Thursday, February 11, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: Cutting Out the Downhill Side of The Martian

It haunts me still, that baffling dismissal I got from my manager: “At a certain point it all rolls downhill.” I’ve spent years trying to understand it. One big clue comes from comparing the book and movie of The Martian.

The movie is very faithful to the book in the first half (the biggest change is that we get to see the evacuation sooner rather than later), but it has much bigger changes in the second half, which is to say that much of the second half was just lopped off. It almost feels like screenwriter Drew Goddard was simply typing up the book as he went, realized he was running out of pages, and abruptly cut to the climax. For instance, in the book, Watney accidentally shorts out the communication system, leaving him on his own again for months until he can reach the new site, and then his rover flips over on the way.

The change works fine. Once they’re gone we don’t miss those additional incidents, but does that mean that the book didn’t need them either? No, I still like having them in the book, because they return us to the grizzled-loner status of the first hundred pages, and put Watney back in charge of his own story, but in the movie, it would feel like a repeated beat, and a ramping down of the story when it should be ramping up (the flipped over rover, in fact, happens because Watney is literally on a downward ramp!) Books can ramp down, but movies can’t. In movies, you have to keep the pedal to the metal until you go off the end of the cliff.

Or, put another way, we expect our movie heroes to climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in only one direction: Watney gets physical survival, then connection with others, then a greater moral dilemma (is it worth having the others return for him on the slim chance he’ll live?). Once we get to the top of the pyramid, we don’t want to descend again, losing communication and then losing safety before finally re-establishing both just in time to take off.

Like Watney, screenwriters must beware when going downhill, lest their rovers flip over. Best not to risk it.

Next: #1!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: Foreshadowing Too Much in The Martian

Now let’s look at one aspect of The Martian that was stronger in the book than the movie, and figure out why. I saw the movie first, and one problem I had was with the scene where they decide to skip the safety procedures on the launch of Mark’s food re-supply. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably know what’s going to happen just from reading that: it blows up on the launch pad. And indeed, in the movie, it’s too obvious what will happen, ensuring that the explosion gets more of an eye-roll than a gasp.

Nevertheless, when I read the novel, even though I really knew what was going to happen, that scene didn’t spell its own doom, and the explosion is genuinely heartbreaking. What did novelist Andy Weir accomplish on the page that adapter Drew Goddard couldn’t accomplish on the screen? First let’s look at the book scene:
Then let’s look at the movie scene:
Most obviously, the book scene is much longer, with much more detail, so we get to focus more on the little dramas, without having to step back and consider the larger impact (and inevitable result) of the scene …but it’s more than that. In the book, Teddy feels like the hero of the scene: he’s willing to do anything to save Mark, even get creative with the timeline, and we admire him for it. In the movie, he just seems like a dick who’s heedless of the science.

One problem in the movie is that we don’t really feel Mark’s potential hunger (and therefore the urgency to resupply quickly) as much as we do in the book scene, but an even bigger problem is what Teddy says instead of talking about the hunger. It had to re-read the two scenes a few times to spot the key word: In the script, Teddy begins the scene by asking:
  • Let’s ask the very, very expensive question: Is this probe going to be ready on time?
It’s the word “expensive”, which wasn’t in the book scene, that gives the game away. In the book, he’s going to extremes to save a life, which usually pays off in fiction, so it’s shocking when it fails. In the movie, it sounds like he’s risking all to save money, which never works in fiction. The result is a series of scenes that are drastically inert, ending in an anticlimactic accident that generates no sadness.

I think one reason the movie did this was to try to turn Teddy into a little bit of a villain, but it was a bad decision: Adding a villain usually sharpens our emotional connection to the events, but in this case it dulled it. Weir knew what he was doing: Nature (and its close cousin chaos) is the only villain here, and the emotion comes from the pain of trying and failing to overcome it, despite everyone’s best intentions.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Never Let Anyone Compliment Your Hero

One of the many charges that was leveled against The Force Awakens was that of Mary Sue-ism. Wikipedia defines a “Mary Sue” as “an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities.” The term comes from fan-fiction, where many writer insert versions of themselves into their stories, so as to receive praise from their heroes.

To many people, that seemed like a good description of Rey, the movie’s plucky young heroine, and I agree, to a certain extent.

The movie simply tried to hard too sell the character to us. Not only was she instantly great at everything she tried, from flying to Millennium Falcon to wielding a lightsaber, but, just in case we didn’t notice, each of the other characters gushed about how great she was: Han, Maz, Finn, and Kylo Ren all expressed amazement. Even Chewbacca seemed to instantly switch his allegiance as soon as Han was dead. (Shouldn’t she be his co-pilot?)

Now compare that to The Martian. One thing that’s there in the movie but is even more clear in the book is just how smart the character of Mark Watney is. I would go so far to say that he is, quite possibly, the smartest character in the history of fiction. In order to survive, especially in those periods without contact with Earth, he needs to be not just a genius-level botanist but also show genius in mechanical engineering, astrophysics, physiognomy, and about a dozen other specialities.
In both versions, we follow along with Mark on Mars, but we also cut away to Earth, where NASA is trying to help him and the media is speculation on his odds of survival. In both of those discussions, they never mention the elephant in the room: that everything Mark has done so far shows him to be a 99th-level genius who can pretty much figure anything out.

At a certain point, this gets weird. Isn’t anybody impressed?? What does this guy have to do to make people, “Wow, what the hell, Why are you so smart?”

But the novelist and screenwriter knew what they were doing. We do not want to hear our heroes complimented. We want to find our own place in the story. We want to choose whom to like and dislike based on our evaluation of the actions of the characters. We want characters to earn our trust and admiration, without the writer’s thumb on the scales. We are always highly reluctant to care about heroes because they usually let us down. When a writer praises his or her own character, that sounds like self-praise, that always sounds bad.

This is especially problematic in stories like The Force Awakens, where the character garners praise that seems unearned, but even in stories like The Martian, where it’s downright weird that people aren’t awed by the hero, we appreciate the ability to make our own judgment.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Best of 2015, #2: The Martian

I have so much to say about this movie that I’ll spend the week on it, but, as with the other movies, let’s start with a rule it exemplified: This rule was originally called “Say No Way to Melee”, but more broadly stated, it could be “Human Scale is Better.” I actually cited another Mars movie as the problem here:
  • In the book, John Carter defeats a normal-sized white ape bare-handed, which makes for a thrilling action scene. In the movie, he defeats two 50-foot high white apes, which is just boring. In order to root for a hero, we have to be right in there with him, helping him figure out his next move.
This is the heart of the appeal of The Martian, and a stark contrast to a superficially similar movie from this year, The Revenant. Leo will almost certainly win the Oscar, while Damon will remain prize-less, but Damon deserves it. As an actor, it’s always tempting to go the register of “inhuman suffering” rather than “human suffering”. After all, you can’t conceive of how someone could live with this calamity, so why try? Just do a wild-eyed hyperventilating freak out the whole time. And why not? The Academy loves that.

But Damon makes the braver and more difficult choice. Rather than play up the unbelievability of his situation, Damon somehow makes us believe this is actually happening. This movie, after all, is not shot in real time. We’re watching more than a year on Mars. Damon gets a few freak-outs, but you can’t freak out all day long. The rest of the time, he’s doing something remarkable: showing us that a guy is making it work on Mars, complete with what, how, when, where, and why.

And not just any guy: a guy’s guy. A canny, jokey, ornery, and super, super smart guy. So much of Damon’s solo performance just consists of thinking, which is one of the hardest things to do onscreen. This brings up another direction he could have gone: the Cumberbatch direction, in which geniuses are all intense, twitchy and anti-social. But Damon, taking his lead from the wonderful novel, reintroduces a lost icon: the genius as grease-monkey. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough for this movie, because I finally get to show them a science hero who’s not a jerk!

As always, Damon makes what he does look easy, which is why he may never get a statue, but humbly thinking and doing things onscreen is actually tremendously hard, so much so that few actors even attempt it. I think no one else could have pulled off this remarkable performance.

Next: What The Martian does right that The Force Awakens does wrong

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Best of 2015 #3: Carol

This time let’s talk about some of the things we covered in the Books vs. Movies series. 

In some ways, novelists have it much easier than screenwriters, and in some ways they have it much harder. It’s easier because they don’t have to pack everything into the dialogue, they can just tell us what the characters are thinking and feeling. It’s harder, of course, because they don’t get to hand that job over to the director and actors: they have to do all the character work, exterior and interior, themselves. Patricia Highsmith was a very interior-focused writer. Her primary influence was Dostoyevsky, and her characters too, are filled with raging torrents of self-hate and self-doubt under comparatively calm surfaces. Let’s look at how she writes the first scene between Carol and Therese: 

 For every word of (intentionally banal) dialogue, there are three words describing the thoughts and feelings that underlie those words. So what does screenwriter Phyllis Nagy do when she has to adapt that dialogue for the screen? Let’s look:
She doesn’t try to put all that subcutaneous emotion onscreen (and she doesn’t try to slip it in using parentheses, thankfully), but she does make the dialogue more compact and a little more sprightly. Most intriguingly, she changes the two purchases, (a doll suitcase and then a doll) into one (a train set). Why change it to a train? Most obviously, because this adds an “I understand you” moment, or at least an “I want to understand you” moment: Carol and Therese can’t express as much through looks, so Carol is forced to actually ask Therese about her life and discover that Therese was the sort of girl who preferred trains to dolls. The novel scene is purely subconscious gay-dar at work, but the train set dialogue brings that slightly out into the open.

Ultimately, Todd Haynes was the perfect choice to adapt this, because he knows how to pack power into meaningful looks better than almost any director out there, but Nagy subtly gives him a little more to work with.

 Next: Another great adaptation of an interior novel

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Best of 2015, #4: Mad Max: Fury Road

This movie does one of those things I hate, but it gets away with it, so let’s try to figure out why. I’ve complained in the past about movies in which the hero’s motivation is a tragedy from the past that we see in tiny glimpses of flashback. Why? Several reasons:
  • It feels like a cheat to place the motivation and emotional investment outside the bounds of the present story. It highlights the fact that the writer has failed to generate enough reason to care or act based on what the hero sees or experiences in the current storyline. We want to be on the hero’s shoulder and go on an emotional journey together. We want to share the motivation and emotional investment as it arrives. We want to feel it at the same time. We don’t want to be told, “Oh, sorry, you missed all that, but we’ll give you glimpses of it.”
  • It doesn’t really feel emotionally true for a hero to carry feelings about one group of good guys and bad guys over to another group of good guys and bad guys. Have you ever said, “I’m helping you because you remind me of someone”? No, that only happens in movies.
And yet, in this movie, it works. Why? Most obviously, because it takes advantage of the remake/sequel confusion, working in such a way that it can either be a flashback to the first movie (despite the fact that Tom Hardy looks nothing like Mel Gibson) or a brand-new character introduction. But would it work if this wasn’t a semi-sequel? I think so. Why?
  • In movies such as John Carter, the whole “trauma from the past” element comes in late, as a way to prop up the story once the original motivation turns out to be too thin. In this movie, we get the flashbacks right away at the beginning: It’s his initial motivation, not supplemental.
  • It takes advantage of the dystopian setting and writer/director George Miller’s ability to create surreal, iconic mythology. He convinces us that life has entered an elemental state in which “victim” and “victimizer” are both spelled with a capital-v. Max need not save his own family or confront their killers, because all good and all evil have become universal monolithic entities: Saving anybody saves his family, and fighting any evil become fighting all evil.
Based on a few quick glances of the past, we instantly get what happened to his family, how he feels about that, and why he would resolve to keeping it from happening to someone else. We buy it.

Next time: More girl power!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Best of 2015, #5: Trainwreck

It's ridiculous, I realize, to rank a movie like this above serious and powerful movies like The Revenant or Spotlight, but I always try to rank high-brow and low-brow together, according to how strongly I responded, and I responded more to this one, for good or ill.

As usual, we’ll talk about rules these movie exemplified, but this first rule is one that never got its own write-up, though it did pop up many times: We’ll accept your heroes’ bad behavior at lot more easily if they had atrocious parents.

As I said in my write-up of Downhill Racer:
  • As with Kind Hearts and Coronets and “The Sopranos” they get us to sympathize with a bad man by giving him an infuriatingly disapproving parent. His father asks “What do you do it for?” Redford responds, “To be a champion”. His father sneers, “The world’s full of them”.
Trainwreck is also a great example of this. It’s hard to get us to identify with Amy Schumer’s character: We meet her as an adult with a montage of her contemptuously manipulating and lying to a series of one-night stands, despite the fact that she has a loyal boyfriend. Obviously, this is her flaw, as the title of the film indicates, but it’s hardly a job-interview flaw, and we’re strongly disinclined to care about such characters, not even long enough to root for them to overcome these flaws.

But the wonderful prologue scene takes care of the problem handily (click to enlarge):

This smash-cuts to the onscreen title “23 years later” and we’re off to the races. Instantly, Amy’s contempt for love becomes a flaw that we can root for her to overcome, because we see that she came by it honestly. She didn’t wake up one day and choose to be like this, she was programmed to be an engine of destruction. It helps as well that her father’s rant is genuinely funny and superficially well-argued: he’s bad but charming, and you can understand why a little girl would fall for his poisonous message (only to heroically overcome it 23 years later, of course.)

Next: A different type of wreck!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Best of 2015 Runners-Up: Spotlight, and the Power and Peril of Procedure

Let me just start out by saying that Spotlight is a gripping, powerful, important film, and one that everyone should see. I love the pacing, the editing, the dialogue, and especially the performance of Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo’s part, on paper, is a fairly standard crusading journalist hero, without a lot of specific details, but the performance transforms him into a very specific individual, with his own way unique of talking, listening, and moving. That’s the mark of a great actor.

So what’s the problem? I found the movie to be too cool and clinical. This is a movie about an outrage, but we get little outrage generated onscreen, and thus we don’t feel it as much as we could. To a certain extent, that’s the point: it takes the coldly impassive eye of the journalist to find the truth when accusations fly, but I felt alienated.

I kept thinking of a 1995 “Law and Order” episode that covered the same topic from a similarly procedure-based standpoint, but created far more emotional impact (This episode also came out six years before these stories broke, which undercuts the movie’s claim that this investigation was the turning point in public perception)

Ultimately, the movie’s extreme commitment to procedure is both its greatest strength and biggest disadvantage. We get to see things we would usually never see in a movie:
  • We get to see how the events of 9/11/01 interrupted and de-prioritized the work they were doing. Usually, these movies are decontextualized, to focus our attention on just this one story.
  • We see how they pursue two legal tracks to get the suppressed documents, and both eventually succeed, even though that undercuts the drama by implying that either one track or the other was superfluous.
On the one hand, this can be thrilling: This unprecedented workaday realism conveys the powerful sense that these are real people doing a real job in the real world, which means that these were real crimes with real consequences that really had to be exposed. On the other hand, the movie is so subdued that it’s hard not to feel subdued ourselves, and given the incendiary nature of the subject matter, that’s especially frustrating.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Best of 2015 Runners-Up: Spy

Last time, the most beautifully-made movie of the year missed the list, and today we have the funniest by a wide margin, which got tripped up in my mind by one big script problem.

It feels wrong to nitpick this delightful movie, which made me laugh so hard I cried more than once, not just due to the game slapstick and swagger of Melissa McCarthy, but also the absurdly-acidic villainy of Rose Byrne and the unexpected comedy chops of Jason Statham, mercilessly skewering his own macho persona.

But my big problem with the script was the revelation near the end that Jude Law’s character wasn’t actually dead, but instead faked his death to go deep cover. The Force Awakens actually had a very similar problem: It, too, created a likeable, suave, traditional leading-man hero, then killed him off abruptly so as to hand story over to a non-traditional everyman hero. But both movies, in subsequent drafts, lost their nerve and brought the suave character back at the end, even though that sabotaged the everyman character’s journey, rendering her/him somewhat superfluous once again.

But one big problem with bringing Law back is that it runs afoul of the rule that the hero should be the only one who can solve the problem. It raises the possibility that it might have been better if McCarthy just stayed home, which subconsciously alienates the audience from the movie and the character.  We’re so culturally-conditioned to not root for an action hero like looks and acts like McCarthy that this misstep strains its own hard-earned identification.

But this also raises a bigger problem, because by this point in the movie McCarthy has killed / caused-to-be-killed a lot of people, so the second we ask if it was necessary, we might start to hate her. Now we’ve got another broken rule: the moral calculus problem.

I know, I know, who cares? It’s just a big silly comedy, and nothing is supposed to be remotely believable …but I don’t think that this just bugged me. We don’t keep track of the moral calculus ticker in our head, but it’s always there, silently clicking away, and if it ticks into the danger zone, something subconscious sours inside us.

Nevertheless, it’s great.  See it and have a hell of a good time.