Wahoo!” approach of Fast Four, Five, and Six.

Basically, in a franchise full of films about fast cars, it’s a movie about fast cars that doesn’t quite fit, and there’s always something interesting to be learned from the odd man out.

ONE: CARS…KATANAS…SAME FUCKING THING

In his screenwriting handbook, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder makes the argument that there are basically ten types of narrative impulses within films and you can group almost everything into those ten archetypes.

To his mind, both Die Hard and Schindler’s List, for example, are stories based around an ordinary guy with a problem. Beaches, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and Lethal Weapon are all about buddy love. Animal House, The Godfather, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest  are stories about exploring institutions. It may take a few viewing to see what he’s on about, but it’s there. The movies he cites may be from very different genres, but they have the same core and extrapolate outwards, and often share similar narrative beats.

Some days I find myself agreeing with Snyder. And some days I find myself thinking he’s oversimplified things. Yet, watching Tokyo Drift, I can definitely see the point he’s trying to make – it basically takes a bunch of narrative beats from 80s martial arts films and replaces karate or ninja-training with a highly specialised form of car racing.

It’s basically Karate Kid with steering wheels, or American Ninja with cars instead of katanas, or Kickboxer with…well, basically, if you watched action films in the 80s, you’ve got a fair idea of how this works. There is the fish out of water beat. The story beat where the protagonist gets in the face of the local bully. The beat where the mentor figure steps in and offers help. The beat where the mentor explains why they don’t fight — er, sorry, “drift.” The beat where the mentor is killed so the student learns a valuable lesson. There’s even the local love interest who understands the martial art, but doesn’t over-shadow the protagonist.

This is actually one of the things that makes the film kinda pleasurable – it’s grafting new features onto something that’s already familiar – and a lesson for all writers. If you’re ever stuck for a story project, look for a way of transplanting an existing genre into new and unfamiliar territory.

TWO: WHEN YOU BUILD A FRANCHISE, STICK TO THE CORE STORY

Fast and the Furious One? It’s a buddy love story, in Snyder’s terms. Fast and the Furious Two? Ditto. The core of the franchise has been built around two gentlemen bonding together through fast cars, illegal activities, and generally getting into more trouble than they can deal with.

Then along comes Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which feels out of place compared to the first two films. On the surface it looks the same: lots of car stunts; lots of bold, primary colours; lots of shots featuring attractive, pretty people gathered around cars; a terse, angry-at-the-world protagonist who sees racing as his only outlet; a seasoned veteran who understands the racing world there to help the protagonist out.

Except when you get right down to the core story, Tokyo Drift isn’t a buddy love film – it’s a coming of age story. In the first film, the relationship dynamic between O’Connor and Dominic is at the core of the story. It’s what gives the narrative power. Dominic serves as an empathetic antagonist, driving the action. The second film is weaker in this sense – it tries to play it both ways, putting the relationship O’Connor and Roman on equal footing with the heist plot , and it suffers for it – but I’d argue that the ending ultimately seals it as a buddy-love film.

In Tokyo Drift,  we’re in an out-and-out coming of age tale. The entire point of the movie is watching the character of Sean Boswell grow up and take responsibility for his life, and the opening beats have hammered this home before the initial car race is over. There’s no hint of the buddy-love impulse here – Han is pure mentor, and doesn’t actually appear until the second act – and it leaves Tokyo Drift feeling out of place within the series.

Tokyo Drift is a bad movie, but it’s not really the kind of bad movie that deserves the trashing it got upon its theatrical release or directory-of-the-first-movie Rob Cohen’s argument that “If you were to just watch ‘Tokyo Drift,’ you’d say ‘I never want to see anything related to Fast and Furious again.” I think it gets that reaction because readers and film-goers are actually pretty savvy when it comes to recognising plots, even if they aren’t conscious of it. When you train people to think of a series as telling a particular type of story, then switch it out for something new, it takes people a while to re-adjust their expectations.

THREE: DON’T FUCK YOUR FINAL ACTION SCENE BY BLOWING YOUR BIG DECISION

There are probably people who happily watch the Fast and the Furious franchise because they really, really appreciate a well-choreographed car stunt. I am not one of those people. I appreciate the car stunts, sure, but I want them to work at the service of the story and I want the story to pretend, at least, like it gives a damn.

I’ve banged on about the important nature of climactic scenes before – they aren’t just about the physical action, but the emotional and moral choice one of the character’s makes in order to give the film context. It’s the moment where Luke Skywalker chooses to use the force in Star Wars. It’s the moment where O’Connor chooses to let Dominic Toretto go in Fast and the Furious, knowing full well that it’ll mean O’Connor is giving up his life as a cop. It’s telling, in both these films, that the decision happens during or just after the climactic action sequences of the film.

In Tokyo Drift, the big moral decision happens when Boswell has a conversation with has dad, a good twenty minutes prior to the end of the film, and says he’s no longer going to run away from his problems.

It’s a solid moment, a period where we realise that Boswell’s changed from the angry kid we were introduced to in the opening minutes, no longer prone to stupid decisions. It means he’ll now gather his resources and take on the bad guys, whereupon…well, basically, we’ve got a moderately tedious car chase down a mountain because there are no more decisions to be made in the film and no more changes for our protagonist to go through.

The question of whether he’ll win the race is largely academic – there are very few movies willing to take you through two hours of movie and see the protagonist fail – so the final race sequence is largely robbed of tension. It’s just a car race. Well-choreographed, yes, but I sat there through the entire thing wishing I could skip to the end and see exactly how Boswell won the race and got the girl.

Tokyo Drift is a movie that badly needed a use the force moment (or, to keep things a little closer to the genre they’re emulating, something akin to the Crane-stance moment from Karate Kid). Some little aspect of technique that Boswell hasn’t mastered and keeps his race from being a foregone conclusion, narratively speaking. It may be a cliché, but this is a movie that hasn’t been afraid of clichés in any other context, and it would have made for a far better final act.

What Writers Ought to Know About Die Hard, Part Three

Die HardSo I’ve been meaning to write the last three Die Hard posts for a couple of months now, transforming my raw notes into something readable, but my life was basically mugged by putting together the GenreCon program, then chairing panels at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, then coping with the fact that GenreCon’s attendance kinda exploded, then actually running the con, then going to the UK, then watching my deadlines go boom, then moving then, then…

Well, shit, I guess I’m out of excuses, and it’s time to finish this series off, albeit nearly three quarters of a year after it started.

WHAT WRITERS OUGHT TO KNOW ABOUT DIE HARD, PART THREE

Since it’s been a while, it might be worth going back to taking a refresher look at the posts regarding Die Hard’s Ongoing Metaphors and my notes breaking down The First Act. In fact, even if you remember the second post, go back anyway. I adore first acts. They’re some of the busiest places in any story, driven by a ruthless efficiency ’cause they have to set everything up in a very short space of time.

Today we start looking at the Second Act, whereupon we need to tackle one of the fundamental lies of the Three Act Structure – IT HAS FOUR FUCKING PARTS. The first act is all set-up, the last act is all climax and dénouement, and the middle-act is this two-step journey that is all about building up to a critical mid-point then moving away from it. Any book on structure worth it’s salt will break it down like that too – journey to the midpoint, journey away from the midpoint, third act. Yet we stick with the Three Act Structure ’cause writers are stubborn and in love with the number three. Fuckers.

Rather than confuse everyone and fucking with the numerology of the three-act structure, I’m just going to talk about the way Die Hard handles Act Two, Part One. Bear with me.

ACT TWO, PART ONE – A BEGINNER’S GUIDE

So, to recap: narrative is a structural system, and one that’s pretty damn easy to hack once you have an understanding of how it works. The First Act is full of complexities that need exploring, but the second act is much less complex. It’s where all the stuff we traditionally think of as “the story” starts happening, ’cause we get to stop paying setting the internal conflict of our protagonist and start distracting the audience with, well, “terrorists” with machineguns.

Act Two, Part One generally has much fewer beats you need to hit than the opening act, since your main job at this point is basically throwing a series of try->fail cycles at your protagonist. It’s also harder to write, ’cause it’s the point where the lack of structure is replaced by a need to keep escalating the narrative tension while simultaneously distracting the audience with subplots.

Or, in the hands of scriptwriters of lesser skill than the team behind Die Hard, the point where you distract the audience with a series of pointless shit they need to wade through until the story gets interesting again.

To recap, let me list the absolute key scenes/movements that mark the major story beats in your first act:

  • Establishing the World
  • Introducing the Narrative Conflict
  • Having the Protagonist Choose Not to Engage
  • Introducing Some Kind of Object Lesson/Mentor
  • Break the Protagonist Out of Their Reluctance/Kick off the Second Act with a Bang

In contrast, here’s the list of key scenes/movements that mark the major beats in the first half of your second act:

  • The Mid-Point of the Story

Seriously, that’s it. After hitting five separate narrative movements in the first act, you’re basically filling in time before you reach the mid-point of the story, where you take the protagonist to a very dark place (or, if you’re feeling nicer than the universe is to John McClane, a very happy place) and teach them an important lesson that will change everything forever.

And this is the real key of the mid-point – it’s a narrative pivot. It gives the protagonist all the information and tools they need to know in order to resolve their primary internal conflict, then makes it impossible to immediately utilize those tools. It spins the action off in a new direction. It changes things in an interesting way and gives the story a whole new dynamic.

Everything else that happens in this act leading up to that midpoint is just setting up the sub-stories – there’s usually more than one – and giving the viewer enough signifiers to suggest that there’s a whole bunch of secondary characters/antagonists/problems that have their own narrative arcs under way.

The trick with these sub-plots is that they’re all going to tie into your primary plot in some way,, and flesh out the kinds of conflicts you’re exploring there. Scriptwriting guru Blake Snyder sums the first act up as the presentation of the thesis, and the second act (both parts of it) as a chance to explore the anti-thesis.

The way Die Hard does this is by laying in subplot after subplot, which create the complications that keeps thing from being resolved too easily. With that in mind, I’m going to start looking at the subplots that are kicked off and developed in this part of the film, leading up to the major mid-point action where John McClane’s life is changed forever.Once again, the structure tends to happen in narrative movements – sequences of scenes that built to a specific point and either set-up or advance a subplot in a major way.

Once again, I’ll throw in the time-codes for those who are playing along at home.

Strap yourselves in, ’cause this is going to be a long one.

SECOND ACT MOVEMENTS: INTRODUCING THE SUBPLOTS

SUBPLOT ONE: WHY ARE THERE TERRORISTS IN NAKATOMI TOWERS? (23:00 – 32:45)

So we left the end of Act One with Hans and his “terrorist” pals invading the office Christmas party, while a barefoot John McClane disappears up a stairwell. We get a few scenes of John walking through the partially constructed upper levels of the tower after making his escape, trying to make phone calls and generally discovering how screwed he is. Basically, reinforcing that shit has gotten real.

Then we get to the real meat of the films major subplot: Hans and crew are here, doing evil, and they need to be stopped. And because the film has concerned itself with setting up the plot about John and Holly’s marriage for the first twenty minutes, it puts some real effort into this.

Our focus is shifted away from John for a prolonged period for the first time since the film started, and we are given a whole bunch of info about Hans and crew: that they’re educated (pay attention to early dialogue); that they’ve planned well (look at how well Hans has researched his first victim, Mr Takagi); that they’re politely evil (Hans takes great care to be polite to his victim and compliment him about clothing/work/etc).

And while this film is all about introducing Hans, there are little flashes of camera work where we’re given an insight into some of the other characters:

  • We got a two-second shot of Karl, the second-in-command among the terrorists, who will later get his own subplot with John and stands out because he’s the only terrorist who moves in this scene apart from Hans. Everyone else just stands there, looking armed and European.
  • We get a moment where Ellis backs away from Hans as the terrorist leader walks past, reaffirming the hints we had that Ellis is a chickenshit asshole back in act one and letting us know that he’s not going to be one of the faceless crowd of victims.
  • We get the momentary stare between Holly and Hans when Takagi identifies himself, a precursor to the fact that she will be the adversary who stands up to Hans on the hostage side of things.

All of this takes, like, six seconds, but it’s genius. This film, I swear to god, it does the little things so fucking well. There are flashes back to John every now and then, reminding us that he’s there, but this are on par with the little flashes to the terrorist truck that occurred through the first act. A reminder that John is there, doing stuff, now that the film is rolling out the welcome mat for Hans.

These flashes to John aren’t really about advancing the story. What these flashes do really well, though, is add to the mystery – right after we get another showcase of Hans as an educated, well-off chap when he comments on the quality of Takagi’s suit, we cut to a shot of John spotting the terrorists moving around some heavy-duty military hardware. It up the mystery and the stakes. What the fuck is this well-dressed, educated, English mother-fucker doing here? When Takagi asks what kind of terrorist he is, Hans laughs the idea off without providing an answer.

Hans is all about the contrasts and the mystery. He makes Alexander the Great references and talks about reading Forbes, then shoots Takagi in cold blood. He’s also the perfect foil for John – while McClane struggles to talk to the people in his life, from his fellow travelers to his limo driver to his wife – Hans is perfectly capable of holding a conversation about all the minutia of Holly’s big-business world.

We get a little over seven minutes of Hans at the start of the second act, right up until he kills Takagi and goes about getting his money “the hard way.” This affirms him as a big deal – spending this long away from the protagonist is rare outside of an ensemble film – and it makes it clear that the tenor of the film has changed. We’re no longer in feel-good reconciliation land where John and Holly work out (or fail to work out) their differences; we have a new player on the board and he’s a bad, bad man.

One of the things that makes a great antagonist is their thorough belief that they are the good buy in their own story. I don’t know that you can argue this is true of Hans – he’s too self-aware – but that seven minute period we’ve just spent getting to know him basically serves as the act one for his story. He gets a hint of what’s coming to fuck-up his carefully laid plans when John makes a noise, but dismisses it when a quick search reveals nothing.While John’s internal journey is all about learning not to be a macho jerk so he can get back together with his wife, Hans has his own internal journey – and it largely revolves around being so convinced of his own genius that he doesn’t take threats seriously until they’re too late.

But that’s for future scenes. We get a little more information about Hans long-term goal and the vault – nearly impregnable, with a seventh lock the terrorists tech-guy can’t break – effectively presenting Hans with the impossible goal right as his own little “act one” wraps up. We have the basics of Han’s plot in a nutshell: the terrorists want to get into the high-tech, impregnable vault. We also have a mystery to keep us interested: who the hell are these guys and why do they want the vault so badly?

SUBPLOT TWO: THE FLY IN THE OINTMENT (32:34 – 40:00)

We move into the second major sub-plot that’ll be driving the second act – John fucking with the terrorists plans and generally serving as the fly in the ointment.

This is really the meat of the story – the point where we get introduced to the Try-Fail cycle. In essence, stories just repeat the same pattern over and over again – the character tries something to resolve their problem, but it doesn’t work. The next thing they try escalates things, but it too fails. This continues on for a while, until something finally succeeds.

John’s already started this when he tried to phone, but he sticks with the simple solutions as we move into the meaty part of this subplot – he get a lighter to the sprinkler system, hoping to get the fire department out. A solid plan, but the terrorists are ahead of him there. They cut things off and send out a guy with a machine-gun to take care of the problem.

John tried something. It failed. He’ll need to up his game next time he tries to get some attention.

Incidentally, the guy Hans’ sends out? A blond, glasses-wearing German named Tony, who happens to be the younger brother of the long-haired blonde, Karl, who got some focus in the previous movement. He goes searching for John, but John ambushes him, leading to one of the films exchanges that are pitch-perfect.

“You wont hurt me,” Tony says. “There are rules for policemen.”

“Yeah, that’s what my captain keeps telling me,” John replies, ever the rebel cop who struggling with the constraints of the world around him. It’s a nice call-back to act one, reminding us that despite all the minutes we’ve spent on Hans and his crew, this film is still about John McClane figuring out who he is and how he can get back together with his wife. It’s also a important thing to keep in mind as we go into the mid-point, ’cause being the rebel cop is a big part of what makes John and insufferable ass to his wife.

He tries to knock Tony out – an important thing to note, since John doesn’t start out trying to kill people – but they get into a fight, which ends when they tumble down the stairs. John’s killed his first bad guy and acquired the gun.This is good guy 101; John can talk the talk of being a maverick cop and we need a dead bad guy for the story to advance, but the audience likes him more when he doesn’t kill someone in cold blood.

If only future Die Hard films remembered this lesson. Or, you know, any of the lessons that can come from pulling apart Die Hard’s subplots.

*Sighs* *Glares at Die Hard 4 and 5*

Anyway, at 36:28 the film cuts back to Theo, the terrorist’s tech guy, hacking into the vault with Takagi’s details and cutting into the vault with a drill. It’s less than ten seconds long, but it serves an important purpose – refreshing our memory of that first sub-plot beat right before John unpacks Tony’s bag trying to answer the central question of the first subplot – who are these guys?

When he doesn’t get any reasonable answers, he decides to send a message via the building’s elevator: a dead Tony seated on a stool, with a sign on his chest that says: Now I have a Machinegun. Ho. ho. Ho.

It arrives just as Hans is threatening his hostages, making it very clear that nothing is going to go well for Hans tonight.And so our second sub-plot is introduced and ends up mirroring the first – with Hans and his crew trying to figure out is killing their guys, just like John is trying to figure out who the terrorists are.

Now that we’ve got the big main plot established (John learning to be a better human being and reconciling with his wife) and the major subplots are set up with long movements, we get to some of the lesser sub-plots that thread through the movie.

THE MINOR SUBPLOTS

Not all subplots are created equal. Once you’ve got your main plot and the one-or-two major subplots, there’s usually a series of minor subplots that get introduced. They get less time, ’cause they focus on the minor characters, and basically, at this point, you start to see the subplots stacking up one-another. Established with quick ten or twenty-second grabs that get their just by playing off the major subplots that have taken up the bulk of the second act thus far.

The neat thing about Die Hard is the way all its subplots are basically natural progressions of one another. Just as the first subplot is complication for John’s main storyline, and the second subplot is a complication for the first, subplots three, four and five are now complicating elements getting in the way of otherwise “easy” solutions to the major sub-plot arcs

SUBPLOT THREE: THE BUILDING IS AGAINST ME (Starts: 39:00 – 40:50)

We hit subplot three, where John is listening in on the terrorists from his hiding place on top of the elevator, only to have it start moving on him. It’s a little thing, less than a minute over, but the film calls back to it again and again – the building itself is against John, and not just because the terrorists control it.

Basically, the unfinished terrain of the building is going to inconvenience the hell out of John in the second act, but he’s going to learn things from it that will help him out in the second half of the film.

SUBPLOT FOUR: TELL KARL HIS BROTHER IS DEAD (Starts: 40:50 – 41:10)

At the 41 minute mark we learn why Karl has been given the little visual queues that make him stand out in the early parts of the second act – John has just killed his younger brother, and Karl is dead-set on getting revenge. Hans is trying to control him – he just wants the situation taken care of without affecting the plan – but Karl is an angry, angry German chap who really wants John’s blood now.

SUBPLOT FIVE: HOLLY ISN’T “BUSINESS” (41:11 – 41:40)

SUBPLOT SIX: ELLIS IS A DICKHEAD (41:11 – 41.40)

We then get a double-whammy – Holly and Ellis are watching the argument between Hans and Karl take place, and they figure out that John is the likely ’cause. Both these characters are on their own personal arc, just as John is, and we get an insight into those subplots as well.

Holly sees that John is alive and is immediately relieved; Ellis immediately thinks that John is going to get all of them killed.

“John’s doing his job,” Holly argues, the first time we’ve seen her show that aspect of his life some respect since the film began. This arc is as much about teaching Holly that she still loves her husband as the rest of the film is focused on breaking John of his macho bullshit.

Technically both these subplots started in act one, which is why they’re able to be dealt with so quickly here.

SECOND ACT MOVEMENTS: ADVANCING SUBPLOTS

Having introduced a whole bunch of major and minor subplots in their own movements, the film now start moving things forward in a series of narrative movements that will advance one or ore of the subplots while introducing one final major subplot to the mix.It mixes this up by throwing out a few extra  subplots, just to keep things spicy (generally speaking, a film will run about 6 or 7 subplots; Die Hard goes a little overboard, but it’s very confident in its presentation)

MOVEMENT: MAYDAY! MAYDAY (41:40- 43:40)
ADVANCES: Subplot Two, Subplot Four

The film sees John make his way to the roof, trying to raise contacts on the radio he stole from poor dead Tony. Once again we see the Try-Fail cycle in action, only this time the fail advances a couple of our subplots – alerting Hans and Karl to John’s presence, and letting them know where he is.

Once again we’re reminded of John’s inability to get along with people in authority, as the local dispatch more or less dismisses his reports of terrorist activity. We get to see multiple subplots advance, as it touches on both John disrupting the terrorist plans and Hans really wanting to get revenge for his brother’s death.

SUBPLOT SEVEN: HELLO SERGEANT AL (43:30 – 44:28)

The film’s seventh subplot revolves around Al, the local cop whose sent out to investigate what’s going on at Nakatomi. Like Hans, he’s introduced to the film as a contrasting character to John McClane, only in Al’s case he’s an overweight desk cop with a pregnant wife at home. You know, unlike McClane, who has a list of scumbags to catch as long as his arm and a wife who went to the far side of the country without him.

Anyway, we meet him in Seven-Eleven, buying a terrifying amount of junk food, before he’s sent out to the Tower to investigate what’s going on. What’s important about this scene is what occurs in the final seconds – every other member of the LA police force John deals with is basically presented as incompetent and a fuck-up. It’s highlighted in the scenes just prior to this, when the dispatch ignores John’s warning. Al isn’t like that. He will have his moments of getting things wrong, but ultimately he’s the LA analogue of John McClane, an everyman who can be trusted to do the right thing when guided by his street-smarts and instinct.

Thus, it’s telling that before he heads to Nakatomi he takes a look at the building from a distance, and he sees the flash of gunfire on the roof. He’s the first local to realise there’s something bad going on…and if only he listened to his instincts (which is the fatal flaw Al’s grappling with, just as John is grappling with his own internal struggle), he could do a lot more to help John out.

Again, this isn’t a major subplot, so it’s given a short, sharp scene to kick things off.

MOVEMENT: GUNFIGHT ON THE ROOF/INTO THE DUCTS (43:40 – 50:30)
ADVANCES: Subplot Two, Subplot Three, Subplot Four

And so we get into the section of the film that people are probably remembering when they write Die Hard off as a dumb action movie. The running gunfight takes place on the roof – John versus a bunch of Hans’ thugs, including Karl who methodically stalks John while everyone else is running around with their machine guns on full auto. John takes cover, fires back. Karl looks dangerous ’cause he’s being methodical, and eventually John gets cornered and has to escape into the air vents.

First thing he encounters – a big fucking fan, ’cause THE BUILDING IS AGAINST ME – but he sneaks his way through and gets away just as Karl and co start opening fire.

It’s a temporary respite – Karl and co quickly figure out he’s found his way into the elevator shafts – and we get some conflict between Karl and Hans when it’s revealed that they can lock down the elevator and trap John there. Karl turns off the radio – he isn’t going to be content with “trapping” John after the death of his brother.

Meanwhile, John escapes into the air ducts, in what’s one of the movies most iconic images, and we get the scene that’s been riffed on so many times that it’s become a cliche – Karl shooting up the ducts, then testing them to find John – only this time Hans manages to assert control over the situation moments before Karl would have found John.

It’s important to note that Karl was on the verge of succeeding here; Hans calls him off. That’s ’cause Han’s internal flaw, as a character, is his faith in his own intelligence and planning. He can’t conceive of someone disrupting things to the point that John does, therefore he isn’t willing to risk things yet.

Man, he’s going to pay for that. If only he listened to Karl more…

MOVEMENT: THE DRIVE BY (50:30 – 55:30)
ADVANCES: Subplot Two, Subplot Three, Subplot Seven

Al shows up at Nakatomi in his patrol car – something that’s perceived as being a far greater threat than John. He phones through to dispatch, tells them nothing seems to be up, and both John and Hans focus their attention on what happens next.

Al goes in to talk to the terrorist playing security guard in the lobby, Karl and his team join the snipers watching over things from the windows, John finds his way to a window upstairs and starts trying to smash a window so he can get a warning to Al and call in the cavalry.

Naturally, ’cause this is Die Hard, it leads to a desperate fire-fight between John and two of Hans’ flunkies while Al is deciding there’s nothing worth seeing. When it looks like Al is leaving, John gets his attention by dropping a body through the window.

The terrorists open fire and Al backs away like he’s driving through a warzone, all-to-aware that there’s something going on. We get a brief glimpse of Argyle, the limo driver from act one, oblivious to what’s going on as he grooves to hip-hop. Technically you could argue this is a subplot unto itself, but it’s really more of a running joke that pays off near the climax, so I’ve not really recorded it as such.

Al crashes his car and calls in assistance; the cavalry is finally on its way.

SUBPLOT EIGHT: NEVER TRUST THE PRESS (55:30 – 55:50)

We’re running towards the mid-point of the film, so we get another subplot started when the film cuts to Richard Thornburg, asshole journalist and all-round despicable prick. He’s in the process of lying to some woman about being able to get reservations when he overhears Al’s call, and he’s immediately on the case.

HEADING INTO THE MIDPOINT

MOVEMENT: THE COPS ARRIVE (55:50 – 58:20)
ADVANCES: SUBPLOT ONE, SUBPLOT TWO, SUBPLOT SIX

Suddenly the world around Nakatomi towers is filed with cop cars and sirens. We get a quick reminder that Ellis is a prick (“Never thought I’d be pleased to hear that sound”) before Hans Gruber asserts his control over the situation. In fact, he suggest that this is all part of the plan, which once again reminds us we have no idea who he really is and what he wants with the vault.

Then, mid-speech, he’s interrupted by his radio and we get one of those moments that can make or break a film – the first actual confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist, and the mid-point of the story where the narrative circumstances change.

The cop cars are the first clue that we’re playing by a new set of rules in the second half of the film; suddenly McClane has back-up out there, which gives him renewed confidence. He responds by calling Hans on the radio and getting in his face, a moment of triumph. John, you see, think’s he’s won. The cops are here. The cavalry. It’s like he’s forgotten his relationship with authority figures.

Playing this scene out by radio is genius, ’cause you get to have your cake and eat it two. The first meeting between protagonist and antagonist is always rich with drama, but keeping the two apart and unable to see each other means they get to replay this beat later in the film when they meet in the flesh.

We also get our first major advancement of the first subplot when John finds the C4 and the detonators among the bags of the terrorists he killed in the first scene. More questions we don’t know the answer to, but also a major advancement on John’s status as Fly in the Ointment to Hans’ plan – without the detonators and C4, he can’t get into the vault. Suddenly John is no longer an irritation, he’s an active problem that needs to be solved.

There is an exchange about cowboys – a neat nod to the fact that this is, essentially, a Western narrative in terms of its major beats, it just stripped away all of the things that would ordinarily make us think “Western.” John is a stranger who rides into town and disrupts the plans of the local banditos, trusting in his own sense of justice and ability with a gun.

MOVEMENT: THORNBURG IS AN ASSHOLE (58:20 – 59:09)
ADVANCES: Subplot Eight.

We get a quick twenty-second grab of Richard Thornburg, asshole reporter, arguing with his producer. He thinks there’s a big story at Nakatomi and he can get the jump on things. His producer disagrees. Mostly, this scene is all about letting us know that everyone Thornburg works with thinks he’s an asshole. He’s going to serve some major plot purpose later, but for the moment the film is just making sure that we really, really hate him.

MOVEMENT: “CALL ME ROY” (59:09 – 61:40)
Advances: Subplot One, Subplot Two, Subplot Seven

Karl and his boys rush back to the offices to report to Hans about how badly John having the detonators will screw them. Hans checks in with his guy on the vault, checking on the time. Realises that there is now a major problem, which changes the tenor of subplot two in a big way; John is fucking with The Plan.

Al tries to radio John, but the terrorists here. John and Al start a conversation about what’s going on; Hans is still clinging to the idea that this isn’t a big deal – John isn’t yet a threat, ’cause he’s not FBI – but we come back to the detonators being a big deal yet again, pushing the mystery of exactly who Hans is and what his crew is doing here.

John finishes reporting in, settles in with a cigarette to relax for the first time since the second act started.  He seriously thinks everything is going to be okay now. ‘Cause he can’t see the middle of the film coming up on him, turning everything on its head.

MOVEMENT: NOTHING GOOD COMES FROM AUTHORITY FIGURES (61:40 – 62:50)
ADVANCES: Subplot Seven

The cops mobilize in force and the chief of police shows up, thus ensuring that everything is going to go wrong because they’ve put an authority figure in charge of the operation instead of leaving things to Al.

What’s important here is Al trusting his hunch for the first time – an important step in his own personal growth through the movie

MOVEMENT: Gennaro, Holly Gennaro (62:50 – 64:20)
ADVANCES: Main Plot, Subplot Five

We’re in another run of short, sharp scenes that advance the subplots of major characters who aren’t John or Hans. In this case, the scene belongs to Holly, who stands up to Hans and demands toilet breaks for the hostages and a sofa for her pregnant colleague.

We get the reminder here, right on the threshold of the mid-point, because we need to touch on the main plot for a second. We see Holly being good at her job – she’s in charge, now that Takagi has been killed – but also the fear that Hans is going to discover her relationship with John through the family photograph she lay face-down on shelf during the first act.

Hans senses something’s wrong and fishes, but Holly tells him her name is Gennaro rather than McClane.

MOVEMENT: LOCKED IN (64:20 – 65:00)
ADVANCES: Subplot Eight, Argyle

Another short scene that’s all about checking in with the folks we know from the first act. In this case, Richard Thornburg’s report shows up o Argyle’s television in the limo, and the poor kid drops his glass of scotch and panics, searching for a way out of the car park.

MOVEMENT: WE’RE GOING IN (65:00 – 66:00)
ADVANCES: Subplot Seven

We get a short scene Al, the LA Chief of Police, and the rest of the force. They’re preparing for an assault on the building, having chosen to believe that John’s report to Al isn’t credible, and Al isn’t happy about that.

We’ve now had five short, sharp scenes in a row, which serves to build tension after seeing John settle down to relax a just a few minutes earlier. Instinctively, we’re responding to the quick pace of the cuts; we know something bad is coming, even if John does not.

AND FINALLY, ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE

I mentioned up the front that the first half of the second act only has one major story beat it needs to hit, in contrast to the five or six involved in the first act. That major beat is the mid-point – traditionally the point where something major happens that alters the terrain of the story in permanent and unavoidable ways. It’s also the point where the character’s internal arc usually does a 180 – the thing they think they want falls away, and they learn something about what they’re really after.

Die Hard has one of the smartest mid-points I know, because it’s so incredibly fucking subtle in the way it executes the personal change in its protagonist, John McClane.

MIDPOINT: THE ASSAULT (66:00 – 74:00)

And so we hit the halfway point of the film. It kicks off dead in the centre of the movie’s running time, and it’s the big, set-piece scene where a whole bunch of things come together. John sees the floodlights, asks Al what’s going on. Al gives him a warning and John knows, without a doubt, that it’s a bad idea.

We get a few shots of Argyle trying to find a way out of the building; we see John trying to get a vantage point. Mostly we see Hans and his crew preparing for the assault, utterly unconcerned by the cops presence.

The cops go in. It’s going to be a massacre.

And John sits in his vantage point, helpless to do anything. “You macho assholes,” he shouts. “No. No. No.”

Macho assholes? Wait, isn’t half the problem between John and his wife based on the fact he’s a macho asshole? Die Hard is distracting you with guns and explosions, but we’ve just seen a moment of personal growth in John’s character arc.

The raid goes from bad to worse, with the only person of any common sense among the LA cops proving to be Al, the desk cop. The cops send in an armoured car. The terrorists blow it up with a really, really heavy-duty missile launcher. If you were kidding yourself that these guys were really terrorists, it’s pretty much gone by this point.

John just looks on, unable to do anything but beg Hans for mercy. He comes up with a plan a few minutes too late, dropping the C4 down an elevator shaft to stop the missile launcher from doing any more damage, but the damage is done (and the elevator shaft direct the fire back at John, ’cause the building hates him).

So we’ve got massive property damage, some dead cops, and the situation in Nakatomi towers has radically changed. Things could have gone so different.

If only the cops had listened to John, the authority on the situation, they could have handled things differently and not made such a mess. If only they hadn’t been macho, pig-headed cops who disregarded the rules, then…

Oh, wait, we’re using action as a metaphor for John’s personal growth again, aren’t we? He prides himself on being a rogue cop, trusting his instincts and refusing to listen to anyone else, but he’s just been given a first-hand example of what happens when you ignore people, and he doesn’t like the helpless feeling it gave him.

END OF ACT TWO, PART ONE

So at 5,000 words this clocks in a little longer than my usual Tuesday blog post, which is one of the reasons why there’s been a long gulf between part two and part three. I’ll try to get Part Four, dealing with the second half of the second act, up towards the end of August.

Five (Well, Six, Actually) Things Writers Can Learn From Watching Wing Commander (1999)

WingCommanderMovieOur work offices are located in the State Library of Queensland, which means I’ll occasionally walk past signs for upcoming library events on my way into work. Last week, one of those signs advertised the library’s classic movie screening of the German submarine classic Das Boot and I was…well, mildly interested.

Unfortunately, the screening was during work hours and I missed it, so I went home and made do with the next best thing – Das Boot in space, AKA the cinematic adaptation of the Wing Commander computer games.

Fans of the game hate this film. Like, passionately hate this film. My former flatmate, who reveled in the shittiest of films during our #TrashyTuesdayMovie run, chose not to sit through Wing Commander when it was scheduled. My friends who love the games claim that it fails as an adaptation on multiple levels, but I can’t really speak to that. I never actually played the games, so I was forced to take the film on its own merits (what few there are).

And by those standards…well, I’m in a definite minority here, but I actually like the Wing Commander film. It’s not a great piece of cinema by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a sense that it’s the product of an ambitious, first-time director working at the limits of his ability and budget. Writer/Director Chris Roberts was the man behind the Wing Commander games and by all accounts he hustled like hell to get this movie made. Then, once it was green-lit, he was given thirty-million dollars and a truncated pre-production time – Fox acquired the rights to the Star Wars prequels, and basically told Robert he needed to beat Phantom Menace out by twelve moths.

When you factor in the limitations of time, budget, and experience, Roberts actually tries to make an interesting film. He’s just not comfortable with the form yet, nor has he learned the skills that would let his reach match his ambition. Couple that with a budget that is woefully achieving the kind of FX people expected of SF by the late end of the nineties – let alone the expectations that came from fans of the franchise – and the results is a flawed film that is widely panned as a failure.

He also makes some choices that are just outright dumb, not least of which is this: if you want to hide the obvious debt your film owes to Das Boot, don’t cast Jürgen Prochnow in a major role.

While that’s good advice for film makers, it’s not a mistake most writers are inclined to make. With that in mind, I turn my attention to the lessons the film has for those of us who work in prose fiction.

ONE: WRITING SKILLS AREN’T AUTOMATICALLY TRANSFERABLE BETWEEN GENRES

Although we’re used to thinking of genre in terms of bookstore categories like fantasy or horror, there are parts of literary theory where the word is used to describe any collection of expectations related to form. In this respect, the novel is a genre, as films, and poems, and computer games. Each of these have broad-scale expectations that creators need to understand before they can really make great works within the genre.

Chris Roberts is a man who’d mastered the art of making computer games. The success of the Wing Commander games were somewhat phenomenal, and he probably could have kept making successful computer games for a long stretch if he’d put his mind to it. His games – which often involved filming live-action cut-scenes – probably felt like they were preparing him for his foray into film, but you only have to look at this movie to see that isn’t true.

The truth is, creative skills aren’t necessarily transferable between genres. Just because someone is a fantastic novelist or poet, it doesn’t automatically hold that they’d be a great film writer. Just because one works in computer games, it doesn’t hold that you’ll automatically know how to direct a play or a movie. The one that always seems to catch people off-guard, including me: just because you can write a decent short story, you’re not automatically going to understand the form of a novel.

You can develop that understanding, certainly, but it’s never a good idea to assume that just because you can write in one form, you’re automatically going to understand the next one you try. There may be a handful of naturals in the world, but the people who generally master a form of expression are those who have taken the time to immerse themselves as a consumer and worked to understand the expectations of the audience on an instinctual level.

Wing Commander is very much a journeyman film – there’s a baseline level of competence, but the understanding of film as a specific medium just isn’t there (Roberts admits as much in his interview with Penny Arcade about the film’s failings, which is recommended reading for any creative type).

TWO: PROLOGUES ARE HARD, OKAY?

Wing Commander fits its prologue over the opening credits, telling the story of humanity’s journey into space, our initial colonies, the rise of the pilgrim explorers, the invention of the navcom AI that would replace the pilgrims, and then the war with the Kilrathi. It’s a lot of information dumped in two-and-a-half minutes…and every single bit of it is important to the plot, somewhere along the way.

It’s followed by another long scene – essentially a second prologue – where the Kilrathi attack a human base and take their AI navigator, which leads a long expository section about how this will doom the earth because the invading Kilrathi can jump into earth space ahead of humanity’s fleet.

The second prologue actually does a pretty good job of establishing how valuable the AI McGuffin is to the plot – there’s a nice sequence where they’re doing everything they can to destroy it before it falls into enemy hands, only to be thwarted by the fact that it’s too well defended by bulletproof glass and other defenses.

Still, we’re sitting through a lot of set-up before we’re finally introduced to the protagonist of the film, Christopher Blair, seven and a half minutes into the film. Proportionally, that’s like investing 7000 words of a 100,000 word novel as a prologue, when most editors would normally wince the moment you cross the 1,000 threshold.

The main problem with prologues is pretty simple: you’re putting roadblocks between your audience and the protagonist, telling people no, really, you need to know all this, before actually introducing them to the person you’re hoping they’re interested in and willing to empathise with.

The average films gets its main protagonist on-screen as quickly as possible, so you know who you’re meant to be paying attention too. Focusing elsewhere may seem like you’re escalating the stakes by showing us how all of humanity is in peril, but…well, we don’t care. People are very good at caring about individual characters; they’re very bad at caring about the deaths of millions.

THREE: COUNTDOWNS ONLY MATTER WHEN TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE

The core of the plot in Wing Commander is based on a ticking clock: the Kilrathi fleet will reach earth in 20 hours, the human fleet will make it in 22. The pilots in the Tiger Claw are responsible for slowing the Kilrathi down.

Thing is…time doesn’t matter much. There’s issues of time dilation, which I’ll touch on again in a couple of points, but there’s also…well, lots of faffing around. No-one acts like time is of the essence. People flirt, fall in love, and get one-another killed within the space of a single sub-plot. People go to bed and get woken up by other characters, and it’s leisurely wake-up rather than the exhausted, jerk-into-consciousness of people grabbing an hour or two of sleep where they can between missions. The ship is damaged and repaired at least once, and it’s not presented as a hard decision. One whole subplot in the film revolves around the long-term effects of missions in space on the psyche of the pilots.

Basically, everything the film can do to make it feel like days are passing, rather than hours, it goes out of its way to do.

It robs the entire situation of its urgency – a situation the film has spent about eight percent of its total running time setting up – and basically kills the central plot. If you’re going to count down to doomsday, you have to treat the clock like it matters.

FOUR: YOUR BACK STORY NEEDS TO SERVE YOUR PRESENT

Remember how I said this film was ambitious? One of the ways that presents itself is the back story, which involves a subset of humanity that was capable of charting jumps across space without the help of a computer. These people started the exploration of space, made colonization of other planets possible, and eventually went to war with the rest of humanity prior to the arrival of the Kilrathi. There are still hints that “Pilgrim Saboteurs” are disrupting the war effort, despite other hints that the Pilgrims are wiped out in other parts of the movie.

Consider this exchange:

Taggart: Sit down. You’re one of the last descendants of a dying race. Pilgrims were the first space explorers and sailors. For five centuries they defied the odds. They embraced space, and for that, they were rewarded with a flawless sense of direction. They could feel magnetic fields created by quasars and black holes, negotiate singularities, navigate not just the stars, but space-time itself.

Blair: Like a Navcom AI?

Taggart: No no, you’ve got it backwards. The billions of calculations each second necessary to lead us through a black hole or quasar is the Navcom recreation of the mind of a single Pilgrim.

Blair: Then why did the war start?

Taggart: You spend so much time out here alone, you end up losing your humanity. When Pilgrims began to lose touch with their heritage, they saw themselves as superior to man. And in their arrogance, they chose to abandon all things human and follow what they called their destiny. Some say they believed they were gods.

This? All of this sound way, way more interesting than the film we’re watching. It’s an intriguing set of circumstances and there’s something about the notion of people “touched by the gods” who are capable of crossing space that appeals to me, as does a war fueled by human jealousy and Pilgrim arrogance.

Instead, the story with the Kilrathi revolves around a stolen computer and…well, the giant hairless space cats are presumably after something with their war, but I’m fucked if I can tell you what by the end of the story.

Your back story needs to serve your present conflict, not over-power it. Don’t make the story that preceded the one you’re telling seem like the really exciting one. There is nothing worse than an audience sitting there thinking holy shit, why aren’t you telling that story? That sounds awesome…

FIVE: SUBTEXT IS THE TEXTURE THAT MAKES YOUR FILM INTERESTING

One of the strengths of Wing Commander are the little touches – subplot elements that get thrown out in a scatter-shot approach, any one of which could have been fleshed out into a strong sub-plot that would provide the movie with depth if it was given more time and nuance. It’s a film that’s actually interested in being science-fiction and exploring what being a space-faring culture means, but it doesn’t know how to make it interesting yet.

Forbes: Remember the briefing. By the time you return, everyone you know will be dead and buried.

This is a future where going to space is a serious deal. Time dilation is in full effect, which means getting deployed is a sure sign the world you left won’t resemble the one you come home too. There are any number of SF writers who could make a meal of that particular set-up, exploring the psychology behind military service in such a future and how it manifests in things like the Tiger Claw’s tradition of “he never existed.”

Angel: Let me give you a reality check. In all likelihood you’re going to die out here. We’re all going to die out here, but none of us need to be reminded of that fact. So you die, you never existed. Understand?

The same is true of Blair’s status as a descendant of the pilgrims, facing moments of racism throughout the film. This is a kid “touched by the gods” in the films mythology, capable of things no-one else is capable of, struggling to understand the reality of his new life. It’s a solid sub-plot, the kind of thing that could easily carry a better-constructed film, and there’s a part of me that wants to go in and rewrite the entire thing to really

The reason neither of sub-plots add the depth they should to the film is simple: they’re only relevant in the scenes that are designated as “sub-plot beats.”

There are a handful of scenes that revolve around Blair’s heritage and the associated racism – just enough to keep it in the forefront of your mind and keep the climax of the film from being pure deus ex machina – but it only happens in those scenes, when another character articulates it. Blair never acts like a kid whose worried about being excluded; the rest of the crew, for the most part, never actually seem to discriminate against him. The racism is limited to the crew members whose role, by and large, is designated as “racist secondary antagonist.”

It’s these elements that give the film its sense of ambition – it wants to be doing something with these tropes – but there’s an element of nuance that’s missing throughout the film. The little things that happen in the background of scenes that aren’t about advancing the sub-plot, or the quiet moments between the dialogue where you can see the relationship between two characters by their body language. Wing Commander struggles with its more ambitious elements because it doesn’t have that level of subtext, only text; there’s no space for the viewer to interpret and confirm for themselves what the characters are saying.

SIX: YOU NEED MORE THAN TWO CHARACTERS SHARING SCREEN TIME TO MAKE A ROMANCE SUB-PLOT WORK

You could probably show me a hundred films and I’ll make this complaint about 95 of them, but you really do need to do more than put a guy and a girl in the same scene a couple of times in order to justify a romance subplot. The thing that pisses me off more than anything else in this movie is the final two minutes, where Blair and Deveraux fall into one another’s arms and kiss because…well, they went on missions together, and she was his commanding officer, and apparently they had a moment just before Blair saved all of humanity.

It’s one of those moments that feels tacked on – an unnecessary sub-plot for either character, but one that’s thrown in because…well, the ending felt flat due the lack of a moral choice being made to give a strong context to what happened.

There’s already a romance sub-plot in the film that’s crudely built, but necessary to the plot, in the form of Maniac and Forbes. They, at least, are given scenes where they actually seem to flirt with one another and express their desire. The film would actually be far better if they’d ended the film with Blair and Deveraux respecting one another as fellow pilots, rather than making out.

Seven Things Writers Can Learn from Watching Suckerpunch (2011)

220px-Sucker_Punch_film_posterI’m going to be clear: I hate this movie. Loathe it. With the kind of intensity you get by capturing a couple of thousand suns in a nuclear reactor and focusing it into a very, very destructive kind of laser. When we first watched it, very early on in the #TrashyTuesdayMovie annals, it bored me to the point where I gave up actually commenting on the movie and just started live-tweeting 10 ways I would have my revenge on Zack Snyder for the creation of this film.

Having re-watched the film in preparation for this post, I find myself revisiting said list and wondering if I was overly generous:

1: Dropped in a vat of piranha, who eat him slow motion while Army of Me plays over the action. #Suckerpunched
2: Getting kicked in the nuts, repeatedly, by film-makers who actually have talent #Suckerpunched
3: Being left to starve after having both legs crushed by a tank #Suckerpunched
4: Fatal katana accident. #Suckerpunched
5: beaten to death by angry Watchman fans wearing brass knuckles #Suckerpunched
6: After being deafened by a thousand idiots screaming “This is Sparta” at high volume #Suckerpunched
7: Rampaging hippos. #Suckerpunched.
8: Accidentally stumbling over a plot in his next film and going into anaphylactic shock #Suckerpunched
‘Cause, honestly, does anyone really believe that Snyder isn’t seriously allergic to plot at this point #Suckerpunched
9: Helicopter crash #Suckerpunch
10: Getting sued for all the time people have wasted in his film, and having to give up all those hours at once #Suckerpunched

When my former flatmate and I put together our lists of the five worst films we’d watched as part of the #TrashyTuesdayMovie series, Suckerpunch was something of a benchmark. No matter how bad a movie may be, at least it wasn’t fucking Suckerpunch. No matter how nonsensicle the script, at least it wasn’t fucking Suckerpunch.

When I mentioned writing about this film in twitter, there was a palpable outpouring of hate. So it’s not just me: people really, really hate this film.

So, naturally, when I asked people which movies they’d be interested in revisiting as part of the Trashy Tuesday Writing School series, every single motherfucker put Suckerpunch on their list.

Bastards. All of ‘em.

And so, loaded up with scotch, a laptop, a back-alley copy of the movie, and a list of places where I can dump human bodies and no-one will ever find them, I sat down to re-watch the movie with an eye towards scraping the bottom of the fucking barrel and figuring out what writers can learn from the experience.

Hopefully, most of these will makes sense. If not, I’m blaming the scotch…

ONE: THE PEOPLE WHO HATE YOU MOST PASSIONATELY PROBABLY WANT TO LIKE YOUR WORK

Here’s my dirty little secret: I don’t want to hate Zack Snyder’s work. He’s a director with a really, really strong visual aesthetic and a love of absurd action sequences, which are two things that would ordinarily endear his work to me on a nigh unconditional level. He puts together lovely trailers which hint at fantastic, highly-stylized worlds. The trailer for Suckerpunch is like a goddamn piece of art in terms of its blatant nerd appeal:

I mean, Jesus, look at this thing. I want to love it. Girls with words. Dragons. German zombie soldiers. Robot samurai with machineguns. My little geeky heart opens up and shrieks I want, I want, I want.

Then I watch the movie and it rather feels like Zack Snyder has elected to kick me in the crotch for two or three hours rather than delivering on the promise of the trailer.

I find myself going back to the Seth Godin post I linked to a few weeks back:

The complaining customer doesn’t want a refund. He wants a connection, an apology and some understanding. He wants to know why you made him feel stupid or ripped off or disrespected, and why it’s not going to happen again.

I’ve long ago given up hope that Snyder will make a movie I actually like, but I keep letting myself get talked around. Enough people told me Man of Steel was worthwhile that I actually got curious; I now have to hunt all those people down and make them pay dearly for the experience of sitting through Snyder’s idea of a superhero epic.

And yet, I still hold out hope that one day one of his cinematic successors will learn to fuse his bat-shit brand of visual imagery with actual film-making chops and an understanding of character. ‘Cause I want a Snyder-esque film that doesn’t suck so fucking bad it hurts.

TWO: WHEN YOU’RE MESSING WITH METAPHORICAL WORLDS, MAKE SURE THE STAKES ARE CLEAR

Snyder refers to Suckerpunch as “Alice in Wonderland with Machineguns,” which is actually one of those descriptions that makes the film seem like much more fun than it actually is. The big difference between Suckerpunch and Alice is simple: in one of these stories, we’re led to believe that the main character has actually entered into a secondary world; in the other, it’s made clear from the outset that we’re experiencing secondary and tertiary fantasy worlds constructed over the top of real-world events.

This is an important distinction, the moment you employ a metaphorical interpretation of the world, the stakes of your story become vaguely weird. When Alice is accosted by annoying, grinning cats and drug-fucked caterpillars, there is an immediacy to those scenes because she’s physically there. The world she’s in may be weird and strange, but the danger is physical.

The worlds of Suckerpunch aren’t as clear-cut. In fact, their downright muddy. We’re in a world that we know is illusion – a place Baby Doll slips into as part of coping with the realities of being in a mental hospital – and the stakes of both the secondary world of the brothel and the tertiary worlds of the big, set-piece action scenes are hazy.

This is dangerous territory, in storytelling terms, ’cause it raises questions about what’s really at stake.

For instance, there’s often  a scene in stories that spend a lot of time in dream-worlds – whether they’re actually dreams or things like the virtual reality narratives that dominated eighties and nineties – where someone will point out very early in the story something along the lines of if you die in the dream/VR/game, you die in real life. It’s brute-force story-telling and annoying as hell, but it answers all sorts of questions like, well, if this is just a dream/VR world/game, how much danger are they really in?

A smart film won’t just mention this. They’ll showcase what happens early on, sacrificing one of the characters to make it clear that no matter how dreamlike things get, the danger is very real.

Suckerpunch never does this. It plunges through two layers of narrative reality without giving you any real understanding of how they relate to the “real” world that started the film, then launches into big, complex action scenes where the stakes are ill-defined and your ability to draw connections between the real and the metaphorical is instantly impaired.

Why does this matter? Let me take you to…

THREE: THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHARACTERS TAKING ACTION AND CHARACTERS IN MOTION

When you look at the reviews of Suckerpunch, the most common complaint, by far, basically boils down to this: the film is tedious as fuck. Like, seriously, mind-bendingly, how-can-I-gnaw-my-own-arm-off-to-escape-this-shit levels of dull. No matter how many guns, zombies, dragons, zeppelins, Mecha, and scantily clad women with guns and swords Snyder throws at the screen, it’s just dull, dull, dull, fucking dull.

There’s a reason for this. The characters in Suckerpunch are constantly in motion. They just aren’t doing anything meaningful.

What’s the difference? Imagine you’re sitting on a park bench and a guy in a business suit goes sprinting past you at top speed. It’s over and done in a flash, so you turn to the person next to you, and ask, “well, who is that guy and what’s he doing?”

If they say, “Well, that’s Jock; he sprints through here every day,” they’ve created a context around the action that makes Jock kinda interesting. Why does jock run past every day? you wonder. Is he training for something? More importantly, why does he run in a business suit? Something’s going on here…

On the other hand, if they say, “well, that’s Jock; he’s running away from something.” There’s a different context created. Suddenly you’re on the lookout for what’s coming after him, eager to see what happens next. What did Jock do to get himself chased? Will he get away?

On a third hand, if your neighbour says “well, that’s Jock, he gets chased by a pack of ninja velociraptors who emerge from the sewers every lunchtime,” the answer’s created a context that makes you interested in Jock and the things that are following him and the why and wherefore.

But if your neighbour looks up, sees Jock running past, then shrugs and says, “eh, I don’t know,” then you’ve got no context. You’ve just got a guy running, and a faint air of mystery, but no real clues to resolving it. So you wait for the next clue. It doesn’t come. So you shrug and get on with your life.

Action, in and of itself, isn’t all that interesting. The difference between a good action film and a mediocre one almost always comes down to the films ability to answer the question why should we give a shit about what this character is doing? As long as you keep feeding us answers that makes sense within the context of the narrative, we’re a happy audience.

Why is Jock running? ‘Cause he’s being chased. Why is he being chased? ‘Cause he pissed off the nazi velociraptor horde. How did he piss the horde off? ‘Cause he stole one of their priceless artefacts that they need to conquer the surface world. Why did he steal the artefact? ‘Cause Jock’s opposed to the idea of a totalitarian velociraptor regime, as any sane-thinking person would be.

And ’cause a velociraptor killed his brother, back when they were young.

As long as you keep fleshing out the context behind and around the action sequences, it stays interesting.

Lots of things happen in Suckerpunch. There’s sword fights and burlesque dances and dragons and giant bunny samurai mecha. And we’re not idiots: I get that it’s all meant to be an extended metaphor for Baby Doll’s emotional state and internal battle, the film does just enough to suggest that.

FOUR: SIZE MATTERS

While we’re dealing with the issues of stakes and context, lets take a quick look at the biggest failing of the tertiary world action sequences where Baby Doll and co go to war with zombies, robots, and other shit.

While these set-pieces are the most visually-spectacular parts of the film, they’re also the least interesting. Mostly this is because there is never a sense that any of the action sequences in the tertiary world will fail; the scale of the action we’re being shown is way out of scale with the stakes.

Suckerpunch routinely takes what should be a small-scale-but-critically-important activity such as stealing the map from the asylum offices and blows it up into a steampunk inspired World War 1 set piece. We can imagine the results of failure in the secondary world of the brothel or the primary world of the asylum, and they seem wildly out of proportion to the results of failing a suicide run against zombie Germans or getting torched by a dragon.

Thus, the things that are actually a threat (the escape plan being discovered) are lost in a sea of orcs/zombie Germans/super-futuristic robots. It’s making mountains out of molehills.

The movie ceases to be a story and becomes motion on the screen.

Like all motion, it gets our attention. It’s why the film looks so good in the trailer. But eventually the grandiose spectacle is defrayed back the nagging questions: what happens if the characters fail, three levels into the fantasy world as they are? How do the secondary and tertiary world correlate to the real world? Why does Baby Doll – who seems to be a character growing up in the sixties, according to wikipedia – has a rich fantasy world made up of high-tech Steampunk tropes? (Well, I know why outside the narrative context, but cause Zack Snyder fetishizes these kinds of world is unsatisfying within the narrative).

The spectacle starts to break down under its own weight.

If you took Suckerpunch and eliminated all the big, tertiary-world set-pieces, and actually had a scene where the five girls were teaming up to steal the key or map with the resources they had available, the movie would be infinitely more interesting because that activity is easily comprehensible within the context of the movie we’ve been given.

FIVE: GENRE MATTERS

While characters and settings and dialogue all go a long way towards giving us the context we need to interpret a narrative, one of the biggest tools we use is genre. We go into movies with expectations that are set up long before the movie starts, picked up from the hints included in the trailers and the way characters are positioned on the movie poster and even the font that’s used.

Then we spend the first fifteen to twenty minutes of a movie figuring out whether our assumptions are correct, so we understand what genre we’re watching. Characters will behave in a very different way when we’re watching a romantic comedy, for example, than they will in a film noir or an action movie or a first-contact SF story.

People with a really firm instinct for genre tropes will often surprise you in interesting ways. They’ll take an established genre and merge it with something else, understanding which tropes to keep and which tropes to ditch in order to create something like Alien or Bladerunner or Sean of the Dead.

Or they’ll find the new twist on an existing genre that still feels satisfying, occasionally creating a new subgenre in the process.

I honestly couldn’t tell you what genre Suckerpunch belongs in, and I the kind of guy who looks for this kind of shit with a fine-toothed comb. It flirts with being a psychological thriller, but doesn’t actually explore the psychology of the protagonist. Then it presents elements of a prison escape or heist film, but ignores the fact that the pleasure of those genres are seeing the character’s plans unfold and improvising when they fail.

Then it offers elements of band-of-brothers war or crime film – and, hell, I’d have loved this story if it actually pulled that off – but that’d require far more character development for the secondary characters that Zack Snyder has proven himself capable of.

New writers frequently have this idea that writing something unlike any other story is a great idea, largely due to the cultural mythology we have around creativity and the primacy of “originality” as the artists core duty.

The truth is, we’re pattern seeking creatures. We take comfort in recognising familiar story beats and tropes. We like knowing what to expect during a film or a story, because that’s what allows the story to surprise us.

Suckerpunch never really settles into a genre. It sends you out there expecting everything, all at once, and that shit is exhausting. So we stop looking for patterns and just…well, in my case, mainline half a bottle of scotch ’cause I’m committed to finishing the film, but I imagine most people will just wander off.

SIX: PLOT COUPONS SUCK

Snyder gets accused of being a director unduly affected by the rise of computer games. Maybe that’s unfair, but he certainly plots like a man whose unduly affected by computer games, ’cause the only thing that really holds Suckerpunch together, plot-wise, is the rather arbitrary go and collect these five things, then we will escape.

This shit is everywhere in computer games and gave rise to the term Plot Coupons. There’s a detailed link over at TV Tropes, but since sending you to the TV Tropes website is likely to devour even more hours from your life than watching Suckerpunch, the trope revolves sending players out into a game in order to collect items they can cash in to move the plot forward. Often the coupons aren’t really related to the plot; they’re just there keep things in motion and make sure there’s a short-term goals between starting the game and meeting the big-bad.

No-one likes Plot Coupons. They suck in computer games. They suck in stories. They sure as hell suck in Suckerpunch.

Just…don’t.

SEVEN: DON’T BAIT AND SWITCH YOUR AUDIENCE FIFTEEN MINUTES FROM THE END

The first time I watched Suckerpunch it bored the shit out of me for about an hour and a half. Then it pulled this shit in the final fifteen minutes or so that took me from bored to infuriated in the space of a single line of dialogue.

Basically, after two hours, the film goes you thing this film was about Baby Doll, the character you’ve been following since the start? SUCKER! The mysterious Fifth Plot coupon is Baby Doll’s sacrifice, so she can break Sweet Pea out of the asylum and insert her back into ordinary life.

After which, Sweet Pea becomes all protagonist-like and Baby Doll gets lobotomized and…Jesus, fuck, I feel like punching something just trying to describe this.

On one hand, I’m okay with Sweet Pea being the final girl of this movie ’cause she’s being played by Abbie Cornish, whose managed to make it through most of the movie pretending she actually gives a damn about the script they’ve given her to work with. When I’m done with this article, I’m probably going to go watch another Cornish film, Bright Star, just to wash the taste of Suckerpunch out of my mouth.

On the other hand, asking characters to invest in a main character for two hours, then sucker-punching them and saying well, actually, this other character’s been our protagonist all along is…well, let’s just say it’s the kind of shit I remember should I ever find myself in a position to kick Zack Snyder in the nuts.

Even if he is giving us fair warning with the title of the film.

Seven Things Writers Can Learn From Watching Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

HellboyIICoverImage

I re-watched Hellboy II: The Golden Army recently. Not, alas, as part of the #TrashyTuesdayMovie series, which has been put on hiatus for the foreseeable future, but simply ‘cause I was in the mood for a certain type of movie and Hellboy II was in my DVD collection, waiting to be watched, and I found it before I found my copy of Blade: Trinity.

One of the nice things about re-watching movies – particularly movies that fit into the flawed-but-interesting category, such as this one – is the way it allows you to start looking for patterns. What starts out as a disappointing movie experience gradually mutates into a narrative puzzle; you take it apart, look at all the components, and figure out what could have been done differently.

Somewhere at the core of Hellboy II is one of those genre films that it is designed for mass-market appeal, a film that’s both pulpy and smart in equal measure. A film, quite frankly, that does exactly what Victor Shklovsky says all art should do – make us re-examine the familiar in a new light. Like it’s spiritual sister film, Speed Racer (great visual style, mess of a plot), it’s one of those pieces that’s all potential and no real payoff.

But there are always useful things to be learnt from films and books you don’t like, if only you’re willing to subject yourself too them again and again in order to figure out why, and I’ve chosen to take this particular bullet in order to give you the seven most important things writers can learn from watching Hellboy II.

ONE: THE MOMENT YOU SAY “IT’S FLAWED, BUT…” THE PROBLEM IS NARRATIVE

Let’s be honest, if a film like Hellboy II goes wrong, it’s almost always a problem based in narrative choices. The film has too much stacked in its favour for it to be anything else. Off the top of my head, the merits of the film include: the source material of Mike Mignola, which is full of moody awesomeness; director Guillermo del Toro coming to the project straight off the back of Pan’s Labyrinth, a critical success that’s a masterpiece of visual imagery; Ron Perlman as Hellboy, which is one of those perfect casting choices; Selma Blair being…well, Selma Blair.

With a gun.

And pyro-kinetic blue flames coming off her hands.

And just like XKCD teaches us that there’s a market for a film in which Summer Glau plays River Tam kicking the ass of everyone in the universe, I’d be perfectly happy watching an entire film of Selma Blair carrying a gun, being monotonally sexy and spontaneously combusting every couple of scenes.

Then there’s the fact that del Toro snuck a CGI Elder Thing into the background of the Goblin Market scenes (presumably as a warm-up for his now-defunct adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness), which just goes to show exactly how much of a nerdy confluence of joy and moody, shiny visuals this film has going for it.

This movie delivers pretty. It delivers it in spades. It’s like crack for nerds in every respect but the story.

The film isn’t poorly written – there’s enough smart script-writing going on to keep it semi-coherent, and semi-coherent is enough when you’ve got other strengths going for you in performance, visuals, etc. It’s the reason I can adore this movie, but loathe visually spectacular films whose scripts are just outright bad (see Avatar, Suckerpunch).

But when you look at the components of the script, it should have been a knock-out punch of a movie. The potential is there, but the narrative choices let it down; stories finish too early, themes get lost, and characters…well, somewhere along the line things get a little muddy regarding who the main character is.

TWO: THE MORAL CHOICE AT THE CLIMAX NEEDS TO MATTER

This is one of those tenets I picked up teaching the three-act structure in scriptwriting classes, and it’s a remarkable short-cut for figuring out why an ending doesn’t work. First up, identify your protagonist. Second up, ID the thematic moral choice they make. Thirdly, look at the consequences.

It’s easy to miss that moment in a good movie, because they spend the entire film laying the groundwork for that choice, making sure you feel the sense of elation when it’s finally made. Also, it’s usually followed by pyrotechnics and explosions, just to make sure you realise the consequences of the choice, which means it’s easy to mistake the action as the pinnacle of the movie rather than the choice.

It took me a long, long time to figure this out, given that I tend to write a particularly passive breed of protagonist who isn’t big on making choices, but in genre terms its right there in everything. You hit the end of the story and the protagonist makes a decision that chances their life forever and ensures victory: Hellboy rejects his destiny as the prince of darkness and kicks mini-Cthulhu’s ass in the first Hellboy movie; Luke Skywalker turns off his targeting computer and puts his trust in the force at the end of Star Wars; after nine hours of Lord of the Rings films Frodo Baggins finally caves and elects not to throw the powerful McGuffin into the volcano of Mount Doom (upon which the universe fixes that decision for him via Gollum and he’s punished for making the wrong choice by the loss of a finger and the inability to be a normal, farm-loving hobbit ever after).

But when you take a look through the series of decisions being made at the end of the Golden Army it’s basically a series of narrative no-brainers: Hellboy elects not to kill the faerie prince after beating him a fair fight and claiming control of the Golden Army; Princes Nuala elects to kill herself in order to save Hellboy when the defeated Prince tries to stab him from behind; Abe elects to tell Nuala how he feels as she lies dying.

All of these feel like they should be big decisions, because we’ve seen movies where they’ve been big decisions before and they signal “end of film climax” to the viewers, but within this context they’re all kind of weak – Hellboy, for example, loses nothing by playing the hero and not killing the bad guy; Nuala has basically been a cipher for most of the film, existing primarily to exposit and serve as a love interest for Abe; and Abe, well, his loneliness and alienation gets entirely one scene leading up to this point, so there’s nothing particularly transcendent about his reveal given that he’s a secondary character. In order for a decision to be big, the crux of it needs to be ingrained in the storyline somewhere.

THREE: IF YOU’RE GOING TO BLOW THE CLIMAX, DON’T PACK THE MOVIE WITH BETTER ALTERNATIVES THAT FIT YOUR INITIAL THEME

To be fair, Hellboy II isn’t exactly light on characters making meaningful moral decisions, it’s just that they’ve gotten them all well-and-truly out of the road by the time we hit the end of the movie when the biggest of big decisions needs to be made. Consider how much more impact *any* of these scenes would have if they were moved to the end of the movie

The MID-POINT, when Hellboy kills the last Elemental with a baby in his hand, thus destroying a piece of magic humanity will never get back.

Or JUST BEFORE THE CLIMAX, when Selma Blair and a dying Hellboy confront the angel of destiny, and Selma chooses to damn the world and bring a whole lot of pain down on her own head in the future in order to save Hellboy now and have him be a father to their unborn child.

Big decisions, big consequences, and entirely in keeping with the narrative theme of mortal world versus the supernatural; all of which happens before the climax of the film, which only serves to highlight exactly how weak-ass the decisions being made there truly are.

FOUR: YOU ONLY GET ONE PROTAGONIST

It’s a very strange problem to have when you name your film after a character, but there’s an inescapable feeling that this film really shouldn’t have focused on Hellboy as a protagonist.

There are a bunch of handy “rule of thumb” guides that writers can apply to figuring out who the protagonist of a story is: who hurts the most? is a good one (note: in this film, it’s not Hellboy); who has the most to lose? is another (note: also not Hellboy). My personal rule of thumb is this: who has to make the biggest choice at the climax (bonus points if said choice involves some form moral conflict rather than physical).

The movie starts off with Hellboy as the protagonist, but by any reasonable measure, he’s passed the ball off to Abe by the midpoint. Abe is the isolated man who falls in love, and his isolation trumps Hellboy’s by virtue of the fact that Abe lives in a tank and Hellboy already has a love life.

This makes Abe the guy who hurts the most, the guy who has the most to lose, and…well, two out of three ain’t bad. And all the choices made at the end of the film are primarily about hurting Abe and his love interest, which rather makes them seem like they should be the folk’s front-and-centre on the movie cover, rather than the big red guy and his gun.

Should the movie not focus on Abe and his pain? No, that’s fine. Abe’s an interesting character and I’ve got no problem with him getting his fair share of screen time. The problem is that the emotional beats of the final moments of the story are all about him, which pushes him into the protagonist role right about the point where I’d like to see Hellboy making big, important decisions about his own internal conflict.

FIVE: ALSO, YOU ONLY GET ONE DOOM 

Here’s another mistake the movie makes that should have been easy to avoid – when Hellboy and Prince Nuada square off at the climax, engaging in a one-on-one slugfest for the fate of the world, earth is pretty much doomed either way. Either Hellboy loses, and Nuada emerges with the Golden Army to take his vengeance on humanity for wiping out his people, or Hellboy wins…

…and earth is doomed, as we’ve just learned, because the Angel of Death told Liz that’s the price of bringing Hellboy back. She loves him and needs him, but his survival will hurt all of humanity and Liz most of all.

And so the climax of the movie hinges on a lose/lose fight for the bulk of the world.It’s a little thing, but it matters. Even if we’ll nominally be on Hellboy’s side for the rest of the fight, there’s a nagging voice in our subconscious saying, well, yeah, but…

Don’t feed that nagging voice.

You only get one doom.

SIX: THE LESSON – PICK YOUR THEME AND STICK WITH IT

Hellboy II starts with a morality play about power and exceeding boundaries, set-up in the form of a bedtime story for its young protagonist. Pertinent, ’cause Hellboy’s going to spend the rest of his life being a powerful entity protecting the powerless, in the form of humanity, and he’s going to need to make big decisions about that.

When we move forward, into the future, we get a bunch of other conflicts emerging: teething problems between Hellboy and his girlfriend (rarely explained well, but there’s the seeds of an important decision coming because she’s pregnant and that’ll become pertinent in the plot); Hellboy’s growing discomfort with being an invisible hero, unknown by humanity at large, when he feels a stronger kinship with the creatures he hunts; Abe being lonely and in-love with the faerie queen; bad guys who should be heroes ’cause, yo, they’re trying to stop their entire race from being wiped out.

If all of these tied into the morality play mentioned at the start, then Hellboy II would have been brilliant. Some come close, some don’t, but they all drop away and, as mentioned above, utterly cease to be relevant by the end of the movie.

The theme by the end of the movie? Tell the girl you love that you love her now, ‘cause you never know when she’ll kill herself to stop her twin brother from destroying the human race.

What I wanted to see? The equivalent of the elemental scene in the middle of the film, but turned up to fucking eleven.

SEVEN: ONE PLOT, THEN SUBPLOTS

Really, when you get right down to it, all the problems in Hellboy stem from a single problem: it’s all subplots, no through-line. At no point does it commit to a single idea of what the film’s about, and let everything else revolve around that.

I spend a lot of time arguing that there is a good movie in Hellboy II, hidden down beneath the poor structural choices. Move one of the big moral choices to the end of the film and make Hellboy the focus of the climax, and suddenly you’ve got a central plot and everything else can hang around it, creating complications.

Subplots are tricky things: by their very nature, they’ve got components that happen off-camera. You hit their major beats, but skip the quieter bits. At times their progression is suggested rather than overtly shown. Characters can find themselves embroiled in more than one – Hellboy versus the Faerie Prince is (or should be) your main plot for Hellboy II, but big red is involved in a number of the sub-plots including his rocky romance with Liz, his clashes with authority over his desire to be seen, and his role as a (admittedly crappy) mentor figure in Abe’s developing romance.

But if you’re smart, you use your subplots to build your main plot, and it doesn’t take long to get them firing on all cylinders. All you’ve got to do is remember which plot serves which. I mean, consider this simple change: Abe realises that Nuala and Nuada are joined, and begs Hellboy to find another way to stop Nuada in order to preserve Nuala’s life.

It’s a simple thing, but it utterly changes the scope of the ending. Hellboy choosing not to kill someone ’cause he’s a hero doesn’t mean much; going into the fight expecting to kill your opponent, but being unable to do it ’cause of the pain it’ll cause your friend, is one of those bad decisions we love our heroes for making, especially if there’s someone else standing by to rectify things for them.

What Writers Ought to Know About Die Hard, Part Two

So my friend Kevin was in town this weekend to talk about a project he’s putting together, which meant we spent a lot of time talking about narrative structure and the way character works and how to do a lot of effective storytelling without wasting too much time on things.

Die Hard, unfortunately, wasn’t in the list, but it’s amazing how much you start noticing when your reading of an episode/movie moves from the passive to the active. I do this kind of thing for fun, since I’m kinda obsessed with structure, and even I start noticing different things when I have to actively explain how things work to someone else.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailWhat follows is a pretty close examination of the Die Hard‘s first act, which means we’re going to spend a whole bunch of words looking over what’s effectively just twenty minutes of film. This post will probably stand alone, but it builds on some of the things I mentioned last week. You may want to go back and review if you haven’t read part one of this series.

This is also going to be a longish post, ’cause First Acts are generally packed to the gills with information. You may want to get yourself a cup of tea and a biscuit or two.

You’ll also want a copy of Die Hard handy, ’cause if you can get to the end of this post without wanting to re-watch the movie, you’re a better man than I.

THE FIRST ACT – A BEGINNER’S GUIDE

So you’re going to need to know the basics of how first acts work if the following is going to make any sense, but that’s generally a good thing for writers to understand anyway. People who aren’t writers frequently rhapsodize about how awesome it must be to be “creative” for a living, but the truth is that narrative is actually a highly structured system of conveying information. A writer’s job, especially in film and television, is usually to write to that structure and find interesting twists on the individual components.

This sounds terrible, I know, but it’s not. A strong understanding of how narrative arcs work makes your job extremely easy as a writer.

The vast majority of long-form story-telling will follow something that vaguely represents the three-act structure I’m using as the basis for breaking down Die Hard. They’ll call it different things, they’ll focus on slightly different components, but they all largely revolve around a familiar series of beats or movements. The best part is, you already know them on some subconscious level. You’ve been seeing them in movies for so long that they’re an ingrained part of how we watch and understand stories, so things feel wrong when the structure is messed with.

I largely picked up my understanding of it from reading books about screenplays/structure (I recommend The Weekend Novelist by Robert Ray and pretty much any book on writing screenplays), too much Joseph Campbell at uni, and a lot of time breaking narratives that don’t work down when teaching creative writing.

What you need to know about the first act of a story is this: it’s generally there to create context for the action that follows by setting the stakes of the story. It will tell you what the emotional arc of the narrative is, it’ll set up the physical conflict that’s going to give people something to focus on (since internal changes are hard to map), and it’ll introduce you to many of the major players and the major metaphors associated with them.

In narrative/screenwriting terms, this is usually done by breaking the process down into several key moments:

  • Establishing the World
  • Introducing the Narrative Conflict
  • Having the Protagonist Choose Not to Engage
  • Introducing Some Kind of Object Lesson/Mentor
  • Break the Protagonist Out of Their Reluctance/Kick off the Second Act with a Bang

One of the reasons I’m doing this with Die Hard? It’s one of those stories that is so tightly written and subtle that you almost don’t notice when it’s hitting these key traits, ’cause almost none of them involve terrorists.

The argument that I made last week about Die Hard being about John McClane setting aside his pride/masculinity to accept his wife? I can make that with confidence, because that’s what all the set-up for this story is about. It sets up the inner conflict, the major symbols that will be serving as the metaphor of those conflicts, and then lets the terrorists loose as a complicating factor while our protagonist undergoes a profound transformation.

I’m going to take these movements within the first act one by one, calling out the interesting things that are happening within the movie. It’s worth stressing that these movements always happen in order, but will frequently involve hitting the same beat multiple times, particularly when establishing a bunch of characters. To make things easier, I’ve marked out the time-codes from my copy of the film, which gives you a chance to see when/where I see the breaks happening as we move from phase to phase.

MOVEMENT ONE: ESTABLISHING THE WORLD

PART ONE: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WIFE AND THE GUN (Time Code: 0:00 to 2:00)

The very first images we get in Die Hard are loaded with metaphorical meaning. There’s ten seconds of a plan landing against a backdrop of orange sunset – a colour that calls to mind the kind of cinematography associated with the Western genre that the film is going to reference a time or two more before we’re done. This is a classic Western opening – a stranger riding into town – only this time the horse is a seven-four-seven.

When we cut to the interior of the plan, there’s another focused shot: a close-up of McClane’s hand, gripping the arm-rest tight, wedding band in plain view. We pan up, never seeing John McClane’s face, to the guy in the next seat. He’s a business man, a comfortable flyer, and he notices John’s distress.

“You don’t like flying, do you?” he asks, and immediately we’re on John’s side. It’s a quiet, subtle way of setting up the protagonist, but it works immensely well. We’ve all been stuck on public transport and had someone try to strike up a conversation. We all know how awkward it can be, especially when the question isn’t wanted. John doesn’t want the question to be asked – he’s a man so reserved we haven’t even seen his face yet – and no matter how well-intentioned his neighbor may be, he’s butting into someone’s life. Even John’s non-committal response to the question isn’t enough to shut up the neighbor eager to assert his authority, based on nine years of air travel.

Looking at this scene twenty-odd years later, it’s easy to lose track of how revolutionary and smart this opening is. Keep in mind that Die Hard was released at the tail end of the eighties, at a time when the protagonists of action films were generally named Schwarzenegger and Stallone, and showing any kind of vulnerability was either verboten or a narrative throw-away before the explosions started. Those were narratives about super-men, massively-muscled and nigh indestructible. John McClane is woefully, painfully human, afflicted with the most basic of fears: flying.

Having established his vulnerability, the film immediately turns towards establishing McClane’s credibility as a hero. The plane lands. He goes to collect his overhead luggage, and the annoying exec spots John’s gun.

“It’s okay,” McClane says. “I’m a cop. Trust me, I’ve been doing this for 11 years.” He takes a little pleasure at the nervousness the businessman displays here, which is impressive – there are very few people who can make the smirk an endearing facial expression, and Bruce Willis can do it.

In one smooth movement, less than 2 minutes into the film, we’ve set up the core of who John is: he’s defined by his job, and his job is represented by the gun he keeps at his side. The gun is John’s object, the thing that defines his character, but it’s at odds with who he really is – that’s why the first thing we see is his wedding band. These two metaphors are going to be put into conflict again and again throughout the film, since they represent the two halves of John’s personality.

For now, it’s the handgun that gets the majority of the attention, the thing that’s called out in dialogue. That’s because they’re setting McClane up as the new-age sheriff, willing to keep the law in the unruly Western frontier (if you just had a “holy shit, this is why the film is set in LA” epiphany, give yourself a gold star. If you didn’t…well, think about it. Figuring out why that’s a little-but-significant thing is a step towards realising why this film is so smart).

PART 2: A MOM ON THE MOVE (Time Code: 2:18 to 5:00)

We go from the airport to Nakatomi towers, where we meet John’s other half for this film (both literally and metaphorically).

There’s a party going on, a CEO making a speech from the balcony. This takes up the foreground, but it isn’t what we notice. What we notice is Holly, who is the only person moving and continuing to work while the rest of the office stops to listen.  This is only a few seconds, but it tells us a lot: 1) she’s important enough to keep working while the boss talks, without fear of censure; 2) she’s invested enough in her job that she’s willing to work while everyone else is celebrating Christmas.

The scene progresses: Holly’s propositioned by Harry Ellis (played by the inimitable Hart Bochner) and fends him off with images off Christmas: eggnog, chestnuts, Rudolf and Frosty. She may be a woman invested in her job, but family remains important to her. Christmas remains important to her. Any fear we have that she gets lost in her job is eradicated when she sends her pregnant assistant out to join the party – Holly may be invested in what she does, but she’s not demanding everyone work with her. She’s a good boss, a good person, a good mother. We like her.

She calls her family, talks to her kids. Asks the nanny if John McClane has called (he hasn’t), and suggests that the spare bed gets made up in case John comes to stay for the weekend. It’s a nice gesture, an overture to the story the film is really telling, but we get a clue that all is not right in the world when she turns the family photograph on her desk face down. She may be willing to let John visit, but all is not well in their world. Shit has gone down, although we don’t yet know what.

With that, we hit the five minute mark, and our set-up is done. We know who these characters are now, we’ve got a hint of the stakes they’re fighting for. We don’t yet know what conflict is going to crash into their lives and change them forever, but we know that it’s coming.

MOVEMENT TWO: SETTING UP THE CONFLICT

PART ONE: ARGYLE (Time Code: 5:00 to 8:30)

Having established our main characters, Die Hard lights a slow-burning fuse that will eventually push these two to breaking point (and, were it not for the timely intervention of some faux-terrorists, probably push them apart forever; this, too, is important, ’cause it means the “terrorists” are a necessary part of changing these two forever rather than a throw-away plot element).

We cut back to the airport. John is following a line of people away from the baggage claim, but in one of those tiny moments that you barely notice, he’s the only person looking around and trying to get his bearings. Everyone else is powering forward, straight ahead, going where they’re going. John McClane is the only person here feeling a little lost.

He notices a young couple greeting one another, the young lady leaping into her paramours arms. “California,” John says, like it’s the state’s fault, when really he’s just covering the thing that’s really bothering him – there’s no Holly here to meet him. He’s on his own. For the rest of the first act, “fucking California,” become’s John’s code for “I hate this place/job/person that has taken away my wife.”

Then Argyle appears, a limo driver among a row of drivers, holding a sign with John’s name on it and the Nakatomi logo.

This, too, is a smart moment in the movie. Argyle is new to his job – John’s his first customer – and he’s nervous as hell about things. He doesn’t know how to act yet, unlike the stoic limo drivers picking up people who aren’t the protagonist of this film. “It’s my first time driving a limo,” he says.

“It’s my first time riding in one,” John says, and they two men strike a kind of affinity for one another.

A stoic limo driver would have been a disaster in this sequence, a false note. We’re going to learn that John really doesn’t like his wife’s job or her company, and a stoic driver would have been a symbol of the faceless corporation that took her away from him. Quiet authority, unwilling to engage. Argyle, nervous and unsure, isn’t a threat to John or his masculinity, so they bond.

All of this takes less than a minute, by which times we’re in the limo and we get another glimpse into who John McClane is: he’s seated in the front seat, putting himself on equal footing with Argyle. Two ordinary guys, unassuming and uncomfortable with wealth. Even as Argyle tries to sell John on the limo, talking up it’s features, John is unwilling to engage. He yawns. Ignores the spiel.

Because they’ve bonded, Argyle gets to asks a whole bunch of questions that the audience is eager to know about John and Holly’s relationship, and because they’ve bonded, John gives honest, albeit reluctant, answers: they’re married; Holly moved out West for work six months ago; he stayed in New York; they’re officially separated. Why aren’t things working out?

“She had a good job that turned into a great career.” John didn’t come along because he’s a New York cop with a six month backlog of New York scum bags he’s still trying to put behind bars. He can’t just pull up stakes and leave.

And because Argyle is the comic relief character, the court jester of this film, he gets to speak truth to power: “In other words, you thought she wasn’t going to make it out here, and she’d come crawling back to you, so why bother to pack, right?”

Almost immediately afterwards, Argyle puts on a rap track (it is still 1988 here). “Don’t you have any Christmas music?” John asks, echoing Holly’s response to Ellis a few minutes earlier. For all their differences, Holly and John are still united in what they really want. Christmas. Family. Each other. If only they could work their shit out.

PART TWO: NAKATOMI TOWERS (Time Code: 8:31 to 13:30)

Having dumped a whole bunch of back-story on us in the preceding three minutes, the film starts really putting the screws into John. He walks into Nakatomi, heads over to the front desk. “I’m here to see Holly McClane,” he tells the guard on duty.

“Just type it in there,” the guard says, pointing to a computer. “Cute toy,” John says, and he searches for his wife’s name under M, doesn’t find it. Searches for her name under Gennaro. It’s totally there.Shit.

Sheer fucking brilliance packed into less than twenty seconds.

The key thing we’re meant to take away from this scene is that Holly is operating under her maiden name, a point that will stick in John’s craw and become a key point in the next phase of the movie. We could learn exactly the same thing by having a human guard check a ledger, which is how most movies at the time would handle it, but the computer does so much more. Consider the following:

  • The fact that so much of this building is computer controlled is an important plot point, so establishing it early is important. The genius of Die Hard is how seamlessly it ties this sort of thing to other aspects of the narrative, setting something up while simultaneously distracting you with the emotional kick of the scene.
  • It reinforces that John isn’t part of his wife’s world. She lives in a place where these computers are common, he isn’t impressed by them any more than he’s impressed by the limo. He’s a cowboy, a maverick, built to handle the frontier. Technology isn’t his thing. Hell, passenger jets aren’t his thing. He’s a simple man, all about the face-to-face. A throwback to an earlier time.
  • It means the security guard gets to be sympathetic in the few moments he’s got on screen, empathising with John’s loathing of technology. Since we already like John, we feel for the man whose on his side, even if the guard is stuck working with the hated machine. Considering this nameless security guard isn’t long for this world, having him even mildly sympathetic means there’s something at stake when he gets shot a few minutes from now.

John heads upstairs. Notices the cameras, the observation, the omnipresent security. He doesn’t like it.

He likes it even less when he hits the party upstairs, plunging into the Christmas celebration Holly worked through earlier in the film. There’s violins, waiters serving cocktails, people in suits. Not John’s place at all, and he’s ignored by everyone.

Everyone except Holly’s boss, who spots John and welcomes him. A friend John doesn’t want, but is willing to accept in the face of the chaotic party. We learn that Takagi sent the limo, is a nice guy who speaks well of his careers.

We transition to Holly’s office, where John and Takagi run into Ellis snorting cocaine. It’s a key scene for John, since he needs to stamp down on his nature – he’s a New York cop, adverse to scum bags, and Hart Bochner is a master of inserting a little extra scum bag into every scene he’s in as Ellis. He’s arrogant, he’s drugged up, and he boasts about his achievements. He’s everything John dislikes about the corporation, everything John fears Holly will become, distilled into one character. John doesn’t like him. Neither do we, the viewers.

Once again, its important to note that the scene needs Takagi and Ellis. The former needs to come off as a nice guy, someone John can like, ’cause John both needs a means to connect to the office if he’s ever going to understand Holly’s job, and because Takagi is going to be die in the opening minutes of the second act and we need to like him for that death to have an impact. It’s the same trick they pulled with the computer a few minutes earlier, just writ a little larger.

Ellis needs to be a scum bag because we need the conflict – someone for John to but heads with. If John had met Takagi and liked him, its a step towards reconciling with Holly and her work. This would be great for the characters, but it’s not great for the plot. We’re in the first act. We want them ready to fight, ready to deny their true wants and desires in favour of the things that distract them.

This is where the film really starts to hit boiling point, since we’ve brought John right into the heart of Holly’s domain. She’s not there, not quite yet, but John’s been confronted by machines, ostentatious displays of wealth, a throw-away two-second scene where he’s kissed on the cheek by a guy who wishes him a Merry Christmas, and a scumbag like Ellis that John can’t arrest. People may say bad things about Bruce Willis’s acting chops, but he totally fucking nails it here. We have no doubt exactly how much John hates all this.

And then Holly appears, twelve minutes and fifty seconds into the film, still holding files and working through the party. She pauses, whispers John’s name; it’s the first thing that’s made her pause in the entire film. This is significant. John McClane is something important enough to stop her in her tracks, the woman who doesn’t stop for parties or bosses or anything else. You can see the hope that the two will reconcile right there, in that moment, but everything goes wrong. Her boss says something, bringing her work up when they least want it. She crosses the room and greets John, kisses him on the cheek. It’s awkward, but not impossible to imagine that things will get better.

Then Ellis is there, just to fuck things up for everyone. “Show him the watch,” he says, alerting both John and the audience to the object that will stand in for Holly’s core narrative choice in this film. “It’s a Rolex.”

That does the trick. John’s first instinct when faced with his wife’s success is retreat, and he lapses back into that now. “I’m sure I’ll see it later,” he says. “Is there a place I can wash up?”

The man is out of there, fast as he can be, ’cause he isn’t willing to face the choice between his ring or his gun yet.

MOVEMENT THREE: FAILURE TO ENGAGE

THE BATHROOM SCENE (Time Code: 13:31 to 16:17)

So I first got interested in writing this series when I was talking about narrative structure to a friend of mine, and mentioned that the primary role of the protagonist is to run the hell away from the plot for the majority of the first act. This is the core of what makes a protagonist interesting – that they sense the great chances coming their way and avoid going through it.

Audiences are sadists. We much prefer seeing our heroes reluctant and in pain.

“What about Die Hard?” my friend said. “When does John run away?”

I didn’t have an answer for her, not at that moment, so I sat down and started blocking out the movie scene by scene. And when I was done, I adored the movie even more than I did when I started.

This process starts thirteen minutes and thirty seconds into the film. There’s a few seconds where we see the exterior of the building and the terrorists showing up.

And then we cut the bathroom. McClane is washing up, Holly is right there. They talk about how good it is to see each other. Holly asks where he’s staying. “Things happened so fast,” she says. “I didn’t get a chance to ask you on the phone.”

McClane tells her about a former captain – a tie to his job. He’s retired out here, offered John a place to stay.

“He lives in the middle of nowhere,” Holly says. “Why don’t you stay with me?”

The eventually build up to the point where she asks him to stay in her spare room and see the kids’ they both agree it’d be nice. It’s a feel-good moment for the audience, a hint that perhaps Ellis hasn’t ruined everything. There is still common ground these two people can find.

And then a random couple burst into the room from the Christmas party, break the mood, and exit again.

And immediately afterwards Holly says “I missed you,” and McClane responds with “I guess you didn’t miss my name, though, huh? Except when you were signing cheques.” Even the body language changes here: hands in his pockets, belligerent, not at all interested in reconciling if it means giving in and admitting she may be his equal.

And the argument begins. Another interruption – this time by Holly’s pregnant assistant, calls Holly back to the part where she has to be an important member of the Nakatomi team (if this post wasn’t three thousand words long already, I’d spend some time theorizing on the importance of having a pregnant woman make this announcement, but my inner lit-theorist is probably showing badly enough for one post).

Holly excuses herself, goes out to work. John beats himself up for being an idiot.

And with that, we’ve set up characters and primed them for the story to come. They aren’t ready to change yet, not without a catalyst that sets things off, but fortunately that’s about to start.

MOVEMENT FOUR: MENTOR FIGURES

MENTOR FIGURE ONE: SOMETIMES ALL YOU NEED IS A WHOLE BUNCH OF TERRORISTS (Time Code: 16:18 to 20:10)

In romantic comedies the mentor figure – the person who exists to guide the protagonist through the confusing world they find themselves in – is usually a best friend figure. In epic fantasies, it’s usually a literal mentor, with a white beard and wizard robes.

In Die Hard, our mentor is a squad of terrorists who invade Nakatomi towers and kill the security guards on the ground floor, taking over their role.

They get a nice, long introduction here, a necessary extravagance given that they haven’t really had a presence in the film thus far, and their competence is immediately apparent. They do their job fast. One character makes jokes as they kill. They’re not sweating a damn thing as they go through the motions. These guys may be scum, but they’re scum that have their shit together.

The we see the kind of our mentors: Hans. Walking at the forefront of the armed “terrorists” as they ease their way into the film and lock the place down.

Holly and John aren’t in this scene, but there’s no doubt that it changes things. This story, which has been all about two people who can’t live together anymore, is about to veer off in a very different direction. And because the film has primed us for this moment, through its title (Die Hard) and the trailer focusing on explosions and the poster advertising 40 stories of terror, our interest kicks up a notch.

Think this is insignificant? It’s not. Our expectations for how a plot works are set from the moment we engage with these things, and keep developing throughout the first act. If you’d titled Die Hard something like The California Reconciliation, the arrival of the terrorists would feel jarring.

Despite what your mother told you, we do read books by their cover. It’s why there are all sorts of conventions that separate fantasy covers from romance covers from thriller covers from literary covers, to prime the reader for the kind of novel they’re about to read. Films do the same thing. Covers matter. Trailers matter. Titles matter.

And once you know this, and start paying attention to it, you can play with the expectations these things generate. Which is why Die Hard can get away with leaving its “terrorist” take over of the tower as something of a secondary plot, ’cause we’ve been waiting for this moment since the first time we saw the movie poster.

MENTOR FIGURE TWO: SOMETIMES ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS STRIP OFF YOUR SHOES AND SOCKS (Time Code: 20:11 to approximately 23:00)

Of course, terrorists alone aren’t going to cut it in terms of pushing the film forward. John McClane can learn a lot by liberating machine guns and explosives off people, but he isn’t meant to be indestructible. We need him vulnerable in every way we can imagine, so we cut to a shot of him seated in the bathroom, barefoot and creating fists with his toes on the rug.

And once again a make a little squeal of excitement as I realise exactly how smart this film is. Not just because they’ve made our protagonist barefoot, which will prove to be the ultimate sign of vulnerability as the film goes on, a thing that separates McClane from both his enemies and the legion of army-boot wearing heroes that dominated the eighties.

Everyone notices that. The film goes out of its way to highlight the physical vulnerability being barefoot represents.

What’s far more significant is this: John McClane, the man who loathes his wife’s job and the limo, the man who took smug satisfaction in the nerves of the businessman who sat next to him on the flight over when said businessmen saw John’s gun…

…that guy has taken the businessman’s advice, and realises that it seems to work. He’s found a moment where he can connect with the business world his wife exists in, even if it’s in a small and seemingly insignificant way.

The moment immediately leads to John flipping open his wallet to get Argyle’s card, letting the limo driver know that he may end up staying with Holly. It’s a chance for us to see how much family means to John when we spot a photograph of his wife and kids in his wallet.

And because he’s on the phone, John gets some advanced warning that something’s gone horribly wrong when the siege begins and Hans’ crew cuts the phone lines with a chainsaw.

John’s going to pay and pay hard for taking that businessmen’s advice from the opening minutes of the film.

But it’s also going to save his life, in more ways than one.

We get a shot of Hans and his boys walking into the party, machines guns at the ready. John is puzzling over the phone as the first shorts are fired. There’s an attack going on, Holly’s caught in the middle of it. John escapes to the upper levels, barefoot and barely armed, courtesy of his advanced warning.

The film is off to the races, and our first act is done. We have hit the event that breaks the protagonist out of their I don’t wanna engage with this fugue and forced them to engage with their internal conflict. Thus we hit the all-important:

END OF ACT ONE

God fucking damn I love this film.

At this point you’ve stuck with me for about four thousand words of explanatory stuff about the first act (and trust me, I’ve been relatively restrained here), so I’m going to cut things short. Next week’s post will probably be towards the end of the week instead of Tuesday, as I’m heading to the RWA conference in Perth this weekend.

When it does get posted, we’ll be looking at the first half of the second act, where a lot of the meat of the story happens. See you all then.

What Writers Ought to Know About Die Hard (Part One)

Die HardNormally, when I sit down to write a Trashy Tuesday Writing School post, it’s because I’m trying to redeem some element of sitting down and watching a terrible movie. Films like the Josh Kirby series, which started badly and ended badly and reached a high water mark around number 3, or Speed Racer, which is a triumph of style but a massive failure as a script, or Robot Jox with…well, you get the picture.

I should not that trashy isn’t applied to these films as a statement of quality – I adore the Speed Racer film for its ambition, and loathe Josh Kirby for…well, reasons that will require a blog post of their own. Trashy is instead used as an aesthetic judgement, a way of categorizing films that are unified by a sense of pop-cultural kitsch and the ability to seep into the popular consciousness.

True, not all trashy films are good. In fact, most of them are pretty terrible; at best, they’re guilty pleasures. We could talk about the how and why of that, ’cause the psychology of it is both interesting and kinda terrifying, but that’s not what today is about. Today is about that rarity: a Trashy film that is also good on almost every level you can imagine.

Today is about Die Hard, and what writers can learn from it.

See, Die Hard easily one of the trashiest of trashy films (on account of explosions, quotable lines, and narrative goofiness) while still being one of the most tightly produced movies ever made. While it wasn’t the film that everyone picked when I asked for their #TrashyTuesdayMovie preferences, it’s overwhelmingly the one I end up talking to people about when I chat to people face-to-face.

Lets make this clear: Die Hard is outstanding and ridiculously well-crafted. It’s easy to forget that, here in 2013, when the distance between us and the first film is muddied by X sequels of dubious quality, including several that fuck with the original formula and therefore transmute what’s essentially a man-against-the-world narrative into a buddy-cop cop where John McClain takes down helicopters with airborne taxi cabs.

For our purposes, fuck the sequels; we’re talking about Die Hard number one. John McClain trapped in the NakatomiTowers with a bunch of terrorists. Perhaps the greatest action movie ever made, a masterpiece of narrative structure. The rest of this series is going to focus on pulling apart that structure, act by act, but for the moment I wanted to kick things off with an overview.

Two whit, these are just a handful of things to pay attention to when you watch Die Hard:

1) ONE PLOT, TWO STORIES

Ask most people what Die Hard is about, and they’ll give you a précis that’s fairly similar to the one I used in the preceding paragraph: cop, high-rise, terrorists. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s the stuff that you’re supposed to notice, the flashy explosions and the quippy lines and Bruce Willis jumping off the tower alone.

The slightly more advanced answer is that it’s all about an everyman triumphing over extraordinary odds. If you’ve ever thought that, give yourself a gold star. Your English teacher will be very proud, and you’re kicking towards the slightly more advanced level of reading that writers tend to operate at when they’re interested in narrative.

Here’s what Die Hard is really about: a man learning to set aside his pride/masculinity and accept his wife as an equal. And an every-man cop trying to stop a group of terrorists who have taken over Nakatomi tower.

Lets make no mistake: the eighties were a dark time for intelligent action movies. There were plenty of schlocky films out there, trashy-as-hell masterpieces that excelled at one-liners, kung-fu, and big explosions, but they lacked the emotional core that makes Die Hard great. Here, the action is just an excuse to explore the inner landscape of John McClain’s character (if you’re wondering, this is what’s absent in Die Hard 2, which is why it’s comparatively pants compared to its predecessor).

Your goal, as a writer, should largely revolve around capturing two stories. The first is all about the physical conflict, the things that actually leap out and challenge your protagonist. The second is internal, a profound emotional or moral change that transforms the inner landscape of the person you’re writing about.

And Die Hard does this. It does it so fucking well it hurts, ’cause you never actually notice how subtly it’s playing you until you stop paying attention to the explosions and figure it out.

2) THREE ACT STRUCTURE FTW

For the record, I don’t think all narratives need to follow a three-act narrative structure (hereby referred to as TAS), but it is enormously prevalent in films and it’s a damn useful tool to have in your toolbox when you’re writing things. There’s a multitude of places online that will tell how the TAS works, but for my money the breakdown runs something like this:

  • Act One: Set the stakes. Show the reader/viewer your character, your world, and all your major metaphors. Introduce conflict and let your character run away from it until they have no freakin’ choice but to go and solve the problem.
  • Act Two, Part One: Having been forced to try and resolve an problem they wanted no part of, your protagonist starts protaging for real and learns the rules of whatever new situation they’ve been thrust into. Keep raising the stakes until you hit the middle of your story. Give your character a win at this point (or, you know, shatter them entirely), but let them learn something that completely changes their understanding of what’s actually going on.
  • Act Two, Part Two: After shattering your protagonist’s worldview at the middle of the story, things get bleak. The law of narrative says every high-point where the protagonist gets a win is followed by a low where you make them pay (writers are basically sadists). Gleefully torture your protagonist. I promise you, no-one will mind. Build tension. Show the reader how your character has evolved. The second act ends when you bring together a number of important details, and make the climax inevitable. It’s not going to happen immediately, but your protagonist knows all the things they need to know in order to confront and overcome both the antagonist and their inner conflict.
  • Act Three: The road to the climax, where your protagonist rushes towards the bit final scene where they make a moral decision, then follow things up with the dénouement where we learn how their life has changed.

There’s a whole bunch of little things that happen in each of these acts, narrative beats that you trust the film to hit, which is one of the reason I ended up breaking this into parts. Die Hard hits those beats like clockwork (not altogether unexpected for a film), and it plays them for all they’re worth.

3) METAPHORS MATTER

Yeah, I know, you graduated from high-school and celebrated the fact that you no longer had to search for the super-secret-hidden-meanings behind objects within your favourite books and films, and you’ve heard a whole of writers talk about the fact that they don’t do this shit intentionally. I don’t fucking care. Repeat after me: METAPHOR IS A GODDAMN POWERFUL TOOL FOR WRITERS.

You learn to use the goddamn tools if you’re going to play around building narratives.

The metaphor pretty-much everyone remembers from Die Hard is John McClain spending the film shoeless, which is a brilliant choice all on its own. There’s plenty of other things to start paying attention to if you watch closely: Holly McClane’s watch, Al Powell’s uniform and cop car, Nakatomi Towers itself, and the fact that the entire thing is set at Christmas. I can’t tell you how many of them were intentional – I’d place good money on the first two, at least – but they’re all a part of how-and-why this film builds itself up.

Here’s the joy of metaphors: you can say important things about the state of a character by messing with the objects we’ve come to associate with them. It’s one of those sneaky ways in writers are all “show, don’t tell” in fiction, but also the way in which film-makers try to avoid beating us over the beat with bad dialogue. A barefoot John McClain says “vulnerable” in a way that a dozen characters saying “there’s no way he can stand up this” doesn’t.

Also, Die Hard is the world’s greatest Christmas movie. If you don’t believe me, tell your friends it’s what you’re planning on watching on Christmas day, and see how many people abandon their families to come hang out.

We’re already a whole lot of words in, and we’ve barely gotten started, so I’m going to cut things off here. Next Tuesday: all the things to pay attention to during Act One of Die Hard, with some focus on why all the metaphors I mentioned are worth paying attention to…

Four Things Writers Can Learn From The Josh Kirby Films

Planet of the Dino KnightsSo we spent a couple of weeks making our way through the first few films in the Josh Kirby, Time Warrior series for the #TrashyTuesdayMovie. After the first week I more-or-less swore I wouldn’t do a Trashy Tuesday Writing School post about this series until we hit the end, but the contrast between the first film (which was dull and awful) and the second film (which was an batshit crazy and awful) was marked enough that I kinda changed my mind.

The first Josh Kirby film, Planet of the Dino-Knights, probably ranks among the most god-awful films we’ve watched on a Tuesday night thus far. It’s not quite bad enough to slip into my bottom five, but it’d certainly earn its spot in the bottom ten.

The Human PetsThe second film, The Human Pets, is better, but it’s greatest strength is being not-quite-as-poorly-made as its predecessor. In this respect, they’re actually an interesting duology in terms of the lessons they hold for writers. With that in mind, here are some things to make note of should you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of seeing these two films (incidentally, you can probably find them on youtube).

1) EXPOSITION, MOTHERFUCKER, YOU DON’T NEED IT

You know that old saw where writers are all “show, don’t tell!” like it’s meaningful advice on writing? Watch these two films back-to-back and you’ll understand what we mean.

Planet of the Dino-Knights is all about the exposition. I mean, it really, really likes to explain things. People stop to explain some aspect of the plot to one-another every couple of minutes, and none of it is interesting. You literally sit there, watching a film that’s ostensibly about GUYS WITH SWORDS RIDING DINOSAURS ATTACKING OTHER DUDES WITH SWORDS ATTACKING DINOSAURS, and you’re all, like, “yawn, this sucks, wake me when there’s a good bit, okay?”

Then you sleep through the thirty seconds where something actually happens, and you hate yourself so much that you go and find the bourbon.

If you take out the scenes where one character stops to explain something to another character, you would drop an hour and a half long movie to about twenty minutes. Almost none of those twenty minutes would feature the nominal protagonist, Josh Kirby.

The Human Pets isn’t 100% exposition free, but it largely gets down to the business of letting people do things. Not even things that make sense, all the time, but characters are in action and you figure who they are by interpreting their actions within the setting and the context.

This is infinitely more interesting.

Watch these movies back-to-back and one of the most common pieces of writing advice ever given will be horribly, painfully illustrated.

2) THE WORLD IS BIGGER THAN YOU KNOW, BUT NO-ONE ACTUALLY CARES ABOUT IT

The Josh Kirby series follows a plot-line that’s going to be familiar to anyone who has read a fantasy novel in the last thirty years. An otherwise ordinary boy is swept up in world-shaking events, and discovers he has extraordinary powers. Replace “big fantasy battle” with “the destruction of all space and time” in the formula and you have the basis for the Josh Kirby series, right up there with him learning he’s got special powers at the tail end of the third film.

Here’s the thing: we don’t actually care about the world.

The end of the world feels like big, horrible thing to have at stake, but audiences don’t really care about the mass destruction of the human race. We care about the individuals the story has told us to empathise with – we want to see their pain all up-close-and-personal, rather than seeing them as a microscopic dot against a larger landscape.

Josh Kirby tries to bridge this gap – he wants to save the world ’cause his dad and the hot girl he’s crushing on are gone – but it never quite gets there. Josh doesn’t care enough, and we aren’t inclined to care for him.

3) ROMANCE IS MORE THAN TWO PEOPLE SHARING SCREEN TIME

In the grand tradition of #TrashyTuesdayMovies, the villains and supporting cast of the Josh Kirby series is infinitely more interesting than the primary character. And, in the grand tradition of #TrashyTuesdayMovies, it makes the mistake of thinking that romance sparks simply because a male character and a female character appear on screen together.

The Josh Kirby series isn’t the only film to do this, but it’s easily the most egregious example I’ve seem. There is literally five minutes of screen time between Josh having a knife held to his throat and Josh being willing to risk his life for the woman who just attacked him.

At least it takes a whole damn movie before there’s some indication that said woman, Azabeth Seige, may actually have feelings for Josh, although it has to be noted that there aren’t exactly *reasons* for this. The feelings are just assumed to be there, on the basis that one of them is the protagonist and the other is a female character standing right next to them.

Don’t do this.

Relationships should be a narrative arc, not an assumption.

4) KNOW YOUR PRODUCT

If you’re a writer, memorize this: Genre is a receding horizon of expectation.

What that means, more or less, is that we don’t engage with stories in isolation. We, as a culture, are immersed in narrative forms from day one, and since we’re basically organic machines built for patter recognition, we pick up on some of the common elements that occur time and again. Not always on a conscious level (hint: if you’re a writer, start getting conscious of this), but it’s there.

This works on a macro level – the moment I tell you something has narrative, that one word sets a whole bunch of expectations about character arcs and structure, even if you’re not entirely conscious level. You’ll expect a beginning, middle, and end. You’ll expect a satisfying climax.

It happens on a micro level too: science fiction sets different expectations to romance or crime, just as the various subgenres of those particular genres (cyberpunk versus hard SF, for example) do the a similar thing. From the moment you pick up a book and look at the cover, you brain is hard at work deciphering the little queues that tell you what kind of thing you’re about to engage with (so, like, cover art actually matters, despite what you’re parents told you about judging books).

The great flaw of the Josh Kirby series is that they’re marketed as films, but structured like a TV mini-series. The first film, Planet of the Dino-Knights, is particularly egregious in this respect, cutting off at the end of the second act and robbing people of a climax after they’ve invested an hour and a half in the narrative.

Don’t do that shit.

Know your damn product. If you want to be read as a TV series, let people know you’re a TV series. You’re only doing your story harm by setting up false expectations.