Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Bourne Legacy

“She stared at the burning ship…”

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"There was no one else there..."

Note: This post is the fifty-second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 51. You can read the previous installments here.

A few weeks ago, an animated video was released online that showed the sinking of the Titanic rendered in real time—all two hours and forty minutes of it. Watching it in shorter stretches is a surprisingly compelling experience, no matter where you start it playing. You’re struck, above all, by just how little seems to happen for so long, until the horrifying ending, in which the bulk of the ship is sucked underwater in less than ninety seconds. It’s riveting, but it’s also a rebuke to conventional narrative. And the Titanic story presents other problems as well. It’s hard to maintain clarity and momentum on any ship sinking at night. You’re dealing with the constrained geography of a big ship itself, in which it can be hard to keep track of where people are and what they’re doing, much of which has to be described using an unfamiliar vocabulary. Darkness and the sheer number of moving bodies make it even harder to maintain a clean line of action. And the way a nautical disaster unfolds resists the natural pacing of a story, with a moment of disaster followed by long stretches of nothing, as the ship sluggishly lists or sinks. Sometimes, as in the case of the Costa Concordia, there isn’t even a clear end point: it just lies there crippled in the water. Everything either happens so fast that it can’t be grasped or so slowly that even the participants start to feel impatient. If I had to write a script about it from scratch, I’m not entirely sure how I’d structure it. Maybe as a love story?

As I’ve noted here before, James Cameron’s Titanic may not have aged well when it comes to some of its more granular qualities, like dialogue, but it’s unsurpassed at staging and choreographing huge blocks of action, and it does it so invisibly that it’s easy to underestimate how hard it really was. It brilliantly solves all the problems I mentioned above, and it does such a good job of keeping the audience informed and oriented throughout that I’d be tempted to use it as a case study in a screenwriting class. The decision to show us an animated visualization of the ship’s destruction at the beginning of the movie, for instance, with a character from the present explaining the physics behind each stage, is a masterstroke: it delivers exposition and foreshadowing all at once, and it allows us to keep track where we are during the sinking without thinking about it twice. Victor Garber’s lovely scene with the ship’s blueprints accomplishes much the same thing. (I’d even argue that the love story itself, and most of its associated plot points, originated a solution to the problem of how to fill those crucial hours of sinking time in which not much of anything else is happening.) When I began work on Eternal Empire, I was forced to think about all of this more systematically. I was writing a novel about a yacht that had to sink, which meant I had to crack all the narrative issues that it presented—and I ended up watching Titanic itself more than once.

"She stared at the burning ship..."

Once I knew that the ship had to be destroyed, I turned my attention to how to do it, which was driven both by practical concerns and by the kind of story I wanted to tell. The easiest way to sink a yacht is to approach it in a smaller vessel and detonate a shaped charge against the hull, as used with such devastating effect against the U.S.S. Cole. I toyed with using a remote-controlled boat, but I quickly discarded the idea, mostly for aesthetic reasons. It just didn’t seem interesting or spectacular enough, and I sensed that it would be hard to stage it in an exciting way. An unmanned boat coming up against a yacht at night didn’t give me much in the way of striking imagery, or even a perspective from which to describe the events, unless I broke one of my own rules as a writer and wrote it from the point of view of an objective observer. Since an attack like this would go unnoticed until the moment the explosives detonated, I just didn’t see a way of structuring it, properly, as a series of escalating beats, and I also thought that it would take too long for the reader to figure out what had happened. Basically, I wanted to be able to provide just the right amount of tension before all hell broke loose: enough to make Maddy aware of the inevitable disaster, but not so much that it dissipated the shock. And I wanted it to be visually memorable.

I finally decided to use a drone. In my defense, I should point out that I wrote this sequence at a time when a drone strike wasn’t a total cliché. (Looking back at my notes, I seem to have finished writing this chapter just a week or so before seeing The Bourne Legacy, which used a drone in a similar way. I was probably troubled by this at the time, but it didn’t stop me from pressing on, which was the right choice: I suspect that most people’s memories of that movie are pretty hazy anyway.) The attack would still be over in the blink of an eye, and it ended up covering less than a page. But the nature of a drone, and the staging of the scene on the water, gave me three useful beats, while an attack by boat would have given me only one. Maddy hears the whine of a rocket just before the shadow boat that accompanies the yacht goes up in flames; she sees the drone circling back in her direction in the sky; and finally she sees another line of white as a second rocket smashes into the yacht itself. The result reads like a continuous rush of action, as it should, but the fact that it can be disassembled into smaller components makes the action just a bit more clear. I had to depart slightly from logic to make it work: in actuality, the yacht should have been the primary target, with the shadow boat coming next, but I wanted Maddy to witness the first explosion before feeling the second. The result, I think, is a sweet little scene. And the attack isn’t over yet…

Written by nevalalee

May 5, 2016 at 9:04 am

The end is the beginning is the end

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The Scythian Trilogy

As I’ve noted before, the number three has a magical quality for authors, which may be why so many of us are tempted to write trilogies. If the second installment in a series is about building on the world established by the first and taking it into unexpected directions, the third is generally about coming full circle: it revisits and reimagines the events that brought us here in the first place, often revealing surprising perspectives on the story’s origins. The Dark Knight Rises is a good recent example: in many ways, it’s an attempt to engage Batman Begins through the lens of The Dark Knight, and both of the earlier films are enriched in the process. It doesn’t always work, of course: I may be in the minority here, but to my eyes, a movie like The Bourne Ultimatum gets a little mired in backstory when it tries to cast new light on what came before. And as The Bourne Legacy unfortunately demonstrates, once you’ve already attempted that kind of thematic return, it can be very hard to move forward in an interesting way—which is why so many franchises fall apart when they attempt a fourth installment.

In my case, a trilogy wasn’t necessarily a part of the plan—I would have considered myself lucky enough just to get The Icon Thief into print—but once I knew that I’d be writing a set of connected novels, I had to think hard about what this really meant, both in general and for these books in particular. Writing City of Exiles forced me to consider the problem of a sequel, which needs to continue the story established in the previous installment while remaining a satisfying book in its own right, and Eternal Empire, in turn, obliged me to deal with the issue of endings. I knew from the start that this would be the last book in the series, and I wanted to come up with a strong conclusion while I still had the freedom and ability to do so. As a result, when it came time for me to plan out the third book, only a few months after finishing the second, I was thinking as much about destruction as creation. (Years from now, if I ever write a fourth novel with these characters, I may need to eat my words, but for the moment, let’s assume that I stick to my guns.)

The Scythian Trilogy

I decided, in short, that Eternal Empire would be a direct sequel to The Icon Thief to a degree that City of Exiles was not. In a sense, it ends up serving double duty: City of Exiles ends on a cliffhanger that the third novel needed to resolve, but it also reaches further back to the first installment, so the resolutions of these two books essentially unfold in parallel before converging at the very end. I don’t think I was aware of this structural peculiarity while I was writing the book, and if I’d known, I’m not sure I would have gone through with it. It meant a lot of complicated bookkeeping and rebalancing, as I tried to give each character his or her fair share of attention while advancing the story at the same time, and at one point, I worried that the book would become too unwieldy to manage. (In fact, it ended up being exactly the same length as the previous two novels, although not without a lot of cutting and reworking.) Throughout it all, I was encouraged by the fact that the ending was in sight, which allowed me to take greater risks than if I were hoarding material for future books. For better or worse, it’s all here.

And it freed me to do something that I thought I’d never do: bring back Maddy Blume, the protagonist of The Icon Thief. Of all the characters I’ve created, I feel most protective of Maddy, whose inner life, in some ways, is closest to my own. As I recently explained in my author’s commentary for the first book, I felt that I’d resolved her story on an appropriate note of ambiguity, and I didn’t want to bring her back for a sequel, both because I couldn’t think of a plausible way of including her and because I thought she deserved a break. Eventually, though, I found myself curious about what she’d been doing in the intervening years, and I finally hit on a narrative device that would allow me to reintroduce her in a logical way. Sometimes the belated return of an established character can make it seem as if an author is writing fanfic for his own creations—which I’ve hopefully managed to avoid. But the result, at least for me, is the novel that I’ve been building toward all along, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. And I think it’s the best book I’ve ever written.

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2013 at 8:23 am

“Tell Sharkovsky that I’m coming…”

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"In the early morning..."

(Note: This post is the twenty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 28. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In his very useful book Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz points out that there are three basic narrative techniques used to generate suspense: the chase, the race against time, and the anticipation of a violent event. The best thrillers, like The Day of the Jackal or The Silence of the Lambs, often use all three elements at once, and it’s rare to find a good suspense novel that doesn’t draw on each one at some point or another. Of the three, the chase may be the most straightforward, simply because it lends itself so organically to an exciting sequence of events. As Koontz writes:

Each step of the chase should build suspense by making the hero’s hopes for escape grow dimmer. Every time a new ploy fails to lose the chasers, the hero’s options should be narrowed until, at least, it seems that each thing he tries is his only hope, each momentary reprieve from death looking more like his last gasp than the reprieve before it.

I may as well note here again that I’ve never been a fan of the innocent man wrongfully accused. It lends itself too easily to victim stories and idiot plots, with their endless string of misunderstandings, and when I see this kind of story locking into place, I tend to get impatient. If you’re Hitchcock, you might be able to make it work; otherwise, I’d much rather see a movie, or read a book, about an otherwise innocent man rightfully accused.

That said, I love chase stories, and my second novel, City of Exiles, is largely one long chase, as Rachel Wolfe works to track down Lasse Karvonen before he can put his violent plan into action. (Note that the story also includes a race against time and an anticipation of a violent event, a structure that was entirely conscious on my part. Even more than the novels that came before or after it, City of Exiles was my attempt to build a thriller essentially on first principles, and it was planned as such from the ground up.) The Icon Thief is a more curious hybrid, with elements of a conspiracy thriller and police procedural that don’t fit neatly into the suspense category, but a chase occupies much of the second half of the novel, as my thief and assassin Ilya Severin tries to keep one step ahead of the police, while also taking out his revenge on the men who betrayed him. And the result is a structure that carries the reader neatly through the complicated developments of Part II, which otherwise might start to seem a little shapeless.

"Tell Sharkovsky that I'm coming..."

The chase story really begins here, in Chapter 28, as Ilya makes his way through a quiet neighborhood in the Hamptons and breaks into a deserted home to acquire the tools he needs. This sort of scene is the meat and potatoes of a novel like this, and I had a lot of fun imagining it, as well as the ensuing chapters in which Ilya obtains identification and begins to lay the groundwork for his next move. And it’s important to note that he isn’t a victim. He’s on the run, yes, and he doesn’t have a lot of resources, but he’s still the one driving the story: he knows that his survival, over the long term, depends on figuring out why he was betrayed, which means he needs to seek out the very antagonists he might otherwise want to elude. This kind of reversal, in which the hunted becomes the hunter, is crucial in this kind of plot, which otherwise tends to degenerate into a long series of close calls and narrow escapes. It’s because the structure of a chase is so intuitive that you need to be careful here: the temptation to deal your hero one setback after another is hard to resist, but it isn’t interesting unless he can also take matters into his own hands.

Another issue with chase stories is that after a certain point, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Koontz ticks off a handful of possible variations, all of which have been done to death: a spy chased by enemy agents, a killer pursued by a detective, or, if you must, an innocent man eluding the authorities. After you’ve written this kind of story once, it can be hard to find reasons to do it again. We see this in a movie like The Bourne Legacy, which fluently copies the chase structure of its predecessors to no real purpose: in the end, the chase serves only as an end in itself, with nothing of interest revealed along the way, which is why the air ultimately goes out of the movie like a deflated balloon. This is also why I decided, while writing City of Exiles, to abruptly switch gears halfway through. I’d already written about Ilya on the run for what seemed like hundreds of pages, and I didn’t feel like writing that novel again, so I finally upended the stakes in the only way I could. Those of you who have read that book will know what I mean. At this point in The Icon Thief, though, the story was still fresh, and I was having a good time. But things are going to get much harder for Ilya soon…

The Gilroy Ultimatum

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William Goldman, the dean of American screenwriters, likes to tell the story of how Tony Gilroy saved the day. In Which Lie Did I Tell?—my favorite book on screenwriting, and one of the most entertaining books I’ve read of any kind—Goldman goes into great detail about his travails in adapting the novel Absolute Power, with its huge number of characters and infuriating structure, which kills off the protagonist halfway through and doesn’t have anything resembling a useable ending. Frustrated, Goldman found himself at a basketball game with Gilroy, a much younger writer who agreed to take a look at the project. The following day, Gilroy came in with a number of fixes, all of which diverged dramatically from the book. When Goldman objected, Gilroy shot back: “Forget about the novel—I haven’t read the novel—my main strength is that I haven’t read the novel—the novel is killing you.” In the end, Goldman saw the light, made the changes that Gilroy suggested, and finished the screenplay at last.

It’s a great story that has contributed significantly to Tony Gilroy’s current standing in Hollywood, which is similar to the one that Goldman occupied forty years ago—the smartest screenwriter in the room, the man who can fix any script. Yet there’s something deeply comic about the story as well. These are two incredibly smart, talented writers giving their all to the script of Absolute Power, a movie that didn’t exactly set the world on fire. When you look at Gilroy’s history ever since, you see a deep ambivalence toward his own reputation as a genius fixer. This comes through clearly in the title character of Michael Clayton, who says bitterly: “I’m not a miracle worker. I’m a janitor.” It’s made even more obvious by a famous New Yorker profile, which reveals that not only was Gilroy unhappy about how his work was treated on The Bourne Supremacy, but he wrote a draft of The Bourne Ultimatum only on the condition that he wouldn’t have to talk to director Paul Greengrass. Not surprisingly, then, his goal has long been to get to a place where he can direct his own movies.

And the results have been fascinating, if not always successful. Let’s start with The Bourne Legacy, which is a singular mix of expertise and almost unbelievable amateurishness. At its best, its set pieces are stunning: a grim workplace shooting in a government laboratory is almost too harrowing—it takes us right out of the movie—but the followup, in which Rachel Weisz’s character is visited by a pair of sinister psychologists, is a nice, nasty scene that Hitchcock would have relished. The movie, shot by the great Robert Elswit, looks terrific, and it holds our attention for well over two hours. But it never establishes a clear point of view or tells us who Jeremy Renner’s Bourne successor is supposed to be. Its attempt to layer its plot over events from The Bourne Ultimatum is interesting, but unnecessary: all of those clever connective scenes could be cut without any harm to the story. And its ending is ludicrously abrupt and unsatisfying: it concludes, like all the Bourne movies, by playing Moby’s “Extreme Ways,” but it might as well be a techno remix of “Is That All There Is?”

Still, I have huge admiration for Tony Gilroy, who has taught all of us a lot about storytelling. (In my limited experience, I’ve found that he’s the writer whose work tends to come up the most when literary agents talk about what they want in a suspense novel.) But his work as a director has been frustratingly uneven. Michael Clayton is a great movie that benefits, oddly, from its confusion over whether it’s a thriller or a character piece: its story is layered enough to encompass a satisfyingly wide range of tones. Duplicity was a real passion project, but so underwhelming that it became a key example in my formulation of the New Yorker feature curse. And what The Bourne Legacy demonstrates is that for all Gilroy’s considerable gifts, being a director may not be his first, best destiny. There’s no shame in that: Goldman, among others, was never tempted to direct, and the number of great screenwriters who became major directors is shatteringly small. Gilroy may not be a born director, but he’s one of the smartest writers of movies we’ve ever had. Is that really so bad a legacy?

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