Tag Archives: Quentin Tarantino

Star Trek, Superman, “coolness,” and truth

Cool.
Cool.

My friend George sent me a link to a really long (but interesting nonetheless) rant about Star Trek Into Darkness the other day.  The author of said rant was not in any way a fan of Damon Lindelof, the Hollywood screenwriter who co-created Lost and contributed to the scripts of both Ridley Scott’s misfired Alien prequel Prometheus and the most recent reimagining of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.  To paraphrase, it’s perhaps enough to say that the author’s main gripe with Lindelof is that his writing forgoes logic, rules and consistent characterization in favor of “gee whiz,” “cool” and giggling at boobies instead.  Even as someone who enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness for what it was, I found it hard to dispute this point.  One of the biggest of my own gripes about it was the ending, cribbed almost note for note from the superior Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to the point where it came off as something like a cinematic exercise in karaoke.  Movies in this genre nowadays rarely, if ever, make you feel anything.  And the reason, plainly, is that they are being made by a generation of filmmakers who have not felt, but rather have experienced life only by watching other movies.

I don’t know Damon Lindelof and I can’t pretend to know what he’s gone through in his life.  Certainly his drive and his skill at achieving the career he has is to be admired and envied.  But he seems to be one of a breed of young writers and directors from the mold of Quentin Tarantino, who spent their formative years working in video stores, absorbing thousands upon thousands of famous and obscure movies into malleable brains, uploading raw data Matrix-style to that place where the memories of life would normally be stored.  The work they produce now as the chief drivers of the Hollywood machine is endless pastiche; pieces of other works recombined and reimagined for modern consumption.  I had a discussion with my uncle recently about the decline in quality of movie scripts and I told him it’s because foreign markets make up the majority of a movie’s profit potential, and vehicles driven by visual effects and explosions and “cool!” will do better overseas than more literate works filled with idioms and ideas and cultural mores that don’t translate into Mandarin or Hindi.  Studio executives hire filmmakers who can deliver dollars, not philosophy.  (If they can do both at the same time, fine, that usually means Oscars, but the former is always preferable).  This is where folks like Damon Lindelof find their wheelhouse.  (In fairness to him, Star Trek Into Darkness was co-written by Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci, and certainly director J.J. Abrams had major story input as well).  They can deliver the popcorn with consistency and efficiency.  But that’s all.

There is a semi-famous story (to Trekkers, anyhow) around the writing of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  When Nicholas Meyer was hired as its director, he was told there were at least five different scripts for it floating around, none of which were suitable to shoot.  Meyer suggested a meeting whereby the creative team made a note of everything they liked from any of the drafts – a character, a scene, even something as minor as a line of dialogue.  Meyer took these notes away and wrote a draft of what would become the movie we saw in only twelve days, forsaking a writing credit simply to get the movie in shape to shoot.  In any other hands such a cut-and-paste job might have resulted in a hackneyed, disjointed mess, but Meyer’s literary background enabled him to infuse a theatrical quality into what was otherwise a straightforward story of revenge and sacrifice.  What was most remarkable about the screenplay was that it dared to present its hero as old, tired and washed-up – traits actors loathe playing because they think the audience will project them onto their real-life selves.  Meyer was young when he wrote the screenplay, but as a struggling artist he could empathize with those things.  Hotshot screenwriters who’ve bounced effortlessly from pre-sold blockbuster to pre-sold blockbuster as the new Star Trek team have done are incapable of this.  They don’t know what it’s like to fail, to come up against your own limitations and find yourself wanting.  They simply can’t dramatize what they have never felt.  And so they reach toward the only place they’ve ever found traces of those feelings – other, better movies.

When I picture Nicholas Meyer writing Star Trek II, I see an angsty face hunched over a typewriter, sucking down his twentieth cigarette, plumbing the depths of his soul as he agonizes over le mot juste, fighting to find the emotional truth of the story.  When I picture the story break sessions for Star Trek Into Darkness, I see a room full of young guys in baseball caps scarfing down pizza and Red Bull and trying to one-up each other with statements like “You know what would be totally awesome?  A shot of the Enterprise rising out of the ocean.”  “How about they come across this ship which is twice their size and totally painted black?”  “COOL!”  “Hey, guys, check this out.  What if the bad guy… is Khan?  And the end is exactly like Wrath of Khan only we switch Kirk and Spock’s places?”  “Yeah!  I love it!”  “It’s pretty good, but we need some hot alien chicks with tails.  And more Beastie Boys songs, that went over so well last time.”

I had the same problem with Superman Returns, which I watched again recently, and I chalk it up once more to a screenplay written by capable but very young scribes Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (they have cameos in the movie as high school students) who were great at dreaming up “Cool!” trailer-worthy moments like a bullet bouncing off Superman’s eye but not so skilled at crafting emotions or believable characters.  Superman is a difficult character to write even if you’re a seasoned pro, but the main reason that movie didn’t connect with audiences was because Superman really has no story in it.  He’s just… there, as lifeless as the dated-looking CGI used to render him in some of the flying scenes.  He talks about having been gone for a while but doesn’t seem to have been changed by his experience, or have any compelling reason to have come back (apart from using his powers to stalk Lois Lane in several unnerving sequences).  The movie is more interested in the “whiz-bang” spectacle of Lex Luthor’s overly complicated plot to create a new continent in the Atlantic Ocean using stolen Kryptonian crystals and kryptonite, which in the end Superman just ignores as he lifts the entire landmass into outer space (a point not lost on my young son who remarked “isn’t kryptonite supposed to make him weak?”)  And for a movie that directly raises the question of whether or not the world needs Superman, it never gets around to debating this point in a satisfactory way.  Compare the wafer-thin Superman Returns to the profundity in the Richard Donner original that it is paying homage to, and it comes up extremely short – because the young writers of the former simply don’t have the chops of the great veteran Tom Mankiewicz (whom they crib lines from in the movie’s only memorable scenes, just as Lindelof, Orci and Kurtzman quoted Meyer’s famous dialogue verbatim in Star Trek Into Darkness).  Instead, we get dumb gags about dogs eating each other.

Someone once decimated Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace by pointing out that the plot was a series of scenes of characters going from meeting to meeting to meeting, a reflection of the life of George Lucas at the time.  I’m all for encouraging young screenwriters to get their shot at the big time, but as a lover of stories that matter I prefer the visceral resonance you’ll see in works by writers who’ve lived long enough to have had their asses kicked around the block a few times.  If you’ve never been the underdog, you can’t know what it’s like to be looking up at the mountain and be paralyzed with the fear of taking the first step.  In the absence of those memories you reach for what others have done in older, better movies, and cough up pale copies that rely on flash and swagger to cover the absence of substance.  “Yeah, it doesn’t matter that none of these characters say or do anything memorable or touching, ’cause… cool badass aliens with frickin’ laser beams!  Like in that other movie that people enjoyed!”  The abiding irony in all of this is that as it concerns Star Trek, some of the most memorable dialogue in The Wrath of Khan was itself lifted from other sources, namely Moby Dick et al.  But in that movie, it didn’t feel so obviously recycled, because Meyer’s informed writing and directing (and terrific performances, by the by) sold the emotional truth of each word.

I’m not saying there should be some rule that you can’t write a movie unless you’re at least 40, have been divorced once and be suffering a deep psychological resentment of your parents for taking your favorite blankie away when you were four.  I’m saying that some of these young guys pulling in six and seven figures for rewrite jobs should perhaps look away from a screen once in a while, get out and live a bit of their lives.  Read some classic literature.  Rediscover what it means to feel something that isn’t necessarily just the high of sleeping with models after a gala premiere.  Worry less about what’s cool and more about what connects.  Recognize that what touches us about movies and stays with us long after we’ve left the theater isn’t the awesome shot of the ship tumbling end over end into the atmosphere, it’s the quiet dignity of man in his darkest hour and the deep bonds we forge to fight against our intrinsic loneliness.  It’s the humanity.  And if you can’t feel that in your own life, you’ll never successfully translate it to the page, let alone to the screen.

Advertisements

Do authors dream of electric typewriters?

A dime a dozen.
A dime a dozen.

Where do you get your ideas?  That’s a question that everyone who fancies him or herself a writer is asked by someone at some point, with either a look of wonder or disgust on the questioner’s face (hopefully, it’ll always be the former).  The Muse can be an elusive mistress; Lynda, my writing teacher, once advised that waiting around for her was an exercise in futility as she was more likely to dance just out of reach, laughing at you, and that you had to force her to the table by sitting down and starting without her.  In that respect, schedules and deadlines certainly help a great deal, as we all know that the easiest thing to do in the world is not write.

Finding a subject for a blog post is not terribly difficult, even if the writing of said post is.  There’s always lots going on in the world that we can comment on.  I’m of the “more flies with honey” and “current or future employers might read this” mentality, so I’ll usually stop myself from venting about whatever is pissing me off lately and try to either write something positive or find an optimistic take on a particularly frustrating news item.  (On a side note, my wife and I are watching the political drama House of Cards these past few nights and I’m finding it difficult to glom onto completely, for the singular reason that it is an utterly cynical program wallowing happily in the most selfish aspects of government service, and I’m much more drawn to the hopeful take offered by The West Wing.  But Kevin Spacey is still awesome.)  The blog, essentially, is a snapshot of how you’re feeling on any given day.  A novel, by contrast, is a long term exercise in exploring an idea to its every possible limit.  But which ideas are more deserving of the in depth treatment as opposed to the casual chat?  How do you know which is which?

The summer after my mother died, I chained myself to my computer and started writing screenplays.  That was what I was into at the time; for more on what led to this check out this previous post.  Like many, my first ventures into serious writing were fan fiction, and in my case, Star Trek fan fiction.  Although, I never managed to finish any of it – there’s an old hard drive rusting in a landfill somewhere full of the first chapters of stories about the crew of the Enterprise doing… well, not very much, actually.  I couldn’t plot worth a damn at the time; I always figured I’d get to that part later on.  What was more of a passion in the teenage years was drawing comic books, even though my artistic skill was minimal.  And those were always James Bond stories, because they were easier to plot out.  Bad guy doing bad thing, Bond must stop him, there’s a girl, a car chase, a gadget or two.  For a high school creative project I wrote and drew a 007-Star Trek:  The Next Generation crossover, where Bond is beamed aboard the Enterprise-D to help solve a Romulan conspiracy that involves his old adversaries SPECTRE, and along the way he manages to fall in love with Dr. Beverly Crusher (although in a downbeat ending, they have to go their separate ways).  My English teacher loved it, her only criticism that it was a shame that I wasn’t using my own original characters.  My rationale (read: excuse) was that using established characters freed you from having to introduce and develop your own, and enabled you to get right into the story instead.  I didn’t understand at the time that the key to solving my inability to plot was to instead let the story flow out of the characters themselves.

But back to that summer.  By that point I was using original characters, even if the dialogue they were speaking was almost entirely borrowed.  That was about the time Pulp Fiction had come out and, as a film student at UWO, you could not take two steps into your classroom without hearing someone invoke the mighty Tarantino.  I’d like to think that I wasn’t as obviously pretentious as some of the goatee-stroking, beret-wearing pomposities I sat in lectures with, but my work was just as derivative.  My first full screenplay was about a group of kids in film school, with exhaustive, profanity-laden monologues about the hidden sexual themes in Star Wars (which, if you’ve seen Clerks, sort of puts the lie to the idea that these were in any way original characters.)  I was still convinced that someday, someone would make this movie and I’d be accepting my Best Original (heh) Screenplay Oscar for it (then again, I was 20, recently orphaned and extremely naïve).  Once that one was done, I started another, and then another.  But they weren’t anything of note or even interest.  I began to realize that they had no lasting value – because they weren’t about anything; there was no there there.  And they certainly weren’t in my own voice.

The final screenplay was about a group of four 20-somethings who lived in the same apartment building (cough… Friends… cough).  I know, it sounds dreadful, but I really enjoyed spending time with these particular people.  As bad as some of those other screenplays were, they were an opportunity to hone my skill; to develop dialogue and subtext, to cut the profanity, to shed the influence of His Holiness Pope Quentin.  When I typed FADE TO CREDITS, I realized I hadn’t been able to develop the characters in the way I’d wanted – the screenplay was about 170 pages (most genuine ones top out at 120, maximum) and I hadn’t said everything I needed to with these people.  I decided to abandon it at first draft and instead turn it into a novel.  And for the next two years I labored on this thing on and off.  A great deal of my days were spent thinking about the lives of these people:  Bryson Reid, aspiring writer and perpetual smartass, Krista Piper, alcoholic figure skater, Scott Shipley, advertising executive on the rise, and Lauren Devaney, Irish barista homesick for her native land.  Part of Bryson’s story involved him meeting an entrancing and successful fantasy author named Serena Lane.  And interspersed between the chapters about Bryson, Krista, Scott and Lauren were meant to be “excerpts” of Serena’s bestselling novel.  The whole enterprise was designed to lead to a “shocking” metaphysical twist (not in the earlier screenplay version) whereby Serena was the same person depicted in the fantasy portions, who had somehow managed to cross into the real world (and it was the Irish barista, Lauren, who had authored the book in the first place, only to have it stolen by a manipulative publisher who was herself the villainess from the fantasy story and had also escaped from page into reality.  “Serena Lane” would turn out to be the name of the street on which Lauren grew up in Dublin.)  Anyway, it got up to 350,000 words with no end in sight.  As I was writing it, I found I was enjoying the fantasy portions significantly more than the real world stuff.  Bryson, in particular, although ostensibly the hero, was fundamentally unlikable and there were times I just wanted to smack him upside the virtual head.  But I still felt the need to finish it.

Then one summer, I signed up for a local adult education course called “Crafting a Novel.”  Naturally I knew how to write a novel, this was just a chance to meet some people (i.e. attractive, single women) with a similar passion.  The first night of that class was a smack to the head much larger than the one I had wanted to give my fictional hero – I knew nothing.  And I was crestfallen when Lynda told us that even if we had a book we had been working on for years, we were to set it aside and start a new one.  To borrow a phrase from William Goldman, this was the ensuing sound inside my head:

AAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH

Surely she wasn’t serious?  My epic of Proustian magnificence deserved nothing less than endless streams of voluminous praise followed by a seven-figure publishing deal and movie rights!  How could anyone dare me to set it aside?

In retrospect, thank frickin’ Buddha, but we’ll get to that.

After picking my jaw up from the floor that night, I decided to think about things a little more rationally.  I’d slowly developed this fantasy world and enjoyed playing around in it.  Couldn’t I set another story in the same place?  And since prequels were all the rage, why not one that took place fifty years prior – something that might serve as a setup to the brilliance that was to follow?  That took care of the setting, but I still needed characters and a worthwhile story to tell.

A few days later, I’m in a video game store perusing the PlayStation titles, and I wander over to the PC rack.  There’s a game there, probably a precursor to World of Warcraft or something similar, and on it is a bunch of sketches of the characters.  One of them strikes me.  It’s a beautiful woman holding a mystical staff.  It’s nothing terribly original; do a Google Images search for “sorceress” and you’ll see thousands of variations on the theme – some gorgeous, half-dressed knockout hurling lightning from manicured fingers.  But something about it strikes me.  And I ask myself, what must it be like to be her?  Truthfully, the magical babe is a pretty boring staple of fantasy stories, either as a love interest, a physically unattainable spirit guide, or a cackling villainess bent on total domination of both the world and the hero’s crotch.  In anything I’d ever read or seen up until that point, she was always treated merely as an other to be conquered or otherwise overcome.  (Remember the witch in the first Conan the Barbarian movie?  Beautiful and exotic, as befits magical babes, but doesn’t get a name and is in the story for all of four minutes, three of which are spent rolling around on the floor with our favorite muscled Cimmerian.)  But if what would go through your head if you actually were a creature like that – would you go around thinking to yourself, “I am so willowy and ethereal and mysterious”?  Or would your head be occupied by the same mundane thoughts the rest of us have – what to wear tomorrow, whether you left the iron on, did you feed the cat?  After appearing and disappearing at will and turning men into pigs for a few hundred years, would you eventually grow bored with your powers?  What could the immortal sorceress who has everything possibly want?  Anything at all?  Or would she be subject to the same emotional needs and longings as the rest of us mere human beings?

And there was the seed of my new story.

Coming up in future posts – more on creating characters, developing the plot, struggling with description, crafting dialogue, the necessary pain of killing your darlings and how Aaron Sorkin helped me find my voice without even knowing I exist.