So the last season of GAME OF THRONES went sideways, according to All the Fans–and as somebody who’s now watched all three seasons of JESSICA JONES, the writers and showrunners make the same storytelling mistake with the ending.
And listen, the ending is everything.
How can a gritty, superhero series screw up in the same way as an epic with swords and dragons?
Here’s how. (Warning: this whole post is Spoily McSpoilerface.)
Reason No. 1: Always save the Big Bad Guy for the finale
For five-point-seven billion years, GAME OF THRONES built up the icy blue Avatar-looking guy, the Night King, as the Big Bad of the series.
At the same time, the show served up the Mother of Dragons and her cousin/boyfriend Jon Snow as heroes, as far as what passes for heroes go in a story where everybody is a murderous nutbag.
But there’s no real protagonist in this giant cast, and Ayra is the one who offs the Night King long before the final episode.
Same thing with the last season of JESSICA JONES.
For all of Season 3, the Big Bad was this serial killer known as Salinger.
But instead of saving a confrontation with the villain for the finale, we get meh from both series.
The Night King’s death should have been saved for the last episode, with the Mother of Dragons or Jon Snow being the fan favorites to sit on the Iron Throne.
Instead, the Night King got killed and the show became a hot mess. Nobody was aching to see Emilia lose it and have her dragon fry the city, or see Kit stab his former lover, or have Bron-whatever take the throne for some random reason after Tyrion goes all Jar-Jar in the Galactic Senate on us. No. Just no.
JESSICA JONES repeats the same mistake. Salinger gets offed before the final episode.
Reason No. 2: Once the Big Bad is dead, your momentum goes buh-bye.
Let’s talk about other movies we’ve all seen for a second and play this out.
RETURN OF THE JEDI — Instead of Vader tossing Emperor Wrinkly Face down the bottomless pit and the Death Star getting blown up, all that happens in Act 2, with the entirely of Act 3 all about how Luke has to hunt down and fight Han Solo after he went nuts and helped the Ewoks slaughter and barbeque 15,000 Imperial stormtrooper prisoners.
Terrible, right? This is much better.
You have to save the Big Bad for the final act, the final episode, the last thing. Anything else makes the story out of order and flat.
Reason No. 3: If you’re going for tragedy, you have to fully commit
A mixed ending can be amazing. Some of the best movies and books have mixed endings.
CASABLANCA has the hero giving up the girl for a greater cause–beating Hitler and winning World War II.
But a mixed ending is also tough to pull off.
When you get audience rooting for a character, and seeing them as a hero, it’s tough to see those character take a heel turn at the last minute.
In fact, audiences reject it.
This is why tragedies fully commit.
They show the full fall from grace, from beginning to end, with the protagonist serving as both hero and villain. And the protagonist falls due to their own hand, via hubris.
BREAKING BAD did this perfectly. Sure, you saw things from Walter White’s point-of-view, and rooted for him a lot of time, but his ending felt absolutely right. He’d definitely sinned, and his downfall was deserved.
If you’re going with a tragedy, do it from the beginning with the protagonist. Not a side character like Trish.
It can work for the main character hero to sacrifice themselves for the sake of a secondary character. That’s not a tragic ending; it’s noble and heroic. See PRIVATE RYAN and ARMAGEDDON and five zillion other movies.
Nobody wants to pay money to see a movie that stinks, a book that you can’t get past Chapter 1 or an album where every song hurts your ears.
You want quality. I want quality. Everybody wants it.
But you can’t pitch quality.
And you can’t package it.
So unless you’ve got something else — a quirk, a hook, a unique twist — quality alone won’t get you anywhere.
It won’t get people to look, listen or read in the first place.
So let’s pitch and package random, made-up things. Why? Because it takes practice and because you’re too close to your own stuff to do it right. And because it’s fun.
First up: two different bands.
Band A is a trio: drummer, guitar and bass / lead singer. They’re all recent music school graduates in their late twenties. They’re serious, seriously talented, good-looking and ready to break out. Let’s say they play a lot of punk rock and post-grunge.
Band B looks like a sure-fire loser. They’re all five years old. College degrees in music? Try “Hey, we’re potty trained, and we know our ABC’s.” They don’t know how to read music, write music or understand music theory like the other band. The guitarist knows one trick: crank up the distortion and make it loud. But they know the rough melodies and words to three different Metallica songs, and they do a cover of ENTER SANDMAN that’s close enough to be damned funny.
Here’s a real-life example of this sort of thing. A ton of people — 383,000 plus — have watched this kid sing, DON’T BRUSH MY HAIR IN KNOTS while her brother or neighbor kid banged on the drums.
Alright, here’s your homework: Write a one-sentence pitch for each band. Four words, if you want to ace this. Six words if you feel like a Cheaty McCheaterface.
Do it now. Find a piece of paper or fire up Word and do a pitch for each. Don’t even think about it.
I’ll go find silly videos on YouTube about swamp monsters in Louisiana or whatever.
OK, time’s up. Let’s compare pitches.
My best shot at the music majors: “Nirvana minus flannelly angst.” Four words, and I’m sort of cheating by turning flannelly into a word. Hard, isn’t it? You can’t get anywhere saying any kind of variation on, “This band, they’re really, really good.”
My pitch for the kids: “Kindergarteners cover Metallica.” Three words. Doesn’t have to be poetry here. Are you going to click on a link that says “Nirvana minus flannelly angst” or “this band is amazing?”
No. Not when there’s another link that has five-year-olds playing heavy metal?
Who wins the quality test? The serious music majors, by a mile.
Who wins the pitch and packaging test? The little kids who play bad covers of heavy metal. It’s so much easier. I would have to kidnap reporters to get them to cover our post-grunge band of music majors.
Could I get free ink and airtime with the Heavy Metal Monsters of Hillman Elementary? Absolutely.
Next: two different books
Our quality book is a literary masterpiece that will make you cry while snorting coffee through your nose, then take a fresh look at life and possibly quit your job and join a Tibetan monastery. It’s about a middle-aged man who works in a cubicle farm and lives in surburbia with a wife who’s on industrial amounts of Prozac and a teenage daughter who’s too busy thumbing her iPhone to notice who provides her with food, shelter, clothing and a VW Passat with only 13,000 miles on it. The hero’s life changes when he gets mugged on the way home. Also, a mime is involved, and a janitor who lives in a shack but says witty, wise things before he gets hit by a train.
The other book is a cheesy sci-fi novel with horrible dialogue. The premise: dinosaurs didn’t die off after some asteroid hit. They were smart. Really smart. And they left the planet in a fleet of spaceships to escape Earth long before that asteroid screwed things up for millions of years. Now they’re headed toward earth. And they want their planet back.
Ready? One sentence pitch for each. Four words.
OK, let’s see what we’ve got. Here’s my instant, no-thinking pitches.
Literary book: “Hell is a cubicle farm.” Five words. More of a title than a pitch. It sings to me, though, in a small, squeaky, off-pitch voice.
Sci-fi nonsense: “Space dinosaurs invade earth.” This is a kissing cousin to “Comet will destroy earth,” which has been the basis for about six different movies, including five by Michael Bay, with the other one starring Morgan Freeman for some reason, despite the fact that Morgan Freeman has ZERO CHANCE of flying up in a space shuttle with Bruce Willis and that dude who is an old college buddy of Matt Damon to blow up the comet, asteroid or whatever with nuclear bombs.
The bottom line is, quality is one thing. In the end, it’s probably the most important thing.
Yet nobody will read your masterpiece, listen to your amazing album or see you act like no actor has acted in the history of acting-hood if they don’t get hooked by your pitch and packaging. They have to know you exist first.
Quality isn’t a pitch. “You should see that movie — it’s really good” doesn’t work. Your friends and family will ask, “What’s it about?” and if you don’t have four words to explain it, to give them a pitch, then forget it.
The next time to read a book, see a movie or listen to a great new song, think of four words.
How would you package it? What could you possibly say, just to your friends so they could see it, but to a reporter or a TV producer?
Odd creatures aren’t just a staple of weird news stories.
They’re a huge box-office draw. Name a blockbuster or billion-dollar movie and it’s almost a sure bet that they feature fantasy or alien creatures.
Think about it: AVATAR, STAR WARS, the Harry Potter series and the lame Harry Potter prequel series, STAR TREK, MEN IN BLACK, any of the 5,832 Marvel movies, LORD OF THE RINGS and the lame Hobbit prequel series that should have been one flipping movie.
Yeah, there are cute fluffy creatures sometimes. Yet just about every giant hit has a zoo’s worth of Ewok’s, orcs, space elves or cybernetic raccoons with a gun fetish.
So what gives a creepy sea creature, man-eating forest monster or elephant-sized wild hog such power to fascinate us?
Let’s break it down.
WILL THIS MONSTER SEE ME AS A SNACK?
That’s the most visceral attraction, a caveman instinct we can’t get rid of: paying close attention to obvious threats.
And yes, a healthy chunk of weird creatures–whether they live in the sea, the mountains or your local forest–tend to be predators with humans possibly on the menu.
IS IT FASCINATINGLY DISGUSTING?
There’s some crossover here. Many of the things that can totally go nom-nom-nom on us–like leeches, lampreys, giant squids and alligators–can’t be called cute.
A bunch of non-threatening weird animals are only interesting because they’re so bizarre and repellent, like the blob fish.
THIS CAN’T BE REAL
Other strange creatures get our attention because we can’t believe they’re not CGI.
How do Christmas Tree Worms really eat? Do lampreys have eyes or are they just a wormy eel thing with giant teeth?
THE FLORIDA MAN TEST
Weird news stories typically involve people in groups (usually men) late at night plus alcohol or drugs and the following optional ingredients: firearms, dangerous wild animals, explosives, 7-Elevens, the police. Oh, and the state of Florida, a state that generates so many weird news stories that headlines starting with “Florida Man” and ending with bizarre mayhem are truly a thing.
So whether or not an odd creature gets featured in a weird news story may hinge upon it passing the Florida Man Test, as in: can a Florida Man use this creature to generate a headline?
Two great examples: alligators, pythons and sharks.
Florida Man has robbed a 7-Eleven late at night, hid from the cops in a pond and been eaten by a gator. An entirely different Florida Man carried a live gator into a gas station and used it to steal beer or money, or beer and money (I forget, wasn’t there, sorry).
Pythons have overtaken the Everglades, and may be impossible to eradicate. They’re devouring local animals and even trying to eat the gators.
Sharks are another common element in weird news, with Florida Man getting arrested for dragging a shark behind a boat.
No, I’m not a zombie, sparkling vampire or Jean Claude Van Damme-ish universal soldier.
I simply haven’t posted in forever, and have missed the readers of this silly blog, who’ve taught me a lot and are always, always witty and entertaining.
So: with a crazy busy session at work, my evil choice was (a) come home and write a blog post, (b) hang out with the wife and son, (c) do laundry, pay the bills and possibly sleep or (d) finish and edit a novel.
I chose everything but (a) and it was the right choice. And now I’m coming up for air.
To folks who are into these things I like to call “books,” here are a few things I learned finishing a new novel, which is the most fun you can legally have as a writer.
(1) Keep switching it up and taking risks
If you keep writing the same sort of story with the same sort of heroes (6-foot-4 and Hollywood handsome) and villains (posh British accent and disfigured somehow) in the same sort of scenarios (stolen MacGuffin could destroy the world!), then hey, it’ll get stale. Same thing with non-fiction, whether it’s newspaper and magazine pieces, speeches or whatever you’re into.
Mix it up. That’s how you grow and learn.
There are endless ways to structure and execute writing. You can steal from anywhere:
Stand-up comics are amazing at setups and payoffs, and can do them in the most ruthless shortage of words.
Poets make sure every line is a magical spell.
Narrative non-fiction is actually a secret treasure chest of great stories that totally work as fiction except they actually happened, and they use the same structural tools as narrative fiction, also known as fiction.
Playwrights spell their own names wrong, yet they’re the masters of dialogue.
Linked movies and serial shows show you how to plot mega-stories (22 movies by Marvel that all tie together!) and how great beginnings can go completely wrong (Season Eight of GAME OF THRONES).
Screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the evil secret to anything of length. And everything has SOME length.
Even if you write stark Nordic mysteries or spy thrillers, romance authors and horror writers show you how to do emotions right, and nothing matters without emotion.
(2) Writers are helpful souls–take the help, and offer help whenever you can
I only started this blog after romance authors found my silly ad to sell the Epic Black Car.
And I learned an amazing amount from them. Am still learning.
For a journalist-turned-speechwriter, writing thrillers for fun, romance is the last place I expected to look.
Look in those unexpected places.
Answer questions from folks starting out.
The other person who taught me an insane amount is my sister, Pam, who won a Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriting. You wouldn’t think screenwriting has anything to do with speechwriting or novels. But you’d be completely wrong. Screenwriters are the absolute best. They’re building skyscrapers that hold up to hurricanes. Meanwhile, other books on writing tell you to build a two-story house out of drywall, then you wonder why the thing falls down after the first rain.
Also: there are authors, writers and editors I met here from around the world, folks who are continually witty, talented and interesting. I want to give a shout out to two in particular — Alexandria and Joshua the Sharp — for their help this year. You two rock.
Keep on meeting people, on Twitter, the Gram, the Book of Face or whatever new thing Silicon Valley invented last week. You never know who’ll turn out to be amazing and will change your life, or whose life you might change. YOU NEVER KNOW.
(3) Take things apart to see how they work
If you read this silly blog (and hey, you’re doing that now), it’s clear just about every post involves taking something apart to see why it’s either (a) horrifically good or (b) beautifully bad.
That’s the interesting and fun part of stories, books, movies, music videos and speeches. How do they work and why?
What could you do to fix a flawed piece or improve something that’s already amazing?
Complaining about something is the easiest thing in the world. You can throw a Nicholas Spark novel across the room (go ahead, that’s kosher any day that ends in Y), walk out of a lame movie or end a show on Netflix after 5 minutes and say, “That sucks.”
Except there’s behind those words. Zero intellectual weight. Anybody can kvetch about something that stinks, or gush about artistic things that are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.
It takes no talent to do those things.
Figuring out HOW things rock or stink–that’s the fun and difficult part.
Listen: I love cheesy action films and B movies of all types, as long as they don’t take themselves too seriously. Feed me summer popcorn flicks, meant to entertain, instead of pretentious nonsense.
ROBIN HOOD is meant to entertain.
It’s got a good lead actor (Taron Egerton, famous for THE KINGSMEN films), a solid sidekick (Jamie Foxx) and a great villain (Ben Mendelsohn from THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and ROGUE ONE)–plus a big budget ($100 million).
Add to that a built-in audience who loves the story and character of Robin Hood.
This is like chocolate chip cookies, right? Hard to go wrong with those ingredients. Everybody will like it.
Except this movie bombed at the box office. A dumpster fire.
Why did this film go so wrong, so fast?
Act 1 is a good start
There’s a lot to like in the first act. see Robin’s ordinary life and get a good introduction to Marian when she tries to steal Robin’s horse…and he lets her.
His life gets upended when he goes to war during the Crusades and comes back to find his estate confiscated by the Sheriff of Nottingham, who’s taxing everybody to death.
It’s an effective start, and the training sequences with John and Robin are great.
So how does the movie go sideways? I mean, this film makes Kevin Costner’s terrible British accent look like a minor problem in an epic masterpiece.
Why the middle turns meh
Act 2 gets confused. The scenes with the Sheriff of Nottingham are decent, letting him chew up some scenery.
Yet the middle gives us a Robin Hood movie that seems to switch time periods, as if the director wants to mash up medieval Crusades action with huddled masses working in Victorian factories and mines along with 21st century antifa protests.
There’s a big dinner where all the wealthy people show up, with women dressed in furs and high heels (I kid you not), and a giant CGI action sequence set up with horses and carriages that feels more Ben Hur than Robin Hood.
You CAN mix things up like this–A KNIGHT’S TALE with Heath Ledger threw in modern rock songs and other craziness, and it worked. The degree of difficulty is simply really, really high.
Basically, Act 2 is a hot mess.
How the climax isn’t climactic
And then we get to Act 3, where things truly go south.
The first rule of storytelling: save your best scenes for last.
There were great scenes in Act 1–the battles from the Crusades, the training montages with John–that simply eclipse anything offered in Act 3.
The Sheriff of Nottingham meets his end, and not at the hands of Robin, but John.
Taking his place as Sheriff is the romantic rival, the lover Marian took while Robin was believed to be dead. And hovering over everything as the Biggest Bad Guy of Them All is the cardinal, or the pope–I forget. Plus there’s a bad guy soldier, the same man who clashed with Robin during the Crusades, brought in as a mercenary to catch the Hood.
Confused? Yeah. Let’s count the bad guys: (1) O.G. Sheriff, (2) Hired Mercenary, (3) Corrupt Cardinal/Pope and (4) New Sheriff.
Here’s the deal. That’s four separate villains, and I can’t remember their actual names.
Fixing this movie
Hey, you don’t need Michael Bay explosions to have a tense, exciting movie. The ending of Michael Clayton is one of the best Act 3 climaxes in history, and there isn’t a gun, knife or explosion in sight. Just two people talking. No amount of CGI could improve this scene.
HOWEVER: If you’re making an action movie, you need action in the climax, and what we get in Act 3 is a let-down from what showed up on the screen in Act 1.
A bow and arrow is a great tool for Robin Hood, and fun when he uses it for heists and hijinks. Yet it’s a terrible weapon, as a storytelling device, for confronting the villain. Which should be singular. Give us one main villain.
Which leads me to the two simplest fixes for this movie: (1) combine the four villains into one capable, scary, tough Sheriff of Nottingham and (2) end with Robin fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham, one-on-one.
There’s a reason why the best movie fights tend to be bare-handed brawls or swordfights.
Swordfights are just great cinema, and that’s what I expected for the climax of ROBIN HOOD.
Think about THE PRINCESS BRIDE and every STAR WARS movie ever made: the duels with swords or lightsabers are beautiful and essential to the stories. Edit those out and they’d really hurt.
So I’ll leave you with the kind of thing ROBIN HOOD should have put into Act 3: a long, evenly matched duel.
Sure, there are stinkers–bad movies and terrible shows on the Glowing Tube–but overall, we are living in a golden age for entertainment on Whatever Type of Screen You Prefer.
Why is that?
A few theories:
1) Looking good is half the battle
In the old days, most movies and shows (a) were cheaply made and (b) looked cheaply made. The real exception to this are sitcoms filmed in a studio, which look about the same. Everything else? Massive differences in production values.
So when a film truly looked good–typically because it had a great director and a big budget–it blew everything else out of the water.
The difference was even more stark on television. A great example: back in the day, BBC seemed to take pride in the worst possible production values on the planet.
Lighting, costumes, camera angles–all that matters. You notice bad production values the most when it comes to terrible monster costumes and special effects.
These days, everybody has upped their game. Even bad movies and shows LOOK good.
And CGI has gotten cheap enough that average TV shows can afford to do special effects you used to only see in blockbuster movies.
2) Massive competition
When there were only a few big studios, and three major TV networks, competition wasn’t nearly as tough.
Today, you have movie studios around the world cranking out more films than ever, plus 3.53 bazillion cable channels making content along with Netflix and Amazon making shows AND movies.
There’s never been more choices.
This has two counter-intuitive effects: (1) it’s easier to get things made, since far more sources might bankroll it, and (2) killing a flawed project or series is easier, too, since there are plenty of other projects that deserve a shot.
The fact that most movies and series don’t become amazing successes isn’t the real point. You can’t predict which ones break out and make mountains of money.
Can’t win if you don’t play.
So everybody plays, and takes risks, because being safe and conservative isn’t the way to hit a home-run.
That creative, competitive environment helps give birth to today’s great shows and movies.
3) CGI takes planning, and great planning makes for great stories
With production values good across the board, and special effects cheaper than ever, what makes a movie or show stand out and break out?
A few years ago, when cheesy CGI spread across the land, I hated it. Terrible CGI was easy to spot and immediately killed your suspension of disbelief.
Today, CGI is incredibly advanced.
Here’s the unintended side-effect, though: great CGI is more affordable than ever, but it still takes a lot of time, money and most of all, planning.
You can’t rush it.
And good planning makes for good storytelling.
There’s a reason Pixar is famous for great stories. They know exactly how long it takes to do an animated movie.
If they screw up Act 3, the director doesn’t call back the actors and do reshoots for a few weeks. Redoing all that footage in an animated movie takes a lot more work.
That’s why Pixar goes crazy with storyboarding and planning the structure of each film. You have to nail that story before you commit. This is why Pixar spends so much time emphasizing storytelling, and perfected their 22 Rules, which are worth checking out. Roll film:
With live actors, you can shoot hundreds of hours of footage and a great editor can take all that footage and do the structure and storytelling.
Can’t do that with animation–or CGI-heavy movies, which is just about everything today.
The more action and CGI you use, the more important planning and storyboarding becomes.
I think this is a key reason why Marvel has been on a hot streak. Every one of their superhero movies takes a ton of green screen and CGI work. They know it. And they have to plan not just for each movie, but how all the different movies tie together, with setups and payoffs stretching all the way back to the first Iron Man movie.
Start somewhere familiar, in one of your favorite haunts, and follow a back road to hidden treasures, films you didn’t know existed.
There’s an explosion of obscure movies now, with Netflix, Amazon and others bankrolling films that wouldn’t have been made 10 years ago.
I’ll give a pitch for two: THE EDGE OF TOMORROW and SHIMMER LAKE. Here’s the trailer for the second one, which deserves a lot more love. Fire up Netflix and watch this thing. It’s a better movie-in-reverse than MEMENTO.
Most people actively trying to collecting bazillions of Facebook “friends” are wasting everybody’s time, including their own.
Your number of Twitter followers doesn’t mean diddly.
Just saying these things is heresy to Internet Fanboys, who believe nothing is more powerful than the series of tubes.
If they can only find a way to implant a USB 3.0 socket in the back of their skull, they’ll be able to jack into the Matrix, do insane kung fu kicks and stop bullets JUST BY THINKING ABOUT IT, but they’re too busy looking at the woman in the red dress that they never leave the keyboard, go out in the real world and, I don’t know, kiss an actual girl.
Am I saying unplug from the series of tubes entirely? No. The internets, they are useful for many things.
I’m saying the real world is ALSO useful for many more things.
Why blog hits don’t matter
Everybody wants to be read. I mean, it’s sad to start a blog, put time and effort into writing great posts and have virtually no traffic.
However: let’s get practical.
When I started my old blog, it was to serve a specific purpose: a permanent home for the craigslist ad to sell the Epic Black Car.
WordPress is free. My sister, who is a flipping genius, told me that she loved working with the WordPress, that it was easy and fun. So I popped the ad on there, threw some photos in the craigslist ad and thought nothing of it.
Did it really matter whether I had 50 visitors a day, 500 or 5,000?
No. Not at all. Really, I wanted to sell one car to one person. Once.
The fact that silly ad went viral didn’t matter. Fun? Sure. But that’s all.
Here’s the deal: I’ve been crazy busy with Other Things, and did not post to this silly blog much lately. And I missed it.
Missed dissecting the first pages of novels, the full three minutes of insane music videos and the reasons why the Series of Tubes will always, always be awash in videos of cats.
Missed talking smack with writers, editors and creative types scattered on every continent.
Missed the whole damn thing.
It’s good to be back here. Am writing a post every day for the month of August (so far, so good) and it’s made writing other things, for work and fun, much easier and faster. A happy snowball.
So: thanks for reading, thanks for commenting or tweeting at me–and thanks to many of you for teaching me a lot.
P.S. Just shout if you have suggestions for posts, such as which novels, music videos or movies (a) desperately deserve to get bled on with a red pen, (b) need to be taken apart to see why they work so well or (c) are so godawfully bad they circle back to good. I may open this thing up for guest posts, even. YOU NEVER KNOW.
Right now, you can fire up your phone, computer, 4k television or seven other things with screens to binge upon amazing movies and television shows that make the classics of the ’70s and ’80s look like high school art projects.
The list of viewing choices is incredible: WESTWORLD, a Marvel superhero movie every time you sneeze, THE WALKING DEAD, a new STAR WARS movie once a year, GAME OF THRONES, BREAKING BAD, BROADCHURCH and the SHERLOCK series starring Khan/Dr. Strange and his hobbit friend.
It’s an embarrassment of quality. And meta-story is the key reason why.
Because it’s not just the quality of special effects, sets and acting at work here. It’s how well that meta-story is told that affects whether you (a) stay up until 3 a.m. binging the entire series or (b) keep flipping through shows and movies before you give up and watch YouTube clips of animals being bros.
I can’t remember any TV shows or movies back in the day that told a fully story, start to finish, with a concrete end to the series, except for the original three STAR WARS movies. (Note: the prequels are dead to me.)
Back in the ‘80s, the shows I watched and loved had the same hero and sidekicks and a Villain of the Week, unless it was a sitcom.
A-TEAM, REMINGTON STEELE, AIRWOLF – all these shows you could watch in any order, unlike the meta-stories of today, where if you miss 15 minutes, you might get lost.
It seemed pretty clear that showrunners back then were content to keep making new seasons until the ratings went south.
They kept going until the network ended the money train, which was reflected in the sudden demise of most TV shows where loose ends tended to stay loose.
So where are the new giants of meta-storytelling doing it right, and where are they tripping up?
Week 1—GAME OF THRONES vs THE WALKING DEAD vs WESTWORLD
All three of these are sprawling adventures with ensemble casts and no clear hero or villain.
But they are true meta stories. There’s nothing episodic about either show. Things constantly change and both are building up to a climax versus the old model of “petering out when they cancel us.”
A big strength for all three? Constant surprises. Anybody might die in any episode, except for Rick Grimes, who never dies for some reason, while Westworld reserves the resurrect any character as a robot and Game of Thrones can’t part with Captain Good Hair Who Lives Among the Snow.
All three series are full of deadly betrayal and high stakes. There are no cartoonish white hats and black hats. Each character tends to be a little good and a lot of bad.
You also don’t have to find a new job if your big star, the hero, decides to leave the series to try movies, or gets drunk and slams his Rolls Royce into the side of a cliff.
HOWEVER: The lack of bedrock heroes and villains can make the audience confused and scared off from getting attached to characters they like, seeing how at any minute they could get stabbed in the back, nom-nom-nommed by a zombie or shot by the Man in Black.
This sort of story also has problems with villains, because they tend to die off and need to get replaced.
GAME OF THRONES and THE WALKING DEAD have the advantage of known their destination, since the original authors mapped out the story in printed form using these things I like to call “words” placed inside these archaic, beautiful things they call “books.”
WESTWORLD will have to find its own way to the climax, since it’s based on a single movie from the ’70s. However: Season 1 was a brilliant start.
Verdict: GAME OF THRONES is the odds-on champion here, with a huge audience and a definite climax in the cards. THE WALKING DEAD feels a bit too uneven and small scale at times. How can they top Negan?
WESTWORLD is the hipster choice of these three, the one that feels most like a movie. Each episode shot and scored beautifully. It’s just harder to see where it goes after Season 1. But if they can pull it off, WESTWORLD will live forever as a classic.
Next week: D.C. versus Marvel, also known as ‘D.C. just can’t win’
I like it, I love it, I want some more of it. So why does this short bit with zero special effects work so well?
Let’s take it apart.
Comedy is incredibly hard. Even the pro’s at Saturday Night Live fail more often than succeed. The tough part of a short skit like this is variety.
Saturday Night Live and other skit shows tend to find one joke that does work, then beat it to death, making a five-minute skit feel like five hours.
The other path–multiple jokes that may or may not work–is much harder to pull off.
You won’t know if it works while writing or rehearsing it, and unless you film in front of a live audience, you won’t get feedback until you put that short film out there for the world to embrace or trash.
I say this out of love, and not just because both series are (a) sci-fi space operas (b) starring ensemble casts of heroes with (c) both series taken over and vastly improved by J.J. Abrams.
I say this because it’s true.
Spoiler alert: Most people know the Enterprise gets destroyed in the new STAR TREK BEYOND, and that it got half-destroyed in the first two reboot movies directed by Abrams.
If you look back, the Enterprise is getting half-destroyed or fully destroyed all the time now, and STAR TREK has turned into a reverse story of STAR WARS.
You can sum them up like this:
STAR TREK is about a team in a super-ship exploring and restoring order to the galaxy while enemies try to blow them up.
STAR WARS is about a team of rebels trying to blow up a super-ship the other team uses to restore order to the galaxy … by destroying planets.
It didn’t use to be like this.
When the Enterprise first went down for real in STAR TREK III, with no “Let’s Go Back in Time To Fix It” loophole that Picard later used 593 times, it was a big deal.
People wept. You just didn’t destroy the Enterprise. No.
Here’s the clip from STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK JUST GOT A LOT HARDER, SEEING HOW WE DON’T HAVE A FLIPPING SHIP ANYMORE
In the old days of original Shatner and Nimoy on television, they beamed down to adventures on planets full of styrofoam rocks and green alien women, or, for variety, green alien reptiles bent on killing Kirk.
The Enterprise was always their safe harbor, their home.
Sure, it got torpedoed by the Klingons once and a while, or threatened by some giant space monster, with Scottie always having to repair things in the engine room. But it never got fully destroyed forever and ever.
Why not? Partly because they had tiny models of the ship instead of CGI, and making it look damaged and dirty would be a big, expensive pain that wouldn’t look great anyway. It would probably look like somebody poked holes in a plastic model and painted some burn marks on it.
The bigger reason was you just did not destroy the beloved Enterprise.
After STAR TREK III, the Enterprise was no longer sacred, and they started blowing it up, or pretending to blow it up, all the freaking time.
What about STAR WARS?
Let’s go through all the STAR WARS movies, past, present and future, and yes, Disney will be making STAR WARS movies in the year 2058.
STAR WARS REBELS (winter 2016): A suicide mission to steal the blueprints to the Death Star so we can blow that sucker up.
STAR WARS: This friendly trash-can on wheels has those secret blueprints to make the Death Star go boom.
THE EMPIRE STIKES BACK: Oh, we are so hunting down those rebels who turned our beautiful Death Star into a space firecracker.
RETURN OF THE JEDI: Guess what, fools? We have a new, improved and fully operational Death Star, while you have some Ewoks.
THE FORCE AWAKENS: Plain lightsabers and Death Stars are boring. Check out this new red lightsaber with a crackling crossguard and our fancy Death Planet that’s so powerful, it eats a sun before turning planets to rubble.
Attack of the Fanboys
Serious fans may say this theory has to be bunk due to the existence of three prequel films which should never have existed.
In those three prequels, George Lucas somehow refrains from blowing up any Death Stars whatsoever.
I have a two-word rebuttal: Jar-Jar Binks.
Even gritting your teeth to look at the prequels shows you how STAR WARS without Death Stars is like Kirk and Spock without the Enterprise.
EPISODE 1, POD RACING, MIDI-CHLORIDIANS AND JAR-JAR: The bad guys have a donut-shaped space-ship that controls their droid army, and no, this isn’t a Death Star at all, except the heroes win in the end by using tiny fighters to make it go boom exactly like a Death Star. I think they even recycled some of the CGI from the special editions.
EPISODE 2, ATTACK OF THE CLONES: Palpatine starts a fake war to become emperor and command all kinds of Star Destroyers and Stormtroopers, and he’s especially interested in stealing the old Sith blueprints for Tie Fighters and some moon-sized space station that happens to destroy planets.
EPISODE 3, DARTH VADER FINALLY ARRIVES BUT SOMEHOW DOES NOT KILL JAR-JAR: What in the big finish, when Anakin Skywalker becomes Vader and joining the Emperor on a Star Destroyer? They’re watching something out in space, I forget what. Let’s pull up the clip.
The Expanded Universe or whatever
There’s also a ton of STAR WARS video games, cartoons and novels with other variations on the Death Star idea, each one more powerful than the last.
I’ve heard (haven’t read all this stuff) in some of these novels and such, the emperor comes back as a clone, Luke Skywalker turns Sith … and there’s eventually a super-ship that destroy entire solar systems, plus other Death Star-like objects that do other amazingly destructive things that make the first few Death Stars look wussy.
This explosion fest is perfectly understandable and perfectly boring
Here’s the thing: I get why STAR TREK and STAR WARS keep returning to this idea. It’s a quick MacGuffin, an easy way to raise the stakes.
This is the same reason why thrillers and James Bond movies keep returning to the cliché of stolen nuclear warheads. Pretty hard to top that.
The first time they made the Death Star go boom, the entire theater went nuts. I still remember it.
And the first time they actually killed the Enterprise while Kirk and his crew watched from the planet, people did cry. Didn’t make that up.
In this latest STAR TREK movie, nobody cried when the Enterprise went down. We’d seen it so many times before: they’re going to trash the Enterprise so bad it needs a year of repairs or completely wreck it. No shock.
You simply can’t go to this well every movie, especially in an age where audiences are so used to CGI destruction that it only generates yawns.
Remember the latest X-MEN movie? Nobody cared as the bad guys started to wipe out civilization, because we all knew it was pixels. We only paid $25 for Imax tickets and popcorn for the characters and actors we love.
Hollywood is doing us wrong
At the end of this new movie, STAR TREK BEYOND, there’s a time-lapse scene of the new Enterprise getting built in a shipyard, then launching into space. Now, this was a fun movie, good, not great. That ending scene, however, was a huge story mistake.
Destroying and rebuilding the Enterprise should be your final card to play, the biggest possible thing that could happen.
The writers and director could have generated a lot of suspense by not showing that scene at all. They could have made us wonder about what happens next.
All through Act 1 of the next movie, show the crew scattered, Kirk at a desk job in Federation buried in paperwork, Spock back on New Vulcan, Bones bored out of his mind working in a hospital, Scottie fixing the engines of a transport ship and Uhura translating Klingon for some boring bureaucrats.
You could show how they missed each other, and how breaking apart the team is costing them personally, and how it’s hurting the Federation as a whole as the B team out in space gets pummeled by the Borg and every planet is about to get assimilated.
It would’ve been a big emotional payoff to bring them back together on a new Enterprise they actually had to fight to get built in Act 2 before they beat the bad guys in Act 3.
Give us real emotion about real characters
In the end, these movies and stories shouldn’t be, and aren’t, about a super-ship–Enterprise or Death Star–that keeps getting blown up and rebuilt, bigger and better.
Audiences today are used to special effects and explosions. We’re numb to it.
These movies work best when they focus on the characters we care about, people who aren’t CGI and can’t get rebuilt with a few clicks of a mouse.
This isn’t hard, since STAR WARS and STAR TREK have some of the most beloved characters onscreen today.
Also: it would save you a lot of money, Hollywood execs. Getting actors you’re already paying to act is a lot cheaper, and faster, than spending 2 months rendering that giant space battle where the Enterprise launches photon torpedoes into the exhaust port of Death Star Version 6. (Actually, film footage suggests the opposite. Sorry, Kirk.)
After spending a week hanging out with our two-year-old niece, I’ve memorized the words to “Let It Go” and “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?”
Those two songs–especially “Let It Go”–are what made this movie insanely popular among pookies.
The movie itself isn’t up to snuff. Compare it to anything from Pixar, also owned by Disney now, or to any Marvel movie (owned by Disney, which owns STAR WARS, too, and possibly America–somebody needs to check), and the story in FROZEN is meh.
That’s easy to say. What’s hard? Fixing the movie.
So let’s try that, in the tradition of THE PHANTOM EDIT, which radically improved the hot mess known as STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE.
How did filmmaker Mike Nichols fix this travesty?
Nichols shortened or deleted a bunch of scenes with Jar-Jar Binks.
He killed the lamest possible explanation of the Force, which George Lucas suddenly decided, four films into this series, comes from microscopic bugs in your blood called “midi-chlorians.” Yeah, no joke. I believe this was one of the terms I had to memorize when studying plant cell biology.
He trimmed a lot of political nonsense and added deleted scenes that should never have been deleted.
Basically, he recut the entire film. And it was Good.
How can we recut FROZEN?
First edit: We kill off Olaf the Snowman, who is the equivalent of Jar-Jar Binks in this movie. The silly snowman is supposed to be comic relief, but he’s just goofy and not funny at all. There’s already comic relief in the form of Kristoff and his reindeer.
Second edit: Let’s give Kristoff more to do. If he’s going to be a bigger hero, he needs to try to prevent the villain from doing bad things in Act 1 and get banished to the snowy wastelands in Act 2, when Anna travels by herself out there and meets him while searching for her sister.
Third and biggest edit: Who’s the villain? In the original cut, the villain isn’t clear. Elsa is sort of a villain for leaving the castle and causing winter. Hans the prince is the villain in the end, but he’s sort of a surprise to the audience. He’s not in the beginning of the film and doesn’t drive events. He shows up late and there’s nothing really suspicious about his courtship with Anna, then bam, oh, he’s actually evil and after the throne. There’s no setup to this payoff. It’s a cheat.
The Duke of Weselton is sort of a villain, but he’s not driving the Ship of Evil, either.
Elsa and Anna’s parents (the king and queen), but that’s because of a storm, not nefarious deeds, done dirt cheap.
So: let’s make a real villain who’s there in the beginning, middle and end. Combine the roles of Hans and the Duke and get him there from the start.
Our combined villain, Duke Hans:
(a) sabotages the royal ship to cause the deaths of the king and queen, an act of sabotage that a common worker (Kristoff) notices and tries to stop, leading to his banishment to Snowy Reindeerville.
(b) Meanwhile, Duke Hans has spent years grooming and courting the much-younger Anna so he can marry into the throne.
(c) The final piece of the puzzle is planting the idea in Elsa’s head that she can only prevent harming her sister again by living the rest of her life in the icy wilderness, which would also mean giving up her right to the throne, but hey, those are pesky details.
(d) Kristoff is now critical to the climax, since he knows the big secret that Duke Hans is who murdered the king and queen, a secret Duke Hans would kill to protect.
Better, right? I’d be happy just whacking Olaf the Snowman, though giving the story a true villain who drives events and making Kristoff more than a Random Nice Guy does a ton to help the story.
How would you fix FROZEN? And how do you get a two-year-old girl to stop playing “Let It Go” seven times an hour? Hit me in the comments.
Updated: Fixed the cases of mistaken identity, like calling the reindeer and his master by the wrong names and saying Anna when I meant Elsa. Thanks to folks for seeing that. My niece would never forgive me. 🙂
Seen it yet? Go buy tickets and eat insane amount of popcorn. Everybody on the planet is required to do so.
I’ll wait. Don’t want to spoil the ending for you.
Actually, I want to improve the ending. And the beginning. Maybe the middle, too.
Not that this is a bad movie. It’s summer popcorn fun and will make bazillions of dollars. Chris the Pratt is a great actor, our generation’s Harrison Ford, an action star who makes you laugh.
HOWEVER: there are four easy ways to radically improve JURASSIC WORLD, especially compared to the last two Chris Pratt movies, which were structurally sound.
This is more important than you think. A solid story is the difference between “Yeah, that was fun” and “Even though we just saw it, I’d happily pay another $15, keep this dorky glasses on and see this in 3D again right now.”
Despite my dislike for Tom Cruise, an amazing story structure is why I paid cash money to see THE EDGE OF TOMORROW in theaters three times and bought the Blu-Ray to see it twice more.
Want the easy way to see if a movie has story problems? Count the number of writers. One is great. Two might work if they collaborate a lot, or if they’re the Coen brothers. Three means trouble.
If you see four or more writers when the credits roll, that says “People gave us $389 million dollars for a film about transforming robots, lightsabers or mutant dinosaurs, so we spent about half a percent of the budget on script rewrites until we had a story that would thrill the high tastes and standards of 9-year-old boys sitting in theater seats as they drink 72 ounces of Mountain Dew.”
This is about why Flappy Bird was such a surprise hit, Taylor Swift’s newest mega-video is meh and why your favorite movies, novels and video games work when others fail.
Here’s why: audiences want something interesting, and entertaining, which means different and surprising. Yet there’s a fuzzy line between Hard and Impossible and a deadly chasm between Complex and Bizarre.
It’s like thinking, “chocolate chip cookies are yummy, so why not chocolate chip cookies with almonds, M & M’s, pecans, Oreo sprinkles, peanut butter and a Snicker’s Bar on top?”
Watch the big Taylor Swift video, BAD BLOOD, then we’ll chat.
Now, this has high production values and great costumes, and I’m sure Michael Bay watched it on an endless loop all weekend. Yet it’s not elegantly complex and entertaining. It’s a hot mess, the music video equivalent of THE EXPENDABLES, with so many random stars thrown in for cameos that I have no idea who’s who. Does it look cool? Sure. Do we care one bit? No. Not even half a bit, or a quarter bit.
Compare that to the simplicity and beauty of Iggy Azalea’s BLACK WIDOW, which is a masterpiece, paying homage to KILL BILL and flat nailing it.
Unless you live in an ice cave, you know that AVENGERS 2 opens on May 1.
When it does open, all your friends will go see it, then ask what you thought about it, and What This Movie Means for the next 10 Marvel movies. Those films will feature Thor, Iron Man, Loki, and 16 other characters, and they will make $18 billion dollars.
Let’s get you educated on the whole Marvel shebang, then talk about why Marvel, against all odds, has taken over movie theaters for the next century.
Before you spend $42 on Imax tickets, 5800 calories worth of popcorn with fake butter drizzled on it and 72 ounces of Diet Coke, watch this video to refresh your knowledge of all things Marvel:
THE TRANSPORTER is the break-out movie for Jason Statham, and though I am perhaps the world’s biggest fan of Jason the Statham Kicking Things in the Face, there are clunky bits rattling around in the engine compartment of this film, keeping it from true greatness.
It’s like a classic car with a gorgeous front end, giant engine and gimpy transmission.
So I’m dragging it into the shop and turbo-charging this thing.
Having recently rewatched THE TRANSPORTER using time-travel technology called Blu-Ray, three things stuck out: the beginning, the middle and the end.
The beginning is amazing. The middle sags.
The ending is underwhelming.
Let’s grab plot wrenches, get our hands greasy and figure out why.
Act 1: A Man and His Car
The first scene of the film is amazing. Frank puts on his driving gloves, fires up his exquisite piece of German engineering and picks up his first package to transport, no questions asked. Turns out to be four bungling bank robbers and this opening car chase is thrilling.
The next major scene brings us to the best part of the movie, after his second job goes bad and Frank’s beloved black sedan goes boom while he’s eating a sandwich. Frank returns to that client’s mansion and rings the doorbell. Result? Awesomesauce.
Act 2: Making Things All Confusing
So that woman you saw in the clip, the one tied a chair with duct tape covering her mouth, well, she was one of the packages in Frank’s trunk, and he broke one of his rules by opening that package and finding her.
Why was she in that trunk? The movie never really gives us a good reason, or any real reason at all. This is why the power of the engine in Act 1 doesn’t get transmitted to the back wheels of Act 3.
The story tries to connect things by saying she’s the daughter of a wealthy bad guy who’s working with the Main Bad Guy from that mansion – you know, the crime lord who blew up Frank’s car – and they’re both make piles of money smuggling people from Asia to Europe in container ships.
The woman says she wants to save those people from slavery and possible death. She lies about her family being in the container, including her father. Who’s actually not inside the container because he’s a villain.
So yeah, it’s a hot mess of tangled plot wires that only makes the audience think too hard, trying to sort things out, which you can’t really do because nothing makes sense.
Also: we never hear why anybody would put this woman into the trunk in the first place. Bit of a problem there.
Act 3: Hey, We Saw a 007 Movie Once or Twice
There are a few more good fight scenes, including the famous Grease Battle in a garage.
Yet the final act devolves into a chase scene that could be taken from any random film involving 007, Jason Bourne or Tom Cruise in Long-Haired Mode While He’s Shooting MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 6: GHOSTS IN MS PAC MAN.
Frank commandeers a crop duster, parachutes onto the convoy of Bad Guys and fights them while trying to steer the semi carrying the container full of people.
In the climax, the father of the love interest gets the drop on Frank, who meekly puts his hands up and gets marched to a cliff and certain doom, though he does grab a rock and seems to be thinking about chucking it at the villains head. You know, eventually. When the mood is right.
He never gets around to it, despite the gun pointed at his nose, and the love interest winds up saving Frank by shooting her dad.
Does that sound anti-climactic? Yes. Yes it does. And it is.
Grabbing a wrench and fixing things
Frank has three simple rules.
Rule Number 1: Never change the deal.
Rule Number 2: No names.
Rule Number 3: Never open the package.
We can fix this movie with three simple plot rules.
Rule Number 1: The hero is the one who changes.
Whatever problem is presented in Act 1, it has to be the hero who fixes it, and he or she must go on a journey to do so. The tougher the journey, the better the story. The more the hero suffers, sacrifices and grows, the better the story.
And in the climax, the hero must face a choice, a single moment where everything hangs in the balance.
The audience is denied these things by (a) not allowing Jason to change and grow and (b) giving the climax to the love interest instead of the hero. She’s the one who shoots the bad guy. Jason is passive in the end. That doesn’t work and is a big reason the ending feels flat.
How can we make Frank change, suffer and grow? Let him lose a few fights. Seriously. It’s a romp, beginning to end, and he’s never really challenged. Let him lose the first few fights. Show him practicing, sweating, training and getting better. Make the uber villain TOUGHER than him and let that villain kick Frank’s butt in their first encounter. Because as things are, it’s a romp. Frank kicks everybody’s butt and you never doubt him for a second. Let the audience doubt that the hero will prevail and make the hero suffer and sacrifice to become good enough to have a chance in the final fight.
Rule Number 2: No surplus names.
When it doubt, cut it out. Kill every character you can and give their role to somebody else.
Which characters waste valuable screen time?
The most obvious one is the father of the love interest. He tangles up the story and detracts from the main villain, the one who blew up Frank’s beloved black car.
The final battle should be between our hero and the uber villain, who dies before the climax. So we’re left with the old man, who’s clearly no physical threat compared to Frank, and that makes for a boring ending.
Solution: eliminate the father as a character and give more screen time to the real bad guy.
Rule Number 3: Never open the fanciest package first.
If you’ve got an amazing action movie, your first step has to be looking at the set pieces. Which one is the most exciting? Which ones are middling? And where are the minor ones?
You need all three types of scenes. It doesn’t work to crank everything up to 11, Michael Bay style, because that simply numbs the audience.
Put the best scenes first and the least-exciting fights last, and your audience will have their expectations bashed against the rocks. They expect things to get more and more exciting as a movie gets closer to the end and you’ll confuse them by reversing the order.
Build up to a climax and put your most exciting scene in Act 3.
So yes, let’s put that amazing mansion fight in Act 3 now, and finish off the movie with Frank fighting the young villain, the one with the bad facial hair, instead of standing around at gunpoint waiting for the love interest to shoot her evil poppa.
This rule also works, by the way, for a series, whether it’s movies or books.
If your first movie is brilliant, your second is good and the closing of the series is average, people will be forever disappointed. They may even hate you for ruining what should be a classic. Am I talking about THE MATRIX trilogy? Maaaybe.
Yet if your first book kinda stinks, your second is good and the last in the trilogy is amazing, people will think you’re a genius, a Lion of Lit-rah-sure.
The same is true for Act 1, 2 and 3 of a single film, even if it’s Jason Statham Kicking Things in the Face.
Pretend it’s Christmas morning. Open the small packages first, the medium ones second and save the biggest, fanciest package for last.
This is three minutes of film, via the Series of Tubes, that doesn’t have a single special effect or Michael Bay explosion. Yet it’s blowing up the Series of Tubes like nobody’s business, and not simply because it has cats.
Watch it, then we’ll dissect this to see how — and why — it works so well.
Here are the top 3 reasons why this snippet of film by BuzzFeed works so well:
1) This is actually a long ad for Friskies … with barely a glimpse of the cat food they’re trying to sell you.
So right there, it’s refreshing, since 99.999 percent of TV ads are in your face, hoping to grab your attention for three seconds before you (a) change the channel, (b) pull out your iPhone or (c) amble on over to pillage the pantry.
Even the insanely hyped Super Bowl ads, the ones that are so famous that we get backstory about the advertising folks who created them, despite the fact they look more like your neighbor Bill the Accountant than Don Draper — well, those supposedly amazing ads are typically disappointing. They try too hard. Too fast, too loud, too much. You can see all the money on the screen and yeah, a lot of it is wasted.
Instead of 30 seconds of cars zooming and Danica Patrick in a bikini selling web domains (don’t get that one, either), we get 3 minutes of slow, leisurely voiceover from a cat while B-roll runs wild.
And it is hilarious.
DEAR KITTEN is also different from some of the better Super Bowl ads, like the Darth Vader kid who starts the car using the force. Those are more like one-joke skits, except not so much that the repetition drives you nuts like a bad SNL bit that’s gone on too long. This kitten business isn’t Johnny One Note at all.
2) A different kind of funny
Most ads aim for broad humor, things that the lowest common demographic will get in a heartbeat. You know, people falling down, exasperated moms, Santa actually coming down the chimney and frowning because LIttle Billy ate all the cookies and drank all the milk.
DEAR KITTEN is a higher form of humor, with great writing. Here’s a section of the script I love, even after hearing it three times:
You should be aware that there are two kinds of food. The first is sort of a brown, dehydrated nibblet. I think they give us these because they are training us to be astronauts. Just a guess. The second kind is wet food. It is so special they keep it in little armored metal casings that no claw can penetrate. With no claws to speak of, the humans can somehow open them. It’s like some dark magic.
Now, that’s great writing, full of sweet little setups and payoffs.
3) Building up to a climax
The writing is good in the beginning, gets better in the middle and rocks at the end.
This is the opposite pattern from most movies, novels, TV shows and circulars in The Willapa Valley Shopper, and not simply because many writers got started at these things called “papers of news” where you’re brainwashed to write using the Inverted Pyramid, which is inherently boring and should be taken behind the barn and shot.
The best stuff goes first because when you pitch a movie, book or TV ad, that’s what you lead with. Otherwise, the thing won’t get off the ground. And that’s what they want to see in the script or the dailies: the awesome stuff you talked about, whether it was dinosaurs roaming the earth again or aliens invading Nebraska, you know, because their spaceships run on corn or whatever. But if you put the very best material up front, by definition the middle will get your junior varsity stuff and the ending will be complete rubbish, the bottom of the tank, the leftovers, the scrubs.
Check out the last part of DEAR KITTEN.
Dear Kitten: I should warn you of the monster known as “Vac-Koom”. It can eat and yell at the same time. And I’ve seen it eat everything. Seriously, like a paper clip and two cat toys. Didn’t even flinch. To hide from Vac-Koom, you may use the curtains of invisibility. Oh yeah, you’re good. Good hiding. Hoh, boy.
Dear Kitten: One final note. Once in a while, you might see a little red dot. I’m going to tell you this right now. It is real, and it can be caught. I did it once. I held it for a full minute. But when I lifted my paws, it was gone.
So Kitten, welcome to the household. You’ll do just fine.
Brilliant. I’m glad they saved the best for last. Vac-Koom and the Curtains of Invisibility will become part of internet lore now.
Here’s an itty bitty film that’s crazy funny and extremely well done. Watch it, then let’s talk it over.
So, here’s the thing. Drama is very simple, when you get down to it.
Step 1: Create conflict, say two young brothers wanting to inherit the same rich farmland.
Step 2: Dream up ways of making it far, far worse, like one brother stealing the other brothers favorite cow and serving up Bessie barbeque at the next family gathering.
Step 3: Raise the stakes even higher in the big finale and put our fighting farmers in a North Dakota version of the Thunderdome — two men enter, one man leaves, because the other guy has a pitchfork in his head.
Humor is far, far tougher.
You have to dance on the knife’s edge of normalcy, push boundaries, tell uncomfortable truths. Be edgy without being offensive, insanely creative without coming off as insane.
Humor doesn’t have easy formulas, and the risks are far greater. Jokes fall flat. Things that seem hilarious in the writing room go nowhere, while little throwaway bits turn into comedy gold. You can’t predict it.
So let’s talk about three little things before the Big Thing that I noticed in this short film.
First, they dispense with names, with one exception: the delivery service logo.
A typical story would be awash with names. If David Lynch was doing this, DUNE style, the floating head of a princess would be on screen for five minutes, telling us the name of the planet, its ruler, the strength of its army, the name of the alien who’s supposed to get this package delivered and so forth. Then we’d get all kinds of voice-over about the delivery ship and how it travels through space-time using dark matter or whatever.
Second, there’s no backstory. No flashbacks, no explanations, nothing. The makers of this short film know backstory is irrelevant when they’re showing everything now, as it happens. If you’re explaining, you’re losing the storytelling war.
Third, no dialogue. Maybe you could argue about the aliens saying things we don’t understand, but no, that doesn’t count. It’s like the opening half hour of WALL-E, which was brilliant without a single word of dialogue.
So: no backstory, no names and no dialogue. What’s the Big Thing they did?
These filmmakers maximized the gap, creating chasms between expectation and result from BOTH directions. They were constantly, creatively, always raising the stakes from the POV of the space delivery man and the aliens.
That gap usually exists only for the hero. The villain knows exactly what’s happening and why. He’s not surprised at all.
It’s the hero who’s fumbling around, wondering what the hell is happening, and only at the very end does the villain have any gap between expectation and result, because the villain expected to shoot the hero after his monologue, not get thrown down a bottomless pit.
Most films and novels stick to that unwritten rule: No Surprises for the Villain, because surprises are precious and reserved for the hero. We don’t usually see the villain failing or being confused. If we see things from his POV at all, the villain is doing deliciously dastardly things and doing them well, because that makes it harder on our hero.
In this film, the gap grows wider and wider from both points of view until it can’t get any bigger, and they’re doing something interesting with the gaps: not only is each gap funny, they also raise the stakes every time until the climax.
Could you make it even worse for the alien planet than being Death Star’d at the end by the delivery ship’s main engines? No.
The opposite of this happens in bad Saturday Night Live skits, which are bad for a very specific reason: they latch onto a single funny idea like a lamprey eel, then do it seventeen bazillion times until it’s time for a commercial break so we can get educated about the new formulation of Head and Shoulders.
Those bad kits aren’t funny because of a structural problem. The gap doesn’t grow bigger. The stakes don’t get raised. It’s repetition without a purpose.
I remember watching DUNE in the theater and thinking, “Whoah.”
Then again, I was a whippersnapper with no taste when it first came out. So on Old Movie Night, we popped in DUNE and fired it up.
There’s no doubt that DUNE is a hot mess. The question is, why?
Suspect No. 1: Horribly Cheesy Special Effects
This is a good place to start. You can’t excuse David the Lynch for not having access to better special effects, not when this movie came out after all three of the original STAR WARS movies were out.
Check out the trailer and tell me the effects are up to snuff, even for the era.
So, the effects in DUNE are Dr. Who-level lame. You expect the rocks to some styrofoam they bought off the old Star Trek set.
But bad effects aren’t the main reason this film is a hot mess. An audience will forgive bad effects if the story and characters are compelling.
Suspect No. 2: All Kinds of Crazytown
You don’t hire David the Lynch to direct a normal movie. You hire him to spice things up and go a little nuts.
Being absurdly weird can earn your movie cult status, with college kids playing it simply for the biggest excesses and worst moments of wackadoodle.
Then again, the tough part is once you base-jump off the Cliff of Normalcy, there’s no guarantee your chute will open.
And this film sprints away from Normal, stiff-arms Edgy and slides right into Bizarre.
This is half of the reason the film is a hot mess. You’re constantly distracted, sometimes by the bad effects, but more often by the weird, bizarre and gross sideshows that don’t truly move the story. The Baron Harkonnen’s massive zits get a ton of screen time. The Guild Navigators are grotesque. The bad guy troops have reverse mohawk hairdoes while the good guys wear surplus World War II uniforms. It’s constantly and consciously odd, which pulls you out of the story.
But if the story kept moving, I wouldn’t have had time to focus on all the weirdness.
Suspect No. 3: Ponderously Beating the Audience with the Cudgel of Pretentiousness
This is the true culprit.
Audiences will believe in sorcerers and elves if you don’t explain them. They’ll buy lightsabers and aliens who are into M & M’s — but not if you get pretentious and deep trying to explain all those things.
See, audiences want to believe. If you set things up from the start, they’ll stick with you. What you can’t do is (a) switch mid-way though a normal book or movie to say “Hey, actually the hero is a vampire. Surprise!” (b) commit the Hollywood sin of double-mumbo jumbo — trying to have a story that’s about dragons and trolls … plus space witches with lightsabers or (c) constantly stop the story to intrude with pretentious narration and dialogue that’s on the nose.
It’s that last sin that DUNE commits right away, with a long narration setting things up following be another and another and another.
Every time the story moves forward two inches, somebody has to stop to explain it to the audience for three minutes, as if we aren’t smart enough to watch the story and understand. It feels less like a movie and more like a lecture. Then the credits roll.
I bet there’s a supercut of DUNE somewhere, a lot like STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM EDIT where some kind person sliced out all the boring nonsense, like Jar Jar Binks and all the talkative scenes where George Lucas is patiently over-explaining things to you and ruining the Force forever by saying it’s caused by space bacteria or whatever. No.
DUNE breaks new ground with the Unnecessary Voiceovers by having every actor whisper a voice-over of what they’re thinking, which is usually stuff the audience already knows, but hey, beat them on the head with it again.
Which is too bad. There are great actors in here like Kyle MacLachlan, Patrick Stewart, Sting and Jürgen Prochnow. A less wacky, less ponderous film with the same cast would have been awesome, even with the same cheesy special effects. It would also be far shorter and more watchable.
Movies based on toys, or cartoons from the ’80s designed to sell toys, tend to suck like Electrolux.
THE LEGO MOVIE is a happy exception to this rule. It’s worth talking about how they accomplished that trick.
They didn’t do it with snazzy special effects and big-name actors. Just about every film based on toys has great CGI explosions and big actors who aren’t so big that they won’t cash a giant check: BATTLESHIP had Liam Neeson, TRANSFORMERS had Megan Fox, G.I. JOE movies have had the Rock and Bruce Willis.
What makes this movie about interlocking bricks any different?
Reason Number 1: The Humility to Make Fun of Yourself
You don’t see the other toy movies doing this. They try hard–too hard–to be serious, and real, and only tangentially related to all the toys they want your kids to buy.
THE LEGO MOVIE has the guts to poke fun at itself, not once or twice, but during the entire film. Relentlessly. Brutally. Hilariously.
Reason Number 2: Subverting and Smashing Conventional Storytelling
This is the real secret. THE LEGO MOVIE picks up typical Hollywood structure by the throat and body slams it to the asphalt.
A normal action movie features a cartoon hero (Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Bruce Lee or Bruce Willis) who’s tough and cool in Act 1 and doesn’t change by Act 3. In fact, this hero doesn’t change, suffer or grow in any of the sequels.
Instead, the writers of this movie picked a hero who’s an Everyman that the prophecy says will become great and powerful, and save the world … except he never really gets those powers, and the prophet (Morgan Freeman!) admits in the end that he made it all up. There is no prophecy.
In parallel, the screenwriters take Batman, who stands in for your typical cool/tough hero, and show that he’s actually a hot mess. Is he still tough and capable? Sure. But you see the real man behind the façade, and it’s funny and insightful.
The villain is where the writers truly nail it.
In a typical action movie, there’s a cartoon villain doing evil things for no apparent reason other than he’s a villain and that’s what they do. Then in the finale, the hero kills the villain in a dramatic one-on-one gunfight, swordfight or fistfight.
Not this time.
The villain in the Lego world is President Business, whose secret identity is Lord Business, and his evil plan is to freeze the Legos into position with his super weapon, the Kragle (Krazy Glue) while the hero is the only one who can stop him with the Piece of Resistance (the cap to the Krazy Glue).
The writers make the bold choice to break POV here, to switch over to the real world for the first time, showing a little boy playing with a city of Legos in the basement. It’s a museum that his father set up, with signs everywhere warning against not touching what has been perfectly constructed based on the exact instructions.
These aren’t toys, his father tells him. They’re interconnecting plastic construction modules.
In real life and the Lego world, the hero doesn’t win by killing the villain, who has the upper hand. There’s no miracle comeback by the good guys.
The Lego hero echoes the language of the little boy and convinces Lord Business / Dad in Real Life that he doesn’t have to do this, that he’s the most amazing and talented person, who could build anything, and that it doesn’t have to be this way.
There’s an acid test for any story, when you’re trying to figure out who’s the hero. Sometimes, it’s not obvious.
In this movie, the person who makes the biggest leap is the villain, who gains insight and makes the decision to reverse course and allow his son (and daughter) to play with what had become a Lego museum, a no-fun zone.
A brave and brilliant choice, and to me, that’s what makes the movie different.
On four different British Airways 747’s to India and back, I watched many, many movies. And it’s worth talking about them not in a “hey, this is out on DVD, so should you fire up Netflix?” kind of way, but in a storytelling way.
Did it work? Why or why not?
WORLD’S END proves that talent doesn’t always equal success. This is a movie with great comedic actors, yet a structural problem kills it. Because it’s truly two different movies slammed together.
The first movie is a comedy about five mates in England getting back together for an epic pub crawl they didn’t finish as college kids.
The second movie involves robots from space, which comes as a huge surprise, and not a good one.
Simon Pegg is brilliant, and he teams up with his sidekick once again, like in SHAWN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ. Brilliant!
This movie had potential but is not up to Simon’s usual snuff. The thing is, fixing this film wouldn’t take much.
While the Simon Pegg character is talking his buddies into returning to their home town for the crazy pub crawl, he could’ve dropped hints about drunken fights in pub bathrooms with possible robot imposters. A single line like that could’ve saved this movie.
But instead, we get an orphaned payoff with no real setup.
Bonus: Simon continues the stunt casting of former James Bonds with facial hair playing villains. Timothy Dalton with a Tom Selleck mustache was in HOT FUZZ and this time we’ve got Remington Steele with a goatee. Loved this.