Monday, September 12, 2011

B-Movie Roots of Blockbuster Stories - Part One.

I was browsing Rotten Tomatoes one snowy July evening and saw the new planet of the Apes film was gathering review taglines like ‘startlingly cerebral!’. So naturally I went in snackless, imagining I’d need to keep my hands free for thinking. The film was humming along nicely for the first two minutes, then - imagine my surprise when I was recognizing a subplot from 1958’s ‘Terror From the Year 5000!’. A film that is, to say the least, not startlingly cerebral.
The future needs men - and she's here to collect.

While cinematic technology has changed, the story technique hasn’t much. The lovable old B scifi/action/horror movie still serves as a fertile primordial swamp of cinematic-Platonic tropes: Square-jawed heroes in moon-boots, dames in trouble, highschool delinquents, aliens invading small-town America and so on. All still fresh, squirming and ready to be plucked from obscurity and used and re-used in the modern cgi blockbuster over sixty years later.

Lucas and Spielberg ingeniously exploited these old films when crafting Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and referenced their conventions with enthusiasm. But their spirit lives on openly even in our newest most expensive pop entertainment.  The next three posts will break down Transformers, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Avatar - three different but sufficiently similar action blockbusters - into itty-bitty nougat-like genre chunks, and look at just where we get the ideas we render expensively in mo-cap today.
Just how much does Avatar owe to Roger Corman? The answer, well, probably won't surprise you. 

Most startling to discover through this exercise was how little our viewing habits and consumption have actually changed in content, tone, politics, or theme in the last sixty years. But watch any ‘Swiffer’ commercial and tell me you don’t think you’re in the 50’s anyway. First up:

Transformers - 2007. Directed by Michael Bay. Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Yes, that Transformers. This is an oldschool alien-invader flick to its core and by accident or intent, it’s chock full of affectionate story nods to genre films of the 40’s-60’s. Whether these are intentional or just an accidental perfect-storm of all things hackneyed through the ages, mark me present. Given its pedigree I'm inclined to believe the former - the screenwriting/producing duo of Orci and Kurtzman might be the most commercially successful in the world, and with good reason; these guys know their stuff. Transformers' first nod to the past:
•The awkward teen and his keen new car - which may end up saving the day.

Spoiler: Bumblebee saves Sam.

Youth-culture films from the 1950’s onward featured cars heavily, as symbols of youthful independence that could also play into whatever thematic rite of passage the characters were going through. Like, when they fight Megatron or The Blob. Sometimes they'll take it a step further and even put the characters to work in a garage to boot, as per 'The Giant Gila Monster' or Meagan Fox. The hero-car went on to even greater acclaim in the 60's and 70's, in projects like Herbie the Love Bug, before its inevitable evolution into Knight Rider and Transformers in the 80's.
Also found in The Blob, (1958) & the Giant Gila Monster (1959).
Spoiler: The hero's jalopy sacrifices itself to blow up the Gila Monster, and save the hero's kid sister who can't walk.

•The curvaceous, popular, high school love interest.
Every hero’s genre journey needs a love interest. And if the hero is in high school, this is probably gonna be it. Meagan Fox plays the ‘What a twist - I’m gorgeous and mechanically inclined!’ highschooler with the expected slinky aplomb appropriate to B-flicks with shock titles.
'Betty' - Teenagers From Outer Space (1959)
...'Betty' - High School Big Shot (1959)
....and 'Betty' - Teen-Age Strangler (1964)

•The powerful-yet-benevolent alien invader with a topical political viewpoint.
Freedom is the right of all who dwell on Bay's green Earth.
Even alien-invasion pictures can attempt to be scifi of a sort, and what’s scifi other than our attempts to address issues of the day? 1951’s ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ featured alien Klaatu as a deadly-but-benevolent visitor offering a cold-war warning to Earth that we needed to rethink our paranoid militarism, or face certain destruction. Bay on the other hand, takes his ethnically diverse, middle-east-embedded American soldiers and plants them alongside a giant red, silver, and blue, gun-toting alien robot that declares ‘Freedom is the right of all sentient beings!’ as it blasts away. The sequels are even more overt in their first-strike flag-waving. I wonder how Optimus voted back on Cybertron? I can see him running for something local, someplace he could make a real difference on a low-tax, education-reforming platform.

Also seen in 'It Came from Outer Space' (1953) and 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' (1951)
"Gort and I are running things now, it's pretty much for your own good."

•The malevolent alien invader, usually with highly specified disregard for ‘inferior’ human life.
Give me the allspark and we'll forget about 'Fallen'.

Cold-war paranoia gave rise to countless screen villains that treated humans and our rights with contempt, sought to steal our will, enslave us, or turn us otherwise red when we’d rather be dead. The post-9/11 terror age dutifully continues informing our scifi things-to-shoot-at fetish with action scenes that pick up right in the middle of existing mideast conflicts, and use active servicemen of those wars as characters dropped into fantastical scenarios.  Megatron is literally and figuratively written as a cartoonish political tyrant plucked from a CNN crawl, given a backstory of bloody political coup over a power source, while Hugo Weaving bellows like Ahmadinejad about the inferior humans not deserving to exist. Whatever. This is a proud tradition of goofy alien badasses here to steal our freedom and paw at our women - or both, in the like retro cases.
Robot Monster (1953)
"Your people were getting too intelligent. We could not wait until you were strong enough to attack us; we had to attack you first."

The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
"There are some aspects of the life of an earth savage that are exciting and rewarding, things that are missed by the brains on my planet Arous!" (hint hint)
-The Brain

It Conquered the World (1956)
     "And you want me to condone this reign of terror? To swear allegiance to this monstrous king of yours? To kill my own soul and all within reach? Well, I won't, Anderson. I'll fight it 'til the last breath in my body. And I'll fight you, too, because you're part of it - the worst part. Because you belong to a living race, not a dying one. This is your land, your world. Your hands are human but your mind is enemy. You're a traitor, Anderson. The greatest traitor of all time. And you know why? Because you're not betraying part of mankind - you're betraying all of it!"
-Peter Graves, summing up the 50's in 'It Conquered the World'.

•The plucky teen is treated with aggressive skepticism by authorities when he makes his outlandish claims - but is eventually vindicated. A popular subject of this subplot is the town’s idiot sheriff. In this case, Bay ramps it up a notch for the 90’s with a twitchy, narcotized, trigger-happy cop. 

Also seen in 'The Blob' (1958)

Earth Vs the Spider.. (1958)

and many more. The 'skeptical authority' remains well-used today.

•A highly patriotic military subplot complete with Square-Jawed American Action Commander. This was a requirement of virtually every scifi B-movie ever made. 

Mostly played by genial character actors who played these roles over and over, these guys were there to give us someone to root for and express good old American know-how in a globally threatening alien/mutant crisis.
Also seen in '20 Million Miles to Earth',

..The Monster That Challenged the World (1957)

...and 'Air Force One' (1997)
In conclusion, Shia sort of looks like B-movie staple and former Disney teen heartthrob Tommy Kirk, of 'Old Yeller' fame. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe.  

Whew. ILM gets better, the stories stay about the same. Part 2 coming soon: Rise of the Planet of The Apes. A fun flick with one of the best lines of dialogue all year. Join us, won’t we?


Friday, June 17, 2011

Thanks to Guru Studio, and the Toronto Screenwriters Meetup Group!

A quick shoutout to Guru Studio, VP Mary Bredin, and the Toronto Screenwriter's Meetup Group for a terrific evening last week. Mary was gracious enough to speak about development writing and TV pitching to the TSMG, and was kind enough to ask me to speak to the group about animation writing and field a few questions.

It was a fantastic evening and the questions and pitches from the TSMG members were top-shelf. Thanks so much guys! Sure I'll be seeing you again.... real soon. ;)


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Backstory and Exposition: Battling the Info-Dump!

Spray it, Don’t Say it! How to Turn Exposition into Ammunition

    So you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, or your next big Gemini-winning drama about family life in rural wherever.  Your characters are fleshed out, your dialogue works, and looking at your beat outline makes you feel like a composer. But at several points in the story, you’ve got a problem. You have to deal with the Exposition Monster.

    For the subplot about the stepfather to make sense, you need to explain his troubled financial history re: the collapse of the pig farm, his strained relationship with his daughter, and his prize horse with the bum leg who might just have one more season in her - because she’s got heart.  And you have to communicate it all so that it’s not just entertaining, but as organic as it seems in your head.

    In other words, Big Jim can’t just turn to Ness in act two, and say

“Look Ness. You know the pig farm? It went under. Know why it went under? Cause Owen was huffing pesticide. And now frankly, I’m feeling torn between my commitment to you, and my desire to follow in my daddy’s wandering footsteps with a banjolele.”

I can’t express emotion, but I know how to cook. Want some three-bean salad to see you through your grief?

    Sadly, many innocent stories and intellectual properties are victims of the fatal info-dump. The story grinds to a halt so a character can ham-handedly tell us something we need to know to move the plot forward, or explain away a hole. You’ve just been devoured by the Exposition Monster. Rawr.

   For real world examples of the info-dump, we can turn swiftly to Shyamalan; cinema’s answer to Dan Brown. In his recent films, he not only reveres the info dump, but also treats them as a sort of quiet back alley in which to violate every other rule of storytelling. Mostly notably, ‘Show, don’t tell’.  In this tell-heavy sequence from The Last Airbender,  Aang, recently freed from a block of ice after a thousand years, gives his backstory to Katara, who freed him. This is delivered in a series of static back-and-forth shots. (All dialogue verbatim)


“I ran away from home. We got in a storm. We were forced under the water of the ocean.”

“Oh, I see.”

“It wasn’t very smart. I was just upset. Thanks for saving me.”


“I should probably get home. They’ll all be worried.”

“You’re not still upset?”

“Not as much as I was.”

...And scene. It requires more science than I have at my disposal to properly parse everything that’s wrong with this, but let’s try.

When delivering exposition, McKee likes to use the axiom ‘Turn exposition into ammunition’. I just like to say ‘Spray it, don’t say it’. In other words, don’t just deliver the facts; deliver the attitude behind them. Either as praise, invective, or anything in between.

One of my animation teachers summed up this principle as it applied to animators: “You can either animate a kid eating oatmeal - or you can animate a kid eating oatmeal and not liking it.”

In the above Shyamalan scene, everyone’s just eating oatmeal. Do they like it or not? Who knows? Aang’s been trapped in ice for a thousand years, but nobody seems to have any feelings about this one way or another. Katara fires back with indifferent two-syllable responses, and when the scene ends, we probably know less about the characters than we did going in.

Ok. So what does it actually look like when exposition is handled properly?

Exposition and backstory shouldn’t just deliver information; they should express the attitude and emotion of the character or speaker, and ideally, even be part of a conflict all their own. For example:

In Star Wars, we get Luke’s backstory as he expresses his wish to leave the farm a season early. In the process, his frustration and antagonistic relationship with Uncle Owen are also revealed.

In Aliens, Ripley’s backstory, in fact the plot of the entire first film, is revealed in a gruelling corporate inquest in which she’s first skeptically interrogated, then cruelly dismissed as a nut. Backstory delivered, and we hate the current bad guys all in one swoop. Damn you, Paul Reiser!

Terminator 2 follows a similar model as Aliens, sharing a writer like they do: The story of the first film, and the backstory of Judgment Day are revealed as video playback of Sara being interviewed at Pescadaro State Institution six months prior. The video ends badly, with Sara attacking Doctor Silberman. On top of this, we're watching Sara and Silberman watching the tape. We’re not just up to speed on the first film, but with Sara’s current story, what she wants, and her mental state.

In The Matrix, Neo’s dual-life hacker backstory is revealed as a series of criminal accusations leveled by Agent Smith - and then the backstory is promptly used against him as a plot device.

In Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence’s academic history and personal eccentricities are revealed as complaints, uttered with disdain by his superiors in Lawrence’s absence, and presence.

Murray: If you're insubordinate with me, Lawrence, I shall have you put under arrest.
Lawrence: It's my manner, sir.
Murray: Your what?
Lawrence: My manner, sir; it looks insubordinate but it isn't, really.
Murray: You know, I can't make out whether you're bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted.
Lawrence: I have the same problem, sir.
Murray: Shut up.

Now go back and read the Shyamalan scene again. Feel any difference? Good. Go forth and info-dump no more!


Monday, May 30, 2011

Ode to Salmon, a Wildly Overrated Mammal

The color “salmon” is back in a big way, perhaps in a bid to curb the spending power of heterosexual men, and causing me no end of terrifying sense-memories of childhood as I wander through Sears Days. Every row of noxious shirts calling to mind a cigarette machine, “smoking or non?”, my debased aunt asking mom for money while I colored on a paper placemat, or any of the other narrative signposts of the 80’s that litter my memory-highway like so many packs of Big-League Chew.

I fully admit however, I also grew up on the west coast where salmon isn’t just a dish, it assumes religious aspect as well. Primarily in that it is to be consumed repetitiously and without complaint, possibly in the hopes of a future flash of revelation that this fish doesn’t actually taste like a stack of phonebooks dragged through a hundred miles of bad Pacific.

For future reference to all gift-givers, friends, and emotionally distant blood-relatives in the two-emails-per-annum club, I have had my fill. I am no longer the least bit interested in salmon as a color, entree, or companion, and only marginally as a hilarious screwball comedy series voiced by Fran Drescher.


Monday, April 4, 2011

Reviews: RANGO gets SUCKER PUNCH'D. Except the other way round.

This week, two high-dollar directors serve up a pair of weirdly personal little films with wildly varying success. Spoilers ahead!

In Rango, Gore Verbinski creates a character with the simplest of needs: An identity.
Thrust from his gecko tank thanks to an errant speedbump, Rango winds up in the small town of Dirt. A beautiful and eccentric town that’s dusty, windswept, and facing a critical water shortage.

From his confused and psychologically fragile beginning, Rango musters his courage to become the sheriff of Dirt, uncover the conspiracy of the water shortage, and depose the corrupt city fathers behind the scam. On the way he’s accompanied by a greek chorus of musical owls in sombreros, roadkill armadillos, and even a strong, sassy love interest named Beans; a wonderfully fast-talking, sharp-tongued young lady that couldn’t have been written better by the Coen brothers.

For a while I shifted in my seat as I waited for the plot to get moving. Rango is not a film in a hurry to get where it's going. It's more than happy to take long, luxurious detours with amusing side characters, a bizarre liturgical dance around the gathering of water, or just one of Rango's many extemporaneous existential monologues.  Finally I gave in to the rhythm and just enjoyed the lovable weirdness and intricate texture of every scene.

From his early stuff in Mouse Hunt to the Pirates films, Verbinski delights not in racing through signposted story beats to appease Syd Field, but in creating elaborately staged bits of oldschool comic business. In doing so, he pays tribute to the structural style and languid pace of animated features and comedies of the 1940’s, and the effect is wonderful. 

The story language of features from this era borrowed heavily from the animated short. The nucleus of the animated short of the 1940’s was the gag. A gag, a piece of physical slapstick, or some ‘bit of business’ that activity could be constructed around. Disney’s shorts particularly are extremely episodic in nature. Moving from one gag to the next in what are really more scenarios than stories with an arc or point. So dependent were stories on gags, Disney hunted them down from wherever in the studio he could; advertising cash bounties for gag ideas good enough to use in a short. 


And so the artists and story men that labored for years under Walt’s direction on the shorts finally made features. Features like Pinocchio that, while masterpieces, are as episodic as any of their shorts. However, like in Rango, the effect only adds to the charm.

Nobody complains in Pinocchio when the story grinds to a halt so we can have a musical interlude in Gepetto’s workshop. For a few minutes, we see the lovingly designed clocks in the workshop going through their motions, the wooden dolls inside going through their domestic routines. We see Jiminy improvising a sleeping space out of the brickabrack of the shop. We see Cleo going through a lengthy bedding-down ritual consistent with fussy cats.

Nowadays, any screenwriting teacher would tear that scene apart with a red pen if it came across their desk. “It doesn’t advance the plot. Why is this here?” Walt would have said it was there because it was charming and beautiful, and atmosphere, even whimsy, are worth spending some time on for their own sake. I suspect Gore Verbinski agrees.

...On the other side of the spectrum, I walked into Sucker Punch on a five-dollar-Tuesday ticket with the lowest of expectations. 

Oh, you'll be unprepared all right.

However, I had the good fortune of running into a friend with a similar penchant for trash cinema. “Dan!” she effused as I entered the lobby. “It looks awful,” I admitted. “I couldn’t resist.”

“I know!” she gushed. “21% on RottenTomatoes! I can’t wait!”
The truth was, I’d been looking forward to it. I admired the pop-expressionist gore of 300 (if not the film itself), and loved the moody and despairing landscape of Watchmen. I was interested to see what Zack Snyder would do with such an audacious concept as a scifi women-in-prison action flick. If nothing else, it would be a visually spectacular and uniquely epic failure. How many Tuesday nights out of the week do you get to experience that?

Can't be all bad. Right?

So for 100 minutes or so, friend and I snickered under our breath.  laughed, I cringed, I rolled my eyes, and I often sat captivated.

A young woman known only as Babydoll is sent to a hellacious asylum by her wicked stepfather. She has five days before a specialist arrives at the institution to send her to ‘Paradise’ courtesy of a lobotomy hammer. She needs to acquire five items to escape. To find each item, she regresses into a layer of her unconscious. A world in which she’s all powerful, courageous, and basically a video game character.
Right. But what’s it about?

This, mostly.

In some respects, it’s like “Stranger than Fiction”, in which the protagonist learns to subordinate himself to a larger and more beautiful narrative than that of his own life.

In some respects, it’s like Pan’s Labyrinth; exploring the cathartic release of imagination in trying circumstances.

In other ways, it’s about the survival-essentiality of constructing a heroic personal narrative to give our lives meaning and the semblance of purpose and forward motion - no matter what our actual facts or circumstances.

Like, sometimes video games attack.

So while Babydoll rots in an asylum, the moons of Jupiter hover majestically in a landscape several layers into her consciousness. She’s clad in improbable clothing, has limitless ammunition, and is for all purposes invincible. To escape the reality of the institution, she constructs a marginally more pleasant one: In which she and her fellow institutionistas are in a brothel, awaiting the arrival of the feared ‘High Roller’ who will arrive in five corresponding days.


To escape this unpleasant unreality, when enacting various stages of her escape plan she retreats further still into a third layer.

While I’m watching this mess with furrowed brow, my inner dialogue is gnashing:

Inner Critic 1: So many bad creative calls. Making your hero effectively immortal drains tension from the scene.

Critic 2: Right, but isn’t that the point? Down here in her subconscious, she’s pure comic-book id. Maybe tension isn’t the point. Maybe we’re just supposed to luxuriate in this projection of pure power?

Critic 3: “Luxuriate in it?”  This is the guy who gave us SPARTAAAAA, he’s not invoking Welles.  Besides, you’re letting him off the hook for robbing the scene of interest.

Critic 1: Well you’re thinking about it, aren’t you?

Critic 3: I’m an idiot for my trouble. This is crap.

Critic 2: Hey, how does what’s happening in the fantasy world correspond to reality?

Critic 1: That hasn’t been explained yet.

Critic 3: See? That’s sloppy. We have no context for anything we’re seeing! This is a joke!

Critic 2: Quiet, that David Carradine-looking guy is about to say something stupid!

Critic 1: LOL he looks like a leather pancake.

So is it good? Nah. Forgettable? Nah. It’s a film that makes you cringe - and taunts you to read into what you’re seeing at the same time. That’s the real sucker punch.