HEIST is a master class in tying character arcs to plot twists

As a public service, I’ve watched 99.9 percent of everything on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Whatever Blu-Rays are Inside that Shoebox I Found in Yonder Cupboard.

HEIST is what I saw last night, and (1) yes, it’s worth sending radiation at dried corn kernels for you to snack on while watching this thing, and (2) there are interesting storytelling techniques we’re going to talk smack about here on this website blog WordPress thing.

Because I care about you, this is the trailer:

So yes, you’ve got Negan (whoa!), Drax the Destroyer (double-whoa!!), and Robert-Freaking-DeNiro (you lie!!!) in the same movie?¬†Plus Gina Carano? NO WAY.

Way.

Here’s the thing that I want to talk about: each of these characters has a distinct arc, one that not only works by itself, but is a vital part of the twists and reversals that serve as the V-8 engine of this story.

  • Negan is the hero with a deadline, an Army vet and card dealer who needs to find $400,000 by 7 p.m. on Friday for his daughter’s cancer treatment.
  • Drax the Destroyer is the casino security guard with the idea of robbing the place, and the one running the job.
  • Robert DeNiro is the cut-throat businessman who owns the casino and is (a) estranged from his daughter, his only family, and (b) dying of cancer.
  • Gina Carano is the cop chasing Negan and Drax in their getaway bus.

That’s right, a getaway bus. Remember SPEED, with Neo stuck on a bus that can’t go less than 55 or the bus and all its passengers go boom? This movie isn’t a straight ripoff. Being stuck on the bus, though, with the cops surrounding you, is a great premise. They run out of diesel once, and have to work around that. The cops shoot out a tire. There are just all sorts of great problems presented by being stuck on that bus.

But I want to talk about the intersection of the character arcs and story beats.

Negan improves the plans of Drax, who’s running the job, and he’s clearly smarter than the hothead Drax.

So it makes storytelling sense that instead of letting Drax kill a hostage–the bus driver–Negan shoots Drax instead.

Then it’s the bus driver who has the idea of how to get Negan off the bus while leading the bad detective (in the pay of Robert DeNiro) to chase the bus somewhere else.

To get the money off the bus, Negan uses a fake pregnant “hostage”–his sister–and makes sure she’s the first hostage released. Clever.

And when DeNiro spares Negan, shooting his hotheaded protege before he can kill the card dealer who stole his money, you believe it, because DeNiro has been questioning his path the whole movie, and this makes sense. He’s trying to do right by the world now.

Finally, you believe Gina’s police officer character looking the other way at the end, and letting Negan save his daughter, because it’s not a sudden change of heart. They’ve set this up with scene after scene where Negan and Gina both try to do the right thing, regardless of the personal cost, while Drax tries to MURDER DEATH KILL everything in sight.

There isn’t a lot of Christopher Nolan cheating going on here, storywise. The setups are all there if you look for them, or remember. I just enjoy how the character and story beats mesh so well, and when the revelations all hit at the end, it makes you impressed with Negan’s cleverness and selflessness and happy about DeNiro’s final acts and Gina’s compassion.

All of this is nice contrast to most action movies, where evil and bloody things happen to just about any character at any time, except for the hero, because everyone but the hero is basically a bad guy who’s gonna die or a sidekick type who’s also gonna die. I mean, come on. White Bearded Mentor Who’s Kinda Like Obiwan Crossed with Mr. Miyagi? Dead by the end of Act 1. Hot girlfriend, sweet wife, or cute little daughter? Kidnapped by the end of Act 2. Sidekick who’s there mostly for tech support and comic relief? Impaled on a swordfish at the beginning of Act. 3. Femme Fatale with a thing for the hero? Fed to the sharks with lasers right before the rooftop battle with the Final Boss.

VERDICT

HEIST is clever and entertaining movie that reminds me a lot of SHIMMER LAKE (a perfect movie, go watch it, DO IT NOW) in that you’re cheering on a good man doing wrong things for the right reasons. It’s free on Netflix so fire it up.

 

The acid test for all writing

I believe, deep in my soul, that Zack Snyder-style gritty darkness isn’t bad simply because Zack Snyder directs it. Gritty Dark Dourness would be bad if the love child of Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock sat in the director’s chair.

And yes, it’s still fun to laugh at BATMAN VERSUS SUPERMAN: THE DAWN OF JUSTICE.

But there’s something smart and deeper behind the idea that the Marvel movies got things right by being (a) funny and (b) exciting, while the DC / Snyderverse went wrong by taking itself far too seriously and going Full Melodrama, with a color palette full of grays and blacks contrasted by grays and more blacks. You never go Full Melodrama, because it makes your audience feel like the movie’s being written and directed by a bipolar Michael Bay who’s crying in a corner when he’s not blowing stuff up.

And all this made me think.

Because comedy isn’t actually light and fluffy. True comedy points out how absurd and unfair the world is, and how you can’t fix it and have to laugh at the insanity of it all.

My proposition is this: adding comedy to a book or movie doesn’t make it light and lame kiddie fare. Interweaving comedy into whatever–an action movie (every Marvel movie ever), a romance (ROMANCING THE STONE and every rom-com), a mystery (SHIMMER LAKE is perfect perfect perfect, go watch it now on Netflix, kthxbai)–can make it infinitely better.

We were talking yesterday about our favorite books of high lit-rah-sure, and my favorites were CATCH-22, Kurt Vonnegut and the ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL books, because I’ll happily go back and re-read any of these. What do they have in common? They’re universally beloved, recognized as classics, and funny as hell.

But making you laugh isn’t their only trick, like a SNL skit that repeats itself 459 times in four minutes. The best storytellers serve us different courses for our emotions over the length of a movie or book. They don’t dish up sad scene after sad scene, or pile up joke after joke. You get an appetizer, a main course, side dishes and dessert. Not five appetizers in a row or a plate full of six desserts.

ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL does this beautiful. The original book and its sequels are really short stories strung together. Each one, though, makes you feel a variety of emotions. Joy, sadness, laughter, love. You see the struggling young vet and the hard-scrabble farmers, and when an animal dies, or a sick cow makes it because a poor farmer stayed up all night tending to that animal, yeah, you might tear up.

That’s what makes us come back to those books and movies.

Not the plot points–we know what will happen. Not the writing.

We want to feel.

So that leads me to the acid test for me, as a writer. It’s how I know whether a draft is working or not.

Here’s the test: If I’m not tearing up, it’s not working.

Tears of joy, tears of laughter, tears of sadness–I better be feeling something as I write the ending. If I don’t, bring on the rewrite.

So yes, we can make fun of the dour, dark Snyderverse, and relentlessly depressing lit-rah-sure like THE ENGLISH PATIENT, where the scenery is beautiful and everybody’s rich and having affairs and in the end, everybody sells out to the Nazis and dies, the end, roll credits, and THROW SILVERWARE AT THE SCREEN BECAUSE THIS IS STUPID.

What do you want the audience to feel?

That’s the real question. And you have to feel it first.

Should you fire up Netflix and watch EUROVISION SONG CONTEST?

Listen: comedy is incredibly hard. Maybe the hardest thing when it comes to storytelling and entertainment. Because you have to take risks, and most of those gambles won’t pay off.

This is why movies coming out of Saturday Night Live alums are hit-and-miss. A joke that gets stale and repetitive during a three-minute sketch is just about impossible to stretch into a 120-minute movie.

I swear the best comedies are made in the editing suite–throw 100 things at the wall, go wild, and have the editor and director pick the 10 things that really work while chucking the other 90.

EUROVISION SONG CONTEST may seem like one of those skits, something that might be hilarious for one song and painful to sit through for an entire movie. Check out the trailer.

I’m happy to say the opposite is true. This is fresh, funny, and surprisingly good.

The movie is set in Iceland, which needs to be featured more. It’s a wild place. Having visited there, it’s nice to see it in a major movie.

And while this is a comedy, the ending is excellent and surprisingly moving. TEARS MAY BE SHED. I won’t spoil it all by including the final song. Instead, here’s VOLCANO MAN, a great appetizer for the movie.

VERDICT

You’ve already burned through everything else on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and your brother’s DVD collection.

Give EUROVISION SONG CONTEST a go–it won’t disappoint.

Why ANNA violates three laws of action movies

I come to praise ANNA, not bury it.

My love for Luc Besson movies is strong. THE TRANSPORTER is beautiful and completely rewatchable, THE FIFTH ELEMENT is creatively wild, and pretty much anything he does is worth checking out.

ANNA is another action movie with KGB spies, the CIA, John-Wick style gun fu and a lot to recommend it. You should fire up the interwebs and watch it when you’ve plumbed the depths of Netflix.

Yet there are laws for action movies, laws carved into our brains and souls by the sweat and blood of Action Movie Gods, and woe unto those writers and directors who willingly break these laws.

ANNA is good.

Unbreaking these laws could have made it great, and there’s always hope for a Special Edition Director’s Cut or whatever.

THE FIRST LAW OF ACTION MOVIES: SAVE THE BEST FOR THE CLIMAX

The exact genre doesn’t matter. Gunslinging westerns, martial arts films, spy thrillers, and Let’s Catch The Genius Serial Killer films all need to do one thing: escalate.

This rule actually applies to every movie and novel. Start strong, but end stronger.

It’s just easier to see and quantify with action movies, because you can do things like count bodies.

What do you want to avoid? The opposite, which would be starting out with your absolute best action scene, then a middling one, and finally an appetizer–or no action scene at all.

That’s basically what ANNA does. There’s a beautiful fight scene in a restaurant that happens early. You’re going to google the thing, so here it is:

Crazy good, right? It makes you expect something even bigger and better at the end.

Except you don’t get that. The climax kinda switches to pure spy thriller instead of action movie, giving the audience get triple-crosses and disguises and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE kinda stuff.

And it feels like a let-down. You’re cheering for our heroine to do the restaurant thing again on the bad guys, except everybody is basically bad and double-crossing each other.

THE SECOND LAW OF ACTION MOVIES: STICK TO ONE TIMELINE

When was the last time you saw a flashback that worked in a movie or book?

They don’t work. I hate them with the fire of a thousand burning suns.

Bad action movies give us a couple flashbacks of the Dead Mentor training the hero and imparting wisdom, right before being killed by gangsters or the villain. Good thrillers avoid flashbacks entirely.

ANNA gives us flashbacks and flashforwards out the wazoo, and it kills the story. Because really what they’re doing is going back to give the audience setups after they just watched the payoffs. It’s not surprising or fun–it’s a lazy way to patch holes in a story. “Hey, here’s three months earlier, which will explain why that just happened.”

No. Just no.

Keep it linear. One timeline, straight through.

THE THIRD LAW OF ACTION MOVIES: GIVE US A VILLAIN

Whatever you think of Tom Cruise, the last MISSION IMPOSSIBLE gave us a great, great bad guy: Superman/The Witcher.

Sure, there was an overt baddie, but he was a puppet of Superman/The Witcher, who was pulling all the strings. And since thrillers are about betrayal, especially spy thrillers, this was a great twist.

ANNA doesn’t give us a villain. There’s no final faceoff and beautiful fight. She slips away.

I’d argue that the most villainous character is Helen Mirren’s, who you can see in the trailer for a bit.

She does all sorts of Very Bad Things, and deserves to get completely Restauranted–but instead, Anna helps her take control of the entire KGB.

So yeah, not a very satisfying ending. Bad guys kinda win while the hero disappears.

VERDICT

Hey, this thing is still fun and completely watchable. Well worth firing up, and there’s nothing wrong with the actors. The lead actor does an amazing job–put her in more movies.

It simply could be much, much better with some structural tweaks. Save the best for last, Luc!

JESSICA JONES repeats the same storytelling mistake as GAME OF THRONES

So the last season of GAME OF THRONES went sideways, according to All the Fans–and as somebody who’s now watched all three seasons of JESSICA JONES, the writers and showrunners make the same storytelling mistake with the ending.

And listen, the ending is everything.

How can a gritty, superhero series screw up in the same way as an epic with swords and dragons? 

Here’s how. (Warning: this whole post is Spoily McSpoilerface.)

Reason No. 1: Always save the Big Bad Guy for the finale

For five-point-seven billion years, GAME OF THRONES built up the icy blue Avatar-looking guy, the Night King, as the Big Bad of the series.

At the same time, the show served up the Mother of Dragons and her cousin/boyfriend Jon Snow as heroes, as far as what passes for heroes go in a story where everybody is a murderous nutbag.

But there’s no real protagonist in this giant cast, and Ayra is the one who offs the Night King long before the final episode.

Same thing with the last season of JESSICA JONES.

For all of Season 3, the Big Bad was this serial killer known as Salinger.

But instead of saving a confrontation with the villain for the finale, we get meh from both series.

The Night King’s death should have been saved for the last episode, with the Mother of Dragons or Jon Snow being the fan favorites to sit on the Iron Throne.

Instead, the Night King got killed and the show became a hot mess. Nobody was aching to see Emilia lose it and have her dragon fry the city, or see Kit stab his former lover, or have Bron-whatever take the throne for some random reason after Tyrion goes all Jar-Jar in the Galactic Senate on us. No. Just no.

JESSICA JONES repeats the same mistake. Salinger gets offed before the final episode.

Reason No. 2: Once the Big Bad is dead, your momentum goes buh-bye.

Let’s talk about other movies we’ve all seen for a second and play this out.

RETURN OF THE JEDI — Instead of Vader tossing Emperor Wrinkly Face down the bottomless pit and the Death Star getting blown up, all that happens in Act 2, with the entirely of Act 3 all about how Luke has to hunt down and fight Han Solo after he went nuts and helped the Ewoks slaughter and barbeque 15,000 Imperial stormtrooper prisoners.

Terrible, right? This is much better.

You have to save the Big Bad for the final act, the final episode, the last thing. Anything else makes the story out of order and flat.

Reason No. 3: If you’re going for tragedy, you have to fully commit

A mixed ending can be amazing. Some of the best movies and books have mixed endings.

CASABLANCA has the hero giving up the girl for a greater cause–beating Hitler and winning World War II.

But a mixed ending is also tough to pull off. 

When you get audience rooting for a character, and seeing them as a hero, it’s tough to see those character take a heel turn at the last minute.

In fact, audiences reject it. 

This is why tragedies fully commit.

They show the full fall from grace, from beginning to end, with the protagonist serving as both hero and villain. And the protagonist falls due to their own hand, via hubris.

BREAKING BAD did this perfectly. Sure, you saw things from Walter White’s point-of-view, and rooted for him a lot of time, but his ending felt absolutely right. He’d definitely sinned, and his downfall was deserved.

If you’re going with a tragedy, do it from the beginning with the protagonist. Not a side character like Trish.

It can work for the main character hero to sacrifice themselves for the sake of a secondary character. That’s not a tragic ending; it’s noble and heroic. See PRIVATE RYAN and ARMAGEDDON and five zillion other movies.

 

You can pitch ANYTHING except quality

Quality matters. Oh, it matters a lot.

Nobody wants to pay money to see a movie that stinks, a book that you can’t get past Chapter 1 or an album where every song hurts your ears.

You want quality. I want quality. Everybody wants it.

But you can’t pitch quality.

And you can’t package it.

So unless you’ve got something else — a quirk, a hook, a unique twist — quality alone won’t get you anywhere.

It won’t get people to look, listen or read in the first place.

So let’s pitch and package random, made-up things. Why? Because it takes practice and because you’re too close to your own stuff to do it right. And because it’s fun.

First up: two different bands.

Band A is a trio: drummer, guitar and bass / lead singer. They’re all recent music school graduates in their late twenties. They’re serious, seriously talented, good-looking and ready to break out. Let’s say they play a lot of punk rock and post-grunge.

Band B looks like a sure-fire loser. They’re all five years old. College degrees in music? Try “Hey, we’re potty trained, and we know our ABC’s.” They don’t know how to read music, write music or understand music theory like the other band. The guitarist knows one trick: crank up the distortion and make it loud. But they know the rough melodies and words to three different Metallica songs, and they do a cover of ENTER SANDMAN that’s close enough to be damned funny.

Here’s a real-life example of this sort of thing. A ton of people — 383,000 plus — have watched this kid sing, DON’T BRUSH MY HAIR IN KNOTS while her brother or neighbor kid banged on the drums.

Alright, here’s your homework: Write a one-sentence pitch for each band. Four words, if you want to ace this. Six words if you feel like a Cheaty McCheaterface.

Do it now. Find a piece of paper or fire up Word and do a pitch for each. Don’t even think about it.

I’ll go find silly videos on YouTube about swamp monsters in Louisiana or whatever.

OK, time’s up. Let’s compare pitches.

My best shot at the music majors: “Nirvana minus flannelly angst.” Four words, and I’m sort of cheating by turning flannelly into a word. Hard, isn’t it? You can’t get anywhere saying any kind of variation on, “This band, they’re really, really good.”

My pitch for the kids: “Kindergarteners cover Metallica.” Three words. Doesn’t have to be poetry here. Are you going to click on a link that says “Nirvana minus flannelly angst” or “this band is amazing?”

No. Not when there’s another link that has five-year-olds playing heavy metal?

Who wins the quality test? The serious music majors, by a mile.

Who wins the pitch and packaging test? The little kids who play bad covers of heavy metal. It’s so much easier. I would have to kidnap reporters to get them to cover our post-grunge band of music majors.

Could I get free ink and airtime with the Heavy Metal Monsters of Hillman Elementary? Absolutely.

Next: two different books

Our quality book is a literary masterpiece that will make you cry while snorting coffee through your nose, then take a fresh look at life and possibly quit your job and join a Tibetan monastery. It’s about a middle-aged man who works in a cubicle farm and lives in surburbia with a wife who’s on industrial amounts of Prozac and a teenage daughter who’s too busy thumbing her iPhone to notice who provides her with food, shelter, clothing and a VW Passat with only 13,000 miles on it. The hero’s life changes when he gets mugged on the way home. Also, a mime is involved, and a janitor who lives in a shack but says witty, wise things before he gets hit by a train.

The other book is a cheesy sci-fi novel with horrible dialogue. The premise: dinosaurs didn’t die off after some asteroid hit. They were smart. Really smart. And they left the planet in a fleet of spaceships to escape Earth long before that asteroid screwed things up for millions of years. Now they’re headed toward earth. And they want their planet back.

Ready? One sentence pitch for each. Four words.

GO.

OK, let’s see what we’ve got. Here’s my instant, no-thinking pitches.

Literary book: “Hell is a cubicle farm.” Five words. More of a title than a pitch. It sings to me, though, in a small, squeaky, off-pitch voice.

Sci-fi nonsense: “Space dinosaurs invade earth.” This is a kissing cousin to “Comet will destroy earth,” which has been the basis for about six different movies, including five by Michael Bay, with the other one starring Morgan Freeman for some reason, despite the fact that Morgan Freeman has ZERO CHANCE of flying up in a space shuttle with Bruce Willis and that dude who is an old college buddy of Matt Damon to blow up the comet,  asteroid or whatever with nuclear bombs.

VERDICT

The bottom line is, quality is one thing. In the end, it’s probably the most important thing.

Yet nobody will read your masterpiece, listen to your amazing album or see you act like no actor has acted in the history of acting-hood if they don’t get hooked by your pitch and packaging. They have to know you exist first.

Quality isn’t a pitch. “You should see that movie — it’s really good” doesn’t work. Your friends and family will ask, “What’s it about?” and if you don’t have four words to explain it, to give them a pitch, then forget it.

The next time to read a book, see a movie or listen to a great new song, think of four words.

How would you package it? What could you possibly say, just to your friends so they could see it, but to a reporter or a TV producer?

Top 10 creepy sea creatures — and why creatures are a staple of our weird news diet

Odd creatures aren’t just a staple of weird news stories.

They’re a huge box-office draw. Name a blockbuster or billion-dollar movie and it’s almost a sure bet that they feature fantasy or alien creatures.

Think about it: AVATAR, STAR WARS, the Harry Potter series and the lame Harry Potter prequel series, STAR TREK, MEN IN BLACK, any of the 5,832 Marvel movies, LORD OF THE RINGS and the lame Hobbit prequel series that should have been one flipping movie.

Yeah, there are cute fluffy creatures sometimes. Yet just about every giant hit has a zoo’s worth of Ewok’s, orcs, space elves or cybernetic raccoons with a gun fetish.

So what gives a creepy sea creature, man-eating forest monster or elephant-sized wild hog such power to fascinate us?

Let’s break it down.

WILL THIS MONSTER SEE ME AS A SNACK?

That’s the most visceral attraction, a caveman instinct we can’t get rid of: paying close attention to obvious threats.

And yes, a healthy chunk of weird creatures–whether they live in the sea, the mountains or your local forest–tend to be predators with humans possibly on the menu.

IS IT FASCINATINGLY DISGUSTING?

There’s some crossover here. Many of the things that can totally go nom-nom-nom on us–like leeches, lampreys, giant squids and alligators–can’t be called cute.

A bunch of non-threatening weird animals are only interesting because they’re so bizarre and repellent, like the blob fish.

THIS CAN’T BE REAL

Other strange creatures get our attention because we can’t believe they’re not CGI.

How do Christmas Tree Worms really eat? Do lampreys have eyes or are they just a wormy eel thing with giant teeth?

THE FLORIDA MAN TEST

Weird news stories typically involve people in groups (usually men) late at night plus alcohol or drugs and the following optional ingredients: firearms, dangerous wild animals, explosives, 7-Elevens, the police. Oh, and the state of Florida, a state that generates so many weird news stories that headlines starting with “Florida Man” and ending with bizarre mayhem are truly a thing.

So whether or not an odd creature gets featured in a weird news story may hinge upon it passing the Florida Man Test, as in: can a Florida Man use this creature to generate a headline?

Two great examples: alligators, pythons and sharks.

Florida Man has robbed a 7-Eleven late at night, hid from the cops in a pond and been eaten by a gator. An entirely different Florida Man carried a live gator into a gas station and used it to steal beer or money, or beer and money (I forget, wasn’t there, sorry).

Pythons have overtaken the Everglades, and may be impossible to eradicate. They’re devouring local animals and even trying to eat the gators.

Sharks are another common element in weird news, with Florida Man getting arrested for dragging a shark behind a boat.

One unlucky Florida Man has hit the weird news lottery, getting bit by a shark, punched by a monkey, bitten by a snake and struck by lighting. No joke.

VERDICT

I salute you, weird sea creatures that should not exist, and I hope global warming doesn’t bring too many of you within range of Florida.

 

Back from the dead!

No, I’m not a zombie, sparkling vampire or Jean Claude Van Damme-ish universal soldier.

I simply haven’t posted in forever, and have missed the readers of this silly blog, who’ve taught me a lot and are always, always witty and entertaining.

So: with a crazy busy session at work, my evil choice was (a) come home and write a blog post, (b) hang out with the wife and son, (c) do laundry, pay the bills and possibly sleep or (d) finish and edit a novel.

I chose everything but (a) and it was the right choice. And now I’m coming up for air.

To folks who are into these things I like to call “books,” here are a few things I learned finishing a new novel, which is the most fun you can legally have as a writer.

(1) Keep switching it up and taking risks

If you keep writing the same sort of story with the same sort of heroes (6-foot-4 and Hollywood handsome) and villains (posh British accent and disfigured somehow) in the same sort of scenarios (stolen MacGuffin could destroy the world!), then hey, it’ll get stale. Same thing with non-fiction, whether it’s newspaper and magazine pieces, speeches or whatever you’re into.

Mix it up. That’s how you grow and learn.

There are endless ways to structure and execute writing. You can steal from anywhere:

  • Stand-up comics are amazing at setups and payoffs, and can do them in the most ruthless shortage of words.
  • Poets make sure every line is a magical spell.
  • Narrative non-fiction is actually a secret treasure chest of great stories that totally work as fiction except they actually happened, and they use the same structural tools as narrative fiction, also known as fiction.
  • Playwrights spell their own names wrong, yet they’re the masters of dialogue.
  • Linked movies and serial shows show you how to plot mega-stories (22 movies by Marvel that all tie together!) and how great beginnings can go completely wrong (Season Eight of GAME OF THRONES). 
  • Screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the evil secret to anything of length. And everything has SOME length.
  • Even if you write stark Nordic mysteries or spy thrillers, romance authors and horror writers show you how to do emotions right, and nothing matters without emotion.

(2) Writers are helpful souls–take the help, and offer help whenever you can

I only started this blog after romance authors found my silly ad to sell the Epic Black Car. 

And I learned an amazing amount from them. Am still learning. 

For a journalist-turned-speechwriter, writing thrillers for fun, romance is the last place I expected to look.

Look in those unexpected places.

Ask questions.

Answer questions from folks starting out.

The other person who taught me an insane amount is my sister, Pam, who won a Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriting. You wouldn’t think screenwriting has anything to do with speechwriting or novels. But you’d be completely wrong. Screenwriters are the absolute best. They’re building skyscrapers that hold up to hurricanes. Meanwhile, other books on writing tell you to build a two-story house out of drywall, then you wonder why the thing falls down after the first rain.

Also: there are authors, writers and editors I met here from around the world, folks who are continually witty, talented and interesting. I want to give a shout out to two in particular — Alexandria and Joshua the Sharp — for their help this year. You two rock.

Keep on meeting people, on Twitter, the Gram, the Book of Face or whatever new thing Silicon Valley invented last week. You never know who’ll turn out to be amazing and will change your life, or whose life you might change. YOU NEVER KNOW.

(3) Take things apart to see how they work

If you read this silly blog (and hey, you’re doing that now), it’s clear just about every post involves taking something apart to see why it’s either (a) horrifically good or (b) beautifully bad.

That’s the interesting and fun part of stories, books, movies, music videos and speeches. How do they work and why?

What could you do to fix a flawed piece or improve something that’s already amazing?

Complaining about something is the easiest thing in the world. You can throw a Nicholas Spark novel across the room (go ahead, that’s kosher any day that ends in Y), walk out of a lame movie or end a show on Netflix after 5 minutes and say, “That sucks.”

Except there’s behind those words. Zero intellectual weight. Anybody can kvetch about something that stinks, or gush about artistic things that are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

It takes no talent to do those things.

Figuring out HOW things rock or stink–that’s the fun and difficult part.

The best part.

And I hope this blog helps you do that.

Where ROBIN HOOD went wrong

Listen: I love cheesy action films and B movies of all types, as long as they don’t take themselves too seriously. Feed me summer popcorn flicks, meant to entertain, instead of pretentious nonsense.

ROBIN HOOD is meant to entertain.

It’s got a good lead actor (Taron Egerton, famous for THE KINGSMEN films), a solid sidekick (Jamie Foxx) and a great villain (Ben Mendelsohn from THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and ROGUE ONE)–plus a big budget ($100 million).

Add to that a built-in audience who loves the story and character of Robin Hood. 

This is like chocolate chip cookies, right? Hard to go wrong with those ingredients. Everybody will like it.

Except this movie bombed at the box office. A dumpster fire.

Why did this film go so wrong, so fast?

Act 1 is a good start

There’s a lot to like in the first act. see Robin’s ordinary life and get a good introduction to Marian when she tries to steal Robin’s horse…and he lets her.

His life gets upended when he goes to war during the Crusades and comes back to find his estate confiscated by the Sheriff of Nottingham, who’s taxing everybody to death.

It’s an effective start, and the training sequences with John and Robin are great.

So how does the movie go sideways? I mean, this film makes Kevin Costner’s terrible British accent look like a minor problem in an epic masterpiece.

Why the middle turns meh

Act 2 gets confused. The scenes with the Sheriff of Nottingham are decent, letting him chew up some scenery. 

Yet the middle gives us a Robin Hood movie that seems to switch time periods, as if the director wants to mash up medieval Crusades action with huddled masses working in Victorian  factories and mines along with 21st century antifa protests.

There’s a big dinner where all the wealthy people show up, with women dressed in furs and high heels (I kid you not), and a giant CGI action sequence set up with horses and carriages that feels more Ben Hur than Robin Hood.

You CAN mix things up like this–A KNIGHT’S TALE with Heath Ledger threw in modern rock songs and other craziness, and it worked. The degree of difficulty is simply really, really high.

Basically, Act 2 is a hot mess.

How the climax isn’t climactic

And then we get to Act 3, where things truly go south.

The first rule of storytelling: save your best scenes for last. 

There were great scenes in Act 1–the battles from the Crusades, the training montages with John–that simply eclipse anything offered in Act 3.

The Sheriff of Nottingham meets his end, and not at the hands of Robin, but John.

Taking his place as Sheriff is the romantic rival, the lover Marian took while Robin was believed to be dead. And hovering over everything as the Biggest Bad Guy of Them All is the cardinal, or the pope–I forget. Plus there’s a bad guy soldier, the same man who clashed with Robin during the Crusades, brought in as a mercenary to catch the Hood.

Confused? Yeah. Let’s count the bad guys: (1) O.G. Sheriff, (2) Hired Mercenary, (3) Corrupt Cardinal/Pope and (4) New Sheriff.

Here’s the deal. That’s four separate villains, and I can’t remember their actual names. 

Fixing this movie

Hey, you don’t need Michael Bay explosions to have a tense, exciting movie. The ending of Michael Clayton is one of the best Act 3 climaxes in history, and there isn’t a gun, knife or explosion in sight. Just two people talking. No amount of CGI could improve this scene. 

HOWEVER: If you’re making an action movie, you need action in the climax, and what we get in Act 3 is a let-down from what showed up on the screen in Act 1.

A bow and arrow is a great tool for Robin Hood, and fun when he uses it for heists and hijinks. Yet it’s a terrible weapon, as a storytelling device, for confronting the villain. Which should be singular. Give us one main villain.

Which leads me to the two simplest fixes for this movie: (1) combine the four villains into one capable, scary, tough Sheriff of Nottingham and (2) end with Robin fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham, one-on-one. 

There’s a reason why the best movie fights tend to be bare-handed brawls or swordfights. 

Swordfights are just great cinema, and that’s what I expected for the climax of ROBIN HOOD.

Think about THE PRINCESS BRIDE and every STAR WARS movie ever made: the duels with swords or lightsabers are beautiful and essential to the stories. Edit those out and they’d really hurt. 

So I’ll leave you with the kind of thing ROBIN HOOD should have put into Act 3: a long, evenly matched duel. 

 

Here’s why movies and shows are so good today vs years past

Sure, there are stinkers–bad movies and terrible shows on the Glowing Tube–but overall, we are living in a golden age for entertainment on Whatever Type of Screen You Prefer.

Why is that?

A few theories:

1) Looking good is half the battle

In the old days, most movies and shows (a) were cheaply made and (b) looked cheaply made. The real exception to this are sitcoms filmed in a studio, which look about the same. Everything else? Massive differences in production values. 

So when a film truly looked good–typically because it had a great director and a big budget–it blew everything else out of the water.

The difference was even more stark on television. A great example: back in the day, BBC seemed to take pride in the worst possible production values on the planet. 

Lighting, costumes, camera angles–all that matters. You notice bad production values the most when it comes to terrible monster costumes and special effects.

These days, everybody has upped their game. Even bad movies and shows LOOK good.

And CGI has gotten cheap enough that average TV shows can afford to do special effects you used to only see in blockbuster movies.

2) Massive competition

When there were only a few big studios, and three major TV networks, competition wasn’t nearly as tough.

Today, you have movie studios around the world cranking out more films than ever, plus 3.53 bazillion cable channels making content along with Netflix and Amazon making shows AND movies.

There’s never been more choices.

This has two counter-intuitive effects: (1) it’s easier to get things made, since far more sources might bankroll it, and (2) killing a flawed project or series is easier, too, since there are plenty of other projects that deserve a shot.

The fact that most movies and series don’t become amazing successes isn’t the real point. You can’t predict which ones break out and make mountains of money. 

Can’t win if you don’t play. 

So everybody plays, and takes risks, because being safe and conservative isn’t the way to hit a home-run.

That creative, competitive environment helps give birth to today’s great shows and movies.

3) CGI takes planning, and great planning makes for great stories

With production values good across the board, and special effects cheaper than ever, what makes a movie or show stand out and break out?

A few years ago, when cheesy CGI spread across the land, I hated it. Terrible CGI was easy to spot and immediately killed your suspension of disbelief.

Today, CGI is incredibly advanced.

Here’s the unintended side-effect, though: great CGI is more affordable than ever, but it still takes a lot of time, money and most of all, planning. 

You can’t rush it. 

And good planning makes for good storytelling.

There’s a reason Pixar is famous for great stories. They know exactly how long it takes to do an animated movie. 

If they screw up Act 3, the director doesn’t call back the actors and do reshoots for a few weeks. Redoing all that footage in an animated movie takes a lot more work.

That’s why Pixar goes crazy with storyboarding and planning the structure of each film. You have to nail that story before you commit. This is why Pixar spends so much time emphasizing storytelling, and perfected their 22 Rules, which are worth checking out. Roll film: 

With live actors, you can shoot hundreds of hours of footage and a great editor can take all that footage and do the structure and storytelling.

Can’t do that with animation–or CGI-heavy movies, which is just about everything today.

The more action and CGI you use, the more important planning and storyboarding becomes.

I think this is a key reason why Marvel has been on a hot streak. Every one of their superhero movies takes a ton of green screen and CGI work. They know it. And they have to plan not just for each movie, but how all the different movies tie together, with setups and payoffs stretching all the way back to the first Iron Man movie.