Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Christopher McQuarrie

The science of survival

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When I heard that Christopher McQuarrie had been hired to write and direct a second movie in the Mission: Impossible series, my initial reaction, curiously enough, was disappointment. I loved Rogue Nation, but I’ve always liked the way in which the franchise reinvents itself with every installment, and it was a little strange to contemplate a film that simply followed up on the characters and storylines from the previous chapter. (When I saw the trailer for Mission: Impossible—Fallout, my first thought was, “Oh, it’s a sequel.”) Now the reviews are in, and they indicate that Fallout might not just be the best of them all, but one of the greatest action movies of all time. This is a tribute to McQuarrie, of course, whom I’ve admired for decades, but the reaction also indicates that the rest of the world is catching up to a central fact about Tom Cruise himself. In the past, I’ve described him as a great producer who happens to occupy the body of a movie star—like a thetan occupying its host, perhaps—and Mission: Impossible is his unlikely masterpiece. Like one of the legendary moguls of old Hollywood, Cruise has treated it as a springboard for untapped talent (J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird), a showcase for memorable supporting performances (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paula Patton, Rebecca Ferguson), or a halfway house for gifted screenwriters who had spent years in the wilderness (Robert Towne, McQuarrie). It’s a secret studio that Cruise has built and run in plain sight, with far more skill and success than he displayed at the head of United Artists. Whether or not it’s a breakaway hit, Fallout seems to have awakened critics to the singular nature of his accomplishment. I can’t wait to see it.

Yet there’s a darker element to Cruise’s career, obviously, and I’ve never really addressed it here. There are countless possible approaches to the problem of his relationship to Scientology, but I may as well start with the video—which has been publicly available for over a decade—of Cruise accepting an award from David Miscavage. With a huge medal hanging from his neck, Cruise addresses the crowd at the podium, standing near a huge portrait of L. Ron Hubbard:

I’m really honored to be with you…Thank you for your confidence in me. I’ve personally been very privileged to see what you do to help, to protect, to serve all of us. I’ll tell you something—that I have never met a more competent, a more intelligent, a more tolerant or compassionate being outside of what I’ve experienced from LRH. And I’ve met the leaders of leaders, okay. I’ve met them all. So I say to you, sir, we are lucky to have you and thank you—and to you, L. Ron Hubbard, sir, I will take this as a half-ack. I will continue on my way. Okay, these are the times now, people. Okay, these are the times we will all remember. Were you there? What did you do? I think you know that I am there for you. And I do care so very, very, very much. So what do you say? We gonna clean this place up? Okay? Because we’re counting on you. Okay? All right? To LRH!

Apart from “half-ack,” a reference to a concept in Scientology that might count as the weirdest inside joke of all time, I’m struck the most by the offhand familiarity of “LRH.” It isn’t “Hubbard,” or “Ron,” or even “the Commodore,” but his initials. I use the same abbreviation in the notes in my book, because I need to repeat it so often, and its usage here makes it seem as if Hubbard is never far from the minds of his devotees. (In light of the upcoming movie, incidentally, it’s worth remembering that Hubbard once wrote: “Only Scientologists will be functioning in areas experiencing heavy fallout in an atomic war.”)

And given everything else that we know about Hubbard, it can seem incredible that a pulp writer from the thirties—a man who otherwise might be mentioned in the same breath, if he were lucky, as A.E. van Vogt and L. Sprague de Camp—dominates the inner life of the world’s last surviving movie star. Yet it isn’t entirely inexplicable. Aside from the details that Lawrence Wright exhaustively provides in Going Clear, I don’t have much insight into Cruise’s feelings toward Scientology, but I can venture a few observations. The first is that the church knew exactly what it had in Cruise. A desire to recruit celebrities, or their relatives, is visible in the earliest days of dianetics, starting with Hubbard’s assistants Greg Hemingway and Richard De Mille, and continuing all the way through the likes of Frank Stallone. Cruise, like John Travolta, was the real thing, and the church has spared no expense in earning and maintaining his favor. He may show a dismaying lack of interest in the welfare of the members who clean the ship on which he once celebrated his birthday, but his personal experience within the church can hardly have been anything but wonderful. The second point is a little trickier. When Cruise says that auditing changed his life, I don’t doubt it. I’ve spoken with a number of former Scientologists, and even those who are highly critical of the overall movement say that the therapy itself was frequently beneficial, which is probably true of any system that allows people to talk through their problems on a regular basis with an outwardly sympathetic listener. As John W. Campbell once wrote to the writer Eric Frank Russell: “Why, for God’s sake, do you think I thought dianetics was so important? Hell, man, because I knew it was, because I tried it, and it helped.” Or as William S. Burroughs said more succinctly: “Of course Scientology attracts all the creeps of the cosmos. You see it works.”

You could say much the same of psychoanalysis or behavioral therapy, but it certainly seems to have worked in Cruise’s case, which leads us to the most relevant point of all. If there’s one theme that I like to emphasize here, it’s that we rarely understand the reasons for our own success. We’re likely to attribute it to hard work or skill, when it might be the result of privilege or luck, and it’s easy to tell ourselves stories about cause and effect. Cruise has succeeded in life beyond all measure, and it’s no surprise that he credits it to Scientology, because this was exactly what he was told to expect. In Scientology: The Now Religion, which was published in 1970, the author George Malko recounts an interview that he had with a church member named Bob Thomas:

“When you’re clear,” Thomas said, “you’re free in the mental sense, but you want to extend your influence and power and so on.” Thus becoming an operating thetan is not merely being at cause mentally, but at cause over matter, energy, space, and time in the physical, total sense.” When I suggested that this implied that an operating thetan could levitate, rise right up into the air and hang there, Thomas sat forward in his chair and said, “Right. These are the ultimate goals that are envisioned. I’m saying that these are the ultimate things it is hoped man is capable of, if he really has those potentials, which we assume he has…That’s what’s happening in Scientology: people are finding out more and more about themselves, and the more they find out about themselves, the freer they are. And we envision no ultimate limitation on how free an individual can be. Beyond the state of clear, there are these grades of operating thetans. When you’re clear, you’re free in the mental sense, but you want to extend your influence and power as a spiritual being. And that road is a higher road which Mr. Hubbard is researching at this moment.”

When I read these words, and then watch Cruise hanging off an airplane or scaling the Burj Khalifa, they take on another resonance. Cruise may be our greatest movie star and producer—but he also acts like a man who thinks that he can fly.

Writing the vegetables

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In the huge interview with Empire that I recommended earlier this week, Christopher McQuarrie shares a story from the editing of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. McQuarrie and Tom Cruise had assembled a rough cut of the entire movie, and it wasn’t playing well. To be fair, it never does, especially when it includes a lot of unfinished visual effects, but what they were seeing left them particularly depressed, and after watching the first half, they walked outside to get some air and brace themselves for the rest. (McQuarrie refers to it as a “Cut me, Mick” moment, and anyone who has dreaded going back to a troubled project can probably relate.) McQuarrie describes what happened next:

We went back in and sat down and Eddie [Hamilton] had cut together a big chunk of the second half of the movie. And we got to the moment—no music in it, nothing, total rough cut—and [Ilsa] said: “Come away with me.” Tom and I looked at each other, and we’re like, “Do you feel that? That kind of worked! That was actually good!” And then there was the scene in the safe house when they’re all fighting with each other, and that was working. All of a sudden, we were looking at it and going, “You know, all the vegetables of the movie are actually tracking. They’re actually playing really well. It’s all the action that’s not worked out yet.”

McQuarrie quickly moves on, but the notion of a story’s “vegetables”—the scenes that exist to get from one high point to another—stuck with me, along with the idea that you can evaluate a work in progress by keeping an eye on those interstitial scenes.

On some level, this seems to run contrary to one of the central tenets of storytelling, which is that if you nail the big moments and don’t actively screw anything up, the rest will take care of itself. (As Howard Hawks put it: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.”) And in practice, viewers or readers will forgive almost anything if a story delivers when it counts. But the vegetables are important, too—to facilitate the climaxes, as worthwhile scenes in themselves, and as a kind of index of the whole. I’ve noted elsewhere that the famous moments that we remember rely on the surrounding material to have an impact. Revealingly, such scenes rarely, if ever, come at the very beginning, which is when writers feel the most pressure to start off with a bang—which only indicates the extent to which they depend on context and preparation. That pattern holds throughout the story. A novel or movie that consists of just one high point after another is likely to be exhausting, while one that conceives itself as a delivery system for awesome moments may fall flat whenever something amazing isn’t happening. To some extent, this is a matter of personal taste. I gave up on Game of Thrones in part because of its tendency to sag between character deaths, while I never got tired of Mad Men, which was made up of countless tiny but riveting choices that gained power from their cumulative impact. The most reasonable approach, unless you’re Matthew Weiner, is a deliberate balance in which the quieter scenes enable the more conventionally exciting sequences. The vegetables may not be the main attraction, but they play the same role in a story that aromatics like onions and garlic have in cooking. They add flavor and bind the rest together.

The vegetables can also be tasty in themselves. A few weeks ago, I finally saw Hamilton onstage, and my big takeaway was how good the second act is—it’s just one great song after another. Yet on paper, it also consists mostly of vegetables, with characters talking about politics or setting up information that will pay off later on. You can see this clearly in “Take a Break,” a purely functional song that exists solely to establish the fact that Hamilton is away from his family, but is so lovingly written and performed that it becomes a showstopper. Even better is “The Election of 1800,” which just moves the political pieces around, but thrills me to no end. (I love it in part because it reminds me of Evita, which is nothing but vegetables, but so cleverly delivered that we don’t even notice. And neither musical could exist, at least not at this level of success, if they hadn’t found solutions to the problem of treating politics in song.) You may not notice such functional scenes on your first encounter, or even your tenth, but the more you listen to a soundtrack or watch a movie, the more they stand out. They’re often the ones that I end up revisiting the most, in part because they can’t take our attention for granted, so they have to exist at a high level of craft. I’ve read the novel The Silence of the Lambs maybe ten times, but the one chapter that I never tire of reading is the one in which Clarice Starling searches the storage unit that might hold the key to an unsolved murder. It really only exists to get the plot to the next stage, but Harris enriches it with countless lovely touches, like how the resourceful Clarice fixes a stuck lock with a few drops of oil from a dipstick, or how she uses the jack from her car to lever up the rusty door. And you really start to appreciate this sort of scene when you notice its total absence from Hannibal Rising.

For a writer, the best thing about vegetables, as well as a potential pitfall, is that you can always find ways of improving them, which isn’t always true of the big moments. Novelists may not be in the same position as filmmakers who have to wait for special effects to be rendered, but if you’ve ever written a novel, you know that you eventually stop seeing the scenes that made you want to write it in the first place. You’ve read them so many times that they become invisible, and it can be hard to look past your preconceptions to see what’s actually on the page. With purely functional scenes, it’s easy to retain your detachment, and you can keep tinkering with them even when you lack the energy to tackle larger issues. Ideally, the vegetables can even serve as a gauge of quality, as they did with McQuarrie and Cruise: if the small stuff is working, there’s reason to hope that the big stuff is, too. But proportionality also matters, and endless fiddling on minor details can blind you to a scene’s true importance. (Martin Scorsese threatened to take his name off Raging Bull because he couldn’t hear a background character ordering a Cutty Sark in a bar.) Fretting too much over the vegetables can turn into procrastination, or a form of avoidance. As Carl Richards of the New York Times points out, it’s when you’re looking for excuses to avoid moving to the next stage that you seize onto finicky little items: “What color should the logo be?” “I can’t find an agent.” “It could use another round of edits.” “I’m not sure what font to use.” That’s when the vegetables tend to call to you the most. The best approach is to utilize this impulse to polish the small parts until they shine, while keeping it under control so that you don’t lose sight of the overall picture. Vegetables in a story are good for you. But you don’t want to neglect the meat.

Cruise and control

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Over the last week, I’ve been listening to a long interview that the writer and director Christopher McQuarrie gave to The Empire Film Podcast after the release of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. It’s over two and a half hours long and loaded with insight, but it also has a somewhat different tone when you come to it after the recent debacle of The Mummy. McQuarrie, predictably, has nothing but good words for Tom Cruise, whom he describes as the ultimate producer, with a hand in every aspect of the creative process. Now compare this to the postmortem in Variety:

In the case of The Mummy, one person—Cruise—had an excessive amount of control, according to several people interviewed. The reboot of The Mummy was supposed to be the start of a mega-franchise for Universal Pictures. But instead, it’s become a textbook case of a movie star run amok…Several sources close to the production say that Cruise exerted nearly complete creative oversight on The Mummy, essentially wearing all the hats and dictating even the smallest decisions on the set…Universal, according to sources familiar with the matter, contractually guaranteed Cruise control of most aspects of the project, from script approval to post-production decisions.

To put it another way, between Rogue Nation and The Mummy, absolutely nothing changed. On the one hand, Cruise’s perfectionist tendencies resulted in an excellent piece of work; on the other, they led to a movie that most critics agree is nearly unwatchable. This might seem like a paradox, but I’d prefer to see it as proof that this level of obsessiveness is required to make any movie whatsoever, regardless of the outcome. It may come from a producer or director rather than from the star, but in its absence, complicated projects just don’t get made at all. And the quality of the finished product is the result of factors that are out of even Tom Cruise’s control.

If you work in any creative field, you probably know this already, but the extent to which you’re willing to accept it is often determined by where your role falls in production. At one extreme, you have someone like the editor Walter Murch, who hangs a shiny brass “B” in his office. As Charles Koppelman writes in Behind the Seen:

Ask Walter about it, and he’ll tell you about aiming for a “B.” Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable. One can be happy with that. Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods—it’s beyond your control. If you start to think that the gods are smiling, they will take your revenge. Keep your blade sharp. Make as good a film as you know how. It’s an Eastern-oriented philosophy, as expressed by the American writer and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

At the other extreme, you have the star, who has been groomed to attribute everything good in a movie to his or her irreplaceable presence. And it’s no accident that you find these two attitudes at opposite ends of the production process. The light that strikes the star’s face is captured on film that works its way down the chain to the editors, who have little choice but to be pragmatic: they can only work with the footage that they’ve been given, and while they have lots of good tricks for manipulating it, they’re ultimately the ones who deal with what remains after all the fond hopes that went into a film have collided with reality. They know exactly what they do and don’t have. And they’re aware that superhuman technical control doesn’t represent the high end of craft, but the bare minimum required to do useful work.    

The screenwriter lies somewhere in the middle. In theory, he’s the one who gets paid to dream, and he isn’t constrained by any outside factors when he’s putting ideas down on the page. This isn’t quite how it works in practice, since there are plenty of externalities to consider at every point, and a screenwriter is often asked to solve problems at every stage in production. And we should be a little skeptical of what they have to say. Our understanding of cinematic craft is skewed by the fact that writers have traditionally been its most eloquent and entertaining expositors, which provides just one perspective on the making of the movie. One reason is the fact that screenwriters need to be good with words, not just for the script, but for the pitch meeting, which is another sort of performance—and it encourages them to deliver a hard sell for the act of writing itself. Another is that screenwriters have often been critically denigrated in favor of directors, which obliges them to be exceptionally funny, insightful, and forceful when they’re defending the importance of what they do for a living. Finally, there’s a kind of cynicism about the idea of control, which makes it easier to talk about it afterward. No screenplay is ever shot or released as written, which means that screenwriters exist to have their visions betrayed. If you believe that movies are made up largely of the contingent factors that emerge during production, that’s how it should be. But it also leaves screenwriters in a strange place when it comes to questions of control. Terry Rossio says of formatting the script so that the page breaks come at the right spot: “If you find yourself with this sort of obsessive behavior—like coming up with inventive ways to cheat the page count!—then, I think, you’ve got the right kind of attitude to make it in Hollywood.” He’s clearly right. But it’s also the kind of meticulousness that will be seen by only a handful of insiders, before your ideas pass through the hands of a dozen other professionals on the way to taking an unrecognizable form onscreen.

This may be the real reason why the screenwriters who serve as public advocates for craft—William Goldman, Robert Towne, Tony Gilroy, McQuarrie, and a few others—are also the ones with reputations as fixers, coming in at the very end to work on “troubled” shoots, which, as I’ve argued before, describes nearly every studio movie ever. These writers may well be legitimately better than most of their peers at solving problems, or at least they’re perceived that way, which is why they get those assignments. (As McQuarrie recently said to John August, when asked about the use of writers’ rooms on franchises like Transformers: “I believe you can create all of the Transformers stuff you want. You can build out the whole universe…When the rubber hits the road, that’s all going to change. They’re going to call you. They’re going to call me.” And he’s probably correct.) They’re survivors, and they’ve inevitably got good war stories to share. But we’re also more likely to listen to writers whose contributions come at the end of the process, where their obsessiveness can have a visible impact. It allows them to take credit for what worked while implicitly washing their hands of what didn’t, and there’s an element of chance involved here, too: every screenwriter wants to be the last one hired on a movie, but where you end up on that queue has a lot to do with luck and timing. I still find McQuarrie impossible to resist, and I learn more about storytelling from listening to him for ten minutes than by doing anything else. I’ve been talking about his interview so much that my wife joked that it’s my new religion. Well, maybe it is. But given how little anyone can control, it’s closer to John Gardner says about writing novels: it’s a yoga, a way of life in the world, rather than an end in itself. As McQuarrie himself says to Empire: “Never do anything to effect a result. Do something because you want to do it, or because you have to do it.” And he would know.

The mummy’s curse

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“Nobody wanted to see Tom Cruise in this movie,” a studio marketing executive was recently quoted as saying of The Mummy. Well, I humbly confess that I sort of did. My fondness for Cruise is a matter of record, and the prospect of a slick, expensive supernatural blockbuster with a contemporary setting, even one that forced itself into the franchise mold, was undeniably enticing. It wasn’t until the result seemed to underwhelm just about everyone who saw it that I realized how much I had been looking forward to the possibility that it might actually be good. Honestly, it feels like a loss. A really strong debut to the Dark Universe, as Universal insists on calling it, might have taken us to interesting places, and its lukewarm reception is a blow not so much to Cruise’s track record as an actor, which doesn’t need additional burnishing, as to his reputation as a superb overseer and packager of talent. Elsewhere, I’ve described him as a great producer who happens to occupy the body of a movie star, which is an unstoppable combination, and I’ve spent the last two decades regarding his name above the title as the most reliable brand in movies. Cruise seems eerily capable of willing troubled, complicated projects—which covers half the films made in Hollywood—to a successful conclusion. There’s something a little scary about his singlemindedness, which can come off as exhausting onscreen, but it’s also the one indispensable quality in a producer. In his commentary track on Jack Reacher, Christopher McQuarrie makes an offhand observation about Cruise that gets to the heart of his talent: “I’ve never met a more precise actor in terms of matching and continuity, and it makes life extraordinarily easy in the cutting room.” It’s hard to imagine anyone saying this of, say, Marlon Brando. But for Cruise, it’s a point of pride.

And if The Mummy feels like a movie in which the whole process broke down, it only underlines the fact that every blockbuster is always on the verge of falling apart, and that this represents the one time when Cruise—and McQuarrie, who was brought in for rewrites—failed to save it at the last minute. For proof, we need look no further than Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, an excellent movie that was also a logistical nightmare to write, shoot, and assemble. There was never a finished script, and production got underway with what feels like little more than the assumption that Cruise and McQuarrie would somehow figure it out on the set, in real time, with millions of dollars on the line. Toward the end, they took a long break to rewrite the ending, which was less a sign of desperation than their standard operating procedure. As McQuarrie told Deadline:

It’s the part of the process that Tom and I really love. You’re confronted with an obstacle that seems so insurmountable and Tom always says the same thing. If there’s any two people who can figure this out, it’s us. We’re gonna figure it out. And, usually we do.

That “usually” is a big catch, of course, but McQuarrie has worked with Cruise, credited or not, on ten films over the last decade, and he’s pulled off this sort of thing more consistently than anyone else possibly could. Given the enormous pressure and logistical challenges involved, it’s an incredible achievement. The trouble is that it creates the notion that you can always call in McQuarrie to fix a movie in the rewrite. This even extends to the films that he directs himself, as he revealed last month to the Scriptnotes podcast: “When I came in on Rogue Nation, I said let’s take all the lessons we learned from [Ghost Protocol], let’s have somebody else write a screenplay, and I’ll come in and fix it.” And you can hardly blame him, because until now, it always worked.

As a result, when we read accounts of the travails of The Mummy, with Cruise “trying to save the movie in the editing room,” it’s important to recognize that this was simply business as usual. Rogue Nation was saved in the editing room and at the rewrite stage. So were Ghost Protocol and Edge of Tomorrow. If The Mummy clearly wasn’t, the real question isn’t so much what went wrong in this case as what went right with all the others. But it also provides some intriguing clues. It’s possible that its status as the first chapter in a shared universe put too many cooks in the kitchen, or that its director, Alex Kurtzman, was unable to accommodate himself to Cruise’s control. In the podcast interview that I mentioned above, McQuarrie offers up a fascinating blind item:

There was one movie in particular that’s coming out. I’m very interested to see it. I won’t say its name. I begged the director not to go in the direction he was going. Because I really did believe in the material and I thought it was wonderful. And there was one specific plot element that completely degraded the main character of the film. And I said if you just take this thing away, your movie will become really powerful. But there was a visual idea. Either it was clearly an obsession with this particular idea, and there was a refusal to recognize that this very idea that gives you one visual aspect of the movie is going to tear the movie down. And he said, “Well, it’s just too much work.” And I said, “You’ve got nine months. You don’t realize how many times you can reinvent this movie.”

This sounds a lot like The Mummy, which includes a controversial sequence in which Cruise is possessed by the villainous Ahmanet, but even if it isn’t, it points to the problems that can arise when the chemistry with the director isn’t there. (As an aside, this explains why Cruise, after an amazing run in which he collaborated with many of the world’s greatest directors, has now settled for returning repeatedly to the same handful of journeymen, including McQuarrie, Doug Liman, Edward Zwick, and even Joseph Kosinski. Not all of them are masters of the medium, but he knows that he can work with them.)

All of this just makes me more interested in seeing The Mummy, even if the details of its production seem unlikely to ever get the full treatment that they deserve. And it’s a reminder of the fine line between success and failure that afflicts so many movies. One of the most striking case studies is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was beset by production woes—including a script that was rewritten during filming and significant changes in reshoots and the editing room—but emerged as a masterpiece. A decade later, with The Hobbit, the same creative team, presented with virtually identical material, failed to make it happen again. Similarly, Cruise’s improvisational process can yield The Mummy, but it can also give us Edge of Tomorrow. And it doesn’t make me any less excited about the next installment in the Mission: Impossible series. At first glance, it feels vulnerable to the same kind of risk, but McQuarrie, as a director, has a few proven ideas about how to manage it. As he says to Scriptnotes:

We’re also very fortunate in that as long as we’re in Paris—we’re here for almost seven weeks—I only have three dialogue scenes in Paris. Everything else is action. All of the interior action in Paris will be shot in London. And what that allows me to do is play with the characters on a very, very, very minute scale and start to find what the movie looks like and know that, oh, I don’t have to explain what happens in this scene until the end of the summer when I’m in London. So it allowed us to sort of prioritize what did I really need to know in Paris before I left and what does that tie me into. And what we’re always trying to do is leave ourselves as many outs as possible.

On some level, this sounds insane, but it also reflects the thought that McQuarrie has invested into figuring out how to enable this kind of revision without getting crushed by the momentum of a big movie. (A lot of it comes down to a few reliable tricks. If you’re filming a scene with a lot of exposition, keep the characters in tight closeup, against a backdrop that can be easily recreated in the studio, in case you need to reshoot the whole thing to accommodate a change in the plot. And you always get a shot of Cruise looking at a cell phone, so that you can add an insert later to clarify the story.) Maybe it won’t come together this time. It evidently didn’t with The Mummy. But even if it sometimes fails, the really remarkable thing is that it ever works at all.

Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2017 at 8:47 am

The faults in our stars

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In his wonderful conversational autobiography Cavett, Dick Cavett is asked about his relationship with Johnny Carson, for whom he served as a writer on The Tonight Show. Cavett replies:

I did work for Carson. We didn’t go fishing together on weekends, and I never slept over at his house, the two of us lying awake in our jammies eating the fudge we had made together, talking of our dreams and hopes and fears. But I found him to be cordial and businesslike, and to have himself well in hand as far as the show as concerned…He is not a man who seems to seek close buddies, and, if he were, the staff of his own television show would not be the ideal place to seek them.

It’s a memorable passage, especially the last line, which seems particularly relevant at a time when our talk show hosts seem eager to seem accessible to everybody, and to depict their writing staffs as one big happy family. When asked to comment on the widespread notion that Carson was “cold,” Cavett responds:

I know very little about Johnny’s personal relationships. I have heard that he has been manipulated and screwed more than once by trusted associates, to the point where he is defensively wary to what some find an excessive degree. I see this as a perfectly reasonable response. It is, I suppose, the sort of thing that happens to a person in show business that makes his former friends say, with heavy disapprobation, “Boy, has he changed.”

Cavett could easily let the subject rest there, but something in the question seems to stick in his mind, and he continues:

While I’m at it, I’ll do a short cadenza on the subject of changing. If you are going to survive in show business, the chances are you are going to change or be changed. Whatever your reasons for going into the business, it is safe to admit they form a mixture of talent, ambition, and neurosis. If you are going to succeed and remain successful, you are going to do it at the expense of a number of people who are clamoring to climb the same rope you are climbing. When you suddenly acquire money, hangers-on, well-wishers, and ill-wishers; when you need to make baffling decisions quickly, to do too much in too little time, to try to lead a personal and a professional life when you can’t seem to find the time for either; when you have to kick some people’s fannies and kiss others’ to get to the point where you won’t need to do either any more; when you have to sort out conflicting advice, distinguish between the treacherous and the faithful or the competent and the merely aggressive, suffer fools when time is short and incompetents when you are in a pinch; and when you add to this the one thing that you don’t get in other professions—the need to be constantly fresh and presentable and at your best just at the times when you are bone-weary, snappish, and depressed; when all these things apply, it is possible that you are going to be altered, changed, and sometimes for the worse.

This is one of the best things I’ve ever read about show business, and if anything, it feels even more insightful today, when we collectively have so much invested in the idea that stars have inner lives that are more or less like our own.

It’s often been said that the reason that television actors have trouble crossing over to the movies is that we expect different things from our stars in either medium. One requires a personality that is larger than life, which allows it to survive being projected onto an enormous screen in a darkened theater; the other is a person whom we’d feel comfortable inviting on a regular basis into our living rooms. If that’s true of scripted television that airs once a week, it’s even more true of the talk shows that we’re expected to watch every night. And now that the online content created by such series has become so central to their success, we’re rapidly approaching this trend’s logical culmination: a talk show host has to be someone whose face we’d be comfortable seeing anywhere, at any time. This doesn’t just apply to television, either. As social media is increasingly called upon to supplement the marketing budgets of big movies, actors are obliged to make themselves accessible—on Twitter, on Instagram, as good sports on Saturday Night Live and in viral videos—to an extent that a star of the old studio system of the forties would have found utterly baffling. Deadline’s writeup of Alien: Covenant is typical:

RelishMix…assessed that Alien: Covenant has a strong social media universe…spread across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube views and Instagram followers…The company also adds that Covenant was challenged by a generally inactive cast, with Empire’s Jussie Smollett being the most popular activated star. Danny McBride across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook counts over 250,000. Michael Fassbender is not socially active.

I love the implication that stars these days need to be “activated,” like cell phones, to be fully functional, as well as the tone of disapproval at the fact that Michael Fassbender isn’t socially active. It’s hard to imagine how that would even look: Fassbender’s appeal as an actor emerges largely from his slight sense of reserve, even in showy parts. But in today’s climate, you could also argue that this has hampered his rise as a star.

And Cavett’s cadenza on change gets at an inherent tension in the way we see our stars, which may not be entirely sustainable. In The Way of the Gun, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who knows more than anyone about survival in Hollywood, the character played by James Caan says: “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor.” Similarly, the only thing you can assume about a movie star, talk show host, or any other figure in show business whose face you recognize is that he or she possesses superhuman levels of ambition. Luck obviously plays a large role in success, as does talent, but both require a preternatural drive, which is the matrix in which giftedness and good fortune have a chance to do their work. Ambition may not be sufficient, but it’s certainly necessary. Yet we persist in believing that stars are accessible and ordinary, when, by definition, they can hardly be other than extraordinary. It’s a myth that emerges from the structural assumptions of social media, a potent advertising tool that demands a kind of perceptual leveling to be effective. I was recently delighted to learn that the notorious feature “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” originated when the editors at Us Magazine had to figure out how to use the cheap paparazzi shots that they could afford to buy on their tiny budget, like a picture of Drew Barrymore picking up a penny. Social media works in much the same way. It creates an illusion of intimacy that is as false as the airbrushed images of the movie stars of Hollywood’s golden age, and it deprives us of some of the distance required for dreams. Whether or not they want to admit it, stars, unlike the rich, truly are different. And I’ll let Cavett have the last word:

Unless you are one of these serene, saintly individuals about whom it can be truly said, “He or she hasn’t changed one bit from the day I knew them in the old house at Elm Street.” This is true mostly of those who have found others to do their dirty work for them. All I’m saying is that your demands and needs change, and if you don’t change with them you don’t survive.

Written by nevalalee

May 24, 2017 at 9:53 am

“To spare another man’s life…”

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"Asthana halted..."

Note: This post is the sixtieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 59. You can read the previous installments here.

Why do our villains always have to die? Roger Ebert says somewhere—I haven’t been able to track down the exact reference—that he’d be happier if a movie ended with the hero sealing the bad guy’s fate with a few well-chosen lines of dialogue, followed by a closeup of the bastard’s face as he absorbs his predicament. And there’s no question that this would be much more satisfying than the anticlimactic death scenes that most stories tend to deliver. It’s safe to say that if a book or screenplay goes through the trouble of creating a nice, hateful antagonist, it’s usually for the sake of his ultimate comeuppance: we want to see him pay for what he’s done, and hopefully suffer in the process. In practice, the manner in which he ends up being dispatched rarely lives up to the punishment we’ve mentally assigned to him in advance. For one thing, it’s often too fast. We want him to perish at a moment of total recognition, and the nature of most fictional deaths means that the realization is over almost before it begins. (This may be the real reason why so many villains are killed by falling from a great height. It leaves the hero’s hands relatively clean, however illogically, and it also allows for at least a few seconds of mute astonishment and understanding to cross the bad guy’s face. The story goes that during the filming of Die Hard, director John McTiernan let Alan Rickman drop a second before he was expecting it. Rickman was understandably furious, but the look he gives the camera is worth it: there are few things more delicious than seeing him lose that mask of perfect, icy control.)

All things being equal, it’s best to allow the villain to live to deal with the consequences. But there are also situations in which a death can feel dramatically necessary. I’ve never forgotten what Robert Towne once said about a similar plot point at the end of Chinatown. Originally, Towne had wanted the movie to conclude on an ambiguous note, but he was overruled by Roman Polanski. Years later, Towne said:

In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending, that I don’t think that what I had in mind could have been done; that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.

Chinatown, of course, ends with anything but the villain getting what he deserves, but the principle is largely the same. In some respects, it’s a matter of contrast. A story that consists of one act of violence after another might benefit from a more nuanced ending, while one that teases out its complexities would go out best with a stark, sudden conclusion. I’ve always preferred the brutally abbreviated last scene of The Departed to that of Infernal Affairs, for instance, because that twisty, convoluted story really needs to close with a full stop. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”

"To spare another man's life..."

And a villain’s death can be necessary in order to close off the story completely: it’s like scorching the end of a nylon rope to prevent it from unraveling. Death is nothing if not definitive, and it can seem unfair to the viewer or reader to leave the narrative open at one end after they’ve come so far already. The decision as to whether or not to spare the villain is a tricky one, and it can be determined by forces from much earlier in the narrative. In his director’s commentary for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they spent countless drafts trying to figure out ways for Ethan to kill Solomon Lane, only to find that none of the results seemed satisfying. The reason, they discovered, was that Lane hadn’t done enough to make Ethan hate him in particular: it just wasn’t personal, so it didn’t need to end with anything so intimate as a fight to the death. A story’s internal mechanics can also push the ending in the other direction. The original draft of The Icon Thief, which persisted almost until the book went out to publishers, had all three of the primary antagonists surviving, and in fact, Maddy even asks Ilya to spare Sharkovsky’s life. In the rewrite, I realized that Lermontov had to die to balance out the death of another character earlier in the novel, which in itself was a very late addition, and that Maddy had to be the one to take that revenge. This kind of narrative bookkeeping, in which the writer cooks the numbers until they come out more or less right, is something that every author does, consciously or otherwise. In this case, it was a choice that ended up having a huge impact on the rest of the series, and it influenced many other judgment calls to come, to an extent that I’m not sure I recognized at the time.

Chapter 59 of Eternal Empire, for example, is maybe the bloodiest sequence in the entire trilogy, in emotional impact if not in raw body count: it includes the deaths of two major characters and a fair amount of collateral damage. I get rid of Asthana, whom I liked so much that I kept her around for an entire novel after I originally planned to dispose of her, and Vasylenko, whose presence has haunted the series from the start. Looking back on it, I’m pretty happy with Asthana’s swan song, which consists of a complicated set of feints and maneuvers against Wolfe. It’s fair to both characters, and it gives Asthana a second or two to process how she’s been outsmarted. (I wasn’t thinking of Arrested Development, but it’s hard for me to read it now without imagining Asthana saying to herself: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”) But I’m not particularly pleased by how I handled Vasylenko’s death, which is too bad, since by all rights it ought to be the climax of all three books. In some ways, I wrote myself into a corner: there’s really no plausible way to keep Vasylenko alive, or to extend his confrontation with Ilya for longer than a couple of paragraphs, and in my eagerness to write a definitive ending to the series, I may have rushed past the moment of truth. In my defense, the chapter has to provide closure for multiple pairs of characters—Ilya and Maddy, Ilya and Wolfe, Ilya and Vasylenko, Wolfe and Asthana—and I do what I can to give each of them the valediction they deserve. If I had to do it over again, I might have toyed with switching Asthana and Vasylekno’s final scenes, in order to close the novel on a position of greater strength, but this probably wouldn’t have been possible. The Icon Thief ended with Maddy asking Ilya to spare another man’s life; Eternal Empire had to conclude with her asking for the opposite. They don’t end in the same way. But Maddy isn’t the same person she was when we started…

“Yet she was still a woman…”

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"More curiosity than respect..."

Note: This post is the forty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 48. You can read the previous installments here.

“When I start a play, I’ll think, does it matter if this character is a man or a woman?” David Lindsay-Abaire once said. “And if it doesn’t, I make it a woman.” I do pretty much the same thing. And I’d like to think that we both take this approach for an utterly unsentimental reason: it results in better stories. There’s a tendency for writers, male and female alike, to use male characters as default placeholders, especially in genres that have traditionally been dominated by men. By systematically visualizing women instead—even if it’s nothing more than an initial sketch—you’ve already redirected your thought processes at a slightly different angle, which can only be good for the outcome. Whenever I read stories from the golden age of science fiction, I’m struck by the absence of women, which seems less like a sin than a mistake. It’s hard to think of a story from that era that wouldn’t have been improved by turning half of the men into women, without any other revisions aside from the relevant pronouns, as was done, much later, with Ripley in Alien. And I would have addressed this advice squarely to those pragmatic hacks who were only interested in making a living. There are so few writing rules of any value that a professional ought to utilize anything that works on a consistent basis, and the fact that so many of the women we see in these stories are either love interests or secretaries, even in the far future, feels like a missed opportunity.

There’s even a handy empirical test that you can use to verify this. Take a story from any genre in which the genders of the main characters are mostly irrelevant—that is, in which you could rewrite most of the men as women, or vice versa, while leaving the overall plot unchanged. Now mentally change a few of the men into women. The result, in most cases, is more interesting: it generates registers of meaning that weren’t there before. Now mentally turn some of the women in the original story into men. I’m willing to bet that it has the net opposite result: it actually saps the narrative of interest, and makes the whole thing flatter and duller. If you don’t believe me, just try it a few times. Even better, do it when you’re constructing a story, and see which version you like better. In the book Which Lie Did I Tell?, the screenwriter William Goldman writes:

I remember once being in an office with a studio guy and a couple of people were sitting around, fighting the story. And once of the people said this: “What if they’re all women?” Now the story, as I remember, was a male adventure flick. And the studio guy commented on that—“This is an adventure movie here, how stupid a suggestion is that?” Naturally the writer was finished for that day.

The truth, as Goldman points out, is that it was an excellent idea: “Making them all women opened up the world. I use it a lot myself now.” And that’s all the more reason to do it automatically at the earliest possible stage.

"Yet she was still a woman..."

Which isn’t to say that you can just change the names and pronouns and be done with it. This exercise is only useful if you follow through on the implications that come with making a character a woman, especially in a genre like suspense, which defines itself so casually in terms of action and violence. In my novels, you could change most of the women to men without affecting the main outlines of the plot, but there would be a real loss of meaning. In part, this is because I unconsciously situated these characters in worlds in which women face particular challenges. For Maddy, it was the world of art and finance; for Wolfe, of law enforcement; and for Asthana, of thieves and criminals. These tensions are mostly just implied, but I’d like to think that they quietly affect the way we see these characters, who are enriched by the choices they must have made before the story began. In retrospect, this explains, for instance, why Wolfe is so much more interesting than Alan Powell, to whom I devoted a third of The Icon Thief before mostly shelving him in Eternal Empire. Wolfe would have had to prove herself in ways that someone like Powell never would, and it shows, even if it’s unstated. And I have a hunch that my endless struggles with Powell as a character might have been avoided entirely if I’d done the logical thing and made him a woman as well.

There’s another missed chance in this series, and it involves the character of Asthana. The only time I come close to exploring the peculiar position she holds—as a woman of color in a criminal world—is in Chapter 48 of Eternal Empire, in which she enters a house in Sochi occupied entirely by Russian thieves. Her thoughts turn briefly to the fact that she’ll always be regarded as an outsider, and I try to show how she establishes herself in the pecking order by being a little smarter than the men around her. But I don’t do nearly enough. Part of this is simply due to a lack of space, and to the fact that it felt more important to define Asthana in relation to Wolfe. Still, her presence here raises a lot of questions that go mostly unanswered, and I can’t help but feel that I could have touched on them more. (If I were doing it all over again today, I would have remembered what Christopher McQuarrie says about Rebecca Ferguson’s character in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation: “They’re not men. They’re women that are not trying to be men…You’re here on your own terms and you’re in a shitty situation created by people in power above you. How do you escape this situation and maintain your dignity?”) If anything, the result would have made Asthana an even more formidable antagonist for Wolfe. And although there’s a showdown coming soon between these two women, the most interesting parts of this story will mostly remain unspoken…

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