Posts Tagged ‘Joss Whedon’
Structure means knowing where you’re going; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes? The thrills? The romance? Who knows what, and when? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around: the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, coloured pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.
As the triumphant conclusion to the fifth season of Mad Men recently made clear, we’re living in an age of great television, at least for those willing to seek it out. It’s also a time in which the role of the television writer has achieved greater prominence in popular culture than ever before. This is partly because of the shows themselves, which are increasingly eager to engage in layered, serialized storytelling; because writers have a much wider range of platforms to discuss their work, whether in the media, at conferences, or on commentary tracks; and because of the emergence of highly articulate fandoms that have made cult heroes out of showrunners like Joss Whedon and Dan Harmon. In my own case, television has inevitably played a large role in my life—everything I’ve ever gotten paid for writing owes something to The X-Files—but it’s only more recently that I’ve begun to think about the specific lessons that television has for writers in any medium.
Over the next two weeks, then, I’m going to be talking about ten episodes of television, in chronological order, that have shaped the way I think about writing. This isn’t meant to be a list of the greatest TV series of all time—unless my plans change, I won’t have a chance to discuss such recent high points as The Wire or Breaking Bad. Rather, these are episodes that illustrate what television has taught me about such important matters as telling complex stories over time; dealing with constraints; managing a large cast of characters; and, crucially, finding a way to end it all. The shows I’ve chosen reflect the haphazard nature of my television education, which was first informed by Nick at Nite and resumed in real time in the early nineties, right around the time Twin Peaks and The Simpsons premiered only four months apart. In short, it’s inseparable from the rhythms of my own life. For the next couple of weeks, I’m going to do my best to explain what the effects have been.
On Monday: Why I wanted Rob Petrie’s job.
Over the weekend, along with everyone else in the Northern Hemisphere, my wife and I saw The Avengers. I’m not going to bother with a formal review, since there are plenty to go around, and in any case, if you haven’t already seen it, your mind is probably made up either way. I’ll just say that while I enjoyed it, this is a movie that comes across as a triumph more of assemblage and marketing than of storytelling: you want to cheer, not for the director or the heroes, but for the executives at Marvel who brought it all off. Joss Whedon does a nice, resourceful job of putting the pieces together, but we’re left with the sense of a director gamely doing his best with the hand he’s been dealt, which is an odd thing to say for a movie that someone paid $200 million to make. Whedon has been saddled with at least two heroes too many, as well as a rather dull villain—far better if they had gone with the Red Skull of Captain America—so that a lot of the film, probably too much, is spent slotting all the components into place.
Still, once everything clicks, it moves along efficiently, if not always coherently, and it’s a bright, shiny toy for the eyes, certainly compared to the dreary Thor. It doesn’t force us to rethink what this genre is capable of doing, as The Dark Knight did, but it’s a movie that delivers exactly what audiences want, and perhaps a touch more, which is more than enough to deliver the highest opening weekend in history. And this, more than anything else, puts its director in a peculiar position. Joss Whedon has made a career out of seeming to work against considerable obstacles, and never quite succeeding, except in the eyes of his devoted fans. Buffy switched networks; Firefly was canceled before its time; Dollhouse struggled on for two seasons in the face of considerable interference. All of his projects carry a wistful sense of what might have been, and throughout it all, Whedon has been his own best character, unfailingly insightful in interviews, gracious, funny and brave, the underdog whose side he has always so eloquently taken.
So what happens when the underdog becomes responsible for a record-shattering blockbuster? The Avengers isn’t all that interesting as a movie—far less so than The Cabin in the Woods—but it’s fascinating as a portent of things to come. Whedon has delivered the kind of big popular success that can usually be cashed in for the equivalent of one free movie with unlimited studio resources, as if all the holes in his frequent shopper’s card had finally been punched. For most of his career, at least since Buffy, Whedon has had everything—charm, talent, an incredibly avid fanbase—except the one thing that a creative type needs to survive in Hollywood: power. Now, abruptly, he has oodles of it, obtained in the only way possible, by making an ungodly amount of money for a major studio. Which means that he’s suddenly in a position, real or imaginary, to make every fanboy’s dreams come true.
The question is what he intends to do with it. Unlike Christopher Nolan, he isn’t a director who seems to gain personal satisfaction from deepening and heightening someone else’s material, so The Avengers 2 doesn’t seem like the best use of his talents. Personally, I hope he pulls a Gary Ross, takes the money, and runs. He could probably make another Firefly movie, although that doesn’t seem likely at this point. He could make Goners. He could pick up an ailing franchise with fewer moving parts and do wonderful things with it—I hear that Green Lantern is available. Or, perhaps, he’ll surprise us. The Avengers isn’t a bad film, but it gives us only occasional glimpses of the full Whedon, peeking out from between those glossy toys, and those hints make you hunger for a big movie that he could control from beginning to end. For most of his career, fans have been wondering what he’d do with the full resources and freedom he’d long been denied—even as he seemed to thrive on the struggle. And if he’s as smart and brave as he’s always seemed, he won’t wait long to show us.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a man of letters. I wasn’t sure what this meant, or even if such a thing still existed, but based on my vague sense of what the position entailed, it sounded like an ideal job. You’d be a novelist first, sure, but you’d also write short stories, nonfiction, criticism, and more, following your own inclinations, after the example of many of my early heroes, like Norman Mailer. It never entered my head to wonder why a writer might produce a body of work like this—I assumed he did it just because it seemed cool. But the more time passes, the more I realize that the figure of “the man of letters” is really a byproduct of years spent looking for ways to make a living while writing. And it’s been like this for a long time. Speaking of the essayists of the eighteenth century, whom he calls “writers of all work,” the critic George Saintsbury says:
The establishment of the calling of man of letters as an irregular profession, and a regular means of livelihood, almost necessarily brought with it the devotion of the man of letters himself to any and every form of literature for which there was a public demand…It became, therefore, almost necessary on the one hand, and comparatively easy on the other, for the [writer]…to be everything by turns and nothing long.
Strike out the phrase “comparatively easy,” and you have a pretty good description of the contemporary freelance writer, which is essentially what Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and other denizens of Grub Street really were. They worked as essayists, dramatists, poets, and producers of what Saintsbury calls “hackwork or something more”—translations, histories, popular science—as demand and opportunity required. They were, in short, freelancers. And if their work has endured, it’s because of their exceptional talent, productivity, and versatility, all of which were born, not from some abstract ideal of the man of letters, but from the practical constraints of being a working writer, which is something that every freelancer can understand. They just happened to be better at it than most.
Looking at my own life these days, it’s clear that I’ve had to be “everything by turns and nothing long” to an extent that still takes me by surprise. In the past couple of months alone, I’ve seen the publication of my first novel, worked on the copy edit of the second, and pushed ahead furiously on a rough draft of the third. I’ve written a couple of articles, including my debut essay in The Daily Beast, as well as a long Q&A, a guest post on another blog, and thousands of words here. I have a science fiction novelette coming out in Analog in July and I’m preparing a proposal this week for another nonfiction project. In short, as usual, I’m working on a lot of things at once that don’t, at first glance, have much to do with one another, and sometimes the payoff can be hard to see. But this is what being a working writer is all about.
And this sort of multitasking has creative benefits as well. Drew Goddard, talking to the New York Times the other day about Joss Whedon’s wide range of activities, puts it nicely: “Everything became a vacation from other things.” When you get burnt out on one project, it’s nice to have something else to turn to instead, and your various pieces of work can inform one another in surprising ways. I’ve learned a lot about structuring nonfiction from my work as a novelist—a good essay is often surprisingly similar to a well-constructed chapter—and my fiction, in turn, has benefited from the skills I’ve acquired as an essayist and, yes, a blogger. Everything feeds into everything else, if not right away, then somewhere down the line. It keeps me sane. And after forty years of scrounging around, I’ll have a body of work of which I can hopefully be proud. Because in the end, a man of letters is just a freelancer who survived.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about American movie audiences over the past decade or so, it’s that they don’t like being surprised. They may say that they do, and they certainly respond positively to twist endings, properly delivered, within the conventions of the genre they were hoping to see. What they don’t like is going to a movie expecting one thing and being given something else. And while this is sometimes a justifiable response to misleading ads and trailers, it can also be a form of resentment at having one’s expectations upended. Audiences, it seems, would rather see a bad movie that meets their expectations than a great one that subverts them. And whenever there’s a sharp discrepancy between critical acclaim and audience reaction, as measured by CinemaScore, it’s often for a challenging film—think Drive or The American—that has been cut together in its commercials to look like safe, brainless genre fare, or one like Vanilla Sky or Solaris that, whatever its flaws, is trying valiantly to break out of the box. (Or The Box.)
I found myself mulling over this yesterday after seeing The Cabin in the Woods, an uneven but often terrific movie, in both senses of the word, that seems designed to frustrate the kinds of audience members that CinemaScore so diligently tracks. All the danger signs were there: this is ostensibly a horror movie, after all, a genre that tends to get positive responses from audience members only if it gives them precisely what they want. It’s also comedy-horror, a notoriously tricky genre. And most of all, writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard take a seemingly conventional story—five familiar slasher-movie types menaced in, well, a cabin in the woods—and deconstruct it so savagely that no one, not even the filmmakers or the audience, can escape. Despite all this, The Cabin in the Woods escaped with a C rating on CinemaScore, which is more than I would have expected, but still implies that a lot of people aren’t happy—anything less than a B+ or so is seen as a sign of trouble ahead. As a commenter on the A.V. Club says of the early reaction: “There was quite a lot of love and stunnedness, sure, but there was also a healthy amount of ‘waste of money’ and ‘dumbest movie ever.’”
And in a sense, The Cabin in the Woods is a stupid movie, if you define stupidity as an obstinate refusal to meet your expectations. Clearly, it’s more than capable of delivering the kind of horror that the audience wants: it cheerfully provides plenty of jump scares, shadowy basements, and bucketfuls of gore. The fact that it then turns into something much different can strike a lot of people as simple incompetence. The logic goes something like this: if they could give us a straightforward horror film, but didn’t, they must have no clue as to what we really want. The idea that a movie may know what we want and refuse to provide it, in the classic Joss Whedon style, doesn’t entirely compute—and rightly so, since most of the movies we see have trouble just delivering on their most basic promises. The Cabin in the Woods has it both ways as much as a movie possibly can—it never stops being scary, funny, and entertaining even as it changes the rules of its own game—but it still seems to have left a lot of people feeling cheated. Box Office Mojo sums up the situation nicely:
By delivering something much different, the movie delighted a small group of audience members while generally frustrating those whose expectations were subverted. Moviegoers like to know what they are in for when they go to see a movie, and when it turns out to be something different the movie tends to get punished in exit polling.
So what’s a director, or a movie studio, to do? The easiest response, obviously, is either to give away every twist in the trailer, as the director Robert Zemeckis has famously advocated, or to only make movies that deliver blandly on an audience’s expectations while flattering them otherwise. In the latter case, this results in movies and marketing campaigns like those for Super 8 and Cloverfield (also written, interestingly, by Drew Goddard), which are essentially elaborate simulations of movies with a twist or secret premise, when in fact the film itself is utterly conventional. The Cabin in the Woods, by contrast, has a real secret, not a winking simulacrum of one: the trailer hints at it, but the movie goes much further than most moviegoers would expect. Not surprisingly, it’s getting punished for it. Because unlike movies that appeal squarely to the art house or the solid mainstream, Cabin occupies that risky space where the expectations of a mass audience collide with something rich and strange. And that’s the scariest place for any movie to be.
The other night, my wife asked, with genuine curiosity: “Why do you like Glee?” Which, honestly, is a really good question. I don’t watch a lot of television; I’m not, as far as I can tell, anything close to Glee‘s target demographic; I know that Glee is fundamentally flawed, and often disappointing; and yet I find it fun to watch and, more surprisingly, interesting to think about. But why?
My only answer, aside from the fact that I like musicals, that that I enjoy Glee because of its flaws, because it can be frustrating and horrifically uneven, because it regularly neglects its own characters, and because an average episode can get nearly every moment wrong—and yet still remain a compelling show. For a writer who cares about pop culture, it’s the most interesting case study around. (As opposed to, say, Mad Men, which is the best TV drama I’ve ever seen, but much less instructive in its sheer perfection.)
Here, then, are some of the lessons, positive and negative, that I’ve tried to draw from Glee:
1. Do follow through on big moments. Howard Hawks defined a good movie as having three good scenes and no bad scenes. The average episode of Glee has maybe three good scenes and eight bad scenes, but the good stuff is usually executed with enough conviction and skill to carry the audience past the rest. The lesson? Every story has a few big moments. No matter what else you do as a writer, make sure those moments work.
2. Do invest the audience in your characters as early as possible. Glee‘s pilot, which now seems so long ago, did an impressive job of generating interest in a massive cast of characters. Since then, nearly everything the pilot established has been thrown out the window, but the viewer’s initial engagement with Will, Rachel, and the rest still gives the show a lot of goodwill, which it hasn’t entirely squandered. (Please note, though, that a cast of appealing actors goes a long way toward maintaining the audience’s sympathy. In a novel, once your characters have lost the reader’s interest, it’s very hard to win it back.)
3. Do push against yourself and your story. A.V. Club critic Todd VanDerWerff has done a heroic job of arguing the “three authors” theory of Glee: that the show’s creators—Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan—each have distinct, and conflicting, visions of what the show should be, and that this inherent tension is what makes the show so fascinating. Similarly, much of the interest of an ambitious novel comes from the writer’s struggle against the restrictions and contradictions of his or her own story. (Of course, if you don’t give yourself at least some constraints, such as those of genre, you aren’t likely to benefit from this.)
1. Don’t neglect structure. Remember the importance of constraints? The trouble with Glee is that it doesn’t seem to have any. Early on, the show established a tone and style in which almost anything could happen, which is fine—but even the most anarchic comedy benefits from following a consistent set of rules. In Glee‘s case, a little more narrative coherence, and a lot more character consistency, would go a long way towards making it a great show, rather than a fascinating train wreck.
2. Don’t take your eye off the long game. Glee rather notoriously went through four years’ worth of plotlines in its first season, and as a result, the second season has seemed increasingly aimless. Obviously, it’s hard for most TV shows, which hover precariously between cancellation and renewal, to plan much further ahead than the next order of episodes, but a novelist has no such excuse. A writer has to maintain the reader’s interest over hundreds of pages, so as tempting as it is to put all your best ideas up front, it’s important to keep a few things in reserve, especially for the ending.
In terms of not giving people what they want, I think it’s a mandate: Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need. What they want is for Sam and Diane to get together. [Whispers.] Don’t give it to them. Trust me. [Normal voice.] You know?
Glee, because it was so successful so early on, and with such a devoted fan base, has repeatedly succumbed to the temptation to give viewers exactly what they want, whether it’s more jukebox episodes, bigger musical numbers, or a romance between two of its leads. (And fans don’t like it if the show takes one of these things away.) This approach might work in the short term, but in the long run, it leaves the show—as is becoming increasingly clear—with nowhere else to go. Remember: once your characters, or your readers, get what they want, the story is essentially over.
Of course, none of these issues have hurt Glee‘s success, and judging from the last few episodes, the show is making an effort to dial back the worst of its excesses. And I do hope it continues to improve. As much as I enjoy it now, a show can’t work as a case study forever. Because a show like Glee is always interesting…until, alas, it isn’t.