Why all writers need to study the secrets of screenwriting

So my genius sister, Pamela Kay, made a series of YouTube videos on how to write screenplays. She won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy and knows her stuff. Heed her words, even if you don’t write screenplays, because this field is crazy useful for any sort of writer.

Why? The secret to all writing is structure–and nobody is better at structure than screenwriters.

Not because they’re magical and amazing, though many are. It’s because you can hide bad structure with pretty words in a novel or feature story.

With screenplays, you can’t hide the bad bones of a story, because that’s all people see: the bones.

Writing today has far too many silos, mostly focused on little details, with few notions on structure at all:

  • Writing to inform: Journalists are stuck inside the inverted pyramid, a structure that’s inherently boring for anything of length, which is why journalists typically stink at novels
  • Writing to persuade: Speechwriters know the structure of rhetoric, but it’s not really meant for writing anything to inform or entertain
  • Writing to entertain: Novelists, playwrights, poets and screenwriters all have their own jargon and tricks, like they live on different planets

This reminds me of boxing, wrestling and martial arts before the days of MMA, with everybody doing their own little thing and swearing they’d whip the lesser disciplines. Except boxers got destroyed by the wrestlers, who got owned by the jujitsu people, who later on got wrecked by the boxers who learned how to sprawl. To be truly good fighters, fighters had to set aside their pride and train in every discipline.

I believe the same is true for writers today. There’s never been more content out there, with scads created every second all around the world, so there’s never been more competition to get read.

From having a toe in journalism, speechwriting and novels, I know you could slave away in one of these fields for years and still miss out on core fundamentals. Not learning from other disciplines is like building a house when all you know is drywall and plumbing–the thing is going to fall down.

Screenwriting is key because structure is why 99 percent of bad drafts are bad. Go look at a bad draft. Line by line, the words are plenty pretty. Structure is what vexes us all.

So: I hope this video gives you a taste of screenwriting and her series sparks something in you. Not so you can write LETHAL WEAPON 7: DANNY GLOVER AND MEL GIBSON BUST OUT OF THE SANTA MONICA NURSING HOME, but so you can learn how to pour the foundation of any sort of story, making it stands strong so you can move on to the wiring (dialogue), plumbing (setups and payoffs) and drywall (description).

Any sort of writing with strong bones will beat the stuffing out of the prettiest words with a weak foundation.

If you want more, here are two of the basic texts, the guide stars: STORY by Robert McKee is a deep dive on structure, while SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder is a breezy little look at genres, beat sheets and story, using movies we all know.

P.S. Pam did a ton of these videos, so I’ll try to post one every Tuesday as long as she keeps making them.

Taking apart the expensive disaster of LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO by Taylor Swift

I come here to praise Taylor Swift, not to bury her CGI zombie corpse.

Though I’m neither superfan nor hater, I have to say she did some great music videos early in her career. YOU BELONG TO ME is excellent. BACK TO DECEMBER is pretty good.

This music video is a step backward, an expensive mess that shows T-Swift has fully evolved from a Scrappy Young Talent Who Just Hit It Big all the way to a Establishment Megastar With More Mansions Than She Can Remember.

Yes, the production values are great. Fans will watch the heck out of this just for the spectacle.

HOWEVER: It doesn’t make you feel anything.

At all.

And that’s the acid test for a music video.

Do you laugh?

Do you feel joy, or anger?

Do you cry?

That’s because whether you intend to or not, every song tells a story. A music video is supposed to help tell that story.

Songs don’t give you a lot of words to do the job. It takes discipline and talent to do it right. 

The Dixie Chicks can spend 200 words to tell a full story that makes you full of sorrow (TRAVELING SOLDIER) or righteously angry (GOODBYE, EARL).

Taylor can do this, too. She has the talent to tell a story and make you feel. One of her first big hits did this perfectly. It’s even in the title.

Here’s where this new video goes wrong, despite all the money spent–reportedly, $12 million in diamonds was used for that bath scene.

What story is she telling, and how does it make us feel?

In her best songs and videos, Taylor’s telling a story about somebody else, somebody we can all relate to, and that makes us feel for the protag. YOU BELONG TO ME is about a high school girl, something of a loser, with a crush on a neighbor boy. People get that. Whether you’re male or female, we’ve all been through awkward years in junior high or high school. It’s easy to feel for the girl she’s singing about, and to root for that underdog. You want her to get the boy and it’s a great moment when they both show up to the dance together.

In this video, Taylor’s clearly talking about herself, and the point of the song is to strike back at perceived rivals.

It’s hard for non-billionaires to feel sympathy for celebrities with hurt feelings. No matter how good the song is (and it’s not that good compared to her best) and how much they spent making this video, you can’t force people to feel sorry for a young, pretty woman who makes more money in a week than most people will make in their lifetime.

What are the stakes?

 

Just like books and movies, songs can have low stakes or high stakes, personal stakes and public stakes.

They can be about whether love rules the day or love forever lost. War or peace, injustice or redemption.

The stakes here are extremely low. Oh, Taylor is so upset (at Katy Perry or whoever, I honestly don’t care and neither should you) that she crashed a car that costs more than your house while a a cheetah served as her copilot. With her car trashed, will she be unable to get to work in the morning and lose her job? Does it matter in the slightest? No. She may have to tell her staff to gas up the Ferrari, or the Bentley, or one of however many dozen cars she owns. People will clean up the mess while she goes off and trashes one of her jets and rounds up an army of cloned robots or whatever to assault the compound of P-Diddy or whoever she’s mad at this week.

Basically, I can’t make myself care, and yes, I tried. Really hard.

What’s the impact of the song and video?

The best songs and music videos stick with you. AMERICAN PIE was about an entire era, and half the fun was trying to decipher the lyrics. Even if you didn’t get every line, you got the message about how America was changing. It sticks with you.

EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE is about love turning into obsession, and the video is stark black-and-white. I wouldn’t change a thing.

When I first heard LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO on the radio, I swore it was Britney Spears.

Not kidding. Feels like mid-stage Britney, after she’d made it big, and started doing over-the-top stuff like this:

Verdict: Sure, the production values and budget is sky high, but the entertainment value is meh and the feels generated are zero. 10/10 would not watch again.

If the old Taylor Swift is dead, and the new T-Swift is busy being obsessed with her hurt feelings and celebrity beefs, let’s resurrect the old Taylor Swift–the one focused on songs that aren’t about her. I’d happily listen and watch that singer.

Three ways to fix a very rusty IRON FIST

Remember when Marvel could do no wrong?

Back in the day, they made a movie about an intergalactic gang of misfits that included a cyborg raccoon, a green alien woman and a living tree that only said, “I am Groot.” And they turned that trash into treasure.

IRON FIST is one of the first mistakes Marvel has made, which is crazy considering the number of movies and TV shows they’ve produced.

Now that THE DEFENDERS has all four of these characters teaming up, and Season 2 of IRON FIST has a new showrunner, there is hope that the show will improve.

Having watched every episode of the other three Netflix originals—DAREDEVIL, JESSICA JONES and LUKE CAGE—it’s pretty easy to see where those shows went very right and Danny Rand, the homeless billionaire, went very wrong.

Fix Number 1: A new intro

The intros for the other three shows are interesting and set the mood, while this intro simply annoys you with bad CGI and makes skipping ahead the default choice.

DAREDEVIL has an intro that reminds me an awfully lot of WESTWORLD, so much so that I wondered if the same people did it.

LUKE CAGE starts off every episode with images of Harlem and history broadcast on his unbreakable skin, and I don’t skip it despite having seen it a zillion times.

JESSICA JONES puts you in a noir mood with her intro, and though it’s not quite as good as the blind ninja’s or Luke’s, it doesn’t completely annoy you.

IRON FIST just has a bad intro. Here, watch this for ten seconds and you’ll get annoyed. Is the main character some kind of shapeshifting oil beast?

Give us an intro that’s interesting and different. WESTWORLD has such a beautiful and genius intro that I’ve rewatched again and again.

Fix Number 2: Make us want to be the Iron Fist

Regardless of your age or gender, part of the joy of reading a novel or watching a movie is living vicariously through the eyes of the great protagonist. You admire them, and wonder what it would be like to be them.

With the other three Netflix shows, it’s clear that Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are interesting and special people. It’d would be fun to walk in their shoes for a day, and it’s a pleasure to be there, watching, even when they go through the worst possible troubles.

All three of those characters are good in very different ways.

  • Daredevil is intelligent and driven.
  • Jessica Jones is sarcastic and tough.
  • Luke Cage is calm, strong and determined.

I don’t think anyone wants to be Danny Rand / Iron Fist, and that’s really a function of the writing, not the acting.

Fix Number 3: Stop making Danny Rand act like a fool

In episode after episode, Danny makes stupid decisions that hurt other people. And yes, that’s despite the best of intentions.

The first season is more of a tragedy than anything else, with Danny’s hubris leading to terrible things. In just about every critical situation, the great Iron Fist makes choices that any other superhero would avoid.

  • Telling everyone—from homeless men on the street to villains—his secret identity. He may as well wear a sign. Every other superhero with a brain works incredibly hard to protect this vital secret, because failing to do so always, always leads to trouble and death. Danny has no clue.
  • Being a taker instead of a helper. There’s a good reason why most superheroes default to tackling problems by themselves. They don’t want to get civilians involved and hurt, and it’s safer when friends and loved ones don’t know their secret identity. Danny constantly, constantly asks for help, often from strangers or villains. He’s not self-reliant at all, which is one of the primary traits of heroes.
  • Creepy stalker behavior. Early in the series, he breaks into Joy’s house and refuses to go away when Colleen Wing clearly and repeatedly tells him to scoot. And this is a pattern. While other heroes break into places to collect clues and skedaddle, Danny does it like he’s dropping by to visit and is shocked when people treat him like a burglar.
  • No discipline. There’s an episode where Danny says he’s spent a lifetime learning to control his emotions, which made me guffaw, because every episode, he shows zero control over his emotions.
  • Can’t plan for the future. Danny simply bumbles through problems. He never has a plan aside from, “Let’s break into a place and either ask for help or beat people up.” Then he’s confused and angry when that non-plan goes south.
  • Falling into every trap. Danny Rand believes every word that anyone says to him, whether it’s from the mouths of a random stranger or a villain who just tried to kill him ten minutes ago. Even when a villain invites him to an obvious trap, he goes straight into it.

All of this makes Danny seem more like a goofy, tragic side character than a hero. You could see him as a troubled sidekick for a smart hero who figures out ways to control and harness the human wrecking ball.

This problem is made exponentially worse when actual side characters like Colleen, Claire, Harold, Joy and even Ward—Ward!—make clever decisions that seem more heroic and interesting.

At one point, Danny says, “I’m sorry” and Ward replies, “Danny, you’re a cancer.” And I cheered, because it was the truth.

In every tough situation, audiences instinctively think, “What would an average person like me do?” They compare the choice the hero makes to what other heroes or villains would do. The best stories surprise us with choices we haven’t even considered.

Every time Danny faces a tough situation, I groan and compare his choice (always bad) to what Batman, Daredevil, James Bond and a hundred other heroes would do. We all have that repository of stories and characters. Even the villains we know and love, like Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader, would make different and more interesting choices than Danny Rand.

Because what Danny chooses is never a surprise. As a character, he’s an overgrown child, which people keep telling him. Which is a shame. The actors are fine, the cinematography works and the tie-ins to the other shoes are nice.

For the audience, there’s no surprise. We know what Danny will do, and we know the outcome will be bad. The only question is, “What side character or villain will save Danny from the mess he creates this time?”

Here’s to hoping Season 2 fixes these three flaws and gives the world an IRON FIST who doesn’t keep bumbling his way through New York City and, instead, starts acting like a hero instead of a cross between Homer Simpson and The Greatest American Hero.

Battle of the Hollywood Franchises, Week 1— GAME OF THRONES vs THE WALKING DEAD vs WESTWORLD

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’

Week 3—STAR WARS vs STAR TREK

Week 4—JAMES BOND vs JASON BOURNE

Week 5—HOUSE OF CARDS vs BREAKING BAD

Week 6—HARRY POTTER vs LORD OF THE RINGS

ARRIVAL hits you like a giant space rock right in the feels

So we rushed to this giant building where popped corn with a fake butter costs $9 a bag, trying to see DOCTOR STRANGE, except we were crazy late. Instead, we watched ARRIVAL.

Didn’t expect much. Wasn’t hankering to see it.

Had to be convinced to see the thing at all.

Except, except, except … this movie rocked.

Warning: this post doesn’t contain spoilers, except for fake spoilers I’ll throw in, just for fun.  Continue reading “ARRIVAL hits you like a giant space rock right in the feels”

Top 7 ways SUICIDE SQUAD went epically wrong—and could have gone right

suicide squad cast

Marvel and DC have taken comic books for kids and turned them into an unstoppable machine, designed to entertain the masses while making massive profits.

When all the pieces fit together, it’s memorable and magical.

When they don’t, as in SUICIDE SQUAD, everybody notices. (Warning: this is packed full of spoilers.)

It’s like making chocolate chip cookies: Marvel and DC have well-known, well-liked ingredients that people have loved consuming for decades.

Mix it up, put them in the oven and serve them warm and hot. People are going to eat them. It’s not rocket science.

HOWEVER: your average person has eaten a lot of chocolate chip cookies, and seen a ton of these comic-book movies. They’ll know, right away, if Marvel burns the whole batch or DC forgets to add any chocolate chips at all.

Continue reading “Top 7 ways SUICIDE SQUAD went epically wrong—and could have gone right”

STAR TREK and STAR WARS are now opposite sides of the same repetitive story

star trek vs star wars

star trek vs star wars

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.)

FROZEN: THE PHANTOM EDIT

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?

Here goes:

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. 🙂

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE proves that explosions are meh

x-men apocalypse

As a huge fan of action movies, hear me now and believe me later in the week: the Era of Epic Explosions is over.

Stick a fork it in.

It’s kaput. Done. Dead and buried.

X-MEN: OSCAR ISAAC WEARING 30 POUNDS OF MAKEUP is only the latest nail in the cinematic coffin, though it’s a nail that cost more than the domestic product of Paraguay.

Now, I liked the movie more than I expected after all those bad reviews. HOWEVER: the big action set pieces where the villain started destroying the world?

Big shrug. Didn’t care.

Here’s why explosions were once movie magic and now make people sneakily check Twitter on their magical phones.

1) In the old days, big explosions meant big budgets and big stars

Way back, only the biggest productions could afford to blow things up.

Those same movies also had the best directors, best actors and biggest budgets.

Meanwhile, B movies had incredibly cheesy explosions and effects that looked like Ed, president of the AV club, cooked them up on his Macintosh during a long weekend fueled by two-liter bottles of Orange Crush and two over-sized bags of Cheeto’s, which should be spelled Cheetoh’s but isn’t. Not sure why.

This is why the following compilation of great movie explosions skews toward old action movies. Because they actually blew things up, using real explosives, instead of spending millions of dollars on fake pixels.

2) Explosions were rare and therefore precious

In the Golden Age of Things Going Boom in the Movies, directors and producers had much smaller budgets, which meant you couldn’t have things explode on screen every two minutes.

You had to (a) find an abandoned building that fit your script, (b) file permits with the city for permission to blow it up and (c) hire professional people to blow them up on time and on schedule, while cameras rolled.

If the things went wrong, you were out millions of dollars and needed to find a new abandoned building.

Therefore, action movies of yore couldn’t go overboard with fire, smoke and debris. They had to use explosions when it mattered most.

This was a good thing, for movie budgets and for people sitting in dark rooms while they munched on overpriced kernels of exploded corn.

3) Today, everybody can afford special effects and explosions

It was epic when Bruce Willis sent the office chair down the elevator shaft in DIE HARD.

And I be you can remember the first time you saw the Death Star explode in STAR WARS. (The second and third times, not so much.)

Directors making movies today grew up watching those cool, big-budget movies with amazing explosions. Even if they’re working on a cheesy TV show, now they can afford to blow up anything they want, as big as they want.

So yeah, they do it.

All. The. Time.

It goes deeper: people making fan movies or YouTube parodies have the technology to blow up New York City, the West Coast or the entire solar system, if they’re truly ambitious. Check out the insanely detailed fan-made movies about Star Wars with excellent lightsaber effects. Amazing.

With giant budgets and armies of CGI people, it’s insanely easy these days to spice up a bad scene with explosions. Except it’s used so often, it’s a cliché.

Michael Bay has created an entire career out of blowing things up in slow motion. Here’s a montage:

4) Easy CGI means explosions aren’t believable

Audiences today grew up watching real explosions in action movies. We know what they look like.

Even big movies with big budgets struggle to get CGI right.

When you know it’s fake, you don’t care.

5) We’re numb to ka-booms by now, and we know the villain will lose

It’s a staple of every action movie, comic-book movie or thriller that (a) the Bad Guy Wants to Destroy the World and (b) the Bad Guy Gets to Start Blowing Up the World because (c) it wouldn’t be any fun if the audience didn’t get to see six blocks of Manhattan get demolished for the 2,874th time.

The old rule of storytelling was to always, always raise the stakes. If saving your wife and daughter from terrorists was good, then saving an entire city from a stolen nuclear warhead was better and stopping a villain from destroying Earth had to be the ultimate.

Except we expect this now. We’re numb to it.

And audiences know how it ends. The villain never, ever gets to truly destroy Gotham, New York City or the Earth.

The dice are loaded. The villain is going to lose.

Which means there’s zero suspense.

Oh, we’ll get a little look at the Big Bad Guy stomping on a few blocks, or a glimpse of how his doomsday device will flatten New Zealand, but no, the villain never gets to actually win.

So as I sat there watching the X-Men head off to stop Apocalypse from destroying civilization, what should have been the most exciting part of the movie had zero thrills whatsoever.

Because you knew the villain would lose. No question.

This is part of the reason why CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR worked so well. The story is smaller and the stakes are lower. The villain isn’t trying to destroy the third rock from the sun. He’s simply trying to get revenge by turning the Avengers against each other. Yet you care far more about CIVIL WAR than BATMAN VS SUPES or X-MEN: COME SEE WOLVERINE FOR TWO MINUTES. And the reason why is simple: audience will always, always care more about living, breathing characters than bits of concrete and rebar.

TL;DR: Blowing up things isn’t shocking or thrilling anymore, not when it’s CGI pixel nonsense. Also: Villains with evil plans to destroy Gotham, D.C. or Earth never get to actually do it, so stop making that the plot of every action thriller and comic book movie.

Bonus video: Expectation vs reality – action movies

7 secret ingredients to cook up a Bad Superhero Blockbuster

We live in the Golden Age of comic book movies, with Marvel and DC pumping them out as faster than you can swipe your VISA for $14 tickets to IMAX 3D and $9 bags of popcorn.

Here’s the secret recipe for mediocre superhero movies and its two sequels, each of which will costs at least $250 bazillion to make and $150 gazillion to market, and no, those insanely high numbers are not why you have to pay so much for tickets and kernels of dried corn that have been exploded. That’s a coincidence.

Note: I strongly deny the theory that this post is suggesting movie studios spend more than 1 percent of the budget on the actual story, because diverting that amount of money would eliminate the CGI budget for the skyscraper that explodes and falls down in the middle of the seventh fight scene, the one in that city that sort of looks like Vancouver, B.C. after the villain kidnaps the love interest and has a creepy dinner with her in his lair, but not the explode-y fight scene where the villain crashes the mayor’s birthday party to announce his plans for doomsday.

Secret Ingredient #1: A hero is born, which means Mom and Dad better have life insurance

Sorry, moms and dads of the world: if your son or daughter is destined to put on a mask and cape to fight evil, there’s a price to pay. Which means you’ve got to go.

Superheroes with dead parents are incredibly common, for these good reasons.

Here are those reasons: (a) any villain with a brain in their noggin could simply kidnap mom and dad whenever they wanted something, forcing (b) every movie or comic book starring a superhero with actual parents to spend precious time explaining exactly how mom and dad are hiding and surviving, (c) dead parents are an easy way for writers to give their superhero their motivation to fight crime and evil and (d) how else would you get Superman to fight Batman except by leveraging his human step-mom?

The list of superheroes with dead parents is so long I don’t even have to start, but I will: Batman, Superman (his real parents, not Martha), Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther—you get the picture.

Secret Ingredient #2: Our hero is a total loser

This is a necessary step to the first movie, which tells the hero’s origin story.

You have to show how lame the hero is before he gets his powers. The bigger the contrast, the better the story.

Peter Parker is a nerdy little high school kid who gets bullied.

Steve Rogers is so small and scrawny, they won’t even accept him as a volunteer to fight in World War II.

Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy who invents and sells weapons when he’s not busy trying to poison his liver and catch every STD known to man.

Finally, here’s an example that shows how going halfway doesn’t work AT ALL.

Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) is a billionaire playboy who’s totally not a copy of Batman, and though Arrow’s rich father is dead, his mom is still alive, and living with him (?) and his kid sister (??) in the same mansion, even though he’s a grown man. Yeah, that’s the setup. It is as soap-opera-ish and stinky as you could imagine.

Secret Ingredient #3: Power up

A superhero needs talents and powers, whether they come from (a) a science experiment gone wrong (Spiderman, Hulk), (b) a science experiment gone right (Captain America, Ant Man), (c) years of training and (Black Widow, Falcon, Arrow) or (d) being a playboy billionaire genius who invents his own suit and arsenal of gadgets (Batman, Iron Man and a dozen other copycats not named Arrow).

Then there are weird powers that we do not, cannot and will not accept, like gills to breathe underwater combined with the ability to get whales to act like underwater taxis whenever Batman and his buddies in the Justice League don’t feel like using in the Batsub or Wonder Woman’s invisible plane.

Secret Ingredient #4: An old mentor who eventually MUST DIE

Sorry. It’s a thing.

The same clause in Sean Bean’s contract that requires him to die in every role is included for any actor playing the mentor to our superhero.

This is also necessary, because eventually (a) the screenwriters will write themselves into a corner and need the ultimate motivation for the hero to go beserk or the aging actor playing the mentor will (b) get sick of being a glorified sidekick and do other roles or (c) demand insane amounts of money to be in the sequels.

Before he dies, the mentor needs to be wise, charming, helpful and funny.

This is almost always a male role, whether we’re talking about a hero or heroine. Sorry. That’s how the Bad Superhero Blockbuster rolls.

Our old and grizzled mentor also needs to own many hats, because he’ll be wearing them all: sidekick, martial arts trainer, tech support and father figure.

But his death serves another purpose, because it opens up the way for five different sidekicks to pick up those hats, dust them off and put them on in the sequels.

Secret Ingredient #5: A dash of young love

Didn’t expect this in a movie with capes and explosions, did you? But it always happens.

Captain America had Agent Carter and now her niece.

Iron Man has Pepper Potts when they can afford Gwyneth Paltrow.

Thor has Princess Leia’s mom.

Batman has Rachel, or he did for a while, though I’ve always said it’s a lot like Harry Potter winding up with his best friend’s sister instead of Hermione: wrong, wrong, wrong. Batman should be forever linked to Catwoman, who rocks.

The new Wonder Woman will have Captain Kirk, which is pretty cool. Great actor. Good choice.

Arrow has–actually, I don’t really care about Arrow’s paramour, and don’t even make me think about what Aquaman does on Friday nights.

Back to our recipe: Preferably, this relationship should (a) start as early as possible, maybe even childhood, and (b) it should be a love triangle, with the third person also a friend from childhood.

That third person, ideally, should be our next ingredient.

Secret Ingredient #6: A delicious nemesis

Not a villain.

No, a villain is common and boring.

A nemesis last. He or she endures.

But this takes time. Like fine wine and good whiskey, a nemesis must ferment. Because they start out good before turning sour.

The hero and nemesis were once friends, if not best friends. Maybe they both wanted the same girl, the same achievements, the same powers and status.

A true nemesis is the flip side of the hero, showing what happens if you take the path less travelled.

Or you could take the easy way out and cast an aging Hollywood has-been as the villain, somebody who used to be box office gold. Give them a terrible foreign accent, a little backstory and let them chew up the scenery until the hero punches them into oblivion and locks them inside a chamber that gets flooded with radiation from the superweapon our big baddie intended to use to nuke LA.

Also: a quick, Cheaty McCheatypants way of creating your nemesis is to give him or her the same powers or power source as the hero.

This so lazy and bad, it rarely happens except for Iron Man 1, Iron Man 2, Thor, Man of Steel, Batman Begins, Arrow and fifteen other movies and TV shows I won’t look up right now.

It’s not enough for your villain or nemesis to steal every bar of gold from Fort Knox or crown himself Lord of Canada after unleashing his army of mind-controlled badgers with steel-tipped claws and industrial lasers strapped to their heads.

To be a truly clichéd superhero movie, the villain must threaten to destroy planet Earth, or at least nuke Gotham or Metropolis, which is the same thing for DC movies.

You can blow things up however you like, though nuclear warheads were only used as a plot device in every other Bond movie, spy film and TV show since 1953.

What gives you enough pop to make the third rock from the sun go bye-bye? Here are your choices: (a) an bio-engineered super virus, (b) alien invaders, (c) an army of killer robots / sharks / zombies or (d) manipulating or mind-controlling a hero so the other heroes have to fight them, especially if the hero is somebody unstoppable like Superman.

Secret ingredient #7: Clean up the kitchen and start prepping for sequels

To be a truly Bad Superhero Movie, you must follow the recipe exactly. To the letter.

That means Movie #2 has two villains, two sidekicks and two love interests.

It also costs twice as much. Batman Returns, Spiderman 2 and The Dark Knight all follow this formula.

Movie # 3 has three villains and three sidekicks. The number of love interests is your choice. Spiderman 3 and The Dark Knight Rises are good examples. We’re not even going to talk about the Batman movies starring Val Kilmer and George Clooney. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.

The budget for Movie # 3 is also triple the original.

Despite all the big name stars and big budget for explosions, the story is a mess and entire thing collapses under its own weight, with the only hope of bringing it back being a reboot with a new actor and director.