Thursday, July 02, 2009

Improved to Death: Why Movies Suck

Everyone wants to know why so many movies are so bad these days. The answer is simple.

They’ve been improved.

They’ve been fixed. They’ve been re-written and ‘developed’; their ‘story arcs’ have been ‘clarified’, their characters ‘focussed’, and skewed toward a younger demographic. ‘Beats’ have been added to the second act; lines that were too ‘on the nose’ have been removed. Copious ‘notes’ have been made and expounded upon. Endless rewrites have been paid for, whether they were needed or not.

And most often, they’re not.

This is the frightening secret that producers and studio executives and develolpment people have been keeping from each other and from themselves for years. Most scripts are far better and more interesting before the ’improvement’ process than they are after the work is done. Committees don’t help. Large groups of people with little or no creative talent or even editorial skill will only ruin a piece of material. And that’s what we see on the screen today, for the most part -- ruined material.

Why does this happen? It’s the corporate culture of Hollywood, in which the writer has been traditionally disdained. But to dismiss the writer is to dismiss the writer’s contribution, and that means dismissing the foundation that every movie, and every movie mogul’s fortune, is based on -- the story. It’s difficult to write a good story; it’s even difficult to understand the structural laws that govern good story-telling. So it’s hard to know when you’re making a crucial error of judgment -- when a bad piece of editing or casting might do damage that can’t be fixed.

Three very different examples of the problem crossed my desk on the same day. The first was an independent film whose director had ‘mentored’ and ‘coached’ the young first time writer, giving him dozens of pages of detailed notes and finally rewriting the script, scene by scene over a period of years. The initial script was loose and untidy, but it had heart and pace. It had suspense because it had characters you cared about. The final draft had been literally rewritten to death. It was over-populated, under-developed, muddy, dull and incoherent. It still hasn’t gotten distribution and it probably never will. That isn’t because film studios demand stars and this film is strictly C-list in the casting department; it isn’t because studios are afraid of independent films (they’re not). It’s because the movie sucks now.

I saw it at The Nantucket Film Festival with several generations of an intelligent, well-educated family. None of us had any idea what was going on. “I didn’t like the fat sister,” the twenty-year old son remarked. “That wasn’t the sister – that was the boss guy’s lesbian lover, “ his Dad corrected him. “The boss guy?” I asked. ”The guy with the beard?” “They all had beards,” The Mom complained. “No,” the Dad said, “The boss was the bald guy who kept shooting people.” “No, that was the crazy renegade priest.” “I thought the priest was having a sex-change operation.” “I thought he was the fat sister.”

This is not the kind of conversation you want your movie to inspire.

At the other end of the spectrum we find a writer named Stephen Hunter, who wrote a brilliant piece of pulp fiction called Point of Impact. Anyone who read it could see that it was not just the potential basis for a kick ass action movie -- it already was a kick-ass action movie. It was perfect.

Kind of like Julia Child’s ten-page illustrated recipe for croissants: all you had to do to come up with a great product was not screw it up.

Follow instructions. Pay attention.

Accept that you’re dealing with someone who is much better at this than you are.

Show some respect, and then take the credit.

As simple as that.

But the culture of Hollywood forbids that kind of workmanlike humility. If you can’t change things, and develop things, make notes on things, what are you there for? How long do you expect to keep that personalized parking space? That leased Lexus? That prime table at Citrus?

So even Stephen Hunter has to be fixed.

I haven’t read any drafts of the script, I saw the movie. They changed the title to Shooter and cast Marky Mark in the lead. There was no reason to change the title. The protagonist is a sniper, so perhaps they were afraid the audience wouldn’t understand that without a little help. Development executives all think the audience is as dense and witless as they are. This is a primary miscalculation. Audiences are pretty sharp as a rule, and they don't enjoy being patronized. If these executives ever saw a movie with a real live audience in an actual theatre they might begin to understand that.

Bob Lee Swagger, the hero of Point of Impact, is a Viet Nam vet -- an Army sniper with an unequalled kill record. He is also a red neck Arkansas hillbilly gun nut, equal parts squint, gristle and attitude. He’s much more than that -- the kind of hunter who’ll wait eighteen hours before the first day of deer season not to kill a deer but to shoot a great stag with sedatives and remove his antlers ... to save him from the trophy crazed gun slingers in orange vests.

Who would make a plausible Bob Lee? Clint Eastwood? Fifteen years ago. Kris Kristofferson? Maybe. Billy Bob Thornton? Excellent.

Marky Mark? No way.

Nothing against Mr. Whalberg, but I don’t buy him as a grizzled Viet Nam vet. I won’t go into the details beyond that catastrophic piece of miscasting, but the movie was an incoherent mess – improved beyond any hope of repair. There’s a similar fix-it job in the works for Michel Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, and producers have been sniffing at Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield novels, as well. So many stories to ruin, so little time.

It’s a shame, but not a total waste, if it drives people back to the original books. Any random novel by Connelly, Hunter or Perry is guaranteed to be infinitely more entertaining than Transformers 2 or GI Joe.

Plus, you can take books to the beach, and underline your favorite parts, and pick them up for a quarter at a thrift shop.

I was leaving a really bad movie in Brooklyn one night several years ago. The man walking behind me through the lobby summed it all up perfectly:

“I can’t believe it took six people to write that piece of shit! Moby Dick – one guy. Am I right?”

Dead right, buddy. Dead right.

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