About Time For Clever Movie Writing

the amazing spiderman 2

About Time For Clever Movie Writing

It’s rare that movies are surprising these days. After all, movies aren’t entertainment or art, they are someone’s hard earned money going into an investment. If I were to take my retirement money and walk over to Hollywood and say…

“Hey there Mr. Movie Maker, could you invest this money for me.”

He’d respond with, “Low, Medium or High risk please?”

And I’d think a minute and say… “Low risk thanks. Maybe medium low?”

He’d think a minute and say, “Cars 3 it is.”


“No… way to iffy.  Much too speculative for your money.  We need some sure-thing-ness right now.  So let’s go with Spider Man 2.”

“2004 Spider Man 2?!?”

“No no no… 2014 Spider Man 2”

“Double GAH!”

[pullquote]I have got to keep reminding myself that Hollywood is less about art than it is about retirement funds and pay stubs. [/pullquote]There is an awesome piece out by Singer on Dissolve talking the latest Spider-Man movie (The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a name which may make Singer’s point more poignantly than he makes it himself) wherein he decries the eye-candy-ness of movies today and the boredom (the, shall we say, ennui?) that will come as a natural result:

Certainly The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will make a lot of money. And audiences will no doubt enjoy the film’s impressive visuals while they’re watching them. But will they dwell on them for even a second after they leave the theater? A year from now, will they be able to distinguish between Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Amazing Spider-Man 1, or even the old Spider-Man series by Sam Raimi? Will they have any kind of impact on anyone at all? Probably not.

I totally agree, good movie making – like good art – should have an impact on the viewer. They should leave the theater thinking and even reconsidering their vantage on life. A good movie should speak to the deeper desires and needs of being human. Can a Transformers movie do this? Certainly. Why not? But the larger question is why don’t they?

There is nothing more dangerous to storytellers than the idea of an audience that is incapable of awe anymore, and yet that’s what our studio system seems determined to create. It’s like putting someone on an all ice cream diet. If you forced someone to eat ice cream breakfast, lunch, and dinner without any interruption, that person would eventually learn to detest ice cream. The thought of it would make them physically ill. You would destroy it for them.

And this is where bad, exploitative orgasmic visual carnivals movie making is actually not just bad but dangerous. This is where society as a whole becomes inured to the fantastic. This is where our children become disenfranchised and unimpressed. And then this spills over to everyday life with tragic consequences.

I remember when I was back in high school I would attend young kid birthday parties as a friend of the family. The kids would become quickly bored with whatever planned game or entertainment was provided. And inevitably the mother would look at me and say, well, you juggle… Can you do something? I disdained these requests with all of my being. Because the very first comment once started juggling or “entertaining” would inevitably be “my dad can juggle 27… You are only juggling five?!” Or “Torches?! So what. My brother can light himself on fire while doing backflips!” This movie making phenomena is exactly the same. Visual pyrotechnics that lead to ever disenfranchised and even critically disaffected.

So what’s the solution? Maybe it’s as simple as clever writing. Maybe it’s as simple as great characters, with fascinating flaws.  Possibly its more about interesting plot turns and switchbacks than it is about pyrotechnics or special effects.  But we are so fascinated with special effects that all our tent poles lean too heavily on them.  Its all they see.  This will lead to audiences becoming inured to special effects.  It is like what is happening with our anti-virus antibiotic regimen…   it will be the thing that has brought us to the movies that will eventually drive everyone away.  I guarantee it.

The Amazing Spider Man two just released to strong box numbers, but even so I think it is this glitz and tinsel that will eventually cause the audience to forget their movie experiences almost as soon as they experience them.  Which one was that one?  I can’t remember. Happens all the time.  Was that the reboot one?  Or was that the original movie 4 years ago?  I personally don’t even remember if I’ve seen the first The Amazing Spider Man movie. And I can’t be bothered to go look it up on IMDB to figure it out if I have.  I recently watched the latest Iron Man movie – which I quasi-enjoy because of the great acting of Robert Downing Jr. exclusively (Bad Influence anyone?) and the movie made reference to something that had happened in The Avengers and I just didn’t care enough to followup.  When you assemble 27 characters with 400 different super powers and just sling them at each other over and over again?  Really?  This is a movie experience?  I would much rather put the super heros in a room and let them dialogue the entire movie.  But I am already firmly on record for this particular point.


So when a movie comes along like About Time I learned something about myself and movie making in general.  About Time has as its hook, a single fascinating premise.  What if all the males of a family could travel in time?  Not forward, only backwards.  And what if the young son who has just learned of this skill decides to find the love of his life?  The rules of time travel create fascinating twists and turns as the movie drives forward, but there isn’t a single special effect in the entire movie.  This is a character driven plot and a writing driven script. I’m sure there wasn’t a single line like “BEGIN MASSIVE INTERSTELLAR GALACTIC BATTLE”.


All I know is that It’s About Time For Clever Movie Writing.  Build your hook.  Create your characters around the hook.  And let them leave and breathe in the world and in those environs… see what they do.  Spider-man, Thor, The Avengers, The Hulk, Superman, pretty much any super hero made in the last ten years (save The Dark Knight series, and maybe the most recent Captain America?) has fallen prey to this sort of a formulaic-ness that seems to plague modern movies today.


Current state of the Super Hero Union

a. Hero learns of his powers.

b. Hero crashes and burns using his powers.

c. Horrible bad thing happens to Hero’s family/friends/universe.

d. Hero redoubles effort to hone skills.

e. Hero find the strengths within himself.

f.  Girlfriend of Hero embroiled in the cataclysmic trials.

g. Hero makes terrible choice of who to save.

h. Hero finds it within himself to save both somehow, beyond all odds.

i. World is saved.  The universe rejoices.

chronicle movie

But with movies like About Time nothing is given.  There is no rule book.  The writing is king and the characters drive the plot.  There is an argument that there is an out of the box place for super hero movies.  Take Chronicle for example.  Three kids discover an asteroid that gives them some sort of supernatural ability.  And blam, we have a movie.  They play with their powers, they push cars in parking lots, blow stuff up until the trio end up in this global nuclear power struggle.  Now THAT is writing.

But shall we dispense with the formulaic excuses for CGI?  Please?  Let’s write good characters that matter.  With issues that are relevant.  Because really, that is what makes a good movie, relatable stories with characters that matter.  Superman?  I don’t know any supermen.  Batmen?  Yeah, I know a ton of horrible people trying hard to be good… that I dig.  That I would pay ten bucks to watch.