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How Film Writing Works in the 21st Century

June 15, 2015

Step 1: Come up with an angle from which to promote the film and ensure that said angle features prominently in all pre-release promotional materials including fan-oriented press releases and interviews with talent.

For example, suggest that Guardians of the Galaxy is very similar to the original Star Wars as a way to (i) cross-promote two franchises that are owned by the same multinational corporation, (ii) get-over any (Green Lantern-inspired) resistance the target audience might have to a space-based action movie by comparing Guardians of the Galaxy to a film they already know, and (iii) give the adult audience an excuse to infantilise themselves and set aside their cynicism by inviting them to approach Guardians of the Galaxy in the same way as they approached Star Wars as children.

 

GoG1

 

According to director James Gunn:

This was intentionally my version of Star Wars. When I was first considering doing the movie, the chance to make something like that was one of the things that get me on board. Not just Star Wars, but Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and other movies like that. The stuff I loved as a kid. I wanted to make a movie that made people feel the way they made me feel.

And it’s not that I wanted to make it actively resemble something that already exists, but all of them were all in the mix. It’s forward-looking. That’s what it shares with those movies more than anything else. Raiders and Star Wars and the like were updates of the 1930s serials, and my hope with Guardians is that we’ve done something similar, looking back at those movies while making something new.

 

According to male lead Chris Pratt:

“You think of it like those Star Wars movies that came out, the prequels that came out,” he said. “There was a lot of expectations there, and to shoulder a project with preconceived notions, expectations and all these things, it really makes it difficult. It makes it difficult if you spend the whole movie trying to satisfy what people think they know about a character. The first Star Wars didn’t have that problem because it’s all brand new. You just take it for what it is.”

“So what I’m saying is that we will be better than Star Wars,” Pratt said laughing

 

According to the official Star Wars website:

By now everyone and their cousin has surely seen Marvel’s new film, Guardians of the Galaxy. The reviews for the film have been unanimous in their praise and it’s certainly well-deserved. For me personally, I haven’t had this much fun watching an adventurous space film since Star Wars was last on the big screen — The Phantom Menace 3D for anyone counting.

 

 

GoG2

 

 

Step 2: Repeat the party line often enough and lazy salaried critics as well as stressed-out freelance film writers who have to publish fifty pieces this month in order to make rent will use your focus-grouped party line as the basis for a supposedly impartial review.

According to Dan Jolin in Empire Magazine:

Battle Beyond The Stars, Flight Of The Navigator, Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon, Back To The Future (2), Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Total Recall and a certain other space-based saga all donate their DNA, and Guardians isn’t about to apologise for replicating it. It’s proud of its heritage, dammit,

 

According to A.A. Dowd at the A.V. Club:

Turns out the galaxy far, far away is a pretty boring place to visit without someone around to roll his eyes, put the moves on royalty, and demand to get paid. George Lucas learned that lesson the hard way when he failed to supply his Star Wars prequels with a Han Solo equivalent—an irreverent personality to offset all the poker-faced Jedi business. It remains to be seen if J.J. Abrams will correct his oversight in the forthcoming Star Wars Episode VII, which at least promises to put Harrison Ford back in a cockpit. In the meantime, however, audiences can get their dose of rebel swagger from Guardians Of The Galaxy, the latest installment in the ongoing crossover event that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

 

GoG3

 

Step 3: Depending upon how prestigious and/or well-written these reformulations of your press-releases happen to be, they will more-or-less quickly trickle down to less prestigious publications who are just grateful for the opportunity to milk some page-views from your carefully engineered zeitgeist.

 

By Nick Shager at Vulture.com:

7 Ways Guardians of the Galaxy Reminds Us of the Star Wars Movies

 

By David Opie at WeGotThisCovered.com:

5 Things Guardians Of The Galaxy Does Better Than Star Wars

 

By Bret DiNunzio at WhatCulture.com:

10 Biggest Similarities Between Guardians Of The Galaxy And Star Wars

 

 

Step 4: Punters who happen to read the soulless effluent that frequently passes for film writing will repeat the party line to their friends in an effort to appear insightful. Thus allowing people to begin describing your film as a surprise or word-of-mouth hit despite the fact that the words were placed in people’s mouths by a million-dollar PR campaign backed up by a specialist press so corrupt that it is no longer capable of distinguishing between the latest marketing campaign and their own independent thoughts.

 

 

Addendum: This Week’s Film Writing in Action.

 

JW1

 

Step 1: Universal Pictures decide to reboot the Jurassic Park franchise that produced one well-loved, iconic film and two complete piles of shit. Inexperienced and embarrassingly grateful director Colin Treverrow begins giving interviews in which he expresses his desire to produce a film that would be true to the legacy of the original Jurassic Park:

So, we spent three months over the summer honing what we had and dialing it in and really just making it something that could be called Jurassic Park without being embarrassed for itself, be ashamed to look in the mirror. And I’m–I mean, I’m happy we did.

Treverrow also expresses a desire to create a film that would allow today’s cinema-goers to have a similar experience as he had when he first went to see the original Jurassic Park:

In the end, I felt like I had a responsibility to do it mostly, you know, for Steven. In thanks for everything he’s done for all of us and how much his movies meant to me and to my childhood, but also if one is asked to do this, it’s almost insulting to everyone else to say no. We would all love this privilege to be able to recreate a film that meant so much to us.

 

This desire to position the actors, filmmakers and audience of Jurassic World as heirs to the legacy of the original Jurassic Park is also echoed by female lead Bryce Dallas Howard (referred to as ‘Dallas’ in the piece because of reasons) who recalls a visit to the set by the son of Michael Crichton:

“I just burst into tears,” Dallas said. “This is his father’s legacy, and this is what his father has given to all children, and here was his son [seeing] what he thought was a real dinosaur. It was incredibly moving to me and so that day … felt really, just charged and meaningful.”

 

When not trying to re-position himself as an action movie hard man by talking about all the defenceless animals he has lovingly slaughtered, Chris Pratt hits a similar talking point:

There’s not an ounce of cynicism in his enthusiasm. “I was a massive fan, it’s not just lipservice to promote the movie,” he says. “It was a big part of my childhood: 13 years old, my first event movie, it was a big fuckin’ deal to me as a kid.”

 

JW2

 

Step 2: The line is repeated often enough that it begins to show up in reviews.

By Robbie Collin in the Daily Telegraph:

It’s a rare instance of Jurassic World courting comparison with Spielberg’s film and coming off badly. For the most part, comparison is part of the fun, and most of the point. Two decades after dinosaurs ruled the Earth’s cinemas, are we still capable of putting our phones away for two hours and being honestly amazed by them, without a glaze of cynicism or irony to keep us stuck? Trevorrow, his cast and crew would clearly like to think so. And in light of their efforts, you’d have to grinningly agree.

 

By A.A. Dowd in the A.V. Club (again!):

Jurassic World, a goofy and fitfully entertaining summer movie, understands and even winks at its place in the pecking order of blockbuster sequels. Like its predecessors, it’s been engineered to up the audience-courting ante. What’s scarier than a Tyrannosaurs rex? The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Spielberg’s own (underrated) sequel, doubled down on the rex, unleashing not one, but two of the hungry behemoths. And in Jurassic Park III, the big guy was replaced by an even larger, faster, and meaner alpha predator. Jurassic World goes further, into the realm of genetic modification, and emerges with a deadly new designer species—a pale-white lab experiment gone wrong, a not-so-gentle giant with camouflage flesh and a keen intellect.

 

This type of shit usually rolls downhill from prestigious reviewers but it can also spread from well-conceived or written pieces such as the one in which Alex Falcone pretends to interview a 10-year-old girl in lieu of attending a screening and writing a review:

Alex: Your dad said you’re excited about the new Jurassic Park movie?

Una: Yeah! I’ve seen the previews for the other ones, and they weren’t as good quality because they were made a long time ago. I’m really excited about the scene where the sea-dinosaur totally owns that shark. That looks aaawesome.

 

JW3

 

Step 3: Having been rephrased for maximum memetic impact, the line is then recycled by less scrupulous publications who are just grateful for the opportunity to slipstream the studio’s marketing spend and use our expensively-purchased interest in the film to extract page-views and increase their advertising revenue.

 

Ryan Britt at Tor.com says, in an article entitled “If You’re 11 years-old Jurassic World is Now Your Favourite Movie”:

My sister and I were blissfully terrified by the original Jurassic Park in 1993; I’m sure you were too! And if that feeling is what you’re looking for in a movie, then, Jurassic World will make you feel like a kid again with one swipe of a raptor’s tail.

 

It’s nice of Tor.com to take a break from log-rolling their own books onto popular award ballots, endlessly promoting the work of vicious homophobes and publicly humiliating their own employees in a way that sends a message to anyone who might want to speak out against bigotry and still get their work published by an American genre imprint. Said piece is Ryan Britt’s third Jurassic World-related article to have been published by Tor.com in the last week and it contains the following sentences:

A movie like Jurassic World has a distinct advantage in the spectacle department because its fantastical subjects (dinosaurs) are organic creatures which feel “real” in ways a robot or Thor never could.

And

Any of the “Jurassic” films are similar, with Jurassic World benefiting from the fact that a lot of movie-goers remember what the “first” velociraptors looked like, making these ones seem extra-real because they remind us of the original ones.

 

Ryan Britt was paid to produce those sentences. He also has a collection of essays due to be published by Penguin later this year. If you want a picture of the future of film writing, imagine a computer-generated boot stamping on a human face forever… I imagine it’ll be easier to imagine than a computer-generated boot stamping on a robot’s face and will seem more realistic because it will remind you of boots you might have seen in older films.

11 Comments
  1. @CW2046 permalink
    June 16, 2015 5:48 pm

    I find myself retreating further and further from the cultural conversation as time goes by precisely because of this kind of thing. It’s intensely alienating, not only because it often highlights how bereft of ideas filmmakers are, but because of the imperative to ENJOY or be thought of as a stick-in-the-mud. I don’t expect truly great writing, but to copy-paste press releases and breathless hype is another thing altogether.

    Also I find the implication that Jurassic Park was a Brilliant Film Worth Honouring a bit suspect, considering the entire main plot is a veneration of the hetereosexual nuclear family versus the capricious will of an effeminate, obese worker who, let’s be fair, had some genuine points to make about the way his zillionaire boss ran his dinosaur park.

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  2. June 16, 2015 5:56 pm

    Good points all. I’d still say though that regardless of the marketing, Guardians of the Galaxy is actually a lot of fun as a film and while it may be a cynically promoted talking point probably does have more in common with the “feel! of Star Wars than the Star Wars prequels did. Have you seen though the piece Every Frame a Painting did on Jackie Chan where he compares Chan movies with Guardians showing how Guardians struggles to combine both action and comedy, instead alternating between the two?

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  3. June 16, 2015 6:03 pm

    An effeminate obese worker and a plethora of sex-changing dinosaurs… Don’t forget the sex-changing dinosaurs who were brought low by Spielberg’s mawkish attachment with the heteronormative nuclear family! :-)

    I agree with you on both counts… I simply do not trust the output of the cultural hype machine and I certainly don’t trust this weird sanctification of deeply mediocre films. It’s obviously a marketing strategy too… Hollywood stars talking about being 13 year old kids is no different to Innocent smoothies having packaging that’s written in the first person.

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  4. June 16, 2015 6:27 pm

    Yeah… That’s a fantastic video blog. GoG, like most American films cuts on the punch connecting in an effort to create an impression of kinetic energy. Chan edits around the punch in an effort to emphasise it. I went to see Spy last night and there’s a scene in that which is pure Chan except for the fact that they edit on the hits :-)

    I respectfully disagree with respect to GoG. I found it manipulative and was amazed at how they somehow managed to make a huge spaceship crashing into a vast alien cityscape seem boring and stakeless

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  5. @CW2046 permalink
    June 16, 2015 6:31 pm

    Max, while I don’t agree with you on GotG’s quality, I have to pick up on that ‘feel’ bit and question if that isn’t something we need to really challenge. I think Jonathan has said as much before, but nerd culture basically sets up this absurd narrative whereby you’re chasing the feeling of your first encounter. This isn’t necessarily something only ‘mainstream’ stuff encourages, but an ever deepening rabbit hole. Azuma Hiroki I think goes into it well in his Database Animals, where he tracks the refinement of tropes in anime as a model of how fans consume things (ie, if you like Evangelion because Ayanami Rei is quiet girl with grey hair, you will enjoy Martian Successor Nadesico because Hoshino Ruri is a quiet girl with grey hair). It narrows the cultural field further with each iteration. But even leaving this aside, the idea of chasing or even comparing the ‘feeling’ of one movie with another leaves us at an impasse, where we privilege the first encounter and response over our latter day experiences, a kind of cultural deadend that is doubtless encouraged by the ‘everything has been done before’ meme and, of course, movie promoters.
    I’ll definitely be checking out that Every Frame a Painting episode btw, I’ve enjoyed a lot of his previous videos but am constantly forgetting to check for updates.

    Jonathan, as I said to Max there I think this santification can be explained by a deliberate narrowing of cultural horizons, merged with an injunction on adult responses at least partly encouraged by mainstream media and *heavily* policed by fan culture. “You can’t complain about X because it’s fun and for kids!”
    “Why are we watching a children’s film?”
    “Shut up and stop complaining adults can watch kids’ stuff!”
    “Ok in that case I think…”
    “No thinking!”

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  6. June 16, 2015 6:56 pm

    There’s definitely been a cultural shift from ‘why are you watching children’s films?’ To ‘How dare you consider children’s films unworthy of your attention?!’

    I agree that it is futile to try and recapture a feeling… You can’t step into the same river twice but that’s what they are actively swelling us. Never mind that there’s an entire fucking lifetime between you and the first time you saw Star Wars!

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  7. June 17, 2015 4:22 pm

    The crashing spaceship is stakeless, it doesn’t just seem it.

    The defensive force cannot succeed. We know that because if they do there’s no need for the GoG. Therefore they must fail.

    We know the GoG must win. No major action movie will end with the heroes losing.

    Further, we know the bad guys will be utterly defeated, because their goal is subjugation of all life. Any story which involves destroying the setting is essentially risk free, as no mainstream audience will tolerate such a bleak outcome. This is what’s wrong with contemporary Doctor Who by the way. Put a family in threat and there is real risk, the writers may kill off one of the family. Put the world in threat and there is no risk, the writers won’t destroy the world.

    So, all that’s left is how the heroes win and what cost they pay to win. If there are to be sequels though, and we know there are, we know that any cost will be temporary. Therefore all that is left is the fairground ride element of how the heroes win.

    Thus, no stakes. It’s inherent in this kind of movie. It’s why all superhero movies tend to flag toward the end in my view. Up til then we don’t know what will happen, but by the end we do because the heroes must win and they must win in such a fashion as to permit the sequel and so as not to fundamentally change the setting.

    On the Chan bit, there was a US series called Martial Law starting Sammo Hung which really illustrated the problems with much mainstream US direction. Sammo plays a Hong Kong cop on loan to a US squad. In series one the fights have a relatively static camera and we see Hung do his thing. It’s beautiful. The story and characters around him are fairly standard, but so they probably should be as they’re not the point. He is.

    Series two uses loud music and jump cuts to make the action more thrilling. It makes it less. Where previously we see the sheer athletic beauty of Hung’s skill now all we see is something that near anyone could do. It’s a textbook in how to waste the assets you have to hand. When you have Sammo Hung, you don’t edit out the fluidity of his motion.

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  8. June 17, 2015 4:29 pm

    CW, I absolutely agree we shouldn’t be “glow chasing” (have you guys seen the movie Skeletons? If not you probably should). Nostalgia is cultural death.

    I don’t think though it’s a nerd culture issue, nerds are just the canaries in the mine. When we get Italian cinema in the UK, we tend to get bittersweet dramas or comedies or stuff about the Mafia. When we get French movies we get middle class relationship dramas or sometimes crime. We get what we expect, we liked this so we might like that.

    We have a narrowcasted culture. The sheer range of choice can paralyse, making it natural people seek out the familiar. It’s natural, but important to resist, as that can lead to us only seeing what we’ve already seen, at which point we might as well just rewatch the originals.

    I was though only making the SW comparison in response to Jonathan’s post. It’s not an analogy I’d otherwise have drawn as I don’t think it’s hugely interesting.

    As for the ceaseless marketing of children’s entertainment to adults, I have a slightly different take to that. Many people really don’t want to be challenged. If you can sell them utterly unchallenging stuff, but make it look like it’s deeper than it is, you’re on your way to the bank.

    So, rename children’s fiction YA fiction, talk about the themes a bit, then sell people stuff that’s aimed primarily at 12 year olds and they’ll happily buy it because they can kid themselves they’re engaging as adults, not refusing to engage at all.

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  9. June 18, 2015 3:40 pm

    Max —

    I remember Martial Law… Hung was by that point quite the veteran and my memory of it is of a punchy middle-aged Chinese guy doing all of these amazingly athletic moves.

    I just think that the problem with stakes is faulty mathematics. Watching two people fight to the death can be genuinely tense but that tension doesn’t scale all the way up to millions of people dying… and yet these films always act as though it does. As a result, many of these films feel tense and engaging at first only to wind up as a mess of pointless CGI noise come the end of the third act. And nobody dares to act on this systematic failure as these films demand a new fight every 15 minutes and if you don’t make the fights bigger then you’re forced to make them more varied and that’s when you loop back round to the fact that most of the people in charge of Hollywood blockbusters have no idea how to direct action.

    ‘Narrowcasting’ is a good concept. I’m ambivalent about the rise of unchallenging escapist media as I don’t think it’s my place to deny oppressed people action to stuff that takes their mind of their problems. YA novels, cartoon musicals and superhero films may be the opiate of the masses but you have to trust people to know the difference between treating their pain and simply getting fucked up :-)

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  10. June 21, 2015 6:46 pm

    “where we privilege the first encounter and response over our latter day experiences, a kind of cultural deadend”

    Totally agree. Internet culture’s obsession with spoilers and avoiding them is a symptom of this. The privileging of plot over any other aspect of the cultural object is exhausting in its omnipresence. Fans are unable to discuss formal aspects of things not because they lack the technical know-how or jargon (though this can be taught, obviously) but because they don’t want to. Plot is the only thing that matters.

    Being reflective on the conditions of production, as Jonathan lays out here, is anathema to fan logics of consumption. Breathlessly obsessing over production in anticipation (l’objet petit a) is the main mode of discourse, among both fans and critics.

    I still liked GotG even while recognizing the flaws. I found it charming. Though I will admit the third act, like virtually all blockbusters nowadays, was dull and plodding.

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  11. June 22, 2015 4:32 pm

    Careful now… we’re drifting very close to the stuff that Nina Allan discussed in a recent post:

    http://www.ninaallan.co.uk/?p=2168

    I wonder whether feelings about plot might not be a symptom of a deeper set of feelings about how we relate to what is ultimately an curated, second-hand artificial experience.

    I don’t like to think as myself of a passive consumer of culture and so I naturally gravitate towards the stuff that gives me more interpretative agency.

    If, on the other hand, you’re quite happy entering an entirely artificial world and surrendering to a set of carefully selected and curated experiences then anything that would remind you of the artificiality of spoil the impact of any particular plot point would understandably be anathema.

    I think it depends upon what you use media for… I would be the first to describe escapist media as the opiate of the masses but I’m not in the business of telling anyone whether or not they should be using opium. Personally, I get fucked up on video games… blink and an entire day goes by without thought or self-awareness. Why needs smack when you’ve got Dragon’s Age: Inquisition?

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