Posts Tagged ‘George Lucas’
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 question: “What fictional pet would you most like to own?”
If there’s a universal rule among screenwriters, it’s that if you kill a dog, you lose the audience. I’m not talking about stories that hinge on the death of a beloved pet: Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows may break our hearts, but we’ll accept it if it’s the event around which the entire narrative turns, and we’ll probably remember it forever. But you need to be careful when it comes to treating the death of a dog as just another plot point. Filmmakers from Michael Bay to Beau Willimon—who famously offed a dog in the first scene of House of Cards—have noted that viewers who can absorb the deaths of countless human characters without blinking will turn against the story the instant a dog is killed. In his commentary track with Christopher McQuarrie on The Usual Suspects, Bryan Singer notes that you see a dog for roughly three seconds on the ship that explodes at the movie’s climax, and after the preview screenings, someone invariably asked: “Did the dog die?” And Barbet Schroeder observes: “You know, if a filmmaker has a dog killed in a film, it will be felt ten times more by the audience than if you kill a human being…I had to kill a dog in Single White Female and I had so many problems.”
And it isn’t just dogs, either. Animals of all kinds evoke a curious kind of sympathy in the audience, and it’s especially hard to turn one into a villain. (This applies, at least, to mammals: we seem to have no trouble accepting a cold-blooded creature as a remorseless killing machine.) In his commentary for The Return of the King, Peter Jackson says that he had endless trouble with the mumakil, the massive elephantine creatures that attack Minas Tirith. Viewers, he found, were more likely to feel sorry for them, so he cut most of the shots of mumakil being pierced by arrows, keeping only the one that Legolas takes down singlehanded. I’d also bet that a lot of moviegoers remember the dog that gets killed—and not without reason—in No Country for Old Men more vividly than most of that film’s other victims. And its inverse, in which a character shows exceptional kindness to animals, is sometimes a strategy of its own. Will Graham on Hannibal can be a glum, inaccessible hero, but he’s redeemed to large extent by the love he shows to his dogs, and lazier movies and television shows often use the protagonist’s pets as a narrative shorthand for his likability. It’s no accident that the most influential book on screenwriting ever written is called Save the Cat!
Dogs have played a surprisingly large role in the history of cinema. These days, Lassie may have been reduced to little more than a corporate spokesdog, but Rin Tin Tin, as Susan Orlean reminds us, was once the most popular star in Hollywood—there’s a longstanding rumor that he won the first Oscar vote for Best Actor, only to have the award overruled. And we all owe a great deal to a dog named Indiana: George Lucas’s Alaskan malamute is responsible for no fewer than two iconic movie characters, since the image of Chewbacca as copilot on the Millennium Falcon was inspired by his memories of driving around with his dog in the front seat. Occasionally, dogs will be treated to cameos, like Michael Powell’s two cocker spaniels, Erik and Spangle, who pop up in Contraband, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I’m Going!, and A Matter of Life and Death. And screenwriters, in particular, love their dogs, perhaps because life has taught them to bitterly distrust everybody else. When Robert Towne was fired from Greystoke, he gave the writing credit to his sheepdog, P.H. Vazak, who subsequently became the first dog to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
If dogs are a more common sight in movies than cats, it’s because they’re a director’s idea of the perfect actor: they hit their marks, act on command, and can be relied upon to listen to instructions. Cats refuse to be trained, and the only real strategy the movies have ever developed, short of tossing a cat into the frame for the sake of a jump scare, has been to film the cat for hours in hopes that it does something interesting, as George Stevens did in The Diary of Anne Frank. The most iconic cat in movies is probably the one Don Corleone cradles in The Godfather, and even that was something of an accident—Coppola simply saw the cat wandering around the studio that day and thrust it impulsively into Brando’s hands. And my favorite cinematic cat, the one that appears in Saul Bass’s incredible opening titles for Walk on the Wild Side, gives a nuanced performance that was essentially created in the editing room. (Digital effects, of course, have made the whole business somewhat easier, and the news that Kevin Spacey has just been cast as a talking cat in an upcoming movie fills me with an odd kind of delight.) Dogs simply exist to love and be loved, while cats, like audiences, are more fickle in their affections. And if filmmakers generally avoid them, it’s probably because making a movie is enough like herding cats already.
Writers spend so much time dealing with words that we often forget how useful numbers can be. Every book consists of some flexible sequence of individual chapters or scenes, and once this kind of framework exists, it can be broken down numerically in ways that often shed a surprising light on the story’s structure. I’ve quoted the young George Lucas on this point before, but I may as well do it again:
In the end I want to end up with a list of scenes. And the way I work generally is I figure a code, a general measuring stick parameter. I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes depending on which scale you want to work on. A thirty scene thing means that each scene is going to be around four pages long. A sixty one means that every scene is going to run twenty pages long…I have a tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff. I found it easier and it does lay things out.
In the most extreme case, screenwriters can turn into obsessive scene- and page-counters, to the point where certain screenwriting guides advise you to put the inciting incident on page 10, the “all is lost” moment on page 75, and the second turning point on page 90. And although this kind of quantitative approach may seem to have little place in writing a novel, there are times when it helps to reduce a book to the numbers, in order to guide or supplement a more intuitive approach.
As I noted yesterday, when I realized that my rough draft of Eternal Empire was about 15,000 words too long, I began by cutting it like a sculptor, looking at each page and crossing out paragraphs that seemed to break the visual rhythm of the scene, while also trimming chapters that felt too long when I was flipping through the manuscript. This top-down, predominantly intuitive method got me partway there, but in the end, I still had a lot of material to cut if I wanted to get the draft anywhere near 100,000 words. As any writer can attest, once you’ve passed a certain point in cutting, it gets much harder—the extraneous material isn’t standing there in plain sight, but is buried within otherwise tight-looking paragraphs in the form of an extra sentence, an unnecessary line of dialogue, or a clause that only repeats information that the reader already knows. To get the length down any further, I had to cut this book to the bone. And the obvious way to do this was to focus on chapters that were objectively on the long side.
I responded with what I often do when faced with a problem like this: I made a spreadsheet. I began by listing each chapter, its point of view character, its length, and whether or not it was predominantly transitional. (A transitional chapter, roughly speaking, provides a moment of relative downtime between the more intense moments and set pieces. Such quiet spots are essential, because a book that was nothing but high points would quickly become exhausting, but they also need to advance the story in some way, and should probably be kept on the short side.) Looking at the ensuing list, I saw that most of the major chapters were about 2,000 words long, while transitional chapters tended to be closer to 1,500. This, then, was my benchmark: any chapter that was longer than its characteristic length would have to be cut down. This could mean cutting fifty words or several hundred, but the result would be a draft in which no chapter was longer than its narrative peers without reason. And my spreadsheet gave me a good sense of where to start.
If this sounds crazy, well, maybe it is. (I’m often reminded of Daniel Okrent in the documentary Wordplay, in which he explains that he keeps a notebook recording all of his solving times for the New York Times crossword puzzle “because I’m an obsessive creep.”) And I would never recommend this approach to anyone whose mind didn’t lend itself to these kinds of solutions—I like putting together spreadsheets, and naturally tend to use them to organize projects. But there’s a larger point here that I think applies to every writer. It may seem ridiculous to worry about whether a chapter is 1,750 words long or only 1,500, but this approach, in general, will draw your attention to parts of the story that are relatively more likely to be in need of cutting. And any cut you can make will almost always be a good one. The real test, obviously, lies in reading the novel itself, in which an objectively short chapter may drag and a lengthy chapter may seem just right. But looking at the numbers will guide the scalpel to places that might not be obvious to the naked eye. In the end, I cut several thousand more words out of the draft, and I don’t even know where they went. The result was a much stronger novel. And I can thank the numbers for this.
“The fox knows many things,” Archilochus writes, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” And ever since Isaiah Berlin wrote his great essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, readers and critics have been dividing up writers into one category or the other—foxes who range widely over the world without any central philosophy, and hedgehogs who focus on one big idea. Really, however, most writers tend to alternate between the two roles: they’re foxes when gathering material and hedgehogs when the time comes to sit down and write. Writers have a dauntingly wide range of interests and obsessions, but in their actual fiction, they often rely on a handful of the same tricks—which is exactly how it should be. One or two good tricks that a writer has thoroughly internalized can be more valuable than an entire shelf’s worth of undigested literary wisdom. And while I’ve previously shared my ten rules of writing, I thought it might be worth distilling them down to the three big, hedgehog-level tricks on which I rely whenever I’m writing something new, even after everything else has fallen away:
1. Structure your stories one objective at a time. As Kurt Vonnegut points out, if you can make your central character want something right away, even if it’s just a glass of water, it will keep the reader reading. The key insight of my writing life is that if you maintain a laserlike focus on the character’s objectives at each successive beat of the story, without worrying about what comes next, the result will have a shapeliness and authenticity that you never could have achieved by planning from the top down. A character who has convincing objectives from moment to moment will also be convincing when you step back to regard him as a whole—and it’s both easier and more effective to concentrate on each beat in succession. This argument is emphatically made in David Mamet’s On Directing Film, the best book on storytelling I know, which I recommend to everyone who cares about writing. The result may not always be inspired—Mamet’s own films can come off as flat and a little bloodless—but if you write a rough draft with this rule in mind, the damned thing will at least work. And that’s really all you can ask of it.
2. Think of the story in threes. George Lucas, who at his best was one of the great methodical, not natural, storytellers of all time, expresses a similar point in the famous Raiders of the Lost Ark story conference: “The way I work generally is I figure out a code, a general measuring stick parameter. I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes…I have a tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff. I found it easier and it does lay things out.” And he’s right: it’s a lot easier when you have a number. In my own case, instead of the thirty or sixty scenes that Lucas talks about, I start with a pattern of three rough acts, which I know I’m aiming for even before I know what the story is about. Not every story lends itself naturally to a three-act structure, but it’s nice to have it in mind, both because it’s an intuitively appealing story formula with a beginning, middle, and end, and because, as Lucas points out, it gives you some useful parameters. And you can drill down even deeper, on an almost fractal level: I find myself dividing sections, chapters, and even individual scenes into three subsidiary units. This kind of structure, as arbitrary as it may seem, is an essential step toward finding a story’s organic shape. Which brings me to my third point…
3. Cut wherever possible—and at least ten percent. Just because you’ve structured a story in threes, and as a series of discrete objectives, doesn’t mean you need to keep all of them in the final version. In fact, the whole point of structuring the story so mechanically is to give you something to change—a solid substructure that you can refine based on how the resulting story reads in real time. If you’ve done your work properly, your rough draft will be a functional object that you can then shape at your leisure, knowing that you can always fall back on the earlier version when necessary. In practice, this often means pruning away the structure you’ve laboriously imposed: in particular, you’ll often cut the first and third beats of a given unit, leaving only the crucial middle. And, of course, you’re seeking to condense wherever possible. If you follow Stephen King’s dictum that the second draft equals the first draft minus ten percent, I promise that magical things will happen. These are simple, stupid rules, based on a couple of basic numbers—one, three, ten—that even a hedgehog can understand. But it’s the only way to release your inner fox.
On Saturday, my wife and I spent seven hours at the River East theater in Chicago, watching a marathon of the Indiana Jones movies, which I still insist on calling a trilogy, in advance of their release tomorrow on Blu-ray. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen all three films on the big screen—I spent a wonderful day watching them all at the sadly departed UC Theater in Berkeley over a decade ago—but it had been a long time since I’d seen them from start to finish. The experience, I’m happy to say, was close to perfect: the digital prints were gorgeous, the crowd was large and enthusiastic, and the movies were as satisfying as ever. And the fact that we left before Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t diminish my appreciation for what the original trilogy achieved. Like everyone else, I’m critical of George Lucas: he remains, as David Thomson notes, the saddest of moguls, and his career over the last twenty years has consisted of one long retreat. And yet with these three films, he shaped and enriched my inner life more than any other filmmaker, and for that, I’m forever grateful.
Of the three, Raiders is by far the most cinematically exciting: it was made when Steven Spielberg was still only thirty-four, with the greatest natural eye in movie history, and the result is dazzlingly assembled—it may be his most technically thrilling film of any kind. A great deal of this can be credited to the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, which pulls off the difficult job of moving between set pieces conceived by the director and producer while lavishing every scene with ingenious and delightful beats. (Even so modest a sequence as the “bad dates” scene is a small masterpiece of acting, writing, editing, and direction.) The script for Temple of Doom, by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, is far more problematic, and the connective material is considerably less graceful, but the big set pieces—the opening sequence in Shanghai, the spike room, the mine car chase—reach dizzying heights. By comparison, the action in Last Crusade is competent, inventive, but less divinely inspired, and there isn’t an action sequence here that really holds up with the best of the first two movies.
Yet Last Crusade has always been my favorite of the three, and one of my favorite movies of any kind, which gets at a very important point: these films aren’t about action or special effects, as fine as they may be, but about a certain spirit, a promise about the kinds of experiences and adventures that the movies can offer us, and Last Crusade captures that spirit perfectly. It’s both endearingly innocent and highly sophisticated, and it expresses, as Truffaut would have said, both an idea of life and an idea of cinema—and the fact that the ideas are straight out of a boy’s book of adventures doesn’t make them any less moving or less true. Looking back, I’ve begun to realize that it’s as responsible as any movie for the direction my own life has taken: I saw it when I was about ten years old, and it was arguably the first in a sequence of books, movies, and television shows that convinced me that I wanted to tell stories for a living. Other movies have since become more important to me, and I fully see its limitations, but few works of art have ever seized my imagination in quite the same way.
And its spirit is one that I’ve been trying to recapture in my own work ever since. One night after college, I was watching Temple of Doom with my family when I dozed off near the end and awoke as the closing credits began to roll. Somehow, in that moment between sleep and waking, I heard something in the score by John Williams—it’s the unbearably beautiful theme that appears in “Slave Children’s Crusade”—that I’d never heard before: it seemed to crystallize, in a few bars of music, everything that I hoped to accomplish as a storyteller. My first novel, a long adventure story set in India, may have been my subconscious effort to work out that one moment of dreamlike inspiration. And while that novel remains unpublished, one of the great challenges I now face as a writer is gradually nudging my work back to that theme, which has been reduced to a subtle, almost imperceptible note in my published novels and stories. I’m still trying to figure out what shape it will take. But it’s there. And I have a hunch that Indy will be the one to show me the way.
What does it mean to be a true fan? I’ve been thinking about this a lot these days, ever since watching the documentary The People Vs. George Lucas, a loving portrait of the vocal, passionate fringe of Star Wars fandom. “If it says Star Wars on it, I’ll buy it,” one fan gleefully admits, while others say that, yes, they didn’t care much for The Phantom Menace, but they still saw it ten times in the theater. Fandom is stronger than one’s like or dislike of any individual film or piece of merchandise: even more than the movies themselves, it’s about the shared experience of caring deeply about something, and about being around others who know how you feel. For the sake of that sense of community—of being part of something larger than yourself—sitting repeatedly through a movie you don’t really like is a small price to pay. And if you don’t feel that the franchise is living up to its potential, there are plenty of ways to address the situation on your own, whether through fan edits, conventions, or simply venting your feelings online.
Fandom, as I see it, is primarily a quest to keep a certain set of feelings alive. It’s the feeling you get when you see a great movie for the first time, or when you’re a child playing with a few plastic toys that seem capable of having endless adventures on their own. It’s about a moment in which the world—or at least the world of narrative possibility—seems full of limitless potential, with an infinite number of stories that could be told. To recapture that feeling, you want to spend as much time in this world as possible. You extend the experience in every way you can, either by revisiting the works that first triggered the emotion or exploring the expanded universe. But after a certain point, a new comic book or video game doesn’t expand the universe of stories. Rather, it contracts them, either by closing off unspoken possibilities or reducing them to yet another mediocre spinoff. Great storytelling, after all, is a rare commodity. Very few franchises have managed to sustain it for even three movies.
That’s when fandom starts to curdle—and not necessarily for the right reasons. Looking at the new movies and toys we’ve been given, and how much worse they are than the ones that encouraged us to love this world in the first place, we can only conclude that George Lucas just doesn’t care as much as we do. It never occurs to us that the first two Star Wars movies might have been outliers, and that even Return of the Jedi represents a regression to the mean. (My wife and I watched the Despecialized Edition of Jedi the other night, and the fall in quality from Empire—one of the greatest movies of all time—was painfully clear.) If the prequels were disappointing, it isn’t because Lucas wasn’t trying, although he may have suffered from hubris and lack of oversight: it’s because it’s unlikely that all these pieces would fall into place again in just the right way. And if that’s true of the movies, it’s doubly true of everything else. If we’re lucky, a franchise will give us one or two great films. Given the vagaries of any kind of artistic production, it’s unrealistic to expect anything else.
But of course, we do expect more, and it’s those expectations that bind fans together, as quixotic as they might be. Fandoms thrive on the sense of being endangered, or at least of being part of a vocal minority pitted against a complacent mainstream. Plenty of Star Wars fans like to think of themselves as the loyal opposition to Lucasfilm, and, even more radically, to the vast number of ordinary moviegoers who see Star Wars as just another movie—or, worse, make no distinction between the prequels and the original trilogy. As The People Vs. George Lucas points out, kids love Jar Jar Binks, and the generation that grew up on the prequels is graduating from college with their good feelings for these movies intact. Fans see their role as that of holding the franchise to a higher standard—to the one that they remember, rightly or not, as their first experience of this world. The fact that this ideal may not exist doesn’t enter into the equation. Indeed, their power comes from the fact that, like Yoda, they want the impossible.
“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft,” H.G. Wells said, and he was perfectly right—except, of course, for the passion among certain fans to create their own version of Star Wars. Over the past few days, I’ve found myself sucked into the curious world of Star Wars fan edits, thanks to the wonderful documentary The People Vs. George Lucas, which I watched twice in a row one night last week. Fan edits are a sort of fanfic executed with Adobe Photoshop and Final Cut Pro: a chance for enthusiastics to engage directly with their favorite—or most hated—works of art, in a way that is guaranteed to reach a small but receptive audience. In the case of Star Wars, fan editors recut, restructure, and even radically augment the original films to fix problems, address perceived shortcomings, or serve an artistic agenda of their own. Fan edits, at their best, can serve as a showcase for considerable talent in editing, film restoration, and special effects. And like fanfic, they often reveal surprising things not just about the fans involved, but about how we think about storytelling in general.
In the world of fan edits, there are two prevailing tendencies, which I’ll refer to as the preservationist and the revisionist (although there’s a lot of overlap). The preservationists are the ones concerned, and rightly so, with the fact that no adequate high-definition print of the original, unaltered Star Wars films is currently available, and Lucasfilm seems to have no interest in ever providing it. The result is a community of intelligent, informed preservationists who are as concerned with restoring the correct color balance to The Empire Strikes Back as they are with making sure Han shoots first, with the undisputed masterpiece of the form being Harmy’s Despecialized Edition, which painstakingly restores the original trilogy to something like its pristine state. In many cases, the apparent restoration is an illusion, with new mattes and rotoscoping used to recreate the original effects, but it’s an incredibly compelling one. I’ve been watching it with something like awe all weekend, and when I finally have the chance to show Star Wars to my own children, this is the version I’m going to use.
The revisionist tendency is somewhat more problematic. The Star Wars prequels, for obvious reasons, have inspired the most revision, starting with the famous Phantom Edit, which removes much of The Phantom Menace‘s exposition, its talk of trade disputes and midichlorians, and most of Jar Jar Binks. The result is a stronger film, but also less interesting: by removing the worst of its excesses, we’re left with just another bland space opera. Much more ambitious is Adywan’s Star Wars Revisited, an obsessive fan edit of A New Hope. Continuity errors have been fixed; special effects have been cleaned up and enhanced; entire sequences have been reedited or created from scratch. Sometimes the changes are fun—as when the soundtrack swells with the Imperial March, which originally didn’t appear until the second movie—but they occasionally cross the line: Revisited radically reedits the final assault on the Death Star, for instance, as if the original weren’t exciting enough on its own, and it even fixes Han Solo’s floppy wrist motion as he fires his blaster in one scene.
These changes are perfectly fine when viewed as a sort of elaborate fan criticism, or as a demo reel to show off the reviser’s skills at editing and visual effects (which are impressive…most impressive). But I disturbed by the implication on one forum that for some fans of the film, this has become their preferred way to watch the movie—or even to introduce it to viewers seeing Star Wars for the first time. At that point, their philosophy begins to shade into that of Lucas himself, who apparently would be quite happy if all copies of the original version of Star Wars were somehow destroyed—as they will be, in time, if they aren’t adequately preserved. The original Star Wars isn’t perfect, and that’s part of its charm: it’s a film made by real men and women on real sets, under considerable constraints, with solutions invented on the fly, without the luxury of digital retouching. It’s a film made lovingly by hand, and I like even the things that bug me about it. In one shot, for instance, you can see a crew member crouching behind a droid at the Jawa Sandcrawler, dressed to blend in with the background. You can erase him, of course—but why would you want to lose that connection to that day’s shooting, out in the hot Tunisia sun?
Writers are hired and fired from movies all the time, but few departures were more widely reported than Frank Darabont’s exit from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Darabont himself has expressed amazement that the media cared so much: “Where were you guys when that other script four years ago went in the shitter? You weren’t paying attention because it wasn’t Spielberg, and it wasn’t Lucas, and it wasn’t Indiana Jones.” But it was hard not to care, especially when the movie itself turned out to be such a disappointment. For all its other problems, the story was especially weak, and it was common knowledge that Darabont had written a draft that Spielberg loved, but Lucas rejected. (As I’ve said before, Hollywood is the kind of place where the man who wrote The Shawshank Redemption is getting script notes from the guy who wrote Attack of the Clones.)
So it became almost an article of faith that the Darabont version would have resulted in a much better movie. And yet Darabont’s Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods, which I finally read over the weekend, isn’t all that great either. It’s incrementally more interesting than the final version, with some nice action scenes and a much better understanding of the relationship between Indy and Marion. There’s a pleasant air of intrigue and a few inspired double-crosses (which makes the insipid “triple agent” of the final version all the more infuriating). But the machinery of the plot takes a long time to get going, the central adventure never quite takes hold, and I missed Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, if not Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt. If I had been Lucas, I probably would have asked for a rewrite as well. But the real takeaway is that no rewrite could have made up for the shakiness of the underlying conception.
The trouble is that in any version, the crystal skull simply isn’t an interesting artifact. Darabont himself seems slightly bored by it, and doesn’t bother explaining what it does or why it matters until the script is halfway over. Even in the last act, when we finally enter the City of the Gods, we aren’t quite sure what the big deal is. Compared to a movie like Last Crusade, which had a wonderful screenplay by Jeffrey Boam that made the emotional stakes exceptionally clear, it’s hard to forgive this kind of narrative confusion, especially when the payoff is so underwhelming. (Its treatment in the final version of the script, as written by David Koepp, is even less satisfying: instead of searching for the skull, most of the movie is devoted to putting it back where it came from, which isn’t the best way to build narrative momentum.)
Of course, you could argue that the artifact is less important than the man pursuing it: Temple of Doom, after all, is essentially about the recovery of some sacred rocks. But City of the Gods is an uncomfortable reminder that we aren’t interested in the things Indy does because we like Indiana Jones; we like Indiana Jones because he does interesting things. Without a decent plot, he becomes the Harrison Ford of the past decade, the man David Thomson accurately saw as a “limited, anxious actor” with little interest in charming the audience. Given the right material, Ford can be wonderful, but he was never an actor who could elevate a film simply with his own presence. He needed Indy as much as Indy needed him. And neither Darabont nor his successors, alas, could ever quite figure out how to bring Indy back.