Monday, August 31, 2009

A Case for Screenwriting Anarchy

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


I’ve used this space to comment on the excessive and anal influences of a group I call “The Screenwriting Priesthood.” Essentially I’ve argued that these folks have a counter-productive, often profound effect on new writing and new writers. They impose by the fiat of their so-called “expertise” a set of varying rules that have the effect of “hamstringing” material before it is able to find interest. I’ve made the case for the absurdity of some of these “rules.” Now I’d like to make a case for the need to ignore them entirely, except as guidelines, rules of thumb.

“Spec” scripts are scripts written speculatively, or without assignment by a producer, studio, or buyer of some sort. They are scripts that are entirely generated by the writer, him or herself. Spec scripts written by established professional screenwriters are not the same as specs written by new screenwriters. New writers have a great deal more to prove, a great deal more industry resistance to overcome in achieving a serious reading and evaluation by the industry. The Priesthood would tell you that this makes following their rules crucial. And to the extent they don’t hurt the reasonable communication of the writer’s story in cinematic terms, I might agree. But that’s where I’d also draw the line.

Certainly, new writers should play the game within the conventions: follow the accepted format and length strictures reasonably, and use Courier 12 pt. font, because these result in a finished work that can be assessed for screen time and budget better than deviating from such conventions allows. And there’s the psychological effect, too: if it looks right, one powerful reason to say, “No!” is eliminated. I would even go so far as to agree with the white-covers-and-two-brass-brads “rule” because, what does it cost you? Nothing. So, play their game and learn to pick your battles.

But then we find ourselves confronting the various rules over content. These are things like: dialogue speeches never exceeding three sentences; scenes never exceeding three pages; no flashbacks; no voice-over narration; no parenthetical dialogue direction unless it is not obvious from the dialogue itself; no montages (a successive series of images to truncate an unusual time span or substantial narrative material); no editor directions; no camera directions; etc., etc. Even these are generally good guidelines. They tend to keep the script simpler, more readable, jargon-free, and shorter. So they should always be present in the writer’s mind while working, but only as suggestions.

My greater problem with such rules, however, lies more in their enforcement than in their presence. Let us say that the writer needs to indicate some actor behavior during half a dozen lines of dialogue in which the reason for it is found in the subtext within the dialogue rather than in the surface dialogue. And, let’s say that subtext depended on action from ten pages earlier. The script is handed in and much like the cop stopping the driver for going 38 in a 35 mph zone, the Priesthood rejects the script with “Extreme Prejudice,” crying, “Foul!” for “intruding” on the actor’s territory. Why? Because many industry readers initially read only the dialogue in order to get through more scripts in a day than had they carefully read every word. In this way, our reader interpreted the parenthetical dialogue direction improperly. The reader understood it from the surface dialogue rather than the prior-action-based subtext of which, having missed it, he/she was unaware. The reader felt the direction “too-obvious” from the dialogue, and not “subtly-ironic,” as it was designed, coming from the subtext.

Is this too subtle or rare an example for you?

Well, then, let’s say that the writer inserts purely surface-level, character-based parenthetical instructions into the script. As expected, the Priesthood’s knees jerk, and they move on to the next script. Where is the legislation that says, “you can tell a director of photography that the sunset is gloriously red, but you can’t tell an actor that the character he plays has a nervous tic and he stutters, even if the script depends on it” (this, ostensibly because that’s up to the actor to contribute)? Remember, we’re talking about a spec script by our unknown screenwriter, here, not something already in the pipeline with stars and director lined up. This stuff, then, is nothing but power plays by people all too full of themselves, enabled by an industry that is terrified not to cater to them. Spec scripts have no actors yet, but their vision must be conveyed, all the same.

Okay, let’s try another. Let’s say the writer inserts a one-page montage sequence to depict an action by the protagonist that covers six months of narrative time. It is necessary to establish this action in order to support motivation for later action that would otherwise seem unfounded and excessive. The “high-priest” stops reading at “MONTAGE:” (right then and there) because it’s “old-fashioned,” and “Montages are the last resort of a weak script!” There’s no consideration given for the writer’s choice to use it, or its appropriateness in that particular story. The unstated assumption is that the writer doesn’t know how to correctly use montages because that writer is new, and, besides, there has to be a better way to get the information across.

Let’s look at some of these “better ways,” these montage-alternatives: The writer gives us twenty pages of correctly-formatted screenplay covering the events in the one-page montage. Now the script goes 140 pages instead of 120. But the “rules” are followed. Oh, yeah, not quite: now the 120 page limit is exceeded. Oops. So, let’s try another tack: the events are cut, instead. Or, maybe they are referred to, but only in a single line of expository dialogue. This time the script is rejected because the later behavior of the character is insufficiently supported, preposterous, even, not to mention that the dialogue is now “expositional” and “stilted.” The same group that wants shorter scripts argues against an established technique that has the ability to shorten the script by nearly twenty per-cent, and all because of the fashion-of-the-day, and adherence to some Priesthood-imposed “Table” of the “Laws of Screenwriting.”

The Priesthood is fond of arguing that major writers are “allowed” to break such rules because they have a proven track record. This seems to argue that professionals have earned such a right, and that the needs of the material, the needs of the audience, are irrelevant. They seem to be saying that the audience “gives a damn” for such “inside-baseball” justifications when all they really care about is that it’s a good movie. TIP - Major new writers, invariably, have emerged because they broke the rules, not because they waited until it was “okay.” They became “major new writers” because their stories stood out from the pack. Why? Because, as experts on their stories, they communicated their vision as they saw it. And because everyone else, that “pack” typing away into FINAL DRAFT and MOVIE MAGIC, was busy following those rules!

Has no one noticed how often the movies we hold up as leaders and innovators break the Priesthood’s rules? Has no one noticed how few credits their innovating writers often have when said rules were broken? The Priesthood’s party-line that rules may be broken only when the writer’s track record is firmly in place (i.e., when the Priesthood’s own influence is firmly trumped anyway) has no basis. David Lynch’s first feature, ERASERHEAD, didn’t just break the rules, it wasn’t even in their universe! It would’ve been turned into the cinematic equivalent of processed cheese had it conformed to them. Because of the flashbacks alone, Christopher McQuarrie’s script, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, couldn’t have been written had it been forced to follow the Priesthood’s rules. Joel and Ethan Coen’s script, RAISING ARIZONA, would have been scorned merely on the basis of its excessive narration. And Quentin Tarantino’s third produced script, PULP FICTION, thanks just to the length of it (and its two predecessors’) dialogue scenes, would have resulted in his being sent to a series of guru seminars for re-education. Tarantino doesn’t just ignore the rules of screenwriting, with his INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, he ignores the rules of the language, itself!

Ultimately, the Priesthood demonstrates the fallacy of its own dictums when it lauds screenwriters and filmmakers like David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher McQuarrie, the Coens, and Charlie Kaufman, yet derides new screenwriters who practice similar techniques, all on the grounds they have no track record. What was Kaufman’s track record before BEING JOHN MALKOVICH? It was a lot of television, and not of the incredibly ground-breaking kind, either. And that’s fine! So, what?

Spec scripts from unknown writers have a much greater disadvantage than merely being unsolicited and from non-professionals. Thanks to the Priesthood’s rules, any specification, other than action and dialogue as seen or heard onscreen, has been denied them. Yet as we’ve said, they must somehow communicate the film from their writer’s vision without other elements in place like director or star. It is crucial that they put flesh and blood on that otherwise skeletal plan (which is, as Paul Schrader once described, less, even, than a blueprint). They must find and win new readers and buyers by seducing them with techniques, style, tone, texture, and nuance not yet contributed by performance, direction, camera, and editing; not yet implied by their natural yet woefully inadequate track record. I mean, it’s a wonder new screenwriters sell anything!

Spec scripts are not the movies they describe. A spec script is a reading script. At this point the movie exists only in the reader’s mind based on what’s on the page. It had better make an impression. Spec scripts are sales tools. Their task is to sell the movie, not just present some words. It must get the screenwriter’s vision across at all costs because only then can it stand out sufficiently to acquire necessary interest. Such touches may be the only advantage (other than price) that the unknown writer has.

Taking its cue from, and emerging out of the same non-thinking that spawned the auteur theory, the Priesthood is all about power: It chooses, indeed, needs to see a spec draft as a shooting draft without the scene numbers. It allows no room for creation ahead of the “real” film-makers: the director and actors. It sees the writer as little more than a typist who, inexplicably, somehow knows the story the director and actors want to tell. And, since the Priesthood, too, precedes any sale of the material, the reason is all about wresting, holding, and protecting its own power and authority, rather than getting to good films.

New writers need to take control of their scripts’ fate, to push this “literary paparazzi” of a Priesthood aside and render their potent vision. As Milton Berle once said, “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door!”#


Lee A. Matthias

Monday, August 24, 2009

Audiences, Speeding Tickets, Harry Cohn’s A_S, and Hollywood Logic

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


A friend recently sent me an email about a film he saw on cable that he felt was indicative of a worsening practice in movies today. He referred to EAGLE EYE, a film I missed. Here’s his description:

“The male and female leads are recruited, pursued and managed by some super government computer that has supreme control over all things mechanical and digital, etc.

They are told to drive ‘72 miles per hour’ on a busy urban street with lots of traffic. The entity controls all the traffic lights so they wink green just in time for them at each intersection (what [about] the cross traffic suddenly getting a red light in an unexpected time frame?).

‘Lie down in four seconds,’ [the hero is] told just as a huge crane's arm comes crashing through a wall of a municipal building. He follows additional instructions to escape his captors. On a subway moments later a stranger's mobile phone rings with a TEXT MESSAGE for him!

And on and on.

Much later, the duo decides not to follow all the instructions fed to them that have kept them alive in impossible situations by split-second timing. The evil entity now turns on them.
Somehow, though, [the entity’s] pinpoint accuracy and 100%-on timing are no longer so accurate. These two ordinary folks are able to duck, deflect and evade all that is thrown at them by this same never-fails source.

The filmmakers set up this can't-miss, powerful 'thing,' but then allow it to suddenly fail and become vulnerable when the heroes ‘see the light’ and try to fight back. Why is it no longer so accurate?

It reminded me of the ‘can't-get-shot’ finale` of the remake of 3:10 TO YUMA.

Actually, it's not much different than The Great Leslie evading every single pie (save one) in [the old comedy film,] THE GREAT RACE. Of course it was funny there.”

I responded:

“It is a [pretty well-recognized] policy in screenwriting to make coincidences go against the hero and for the villain in stories; to give nearly all the breaks and advantages to the villain and few or none to the protagonist, so that he/she has to overcome them all by sheer ability, intelligence, and resourcefulness. This sounds like they switched it.”

I added a list of the “real rules of screenwriting” that, among them, included these:

· Airline flights always leave and arrive at noon.

· During all police investigations, it will be necessary to visit a strip club at least once.

· The ventilation system of any building is the perfect hiding place. No one will ever think of looking for you in there, and you can travel to any other part of the building without difficulty.

· If being chased through town, you can usually take cover in a passing St. Patrick's Day parade - at any time of the year.

· When paying for a taxi, don't look at your wallet as you take out a bill - just grab one at random and hand it over. It will always be the exact fare.

· Cars which crash will almost always burst into flames.

· All bombs are fitted with electronic timing devices with large red readouts so you know exactly when they're going to go off.

· It is always possible to park directly outside the building you're visiting.

· Most laptop computers are powerful enough to override the communication systems of any alien civilization.

· Any lock can be picked by a credit card or a paper clip in seconds - unless it's the door to a burning building with a child trapped inside.

· When they're alone, all foreigners prefer to speak English among themselves.

· Women always take showers immediately upon arriving home if someone is hiding in their house.

· Scantily-clad young women will always go down into basements when they are being hunted by killers

· Television news bulletins usually contain a story that affects you personally at that precise moment, and it's never necessary to listen to the complete bulletin.

· It doesn't matter if you are heavily outnumbered in a fight involving martial arts - your enemies will wait patiently to attack you one by one. They'll dance around in a threatening manner until you have knocked out their predecessors.

He added several more, including:

· The keys are always already in every vehicle.

· At night streets are always wet.

· At night people stop and exit their cars, but NEVER turn their lights off.

These kinds of lists are all over the internet. Whole books could be written of them. We all have our own favorites. And it would seem many screenwriters, directors, and producers are unaware of them. Now my friend has encountered an entire film dependent on and brimming with such Hollywood logic.

How can this be? How can films continually give their audiences such ludicrous lapses in plain common sense?

My answer? They don’t care! And they don’t care because, apparently, we don’t care. They will always prefer appearances over reality, the sizzle over the steak. They are well aware that audiences have grown used to such nonsense. Only a small fringe group of people will ever demand better from them. And Hollywood chooses to live without them. So those folks go to foreign films, read books, and only occasionally pay to see a Hollywood offering, generally one of those prestige films that are trotted out for LA and NY audiences by Dec. 31, just in time for the big awards.

In the case of my friend’s example, we have a film that has taken an industry tendency and made it an operative principle. No wonder that despite being Executive Produced by Steven Spielberg, and starring a cast of solid actors, it came and went so quickly. It is one of the latest offenders in a class of films many of which never appear at your local cineplex. Most of these pictures either show up on cable television or go straight to video rental where they enjoy a prominent spot on the front of that dollar-a-movie vending machine outside the drugstore. You get what you pay for.

But why do they ever do this kind of thing in the first place? It comes down to Harry Cohn’s Ass. It’s a famous and well-documented story that original Columbia Pictures mogul, Harry Cohn, could always tell a stinker when he saw one: he claimed that if he started squirming in his seat, the film was no good.

I wonder what he would have done with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, because that estimable film is on many, many Ten Best lists, yet it is a bum-numbing 3 hours and 47 minutes long (Restored, U.S. roadshow version –

But Harry wasn’t alone in his preferred diagnostic method. As an industry, Hollywood film producers are uniformly obsessed with—snap-snap—keeping it moving. They know that their audience will never give their films speeding tickets. But the entire population of suburbia will walk out of slow pictures. So taking the time to show James Bond parking at the airport, shuttling to the terminal, going through baggage check and security, and then awaiting boarding—even if it explains how he gets some key piece of info—just won’t cut it. EAGLE EYE is just under 2 hours long as it is. Restoring common sense might have added fifteen or twenty whole minutes, making it too long to fit the ideal thriller length or those 3-shows-a-night theater schedules.

The thing is, these days, most films take this tendency too far. Anything is fair game for elimination in the interest of pace, even common sense. It’s gotten us to the point where, now, they’re throwing out the babies with the bathwater. Then there’s the effect of incrementalism. First, it’s “Let’s cut ‘slowly I turn, step by step,’ and just have him take a drink and then spit it out when the other guy says, ‘Niagara Falls’”; and then it changes to “Nobody’ll notice if we cut the back-story on why Joe does the ‘spit-take’ whenever somebody says…” And so, with the set-up now gone, the joke itself is lost.

So, in the case of my friend’s film, things have now gone so far that films aren’t just being truncated in the interest of pace. No, they’re now being conceived for pace and pace alone. It isn’t that some internal story logic has been removed. It is that that logic was never there to begin with. In fact, the film now has a different logic, if you’ll accept the Orwellian new-speak, a Hollywood logic. Hollywood, then, has become a kind of a Lewis Carroll-styled, “Alice in Wonderland” place where, if producers think, in order to understand the story, the audience needs it, then the story probably has to lose it. Too much thinking is a bad thing, it's like the thread in the sweater: pull too hard and the whole thing comes unraveled. If the villain is omniscient in the beginning, by the end he suffers from senior moments. Why? Because “The bad guy has to be impossible to beat, but we’ve got no happy ending if the bad guy wins,” and “we lose the audience out the door if we have to take the time to tell ‘em how the hero does it.”

Bottom line: there is now no difference between many Hollywood films and those arcade games in the lobby.#


Lee A. Matthias

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Screenwriting Priesthood

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


I, Heretic...

Whenever a body of knowledge develops about anything complex that promises fulfillment or wealth there is a natural tendency for a type of individual to emerge who inserts him or herself between those who desire such wealth or fulfillment and its attainment. These people see themselves as elite-thinkers, above the so-called "great unwashed." They believe they hold the "keys to the kingdom." They take it upon themselves to grant their “keys” to "Heavenly" wisdom only to those who meet their requirements, their price.

In some cases, there may be good reasons for such a group. Financial planners are one such. But in the case of others, partaking of such expertise can be counter-productive or even dangerous. Religion is one of the latter type, as we have seen with the Jones cult, the Branch Davidians, the so-called "Moonies," and other somewhat more benign groups of true believers.

And there are other dangerous types...

In the past thirty years there has arisen a screenwriting priesthood that, following this age-old template, has inserted itself between new writers and success. It threatens us all because its influence stifles worthy stories, shuts out promising writers, and imposes a limiting aesthetic on screenwriting. Sour grapes? There are more victims of this bias in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, dear reader. These folks are a profound drag on the film industry.

This priesthood is composed of, among others, authors of books on screenwriting, university instructors, and traveling teachers of seminars, most of whom don’t write screenplays themselves. But it also includes out-of-work script analysts, independent producers-without-a-deal on the fringes of the industry, writers for the screenwriting magazines, and, yes, bloggers. That is not to say there are no worthy books, classes, seminars, or blogs. Don't look for my endorsement to point you. Instead, know them by their ability to actually help you and your writer-friends, rather than by telling you for a fee what you can't (or shouldn't) do. As for this latter, to paraphrase Woody Allen, "those that can, do; those that can't, preach; and those that can't preach, preach theory."

These folks are known by their fanaticism to a fuzzy body of "laws," the "rules-of-screenwriting," which change and morph constantly, but generally include such mainstays as: required use of courier 12 pt. font; speeches of no more than 3 sentences; scenes no longer than 3 pages, max; no material directing actors, the director, the camera, or the editor; nothing that isn't seen or heard by the eventual audience; no flashbacks or time-shifting; no Voice-Over Narration; a length of no more than 120 pages, 100-110 is best; plain white card-stock covers, no colored card-stock; three-hole-punched, but fastened with only two brass brads; etc., etc. Jonathan Swift's small-end egg-openers (GULLIVER'S TRAVELS) warring on their large-end egg-opening neighbors have nothing on these people!

And ever attuned to the fickle nature of their subjects, the priesthood maintains an evolving devotion to what is in the current vogue, or priestly “zeitgeist.” They often adopt and absorb into their own aesthetic whatever is the current theory-of-the-month, hence the fuzziness of their rules. They are a powerful faction on the contest and consultant scenes. If they sit in judgment of your script, and you put anything in it that even skirts a rule, look out!

However, if you actually read produced and successful screenplays by (quite often) new-at-the-time writers, you’ll notice rule-breaking is not only common, but itself, the rule. Visit any of the popular script download websites and read some of these seminal works (CITIZEN KANE, ERASERHEAD, LETHAL WEAPON, RESERVOIR DOGS, PULP FICTION, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, ADAPTATION, etc.). Their writers more or less burst on the scene through no help of any priesthood or script guru. They wrote their own rules.

In truth, rules in screenwriting are of the thumb variety only: wise suggestions, but always to be broken when the specific material requires it. And your own gut will tell you that, not some text-book by a guy who only writes text-books. Still if you choose to play in the contest or consultant scenes--I suggest you don't--your success will depend on playing by such rules.

Case-in-point: If you write a script that includes flashbacks and voice-over narration, you are asking for trouble from the screenwriting priesthood. But if that script is, to cite one example, a classically-designed script set in the 19th century, I contend that you are exactly right in breaking those rules because that is the aesthetic found in 19th century writing: letter and diary entries, character reminiscences, large time digressions, and multiple viewpoints. These are all heavily in evidence in the works of the great 19th century writers.

Of course, degree is everything. It’s ultimately a matter of balance. So, you might want to ask yourself: were such devices depended upon too much by the script at the expense of visual storytelling? Or were they used with just the right touch, in just the right quantity, to evoke the time period and create the mood and atmosphere of the setting? And are they supportive of a submission-reading, rather than a hindrance? Do they lend the requisite tone and feel, or do they slow it down with excess verbiage?

This "catechism" of rules is rationalized by the priesthood as rooted in “industry realities” such as the tired studio executive with a need to get to bed on time, or story analysts with severe Napoleon complexes whom you must get past to reach the real power-brokers. Their effect is to subordinate the story at hand for some hypothetical deal ahead, entirely dependent upon their rules. These priestly experts contend that some studio MBA with one or two screenwriting seminars under his belt and an hour skimming through a script knows more about the writer’s story than that writer; that evidence of promise in a screenplay is not evidence of potential interest by an industry reader. Instead, they argue that only perfection (by their definition) gets a second look. While such things can and do happen, they cannot be the standard upon which your material is tailored. Writers need to have the courage of their original inspiration, and to Hell with the rest! The script isn't worth producing if it isn't worth producing right.

Eventually, such groups eat their young, and the priesthood is no exception. What was once a rule is later thrown out in favor of the latest hot new theory, or even its opposite. For example, the original priesthood rule of 3-act, Field-ian (as in early guru, Syd Field) structure has been, now, shunned by some as overly simplistic, and too regimented, with its page-number sign-posts. Field, himself, supplanted his original paradigm for an evolved version by his second book. This is that "vogue-of-the-moment," I mentioned above, taking effect.

The priesthood necessarily wrestles with the conflicting needs of getting its rules on record, and shunning such records once superseded by new ones. Rules, once published, begin to atrophy, as, codified, they are now subject to their own potential replacement. So, one-by-one, the priest of the moment, in publishing his "canon" to which all must subscribe, finds himself falling out of the very favor he once enjoyed.

Meanwhile, naive new subjects and their works of innocent inspiration continue to appear. Thanks to the hegemony of this self-appointed standards group, the rules, when broken, remain easy to spot, unlike the causes of a failing story. They yield the needed results: the flow of book sales and consultancy fees continue, jobs are not at risk, innovation and individuality are squashed, priesthood power is maintained.

Take some advice: You are the expert on your story; "dance" with the talent "what brung ya!"

Addendum (posted later):

There are LOTS of independent production companies who impose the rules I argue against. Most produce cable and straight-to-video films that are usually forgotten before the credits have finished running. Of the rest, I ask:

Why did you get into the business? Was it not to make good and interesting films? Perhaps you rationalize to yourself that you can do this by covering more scripts. But if you do this and at the same time fail to cover them well enough to find that “diamond in the rough,” has your product, to date, even come close to matching your goals? I bet not.

Beyond the ones I’ve mentioned, there are valid reasons why rule-breaking is necessary in screenwriting, and I will make a further case for it in a future posting.#


Lee A. Matthias

Monday, August 10, 2009


This is the first posting of my new blog-site, THE LAST REVEAL, a blog on writing, specifically screenwriting and story-telling. It is intended to enter, continue, and enhance the “conversation” on movies, screenwriting, and storytelling, among other writing-related subjects. For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.

So, here we go…


The state of the movies today might best be summed up by the following quote by critic, Clive James: “If any one thing is wrong with the movie industry today, it is the unrelenting effort to astonish."

Bigger… wilder… bloodier… more. Always more. Like a junkie who’s so far gone, a dose that would kill anyone else isn’t enough for him anymore. Do I refer to the audience? Some of it, perhaps. But, no, I refer to the film industry, a business that is apparently so utterly bored with its own product that it is compelled to endlessly top whatever it’s last done.

What does one do when the technology is able to render anything? For the audience it is a road, eventually, to disappointment. For the studio, it is unrelenting expectation, and at best momentary success. For the writer attempting to sell to the studios, it is, perhaps, the ultimate challenge. Writers have to imagine it first, and if everything is possible, what does the writer choose to imagine?

Federico Fellini, commenting on artistic freedom said: “I don't believe in total freedom for the artist. Left on his own, free to do anything he likes, the artist ends up doing nothing at all. If there's one thing that's dangerous for an artist, it's precisely this question of total freedom, waiting for inspiration and all the rest of it.”---Federico Fellini (1920 - 1993) It brings to mind the super-alien, Q (played by John de Lancie), in Star Trek. He was omniscient. Nothing was beyond him. And he was bored. Like the gods of mythology, he played with humans in order to amuse himself.

Invention springs from limitation, not freedom. The film industry is reminded of this every time new film-making talent arrives on the scene. A RESERVOIR DOGS, a SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, or a BLAIR WITCH PROJECT comes along, and like Pavlov's dogs, the industry laps it up. And then... they throw money at it: freedom to make the film their new wunderkind wants.

So, with talent under its thumb, it casts about for projects, assiduously ignoring said talent, and discovers that with the capacity to do nearly anything, it can do nothing, it has run out of ideas. Here is where the re-make rears its head. To bean-counters, re-makes are golden, as close to a sure-thing as the film business will ever get. After all, they're proven successes. They never seem to ask whether this is really true, however. More importantly, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in JURASSIC PARK, they spent all their time making sure they could, but they never asked themselves if they should.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this better illustrated than in the recent spate of re-makes of classic horror films. How does one reconcile the miserable re-make of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL with its namesake? How, the wonderfully atmospheric original of THE HAUNTING, with its absurd successor? What can explain the re-make of PSYCHO, where even the original shooting script was used, almost in its entirety? Why, in fact, was it even shot with the original script? What kind of arrogance and vanity would bring a film-maker to the point of doing such a thing? This isn’t the theater where the original is lost to us forever. This is movies, where the first version can be in every fan’s collection, and comparisons are inevitable.

No, there is only one reason such films are made: they are made to trump. They trade off the success, memory, and reputation of the first, and they mean to top it. Honestly, has that ever been done? Better question—why can they not do something that, if not original, is at least a fresh approach to the same type of film?

As a writer, I try to live by a hard rule when working in such well trod territory as genre: find a fresh take on an old idea, surprise the audience and show them there is new narrative country in that old familiar setting. This generally can only come from writing “specs,” speculatively-written screenplays that originate out of the writer’s own interests and passions for a genre. If a writer works from assignment, and especially if the assignment is to re-make a great film, the writer finds him(or her)self attempting to either do the same thing, better, or do the same thing, bigger.

Consider the re-make of SABRINA, for example. For me, this is a case where, other than in the casting, it very nearly topped the original. It is a better script. It has better developed characters, and a better developed story. Had Audrey Hepburn been able to travel forward in time to do the re-make as well as the original, I suspect the re-make would have won in the comparison. For me, as someone who loves the original, the re-make of SABRINA did “the same thing, better.” Or, almost better. It failed, perhaps, only on casting, particularly in the title role. For me, both the original and the re-make suffer from the mis-casting of the secondary role played in the original by Humphrey Bogart, and later by Harrison Ford. Both actors, while turning in serviceable performances, are simply too old for their parts. But this example is one of the few I can think of that validate the re-making of a great earlier film.

Now consider John Carpenter’s and Bill Lancaster’s, THE THING, in its re-making of the original Howard Hawks production, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. (Note--there is a prequel to the '82 film on its way) Here is a case of doing the “same thing bigger.” We might speculate that Carpenter and Lancaster looked at the original and said, “we can either have LOTS of ‘things,’ or we can have ONE really cool 'thing' (i.e., a 'thing' that transforms into ‘LOTS’ of different 'things').” Don’t misunderstand, I actually believe re-makes are worth considering when there are elements that warrant it, such as a significant improvement in technology, or an actor “born” to play a famous role.

Now, I know I am venturing onto "hallowed ground" here, and that the fan-boys may want to post their harangues, but, dude, it's a movie! The Carpenter film almost convinced me that it had succeeded on its merits by the standard of my technological argument, as the special effects were, indeed, spectacular and appropriate to the concept. But when anyone in the film might be “the thing” at any given moment, there was no one for the audience to trust, and with no one to trust, there was no one to pull for. So the film became an indulgence, an extended special effects demo reel. Had Carpenter and Lancaster done one simple thing: given us one character (such as Kurt Russell’s) whom we believe, due to story reasons, cannot be the creature, they would have had me. I would still have had an element of doubt, believing that a twist at the end could suddenly make even Russell subject to being the thing. But this would have given me a character to care for. As it was, I stopped caring and just watched it for the effects. Spectacular as they were, they weren’t enough. And I'm not alone in this assessment. When you aren't watching it as a nine-year-old it fails to generate the luster memory tries desperately to hang onto. That all said, I still like it, just not enough to worship.

Anticipating the buzz beginning for the new Sherlock Holmes, I just published a mystery novel. It might be seen as a kind of re-make in that it is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. However, it was written as a wholly new story, not just a new adventure, but a carefully-crafted effort to bring Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters up to a contemporary audience’s narrative preferences. And what are they? Where the original stories traded primarily on straight mystery tropes, today’s audience prefers suspense with mystery underlying it; where the originals’ métier tended to stay with an almost hermetically-sealed one-room or one-house murder for the driving premise, today’s audience prefers a larger murder canvas. Murder, itself, has become mostly passé. So, today the audience can find more relevance in a bold stroke such as terrorism, provided it is well-done with respect to, and within the terms laid out by the original. So, my novel, THE PANDORA PLAGUE, is a modern thriller disguised as a Sherlock Holmes adventure. For me, this was neither “the same thing, better,” nor was it it “the same thing, bigger,” even though the canvas was larger. Rather, for me and I hope for everyone else, it was the same thing, made new again.#


Lee A. Matthias