Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Bourne Ultimatum

The tentpole test

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

How do you release blockbusters like clockwork and still make each one seem special? It’s an issue that the movie industry is anxious to solve, and there’s a lot riding on the outcome. When I saw The Phantom Menace nearly two decades ago, there was an electric sense of excitement in the theater: we were pinching ourselves over the fact that we were about to see see the opening crawl for a new Star Wars movie on the big screen. That air of expectancy diminished for the two prequels that followed, and not only because they weren’t very good. There’s a big difference, after all, between the accumulated anticipation of sixteen years and one in which the installments are only a few years apart. The decade that elapsed between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens was enough to ramp it up again, as if fan excitement were a battery that recovers some of its charge after it’s allowed to rest for a while. In the past, when we’ve watched a new chapter in a beloved franchise, our experience hasn’t just been shaped by the movie itself, but by the sudden release of energy that has been bottled up for so long. That kind of prolonged wait can prevent us from honestly evaluating the result—I wasn’t the only one who initially thought that The Phantom Menace had lived up to my expectations—but that isn’t necessarily a mistake. A tentpole picture is named for the support that it offers to the rest of the studio, but it also plays a central role in the lives of fans, which have been going on long before the film starts and will continue after it ends. As Robert Frost once wrote about a different tent, it’s “loosely bound / By countless silken ties of love and thought / to every thing on earth the compass round.”

When you have too many tentpoles coming out in rapid succession, however, the outcome—if I can switch metaphors yet again—is a kind of wave interference that can lead to a weakening of the overall system. On Christmas Eve, I went to see Rogue One, which was preceded by what felt like a dozen trailers. One was for Spider-Man: Homecoming, which left me with a perplexing feeling of indifference. I’m not the only one to observe that the constant onslaught of Marvel movies makes each installment feel less interesting, but in the case of Spider-Man, we actually have a baseline for comparison. Two baselines, really. I can’t defend every moment of the three Sam Raimi films, but there’s no question that each of those movies felt like an event. There was even enough residual excitement lingering after the franchise was rebooted to make me see The Amazing Spider-Man in the theater, and even its sequel felt, for better or worse, like a major movie. (I wonder sometimes if audiences can sense the pressure when a studio has a lot riding on a particular film: even a mediocre movie can seem significant if a company has tethered all its hopes to it.) Spider-Man: Homecoming, by contrast, feels like just one more component in the Marvel machine, and not even a particularly significant one. It has the effect of diminishing a superhero who ought to be at the heart of any universe in which he appears, relegating one of the two or three most successful comic book characters of all time to a supporting role in a larger universe. And because we still remember how central he was to no fewer than two previous franchises, it feels like a demotion, as if Spider-Man were an employee who had left the company, came back, and is now reporting to Iron Man.

Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War

It isn’t that I’m all that emotionally invested in the future of Spider-Man, but it’s a useful case study for what it tells us about the pitfalls of these films, which can take something that once felt like a milestone and reduce it to a midseason episode of an ongoing television series. What’s funny, of course, is that the attitude we’re now being asked to take toward these movies is actually closer to the way in which they were originally conceived. The word “episode” is right there in the title of every Star Wars movie, which George Lucas saw as an homage to classic serials, with one installment following another on a weekly basis. Superhero films, obviously, are based on comic books, which are cranked out by the month. The fact that audiences once had to wait for years between movies may turn out to have been a historical artifact caused by technological limitations and corporate inertia. Maybe the logical way to view these films is, in fact, in semiannual installments, as younger viewers are no doubt growing up to expect. In years to come, the extended gaps between these movies in prior decades will seem like a structural quirk, rather than an inherent feature of how we relate to them. This transition may not be as meaningful as, say, the shift from silent films to the talkies, but they imply a similar change in the way we relate to the film onscreen. Blockbusters used to be released with years of anticipation baked into the response from moviegoers, which is no longer something that can be taken for granted. It’s a loss, in its way, to fan culture, which had to learn how to sustain itself during the dry periods between films, but it also implies that the movies themselves face a new set of challenges.

To be fair, Disney, which controls both the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, has clearly thought a lot about this problem, and they’ve hit on approaches that seem to work pretty well. With the Marvel Universe, this means pitching most of the films at a level at which they’re just good enough, but no more, while investing real energy every few years into a movie that is first among equals. This leads to a lot of fairly mediocre installments, but also to the occasional Captain America: Civil War, which I think is the best Marvel movie yet—it pulls off the impossible task of updating us on a dozen important characters while also creating real emotional stakes in the process, which is even more difficult than it looks. Rogue One, which I also liked a lot, takes a slightly different tack. For most of the first half, I was skeptical of how heavily it was leaning on its predecessors, but by the end, I was on board, and for exactly the same reason. This is a movie that depends on our knowledge of the prior films for its full impact, but it does so with intelligence and ingenuity, and there’s a real satisfaction in how neatly it aligns with and enhances the original Star Wars, while also having the consideration to close itself off at the end. (A lot of the credit for this may be due to Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter and unbilled co-director, who pulled off much of the same feat when he structured much of The Bourne Ultimatum to take place during gaps in The Bourne Supremacy.) Relying on nostalgia is a clever way to compensate for the reduced buildup between movies, as if Rogue One were drawing on the goodwill that Star Wars built up and hasn’t dissipated, like a flywheel that serves as an uninterruptible power supply. Star Wars isn’t just a tentpole, but a source of energy. And it might just be powerful enough to keep the whole machine running forever.

“He wondered if this was something new…”

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"Back in the stateroom of the yacht..."

Note: This post is the fiftieth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 49. You can read the previous installments here.

When you’re taking apart a story to see how it works—whether as a fan, a critic, or an aspiring artist yourself—it’s often necessary to distinguish between two different kinds of narrative elements. One consists of the standard components that appear in the story to satisfy our expectations about the genre: a whodunit, for example, usually has a detective, a killer, a cast of suspects, and a series of clues, and most mystery writers assume that these pieces will be present before they’ve even come up with a premise. The second kind of element is designed to address the unique problems that this story alone presents: the details of character, setting, and incident required to enable the specific plot developments or twists that the author has in mind. And you can’t tell the difference until you’ve read two or more stories in the same genre, just as a scientist might need to examine multiple specimens to distinguish between the traits common to an entire species and individual variation. If you’ve only read one gothic romance, for instance, you have no way of knowing how many of those stock building blocks, from the orphaned heroine to the lonely house on the moor, are there primarily because that’s how the genre has defined itself. And it takes yet another level of sophistication to recognize that most of these elements exist because Charlotte Brontë needed them to tell a particular story in Jane Eyre. You can’t see the pattern until you have at least two examples to compare.

The same principle holds true for criticism—the best way to think about a work of art, after all, is to compare it to something else—and for the creative process itself, particularly when the artist is consciously drawing on more than one previous model. A sequel, even one that departs from the first story in surprising ways, always involves some degree of reverse engineering: the artist looks back at the original and tries to pick out the most important features, which create a sense of continuity between the old and new stories. (This usually, but not necessarily, means keeping some of the same characters, but it can also mean reproducing entire plot points or intangible qualities of tone.) And a third installment can draw upon two different models, which can both confuse and clarify the issue. When you mentally superimpose two stories, it naturally emphasizes the places where they overlap, and for the first time, it becomes possible to figure out which plot elements are essential to the series, rather than incidental solutions to specific problems. This is why an ambitious third installment can serve as a direct continuation of the second while simultaneously circling back to the first. Films like The Dark Knight Rises or The Bourne Ultimatum can struggle to manage those competing chains of meaning, which is why the fourth installment in a series often strikes off in a totally new direction: it becomes mathematically impossible, in the narrative equivalent of Metcalfe’s Law, to keep those connections straight when four or more stories are involved.

"He wondered if this was something new..."

But it’s often not until the third installment that we know what the series is really about, since it takes two stories to establish the pattern. When I was trying to figure out the plot of Eternal Empire, I was very mindful of the problem of honoring the precedent set by the first two novels while departing when necessary from the template they had established—if only because it gave me a way to structure a novel that I knew was going to be very complicated. As I wrote in a blog post back when the novel first came out: “In a sense, [Eternal Empire] 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.” These days, I’m less confident that I pulled this off successfully than I was when the book was released, but I know that I gave it my best shot. And even at the time, I realized, consciously or otherwise, that the best way to keep the plot from spiraling out of control was to copy the structural bones of the previous books wherever I could. As a result, each novel has three acts, cuts between three main characters, covers roughly the same amount of time, and uses a narrative funnel that accelerates the action until the last section encompasses the events of less than a day. These are all solid, reliable thriller techniques, but it wasn’t until I had two prior novels to analyze that I began to understand exactly what kind of story I was writing.

You can see this clearly in the sequence of events that culminates in Chapter 49 of Eternal Empire. Both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles contain a plot twist that occurs at approximately the same point in each novel, involving the sudden death of a supporting character at the hands of an unexpected killer. This isn’t exactly unprecedented in this kind of thriller, and if it works, it’s all in the execution—and I think it works pretty well in both cases. (In fact, the two twists are similar enough that I went to considerable lengths to disguise it. This why the scene in the latter novel takes place in a car, rather than indoors, and it’s told from the point of view of the killer, rather than the victim.) I wanted a big twist in the third novel at more or less the same spot, both because I thought a reader would want it and because it served a useful narrative purpose: it occurs at a point where the story needs a jolt of energy to carry it through the last hundred pages. Because I couldn’t pull the same exact trick yet again, I ended up inverting it: instead of an unexpected death, it would be an expected death that turned out to be something else, with the reveal that Tarkovsky had conspired with Ilya to fake his assassination. It was like taking a piece out of the template, turning it around, and inserting it into the same place again to see if it fit. And it did. But if I hadn’t had two previous novels to study, I might not have known that anything had to be there at all. And I’m a little relieved that this series is over, because I’m not sure I’d be able to do it again…

Written by nevalalee

April 14, 2016 at 9:40 am

“Whose locker is this?”

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"Wolfe headed inside..."

Note: This post is the forty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 47. You can read the earlier installments here

There’s a point in the audio commentary for one of the Bourne movies—I think it’s The Bourne Ultimatum—when director Paul Greengrass admits that he made things a little too easy. Bourne has narrowly avoided being assassinated at London’s Waterloo railway station, escaping with nothing but a dead reporter’s notebook, and he has no way of knowing who ordered the hit. Fortunately, the notebook happens to contain the name of an investment advisory firm that bankrolled the operation in question, so Bourne does what any of us would do in that situation: he googles it. He comes up with an address in Madrid, confirms it against a receipt in the reporter’s notes, and then he’s off to another big action scene. Needless to say, this all seems a bit too simple, and if we weren’t caught up in the movie, we might object to it. But Greengrass argues, and with good reason, that in this kind of story, it’s more important to move from one beat to the next as quickly and economically as possible, rather than derailing the momentum with a more plausible sequence of events.

I think he’s right. It’s easy to make fun of certain stories, especially thrillers and action movies, for the leaps of logic that the hero has to make to get from one stunt sequence to another. Even superficially more realistic procedurals are grounded less on real crime scene technique than on sudden flashes of insight, and if you were to cut all of them together, they would start to seem even more ridiculous. Yet it’s a convention that arises less out of a lack of concern about “realism” than from the set of rules that the movie itself has established. Plenty of films, from All the President’s Men to Zodiac, have made riveting cinema out of the tedium of ordinary reporting or investigative work, but they’ve been conceived before the fact in a way that prepares us for the kind of story we’re about to watch. A Bourne movie presents us with very different expectations: the only logic that matters is that of restless movement, and to the extent that the film presents certain elements more or less plausibly, it’s only to facilitate our larger suspension of disbelief. Bourne googles his way over a bump in the script because it was the most efficient way to get from point A to point B.

"Whose locker is this?"

We see this kind of compression and elision even at the highest levels of literature. I’ve always loved what John Gardner had to say about Hamlet, which includes a moment of high implausibility: the fact that the normally indecisive prince has no trouble sending Rosencrantz and Guidenstern to their deaths offstage, and with almost no explanation. “If pressed,” Gardner writes, “Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox outfoxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to.” He continues:

But the explanation I’ve put in Shakespeare’s mouth is probably not the true one. The truth is very likely that almost without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter…Shakespeare’s instinct told him, “Get back to the business between Hamlet and Claudius,” and, sudden as lightning, he was back.

In other words, it’s a question, like so much else in art, of prioritizing what is truly important. And sometimes realism or plausibility takes a back seat to advancing the overall narrative.

Many of the same factors come into play in Part III in City of Exiles. The previous section ends with Wolfe in London, helpless to prevent the crash of Chigorin’s plane; Part III concludes with her final confrontation with Karvonen in a tunnel beneath Helsinki. To get from one point to the next involves covering an enormous geographical distance and an even more tenuous chain of associations. Wolfe needs to figure out that the plane was sabotaged in Finland, find Karvonen’s contact at the airport, track her down, interrogate her, and preemptively think ahead throughout to anticipate where Karvonen will go now, all in exactly fifty pages. Pulling this off in a way that also kept the story going involved a fair number of shortcuts, as we see in Chapter 47, in which Wolfe identifies Karvonen’s accomplice thanks to the lucky glimpse of a volume of John Donne’s poetry in her locker. If this feels like something of a cheat, well, maybe it is. Still, I had little choice if I wanted to keep things moving. Playing this kind of card too often can strain plausibility to the breaking point, which hurts the story more than it helps. But here, it seemed more important to get Wolfe as soon as possible to her appointment under the city…

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2014 at 9:01 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

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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