Unstoppable and end of suspense

I went to see UNSTOPPABLE the other day and it was OK, but it was one of those films that made me think of what it could have been.  Tony Scott directed it, so you know what you’re going to get.  I like his movies, more recent ones especially.  He directs action.  Things move, and they move fast.  Things blow up, and they blow up big.  He’s all about energy and speed and action.

Action movies are great, but directors lately are so intent on moving forward, on getting to the next explosion or climax, that they forget to mix some suspense into the mix.

This was glaringly apparent in UNSTOPPABLE because the trains were not the demons of speed that Tony Scott obviously hoped they would be.  So rather than embrace the momentum inherent in the premise of his film, he uses every cheap trick in the book to get those trains moving.  (Some of them are embarrassingly cheap – like the shot of the train full of kids headed straight for the runaway train, then cut to safely off to the side, which is odd because there wasn’t an exit ramp in the shot before, but whatever, right?)

Suspense needs a little room to breathe and the train’s massive slowness would seem to me to provide a great opportunity.  It’s still going at 55, but on film, it’s never going to look like a roller coaster.  What’s the premise of this film?  It’s a missile the size of the Chrystler Building, right?  What difference does it make if it’s not moving at the speed of sound?  They can’t stop it!  That’s the point.

So a scene when the horse trailer is stuck on the tracks, it shouldn’t just happen and then be over.  A scene like that can last 15 minutes, if it’s done right.   Give us some time to know where everything is in the scene.  Give us some time to see how the characters react to their increasingly tense situation.  Get stuff in the way, and then get it stuck there, and then show what’s needed to get it out of there, and then show the train coming, and then they get more stuck, and the train gets closer, etc.  You get the idea.  Why were they in such a hurry to get done with this scene, anyway?  It’s not like they had another cool scene waiting around the corner.

But then I started thinking of all the other films I’ve seen in the last, I don’t know, five years.  I couldn’t think of one that was particularly suspenseful, or had any memorable suspense scene.  I’m sure I’m forgetting one, but my point is that action movies need to rediscover that central lifeblood of their make up.

Think of the scene of Bruce Willis in DIE HARD, when he’s in the air duct and the blond guy is shooting along the length.  It’s suspense.  Or in JURASSIC PARK, when they’re waiting for the T-Rex to show up.  The rest of the movie was crap, but that was the scene you remember – and it was a suspense scene.

Suspense is the soul of these films because without it, we know the end: the hero lives, saves the day, whatever.  There’s never any risk.  You never wonder if they’ll make it or not.  You need that because with out it, it’s just all the same speed.  It’s just one thing after another.  Suspense means that we’re invested in the film.  I just worry that, in an effort to keep the audience broad, and not upset anyone, they’ve actually decided that suspense in a film is a bad thing.

Animation is changing our expectations

I’ve been waiting for some truly stylish innovation from indie film for a long time now, but maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong place.  Lately, having watched Ratatouille a hundred times with my kid, I’ve been wondering how the style of all the animation in films – and by this I’m including special effects films, which are essentially animated – is going to affect how we shoot and watch films.

The impossible fast moves of the “camera” in an animated film cannot be matched by a dolly pusher on a live action film (or can it?).  The precision of the shots, at the speed they are moving, can’t be recreated.

The perspective of the camera is often somewhere impossible, through a wall, sailing over the sky, down some winding stairway again zooming at incredible speeds.  It can’t be done traditionally, without computers.

The world that animated characters live in is completely created from scratch.  This kind of attention to detail would be pretty tough to achieve in a live action film, especially one that has to exist in the real world – ie. you can’t build every chair, you have to buy them.  An animated film literally designs every chair, everything, even if it takes its cues from the real world.

So how does this affect us in the world of live action films?

Well, by looking at the newest styles, the trend is to go against all that.  Mumblecore is the mode of the day.  Abandon style.  Let the shots linger.  Imperfection and sloppiness are the goals.  If you need speed, shoot handheld and move the camera around really fast.  All this in the quest of something called a “happy accident”, which is supposed to be some captured moment of truth.

I can’t imagine that this style is what is going to save cinema.  The next generation is growing up on animated films that have huge budgets and are generally models of perfection, even if the films aren’t that good.  Perfection, meaning that all the characters hit their mark and deliver their lines as someone wrote them.

It would be a much more exciting challenge to try to capture some of the innovations of animation and use them in a live action film that wasn’t a special effects driven megabudget film.  How can we get those camera speeds up?  Do we want to grab a shot from an angle where the camera couldn’t be?  Do we want to spend the time and money designing the details of a set, instead of cobbling together what we could find at Ikea?  I’m sure there’s a host of other innovations used by these animators.

Animators, or at least good ones, know that film is visual.  They storyboard a hundred times, adding shots, building sequences, creating visuals and action over the course of a few years.  Imagine a live action film taking that much time preparing those visuals.

Most importantly, this is how people are learning to watch films.  Filmmakers ignore it and they will mumble themselves into oblivion.

Rant about Hollywood

What is there to say about the current crop of films in the theaters that hasn’t been said? It’s strange watching a film like WALL STREET 2. On one hand, it’s a pleasure seeing a big film, with big stars and expensive looking sets, on a big screen. Money buys a certain amount of size and my 50″ screen at home is never going to be as big as that 50 foot screen at the theater.

The fact that the movie isn’t good is a little besides the point. Oliver Stone might have gotten away with such a mediocre film a few years ago. Studios always put out disappointments. Now it just seems old fashioned, which, in a way, is worse.

In my mind, audiences have finally started wising up to the fact that Hollywood movies stink. Because Hollywood enjoys a defacto monopoly on the theater screens, the only result of this is audience decline.

Hollywood loves to blame all movies, but they don’t consider anything besides what they do to be a real movie anyway. Until the theater owners step up to the Hollywood machine, there’s not going to be a lot of change.  Still, it’s incredible to watch some movies make it through to the theaters – a mindnumbingly tough road to travel – and see how out of touch they are.  It is not unlike GM putting out their boring, ugly gas-guzzlers that keep breaking down and then wondering where all their customers went.  But that is what happens in corporations: the people at the top came up in the decade or two before they came to the top, so that’s what they know; it’s hard to steer these huge corporations in new directions.  It’s the same in film.

Now more films are being made outside of Hollywood and then brought in for distribution.  Some better films will surely come of this, but also some bigger misfires.  The real trouble remains getting the films from the minds of filmmakers who want to make them, to the audience that wants to see them.  Hollywood can claim over and over again that the audience isn’t showing up, but it’s just a form of denial.  Hollywood has spent three decades disenfranchising audiences only to turn around and blame any current film that isn’t pre-branded for the decline of American theater goers.  Reminds me of the Republicans blaming everyone but themselves for the deficit that happened over the last ten years.

Hollywood needs some new ideas, and they’re just not up to the task of trying them out.

There are no new ideas, except that there are

I was sitting in my daughter’s violin class this morning when I noticed the teacher’s sockless ankle in her Converse sneaker. She’s not young and there were some varicose veins. This was real life, but for some reason I thought, I have never seen a shot like that in a film. It wasn’t the most pleasant image, but it wasn’t as gross as it sounds. My point is that you could probably follow those varicose veins up to a very interesting story.

Some people, particularly in Hollywood, like to say that there are no new stories, but that we tell the old stories over and over again. Now, of course, Hollywood does tell the same stories over and over again. It’s part of their business plan, part of their DNA, but that doesn’t mean that that’s all there is. If you think about it, there’s a million stories all around us that Hollywood wouldn’t touch, but that, if told in an interesting way, would certainly hold up to the latest bland rom-com.

Let’s take an easy example: Considering how many of Hollywood’s biggest stars are now over 50 years old, how many films are there about 50 year olds? There are plenty of films with 50 year olds in them, but that’s not what I’m talking about. How many films are there that deal with problems and issues that 50 year old men and women have to deal with, like stale marriages or divorce or the fact that your health starts falling apart. I’m sure the list is longer, but I’m not 50, so I’d have to do some research. Who would want to watch one of these films? If it were interesting, I would.

Before I start sounding like someone with a geriatric fetish, there are a million areas that are just out of bounds: and what’s funny is that they are kept out of bounds by the same people who say that there are no new ideas.

I wrote a script that takes place in an office. It always gets compared to OFFICE SPACE or THE OFFICE. Were there really on two office stories that needed to be told? It makes you think how groundbreaking OFFICE SPACE was. I can imagine that Mike Judge had to convince a bunch of skeptical executives that people might actually be interested in what happens in an office – because it have never been done before.

It’s easy to shake the plot line of any film until you’ve got it down to its basic premise, and then declare that it’s just like some other movie. OFFICE SPACE is about a guy trying to rip off his company. You see? Just like a ton of other movies.

Except it’s not.

Compromises

When you make a film, there are two fights you will always have. One is before production, I guess you could call it “development”, when everyone from producers to financiers to friends will tell you what needs to be done to your screenplay to make it better. The other is when you hit production and you are faced with the reality of your budget, your schedule and the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t really care about that shot that you absolutely needed to get.

What’s alarming to me is that the things I fight for in the first fight – ideas that I can’t imagine being compromised without ruining the script, scenes that are necessary, etc – are often things that I’m quick to give up when facing production.

Sure, if I had more money or more time, I could do it all. But no one has enough time or money to make a movie (except David Fincher.)

As I’ve discussed before, “tight” screenplays aren’t always good screenplays. But when you’re are faced with a shrinking schedule, that stuff that added nuance and character to your screenplay, the stuff that wasn’t directly connected with the plot, that’s the first stuff to go. I’m not sure that’s the best way to make a film, but I know that every director has faced that loaded-up schedule and lost a little bit of their soul.

Personally, I love films that stray a bit, or have scenes that have nothing to do with the plot but everything to do with the film. Practically, as I’m not a producer, I haven’t figured out how to get there. Compromise is boiled into the process of filmmaking, but it is also the mother of invention and a lot of times it really does improve the film. It forces you to be creative in ways that can be very cinematic. Directors who know how to solve these problems are the ones who really know how to tell a story cinematically because they are the ones that have access to the cinematic language. In other words, if something can be said, if a story can be told, they have the vocabulary to say it differently, to tell their story in another way.

As I’m facing this problem myself, I am trying to look at it from another perspective.  There comes a point in preproduction when you are given what you are given, and you have to make a film out of it.    I’m finding that this is a much more positive way of looking at a schedule and at production in general.  It opens you up to everything that’s there, instead of the stuff that is stuck in your head that isn’t there, that you wished was there.  Take what you can and use it.

Sympathy is the Devil

For some reason, someone must have decided that I’m the primo demographic for the new Jennifer Aniston/Jason Bateman movie, THE SWITCH because I’ve now seen the trailer thirty times.   I will never see this movie but the trailer tells enough of the story for me to get angry about one particular aspect about Hollywood films in general: that the characters need to be “sympathetic”.

Every script writer or filmmaker has had to answer to this esoteric and meaningless question: Is the character sympathetic to the audience?

So let’s look at the trailer for THE SWITCH and watch how a movie is so terrified of its own premise that it breaks its back trying to keep the main character sympathetic.

The story is something like this: Jennifer Aniston needs a sperm donor, so she gets it from “the perfect guy”.  Jason Bateman is in love with her, but they’ve been friends forever, and because of Bateman’s character flaws, or whatever, it just wasn’t happening.  So one day, Jason Bateman switches his sperm for the sperm of the perfect guy.  And then the rest of the story happens, but that’s not important for this discussion.

The writers cooked up this premise and as far as high concept ideas go, this one isn’t so bad.  There’s a lot of possibility there.  But they ran into a problem: switching someone’s sperm before it gets put in the turkey baster and shot on its way to conception is a really awful thing to do.  It’s almost definitely illegal.  What kind of a scumbag would do something like that?

Instead of answering that last question, which to me would make a far more interesting film, the writers cooked up a host of unlikely and improbable ways to get that sperm switched.   There’s a big conception party where the sperm is celebrated.  Ever hear of one of those?  No, because no one would do that.  But the real reason they have this party is so Jason Bateman can get seriously drunk.

He gets so drunk that when he goes to the bathroom and finds the perfect guy’s sperm, he picks up the cup and plays with it.  He does that, not because that what a drunk person would do.  He does that so that he can drop it by accident.  You see, it wasn’t enough just to get him drunk.  He has to be in a situation where he feels, in his drunken state, that he has to put his sperm in a cup and put that cup in it’s place.  That’s what he does.  He is so drunk, in fact, that he’s not even sure he did it the next day.  And then the rest of the movie happens.

Let’s ignore, for a second, that being shitfaced is not really an excuse for doing something unsympathetic.  I can’t imagine that a drunk driver could use that excuse in court, or even in the court of public opinion.  The reason that the writers went to all this trouble was to create a situation where Jason Bateman’s subconscious would do the dirty work for him.  In other words, he gets to do this horrible, life-altering sperm switch, and take very little moral responsibility for it.

Now, I’m sure the rest of the movie addresses this, and I would bet that him taking responsibility would probably involve him becoming the kid’s actual father.  But my point is that it was all unnecessary pretzel twisting because, if you imagine the alternative, you get a far more interesting character and a more interesting film.

The alternative would have been, simply, that Jason Bateman switched the sperm on purpose. He would have made a conscious decision and actually had to overcome obstacles to achieve his desired purpose.  Then he would have had to deal with the moral consequences.  I’m not sure he would be a more or less sympathetic character, but I am sure he would be a more interesting character.  He would have been a character we liked to watch, rather than a character that we liked and had to watch.  It might have been a little more plausible too.

The new realism

If you want to see how low Hollywood has sunk, watch THE BREAKFAST CLUB again and imagine the remake.   THE BREAKFAST CLUB is a unique film in a lot of ways, but mostly in the way it treats its adolescent characters with honesty and respect.  It sets them in an environment that they recognize and that doesn’t seem false.  Characters swear constantly, they talk about sex a lot, they smoke pot: and the realism that this adds is hard to imagine being recreated in our current system.  Think of NICK AND NORA’S INFINITE PLAYLIST, a film that proudly marks its main characters as straight – no drink, no drugs, no sex, no swearing, no problem.  The girl who gets drunk is treated like a sad joke.   It’s a cute film, but it doesn’t exactly recreate the real world that those characters would have to navigate.  Molly Ringwall’s character isn’t too far from them, but she’s obviously used to dealing with all sorts of pressures that Nick and Nora casually shrug off.

As I’ve said before, I have mixed feelings about realism, but what I would give for some realism in today’s films.  What’s awful is that films these days come out intending to be realistic, but end up being a cross between a sort of naturalism and some sort of Hollywood fantasy.  Naturalism is the goal of the “indie”, naturalism being the most superficial and bland brand of realism I can think of – made worse when the contortions of handheld cameras and improvised acting strain so hard to achieve something that comes across as so fake.

But it is truly amazing that with Hollywood making films almost entirely for people under the age of 25, that they cannot offer them anything other than overblown fantasy superhero crap.   They cannot present the world that we live in because drug use in movies hardly exists, while in the real world it’s so popular that it’s becoming legalized.  This need for sanitizing the movies has always been around, but challenging it seems to have gone out of style.   Pushing boundaries isn’t really what I’m talking about.  I’m just talking about presenting a world that looks something like the world I live in.

Imagine this story: a man, married for a few years, falls in love with another woman  and runs off with her, leaving his wife and kids with nothing but alimony.  You could say, “what a jerk” to do something like that, or you say, “you know, that’s kind of romantic.  He fell in love.”   I know a few friends that this has happened to, but I don’t see any American films about them.  What’s the Hollywood version of that?  Or the “indie” version?  Why do movies feel the need to moralize or act as role models?    Is Mary Jane’s boyfriend problem in SPIDER MAN all we’re going to get from now on?    Or Cameron Diaz trying to figure out how to live up to her super CIA Tom Cruise character?

The main reason naturalism isn’t going to save film is that it’s boring.  The main reason that Hollywood keeps trying to up the ante on the action, blowing up bigger things, etc. is because it’s not boring – except that it’s becoming boring because that’s all they do and they’re not as good at it as they used to be.   If realism is the goal of filmmakers, and I don’t think it has to be, then they need to figure out a new way of bringing it to life.  They need to start by being a little more honest with themselves and the world they live in.

Little conflicts in life and film life

Generally, when I need to find something out, the first place I go is Google or Wikipedia, like most people today. It’s not always what you need, but for some little piece of information, it really can’t be beat. What are the ranks of the NYPD? How does New York get its water? This stuff used to mean a trip to the library where the book you needed wasn’t always there, or a phone call to a professional. It was research.

Those boundaries don’t exist anymore. There is no struggle to get information. Not only can you find out what you need to know, you can probably watch a video on it. Our lives have become easier. Is that good or bad? Maybe a little of both, but for a screenwriter, it’s a real pain in the ass.

It’s easier to find things out, as I said. But it’s harder to think of obstacles for your characters to find things out. Realistically, your characters would spend an hour or two on the internet and find out what they need. It’s not very cinematic. The life blood of narrative film is conflict and when there is no challenge for your character, things get pretty tricky balancing reality and film reality.

Which is why films can seem so dated. It’s not just that it takes two years to make a film and technology changes so fast these days that it’s hard for filmmakers to keep up. It’s also that it is less interesting. A character going to the library is infinitely more interesting than a character sitting at his computer.

Watch White Heat, which is a fabulous old film about cops and gangsters, and watch how they use the cutting edge technology of the time, the 1940’s. Today, all the information that the cops are getting is available in far less interesting ways.

On the other side, getting away with crime is nearly impossible now. Everybody has a cellphone camera. There are surveillance cameras all over. There are tracers on dollars, we can see through walls, we can tap any phone, trace any call instantly. It’s all great for stopping crime, and crime has gone down in part because of all that stuff. But filmmakers choose mostly just to ignore the stuff that doesn’t fit in. It’s not that they don’t want to be realistic. It’s that it isn’t that dramatic.

There needs to be some risk, some conflict. As our lives become easier, our conflicts become harder to dramatize.

Unless, of course, you are doing a nice human drama about characters and relationships. Good luck getting that financed today. I’m trying to get mine done, and unfortunately there is no harder kind of film to get made and seen right now. Despite the fact that this is only kind of film most of the people I know want to see. But that’s for another post.

Growing your audience? Give me a break!

There is all this talk if you work in indie film about “growing your audience”. It’s a crazy, sold-out world we live in, but this one really bothers me. The idea is that you have to come up with all sorts of tricks, including your blog and facebook page and a ton of other stuff that is endlessly discussed and debated, that will spread the word about how great you are, or how great your film is.

It’s completely backwards thinking. There is never any guarantee that people will want to see your film, but isn’t the main goal to make a good film? It’s hard to make a good film. It’s impossible to make it with an eye on whether someone else will like it or not. You can only hope your tastes jibe with an audience.

Learning and talking about new ways to sell your crap, doesn’t make your film any better. Forget about all that shit. It’s not about selling, it’s about making a good film.

Do you think the audience gives a shit about your ideas of growing your audience? Then why are you talking about it? The audience is interested in your ideas about the world and the art your working in. They are hungry for that.

Hollywood, with far more expertise and a virtual monopoly on distribution, still doesn’t fare that well selling their crap by packaging it as polished as they do. Once in a while, they can sell a dog to everyone, but they’re professionals. That’s all they think about. Selling the film. Finding an angle. Saturating the media. But if you ask any of them, they would tell you that it is almost impossible to sell a film that no one wants to see.

Ted Hope thinks if you are making a film and just hoping that an audience comes to see it that you are not living in the real world. It’s not that he’s wrong, but that he’s not right every time. Of course we’re not living in the real world. That’s part of what’s great about film. It’s all a fantasy. It’s a fantasy thinking you’ll get your film made. It’s a fantasy thinking you’ll get an actor, or a star. It’s a fantasy that your film will get distribution. The film itself is a fucking fantasy. And sometimes, not that often, a film makes a lot of money. And then whose world are we living in? It happens. No one said it would be easy.