Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

October 29, 2006

Brothers Are the New Lovers

Saw House of Wax recently. Yes, I know, more commentary on "meh" horror movies... but come on, people, it's almost Halloween. What's a grown woman who loves chills, thrills, and candy to do?

I think Wax did some interesting things. Even beyond the casting of Paris Hilton, which was brilliant, given that she already kind of looks like she's melting.

Wax follows, as its two leads-who-might-stand-a-chance, a brother and sister. Instead of sexual tension and a hoped-for kiss, we get two people with familial tension and a whole lot of history and baggage. Which, call me crazy, can actually be more compelling tension than the obvious sexual kind.

Sibling relationships are rich territory, full of complex behaviours and patterns that begin in childhood and evolve in bizarre and interesting ways through adolescence and into adulthood. More of us should spend more time with siblings.

(Miss you, bro!)

October 22, 2006

Chock Full of Payoffy Goodness

We all know a really satisfying movie sets up a bunch of questions or ideas in the first act and pays them off in the third. It just feels good, as a viewer, to see something come back into play later. It's satisfying. But most of us probably feel like a couple of setups & payoffs is plenty.

Well, if Galaxy Quest is any indication, you just can't have too many good setups & payoffs. The movie is absolutely riddled with ideas, people, and lines of dialogue planted in the first act and paid off (often as an integral part of the action) in the third. Here are three examples:

1. The Setup: Brandon, the nerdy kid Tim Allen blows off at the sci-fi convention. Tim, in his Captain Kirkishness, has just overheard a couple of guys mocking him in the bathroom, and he's in no mood for play. He dismisses Brandon and his friends in pretty much the most hurtful way possible: "It's a television show. Okay? That's all. It's just a bunch of fake sets, and wooden props, do you understand?" And Tim leaves the disappointed kids and goes home to get sloshed.

The Payoff: In the third act, when the actors have had to actually crew a spaceship and fight real evil aliens, and their ship is about to self-destruct, Tim needs help making his way to the ship's core. He calls Brandon. He tells him, "It's real, Brandon. All of it, it's real." To which Brandon replies "I knew it!" and then helps Tim and Sigourney get where they need to be.

2. The Setup: In the opening moments of the film, a sci-fi convention is showing an unaired episode of "Galaxy Quest" the series-- the first half of a two-parter, after which the series was cancelled. The episode ends with Tim Allen saying "Activate the Omega 13". The joke is, since the next episode was never shot, no one knows what the hell the Omega 13 does.

When Tim calls Brandon for help, he asks about the Omega 13, and Brandon tells him there's a heated debate among fans: some believe it destroys all matter in the universe. But Brandon's with the camp that believes it "rearranges matter"-- essentially going back in time 13 seconds, or "enough time to redeem a single mistake".

The Payoff: At the climax of the film, Tim has done his absolute best to save the day from the evil aliens, and the crew is together on the bridge celebrating and setting a course for home. Except that the evil Sarris has disguised himself as a crew member, and shoots up the place. Tim, and all of his friends, are dead or dying. With his last breaths, Tim decides to trust Brandon's theory, and activates the Omega 13. Time reverses itself by 13 seconds, and Tim's able to take Sarris down before he has a chance to shoot anyone.

3. The Setup: Probably everyone's favourite. Alan Rickman's Shakespearean-actor character played the alien Dr. Lazarus on the "Galaxy Quest" series. As we see at the sci-fi convention, the role has been a burden to him his entire career. And nothing's worse than fans delivering his signature line: "By Grabthar's Hammer, you shall be avenged."

On the real spaceship, Alan becomes close to a particular alien named Quellek who idolized the Dr. Lazarus character he thought was real.

The Payoff: In the heat of action in the third act, Quellek is shot by one of Sarris's men. Alan holds his wounded friend, and, as he is dying, Alan, heart in his throat, tells him: "Quellek... By Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Warvan... You shall be avenged."

And after Quellek dies contentedly, Alan gets up and does some serious mother$#@&ing avenging. I admit it, I weep whenever I see this scene. Okay, I'll admit it: I teared up just copying and pasting the words from the script. That's a payoff, friends.

The amazing thing is? There are a dozen other setups and payoffs we could talk about. These are just my top three. If you haven't checked this one out in a while to look at dramatic structure, by Grabthar's Hammer, you should. Here's the script.

A little side note? I normally find the IMDb trivia for movies fairly disappointing, but the
trivia for Galaxy Quest is worth checking out.

October 15, 2006

With Friends Like These, Who Needs Friends?

Saw Match Point recently. I kind of liked it, even though it felt a bit like a self-important remake of my favourite Woody Allen film, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Still, I thought it had a certain compelling drive through it... kind of amazing given we don't particularly care for our "hero" Chris.

But here's the problem: Chris is dishonest with everyone in his world: his wife, his mistress, and his best friend. None of them can be his confidant. Maybe that would have been fine: he'd have just been a kind of anti-hero we don't really understand. (Is he really not sure who he loves? Is he waiting for fate to step in? Is he weak? Is it about the money? Is it a game? If I listened more closely to the bloody voice over, would it be clearer?)

Except the movie breaks its own rule. Briefly. Chris actually confides in an old school chum. Whose name is Henry. Henry is played by actor Rupert Penry-Jones, who is listed in the cast of the movie between "John the Chauffeur" and "Telephone Operator". He was quite the character... don't you remember? At first we meet him 'cause he's admiring Chris's car... then they meet and sit on a bench together and Henry offers Chris advice while expressing pretty much nothing about himself. No? Not ringing any bells?

Well, maybe it's because this Henry character isn't really a character. He exists only to allow Chris a moment of confession. Chris lays out his dilemma for Henry, in what may be his most honest and vulnerable scene in the film.

But... why? Chris speaks to us in his philosophical voice over. Why the need for this character-who's-not-really-a-character? Henry is transparently a creation of the filmmaker and serves no bigger purpose than to lend an ear to Chris. Once. One can even imagine how his inclusion worked: "We need a scene where Chris confides to somebody. Maybe an old school friend. Then we'll plant him real quick in a scene earlier."

The result is a couple of scenes that feel Frankensteined into the rest, and that don't make much of a difference to the story anyway.

When it comes to unusual choices--unlikeable heroes, leaving some things unexplained, unusual structures--be brave! Go big or go home.

Or be prepared to have the likes of me make fun of the likes of you.

October 09, 2006

Villains: Now in 3D!

It's hard to write a good villain. A villain should be interesting, powerful, complex, and maybe even a little bit sympathetic. We may disagree with them--hate them--but we should at least understand them.

The best advice I've heard for writing villains is to make sure the villain has their own agenda. They're not just out to cause trouble for the hero-- that's incidental, or a bonus. They have their eyes on a prize and want it the same way our hero has wants. The same way all of us want.

But let's go even further: your villain should want something based on what they truly believe. What is your villain's world-view?

Take the example of Christof in The Truman Show. What follows is the climactic scene from the movie, when Truman has made his way by boat to the edge of his artificial world as Christof tried everything he could, behind the scenes, to prevent Truman's escape. Christof then speaks to Truman from above, Godlike. (Note: this is transcribed from the film, not copied from a script.)

I wanna talk to him.
(to Truman)

Truman gasps in shock.

You can speak. I can hear you.

Who are you?

I am the creator of a television show that gives
hope and joy and inspiration to millions.

And who am I?

You're the star.

Was nothing real?

YOU were real. That's what made you so good to watch. Listen to me, Truman. There's no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you. Same lies. The same deceit. But in my world, you have nothing to fear. I know you better than you know yourself.

You never had a camera in my head!

You're afraid. That's why you can't leave. It's okay, Truman. I understand. I have been watching you your whole life. I was watching when you were born. I was watching when you took your first step. I watched you on your first day of school.
The episode when you lost your first tooth. You can't leave, Truman. You belong here... With me. Talk to me. Say something.
Well, say something, goddamnit! You're on television! You're live to the whole world!

In case I don't see ya... good afternoon, good evening and goodnight.

Truman bows. Then walks through the door into the real world, and the unknown.

Now, the obvious way to play this villain would be to have Christof doing whatever it
takes to keep Truman from leaving because losing Truman means losing his show/cash cow. Instead, it seems Christof genuinely believes that Truman's life in the safety of the bubble is preferable to a life of discovery, risk, and autonomy. Christof's world-view? He is God, and the safe, organized, sheltered life he has created for Truman is better than the real one. This guy actually believes Truman might be convinced, and say "Okay, sure, let's keep faking my life". Much more interesting than the money-hungry version would've been.

And look how this climactic moment also sums up the theme of the film:
freedom, with all its risks, beats a safe prison any day.

Sharing time: what are your favourite examples of villains with a strong world-view?