Written by Bill Mesce
This memory comes to me from, I believe, the first season of Saturday Night Live, back in 1975. John Belushi was doing a skit with guest host Robert Klein. They played a pair of bug exterminators poking around a dingy basement, with Belushi – doing his Rod Steiger (look him up, kids) — as the wise old veteran, and Klein the rookie. At one point, Klein asks Belushi about his obsessive hatred of bugs. “I had a brother,” Belushi-as-Steiger replies, “his name was Billy…” And the audience started laughing.
It wasn’t that the line was funny. Like a lot of parodies, the humor was in recognizing the cliché that was being spoofed (see Airplane, Scary Movie, etc.). The cliché in question was that point in so many movies in which a character gets a bit dreamy-eyed as they remember some person and/or event that turns out to be the motivating key to their character.
Written well and integrated smoothly into the story, these histories become critical gears in the machinery of a plot. They can add a shade to a character we haven’t seen (In Cold Blood, 1967), make near-psychotic obsessions painfully understandable (Moby Dick, 1956), make paralyzed inaction pitiable (Ordinary People, 1980). Want to see some other great examples? Humphrey Bogart’s apathetic, war-scarred vet in Key Largo (1948); Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) mother-driven serial killer in the aptly titled Psycho; William Peterson’s FBI profiler in Manhunter (1986), psychologically traumatized from getting inside serial killer Hannibal Lektor’s head, and then unable to get out of it; shark hunter Quint’s (Robert Shaw) tale of surviving marauding sharks after his cruiser was sunk in WW II in Jaws (1975); misanthropic astronaut Taylor’s (Charlton Heston) take on the worthlessness of life on Earth as a justification for the one-way space trip that lands him on Planet of the Apes (1968); P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) creating the character of Mary Poppins to save a fictionalized version of the whimsical (if self-destructive) father she couldn’t save in real life in Saving Mr. Banks (2013). And so on.
One of my favorite flicks – and one that, I think, offers a hell of an entertaining example of this kind of integration – is the 1966 actioner The Professionals, with writer/director Richard Brooks adapting Frank O’Rourke’s novel, A Mule for the Marquesa. It’s the mid-19-teens, and rich guy Ralph Bellamy hires a foursome of tough guys (Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode) to ride into Mexico to rescue his wife (Claudia Cardinale) kidnapped by bandito Jack Palance with whom Marvin and Lancaster had once fought in the seemingly never-ending Mexican revolution. Threaded throughout the movie are references between Marvin and Lancaster to their days riding with Palance, and their eventual dropping out of the fight in disillusionment. It’s a thread giving what’s essentially “just” a big action Western an unexpected undertone of melancholy.
My friend and colleague, one-time chief of Cinemax programming Andy Goldman, whom I quoted so heavily last time around, once spoke to me about the movie. According to Goldman, that mournful subtext is “…the reason you believe in these characters; you believe they have a history. It’s not the main plot, but it’s main to the characters. It’s what makes you believe that they do what they do.”
According to Goldman, you can see subtext and text bubble up together during the climax of the film; a running hit-and-retreat fight between Lancaster and Palance as Lancaster seeks to buy time as Marvin and the others get away. In the lull between bursts of gunplay, Lancaster and Palance engage in another duel; a verbal one of opposing philosophies. On the one hand, self-interest bred of cynicism and disillusionment; on the other, the tattered, faded pennant of a bruised but still extant faith.
As Palance points out, Lancaster’s disillusionment is, paradoxically, the product of a naïve idealism (“You want perfection,” chides Palance), while it’s the revolutionary who is, ironically, the realist.
“La Revolucion is like a great love affair. In the beginning, she is a goddess. A holy cause. But… every love affair has a terrible enemy: time. We see her as she is. La Revolucion is not a goddess but a whore. She was never pure, never saintly, never perfect. And we run away, find another lover, another cause. Quick, sordid affairs. Lust, but no love. Passion, but no compassion. Without love, without a cause, we are… nothing! We stay because we believe. We leave because we are disillusioned. We come back because we are lost. We die because we are committed.”
Pretty heady stuff for an action flick, but it’s the kind of stuff that gives the whole story a dramatic heft these kinds of movies rarely have, especially today.
But when this kind of thing isn’t done well, the device becomes a cheap, kick-in-the-crotch bid to gain immediate sympathy for a character, usually one heading for a pretty dismal end. It’s the screenwriter’s attempt to do in one scene what he/she failed to do over the other 115 minutes of storytelling: make us feel for a character.
In a war movie, that character is the guy who has a little speech about all the great things he’s going to do after the war when he gets home – the girl he’s going to marry, the kids he’s going to have, the family he’ll be returning to, etc. When you hear that speech, cross that guy’s name off the company roster because he’s as good as dead. In a cop movie, he’s the cop with a nice little bit about what he’s going to do when he retires. Dead. The gunfighter who talks about hanging up his guns, the gangster who talks about going straight, the race car driver who says this is his last season: dead, dead, dead. Those little soliloquies of theirs are supposed to be enough to get you to feel bad about the passing of a character you otherwise couldn’t have cared less about (and since these set pieces are usually so heavy handedly manipulative and provide the movie’s sole emotional investment in those characters, you probably still couldn’t care less when their inevitable demise comes to pass).
Just as painfully manipulative is the reverie and/or flashback that has to do with some traumatic event – a screw-up, a missed opportunity (think Cliffhanger , Outbreak ) – which continues to haunt the protagonist. Dogged by guilt, a sense of incompletion, of failed duty, of unfair blame (or some combination of same), he/she now has a chance to (yet another beaten-to-death cliché) “make things right.” And when they do make things right (and they always do), we’re supposed to feel flush with satisfaction that the karmic scales have now been, at long last, balanced, and/or penance and atonement made.
Does the scenario sound familiar? Does it sound painfully familiar?
Unlike the other myths we’ve dealt with in this series, this is a long-standing penchant in movie storytelling (which is what made it ripe for lampooning as far back as that 1975 installment of Saturday Night Live). As long as there have been movies, there have been bad movies, and this is something a lot of bad movies do. It’s the kind of thing that makes bad movies bad.
But it’s part of this series because over the same period in which the other myths we’ve looked at have bloomed — since the 1980s – this kind of gimmick has somehow been elevated from a lazy cheat to a dramatic necessity. It’s part of a larger trend of “constructing” a character rather than conceiving one.
Ok, this is going to get a little semantical here, but bear with me. When I say “construct,” I mean putting together an assemblage of tics and traits not because they’re believable or even remotely credible, but because someone – the writer, the star, the director, the producer, the marketing chief, the audience research staff, maybe all of them – thinks they’re cool. Characters do and feel things not because any normal human being would do and feel them, but because someone (the writer, star, etc.) wants them to.
I know I’ve picked on this movie quite a bit in the past, but let me kick it around some more: Lethal Weapon (1987, script by Shane Black) and its lead character, Mel Gibson’s Los Angeles police detective Riggs.
Riggs is a veteran cop who has unraveled since the death of his wife. He lives like a frat boy with his dog, swilling beer and wandering naked around his beachside trailer, occasionally so despairing he considers putting a specially prepared bullet through his head. A departmental psychiatrist has tagged him as probably suicidal, his outrageous conduct during his introductory scene – a drug bust – testifies that he is manifestly unreliable (as well as a bit nuts) and a danger as much to himself as others. And yet he’s still on the job, armed and on the street (more incredible; they team this walking jug of nitroglycerin with a cop – Danny Glover — on the eve of retirement).
So no one thinks I’m the Grinch here, I’m the first one to say this flick is a fun watch, although mostly (in my view) because of a wonderful Odd Couple kind of chemistry between Gibson and Glover.
But it’s still a dumb movie. Shane Black was in his mid-20s when he wrote it, and that’s how the movie plays; like a young guy’s macho fantasy, almost a pre-videogame movie version of Grand Theft Auto. Now, in contrast, let’s compare it to some other Maverick Cop movies carrying a bit more substance.
Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry (1971) is also a widower, lonely, has nothing but his job; not unlike Riggs. And writers Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, and Dean Reisner also indulge a bit in cop fantasy themselves: Callahan carries a monstrous .44 magnum pistol, and, like Riggs, he’s – of course – a dead shot. But, for the most part, the movie keeps itself more-or-less life-sized, and perhaps the most affecting example of this is how Callahan deals with his wife’s death. In a conversation with his wounded partner’s wife, the woman asks how Callahan’s wife handles the stress of being married to a cop.
“She never did, really,” and then he admits his wife is dead, killed in a car crash when another driver crossed the center line. “There was no reason for it, really.”
No histrionics, no sturm und drang, no breast beating, no tortured revelation. A simple, colorless statement made all the more melancholy by its matter-of-factness. Like Riggs, the job is all Callahan has, but instead of babbling to his partner that the only thing keeping him from blowing his brains out is his job (Lethal Weapon), when Callahan is asked by the woman why he stays with the job, he calmly says, “I don’t know. I really don’t.”
We get it, we connect the dots. Callahan is in the same drifting boat as Riggs. The differences are A) he’s a grown-up about it, and B) he doesn’t feel compelled to have to spell it out.
Dirty Harry director Don Siegel was a master of that kind of storytelling minimalism and had a fervent belief in the tactic’s ability to engage the audience in a way spoon-feeding them emotional content didn’t. He offers an even better example of this in Escape from Alcatraz (1979, with Richard Tuggle adapting J. Bruce Campbell’s book), working with Eastwood again. According to Siegel’s memoir A Siegel Film, when Alcatraz was placed at Paramount, he was called in for a script meeting at which he was handed four pages of notes from the studio’s “creative group,” most of which called for adding material to the screenplay that would tell the audience “…all about Morris’s (Eastwood) criminal history, what kind of person he was and, especially, why he had chosen a life of crime.”
Siegel’s response was “…the more you describe, analyse and explain a character, the less real he becomes. The trick is to suggest, to try to leave holes, problems, questions that the viewer’s imagination will fill in a much more satisfying way than we could ever do.”
Want to see that at work in the movie? There’s a scene where Eastwood is sitting in the exercise yard next to another con who mentions that it’s his birthday. When he asks Eastwood about his own birthday, Eastwood replies that he doesn’t know when it is.
“What kind of childhood did you have?” the con asks.
Siegel’s right; that tells us everything. Further details and specifics would not only give it less weight, but would do something even worse; kill its poetry.
Let’s step up to one of the all time classic cop movies, The French Connection (1971), with Ernest Tidyman adapting Robin Moore’s account of the true life case. The movie isn’t quite a true story, but a dramatization of the biggest heroin bust in U.S. law enforcement history, and as such, does have its undeniably Hollywoody elements (some shootings and a car chase that were definitely not part of the real case). For all that, however, Connection is considered one of the most realistic cop films ever made. And what do we know about the main character of the movie: narcotics detective Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman)?
Not a damned thing.
There’s nothing to explain his rough-and-tumble tactics that would give any ACLU lawyer a heart attack, nor his obsession with bringing down Frog 1 (Fernando Rey), the prime mover in a big-dollar drug smuggling operation. There is no break in the action where someone asks Hackman why he’s so nuts about chasing down dope dealers, and he stares dreamily off into the distance and says, in a faraway voice, “I had a brother. His name was Billy…”
He doesn’t say anything like that because the movie doesn’t need it. Most movies don’t. Even the ones that have it.
(I had the opportunity some years ago to interview Sonny Grosso, one of the real life French Connection cops – in the movie, Roy Scheider’s character is based on Grosso – and who would go on to become a TV and film producer when he left the NYPD. I asked him if he thought The French Connection could be made today. “Maybe,” he said, “But Popeye’d [the Hackman character] have to be way better looking. And they’d give him a girlfriend.”).
This kind of opacity was acceptable at the time, but today, it’s off the table. Production execs, either out of distrust of the audience, or having been to too many screenwriting seminars, have plugged into what Andy Goldman labels “shorthand characterization.”
“We used to watch a character breathe,” Goldman told me, “We used to watch characters take their time assessing other characters. You snuck into a character’s life.”
But now, major characters have to make a near-immediate impression, have to have an arc with regularly spaced “reveals” leading up to that I-had-a-brother-his-name-was-Billy moment. I remember a screenwriter telling about meeting with a producer for a story meeting, and when he got to the part midway through the screenplay when one of the characters dies, the producer mused, “But what did he learn?”
Goldman says the screenwriter’s shorthand typically dumps some previous error or mistaken judgment on the hero. He says this plugs into what he sees as a contemporary culture of victimization. “Today, everybody’s a victim,” he says. “It’s the Dr. Phil-ization of society” diminishing an earlier generation of storytellers’ idea of a larger canvas. “Real life isn’t that easy. Movies shouldn’t be that easy either. Harry Callahan and Popeye Doyle (in The French Connection) weren’t trying to work out some personal problem. They were just trying to do what they thought was right.”
Goldman illustrates the change in screenwriting mindset by comparing a pair of vaguely similar biological thrillers produced a generation apart: the 1971 The Andromeda Strain (Nelson Giddings adapting Michael Crichton’s novel) about an Air Force satellite bringing back to Earth an incredibly lethal, alien microorganism; and 1995’s Outbreak (screenplay by Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool) about the outbreak of a deadly, mutated strain of Ebola.
Like Crichton’s novel (and showing some of the same traits which would mark Crichton’s later TV creation, E.R.), Giddings’ screenplay respects the intellectual integrity of the story and its characters, most of whom are scientists, doctors, and technicians. The assumption behind the storytelling is that while the audience may not understand all the highly arcane stuff about microbiology and organic processes, they’ll get enough of it to put the larger picture together. Andromeda’s scientists and technicians speak to each other in the jargon and terminology of real scientists and technicians, giving the story an air of authenticity which, in turn, gives the piece a sense of possibility. And, none of the characters take a break in their brain-busting work to muse about the families and kids they left behind and how they once had a brother whose name was Billy.
Outbreak, on the other hand, is a veritable catalog of the dramatic devices so often used these days to mug an audience rather than subtly engage it. Instead of the level-headed pros of Andromeda for who saving the world from an alien disease is motivation enough and about whose personal lives we learn almost nothing, we have Dustin Hoffman as the colorful day-saver in Outbreak. In true “shorthand characterization” fashion, Hoffman’s Army doctor is one of those rule-breaking mavericks unafraid to mouth off to his superiors and who has screwed up mightily in the past (and, like suicidal Riggs, he’s miraculously maintained his rank, status, and position). He’s also going through a divorce because he’s a bit of a big, irresponsible kid while his wife (Rene Russo) is a bit of a tight-assed, no-fun adult. You know; the kind of couple that, in real life, would probably not get past their first date let alone get married.
It’s not enough for Hoffman & Co. to want to save the world. Outbreak has to personalize the threat, first by killing off a good friend of Hoffman’s (Kevin Spacey) and then infecting Hoffman’s ex-wife. And apparently feeling that a microbe isn’t enough of a villain for contemporary audiences, Outbreak also features a sneery Donald Sutherland helming a nasty government conspiracy and threatening to incinerate an infected town to conceal some military bio-weapon hanky-panky.
Andy Goldman’s closing words from that conversation still ring in my ears. He paused, considering these kinds of heavy-handed, trivializing, emotional cheap shots, the cheats, the shorthands, the manipulations, and he concluded, “What’s missing is art.”
In my files I have a 2002 entry from Wiley Miller’s comic strip Non Sequitur entitled, “The Magic of Hollywood.” Seven look-alike movie execs are sitting around a conference table while the honcho at the head of the table says, “A motion has been put forth that we should seek to create rather than imitate. All in favor of killing this silly notion, nod in mindless agreement…”
I’ll give studio execs the benefit of the doubt and say it didn’t happen this way (probably). But the growing fealty to the kind of rules, templates, systems, philosophies, etc. that have been breeding like flies over the last 30-35 years has had the same net effect. In his 1996 Entertainment Weekly piece, “Who Killed the Hollywood Screenplay?” Benjamin Svetkey moaned:
“…pretty much all of the big commercial films being released by major studios these days have a certain written-by-chimps-locked-in-a-room-with-a-laptop quality. Story lines veer in nonsensical directions, dialogue is dim or dopey, characters have the heft of balsa wood…The rock-bed basics of dramatic writing…seem to have been forgotten or abandoned by today’s commercial filmmakers.”
And those traits have since had 20 years to become even further embedded in the movie-making process. All that dopiness might be palatable – well, understandable – if it paid off at the box office. After all, superficially the mindset makes a sad sort of sense; if you want a movie to be a hit, write it like other hits.
Except that’s not how things work.
Last year, 693 films were released theatrically in the United States. Yeah, that’s a pretty huge number, but remember; that includes everything – foreign films, artsy-fartsy stuff that maybe played in a handful of art house theaters in two or three cities, documentaries run on a single screen so they’d qualify for awards consideration. Total box office for 2015: $11.1 billion dollars, up 4% from 2014, in large measure because of one movie – Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which, by year’s end, had pulled in $899 million domestic).
But now let’s break out some numbers. The lowest-earning movie to crack the $100 million line was Creed, at $108.7 million: #29 in box office for the year. Those 29 top-earning titles alone accounted for over half of the year’s total box office: $6.8 billion. Once you get past #29, box office tallies begin to drop off precipitously. Six hundred and ten releases earned less than $30 million; 565 earned less than $10 million. And while a lot of those low-ranked flicks were small-budgeted art house indies, a few major studio bombs are floating around down there as well, like the Johnny Depp disaster Mortdecai (a little over $7 million in box office against a budget of $60 million).
Still, even if most major studio releases are in, say, the top 100 earners or so, here’s some other numbers to keep in mind. According to a 2011 AP story by Ryan Nakashima, the average budget for a studio film at the time $78 million, excluding marketing costs which, on average, easily push costs north of $100 million (although there’s no updated stats I can find, trust me; those numbers haven’t gone down since then). The rule of thumb in Hollywood accounting is that to reach breakeven, a movie typically needs to earn two-three times its budget.
In other words, despite all the energy, money, rewrites and script doctoring to make sure movies closely clone successful predecessors, most studio movies flop at the box office. DVD sales are collapsing, downloads and streaming don’t generate the kinds of revenue that can compensate, and if it weren’t for some expanding foreign markets (like China), red ink would be spilling down studio office hallways like the blood from the elevators at the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
So if the numbers say this kind of thinking doesn’t work, why doesn’t the system change?
In his 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade, two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote, “Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” But in the years since Goldman’s book, along has come McKee and Syd Field and a host of other how-to-write-a-perfect-script gurus, and Hollywood has gulped that Kool-Aid down like a parched man crawling across the Kalahari Desert.
They believe this stuff because they want to believe it, they need to believe it, because – as Goldman also wrote – “Studio executives…share one thing in common with baseball managers: They wake up every morning of the world with the knowledge that sooner or later they’re going to get fired.” The formulas and templates and all that stuff are almost a religious faith; a belief that success can be bottled, and consequently stave off that inevitable day when someone sets some storage boxes on their desk and asks them to have their stuff cleared out by 5 o’clock.
Yeah, the stuff they pump out has a bland sameness to it as a consequence…and that’s the point. And it’s not a new point, either. Writer/director Paul Schrader hit the nail on the head in a 1981 interview saying creative choices in Hollywood aren’t about trying to make a movie that could breakout at the box office by breaking out creatively if all the right components (cast, script, director, etc.) come together in the right mix. Rather, he said, the goal is a piece that can still make money if it “…is done in a very ordinary way by mediocre people,” that being the more likely probability.
Five-time Emmy-winning producer/writer/director Bill Persky once explained to me how all the Hollywood bullshit that kills creativity and innovation exists as much to protect the powers-that-be not so much against failure, but for when it inevitably comes:
“…you can say, ‘Well, the marketing guys said it would do well,’ and you can say the research showed it was a good bet, and you can point to all these other people who had a hand in it – ‘We had the right cast’ and so on – then you hope it looks like it’s not so much your fault if it bombs.”
In a way, I hope that cynicism is the case, because truly believing these just-follow-the-directions methodologies can produce creatively solid (or even commercially viable) work is…well, it’s just stupid.
I’m not saying that out of a writer’s vanity. It’s common sense. I know I’ve tossed around words like “poetry” and (I can see studio execs holding up crosses and throwing holy water at me over this one) “art,” but even at its most mercenary, crassly commercial level, movie-making still involves a measure of creativity even if it’s only as functional as how to get a story from point A to point B. The writer has to come up with something to do that. But saying there’s a way to write a movie as good as The Revenant or The Big Short or Room or The Martian by simply cloning elements from them, or by following a book about what all those movies had in common, is like saying you could be as good a painter as Da Vinci by buying a color-by-numbers kit of the Mona Lisa.
Forget about art; does that even make any sense? If you think so, hang around Studio Row; I’m sure somebody’ll be losing their job any day now, and you can step right into their place.