MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
CHAPPIE came out last year around this time, and three years ago at the end of summer of 2013 we had a few movies have stood out. We had IRON MAN 3 and THE CONJURING - films that worked as popcorn *and* were good films that actually explored characters. Movies that were both kinds of good. But previous years we've had *many* films that were both kinds of good. This year it seems very few companies were trying to make movies that were "popcorn plus", instead we've had good popcorn like STAR TREK 2 and MAN OF STEEL and PACIFIC RIM and bad popcorn like... well, too many to name them all. What happened? Has the slump in DVD sales made the studios stop thinking about tomorrow? And aftermarkets? Hey, no one's buying DVD/Blus anyway, so why make a film that is good enough that people will want to own it and see it again and again? Let's just make completely disposable summer popcorn flicks that people forget as soon as they've seen them? (Hmm, maybe that's the marketing plan - if the film is really forgettable consumers will have to see the film again on DVD?) The problem with making completely disposable summer films is that they cost so damned much. There was a time when a movie could live just on cinema box office receipts, but with summer popcorn films costing as much as $250 million, many of these films *need* the DVD/Blu money to make a profit for the studio. The thing I do not understand - it costs the same to make a big popcorn movie with a brain as it does to make a big stupid popcorn movie - so why not make the version that I want to buy on DVD/Blu and see again, rather than the version that makes me want to go home right after the movie and pop in IRON MAN or BATMAN BEGINS into the DVD player to wash away any memory of that crappy film I just paid $11.50 to see?
One of my core pieces of advice is to think about *shelf life* with your screenplay. In the old days, a movie hit cinemas and then it was done. There were no other markets for the film. Then we got TV, and then video, and then cable, and now you can watch movies on your freakin' phone! Those old movies that we still watch on TV today, or have a DVD/Bluray that we pop into the machine when we want to see "something good" were made in a time when a movie didn't have an aftermarket. But a movie today is meant to be seen again and again in different mediums both known and yet tpo be invented (according to my contracts). Current films *need* a shelf life... and yet they seem to be even more disposable than ever before. The focus is on that opening weekend. Like a tattoo of your current love, nobody seems to consider what it will look like ten, twenty, fifty years from now.
I don't know if ELYSIUM will be remembered in 50 years, but it was the #1 film over the weekend and the entire weekend Twitter was filled with messages about the healing chambers and other *ideas* from the movie. The film is both a popcorn sci-fi film *and* has a social message - and I suspect long after the popcorn elements of the story have gone stale we may still be talking about the social elements of the story. The same way we still watch those great episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE like "Eye Of The Beholder" and "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street". Science Fiction, as a genre, is usually a way to look at social issues that we are struggling with now, and ELYSIUM's story shares similarities to Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS in its take of the haves and have nots living in different worlds. It's not as good as the writer-director's previous film DISTRICT 9, but still has amazing special effects and lots of ideas... and at a budget that's half of what it cost to make STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS.
So let's talk about DISTRICT 9 for a minute or two...
BACK TO DISTRICT 9
DISTRICT 9 was a pseudo documentary, and part of what made it creepy is that "bug" in the lower right corner identifying it as property of the company our hero Wikus (Sharlto Copely) works for. There's an old Sean Connery movie, THE ANDERSON TAPES, about a large scale burglary that has been completely recorded on audio by... someone. This was probably the first film about how everything we do is now recorded by some form of surveillance equipment. The idea that all of the things we see in DISTRICT 9 were recorded on video from surveillance cameras and are in some company's vault is chilling.
But at first, the film seems like a boring documentary. Lots of talking heads and commentators and footage that seems like it belongs on the History Channel. Except this mundane footage is all about an alien space ship that just stalled out over Johannesburg. One of the amazing things in the film is the complete understatement. The huge space ship, which would be an amazing special effect in some Hollywood film and would get all kinds of close ups and action shots, is just this thing hanging in the sky in the background of shots. When Wikus drives to his suburban home, the space ship can be seen in the background of the shot. It's just there - no big deal. The tone of the film is bland, documentary style, and even the aliens are treated as another boring element in our story. They've been living in District 9 for the past 20 years, they are nothing special anymore. Now they are just another part of everyday life - the make the nightly TV news only if there's a riot or some other newsworthy event in District 9. Usually, the aliens are kind of out of sight and out of mind.
But the doc is about the removal of the aliens from District 9, and their relocation to a far off area which looks good on the brochures they have printed up for the aliens, but is really a tent city so far away from human population that even the riots won't end up on the nightly news. Wikus has been given the job of supervising the relocation, and he's a vapid bureaucratic idiot who often slips and calls the aliens by the "P word" during the interview. He even justifies using the term because the aliens look like prawns, don't they? Oh, and the reason why he was put in charge of this? He's the son-in-law of the government official in charge of Alien Affairs. The first phase is to go door-to-door in the alien shanty town and serve eviction notices. They need the aliens' scrawl on the form to make it legal. Because there are documentary cameras rolling, Wikus will be going in personally to help serve notices... and we follow along.
There's some great suspense built around there not being enough bullet proof vests for Wikus's number two man (William Allen Young) - and once they drive into the walled and barb wired District 9, it's filled with poverty and crime and gangs and violence... and you worry that number two guy is going to get shot. But Wikus oblivious to just about everything - they do a great job of making him so dumb he comes off innocent. When he calls the aliens "prawns" to their face, you think he just doesn't know any better. He's not *maliciously* racist. He doesn't hate the aliens. He just sees them as being animals. This allows us to see him as racist without being repulsed by him.
We *are* repulsed by the racist military guy Koobus (David James) who is providing security for the operation. He is itching to kill him some prawns. He thinks the best solution to the alien problem is just to kill them all. If this eviction thing turns into a riot? That would be a great excuse to fire a few missiles and drop a few bombs. This character gives us both sides of racism, so that we can use the actions in the story itself to "discuss" the issue. Whenever there's a situation where either diplomacy or military action can be used, Wikus and Koobus represent each of these standpoints in the debate... and, the debate is usually after all hell has broken loose in District 9 and the aliens are attacking them. Not some dry discussion of racism but a run-and-gun argument about how they can survive.
Though I'm not sure we identify with Wikus at first, once he gets into the dangerous world of District 9, we *do* worry about him, because he is way over his head. He's like a baby who has wandered into a cage full of Michael Vick's pitbulls... and then picks up a stick and starts poking them. You worry for the baby, you know the baby is doing something stupid... but it's a baby, it doesn't know any better. Wikus is a baby. He is blind to his own racism, but the story is designed to open his eyes. As he goes from shack to shack trying to get aliens to sign their eviction notices, suspense moves a little into the background - this is a documentary, and we begin to get used to what is happening (even though, I have to tell you, the aliens are just amazing in this film). But just when we have lowered our guard, we see a couple of aliens up to no good, collecting some black fluid that will allow them to enact some secret plan.
For a movie with a giant flying saucer in just about every shot, where well over half the beings on screen are amazing CGI aliens, this film is not about any of those things... it's all about Wikus. It's not about the special effects, like a Hollywood movie, it's about the people. Unlike in a Hollywood film, the special effects here *only exist* to serve the story. Wikus goes through several transformations in the course of the story, and if we didn't identify with him at the beginning, we do later on and really begin to care about the guy and see the story through his eyes.
When things go wrong in District 9, Wikus begins to see the aliens, not as a bureaucratic problem or as animals or as "prawns", but as *people* with the same sort of problems that humans have. He comes to understand their struggle... and slowly switches sides. And this is so subtle, there is no dialogue about his "transformation" and change in beliefs. No idiot lines the writer had to put in the script for the development execs and producers that no one removed before filming. Just as the documentary "bug" stays in the lower right hand side of the screen, the reality of the situation remains. The character gradually changes scene-by-scene without us really noticing - except this casually racist bureaucrat has now become a friend to the alien they have named "Chris" and believes the aliens have rights.
Along with the emotional changes in Wikus, he also goes through a physical change that is connected to another change on the emotional side that turns him from a bumbling bureaucrat into an action hero. Eventually the film becomes a really unusual buddy action flick with Wikus and the alien they call "Chris" kicking some military ass and blowing some things up real good. But even when we are in the middle of a massive battle scene where they break into a top secret government installation, the story never loses sight of the people (including aliens) in the scenes. Even the action scenes have an emotional component and deal with Wikus and his relationship with "Chris" and his new feelings of guilt over being a casual racist who allowed his government to herd these alien people up into pens, like cattle. This entire story is about Wikus seeing the error of his ways and changing them to become a more honorable person. It's about Wikus transforming from a guy who sees the aliens as "prawns", animals, different... to seeing them as not much different than himself - and seeing "Chris" as a friend. Unlike any of the big dumb Hollywood special effects films we've had this summer (including STAR TREK: INTO DORKNESS), this film is really about the people in the story. Like all good sci-fi, it's a metaphor, an allegory. It's not just about the aliens and action scenes, it's about a social issue that touches all of our lives.
The film takes many unexpected turns, and presents some information to us in a way that exposes *our* racism - I suspect this may be uncomfortable to some viewers. My racist beliefs took me down the wrong path at one point - and that made me reevaluate myself. The film holds a fun-house mirror up to society - and up to ourselves - and shows us who we really are in the safety of a science fiction story about battles between humans and aliens. And, what is pure fantasy for those of us in the USA is only part fantasy in South Africa, where they had Apartheid until recently, and a similar story played out when relocating people from District 6.
BACK TO ELYSIUM
In ELYSIUM, the Earth has been polluted and abandoned by the wealthy, who live in a luxury space station that shares its title. Where the wealthy have anything they desire, and access to free health care (these great healing chambers that can cure cancer), the poor are left on the surface of Earth, where jobs are scarce and food is more scarce... and health care? Well, take your big city emergency room and multiply the occupancy by a thousand. What's more, like most modern HMOs - they won't pay to cure anything lethal. If you're so sick that you are likely to die, they just let you die. On Elysium, people dress like fops and speak French... on Earth people dress in rags and mostly speak Spanish. On Elysium people live in huge mansions... on Earth people like in shanty-town shacks.
Matt Damon plays a worker in a robot factory who once dreamed of a life on Elysium... then woke up to reality. He's lucky to have a job... the kids in his slum neighborhood beg for coins when he comes home from work (the way the slum kids do in THE LAST LAUGH). One day when the corner of a pallet gets stuck in the door to a radioactive room, Matt's boss tells him to get his ass in there and unstuck it *now* or they will fire him and hire one of the millions of people just waiting for his job. Matt does it, gets a lethal dose of radiation, and has seven days to live. As with Wikus, this is his wake up call to the larger social issues that surround him. On the surface of Earth, he's just going to die... but on Elysium he can be cured and live. He joins a criminal group that tries to smuggle people across the border - through space in this case - to Elysium. Most of the people are caught and sent back to Earth. Some are killed just for attempting to land on Elysium. Now that Jodie Foster has become Secretary Of Homeland Security, she has a kill first policy and shoots down any unauthorized ship before it gets near Elysium. She also has a band of "contractors" (mercenaries) lead by savage Sharlto Copely who make sure any rable rousers on Earth are dealt with permanently. Matt Damon ends up the most valuable man on Elysium when he brain-jacks an evil corporate head/governor played by William Fichner... and ends up with the information that will facilitate Foster's coup between his ears. Damon and his childhood sweetheart Alice Braga and her terminally ill child are kidnaped by Copley and taken to Elysium... where an unexpected revolution takes place (along with some space ship crashes and epic battles in cool body armor and stuff exploding real good). The film manages to deliver action and romance and explosions... and an underlying social message as well. Though people may remember ELYSIUM for the amazing special effects, the film may also stick with them because it deals with characters dealing with real problems... the same problems we are dealing with today.
The last thing you want to do if you are writing a story that deals with social issues is to have characters discuss them in dialogue... let alone a speech. The key to using a social message in your story is *not* to make it obvious, but to let the story itself illustrate whatever point you are making. Where ELYSIUM fumbles sometimes is that it's a little too direct with it's issues. Part of this might be because Apartheid wasn't a USA issue, so any time DISTRICT 9 was too direct, we didn't notice. I think DARK KNIGHT was much more successful in hiding its social issues than DARK KNIGHT RISES - though both were critical and financial successes due to those issues. When we think of (the original) TOTAL RECALL we don't think that it's really about social issues - though it covers very similar ground as ELYSIUM - we think of it as a fun (cheesy) popcorn movie. And that is the key - popcorn first, character second, message buried so deep that most people will never notice.
All of those great TWILIGHT ZONE episodes are great *stories* about people we can relate to... we notice the social issues after the episode is over when we are thinking about the story. That is the great thing about having a social issue at the core of your story - we think about it and discuss and debate it later. I don't think anyone who sees EYE OF THE BEHOLDER for the first time is thinking about it's message - it's the story of a hideously deformed woman about to get reconstructive surgery. It's a *human* story. Only after the twist do we realize it's not really a story about humans at all. No where in that episode is the moral of the story even brought up - it is *demonstrated* by the story itself. The great thing about science fiction is that we can disguise social issues in stories of life in the future. STAR TREK (original series) did a great job of being both a science fiction adventure show *and* dealing with social issues. It was a thinking person's sci-fi show (yes, cheesy too) - no one who watched THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES episode thought they were being preached to - the story is about a population explosion amongst cute little furry things. Later we might think: hey, we have population issues, too! But in the moment, you want to make sure your story is about humans dealing with human problems. When Matt Damon decides to risk going into the radioactive roo m to keep his job, we get that. I don't know about you, but I've done things I really shouldn't have to keep a job. That is a character choice in the film, and at no time does it seem to be a social issue... yet it is. We've had record unemployment, and now we have underemployment and low pay issues. But for Matt's character it isn't an issue at all - it's what you do to keep your job.
If you have some social issue that you want to discuss in a story, make sure that you use the story itself to illustrate it... don't wear it on your sleeve. Screenplays are about *people* with problems. Focus on whatever social issue through the prism of your characters and keep the story human. A dying man looking for a cure to his illness isn't obviously a social issue. We had a bunch of movies and TV episodes dealing with HMOs denying coverage for certain illnesses like JOHN Q a few years back, and even though they were about a very real issue that people are still dealing with today, those stories were about *people* dealing with problems. Not the issues - the people.
Stories that have social issues in the background often connect well with the audience, because *they* are often dealing with some form of those problems themselves. Some of my favorite golden age films were from Warner Brothers, and dealt with the social issues of the 30s - unemployment, returning veterans trying to find the groove, big companies that try to destroy small family run businesses. Those films strike a chord today - which is why Warner Archive does a brisk business (and takes a chunk of my money every time I sell a script). But using social issues isn't just something that worked in the past, the two DARK KNIGHT movies were huge hits, I think AVATAR might have made some money, and somewhere they are running a TWILIGHT ZONE marathon later this month. These stories stick with us, and can provide a genre film with a shelf life even after the special effects look old fashioned.
Focus on the people!
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*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Kindle!
*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Nook!
Expanded version with more ways to create interesting dialogue! How to remove bad dialogue (and what *is* bad dialogue), First Hand Dialogue, Awful Exposition, Realism, 50 Professional Dialogue Techniques you can use *today*, Subtext, Subtitles, Humor, Sizzling Banter, *Anti-Dialogue*, Speeches, and more. Tools you can use to make your dialogue sizzle! Special sections that use dialogue examples from movies as diverse as "Bringing Up Baby", "Psycho", "Double Indemnity", "Notorious", the Oscar nominated "You Can Count On Me", "His Girl Friday", and many more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 175 pages!
Only $4.99 - and no postage!
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