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…

“This was the ending that had awaited him all along…”

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"Closing the door behind him..."

Note: This post is the forty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 47. You can read the previous installments here.

One of my favorite storytelling tricks is the false ending, in which the writer fools us into thinking that we’ve reached a satisfying conclusion, only to pause, regroup, and push forward into something even deeper. The great example here is The Usual Suspects. After listening to Verbal spin his convoluted tale for well over an hour, Detective Kujan turns the tables, bombarding Verbal with a version of events—aided by a barrage of flashbacks over a dramatic underscore—in which Dean Keaton was Keyser Soze all along. It’s a convincing performance, and if you went into the film knowing nothing except that it was supposed to have a famous twist, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was it, even if it wasn’t as good as you expected. Yet the sequence flies in the face of one of the few scraps of objective information that the audience has been given: the very first scene in the movie, in which Keaton dies. And if we temporarily forget this, it’s partially because ninety complicated minutes have unspooled in the meantime, but also because Kujan’s closing argument is assembled to look and sound like the end of the movie. It’s a perfectly decent flashback montage, of the sort that is often used to reveal the solution to a mystery, and we have no way of knowing that the movie is about five minutes away from using an even better montage to blow our minds for real. (The unsung hero here, as I never tire of saying, is editor and composer John Ottman, whose contributions elevate the movie beyond what was there in McQuarrie’s script and Singer’s direction.)

Which, when you think about it, is a surprisingly subtle point. It isn’t the logical consistency of the fake ending that fools us, but the way in which it mimics the visual, rhythmic, and aural conventions of the real endings to which we’re accustomed. We’re subconsciously attuned to how a movie feels as it draws toward its conclusion, and for a fake ending to work, it has to give us the full package, which is more important than whether or not it makes sense. And the absence of such cues can tip us off to the trick prematurely. Zootopia, for instance, has what would otherwise seem like an ingenious fake ending, but the movie rushes past it a little too quickly: if it were the real climax, we’d be savoring it, and the fact that the script treats it in an almost perfunctory way is a clue that we shouldn’t take it seriously. If a movie really wants to trick us, it has to edit that fake ending as if it were the real thing, and in particular, it has to pay close attention to the music, which often tells us what to feel. The score at the end of a movie usually swells to carry us out of the theater, and if many fake endings fail to convince, it’s because they’re too quiet. (I’m surprised at how rarely movies use our knowledge of scoring conventions against us. Movie music often prompts us to feel relieved—as when the score softly creeps in again after a long stretch of silence in which the heroine is exploring the deserted house—and I’d love it if a film gave us a few bars to release the tension, and then the jump scare.)

"This was the ending that had awaited him all along..."

The fact that movies almost never exploit a fake ending to its logical extent is hard to explain, especially because the medium lends itself so naturally to such a mislead. We know exactly how many pages remain in a book, and we generally have a pretty good idea of how long an episode of a television series will last. With a movie, unless we’re watching it at home and have carefully scrutinized the back of the video box beforehand, we don’t really know how much longer it has to go, and even if we can guess that it’s about two hours, twenty minutes in either direction gives it plenty of room to play with our expectations. (Douglas Hofstadter once jokingly proposed padding out novels with fake pages toward the end, to create the same kind of effect, and I sometimes experience this when a book ends, without my knowledge, with a preview of the next installment in the series.) But if the movies seem reluctant to push that kind of fakeout as far as it can go, it might be because the benefits are canceled out by unanticipated side effects. A really convincing fake ending would have the audience putting on its coats and preparing to exit the theater, only to be yanked back into the story, and that sort of manipulation can easily turn viewers against it. Fooling us into the physiological response created by a real ending might make it impossible for us to respond in that way when the movie actually ends. This might explain why the handful of movies that really sell a fake ending, like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or James Mangold’s Identity, time it so that it occurs only a few minutes, or seconds, before the real thing, compressing the two into one.

Chapter 47 of Eternal Empire occurs long before the ending of the book, but it includes a narrative fakeout that required me to take many of these issues into account. It’s the culmination of the subplot in which Ilya has been forced to assassinate Tarkovsky, and at the end of the chapter, he appears to do exactly that, shooting Tarkovsky in cold blood in the oligarch’s stateroom. Or at least that’s how it looks. Needless to say, there’s something else going on, and within the next couple of scenes, we’ll be let into the secret plan that has been unfolding in plain sight. When a valued reader gave me notes on the first draft, however, he said that he didn’t buy the scene as written—he knew, somehow, that Tarkovsky was still alive. When I went back to reread the relevant section, I saw my mistake: I had written it as if I knew what was coming. If Ilya had shot Tarkovsky for real, this would have been the tragic endpoint of the entire trilogy: the instant in which his true nature as a killer overtook his attempts to become something more, swept up by circumstances beyond his control. I would have lingered on this moment, which would have been one of the major climaxes of the whole series, and the existing version didn’t give it the attention that it deserved. In the revision, then, I slowed it down, putting in the equivalent of a dramatic orchestral sting to play over Tarkovsky’s apparent death, and I dwelled on it as if the entire book had been building to this passage. Which, in a sense, it had. (The rewrite also gave me my single favorite line in the novel, the description of the yacht as “a masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”) Does it work? I can’t say. But at least it has a chance…

Elsa and the two Ilsas

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Frozen

Last weekend, my wife and I took our daughter to see Disney on Ice, about a third of which was devoted to a Cliffs Notes version of Frozen. Hearing those familiar songs again in an arena with a raucous family audience, I was struck once more by how that film’s spectacular success emerged from the intersection of two peerless bags of tricks: the musical and the animated cartoon. Disney has taken cues from Broadway for a long time, of course, but in Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, they found a creative duo that understood those stage conventions inside and out, and the movie runs off their knowledge like a battery. Lopez, in particular, emerged as such a fluent ventriloquist of the Sesame Street style in Avenue Q that I remember talking to an acquaintance of his—a member of the same musical theater circles—who assumed that he could do nothing else. In fact, as it soon became clear, he can do just about anything. He reminds me at times of a less cynical version of Stephin Merritt, a master of formulas who has imbibed the grammar and, yes, the clichés of his medium so completely that he can deploy them almost without thinking. And what sets Lopez apart is that he’s both totally aware of how manipulative that framework can be and willing to use it in the service of what feels like genuine, unfaked emotion.

When you watch Frozen through that lens, you start to notice how many of its most memorable effects are achieved by an ingenious rearrangement of those basic components. In “For the First Time in Forever,” for instance, when the movie cuts away from Anna—who takes the song up a half-step with every verse—to Elsa singing the emotional counterpoint of “Let it Go,” and then begins to cut between them, it amounts to a fantastic structural trick that moves us before we even know why. During the reprise at the ice palace, Anna sings in major key, Elsa in minor, and it culminates in a miniature quodlibet that somehow evokes all of Les Misérables in less than a minute. Most famous of all, of course, is “Let It Go” itself, which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, seems to have recentered the entire movie as soon as it was written. And the really revealing point is that the Lopezes began with certain stock elements without worrying too much about where they fit into the script. “For the First Time in Forever” is a classic “I want” number, which is often ironically reprised later in the story, and “Let It Go” was known as “Elsa’s badass song” in the outline before it became something closer to “Defying Gravity.” (Idina Menzel was cast before any of the music had been written, so they were clearly writing with her strengths in mind.) And once the song was in place, the whole movie was reshaped around it, like the tail wagging the dog. As Lopez-Anderson has said: “If it weren’t framed by the right story, [the song] wouldn’t connect with people.”

Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation

And musicals aren’t the only genre in which a compelling character can result from the spaces left by the manipulation of big blocks of narrative. In an interview about the writing of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie said:

The…question for me was figuring out the structure of the movie, and we decided to just start with the action—we thought about what kinds of action set pieces we always wanted to do, and then we put them into some semblance of an order to try and figure out what journey that would put our characters on…I rearranged two sequences and changed one specific detail. I took the underwater sequence and the motorcycle chase and put them back to back, creating one monster action set piece in the middle of the movie. When I did that, it created a great relentless set piece, but I blew up the movie—suddenly, characters’ motives that made sense in the previous draft didn’t work anymore. If Ilsa is running from both Ethan and Lane, where is she running to? Figuring that out necessitated the creation of act one and the introduction of British intelligence into the movie, and that in turn led us to all the consequences in the third act. So action really drove story.

Critics have long noted that the action and musical genres have a lot in common, but I’m not sure if anyone has ever noticed how both can recombine stock elements to generate information about a character. In this case, it resulted in Ilsa Faust, who—with apologies to Imperator Furiosa, with whom she shares her initials—is the most interesting woman in an action movie in years.

And it applies to other genres as well. At the risk of stretching the argument, I’d argue that the most famous fictional Ilsa of all—as played by Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca—benefits from the same kind of narrative recombination. Casablanca is a kind of musical already, both because of its memorable songs and in the way its great set pieces play like solos or duets of unforgettable dialogue. And if much of Bergman’s appeal comes from her real confusion on the set about which man she was supposed to love the most, with her scenes being constantly rewritten on the fly, that embodies a kind of musical logic, too: director Michael Curtiz and his team of screenwriters seem to have chosen sequences based on how well they played in the moment, with Ilsa’s motivations evolving based on the emotional logic that the scenes imposed, rather than the other way around. If the result works so well, that’s a tribute to Bergman’s performance, which provides a connective thread between inconsistent conceptions of Ilsa’s character: the scene in which she pulls a gun on Rick to get the letters of transit doesn’t have much to do with anything else, but because of Bergman, we buy it, at least for as long as it takes to get us to the next moment. Umberto Eco famously said that Casablanca is made up of memories of other movies, but the intersection of all those incompatible elements resulted in a character that no one can ever forget. Ilsa and her two namesakes have that much in common: they emerge, as if by icy magic, when you set the right pieces side by side.

The power of the punchline

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

A few days ago, my wife sent me a link to “Jamie and Jeff’s Note to the Babysitter,” a McSweeney’s piece by Paul William Davies. I thought it was hilarious, both because I’ve written similar letters myself and because it’s a true rarity: a properly constructed page of humorous writing that fully develops its funny conceit from start to finish. Like many of its peers, it basically takes the form of a list, a format that the Harvard Lampoon pioneered decades ago, but unlike most, it doesn’t rely on that framework as an excuse to string together a loose series of unrelated gags. Instead, it benefits from the fact that its central idea lends itself naturally to the list structure, and above all from its last line, which Davies clearly knows is gold. Like Vijith Assar’s very different but equally excellent “Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar”—which is probably my favorite McSweeney’s piece ever—it has a punchline. And that makes all the difference. (The lack of a punchline is why so many “Shouts and Murmurs” pieces in The New Yorker seem to wither away into nothing: they tend to suffer from what I’ve elsewhere identified as that magazine’s distrust of neat endings, which leads to articles that conclude at the most arbitrary place imaginable, as if the writer had suffered a stroke before typing the final paragraph.)

And it got me thinking about the power of the punchline, not just to end a piece on a strong note, but to enable everything that comes before it. In his commentary track for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie talks at length about the challenges involved in structuring the fantastic sequence set at the Vienna Opera House. I’ve watched it maybe five times now, and it gets better with every viewing: I’m convinced that if it had been directed by, say, Brian DePalma, we’d already be calling it one of the most virtuosic scenes that the genre has ever produced. It’s an immensely complicated piece of suspense with simultaneous action unfolding on three or four different levels, and it was evidently a nightmare to stage and edit. But McQuarrie had an ace up his sleeve. The moment when Ethan has to figure out how to save the Chancellor of Austria from two different assassins, with only a single bullet at his disposal, is priceless, and the whole crazy machine builds to that punchline. McQuarrie knew it would work. And although I don’t think he says so explicitly, he obviously felt liberated to indulge in such a teasingly long, complex set piece because he had that destination in mind. (And he probably wishes he’d done the same with the rest of the movie, the ending of which was being constantly rewritten even as the film was being shot—not that you can tell from the final result.)

Rebecca Ferguson in "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

A punchline, in short, can reach backward in a work of art to allow for greater flexibility in the journey, which is something that most writers eventually learn. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman makes the same point in a discussion of the famous twenty-minute chase in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:

There were two reasons I wrote it so long. One: I felt without such an implacable, irresistible enemy, the move to South America wouldn’t wash. Two: I wrote it so long because I had the confidence to be able to do it. And that confidence was born of one thing—I knew the Sundance Kid couldn’t swim…

When you have what you hope is gold in your hands, you can ruin it all by poor placement. If, for example, when Butch and Sundance were fording the stream on their way to Hole-in-the-Wall, Butch had said, “Why do you always get nervous around water?” and Sundance had said, “Because I can’t swim,” that wouldn’t have been so smart.

So I saved it for the moment just before the jump off the cliff. In point of fact, the entire Superposse chase is structured toward that moment. I was positive that no matter how badly the chase as a whole might be done, the swimming revelation, followed by the jump off the cliff, would save me. The jump was, had to be, surefire.

In other words, when you know you’ve got a good punchline, you’re free to develop what comes before it in the fashion it deserves. The opposite point also holds true: when you don’t know where you’re going, you’re more likely to flail around, casting about for ways to make the action more “interesting” when you lack a basic end point. I always try to keep a residue of unresolved problems—to borrow a phrase from the film editor Walter Murch—throughout the writing process, but I also know more or less where a story will conclude, and whenever I’ve broken that rule, as in my short story “Cryptids,” I think the weakness shows. On the plus side of the column, I allowed myself to take The Icon Thief into strange byways because I knew that the ending, in which Maddy breaks into the installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, would be memorable no matter what I did, and a story like “The Whale God” hinges almost entirely on its killer last line. And while writing my first radio script, for a project that I hope to be able to discuss in more detail soon, I gained confidence from the knowledge that the ending would work. A good punchline is a great thing in itself, but it’s even more valuable as a kind of seed crystal that shapes the preceding material before the reader is even aware of it, so that the ending comes as both surprising and inevitable. Or in the words of David Mamet: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.”

“That’s all I was asked to give…”

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"Bogdan spoke first..."

Note: This post is the thirty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 38. You can read the previous installments here.

Ever since I got it for Christmas, I’ve been slowly working my way through the special features for the Blu-ray of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, which, among its other pleasures, offers us the chance to listen once more to the voice of Christopher McQuarrie, one of the smartest men in movies. As with such legendary screenwriters as David Mamet or Robert Towne, nearly everything McQuarrie has to say is of interest, and his commentary track and interviews are loaded with insights into the challenges of making a huge franchise movie by the seat of your pants. (My favorite tip is that 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, just in case you need to reshoot the whole thing to accommodate a change in the plot.) And he tells an amusing anecdote about how the movie solved a tricky narrative problem. The film’s obvious high point is the lengthy sequence at the Vienna Opera House, culminating in the assassination of the Chancellor of Austria, but for a long time, they didn’t know how the killing tied in with the rest of the script. McQuarrie and his producer Tom Cruise brainstormed various possibilities, but they were all impossibly convoluted, and they only slowed down the story at a crucial hinge point. Finally, on the day of the shoot, Cruise came up with a single line: “Killing the Chancellor tonight was a statement—the start of a new phase.” And that, incredibly, was all they needed.

I love this kind of thing, in part because it echoes how Alfred Hitchcock solved a similar dilemma in North by Northwest—a movie that Cruise consciously evokes in Rogue Nation‘s opening scene. In his famous interview with François Truffaut, which was recently the subject of its own documentary, Hitchcock says:

My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?”
The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and an exporter.”
“But what does he sell?”
“Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer.
Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!

And the suspense genre, in particular, often boils down to an exercise in seeing how little information you need to get from one point in the story to another.

"That's all I was asked to give..."

This can also apply to what was once a series of scenes: to accelerate the narrative, you cut the sequence down to the one moment that gets the point across. Pauline Kael hints at something like this in her initial, mostly unfavorable review of Raging Bull:

[Scorsese] makes this movie out of remembered high points, leaping from one to another. When Jake is courting the fifteen-year-old platinum-blond Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), he takes her to a miniature-golf course, and their little golf ball rolls into a little wooden church and never comes out. The scene is like one of a series in an old-movie montage showing the path to marriage. But Scorsese just puts in this one step; probably for him it stands for the series.

Kael may be right, but I think it’s more likely that additional material was written, shot, or improvised, and Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker kept cutting it until they ended up with the one scene that they needed. Raging Bull, like Goodfellas and Casino, is full of this kind of compression because it covers a large expanse of time, but the same is equally true of stories that cover a lot of space. You try to skip as many transitional moments as possible, and sometimes you end up nudging the balance a bit too far in the wrong direction. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne magically reappears in the besieged Gotham City after escaping from a foreign prison, and the film doesn’t provide any information whatsoever about how he did it. It’s easy to say “Well, he’s Batman,” but the lack of even the slightest nod toward the problem momentarily takes us out of the movie—a rare but not totally uncharacteristic lapse in an otherwise superbly organized film.

Chapter 38 of Eternal Empire provides a nice example of a single moment that takes the place of what could have been an entire sequence. Earlier in the novel, I establish that Vasylenko has been sprung from prison solely because he can provide safe passage, using his connections with the criminal underworld, on Ilya’s journey across Europe. To justify this, I needed to provide at least one instance in which those contacts were employed, and it ended up taking the form of this scene, in which Ilya and Bogdan visit the home of a “bride of the brotherhood” in Yalta. It’s a cute little chapter, in which Ilya obtains some necessary equipment, learns about the next phase of his mission, and even has a brief moment of emotional connection with the woman who has given him refuge. (It’s a small touch, but it will pay off much later, in the very last scene of the entire trilogy.) What’s funny, though, is that this could have been part of a much longer story arc. In his previous appearance, Ilya was in Moldova, or nearly five hundred miles to the west, and I don’t talk at all about how he got from one place to another, although he certainly could have had a few adventures along the way. At this point in the novel, though, it’s more important to keep the story clocking along, so his encounter with Katya—whose background, I’m fairly sure, was lifted from a few paragraphs in Nicolai Lilin’s Siberian Education—has to stand in for the rest. I think that it works, and even if the reader momentarily wonders how Ilya got here, it doesn’t really matter. His next meeting, as we’re about to see, will be far more interesting…

Revenge of the list

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Note: A few minor spoilers follow for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

When I try to explain my mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movie, I find myself turning, heretically, to a story about the franchise’s greatest rival. Nicholas Meyer was, in many ways, the J.J. Abrams of his day: a hugely talented, relatively young outsider who was brought in to correct the course of a series that had lost its sense of purpose. He wasn’t a Star Trek fan, but he was able to find elements—like its echoes of the Horatio Hornblower novels—that he could highlight and enlarge. When he signed on to write and direct the first sequel, however, five separate scripts had already been written, and he had to prepare a workable screenplay in twelve days. His response to the challenge resulted in one of my favorite Hollywood anecdotes ever, as Meyer recounts it in his 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.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I never tire of retelling this story, both as an illustration of the power of lists as a creative tool and as a reminder of how surprising, organic narratives can emerge from the most artificial of beginnings. And it’s as true today as it ever was. In the excellent bonus features for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they began writing the movie with a list of action set pieces, and that important emotional beats—including Ilsa Faust’s motivations and the entire character of Attlee—emerged when they put those scenes in a certain order. Matthew Weiner and his core writing staff assembled a list of possible themes and ideas to revisit when it came time to plot out the final season of Mad Men. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen The Peanuts Movie, of which I wrote: “[It] sometimes plays as if it had been written according to the model that Nicholas Meyer used when cracking The Wrath of Khan…The result is an anthology, gracefully assembled, of the best moments from the strip and specials.” And now, of course, we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which struck me when I first saw it as a kind of greatest hits collection from the original trilogy, only to have this confirmed by the same Wired interview with J.J. Abrams that I discussed yesterday: “When we began working on this film, Larry [Kasdan] and I started by making a list of things that we knew held interest for us, the things we wanted to see, the things we felt were important.”

Nicholas Meyer and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Yet the fact remains that The Wrath of Khan comes off as a seamless burst of pure story, while The Force Awakens, for all its considerable merits, still feels like a list. (The best thing that could be said for it, and this shouldn’t be lightly disregarded, is that it’s the right list. ) When you look at the list that Meyer put together for Star Trek, with the notable exception of Khan himself, you see that it consists of ideas that audiences hadn’t seen before. The Force Awakens, by contrast, is a list of things that are familiar, and once we’ve seen a couple of moments or images that remind us of the original movies, we naturally start a mental checklist as we keep an eye out for more. Sometimes, the way it quotes its predecessors is delightful; at other times, as when it gears up for yet another aerial assault on an impregnable planetary superweapon, it’s less than wonderful. As the Resistance prepared for the attack on Starkiller Base, I felt a slight sinking feeling: two out of the first three Star Wars movies ended in exactly the same way, perhaps as a nod to The Dam Busters, and I hoped that Abrams was about to spring some kind of novel twist or variation on that theme. Obviously, he doesn’t, to the extent that he includes a story point—a small group on the ground fighting to deactivate the shield generator—lifted straight from Return of the Jedi. It isn’t hard to imagine a version of this sort of climax that would have given us something new: I’d love to see a full-on Saving Private Ryan sequence showing an infantry assault on the base, or even a naval battle. And if we didn’t get it here, it’s because Abrams and the rest were sticking closely to their list.

But this kind of respectful homage is utterly alien to the spirit of the original movies themselves, which were eager to show us things that we had never imagined. The opening scenes on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, immediately expand the possibilities of that universe: not only does the ice planet give us a gloriously different backdrop, but the battle with the Imperial Walkers feels like a deliberate inversion of the dogfights that ended the first movie. The entire film, in fact, plays like a deliciously inverted list: it takes the things that audiences loved about Star Wars and then turns them all by a hundred and eighty degrees. The Force Awakens lacks that kind of basic invention, as much I liked so much of it. (Among other things, it makes it unnecessary to watch the prequels ever again. If Disney follows through with its plans of releasing a movie of comparable quality every year, Episode I, II, and III will start to take on the status of The Sting II or Grease 2: we’ll have trouble remembering that they even exist.) It’s possible that, like the first season of Fargo, the new movie’s energies were devoted mostly to establishing its bona fides, and that the next batch of sequels will be more willing to go into unexpected directions. Still, the fact remains that while Abrams and Kasdan made a great list, they failed to add anything new to it—which raises the troubling implication that the galaxy of Star Wars, after six films, isn’t as vast or rich with potential as we always thought it was. I hope that isn’t the case. But now that Abrams and his collaborators have gotten that list out of their system, the next thing they need to do is throw it into the nearest trash compactor.

Pictures at an exhibition

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Silhouette by Kara Walker

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What piece of art has actually stopped you in your tracks?”

“All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music,” Walter Pater famously said, but these days, it seems more accurate to say that all art aspires toward the condition of advertising. There’s always been a dialogue between the two, of course, and it runs in both directions, with commercials and print ads picking up on advances in the fine arts, even as artists begin to utilize techniques initially developed on Madison Avenue. Advertising is a particularly ruthless medium—you have only a few seconds to grab the viewer’s attention—and the combination of quick turnover, rapid feedback, and intense financial pressure allows innovations to be adapted and refined with blinding speed, at least within a certain narrow range. (There’s a real sense in which the hard lessons that Jim Henson, say, learned while shooting commercials for Wilkins Coffee are what made Sesame Street so successful.) The difference today is that the push for virality—the need to attract eyeballs in brutal competition with countless potential diversions—has superseded all other considerations, including the ability to grow and maintain an audience. When thousands of “content providers” are fighting for our time on equal terms, there’s no particular reason to remain loyal to any one of them. Everything is an ad now, and it’s selling nothing but itself.

This isn’t a new idea, and I’ve written about it here at length before. What really interests me, though, is how even the most successful examples of storytelling are judged by how effectively they point to some undefined future product. The Marvel movies are essentially commercials or trailers for the idea of a superhero film: every installment builds to a big, meaningless battle that serves as a preview for the confrontation in an upcoming sequel, and we know that nothing can ever truly upset the status quo when the studio’s slate of tentpole releases has already been announced well into the next decade. They aren’t bad films, but they’re just ever so slightly better than they have to be, and I don’t have much of an interest in seeing any more. (Man of Steel has plenty of problems, but at least it represents an actual point of view and an attempt to work through its considerable confusions, and I’d sooner watch it again than The Avengers.) Marvel is fortunate enough to possess one of the few brands capable of maintaining an audience, and it’s petrified at the thought of losing it with anything so upsetting as a genuine surprise. And you can’t blame anyone involved. As Christopher McQuarrie aptly puts it, everyone in Hollywood is “terribly lost and desperately in need of help,” and the last thing Marvel or Disney wants is to turn one of the last reliable franchises into anything less than a predictable stream of cash flows. The pop culture pundits who criticize it—many of whom may not have jobs this time next year—should be so lucky.

Untitled Film Still #30 by Cindy Sherman

But it’s unclear where this leaves the rest of us, especially with the question of how to catch the viewer’s eye while inspiring an engagement that lasts. The human brain is wired in such a way that the images or ideas that seize its attention most easily aren’t likely to retain it over the long term: the quicker the impression, the sooner it evaporates, perhaps because it naturally appeals to our most superficial impulses. Which only means that it’s worth taking a close look at works of art that both capture our interest and reward it. It’s like going to an art gallery. You wander from room to room, glancing at most of the exhibits for just a few seconds, but every now and then, you see something that won’t let go. Usually, it only manages to intrigue you for the minute it takes to read the explanatory text beside it, but occasionally, the impression it makes is a lasting one. Speaking from personal experience, I can think of two revelatory moments in which a glimpse of a picture out of the corner of my eye led to a lifelong obsession. One was Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills; the other was the silhouette work of Kara Walker. They could hardly be more different, but both succeed because they evoke something to which we instinctively respond—movie archetypes and clichés in Sherman’s case, classic children’s illustrations in Walker’s—and then force us to question why they appealed to us in the first place.

And they manage to have it both ways to an extent that most artists would have reason to envy. Sherman’s film stills both parody and exploit the attitudes that they meticulously reconstruct: they wouldn’t be nearly as effective if they didn’t also serve as pin-ups for readers of Art in America. Similarly, Walker’s cutouts fill us with a kind of uneasy nostalgia for the picture books we read growing up, even as they investigate the darkest subjects imaginable. (They also raise fascinating questions about intentionality. Sherman, like David Lynch, can come across as a naif in interviews, while Walker is closer to Michael Haneke, an artist who is nothing if not completely aware of how each effect was achieved.) That strange combination of surface appeal and paradoxical depth may be the most promising angle of attack that artists currently have. You could say much the same about Vijith Assar’s recent piece for McSweeney’s about ambiguous grammar, which starts out as the kind of viral article that we all love to pass around—the animated graphics, the prepackaged nuggets of insight—only to end on a sweet sucker punch. The future of art may lie in forms that seize on the tools of virality while making us think twice about why we’re tempted to click the share button. And it requires artists of unbelievable virtuosity, who are able to exactly replicate the conditions of viral success while infusing them with a white-hot irony. It isn’t easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. This is the game we’re all playing, like it or not, and the artists who are most likely to survive are the ones who can catch the eye while also burrowing into the brain.

McQuarrie’s mission

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Christopher McQuarrie

A few years ago, shortly after the release of Jack Reacher, the screenwriter and director Christopher McQuarrie gave a fantastically interesting interview to Empire about the ups and downs of his long career. The whole thing is worth reading closely, but it’s even more resonant now, in the aftermath of McQuarrie’s first big success, given how obsessively his thoughts seemed to return to one specific number. Here are three excerpts from the interview, which, remember, was given long before he was attached to direct anything with Mission: Impossible in its title:

If [my career] changes, it’ll change because of circumstances beyond my control. It will come not from the movie I am most proud of, but probably from the movie I’m most convinced is going to end my career. And then that movie will make $750 million dollars and I’ll have hit the fucking lottery, because I’m just focused entirely on execution and not on result.

I have directed. That doesn’t mean that in their minds I’m a director. I directed a movie that made money. Did it make $750 million? No.

The sad irony is that if I make a piece of shit movie that I’m ashamed of that makes $750 million, I can suddenly make those movies.

Compare these quotes to the latest box office estimates for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, which is projected to earn close to $750 million worldwide, and you have to wonder whether McQuarrie is psychic, insanely lucky, or simply just as shrewd as he’s always seemed to be. (Really, it isn’t all that surprising. As Tom Cruise’s current wingman of choice, McQuarrie probably guessed that he’d get a shot at a genuine blockbuster one of these days, and he didn’t choose that number at random: it’s merely Ghost Protocol‘s global box office take, adjusted slightly upward for inflation.) Whether or not McQuarrie is as ambivalent about Rogue Nation as he was about its hypothetical counterpart, there’s no question that he’s exactly in the position that he once mordantly anticipated: a hit of this scale usually gives a director a punchcard for one free movie, particularly if he clearly deserves full credit for its success. And it’ll be interesting to see what he does with it, especially given the fact that unlike, say, Josh Trank, McQuarrie has arrived at his position after two decades of thinking hard about his role as part of the studio system, and the function that he plays, for better or worse, within that enormous machine.

Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher

McQuarrie’s evolution from an angry maverick to a man the studios trust is a progression that he credits to Tom Cruise, starting from their work together on Valkyrie. His thoughts on the subject, as he describes them to Empire, deserve to be quoted at length:

The first thing I was doing to alienate the business was holding grudges. People are gonna fuck me in this business. There’s no two ways about it. And the first thing you have to realize is that they’re very rarely doing it because it’s personal. The truth is that they’re not thinking about you enough. What I want to tell those people that get so frustrated and bitter about this business is: “No one knows who you are to care enough to deliberately screw you out of anything…”

No one’s interested in making your script. They have a huge mandate on their table: all this product that they have to generate and they need people to help them do it. And so I stopped being a person who looked at them as if they were people who were not giving me a chance and started looking at them as people who were terribly lost and desperately in need of help. And I had a certain set of skills that could be used for that. And by looking at them and saying, “You have a movie to make, how can I help you make it?”, my entire life changed.

McQuarrie quickly qualifies this last statement: “Does that make me a happier filmmaker? No. Am I more fulfilled? No. Now I’m working a lot more and a lot more is getting made. But am I getting closer to having the power to make films that I really want to make? No.” And even if Rogue Nation might force him to take a slightly cheerier outlook about his prospects, his thoughts are still worth remembering for anyone who wants to make a living as a screenwriter. Elsewhere, in a recent roundtable interview reported by Collider, McQuarrie goes into greater detail about how that life looks:

I went to a meeting one day with an executive…and he said, “So, what do you got?” And I said, “Nothing. What have you got?” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I’m just here to help, man. What do you got?” And he started pitching me his slate, and he started sweating as soon as he started pitching. And I got to sit there and go, “Hmmm, no. What else? Hmmm, no. Not really.” And it wasn’t to torture him, it was me listening to each idea and saying, “Nope, I don’t have anything to contribute to that. I won’t make that better, I’ll cost you more money and I won’t get you there.” And I realized that my role as I walked out of that room was, “I’m here to help. How can I help you make your movie?”

Whether or not this sounds like a life any writer really wants is beside the point. This is the life a successful screenwriter has, or should have, if he or she is realistic about what it takes to survive: a search for missions that are possible.

The intelligence community

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Rebecca Ferguson in "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

One of the major dividends of the success of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation is that it marks the return to public consciousness of the screenwriter and director Christopher McQuarrie, who has a deserved reputation as one of the smartest and most underused men in Hollywood. McQuarrie has been around for a long time: it’s been close to twenty years since he won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, and more than fifteen since he directed The Way of the Gun, a deeply flawed movie that I haven’t been able to stop watching or thinking about ever since. A fruitful partnership with Tom Cruise, starting with Valkyrie, brought him his first credited scripts in years, and with Jack Reacher and now Rogue Nation, McQuarrie has become hard to avoid. Which is all to our benefit. His commentary track with Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects may be my favorite of all time, and I go back and listen to it every couple of years just to hear those voices again. And with McQuarrie making the media rounds this week to promote his first unqualified hit, particularly in a remarkably candid interview with Deadline, we’ve got a rich trove of new insights from a man who, like David Mamet or Robert Towne, seemingly can’t open his mouth without shedding light on some unexpected aspect of filmmaking.

McQuarrie’s reputation is inextricably linked to his years in exile, and there are moments when he can’t help sounding like one of the hard-boiled characters in his own movies. In particular, I’m thinking of James Caan’s “adjudicator” in The Way of the Gun, who delivers a line that I’ve never forgotten: “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor.” Deadline describes him as “Cruise’s accomplice in problem solving,” which is pretty much how most screenwriters like to see themselves—as the unheralded, pragmatic fixers who parachute in, like Towne famously did for The Godfather, to save troubled productions for a paycheck before moving on. McQuarrie has benefited, as Towne did before him, from falling in with Cruise, a movie star with the soul of a producer whose track record at mounting and executing deliriously complicated projects has attuned him to the value of the creative resource that a talented writer’s brain affords. As McQuarrie describes it, it sounds less like two moguls overseeing a multimillion-dollar production that a huddle between a couple of canny conspirators: “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 going to figure it out. And, usually we do.”

Christopher McQuarrie on the set of "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

This is undoubtedly romanticized, and it’s the closest McQuarrie ever comes to sounding like one of the suits that he skewers so expertly elsewhere—including in Rogue Nation itself, in which the venal spies in charge of the intelligence community often play as parodies of studio heads, with their cheerful indifference to the lives or careers that hang on their decisions. (As William Goldman points out in Which Lie Did I Tell?, the scariest sentence that a writer can hear from an executive has to be: “We have a special relationship with Tom Cruise.”) But it’s amply borne out by the film, which, more than any of its predecessors, is emphatically a screenwriter’s movie. It lacks a jaw-dropping set piece to compare with the Burj Khalifa ascent in Ghost Protocol, but it has a distinctly better story and structure, and at its best, it’s a marvel of smart, efficient craftsmanship. A few years ago, I drew a distinction between action that seems to have been worked out on the page and the kind that is assembled in the editing room, and I singled out Ghost Protocol, along with Drive and The International, as among a handful of recent movies that have given us coherent, inventive, written action scenes:

They have a clear beginning, middle, and end. They make memorable use of their locations. They have small setups, payoffs, and surprises along the way…Each is centered on the personalities of the characters involved—indeed, each scene unfolds as a series of logical choices, which is something you’ll never hear said of Transformers. And these are all things that can only be planned at the screenplay stage.

And Rogue Nation honors and elevates that standard. I liked it a lot from start to finish, but the scene that sticks in my mind the most is the extended set piece that unfolds place backstage during a premiere of Turnadot at the Vienna Opera House. We’ve seen this exact scene before—there’s never been an opera performance in an action movie that didn’t end in bloodshed—and I settled into it with a slight sense of resignation, wondering if McQuarrie would be content, as Quantum of Solace was, to merely use his location as an attractive backdrop. I shouldn’t have worried. McQuarrie knows his territory, and even as he structures much of the sequence as an explicit homage to the Albert Hall climax in The Man Who Knew Too Much, he’s determined to show the rest of us how it’s done. The result unspools as an increasingly dazzling series of surprises, reversals, and complications, making inspired use of the setting and of the music itself, and it culminates with a sweet little twist, as Ethan Hunt figures out how to save the Austrian chancellor from no fewer than three assassins. It’s as lovingly hewn and polished as any scene from McQuarrie’s filmography, and it’s only one high point in a film that never takes anything for granted, including the ending, which saw the director and star halting production in an attempt to get it just right. Like just about everything else, it paid off. McQuarrie, like the spies in his movie, spent years as a man without a country. But it’s his nation now.

The Two Jacks

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Chris Pine in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Over the weekend, my wife and I finally saw one of our most anticipated movies of 2014: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. And I’m only slightly joking. Shadow Recruit is the kind of film that seems designed to be seen exactly the way we watched it—streaming on Netflix, in our living room, shortly after the baby had gone to bed. It’s an agreeably modest thriller with correspondingly modest ambitions, and even if it doesn’t end up being particularly good, it’s hard to hate a movie that takes place in some nifty locations, offers up fun supporting roles for the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Costner, and a slew of veteran character actors, including an unbilled Mikhail Baryshnikov, and clocks in at well under two hours. The story is a trifle that falls apart as you watch it; it opens with the villains trying and failing to kill the title character, who has turned up to investigate some financial improprieties in Moscow, when they could have achieved most of their goals by sticking him in a nice office and stalling him for two days. And I spent most of the movie wrongly convinced that the love interest played by Keira Knightley was really a British undercover agent, which seemed like the only way to justify her inexplicable American accent.

Yet for all its mediocrity, it’s the kind of movie I’d like to see more often: one that falls squarely in the middle of the pack in terms of spectacle, budget, and even basic competence. Hollywood these days has gravitated toward two opposing extremes, with massive summer tentpoles giving way in the winter to smaller prestige films, which often feel like the cinematic equivalent of taking your medicine before bedtime. In between, you have the usual slew of bad comedies, cheap horror movies, and Nicholas Sparks adaptations, but what’s missing, aside from the occasional Liam Neeson vehicle, is slick, capable junk for grownups. I don’t need every film directed at viewers thirty and older to be The King’s Speech; sometimes I just want to put myself in the hands of a clever director and screenwriter who can do exciting things for ninety minutes with a couple of attractive movie stars, and without prolonged fistfights between robots. Unfortunately, movies like this don’t lend themselves well to multiple installments, and recent attempts to launch franchises on a more manageable scale have mostly sputtered out. We don’t seem likely to see Chris Pine as Jack Ryan again, and the world isn’t exactly clamoring for a sequel to Jack Reacher, a movie I liked a lot.

Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher

All these decisions make good economic sense, at least to the extent that the studios are capable of behaving rationally. A few big bets, balanced out by Oscar contenders that can play throughout awards season, offer a better return on investment than a bunch of movies in the $50 million range. And I can’t fault them for giving up on a big swath of the population that doesn’t go to the movies anymore: these days, with my regular moviegoing a distant memory, I’m a member of the last demographic they should be taking into account. But it still feels like a loss. Many of the movies we remember most fondly emerged from a system that knew how to crank out decent escapist entertainment for adults; when a studio makes fifty films a year with talented directors and stars, eventually, you’ll get Casablanca. And while the gap between Casablanca and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit might seem laughably large, it’s hard to imagine the former emerging from a world that wasn’t interested in producing the latter. Art, at least of the kind that Hollywood has traditionally been most skilled at making, is a kind of numbers game, with great work emerging when the variables line up just right. And an industry that only releases either heavily marketed franchise fare or equally calculated awards bait seems unlikely to generate many accidental masterpieces.

This isn’t to say that excellent movies can’t arise where you least expect them. Edge of Tomorrow, for one, was fantastic, mostly because everyone involved seemed to care just a little bit more about the result than might have been strictly required. And the kind of storytelling I’m mourning here has migrated, with great success, to television, which does seem capable of yielding surprising triumphs of the form, like Hannibal. (You could even take the difference in quality between Hannibal and everything the movies have tried to do with Thomas Harris over the last fifteen years as a sign of how one medium is overtaking the other.) But just as publishers need a healthy midlist to sustain new voices and support good genre novels, the movies need a place where the contemporary equivalents of Michael Curtiz and Jacques Tourneur can thrive. I can’t help but think of Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar two decades ago for The Usual Suspects, made The Way of the Gun—half superb, half totally ridiculous—and then bounced around endlessly from one unproduced project to another. He was rescued by Tom Cruise, who had done much the same years earlier for Robert Towne, directed Jack Reacher, and now he’s helming Mission: Impossible 5. I’m looking forward to it, but I also miss the dozen movies McQuarrie might have made in the meantime, if he had been lucky enough to work in an industry that had any idea what to do with him.

Written by nevalalee

January 7, 2015 at 9:05 am

The joy of commentary tracks

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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.

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