Monday, May 19, 2008

Making movies by the book

Back in the late 70s, early 80s, Roy Thomas and I wrote several movies together, and for a time, while the script that became "Conan the Destroyer" was in development and production, we were even "warm" -- pursued by producers and agents who wanted to rub our knobby little heads for luck and magic.  It was fun, particularly since neither of us had any idea what we were doing, at least in the "we've been to film school and we know all the rules" sense.  Like Indiana Jones, we were just making it up as we went along, writing the kind of movies we'd like to see, and doing it pretty much by gut instinct.  Stories either "felt" right, or they didn't; scenes either worked for us, or they didn't; characters were enjoyable for us to write, or they weren't.  We were flying by the seat of our paired pants, and believe it or not, it worked out pretty well.  Out of the seven or eight scripts we wrote and sold together, two were produced, and in the world of Script Development Hell, that's what's known as a terrific batting average.  Yep, we did darn well --

-- till we ran into a team of producers who knew the "rules" of writing screenplays, and decided we weren't following them.  Didn't matter we'd written two films that had been produced.  Didn't matter we were "warm" and in demand.  Didn't matter that among them, not one of these three producers actually had produced a movie.  (Two were attorneys and one was a Canadian TV animation producer.)  They read a book, and the book said there was a right way and a wrong way to structure films, and by God, these folks were gonna make sure we did it the right way.

The movie they hired us to write, by the way, was "X-Men."  This was in 1984, and somehow these folks had locked up the rights and made a deal with Orion studios to finance development.  They'd developed several scripts already with other writers, and had run out of money to fund a complete new script, so they offered us  a special deal -- they'd pay for a first draft, period.  No outline, no rewrites.  Against the advice of our agent and attorney, we took the deal.  How could we resist?  We were comic book writers; Roy had written the X-Men in comics; I was a huge fan.  Here was our chance to write a screenplay for an X-Men movie.  No way were we going to turn this down.

Biiiiig mistake.

Rule of thumb: when people don't pay you what you're worth, they treat you like you aren't worth anything.

Roy and I ended up writing two outlines, a first draft, and a revision, and it was the worst experience of our film-writing career to that point.  And that includes working with Ralph Bakshi on two scripts ("Fire and Ice" and another, unproduced screenplay); working with Dino de Laurentiis on "Conan the Destroyer;" and the disaster that was our bizarre association with the aborted Mad Magazine movie.  What made this particular experience so bad?

The producers had read a book.

The book shall remain nameless here, because I don't want to encourage any would-be screenwriters to read it and ruin their craft.  Let's just say, if you spent any time around filmmakers in the last thirty years, you encountered this book, and you know the man who wrote it developed a lucrative business running seminars purporting to teach writers how to structure films.  The concepts in this book aren't particularly insightful -- the author basically offers a way to apply theater's three-act structure to film -- but they're presented as a fool-proof, absolute technique that guarantee a perfectly structured screenplay.  Maybe so.  But in the hands of the marginally-creative (I'm referring to the executives and non-writing producers who control the development of film screenplays), these rules strangle creativity, and guarantee that every movie made is structured exactly like every other movie made.

These days, when you watch a film -- even a well-crafted one -- you probably find yourself anticipating every plot point, every emotional beat, every twist and turn.  You know, somehow, that about half an hour in, something will happen to the hero that "changes everything."  You know, in your gut, that half-way through the movie, when all looks bleak, someone will offer the hero "unexpected" support that gives him the will or the insight to carry on despite the odds.  And you know, about twenty-five minutes before the movie ends, somebody the hero loves or respects is going to die, or get kidnapped, or break up with him, or tell him he's a fool/coward/loser, and this will be the straw that breaks that heroic camel's back.  Yes, and during those last twenty-five minutes, the hero will finally confront his enemy or his inner demons, during the big trial, the climactic invasion, the last minutes before the wedding ceremony, and yes, yes, yes, he will triumph/or fail brilliantly!!  And then, just when you think it's over, guess again!  There's one last surprise that will force a fantastic piece of derring-do, or a heartfelt plea, or a ridiculous over-the-top pie fight, bringing us all home to a satisfying, completely predictable ending as the credits finally roll.

I'm not saying films shouldn't be structured, or even that the three-act structure, as such, is bad.  I'm simply pointing out there are many different kinds of structure, and films do not inherently require a three-act structure.  Unfortunately, though, in the world of The Book, only one structural formula is acceptable to the suits who write the checks.  Because that formula has become ubiquitous in modern movies, audiences have come to expect it, and feel uncomfortable when a film-maker manges, miraculously, to break the formula and do something different.  We all know what happens when audiences feel uncomfortable: they complain, and they stay away.  So the formula becomes self-reinforcing.  And we're trapped in a cycle of expectations that spiral inward to a creative and emotional dead-end.


Roy and I were insecure enough in our writing -- we knew we didn't know what we were doing, after all -- that we deferred to the producers' confidence and certainty in the rightness of the Book's view of structure.  We began second-guessing ourselves, we started to apply the Book's rules to our work, we began thinking in terms of three-act structures (I'd always thought in terms of the original Greek theater's five-act structure, myself), and we lost that gutsy spark of instinctive creativity that had carried us that far.  After the "X-Men" debacle (needless to say, the script we finally wrote wasn't that good) we wrote one more screenplay together, and one television project, but for me, at least, my heart had gone out of it.  I no longer trusted my instincts.  I no longer felt the hot excitement of an explorer facing an unknown adventure.

I was no longer flying by the seat of my pants, or making it up as I went along.

Pity, too.  We had a lot of fun, till we got hit with the Book.


David Alexander McDonald said...

Ouch. So that's what happened.

The project augured in pretty fast afterwards. I was along for the last part of the ride. which more or less presaged Orion's own crash and burn.

Unknown said...

At last some validation of a horror story that I heard from someone who worked with Bakshi on the Spider-Man series in '67.