Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Damon Lindelof

“Then the crowd rushed forward…”

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"Moving past the onlookers..."

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

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

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

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

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

"Then the crowd rushed forward..."

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

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

“A shadow fell across the threshold…”

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"A shadow fell across the threshold..."

Note: This post is the ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 8. You can read the previous installments here.

Yesterday, I stumbled across an interview that the screenwriter Damon Lindelof gave to Vulture two years ago on the subject of the modern blockbuster. I’m not exactly a fan of Lindelof’s work: his two most recent film credits are on the scripts for Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness, both of which I found disappointing, although I retain high hopes for Tomorrowland. Yet as this interview clearly indicates, he’s a smart, articulate guy with a real knack for a certain kind of storytelling. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: I have no trouble believing that the majority of working screenwriters in Hollywood score somewhere in the top percentile for talent and perseverance, and if the results of their efforts are often mediocre, it’s because film production is contingent on so many other factors. Any screenplay that actually gets produced has stood out, by definition, from a horde of countless other pitches and spec scripts, and the initial draft is usually just fine. It’s the development process that kills it, as well as the elephantine logic of modern studio filmmaking. As Lindelof notes: “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world. And when you start there…you are very limited in terms of how you execute that.”

This might not seem like an issue for writers working in more modest formats, like the novel, but we often find ourselves operating under similar conditions. During the interview, Lindelof is asked to pitch out a version of the John Henry story that would pass muster at a major studio, and he’s very funny in speculating as to how a hypothetical executive would react:

Well, I think the first thing that would happen is you would say the fundamental, most important part of the story is that [John Henry] dies…And all the studio execs would say, ‘Absolutely. That’s what we love about this story.’ Two drafts later somebody would say, ‘Does he have to die?’”

Lindelof goes on to spitball a version that hits all of Hollywood’s favorite beats, including a personal backstory—John Henry was boyhood friends with the inventor of the steam-tunneling machine, whose father owned the plantation where he was a slave—and a love triangle. And just when you think he can’t push it any further, he does, describing what would happen to the script with its third or fourth writer. By the end, John Henry is close to a superhero, complete with a mystical mentor, destined to restore nothing less than the balance of the universe.

"This inmate, whose name was Sasha..."

It’s all pretty amusing, especially because it’s true: Lindelof’s pitch ends up sounding eerily plausible. But it made me reflect on how all writers rig the game whenever they can. (As Somerset Maugham, who was the opposite of Lindelof in most respects, once said: “The author always loads his dice, but he must never let the reader see that he has done so, and by the manipulation of his plot he can engage the reader’s attention so that he does not perceive what violence has been done him.”) Lindelof’s pitches grow increasingly wild, but they all have one thing in common: with each pass, characters are nudged away from humanity and closer to purely functional roles, there to serve a story point or arouse a specific reaction from the audience. In the first draft, the inventor of the machine is Henry’s best friend; in the second, he’s “mustache-twirling, he represents everything that we hate.” It’s all very obvious, but it would probably work. And even if we’re only writing to please ourselves, or a handful of readers, we find ourselves engaging in much the same process, pushing characters to occupy a position in the narrative less out of reasoned characterization than because of what the story demands.

There’s a small example from Eternal Empire that embarrasses me a little, although I can’t say it doesn’t do its job. In Chapter 8, we’re introduced to Sasha, an inmate at Belmarsh Prison with a gratuitously despicable backstory: he did unspeakable things to his wife and her lover before murdering them. Why? A few chapters later, Ilya is going to have to kill him for no particular reason, and I wanted him to seem like someone who at least had it coming. (We see much the same logic at work in the late novels of Thomas Harris, who preserves Hannibal Lecter’s status as an antihero by insisting—contrary to much evidence from the earlier books—that he eats only the rude. Hannibal, in particular, presses this idea to the point of absurdity: if a character is introduced early on as a raging asshole, we know that he’s probably going to get eaten.) I’m not especially proud of this; it feels like I’m stacking the cards so that the reader will accept Sasha’s death and move on, rather than lingering on its implications. For the sake of the overall story, it was important that we not get too distracted by it, and while I didn’t give Sasha a mustache to twirl, I might as well have. And although the result works as intended, especially given the limited space at its disposal, I can’t help but feel that Ilya, and I, could have done a bit better…

Written by nevalalee

February 12, 2015 at 9:47 am

Prometheus and the perils of secrecy

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I’m tired of secrets. Over the past few years, ever since the release of the teaser trailer for Cloverfield, an increasing number of movies have shifted from the entirely reasonable attempt to keep certain plot elements a surprise to making a fetish of secrecy for its own sake. I blame J.J. Abrams, a talented director and producer who often puts more thought into a movie’s marketing campaign than into the story itself—witness Super 8, which shrouded in great intrigue a plot that turned out to be utterly conventional. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is perhaps the most disappointing victim of this tendency to date, a movie that comes cloaked in secrecy—is it a prequel to Alien, or isn’t it?—only stand revealed as a total narrative nonevent. (It may not be a coincidence that one of the film’s writers is frequent Abrams collaborator Damon Lindelof, whose Lost displayed a similar inability to deliver on the revelations that the hype had led us to expect.)

Prometheus, to put it mildly, has some script problems. The trouble begins in one of the very first scenes, in which Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green, as a pair of startlingly incompetent archaeologists, discover an array of remarkable cave paintings at a site in Scotland, only to begin blithely tromping around with flashlights, no doubt destroying thousands of years of material in the process. The paintings, we’re told, are 35,000 years old—the age of the earliest human settlement in Scotland is usually dated closer to 15,000 years, but never mind—and depict a constellation that has appeared in works of art in every human culture, a configuration the archaeologists have confidently identified with a single star system many light years away (the arrangement of the stars in the sky having evidently remained unchanged across thirty millennia). Such plot holes are far from unusual in a big summer movie, of course, but none of these issues make us especially optimistic about the quality of the story we’re about to be told.

Our concerns are not without foundation. Rapace and Marshall-Green end up traveling on the most casually organized interstellar voyage of all time, a trillion-dollar project whose members not only haven’t been told the purpose of the mission, but haven’t even met yet, or been told anything about the chain of command, before awakening from hibernation on their arrival. Upon landing, they do, in fact, make the greatest archeological discovery in human history, stumbling at once on the remains of a massive alien civilization, a result which is somehow seen as disappointing, because none of the aliens there are still alive. (This is after a single day of exploration at one random site, which is sort of like aliens landing at Chichen Itza at night and bemoaning the fact that the humans there have gone extinct.) But of course, there is life here, of a particularly unpleasant kind, and Prometheus soon turns into something less than a coherent horror movie than a series of disconnected ideas about scenes it might be cool to have in an undeclared Alien prequel.

In interviews, Scott and Lindelof have spoken about the supposed profundity of the film’s ideas, and their decision to leave certain elements unexplained, with a nod toward such works as 2001: A Space Odyssey. But 2001, for all its obscurities, gives us the pieces for a perfectly straightforward explanation, which the novel makes even more clear, while Prometheus consists of such ill-fitting parts that any coherent reading seems impossible. There are occasional pleasures to be found here: Michael Fassbender is particularly good as an android who draws his personal style from Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, and there’s one nifty scene involving Rapace, an automated medical pod, and a particularly traumatic surgical procedure. For the most part, however, the astronauts are such idiots that one finds oneself missing the cult of of competence that James Cameron brought to Aliens. And that’s the heart of the problem. If we had characters that we cared about, the movie’s incoherencies wouldn’t matter. Because in the end, I don’t want answers. I want Ripley.

Written by nevalalee

June 11, 2012 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Damon Lindelof: Please welcome Charlize Theron, Oscar-winning actress…Can you talk about how you got involved [in Prometheus]?

Charlize Theron: I was offered a tremendous amount of money and I said, “Sure.”

—At the 2011 Comic-Con panel for Prometheus

Written by nevalalee

September 15, 2011 at 6:29 am

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