Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’
Note: Spoilers follow for Star Trek Into Darkness.
On Friday, my wife and I went to the movies for the first time in six months, which is the longest I’ve gone without seeing a film in theaters since I was old enough to be watching movies at all. There wasn’t much suspense about what we’d be seeing: ever since my daughter was born in December, I knew that the first movie I’d see on the big screen would be Star Trek Into Darkness. And on balance, I think I made the right choice, even if the film itself ends up feeling like much less than the sum of its parts. It’s a slick, enjoyable blockbuster that does everything it can to give the audience its money’s worth, but it’s also a little hollow, especially because it constantly asks us to compare it to a film that ranks among my ten favorite movies of all time while falling short in every measure. I knew going in that Benedict Cumberbatch was Khan, but I wasn’t prepared for how little the movie would understand his character’s true nature: Khan is a great villain to the extent that he’s obsessed with Kirk, and the duel between these two men ought to be intensely personal. As valiantly as Cumberbatch works in the role, turning him into a terrorist with a vendetta against all of Starfleet robs him of much of his appeal.
And this is a minor problem compared to a larger issue that has me slightly concerned about the future of the franchise: its lack of character. I’m not talking about the members of the crew—who are all nicely drawn, even if the script spends most of its time putting them through manufactured conflicts, and often feels as if it’s checking items off a list—but about the filmmakers themselves. After two movies, the first of which I enjoyed tremendously, I still don’t know how J.J. Abrams and his collaborators feel about Star Trek, except as a delivery system for cool moments and action scenes. Part of this is due to Abrams himself: with four movies as a feature director under his belt, he has yet to reveal himself as anything more than a highly skillful producer and packager of mainstream material, full of good taste and intentions, but fundamentally without personality. There’s a reason why his fondness for lens flares has become a punchline, because it’s the only recognizable stylistic element in all of his work, aside from a tendency to spin an air of mystery around nonexistent surprises. And this is fundamentally out of tune with the spirit of the series itself, which has always been at its best as reflection of the idiosyncratic, prickly individuals who created it.
I’m aware that it might seem a little strange for me to wish for more of a personal take on the material, since I’ve frequently drawn a sharp contrast between such doomed passion projects as John Carter and the sleek, impersonal machinery of a movie like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. Detachment, I’ve often said, is the key to making good art, and I still believe this. What’s less obvious, and something I’m only starting to figure out now, is that detachment, paradoxically, is useful to the extent that it allows a personal statement to emerge. For evidence, we need only turn to the very film that the Abrams movies revisit so obsessively. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the story behind Wrath of Khan is one of my favorite Hollywood legends: Nicholas Meyer, a novelist and screenwriter with limited prior interest in Star Trek, cobbled together a story from six earlier drafts over the course of one long weekend, and the result was a beautiful, ingenious script with real emotional resonance. (To compare the ending of Wrath of Khan with its homage in Into Darkness is to be reminded of the difference between earned feeling and efficient, facile manipulation.)
And the really strange thing about Meyer’s detachment is that it resulted in a movie that was profoundly, even eccentrically personal. Meyer didn’t care much about Star Trek, so he filled the movie with a list of things he liked: the nautical mood and motifs, the sense of the Enterprise as Horatio Hornblower in space, the references to Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities. In Meyer’s version of Starfleet, characters freely quote Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, and they actually read physical books, which is perfectly in tune with the original series and its successors, which gain much of their charm from how they refract and reinterpret elements of our own culture. The current films, by contrast, seems to take place in a universe devoid of any cultural memory or artifacts of the past, aside from “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. For all the obligatory nods that Abrams and crew make to the history of the franchise, it’s still a work of limited knowledge and curiosity about everything else that matters. And as far as the rest of the world is concerned, it might as well take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
I came to Star Trek in a rather roundabout way. I’d watched it casually for years—although until recently, I’d seen more episodes of The Animated Series than of the original show—but it wasn’t until after college, when I saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for the first time, that I fell in love with the franchise. My sense of the show is thus oddly reversed, almost like a mirror universe, shall we say: for me, Star Trek consists of one great movie with several television series hovering unaccountably around it, and it owes as much to Nicholas Meyer as to Gene Roddenberry. Even now, when I’ve started to go back and fill in the gaps in my education, I’ve still only seen maybe a tenth of the material available. And after making an effort recently to watch the most famous episodes of the original series, many of them for the first time, I found most of them sadly dated, with even such justly revered landmarks as “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “Balance of Terror” hard to watch with a straight face.
The one great thing that the series has going for it, and where Roddenberry’s genius—along with his original conception—is most strongly felt, is its cast of characters. Television excels at allowing a large cast to grow together until their collective history becomes almost another presence in itself, and even Wrath of Khan wouldn’t be nearly as effective without that sense of shared experience. You can see it clearly in “Mirror, Mirror,” my favorite episode of the original series, in which Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura find themselves switching places with their counterparts in a much darker universe. Much of the comedy that ensues comes from seeing evil doppelgängers of the characters we know—Sulu is especially priceless—and from the fact that Kirk, far from being confused by the situation, slips into his new role a little too easily. Most deliciously and subtly of all, aside from the goatee, Spock remains more or less the same in both worlds: cool, logical, and willing to listen to reason. And none of this would work if we didn’t know these people so well. That, in any universe, is the secret of television that lasts.
Tomorrow: The pitfalls of the comedy pilot.
Let’s talk about Charlize Theron. Last month, after my wife and I finally rented Young Adult, I found myself brought up short by a startling realization: Theron may be the best young actress we have. I’d always been in awe of her work in Monster, of course, which, as Roger Ebert rightly notes, is one of the great performances of all time, starting, like Andy Serkis’s Gollum, as an awesome special effect, then creeping its way back toward humanity—although the rest of the movie is strangely undeveloped, as if it simply condensed, like dew, around Theron’s portrayal. When you consider that only a couple of years later, Theron was playing the lovely Rita on Arrested Development, you realize that we’re dealing with an actress of daunting range and versatility who has often been underestimated, like Penélope Cruz, because of her beauty. Young Adult is a showcase for all her best qualities: she’s funny, devastating, and totally fearless, even if, once more, she’s often better than the movie around her.
I had to repeat these facts to myself more than once after seeing Snow White and the Huntsman, in which Theron, it pains me to say, is resplendently awful. It’s a shame, because I’d been looking forward to this performance—if not the rest of the movie—for a long time. Unfortunately, just about everything about her approach is misconceived, and it isn’t even artful enough to make for good camp. In her thorny crown and raven’s-wing robes, she looks great, and director Rupert Sanders frames her in striking ways, but when she opens her mouth, she’s betrayed both by the script and by a few basic miscalculations. She starts at a high pitch of intensity that leaves her with nowhere to go, and although she grows louder and more strident as the movie drags on, she’s never truly frightening. (Her appearance on Top Chef, in which she seemed to be trying out aspects of her Evil Queen persona for the amusement of the other guests, was much more interesting.)
Watching her, I was oddly reminded of Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which he plays my favorite of all movie villains. In his chatty memoir The View From the Bridge, director Nicholas Meyer writes of watching Montalban play the part for the first time, and notes that while the performance was skilled and professional, there was one problem: he delivered every line at the top of his lungs. Meyer’s response, when he had a chance to discuss the role with Montalban, was brilliant, and it’s one I wish Sanders had followed:
I began [with] something like this: “You know, I read Laurence Oliver say somewhere that an actor should never show an audience his top. Once you show an audience your top, they know you have nowhere else to go…”
Montalban did not jump up and toss me out but narrowed his eyes in attention. “Another thing,” I went on before I could chicken out. “The really scary thing about crazy people is you never know what they’re going to do next. They can be very quiet but that doesn’t reduce the terror because at any second they might leap—”
Montalban, to his credit, took the advice to heart—his response, according to Meyer, was “You’re going to direct me! This is wonderful!”—and it shows in his final performance, which is a marvel, for all its operatic qualities, of nuance, understatement, and deathly quiet. (Consider, for instance, how gently he whispers to Chekov, even while lifting him by the front of his spacesuit: “Why?” You can watch the moment at the 2:00 mark here.)
Just imagine how much more interesting Theron would have been, if, like Montalban, she never showed the top of her range: if she had played the queen as cold, quiet, and serenely convinced that she was the hero of her own story. (Why, really, would an Evil Queen need to rant and rave if she already holds everyone around her in thrall to her power?) Theron certainly could have delivered this performance—as Young Adult amply demonstrates, she can be a subtle, resourceful actress—but, like Montalban, she needed someone to direct her. Rupert Sanders has talent, and he delivers what is basically a calculated simulation of an epic fantasy film with considerable visual skill, but as Joseph Kosinksi demonstrated with Tron: Legacy, the fact that a director makes beautiful commercials doesn’t always mean that he knows how to tell a story. It’s too bad, because all the pieces were there. All that was missing was the magic.
As someone who is deeply fascinated by the lives of artists under pressure, it’s hard for me to separate Star Trek II from the legend behind its creation, which is one of the most interesting of all Hollywood stories. The first Star Trek film had been a financial success, but also grossly expensive, and hardly beloved, prompting producer Harve Bennett to turn over the reins to the least likely man imaginable: Nicholas Meyer, the prickly author of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, and the furthest thing in the world from a Trekkie. Yet Meyer’s skepticism about the project allowed him to slash the budget, swiftly assemble a fine script from the bones of several unusable drafts, and reinvigorate the entire franchise with some badly missed humor and a nautical sense of adventure—a classic example of how detachment can be more valuable to an artist than passionate involvement.
Of course, none of this would matter if the movie itself weren’t so extraordinary—”wonderful dumb fun,” as Pauline Kael said in the New Yorker, and so much more. This is, in fact, pop entertainment of the highest order, a movie of great goofiness and excitement whose occasional lapses into camp make it all the more endearing. It feels big, but its roots in television and classic Hollywood—as embodied by star Ricardo Montalban—lend it an appealing modesty, a determination to give the audience a good time that smacks less of space opera than relaxed operetta. Like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it’s a studio film that ends up saying more than it ever intended about the reasons we love the movies in the first place. And it still lights up my imagination. As I’ve probably said before, Star Trek: The Motion Picture makes me want to be a special effects designer, but Wrath of Khan makes me want to join Starfleet.
Tomorrow: The most perfect story in the movies.
Last night, my wife and I were getting ready to watch The Next Three Days, which we’d rented from Netflix, only to be confronted by a frustratingly common occurrence: the disc stalled in our player, then died. The problem, weirdly, seems to be that movies released by Lionsgate (including Mad Men, alas) are incompatible with our LG Blu-ray player, an issue that has been widely noted but not, to my knowledge, fixed. Faced with the prospect of a movieless night, we frantically checked our on-demand queue for a backup option, and while we nearly went with Die Hard With a Vengeance—a revealing choice in itself, as you’ll see—a sudden inspiration and a quick search led to the following question: “Want to watch Speed?”
Which, of course, we did. And it was great. It’s always a pleasure when a movie you haven’t seen in years holds up as well as you remember, and Speed is still stunningly good. (Looking back, it’s clear that it came out at just the right time in the history of special effects, in which stunts could be cleaned up digitally, but were still reliant on old-fashioned manpower. These days, I suspect that a lot of the big moments would be rendered in CGI, much to the movie’s loss.) And the evening’s resounding success made me reflect on the role of cinematic comfort food, which, for lack of a better definition, is any movie that comes to mind when somebody asks, “Well, so what do you feel like watching?”
But maybe we can do better than that. The essential characteristic of movie comfort food is that it’s ideally suited to be seen on television—which, in fact, is where we often see it first. It’s a movie that can be watched multiple times, even internalized, without any loss of enjoyment, to the point where we can tune in halfway and know precisely where we are. It generally features appealing actors we might not necessarily pay to watch in a theater—hence the fact that Keanu Reeves stars in at least three classic comfort food movies (Speed, Point Break, and my beloved Bram Stoker’s Dracula). And it tends to tell clean, simple, satisfying stories that are exciting without being overwhelming: escapist action or comedy, not intense violence or suspense.
Occasionally, a movie that fits these criteria crosses over into the realm of art, as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan does for me. For the most part, though, these are movies that might not make our list of the best movies of all time, but still occupy a special place in our hearts—perhaps because they’re often movies we first saw as teenagers. For me, they include Sneakers; any of the great Nicolas Cage trifecta of ’90s action movies, especially Con Air; the vintage Bruce Willis movie of your choice; and more recently, and inexplicably, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, which may hold the record for the movie most often found playing in the background in our house. You’ll probably have a list of your own. And while these aren’t all great movies, I wouldn’t want to live without them. Or Ghostbusters.
Let’s make a list of things we like.
With these eight words, director Nicholas Meyer saved Star Trek. The story of how he cobbled together elements of five different screenplay drafts to come up with the script for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in twelve days is one of my favorite Hollywood stories, and I’ve already told it here, so I won’t repeat it again. What strikes me about this story today, though, is the fact that it began in the simplest way possible: with a list. In particular, it was a list of story elements and plot devices—Khan, the Genesis project, a certain character’s death scene—that were already there, but hadn’t been combined into a coherent shape. And the fact that the result paid off so handsomely is a lesson for all writers about the power of lists.
Because lists are incredibly useful. Most novels start as a list of some kind—of characters, of moments, of plot points—but it’s also smart to keep making lists as the project develops, especially when you’re stuck for inspiration. These can be lists of locations, of objects in a scene, of possible props, of the contents of someone’s pockets, or even of material you’ve written and discarded along the way, any one of which might solve a problem or spark an idea. Such lists are especially useful in writing comedy or action, in which the best material is organically generated by the natural aspects of a setting or situation. As Alfred Hitchcock says:
For example, Cary Grant in North by Northwest gets trapped in an auction room. He can’t get out because there are men in front of him or men behind him. The only way out is to do what you’d do in an auction room. Bid. He bid crazily and got himself thrown out. Similarly, when he was chased by a crop duster, he ran and hid in a cornfield. There was one thing that crop duster could do—dust some crops. That drove him out…I don’t believe in going into an unusual setting and not using it dramatically.
One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.
Ultimately, lists are useful because they remind you of what you already have. The process often resembles what David Mamet says about the slate piece, in bringing out the hidden information already inherent in the story. At other times, it’s more like figuring out how to use a standing set. While writing, I’m amused by how often a prop or location that I mentioned in passing early in a novel ends up playing an important role twenty chapters later. Similarly, the great silent comedians could walk onto a set and immediately start planning gags and bits of business, simply based on what was already lying around.
The trouble, of course, is that I don’t have a roomful of props to stare at. A novelist’s mind can resemble the storeroom at the end of Citizen Kane, a jumble of material acquired over a lifetime, none of which useful if we can’t remember what is there. A list is the first step toward making a catalog. It distills a mine of existing information into a form that you can process more easily, so you won’t be tempted, as many writers are, to fix plot problems with additional research. Nine times out of ten, when you have a problem to solve, the answer is probably already there, implicit in what you’ve already written or imagined. And all you need to get started is a list.
While I still haven’t gotten around to tackling the definitive appreciation of The Simpsons that I’ll inevitably need to write one day, in the meantime, I thought I’d highlight an underappreciated element of that show’s legacy: its DVD commentary tracks. Over the past decade or so, even as I’ve stopped watching the show itself, its commentary tracks—featuring Matt Groening, the showrunners for each season, and an assortment of writers, directors, and producers—have become an inseparable part of my life. Since I already know most of the episodes by heart, I’ll often play an audio commentary in the background while I’m exercising or doing chores around the house, to the point where I’ve probably listened to some of these tracks twenty times or more. And every other year or so, I’ll systematically work through the entire series, as I’m doing now, going backward from season thirteen all the way to the premiere.
It’s hard to explain why, but these commentaries have become weirdly important to me, sometimes even exceeding the importance of the episodes themselves—especially at this point in the series, when the underlying material tends to be mediocre or worse. Even for middling episodes, though, the commentaries are still compelling: two of my favorites are for “The Principal and the Pauper” and “Bart to the Future,” episodes that probably rank near the bottom of the pack. A Simpsons commentary track is simply the best radio show in the world, with a roomful of smart, nerdy guys talking with great enthusiasm about a subject of intense interest to them, and to me. In the process, I’ve enjoyed getting to know people like writers David Mirkin, Matt Selman, and Ron Hauge, and directors Mark Kirkland, Susie Dietter, and Jim Reardon, who otherwise would just be names on a screen. And I’ve painlessly absorbed a lot of valuable information about storytelling—such as the observation, by Josh Weinstein, I think, that five minutes of sentiment is too much, but fifteen seconds is just right.
At this point, though, after twenty listens or more, I’ve begun to suck most of the pulp out of these commentaries, so I’ve been casting about for alternatives. Futurama, not surprisingly, has commentaries that are equally engaging, and it’s always fun to listen to David X. Cohen and Ken Keeler, among others, unpack the show’s many references. (Futurama remains the only series that ever inspired me to look up the Wikipedia article on P versus NP.) And I’ve spoken before about how much I love audio commentaries by Francis Ford Coppola: his voice is warm, grandfatherly, almost conspiratorial, drawing you into a frank discussion of his triumphs and disappointments, generous with both his philosophy of life and the technical side of filmmaking. It’s as close as most of us will ever get to hanging out with Coppola himself, and a reminder that the best commentary tracks are a reflection of the artist’s personality.
What else? My single favorite commentary for a movie is probably Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s track for The Usual Suspects, where they cheerfully point out plot holes and continuity errors while imparting, almost incidentally, a lot of irreverent observations on the creative process. A close second is Nicholas Meyer’s commentary for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which provides a great deal of candid insight into one of my favorite movies, as well as the art of storytelling itself. (“Storyteller,” Meyer tells us, is what he always puts down when asked for his profession on customs forms.) David Mamet is usually captivating, even when he’s being glib or cagey; I recently put on his commentary track for House of Games, featuring Ricky Jay, while preparing my tax returns, which made the process a lot more bearable. And I’m always looking for others. If you’re a commentary track addict like me, and if you have any special favorites, I’d love to hear about them.
On Saturday, my wife and I finally saw Source Code, the new science fiction thriller directed by Moon‘s Duncan Jones. I liked Moon a lot, but wasn’t sure what to expect from his latest film, and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be the best new movie I’ve seen this year. Admittedly, this is rather faint praise—by any measure, this has been a slow three months for moviegoers. And Source Code has its share of problems. It unfolds almost perfectly for more than an hour, then gets mired in an ending that tries, not entirely successfully, to be emotionally resonant and tie up all its loose ends, testing the audience’s patience at the worst possible time. Still, I really enjoyed it. The story draws you in viscerally and is logically consistent, at least up to a point, and amounts to a rare example of real science fiction in a mainstream Hollywood movie.
By “real” science fiction, of course, I don’t mean that the science is plausible. The science in Source Code is cheerfully absurd, explained with a bit of handwaving about quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus, but the movie is unusual in having the courage to follow a tantalizing premise—what if you could repeatedly inhabit the mind of a dead man eight minutes before he died?—through most of its possible variations. This is what the best science fiction does: it starts with an outlandish idea and follows it relentlessly through all its implications, while never violating the rules that the story has established. And one of the subtlest pleasures of Ben Ripley’s screenplay for Source Code lies in its gradual reveal of what the rules actually are. (If anything, I wish I’d known less about the story before entering the theater.)
This may sound like a modest accomplishment, but it’s actually extraordinarily rare. Most of what we call science fiction in film is thinly veiled fantasy with a technological sheen. A movie like Avatar could be set almost anywhere—the futuristic trappings are incidental to a story that could have been lifted from any western or war movie. (Walter Murch even suggests that George Lucas based the plot of Star Wars on the work he did developing Apocalypse Now.) Star Trek was often a show about ideas, but its big-screen incarnation is much more about action and spectacle: Wrath of Khan, which I think is the best science fiction film ever made, has been aptly described as Horatio Hornblower in space. And many of the greatest sci-fi movies—Children of Men, Blade Runner, Brazil—are more about creating the look and feel of a speculative future than any sense of how it might actually work.
And this is exactly how it should be. Movies, after all, aren’t especially good at conveying ideas; a short story, or even an episode of a television show, is a much better vehicle for working out a clever premise than a feature film. Because movies are primarily about action, character, and image, it isn’t surprising that Hollywood has appropriated certain elements of science fiction and left the rest behind. What’s heartening about Source Code, especially so soon after the breakthrough of Inception, is how it harnesses its fairly ingenious premise to a story that works as pure entertainment. There’s something deeply satisfying about seeing the high and low aspects of the genre joined so seamlessly, and it requires a peculiar set of skills on the part of the director, who needs to be both fluent with action and committed to ideas. Chris Nolan is one; Duncan Jones, I’m excited to say, looks very much like another.
Any list of favorite movies—much less one of favorite screenplays, where the writer’s contribution can be so hard to separate from that of the director and editor—ends up being more about the compiler than anything else. My own list betrays a personal fondness for dense, complicated stories over quiet simplicity, which is arguably the harder of the two to pull off. All in all, though, I’ll stand by these choices—though I’m somewhat surprised to see that one of my top films stars Kevin Spacey, another stars Gabriel Byrne, and another, perhaps inevitably, stars both:
1. Seven Samurai. As far as I’m concerned, this the greatest screen story of all time—a massively detailed film of more than three hours that establishes its central conflict in the first minute, involves us in the lives of more than a dozen important characters, and treats us to the immense satisfaction of seeing epic action foreshadowed, spelled out, and unforgettably delivered. Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni.
2. L.A. Confidential. A script so good that it forever fooled me into thinking that there was a place in Hollywood for layered, complicated stories, saturated with ideas and atmosphere, with three central characters but no obvious hero. Well, there isn’t. But watching this movie makes you almost believe otherwise. Writers: Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson, based on a novel by James Ellroy.
3. The Red Shoes. All of Powell and Pressburger’s screenplays are amazing, but this is the one that fills me with the most awe. Like L.A. Confidential, it effortlessly establishes three major characters—and many minor ones—while ushering us into a world that seems both strange and familiar, with a range of tones that spans realism, surrealism, melodrama, and, in the end, merciless tragedy. Writers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
4. The Usual Suspects. The closest thing I’ve seen to a perfect clockwork screenplay, layered with small visual and verbal delights in every scene, all leading up to that famous closing surprise (which makes increasingly less sense to me as time goes on). To quote theater critic Walter Kerr, The Usual Suspects is a watch that laughs—and there’s a hell of a cuckoo inside. Writer: Christopher McQuarrie (though many of the best moments, including the closing montage of dialogue, were created in the editing room).
5. Casablanca. The first forty minutes, in particular, are the best I’ve seen in any movie, in terms of serenely establishing character, location, and conflict in a way that seems as natural as wandering into Rick’s Place out of the hot desert night. The second act has a few narrative lumps—I’m not a fan of flashbacks in general, even when they feature Bogart and Bergman in Paris—but as for the finale, well, nothing more needs to be said. Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s.
6. Miller’s Crossing. It took me years to warm up to this movie, but now that I know it inside and out, I can only marvel at how beautifully all the pieces fit, even if the writers evidently made it up as they went along. (They wrote Barton Fink, on a break, while trying to figure out how to resolve the plot.) It’s still the last of the great color noirs. Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen.
7. The Last Temptation of Christ. I was going to put Taxi Driver here, but this is really Schrader’s—and Scorsese’s—masterpiece: marvelously structured, moving, and more intelligent than so deeply religious a movie has any right to be. The last half hour rarely fails to bring me to tears, though never at the same place twice. Writer: Paul Schrader, based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.
8. The Third Man. The perfect blend of plot, location, and atmosphere, sinister yet romantic, with grotesque supporting characters lurking in the ruins like gargoyles. It all builds to that heartbreaking final image—the greatest closing shot in the history of movies—which wasn’t in the original script at all. Writer: Graham Greene (though Orson Welles wrote his own speech about the cuckoo clocks).
9. Psycho. Yes, yes, the closing psychiatrist’s speech is terrible. But up until that final moment, it’s perfectly structured and paced, with the greatest narrative fake-out of all time—one that works so well that I’m still faintly shocked, whenever I first see the Bates Motel sign, at remembering which movie I’m really watching. Writer: Joseph Stefano, based on a novel by Robert Bloch.
10. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Pauline Kael called it “endlessly inventive,” and it is, cobbling together a plot, as I’ve described elsewhere, from six different screenplay drafts and a random handful of science fiction elements, and having it all seem relaxed, witty, and inevitable. Writers: Credited to Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards, but really Nicholas Meyer.
Honorable mention: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Chinatown, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blue Velvet, A Hard Day’s Night, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and many others on the definitive Writer’s Guild list.
So you’ve decided to write a novel, but aren’t quite sure what the story should be. What do you do now? My advice: Make a list of things you like. Most works of narrative, after all, begin as nothing more impressive than a list of ideas. And I know of no better example than the one given by Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Meyer’s life is a fascinating one: he wrote the bestselling Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution while still in his twenties, had a productive career as a director and screenwriter, but remains best known as the man who saved Star Trek. After the underwhelming response to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Meyer was brought on board to cut costs and instill a badly missed sense of adventure into the proceedings. And he did. When you saw the first Star Trek film, you wanted to become a special effects designer; when you saw Wrath of Khan, you wanted to join Starfleet. (At least that’s how it worked for me. And I’m not even that big of a Star Trek fan.)
By the time Meyer joined the production, the sequel had long been stranded in development hell, and no less than five separate scripts had been written. Because of a fixed release date, he found himself in the unenviable position of having to write a filmable screenplay in twelve days. So what did he do? Here’s the story he tells in his breezy memoir, The View from the Bridge:
“Well, here’s my other idea,” I told them, taking a deep breath and producing a yellow legal pad from under my chair. “Why don’t we make a list of everything we like in these five drafts? Could be a plot, a subplot, a sequence, a scene, a character, a line even…”
“And then I will write a new script and cobble together all the things we choose.”
…We then made the list. It included…Khan (from the “Space Seed” episode…); the Genesis Project (creating planetary life); Kirk meeting his son; Lieutenant Saavik (Spock’s beautiful Vulan protégée); the death of Spock; and the simulator sequence…All these materials were culled higgledy-piggledy from the five different drafts that I never—to the best of my recollection—consulted again.
And while it’s unlikely that you’ll be collating the plot of your novel from five different drafts, the underlying principle is the same. For a writer in the early stages of a project, lists are incredibly useful. As Meyer notes, they can include anything from a major plot point to a character to a line of dialogue. And once you’ve got your list in hand, you’re well on your way to starting your novel.
One last point: Meyer’s great virtue, aside from his skill and intelligence, was his objectivity. He wasn’t a Star Trek fan; he had never watched the series; and even today, he seems rather bewildered by the show’s popularity. But his sense of distance was what allowed him, crucially, to cull good ideas from bad, and to see what elements of the show were no longer working. As difficult as it may be, every writer should strive to cultivate that same objectivity toward his or her own work. Passion, of course, is important as well—but only when paired with a Vulcan detachment.