Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Mummy

Cruise and control

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Over the last week, I’ve been listening to a long interview that the writer and director Christopher McQuarrie gave to The Empire Film Podcast after the release of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. It’s over two and a half hours long and loaded with insight, but it also has a somewhat different tone when you come to it after the recent debacle of The Mummy. McQuarrie, predictably, has nothing but good words for Tom Cruise, whom he describes as the ultimate producer, with a hand in every aspect of the creative process. Now compare this to the postmortem in Variety:

In the case of The Mummy, one person—Cruise—had an excessive amount of control, according to several people interviewed. The reboot of The Mummy was supposed to be the start of a mega-franchise for Universal Pictures. But instead, it’s become a textbook case of a movie star run amok…Several sources close to the production say that Cruise exerted nearly complete creative oversight on The Mummy, essentially wearing all the hats and dictating even the smallest decisions on the set…Universal, according to sources familiar with the matter, contractually guaranteed Cruise control of most aspects of the project, from script approval to post-production decisions.

To put it another way, between Rogue Nation and The Mummy, absolutely nothing changed. On the one hand, Cruise’s perfectionist tendencies resulted in an excellent piece of work; on the other, they led to a movie that most critics agree is nearly unwatchable. This might seem like a paradox, but I’d prefer to see it as proof that this level of obsessiveness is required to make any movie whatsoever, regardless of the outcome. It may come from a producer or director rather than from the star, but in its absence, complicated projects just don’t get made at all. And the quality of the finished product is the result of factors that are out of even Tom Cruise’s control.

If you work in any creative field, you probably know this already, but the extent to which you’re willing to accept it is often determined by where your role falls in production. At one extreme, you have someone like the editor Walter Murch, who hangs a shiny brass “B” in his office. As Charles Koppelman writes in Behind the Seen:

Ask Walter about it, and he’ll tell you about aiming for a “B.” Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable. One can be happy with that. Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods—it’s beyond your control. If you start to think that the gods are smiling, they will take your revenge. Keep your blade sharp. Make as good a film as you know how. It’s an Eastern-oriented philosophy, as expressed by the American writer and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

At the other extreme, you have the star, who has been groomed to attribute everything good in a movie to his or her irreplaceable presence. And it’s no accident that you find these two attitudes at opposite ends of the production process. The light that strikes the star’s face is captured on film that works its way down the chain to the editors, who have little choice but to be pragmatic: they can only work with the footage that they’ve been given, and while they have lots of good tricks for manipulating it, they’re ultimately the ones who deal with what remains after all the fond hopes that went into a film have collided with reality. They know exactly what they do and don’t have. And they’re aware that superhuman technical control doesn’t represent the high end of craft, but the bare minimum required to do useful work.    

The screenwriter lies somewhere in the middle. In theory, he’s the one who gets paid to dream, and he isn’t constrained by any outside factors when he’s putting ideas down on the page. This isn’t quite how it works in practice, since there are plenty of externalities to consider at every point, and a screenwriter is often asked to solve problems at every stage in production. And we should be a little skeptical of what they have to say. Our understanding of cinematic craft is skewed by the fact that writers have traditionally been its most eloquent and entertaining expositors, which provides just one perspective on the making of the movie. One reason is the fact that screenwriters need to be good with words, not just for the script, but for the pitch meeting, which is another sort of performance—and it encourages them to deliver a hard sell for the act of writing itself. Another is that screenwriters have often been critically denigrated in favor of directors, which obliges them to be exceptionally funny, insightful, and forceful when they’re defending the importance of what they do for a living. Finally, there’s a kind of cynicism about the idea of control, which makes it easier to talk about it afterward. No screenplay is ever shot or released as written, which means that screenwriters exist to have their visions betrayed. If you believe that movies are made up largely of the contingent factors that emerge during production, that’s how it should be. But it also leaves screenwriters in a strange place when it comes to questions of control. Terry Rossio says of formatting the script so that the page breaks come at the right spot: “If you find yourself with this sort of obsessive behavior—like coming up with inventive ways to cheat the page count!—then, I think, you’ve got the right kind of attitude to make it in Hollywood.” He’s clearly right. But it’s also the kind of meticulousness that will be seen by only a handful of insiders, before your ideas pass through the hands of a dozen other professionals on the way to taking an unrecognizable form onscreen.

This may be the real reason why the screenwriters who serve as public advocates for craft—William Goldman, Robert Towne, Tony Gilroy, McQuarrie, and a few others—are also the ones with reputations as fixers, coming in at the very end to work on “troubled” shoots, which, as I’ve argued before, describes nearly every studio movie ever. These writers may well be legitimately better than most of their peers at solving problems, or at least they’re perceived that way, which is why they get those assignments. (As McQuarrie recently said to John August, when asked about the use of writers’ rooms on franchises like Transformers: “I believe you can create all of the Transformers stuff you want. You can build out the whole universe…When the rubber hits the road, that’s all going to change. They’re going to call you. They’re going to call me.” And he’s probably correct.) They’re survivors, and they’ve inevitably got good war stories to share. But we’re also more likely to listen to writers whose contributions come at the end of the process, where their obsessiveness can have a visible impact. It allows them to take credit for what worked while implicitly washing their hands of what didn’t, and there’s an element of chance involved here, too: every screenwriter wants to be the last one hired on a movie, but where you end up on that queue has a lot to do with luck and timing. I still find McQuarrie impossible to resist, and I learn more about storytelling from listening to him for ten minutes than by doing anything else. I’ve been talking about his interview so much that my wife joked that it’s my new religion. Well, maybe it is. But given how little anyone can control, it’s closer to John Gardner says about writing novels: it’s a yoga, a way of life in the world, rather than an end in itself. As McQuarrie himself says to Empire: “Never do anything to effect a result. Do something because you want to do it, or because you have to do it.” And he would know.

The mummy’s curse

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“Nobody wanted to see Tom Cruise in this movie,” a studio marketing executive was recently quoted as saying of The Mummy. Well, I humbly confess that I sort of did. My fondness for Cruise is a matter of record, and the prospect of a slick, expensive supernatural blockbuster with a contemporary setting, even one that forced itself into the franchise mold, was undeniably enticing. It wasn’t until the result seemed to underwhelm just about everyone who saw it that I realized how much I had been looking forward to the possibility that it might actually be good. Honestly, it feels like a loss. A really strong debut to the Dark Universe, as Universal insists on calling it, might have taken us to interesting places, and its lukewarm reception is a blow not so much to Cruise’s track record as an actor, which doesn’t need additional burnishing, as to his reputation as a superb overseer and packager of talent. Elsewhere, I’ve described him as a great producer who happens to occupy the body of a movie star, which is an unstoppable combination, and I’ve spent the last two decades regarding his name above the title as the most reliable brand in movies. Cruise seems eerily capable of willing troubled, complicated projects—which covers half the films made in Hollywood—to a successful conclusion. There’s something a little scary about his singlemindedness, which can come off as exhausting onscreen, but it’s also the one indispensable quality in a producer. In his commentary track on Jack Reacher, Christopher McQuarrie makes an offhand observation about Cruise that gets to the heart of his talent: “I’ve never met a more precise actor in terms of matching and continuity, and it makes life extraordinarily easy in the cutting room.” It’s hard to imagine anyone saying this of, say, Marlon Brando. But for Cruise, it’s a point of pride.

And if The Mummy feels like a movie in which the whole process broke down, it only underlines the fact that every blockbuster is always on the verge of falling apart, and that this represents the one time when Cruise—and McQuarrie, who was brought in for rewrites—failed to save it at the last minute. For proof, we need look no further than Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, an excellent movie that was also a logistical nightmare to write, shoot, and assemble. There was never a finished script, and production got underway with what feels like little more than the assumption that Cruise and McQuarrie would somehow figure it out on the set, in real time, with millions of dollars on the line. Toward the end, they took a long break to rewrite the ending, which was less a sign of desperation than their standard operating procedure. As McQuarrie told Deadline:

It’s the part of the process that Tom and I really love. You’re confronted with an obstacle that seems so insurmountable and Tom always says the same thing. If there’s any two people who can figure this out, it’s us. We’re gonna figure it out. And, usually we do.

That “usually” is a big catch, of course, but McQuarrie has worked with Cruise, credited or not, on ten films over the last decade, and he’s pulled off this sort of thing more consistently than anyone else possibly could. Given the enormous pressure and logistical challenges involved, it’s an incredible achievement. The trouble is that it creates the notion that you can always call in McQuarrie to fix a movie in the rewrite. This even extends to the films that he directs himself, as he revealed last month to the Scriptnotes podcast: “When I came in on Rogue Nation, I said let’s take all the lessons we learned from [Ghost Protocol], let’s have somebody else write a screenplay, and I’ll come in and fix it.” And you can hardly blame him, because until now, it always worked.

As a result, when we read accounts of the travails of The Mummy, with Cruise “trying to save the movie in the editing room,” it’s important to recognize that this was simply business as usual. Rogue Nation was saved in the editing room and at the rewrite stage. So were Ghost Protocol and Edge of Tomorrow. If The Mummy clearly wasn’t, the real question isn’t so much what went wrong in this case as what went right with all the others. But it also provides some intriguing clues. It’s possible that its status as the first chapter in a shared universe put too many cooks in the kitchen, or that its director, Alex Kurtzman, was unable to accommodate himself to Cruise’s control. In the podcast interview that I mentioned above, McQuarrie offers up a fascinating blind item:

There was one movie in particular that’s coming out. I’m very interested to see it. I won’t say its name. I begged the director not to go in the direction he was going. Because I really did believe in the material and I thought it was wonderful. And there was one specific plot element that completely degraded the main character of the film. And I said if you just take this thing away, your movie will become really powerful. But there was a visual idea. Either it was clearly an obsession with this particular idea, and there was a refusal to recognize that this very idea that gives you one visual aspect of the movie is going to tear the movie down. And he said, “Well, it’s just too much work.” And I said, “You’ve got nine months. You don’t realize how many times you can reinvent this movie.”

This sounds a lot like The Mummy, which includes a controversial sequence in which Cruise is possessed by the villainous Ahmanet, but even if it isn’t, it points to the problems that can arise when the chemistry with the director isn’t there. (As an aside, this explains why Cruise, after an amazing run in which he collaborated with many of the world’s greatest directors, has now settled for returning repeatedly to the same handful of journeymen, including McQuarrie, Doug Liman, Edward Zwick, and even Joseph Kosinski. Not all of them are masters of the medium, but he knows that he can work with them.)

All of this just makes me more interested in seeing The Mummy, even if the details of its production seem unlikely to ever get the full treatment that they deserve. And it’s a reminder of the fine line between success and failure that afflicts so many movies. One of the most striking case studies is the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was beset by production woes—including a script that was rewritten during filming and significant changes in reshoots and the editing room—but emerged as a masterpiece. A decade later, with The Hobbit, the same creative team, presented with virtually identical material, failed to make it happen again. Similarly, Cruise’s improvisational process can yield The Mummy, but it can also give us Edge of Tomorrow. And it doesn’t make me any less excited about the next installment in the Mission: Impossible series. At first glance, it feels vulnerable to the same kind of risk, but McQuarrie, as a director, has a few proven ideas about how to manage it. As he says to Scriptnotes:

We’re also very fortunate in that as long as we’re in Paris—we’re here for almost seven weeks—I only have three dialogue scenes in Paris. Everything else is action. All of the interior action in Paris will be shot in London. And what that allows me to do is play with the characters on a very, very, very minute scale and start to find what the movie looks like and know that, oh, I don’t have to explain what happens in this scene until the end of the summer when I’m in London. So it allowed us to sort of prioritize what did I really need to know in Paris before I left and what does that tie me into. And what we’re always trying to do is leave ourselves as many outs as possible.

On some level, this sounds insane, but it also reflects the thought that McQuarrie has invested into figuring out how to enable this kind of revision without getting crushed by the momentum of a big movie. (A lot of it comes down to a few reliable tricks. If you’re filming a scene with a lot of exposition, keep the characters in tight closeup, against a backdrop that can be easily recreated in the studio, in case you need to reshoot the whole thing to accommodate a change in the plot. And you always get a shot of Cruise looking at a cell phone, so that you can add an insert later to clarify the story.) Maybe it won’t come together this time. It evidently didn’t with The Mummy. But even if it sometimes fails, the really remarkable thing is that it ever works at all.

Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2017 at 8:47 am

Don’t look in the mirror

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Shaun of the Dead

One of the incidental pleasures of having a newborn baby in the house is the chance to catch up on junk television. You invariably find yourself sitting for hours on the couch, either because the baby is feeding or because she refuses to sleep unless she’s being held at four in the morning, and you’re rarely in the mood for a show like Mad Men or Breaking Bad that demands sustained attention. Far better to go with something like The Vampire Diaries, which I’ve wanted to watch ever since reading an ecstatic writeup on The A.V. Club. My wife and I are currently burning through the first season on Netflix, and it more than lives up to its reputation as a teen soap with relentless pacing and insane plot twists. Part of the fun is how transparent it is about its sources: it’s a blatant knockoff of Twilight, but much more inventive, and it strikes a nice balance between earnestness and open acknowledgement of how ridiculous it all is. And it really won my heart in the second episode, which cheerfully indulges in not one, but two shamelessly contrived mirror scares.

You know what a mirror scare is. It’s that moment in countless scary movies and television shows when a character, alone in the bathroom, opens a medicine cabinet, then closes it to reveal someone standing right behind her in the mirror, inevitably accompanied by a scare chord on the soundtrack. It’s one of the hoariest of all horror movie tropes, to the point where the setup alone evokes a knowing grin from most viewers, yet it’s still as popular as ever, as this glorious YouTube compilation makes wonderfully clear. And you see it everywhere, in movies of all levels of quality. It’s a staple of the slasher genre, of course, but you also find it in marginally more canny entertainments, like The Mummy, or in the very clever Shaun of the Dead. Even Ang Lee, a director of tremendous technical resources, wasn’t above using it for an easy shock in Lust, Caution. And it’s worth asking why this simple effect has proven so enduring, and why it’s so hard for directors of all kinds to resist.

An American Werewolf in London

Because the great thing about the mirror scare is that it works. The visual vocabulary of horror movies isn’t large, which is why such films tend to return to the same handful of trick effects: the jump scare, the foreground or background surprise, the ominous empty hallway. As I pointed out in my post on the cinematic baguette, once a filmmaker stumbles across an effect that works on a consistent basis, it’s copied at once, because such tricks are priceless. The mirror scare is especially delicious because it’s so blatantly artificial: not only does it require a certain fixed camera angle, but it depends on the premise that characters are able to sneak up on one another in complete silence. There are other ways of suddenly revealing a character in the frame, as when, in the movies of Brian De Palma, a woman in the foreground steps aside or bends over to reveal a figure standing silently behind her. But there’s something about the use of a mirror that gives the moment an additional zing: it feels like a clever bit of sleight of hand, even if it’s been copied so many times as to lose all meaning.

And as a writer, I envy it. Cinematic horror has a bag of tricks that simply aren’t available to those of us who are forced to work on the printed page, and there are times when I wish I could draw upon something as simple and reliable. Novels and short stories can’t really startle us: you can’t just throw a cat at the reader and expect the effect to work. There’s no equivalent to the mirror scare in fiction, and when a writer tries to do something similar, usually with what John Gardner calls “superdramatic one-sentence paragraphs…of the kind favored by porno and thriller writers,” it comes off as hysterical or worse, when the mirror scare, even at its most gratuitous, has a nice kind of visual clarity. Literary horror is more about implication, anticipation, and dread, and even if its effects are more lasting, they’re much harder to achieve. It’s a reminder, as if we needed one, of how literary and cinematic horror are two very different beasts, and why the studios can crank out one horror movie after another, when truly terrifying novels remain so rare. They do it with mirrors.

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2013 at 9:50 am

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