Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Skyfall

“I need you to get me some information…”

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

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

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

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

"Give me ten minutes..."

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

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

Written by nevalalee

June 2, 2016 at 8:28 am

You Only Write Twice

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The opening titles of Skyfall

In a recent profile in The New Yorker, the playwright and screenwriter Jez Butterworth shares one of his personal rules for his work on the upcoming James Bond movie: “You know, like Bond doesn’t have scenes with other men. Bond shoots other men—he doesn’t sit around chatting to them. So you put a line through that.” Butterworth makes it all sound rather easy—as the rest of the article indicates, he’s a reliable source of pithy observations on craft—but in fact, the process of writing Spectre seems to have been anything but straightforward. As the leaked emails from the Sony hack make clear, work on the script is still ongoing, and a dream team of Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan, and Butterworth himself has been struggling for months to crack the movie’s third act. (A typical line from the leaked correspondence, written in all caps in the original: “We need to cut twenty pages and this whole set piece could go.”) In the meantime, shooting has already started, and it’s never a good sign when writers are still straining to figure out the ending for a $300 million production.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have mixed feelings about discussing the documents from the Sony hack, and as a writer, I’d hate to see notes about one of my works in progress leaked to the public. Yet the handwringing over Spectre is useful in the reminder it provides of how even the most handsomely compensated—and talented—writers in the world remain at the mercy of notes, and how they’re no more capable of solving problems at will than the rest of us, even when the stakes are so high. And if the studio consensus on the draft is accurate, the notes aren’t wrong: the screenwriters seem to be having trouble even with creating a compelling bad guy, which is the one thing that a Bond movie can be expected to do well. (It also gives me pause about the casting of Christoph Waltz, which would otherwise seem like an exciting development. Waltz has been a fantastic presence in exactly two movies, both scripted by Quentin Tarantino, but without a strong character and great dialogue, he tends to fade into the background—he doesn’t bring the same charisma to an underwritten part in the way that, say, Mads Mikkelsen or Javier Bardem have done.)

Jez Butterworth

Of course, plot problems aren’t new to the Bond franchise, even when the series has had ample time to develop a script. There was a gap of four years between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, due mostly to financial problems at MGM, which should have been plenty of time to work out any kinks in the story. When I watched Skyfall again the other day, though, I found myself newly annoyed by the way the plot falls apart halfway through. Bardem’s grand scheme, which involves getting caught on purpose, degenerates into a shootout that has nothing to do with the rest of his plan—he could have saved a lot of time and trouble by simply flying to London and taking a cab to the building where M’s hearing is taking place, which is essentially what he does anyway. And this isn’t a question of plausibility, which doesn’t have much to do with the Bond movies, but rather of simple dramatic payoff: if you’re going to make a big deal about the bad guy’s insanely complicated gambit, he’d better have something good up his sleeve.

What’s worse, it all could have been fixed with a simple change—by having the hearing take place within MI-6 itself, prompting Bardem to get himself caught in order to attack it—but apparently the temptation to indulge in an elaborate subway chase, which is admittedly cool, was too great to resist. More to the point, though, is the fact that we just don’t know. Maybe objections were raised and dismissed; maybe production on certain sets had already begun, forcing the writers to work with what they had; or maybe altering the scene would have caused problems elsewhere in the movie that I haven’t anticipated. (It doesn’t help that Skyfall was the second of three movies released over the course of twelve months, along with The Avengers and Star Trek Into Darkness, that imprison the villain inside a glass cube and include some variation on the line: “He meant to get caught!”) A movie, much more than a novel or play, is a machine with many moving parts, and all a writer can really do is keep from getting caught in the gears. Spectre may yet turn out to be a great movie, and it wouldn’t be the first to survive late problems at the screenplay stage. And if it ends with Bond escaping from certain doom at the last minute, it’ll be based on firsthand experience.

Written by nevalalee

December 17, 2014 at 9:08 am

The Best Movies of 2012, Part 1

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The Raid: Redemption

Note: For an explanation of some of this list’s more glaring omissions, please see here.

10. The Raid: Redemption. In a year in which the issue of media violence returned to dominate the national conversation, this was the most violent movie of all, with more than an hour and a half of the most graphic combat and bloodshed imaginable. Yet it’s curiously thrilling, a member of a long line of martial-arts movies that space out scenes of bonecrunching combat with the regularity of dance numbers in a musical. At times, it’s more exhausting than exhilarating, with huge reserves of energy and invention devoted to the barest of B-movie storylines, but it still finds time for displays of old-fashioned charisma—in the form of future superstar Iko Uwais—and even a cops and gangsters plot with a few satisfying payoffs. There’s an American remake on the horizon, but I’ll only see it if they cast all the principal parts with the stars of The Departed.

The opening titles of Skyfall

9. Skyfall. It isn’t quite on the same level as Casino Royale, which remains the best of all the Bond movies, but director Sam Mendes still manages to assemble the most striking series of images around the idea of Bond that the series has ever seen. Its major weakness is its villain, who is introduced in memorable fashion but whose plan turns out to be depressingly uninteresting, and it fumbles a number of big moments, notably the revelation of Naomie Harris’s true identity. Still, this is a big, satisfying entertainment that finally completes the most protracted reboot in recent cinematic history, and even as it ties a bow on the franchise, it honors its past, thanks in large part to its dynamite opening credits and theme song, which I find myself humming on a daily basis.

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in Moonrise Kingdom

8. Moonrise Kingdom. One of Wes Anderson’s greatest strengths has always been his insight into the inner life of children—or of adults who behave like overgrown kids—and in twelve-year-old Sam and Suzy, he’s finally found the perfect pair he’s been seeking for his entire career. None of the adults, aside from Bob Balaban’s narrator, are drawn with the same level of vividness or affection, but perhaps it doesn’t matter: I see myself in these kids, and it’s clear that Anderson does as well. As always, his work is lavish with gags and visual puns, but what sticks with you is its tone of melancholy sweetness, and I won’t soon forget the image of those three brothers, in their pajamas, gathered around a Fisher Price turntable to listen to The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. (It also has my favorite line reading of the year: “Where’s my record player?”)

Richard Jenkins, Amy Acker, and Bradley Whitford in The Cabin in the Woods

7. The Cabin in the Woods. Of the two films from Joss Whedon’s miracle year, I suspect that this one will last the longest, since it’s the kind of movie that seems destined to be rediscovered by successive generations of passionate fans. It’s a savage deconstruction of slasher clichés—and arguably pursues the “zombie redneck torture family” trope a bit too monotonously—but also a love letter to the possibility of film, and reminds us how timid most movies really are. Above all, as a film that needs to be seen with as little advance knowledge as possible, it’s a short object lesson on the nature of surprise, and on how mechanical shocks have largely taken the place of the real thing. It’s likely to become a movie, like Psycho or Citizen Kane, in which the twists have passed into cultural currency, so if it’s still unspoiled for you, you owe it to yourself to see it now.

Wreck-It Ralph

6. Wreck-It Ralph. Far more than the wretched Brave, which is a movie I dislike all the more as time goes on, of all recent animated films, this is the one that makes me hopeful about the future of the medium. It’s an unabashedly mainstream movie, designed to appeal to all quadrants, with jokes that alternate between ingenious and obvious, but it’s also fun, colorful, tremendously appealing, and blessed with a script that keeps surprising us on the levels of both plot and character. Like Toy Story or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it takes a premise that could easily have turned into a commercial for itself and transforms it into something touching, weird, and undefinable. And it’s even better when paired with the wonderful short Paperman, which blends traditional and computer animation with a sense of grace that points the way forward for an entire art form.

Tomorrow: My top five movies of the year.

Written by nevalalee

January 22, 2013 at 9:50 am

Three lessons from 007

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Yep, Skyfall is pretty great. It doesn’t quite rise to the same level as Casino Royale, which combines grittiness with sheer escapism in a way that few movies, before or since, have ever managed. (I loved the first Daniel Craig installment when I first saw it, but it’s gradually risen even further in my estimation, thanks largely to the greatest Blu-ray ever, until it’s become one of my five or six favorite movies of the last ten years.) Yet the new film, which finally completes what must be the most protracted reboot in cinematic history, is by a long ways the handsomest Bond movie ever made, and Sam Mendes, a very intelligent director whose projects haven’t always lived up to his craftsmanship, has clearly put a great deal of thought into how a film like this should look, move, and feel. From the opening credits, with their subtle nods to Vertigo—the camera zooms into Bond’s eye, and later moves directly into his open grave—we can tell that we’re in good hands. And the difference between Skyfall and the wretched Quantum of Solace only highlights some of the lessons that Bond, and his best interpreters, have to teach the rest of us.

1. Skip the backstory. Yes, we’ve been over this ground before. But Skyfall provides a fascinating test case, in that it comes right to the edge of revealing too much about Bond’s background, only to dance nimbly away. We learn more here about Bond’s past, especially his childhood, than we’ve ever discovered before, but the movie wisely couches it in vague—and predominantly visual—terms. When M asks Bond how old he was when his parents died, he replies: “You know the answer. You know the whole story.” Which is the only answer he could possibly give. Like Hannibal Lecter, Bond becomes less plausible, and less interesting, the more we learn about him, and it’s nice to see a movie that understands this. (It isn’t quite as graceful when it comes to its primary antagonist, played by Javier Bardem: he’s a fine, sinister presence, but he’s also allowed to talk for about thirty seconds too long about his past grievances, when this information would best have been put into the mouth of another character. True villains never complain and never explain.)

2. Keep it simple. The Bond movies aren’t generally known for their restraint, but some of their most unforgettable effects have arisen from the simplest possible means, like Ken Adam’s brilliant set for the tarantula room in Dr. No: it was cobbled together at the last minute from a table, a chair, and a grille in the ceiling, but it’s far more memorable than the massive volcano lair in You Only Live Twice. The most grueling scene in Casino Royale centers on its utter simplicity, as the villain helpfully explains: “You know, I never understood all these elaborate tortures. It’s the simplest thing to cause more pain than a man can possibly endure.” And it’s no accident that the most suspenseful sequence in Skyfall involves nothing more than a pair of dueling pistols and a glass of scotch. (That said, it’s possible that the villain’s plan, when finally revealed, is a little too simple: it involves a complicated scheme to infiltrate MI6, but in the end, it’s nothing he couldn’t done merely by visiting a costume shop and taking a cab to the Ministry of Defence.)

3. Clarity is key. It’s a rare movie that causes you to breathe a sigh of relief in its first few minutes, but after the awful opening chase in Quantum of Solace, in which every shot was sliced up into tiny fragments that made the action impossible to follow, it’s a pleasure to watch a set piece like the one that opens Skyfall, which is intricate, breathtaking, and totally absurd, but never anything less than spatially and geographically grounded. Much of this is due to the return of genius editor Stuart Baird, who follows up his fine work on Casino Royale with another master class in the art of editing. Mendes and Baird even indulge in what must be the single longest static shot in all of the Bond movies, Bardem’s delicious opening monologue, in which he advances from a tiny figure in the background to a tight closeup, like a sinister Omar Sharif. And the plot, too, follows a nice, clear line, focusing entirely on the threat to M, which is a narrative masterstroke: we know our hero will survive, but it’s quite possible that he might lose someone he loves. The result is a movie that generates a surprising amount of tension for a series with an invulnerable leading man. Because Bond, as Skyfall makes abundantly clear, will never die.

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2012 at 9:56 am

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