Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“I need you to get me some information…”

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"I need you to get me some information..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 54. You can read the previous installments here.

“You know, like [James] Bond doesn’t have scenes with other men,” the screenwriter Jez Butterworth once told The New Yorker. “Bond shoots other men—he doesn’t sit around chatting to them. So you put a line through that.” To be fair, this isn’t entirely true: Casino Royale, which is probably the finest installment in the whole canon, has an entire second act that consists of little except for Bond chatting in a room with other men. But I understand his point. Few of the Bond films have what we might describe as conventionally good scripts, but they remain useful as a kind of laboratory for a certain sort of film writing, produced under conditions of high pressure. The history of the series, its basic formula, and the need to please a star and a handful of production executives who are answerable to nobody else all create an incentive to cut everything that doesn’t enhance the brand. If it doesn’t fit, you put a line through it. Butterworth’s track record here isn’t perfect—he worked on both Skyfall and Spectre, with notably mixed results in the latter case—but it’s still worth listening to what he has to say. And when you look at the Bond films through the lens of removing whatever isn’t central to what the franchise represents, it goes a long way toward explaining some of their more inexplicable moments.

Take the uranium bullets in Skyfall. If you’ve seen the movie, you probably remember that after Bond’s return from the dead, he removes a fragment of a slug from the wound in his shoulder and hands it over to the lab for testing. The results reveal that it’s made of depleted uranium, which only three assassins in the whole world are known to use, and a glance at their photographs allows Bond to narrow it down to one. Setting aside the fact that being struck by such a bullet should have cut Bond in half, or that MI6 evidently failed to perform any such analysis on the hundreds of spent rounds at the scene, it seems rather careless for a hired killer to leave such a distinctive calling card. You could invent a rationale for this—perhaps the assassin deliberately wants to put his signature on every hit—but it still takes us out of the movie for a few seconds. When you apply Butterworth’s rule, though, you can start to see the reasoning behind it. The plot point with the bullet feels a lot like an attempt to compress what used to be two beats into one. If the lab had managed to narrow down the universe of possible killers using, say, passport tracking, and then had layered the ballistic analysis on top to drill down even further, we probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But it would have meant a longer scene of Bond chatting with a man, so it had to go.

"Give me ten minutes..."

The trouble, obviously, is that when you push this kind of compression too far—or at the wrong moment in the story—the audience is likely to object. As a rule of thumb, viewers or readers tend to be more willing to follow the hero through a few intermediate steps of reasoning in the first act than in the third, so the kind of shortcut that Skyfall presents here might well have gone unnoticed in the last twenty minutes of the movie, when we’ve been conditioned to expect the narrative to take a logical leap or two for the sake of momentum. (In this connection, I always think, for some reason, of the penultimate scene of Die Hard With a Vengeance, in which John McClane figures out the villain’s whereabouts using the words on the bottom of an aspirin bottle. We buy it, sort of, because we’re so close to the climax, but it wouldn’t have worked at all earlier on.) A thriller is engaged in a constant balancing act between plausibility and forward movement, and the terms of the equation shift based on where you are in the plot. It isn’t just a matter of what you do, but of when you do it. In general, you can get away with greater gaps in the logic when the surrounding action is furious enough to drown out any implausibilities that would seem glaring if the characters were conversing in a quiet room. Which, in fact, goes a long way toward explaining why Bond can’t be shown chatting with other men: with every such scene, the plausibility of the narrative, which is already so tenuous, comes closer to collapsing entirely.

You can clearly see this principle at work in Chapter 54 of Eternal Empire. Wolfe has just arrived in Sochi in the aftermath of the drone attack, and in order for the plot to proceed, she needs to figure out the location of the launch site with nothing but the information she has at her disposal. The steps in her deductive process are, I think, fairly plausible. The attackers would have wanted to stay off the satellite networks; the drone would have been controlled through line of sight; given its size and the number of rockets it fired, it would have needed enough room for takeoff, or maybe even a pneumatic launcher; and it would have required privacy and a high level of security. Glancing at a map, she concludes that the assault must have been launched from a dacha to the north of the port. Powell, on the phone, says that he’ll pass along whatever he finds, and we later learn that she identified the correct location on her third try. Looking back at the scene from the distance of a few years, I think that I compressed her chain of reasoning just enough, especially because there are so many competing forces at this stage that are propelling the narrative forward. It’s particularly instructive to compare it to the similar series of deductions that Wolfe makes in Chapter 9, which end with her finding a body in East Acton. In that case, instead of unfolding in a couple of paragraphs, it occupies a few unhurried pages—which was just right for that point in the story. The closer you are to the end, the faster it has to be. And you always have to keep your target in sight…

Written by nevalalee

June 2, 2016 at 8:28 am

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