Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 18th, 2015

“Then the crowd rushed forward…”

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"Moving past the onlookers..."

Note: This post is the twenty-second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 23. You can read the previous installments here.

Last week, Buzzfeed ran a fun feature in which a few dozen television writers talked about the favorite thing they’d ever written. There’s a lot of good stuff here—I particularly liked Rob Thomas’s account of the original opening of Veronica Mars, which ended up on the cutting room floor—but the story that really stuck with me came courtesy of Damon Lindelof. At this point, Lindelof isn’t anyone’s favorite writer, but few would argue that the finale of the third season of Lost marked a high point in his career, with its closing revelation that what looked like a flashback was actually a scene from the future. It’s a fantastic mislead that viewers still talk about to this day, and the best part is what Lindelof acknowledges as his inspiration:

The final scene of “Through the Looking Glass”—the third season finale of Lost—was stolen from the movie Saw 2.

If you have not seen Saw 2, all you need to know is that Donnie Wahlberg is in it and that the twist at the end involves tricking the audience into thinking they’re watching something unfold in present time, when in fact, it is unfolding in the past. Also, Donnie Wahlberg is in it. Did I say that already?

I love this for two reasons. First, although I’ve never gotten around to seeing Saw 2, I’ve been impressed by its closing twist ever since it was first described to me: I think it would be discussed in the same breath as other great surprise endings if it didn’t reside in such a disreputable genre. (It’s also worth noting that it was originally written by Darren Lynn Bousman as an unrelated spec script, later retooled to serve as a Saw sequel. Bousman went on to direct the next three films in the franchise, which is a lesson in itself: if you come up with a great twist, it can give you a career.) Second, it’s a reminder that you can derive inspiration from almost anything, and that the germ of an idea is less meaningful than its execution. If Lindelof hadn’t spelled it out, it’s unlikely that many viewers would have made the connection. As I’ve noted here before, even a short description of someone else’s idea—as happened with the Doctor Who writer Russell T. Davies and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok”—can ignite a line of thought. And when it comes to drawing material from things you’ve seen, you often get better ideas from flawed efforts than from masterpieces. A great movie feels like the definitive version of its story; a misfire makes you think about the other ways in which it might have been done.

"Then the crowd rushed forward..."

For instance, I don’t know how many readers here remember a movie called Dark Blue. It was already a flop when it came out over a decade ago—I’m one of the few who paid to see it in theaters—and it doesn’t seem to have had much of an afterlife on video. Even I don’t remember much about it, although I think I liked it fine: it was a messy, textured cop movie with a nice lead performance from Kurt Russell, who is worth watching in anything. What attracted me to it, though, were two elements. It was based on an original story by James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential, and the idea of a sprawling, contemporary crime saga from Ellroy’s brain was an enticing one. And the premise itself grabbed my attention: a violent police melodrama set against the backdrop of the Los Angeles riots. (Apparently, Ellroy developed the idea for so long that it was originally set during the Watts riots, which says something in itself about the byways a screenplay can take in Hollywood.) In the end, the execution wasn’t quite memorable enough for it to stick in my head. But its core idea, of a plot that intersected unexpectedly with a historical riot in a big city, is one I never forgot. And years later, when the London riots in Hackney coincided with my planning for Eternal Empire, the pieces just fell into place.

And the result, in Chapter 23, is less an homage to Dark Blue than a kind of remake, filtered through the fuzziness of time, or my private dream of what such a scene could be. Since much of the appeal of a sequence like this comes from how closely it hews to actual events, I invested a lot of effort—maybe too much—in putting together a timeline of the riots and assembling visual references. Several moments in the scene essentially put Wolfe and Ilya in the middle of iconic photos and videos from that day. I had to fudge a few details to make it all fit: the prison break in the previous chapter takes place in early morning, so there’s a space of six hours or so in the chronology that is hard to account for. Still, it all hangs together pretty well, and the result is one of my favorite things in this novel. And what would Ellroy say? I’d like to think that he’d approve, or at least tolerate it, since he isn’t above much the same kind of creative liberation: he admits that he lifted the premise of his novel The Big Nowhere directly from the William Friedkin movie Cruising. (Which doesn’t even mention how much Dark Blue, and so many other movies in its genre, owes To Live and Die in L.A.) The cycle of appropriation goes ever on, and it’s a good thing. Until a book or movie executes an idea so expertly that it yanks it out of circulation, everything should be up for grabs. And in the meantime, all a writer can do is take it and run…

Quote of the Day

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William Hazlitt

Danger is a good teacher, and makes apt scholars…If the Indian juggler were to play tricks in throwing up the three case knives, he would cut off his fingers. I can make a very bad antithesis without cutting off my fingers. The tact of style is more ambiguous than that of double-edged instruments.

William Hazlitt

Written by nevalalee

June 18, 2015 at 7:30 am

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