Posts Tagged ‘Vulture’
Last week, the podcast 99% Invisible devoted an episode to the editing and sound design tricks used by the makers of nature documentaries. For obvious reasons, most footage in the wild is captured from a distance using zoom lenses, and there’s no equivalent for sound, which means that unless David Attenborough himself is standing in the shot, the noises that you’re hearing were all added later. Foley artists will recreate hoofbeats or the footsteps of lions by running their hands over pits filled with gravel, while animal vocalizations can be taken from sound catalogs or captured by recordists working nowhere near the original shoot. This kind of artifice strikes me as forgivable, but there are times when the manipulation of reality crosses a line. In the fifties Disney documentary White Wilderness, lemmings were shown hurling themselves into the ocean, which required a helping hand: “The producers took the lemmings to a cliff in Alberta and, in some scenes, used a turntable device to throw them off the edge. Not only was it staged, but lemmings don’t even do this on their own. Scientists now know that the idea of a mass lemming suicide ritual is entirely apocryphal.” And then there’s the movie Wolves, which rented wolves from a game farm and filmed them in an artificial den. When Chris Palmer, the director, was asked about the scene at a screening, it didn’t go well:
Palmer’s heart sank, but he decided to come clean, and when he did, he could feel the excitement leave the room. Up to this moment, he had assumed people wouldn’t care. “But they do care,” he realized. “They are assuming they are seeing the truth…things that are authentic and genuine.”
When viewers realize that elements of nature documentaries utilize the same techniques as other genres of filmmaking, they tend to feel betrayed. When you think about the conditions under which such movies are produced, however, it shouldn’t be surprising. If every cut is a lie, as Godard famously said, that’s even more true when you’re dealing with animals in the wild. As David Mamet writes in On Directing Film:
Documentaries take basically unrelated footage and juxtapose it in order to give the viewer the idea the filmmaker wants to convey. They take footage of birds snapping a twig. They take footage of a fawn raising its head. The two shots have nothing to do with each other. They were shot days or years, and miles, apart. And the filmmaker juxtaposes the images to give the viewer the idea of great alertness. The shots have nothing to do with each other. They are not a record of what the protagonist did. They are not a record of how the deer reacted to the bird. They’re basically uninflected images. But they give the viewer the idea of alertness to danger when they are juxtaposed. That’s good filmmaking.
Mamet is trying to make a point about how isolated images—which have little choice but to be “uninflected” when the actors are some birds and a deer—can be combined to create meaning, and he chose this example precisely because the narrative emerges from nothing but that juxtaposition. But it also gets at something fundamental about the grammar of the wildlife documentary itself, which trains us to think about nature in terms of stories. And that’s a fiction in itself.
You could argue that a movie that purports to be educational or “scientific” has no business engaging in artifice of any kind, but in fact, it’s exactly in that context that this sort of manipulation is most justified. Scientific illustration is often used when a subject can’t be photographed directly—as in Ken Marschall’s wonderful paintings for Dr. Robert D. Ballard’s The Discovery of the Titanic—or when more information can conveyed through an idealized situation. In Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson writes of Sarah Landry’s detailed drawings: “In the case of the vertebrate species, her compositions are among the first to represent entire societies, in the correct demographic proportions, with as many social interactions displayed as can plausibly be included in one scene.” Landry’s compositions of a troop of baboons or a herd of elephants could never have been captured in a photograph, but they get at a truth that is deeper than reality, or at least more useful. As the nature illustrator Jonathan Kingdon writes in Field Notes on Science and Nature:
Even an outline sketch that bears little relationship to the so-called objectivity of a photograph might actually transmit information to another human being more selectively, sometimes even more usefully, than a photograph. For example, a few quick sketches of a hippopotamus allow the difference between sexes, the peculiar architecture of amphibious existence in a giant quadruped, and the combination of biting and antlerlike clashing of enlarged lower jaws to be appreciated at a glance…”Outline drawings”…can represent, in themselves, artifacts that may correspond more closely with what the brain seeks than the charts of light-fall that photographs represent.
On some level, nature documentaries fall into much the same category, providing us with idealized situations and narratives in order to facilitate understanding. (You could even say that the impulse to find a story in nature is a convenient tool in itself. It’s no more “true” than the stories that we tell about human history, but those narratives, as Walter Pater observes of philosophical theories, “may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us.”) If anything, our discomfort with more extreme kinds of artifice has more to do with an implicit violation of the contract between the filmmaker and the audience. We expect that the documentarian will go into the field and shoot hundreds of hours of footage in search of the few minutes—or seconds—that will amaze us. As Jesse David Fox of Vulture wrote of the stunning iguana and snake chase from the new Planet Earth series: “This incredible footage is the result of the kind of extreme luck that only comes with hard work. A camera crew worked from dusk to dawn for weeks filming the exact spot, hoping something would happen, and if it did, that the camera would be in focus.” After shooting the hatchlings for weeks, they finally ended up with their “hero” iguana, and this combination of luck and preparation is what deserves to be rewarded. Renting wolves or throwing lemmings off a cliff seems like a form of cheating, an attempt to fit the story to the script, rather than working with what nature provided. But the boundary isn’t always clear. Every documentary depends on a sort of artificial selection, with the best clips making it into the finished result in a kind of survival of the fittest. But there’s also a lot of intelligent design.
Sometimes a great film takes years to reveal its full power. Occasionally, you know what you’ve witnessed as soon as the closing credits begin to roll. And very rarely, you realize in the middle of the movie that you’re watching something extraordinary. I’ve experienced this last feeling only a handful of times in my life, and my most vivid memory of it is from ten years ago, when I saw Children of Men. I’d been looking forward to it ever since seeing the trailer, and for the first twenty minutes or so, it more than lived up to my expectations. But halfway through a crucial scene—and if you’ve seen the movie, you know the one I mean—I began to feel the movie expanding in my head, as Pauline Kael said of The Godfather Part II, “like a soft bullet.” Two weeks later, I wrote to a friend: “Alfonso Cuarón has just raised the bar for every director in the world.” And I still believe this, even if the ensuing decade has clarified the film’s place in the history of movies. Cuarón hasn’t had the productive career that I’d hoped he would, and it took him years to follow up on his masterpiece, although he finally earned his Oscar for Gravity. The only unambiguous winner to come out of it all was the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubzeki, who has won three Academy Awards in a row for refinements of the discoveries that he made here. And the story now seems prescient, of course, as Abraham Riesman of Vulture recently noted: “The film, in hindsight, seems like a documentary about a future that, in 2016, finally arrived.” If nothing else, the world certainly appears to be run by exactly the sort of people of whom Jarvis Cocker was warning us.
But the most noteworthy thing about Children of Men, and the one aspect of it that its fans and imitators should keep in mind, is the insistently visceral nature of its impact. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I was blown away the most by three elements: the tracking shots, the use of music, and the level of background detail in every scene. These are all qualities that are independent of its politics, its message, and even, to some extent, its script, which might be its weakest point. The movie can be refreshingly elliptical when it comes to the backstory of its characters and its world, but there are also holes and shortcuts that are harder to forgive. (Its clumsiest moment, for me, is when Theo is somehow able to observe and overhear Jasper’s death—an effective scene in itself—from higher ground without being noticed by anyone else. We aren’t sure where he’s standing in relation to the house, so it feels contrived and stagy, a strange lapse for a movie that is otherwise so bracingly specific about its geography.) But maybe that’s how it had to be. If the screenplay were as rich and crowded as the images, it would turn into a Christopher Nolan movie, for better or worse, and Cuarón is a very different sort of filmmaker. He’s content to leave entire swaths of the story in outline form, as if he forgot to fill in the blanks, and he’s happy to settle for a cliché if it saves time, just because his attention is so intensely focused elsewhere.
Occasionally, this has led his movies to be something less than they should be. I really want to believe that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the strongest installment in the series, but it has real structural problems that stem precisely from Cuarón’s indifference to exposition: he cuts out an important chunk of dialogue that leaves the climax almost incomprehensible, so that nonreaders have to scramble to figure out what the hell is going on, when we should be caught up in the action. Gravity impressed me enormously when I saw it on the big screen, but I’m not particularly anxious to revisit it at home, where its technical marvels run the risk of being swallowed up by its rudimentary characters and dialogue. (It strikes me now that Gravity might have some of the same problems, to a much lesser extent, as Birdman, in which the use of extended takes makes it impossible to give scenes the necessary polish in the editing room. Which also implies that if you’re going to hire Lubzeki as your cinematographer, you’d better have a really good script.) But Children of Men is the one film in which Cuarón’s shortcomings are inseparable from his strengths. His usual omissions and touches of carelessness were made for a story in which we’re only meant to glimpse the overall picture. And its allegory is so vague that we can apply it to whatever we like.
This might sound like a criticism, but it isn’t: Children of Men is undeniably one of the major movies of my lifetime. And its message is more insightful than it seems, even if it takes a minute of thought to unpack. Its world falls apart as soon as humanity realizes that it doesn’t have a future, which isn’t so far from where we are now. We find it very hard, as a species, to keep the future in mind, and we often behave—even in the presence of our own children—as if this generation will be the last. When a society has some measure of economic and political security, it can make efforts to plan ahead for a decade or two, but even that modest degree of foresight disappears as soon as stability does. In Children of Men, the childbirth crisis, which doesn’t respect national or racial boundaries, takes the sort of disruptions that tend to occur far from the developed world and brings them into the heart of Europe and America, and it doesn’t even need to change any of the details. The most frightening thing about Cuarón’s movie, and what makes it most relevant to our current predicament, is that its extrapolations aren’t across time, but across the map of the world as it exists today. You don’t need to look far to see landscapes like the ones through which the characters move, or the ways in which they could spread across the planet. In the words of William Gibson, the future of Children of Men is already here. It just isn’t evenly distributed yet.
A few days ago, Jordan Crucchiola of Vulture wrote a think piece titled “The Best Place for Women in Action Movies is Next to Tom Cruise.” The article makes the argument, which strikes me as indisputable, that the women in films like the Mission: Impossible series have made such consistently strong impressions that it can’t all be an accident. I’ve written here before at possibly excessive length about Rebecca Ferguson in Rogue Nation, who was arguably the best part of one of my favorite recent action movies, and Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow speaks for herself. And it’s only after multiple viewings of Ghost Protocol, which is a movie that I’m happy to watch again on any given night, that I’ve come to realize the extent to which Paula Patton is its true star and emotional center: Cruise is content to slip into the background, like a producer paying a visit to the set, while the real interest of the scene unfolds elsewhere. For an actor who has often been accused of playing the same role in every movie—although it’s more accurate to say that he emphasizes different aspects of his core persona, and with greater success and variety than most leading men—he’s notably willing to defer to the strong women with whom he shares the screen. As Crucchiola concludes: “You get the sense that, as he approaches sixty, Cruise is more than happy to share the responsibility of anchoring a blockbuster action movie. It’s almost as if he’s creating a kind of hero apprentice program.”
This is all true, as far as it goes, but it also hints at an even larger insight that the article glimpses but never quite articulates. You can start by widening the scope a bit and noting that the best place for a man in a movie is next to Cruise, too. Actors as different as Cuba Gooding Jr., Colin Farrell, and Ken Watanabe have gotten big assists from providing reliable support in a Cruise vehicle, and his filmography is littered with fascinating but abortive experiments, like Dougray Scott, that never quite got off the ground. As a movie star, Cruise has shown an unusual interest—and again, it’s so consistent that it can’t be accidental—in providing meaningful secondary parts for both men and women, some of which are really the lead in disguise. (Eyes Wide Shut is essentially a series of short films in which Cruise cedes the focus to another performer for ten minutes or so, and each one feels like the beginning of a career.) And when you pull back even further, you notice that he’s performed much the same function for directors. At the height of his power, Cruise made a notable effort to work with most of the world’s best filmmakers, but after Kubrick and Spielberg, there were no more worlds to conquer. Instead, he began to seek out directors who were on the rise or on the rebound: J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, Christopher McQuarrie. Not every effort along those lines paid off, and it can be hard to discern what he saw in, say, Joseph Kosinski. But you could make a strong case that Cruise has launched more players on both sides of the camera than any other major star.
In other words, his track record with actresses is just a subset, although a very important one, of a more expansive program for developing talent. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken of Cruise as a great producer who happens to inhabit the body of a movie star, but this doesn’t go far enough: he’s more like a one-man studio. A decade ago, he and Paula Wagner made an undeniably bad job of running the creative end of United Artists, but it’s noteworthy that his shift toward working with emerging directors occurred at around the same time. It’s as if after failing to turn around a conventional studio, Cruise saw that he could put together a leaner, nimbler version on his own, and that it required no permanent infrastructure apart from his stardom and ability to raise money. It would be a studio like Pixar, which, instead of scattering its attention across multiple projects, devoted most of its resources to releasing a single big movie every year. When you look at his recent career through that lens, it clarifies one of its less explicable trends: Cruise’s apparent decision, well into his fifties, to redefine himself as an action hero, at a point when most actors are easing themselves into less physically challenging parts. If you remember how versatile a dramatic lead he used to be, it feels like a loss, but it makes sense when you imagine him as the head of a studio with only one asset. Cruise has chosen to focus on tentpole pictures, just like the rest of the industry, and what makes it unique is how relentlessly he relies on himself alone to drive that enormous machine.
Which only reinforces my conviction, which I’ve held for years, that this is the most interesting career in the movies. Even its compromises are instructive, when taken as part of the larger strategy. (The Jack Reacher franchise, for instance, which the world wasn’t exactly clamoring to see, is a conscious attempt to create a series of midrange movies that allow Cruise to hit a double at the box office, rather than going for a home run every time. They’re the breathing spaces between Mission: Impossible installments. Similarly, his upcoming involvement in the reboot of The Mummy feels like a test case in partnering with someone else’s franchise, in a kind of joint venture.) If Tom Cruise is a secret studio, he’s done a better job of it than most corporations. At a time when the industry is struggling to come to terms with the problem of diversity, Cruise has launched the careers of a lot of attractive, talented performers of diverse backgrounds without ever making a point of it, and he’s done it in plain sight. Outside the echo chamber of Hollywood, and with the significant exception of Disney, audiences aren’t interested in studios as brands. Development executives are nonentities whose anonymity allows them to associate themselves with success, distance themselves from failure, and conceal the fact that they don’t know what they’re doing. Cruise doesn’t have that luxury. He’s made smart, pragmatic decisions for thirty years—and in public. And he makes the rest of the industry seem smaller by comparison.
Over the last week, I’ve read two stories that shed an unexpected light on the role of money in the artistic process. The first was the excellent Vulture article about the business of peak television, which I’ve already discussed here in detail. It notes that unprecedented amounts of cash are being thrown at prestige television series, with the top one percent of stars benefiting disproportionately, while actors who once might have played leading roles in network procedurals are struggling to get the same parts. After a decade in which pundits constantly predicted the demise of scripted television under an onslaught of cheap reality shows, the industry has expanded to make room for more writers than ever before—which has led to a corresponding shortage of qualified line producers. But a spike in financial resources doesn’t always translate into good storytelling. The difference between the first and second seasons of True Detective is a reminder, if we needed one, that the exact same factors on paper can yield very different results in practice, if that vital spark is missing. And what we’re really seeing is less a golden age than a codification of a new set of conventions. “Prestige television,” like “literary fiction,” is a genre, not a measure of quality, and its usual characteristics include ten episodes per season, a streaming or cable platform, outstanding production values, and a white male antihero. It may not always be great television, but as long as it satisfies the executives investing in new programming, it doesn’t have to be.
The other article that caught my eye was “Sunk,” Mitch Moxley’s memorable account in The Atavist of the Chinese billionaire Jon Jiang’s doomed attempt to bring his dream movie project, Empires of the Deep, to fruition. It defies easy summary, but the short version is that Jiang wrote an original screenplay, originally called Mermaid Island, and enlisted a bewildering array of collaborators—including the French filmmaker Pitof and the starlet Olga Kurylenko—to make it happen, only to blow more than $100 million on a production that chewed up a revolving door of screenwriters and directors and has yet to produce any usable footage. (Of the many strange stories that the article relates, perhaps the weirdest involves Irene Violette, the actress cast as a mermaid who had to slip out a window in the dead of night to get out of her contract.) Many of the cast and crew seem to have consoled themselves with the idea that great movies can emerge from troubled shoots, and it’s heartbreaking to hear how director Jonathan Lawrence hoped to make this unholy mess into something like Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the entire debacle hinges on what seems, at first, like a baffling paradox. Jiang had enormous financial resources to throw at the production, but he also cut corners, used cheap costumes and special effects, and never paid anyone on time. In spite of appearances, it’s possible that he invested very little of his own money in the film: a former production executive told Moxley that he believes that the billionaire relied mostly on outside investors, all of whom lost almost everything.
But I think the real explanation is more nuanced than this, and it ties back to the uneasy relationship between money, media, and creative freedom. The case of Empires of the Deep is only an exaggerated version of the dilemma that arises whenever the writer of the script is also the head of the studio, or at least the man who holds the pursestrings: without a higher authority to keep his worst tendencies in check, you end up with a movie that films the first draft of the script and has no incentive to make it any better. The situation becomes even more dire when the mogul in question seems to have no idea of how the medium works. You’d think that Jiang, a real estate tycoon, would at least have some notion of how to turn a blueprint into something real, but he appears to have taken a very different set of lessons from his business ventures. On visiting one of Jiang’s properties in Beijing, Moxley writes: “Although it’s only a decade old, up close the brick homes look cheap and worn, like so many properties hastily erected during China’s boom.” A movie made using the same principles would look pretty much like what we see here. Moxley also notes that the issue of guanxi, or relationships and connections, may have posed problems on the set. He observes:
One’s loyalty depends on who it is one has the strongest relationship with. That might be the director or a cinematographer or a producer—but it’s rarely the audience or the movie’s bottom line, which are generally the two highest priorities for American movies.
This is a remarkably shrewd point, and not just because it implies that what the production lacked, like many television shows, was a good line producer, whose job is to navigate those very networks. It might make us smile, but the plain fact is that such misaligned incentives are at the root of many artistic failures, and China doesn’t have a monopoly on this. A version of guanxi exists, in a less obvious form, at every Hollywood studio: each decision, from the lowest level to the highest, ultimately hinges on an individual executive’s desire not to get fired, which makes otherwise inexplicable choices easier to understand. Office politics, lines of succession, changes of regime, or the desire to maintain a relationship with a star can have a far greater impact on what gets made than “the audience or the movie’s bottom line.” This can be true of television, too: the need for streaming services like Hulu or Amazon to enhance their profiles, in the absence of concrete ratings, can lead to shows being produced that are less about real quality than its simulation, which for many viewers is more than enough. (Witness the success of House of Cards, which started the whole streaming revolution in the first place, despite a consistent lack of good writing.) Money isn’t the root of all evil in art: more worthwhile stories have died because of a lack of money than because of its overabundance. But without the constraints that a real audience provides, making a good movie can be harder than squeezing a mermaid through the eye of a needle.
Earlier this week, I devoured the long, excellent article by Josef Adalian and Maria Elena Fernandez of Vulture on the business of peak television. It’s full of useful insights and even better gossip—and it names plenty of names—but there’s one passage that really caught my eye, in a section about the huge salaries that movie stars are being paid to make the switch to the small screen:
A top agent defends the sums his clients are commanding, explaining that, in the overall scheme of things, the extra money isn’t all that significant. “Look at it this way,” he says. “If you’re Amazon and you’re going to launch a David E. Kelley show, that’s gonna cost $4 million an episode [to produce], right? That’s $40 million. You can have Bradley Whitford starring in it, [who is] gonna cost you $150,000 an episode. That’s $1.5 million of your $40 million. Or you could spend another $3.5 million [to get Costner] on what will end up being a $60 million investment by the time you market and promote it. You can either spend $60 [million] and have the Bradley Whitford show, or $63.5 [million] and have the Kevin Costner show. It makes a lot of sense when you look at it that way.”
With all due apologies to Bradley Whitford, I found this thought experiment fascinating, and not just for the reasons that the agent presumably shared it. It implies, for one thing, that television—which is often said to be overtaking Hollywood in terms of quality—is becoming more like feature filmmaking in another respect: it’s the last refuge of the traditional star. We frequently hear that movie stardom is dead and that audiences are drawn more to franchises than to recognizable faces, so the fact that cable and streaming networks seem intensely interested in signing film stars, in a post-True Detective world, implies that their model is different. Some of it may be due to the fact, as William Goldman once said, that no studio executive ever got fired for hiring a movie star: as the new platforms fight to establish themselves, it makes sense that they’d fall back on the idea of star power, which is one of the few things that corporate storytelling has ever been able to quantify or understand. It may also be because the marketing strategy for television inherently differs from that for film: an online series is unusually dependent on media coverage to stand out from the pack, and signing a star always generates headlines. Or at least it once did. (The Vulture article notes that Woody Allen’s new series for Amazon “may end up marking peak Peak TV,” and it seems a lot like a deal that was made for the sake of the coverage it would produce.)
But the most plausible explanation lies in simple economics. As the article explains, Netflix and the other streaming companies operate according to a “cost-plus” model: “Rather than holding out the promise of syndication gold, the company instead pays its studio and showrunner talent a guaranteed up-front profit—typically twenty or thirty percent above what it takes to make a show. In exchange, it owns all or most of the rights to distribute the show, domestically and internationally.” This limits the initial risk to the studio, but also the potential upside: nobody involved in producing the show itself will see any money on the back end. In addition, it means that even the lead actors of the series are paid a flat dollar amount, which makes them a more attractive investment than they might be for a movie. Most of the major stars in Hollywood earn gross points, which means that they get a cut of the box office receipts before the film turns a profit—a “first dollar” deal that makes the mathematics of breaking even much more complicated. The thought experiment about Bradley Whitford and Kevin Costner only makes sense if you can get Costner at a fixed salary per episode. In other words, movie stars are being actively courted by television because its model is a throwback to an earlier era, when actors were held under contract by a studio without any profit participation, and before stars and their agents negotiated better deals that ended up undermining the economic basis of the star system entirely.
And it’s revealing that Costner, of all actors, appears in this example. His name came up mostly because multiple sources told Vulture that he was offered $500,000 per episode to star in a streaming series: “He passed,” the article says, “but industry insiders predict he’ll eventually say ‘yes’ to the right offer.” But he also resonates because he stands for a kind of movie stardom that was already on the wane when he first became famous. It has something to do with the quintessentially American roles that he liked to play—even JFK is starting to seem like the last great national epic—and an aura that somehow kept him in leading parts two decades after his career as a major star was essentially over. That’s weirdly impressive in itself, and it testifies to how intriguing a figure he remains, even if audiences aren’t likely to pay to see him in a movie. Whenever I think of Costner, I remember what the studio executive Mike Medavoy once claimed to have told him right at the beginning of his career:
“You know,” I said to him over lunch, “I have this sense that I’m sitting here with someone who is going to become a great big star. You’re going to want to direct your own movies, produce your own movies, and you’re going to end up leaving your wife and going through the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle.”
Costner did, in fact, end up leaving his first wife. And if he also leaves film for television, even temporarily, it may reveal that “the whole Hollywood movie-star cycle” has a surprising final act that few of us could have anticipated.
Yesterday, I stumbled across an interview that the screenwriter Damon Lindelof gave to Vulture two years ago on the subject of the modern blockbuster. I’m not exactly a fan of Lindelof’s work: his two most recent film credits are on the scripts for Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness, both of which I found disappointing, although I retain high hopes for Tomorrowland. Yet as this interview clearly indicates, he’s a smart, articulate guy with a real knack for a certain kind of storytelling. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: I have no trouble believing that the majority of working screenwriters in Hollywood score somewhere in the top percentile for talent and perseverance, and if the results of their efforts are often mediocre, it’s because film production is contingent on so many other factors. Any screenplay that actually gets produced has stood out, by definition, from a horde of countless other pitches and spec scripts, and the initial draft is usually just fine. It’s the development process that kills it, as well as the elephantine logic of modern studio filmmaking. As Lindelof notes: “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world. And when you start there…you are very limited in terms of how you execute that.”
This might not seem like an issue for writers working in more modest formats, like the novel, but we often find ourselves operating under similar conditions. During the interview, Lindelof is asked to pitch out a version of the John Henry story that would pass muster at a major studio, and he’s very funny in speculating as to how a hypothetical executive would react:
Well, I think the first thing that would happen is you would say the fundamental, most important part of the story is that [John Henry] dies…And all the studio execs would say, ‘Absolutely. That’s what we love about this story.’ Two drafts later somebody would say, ‘Does he have to die?’”
Lindelof goes on to spitball a version that hits all of Hollywood’s favorite beats, including a personal backstory—John Henry was boyhood friends with the inventor of the steam-tunneling machine, whose father owned the plantation where he was a slave—and a love triangle. And just when you think he can’t push it any further, he does, describing what would happen to the script with its third or fourth writer. By the end, John Henry is close to a superhero, complete with a mystical mentor, destined to restore nothing less than the balance of the universe.
It’s all pretty amusing, especially because it’s true: Lindelof’s pitch ends up sounding eerily plausible. But it made me reflect on how all writers rig the game whenever they can. (As Somerset Maugham, who was the opposite of Lindelof in most respects, once said: “The author always loads his dice, but he must never let the reader see that he has done so, and by the manipulation of his plot he can engage the reader’s attention so that he does not perceive what violence has been done him.”) Lindelof’s pitches grow increasingly wild, but they all have one thing in common: with each pass, characters are nudged away from humanity and closer to purely functional roles, there to serve a story point or arouse a specific reaction from the audience. In the first draft, the inventor of the machine is Henry’s best friend; in the second, he’s “mustache-twirling, he represents everything that we hate.” It’s all very obvious, but it would probably work. And even if we’re only writing to please ourselves, or a handful of readers, we find ourselves engaging in much the same process, pushing characters to occupy a position in the narrative less out of reasoned characterization than because of what the story demands.
There’s a small example from Eternal Empire that embarrasses me a little, although I can’t say it doesn’t do its job. In Chapter 8, we’re introduced to Sasha, an inmate at Belmarsh Prison with a gratuitously despicable backstory: he did unspeakable things to his wife and her lover before murdering them. Why? A few chapters later, Ilya is going to have to kill him for no particular reason, and I wanted him to seem like someone who at least had it coming. (We see much the same logic at work in the late novels of Thomas Harris, who preserves Hannibal Lecter’s status as an antihero by insisting—contrary to much evidence from the earlier books—that he eats only the rude. Hannibal, in particular, presses this idea to the point of absurdity: if a character is introduced early on as a raging asshole, we know that he’s probably going to get eaten.) I’m not especially proud of this; it feels like I’m stacking the cards so that the reader will accept Sasha’s death and move on, rather than lingering on its implications. For the sake of the overall story, it was important that we not get too distracted by it, and while I didn’t give Sasha a mustache to twirl, I might as well have. And although the result works as intended, especially given the limited space at its disposal, I can’t help but feel that Ilya, and I, could have done a bit better…