Wednesday, August 14, 2019


Please welcome author Tom Sawyer back to the blog today.


by Thomas B. Sawyer

“That would’ve been really good if they’d only…”
“Whoa – did I like – youknow – miss something…?”
“I – wanted to like it, but...”
“The thing of it is – why didn’t she just go ‘I love you…?’”
“It was sort of – I dunno – not very satisfying, y’knowwhatImean?”
“Am I imagining it – or was that as dumb as I think it was…?”
“It was okay, except the whole time – I kept wondering about…”
If the above-type comments sound familiar it’s probably because you’ve been to a lot of movies in the last few years, where you’ve heard them whispered by people sitting near you, or spoken with mystification as they were leaving the theater.  Hey, you’ve probably said them yourself.  And wondered why you just spent so many dollars per ticket, plus parking and overpriced popcorn or Milk Duds, to sit through another disappointing, mega-hyped turkey that, even with gazillions of bucks worth of marquee names and special effects, wasn’t as good as the worst episode of your favorite TV series.

This was illustrated some years ago when I informally polled my UCLA Screenwriting class on how many of those present had seen the then-recent thriller, Enemy of the State.  About half  of them – a dozen or so – raised their hands.
For those unfamiliar with the film, Enemy was yet another take on the classic Hitchcock/McGuffin story in which an innocent man, this time played by Will Smith, is pursued with lethal intent by the forces of darkness because he has unknowingly come into possession of something they desperately want.  In this case it’s a computer disk, for the recovery of which the bad guys are more than willing to commit unlimited carnage, no matter the expense in fake blood and high-end special effects. 
Further, in this for-the-most-part well-made chase-film the bad guys are super bad, with super capabilities.  Led by an excellently villainous Jon Voight, they are a faction of the National Security Agency who have at their disposal unlimited resources, from super computers to super spy satellites to ominous black helicopters to the latest weapons. 
The movie posited that in the then-today’s world even the concept of privacy was old hat (welcome to the future). The filmmakers wanted us to believe that these heavies, via their state-of-the-art technologies, can track anybody, anywhere, anytime.  They can listen to us on any phone, watch us via satellite on any street or in any alley, or via any video security camera – from convenience store to lingerie shop – and even, using digital x-ray, instantly pinpoint our location in the bowels the most complex building. As a matter of fact, with the tiny electronic devices they plant on Will Smith’s person, they can hear his stomach gurgle, though what anyone might want with such data is difficult to understand.
In short, according to this movie, there was noplace where Will Smith could hide.  Further, there was no question that these guys are deadly serious about nailing Will. That, basically, was Enemy of the State – the relentless pursuit by a government agency that will stop at nothing – of a hapless though far from stupid man-on-the-run, and his attempts at evasion and derring-do escapes.
There is a venerated principle of drama, known as the “Rifle-on-the-Mantelpiece Rule.” Postulated by the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, it states that if, as the curtain rises on Act One, a rifle (or any other loaded – forgive the pun – symbol) is hanging above the mantelpiece (or otherwise visible to the audience), it must be used before the final curtain falls – for a purpose more meaningful than simply telling the audience that its owner is, say, an NRA member.  Why this rule?  Because by displaying the rifle so prominently – with all its symbolism and lethal power (as opposed to something benign, like a tea service), the audience expects it to be used. They are waiting for it to be used. Otherwise why put it there?  The author has in effect made a pact with the audience.  If that pact is violated, the audience feels cheated.
Now -- in Enemy of the State the “Rifle” takes the form of Will Smith’s wife and small son, to both of whom he is deeply devoted.  In fact, the script goes to some pains to make sure the audience understands how deeply.  Why did the filmmakers do this?  To make us like Will, to feel sympathy for him.  Fair enough.  So far.   But as a story-point, it logically makes him all the more vulnerable to the villains.  Why bother to chase Will when, with their above-described all-seeing, all-knowing capabilities, they can easily grab his loved ones and Will gives up the game, right?
In a big-time movie, one would think so. But in this instance, sadly, one would be seriously Wrong. 
Instead, in the NSA’s ruthless, budget-busting, stunt-and-special-effects-packed efforts to catch up with Will so they can retrieve their disk and kill him, these super-smart, super-resourceful bad guys blow up buildings and crash vehicles with mindless abandon, brutally murder almost everyone with whom Will Smith has associated, one-time girlfriend and total innocents included, stopping at absolutely nothing – except – for reasons presumably known only to the writer(s) and the director of this otherwise professional exercise in noisy stimulus/response mass entertainment – they never go after Will’s sitting-duck wife and child.  
They never used the “Rifle.”
Getting back to the UCLA class, those who admitted to seeing the movie were then asked how many of them had been distracted – while they were watching the film – by this arbitrary, glaringly illogical omission, wondering first when the heavies would go after his family, and finally, why they didn’t.  All but one raised their hands.  The one who did not explained that it didn’t disturb him till after he left the theater. 

Most of them, like most of the audiences, sat there thinking about what should have been happening up on the screen. Which, as anyone in the entertainment business will tell you, is not just counterproductive, it is pro-destructive, downright people-displeasing.
Annoyingly, for today’s moviegoers the foregoing is a far-from-isolated phenomenon, the kind of audience-distraction that by comparison makes the rattling of candy wrappers and buzzing of cell phones almost a pleasure. The mystery is -- in films on which such megabucks are lavished -- why don’t they bother to fix such fundamental story glitches? 
There are, of course, several possible explanations for this phenomenon.  One might be – dare we admit it – contempt for the audience’s intelligence.  Not unreasonable given Hollywood-size egos and their almost Beltway isolation from the public. Yet another could be – to paraphrase that eminent screenwriter/philosopher, William Goldman, they-don’t-know-what-they-are-doing.
A less damning and perhaps more plausible reason for the failure to repair such basic goofs may be endemic to the present-day state of the process itself, in which an almost religious belief prevails that the more writers thrown at a screenplay, the better it will become. Sometimes it works. Too often it does not.
The problem being that it’s unlikely any of these scribes will have the intimate overall knowledge of the piece – of its structure and subtleties – that the original writer might have had.  Which makes it all-too-easy for a telling moment, a line of dialogue, or an entire scene to be dropped or altered in ways that create new problems even as the old ones are being addressed.  And often in the rush to production, the new ones are overlooked.  In television this is referred to as “pulling threads.” Screenplays, like teleplays and stage plays, are after all, fragile houses of cards; remove one and the entire structure may tend to collapse.
This “General Drift” syndrome was beautifully documented some years ago by John Gregory Dunne in his book, Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, an account of the gradual mutation during 27 studio-demanded rewrites, of his and his wife, Joan Didion’s screenplay for what eventually became Up Close and Personal, a bland, so-so movie despite its money-in-the-bank stars, Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford. Essentially, Monster tells us, with a sufficient number of hands tinkering in the mix, even well intentioned ones, it happens.  
Nor can the problem be lack of money.  The mystery is, if a production company is going to spend 50 to 80 million dollars or more to give a movie the pizzazz, production values and star power to make it a major hit – why not go that extra inch to identify and fix such details?  Why not end up with, say, a When Harry Met Sally,  Sleepless in Seattle, The Fugitive, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc., films that were massively entertaining and left us satisfied – without nagging loose-end residue?
And especially egregious examples extend to today’s snowballed number of fantasy movies.  This, I am convinced, is partly due to the form giving such free reign to writers’ imaginations – the chance to create entire Worlds for which the author makes up the rules – wherein they sometimes forget that solid storytelling principles apply to them.
A huge-budget example from a few years ago: Super Eight. Early on, a Space-something disintegrates. The pieces are everywhere, including one on the nightstand of one of the young protagonists. And the film keeps cutting to it, vibrating as if it has some sort of life-of-its-own. And thus setting up the audience to expect – something important to the story?
It never happened.   
These are hardly isolated instances.
Okay, aesthetics aside, let’s get to the hard questions, the ones that count, the ones asked, finally, by those-who-pass-for-today’s-moguls. Suppose the script actually makes sense – will that really make any difference? Might fixing these things affect the grosses? Might it matter in terms of word-of-mouth, of a film getting legs instead of being yanked in the first few weeks?  Might it transform a schlepper into a winner – or even a hit into a mega-hit? 
As a writer I have to believe it does make a difference. And as a movie-lover who is less and less inclined to pay to see today’s films, I know it would.
Tom Sawyer © 2019

Edgar & Emmy-nominated, Tom Sawyer was Head Writer/Showrunner of the classic CBS series, MURDER, SHE WROTE, for which he wrote 24 episodes. Tom sold, then wrote 9 series pilots, was Head Writer/Showrunner or Producer on 15 network series. Tom wrote/directed/produced the feature-film comedy, ALICE GOODBODY. He is co-librettist/lyricist ofJACK, an opera about JFK which has been performed to acclaim in the US and Europe. Tom authored bestselling mystery/thrillers THE SIXTEENTH MANNO PLACE TO RUN. His latest, a mystery/thriller-with-humor: MAJORPRODUCTION!, 2nd in a series featuring NY PI Barney Moon, who doesn’t drive, sees  LA as an Alien Planet, and is stuckthere.   

No comments: