Monday, August 10, 2009

Re-Makes

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…

FADE IN:

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.#


FADE OUT


Lee A. Matthias

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