Style vs Substance

“So much style without substance, so much stuff without style”

My writing partner and I went to see Logan– great film, much better than any of the last several X-Men flicks to be churned out– and were struck by the the sheer awfulness of the trailers that attended it.

There’s something called Life that appears to be a cross between Alien and an old episode of the original Outer Limits, and even steals the font for the title sequence from Alien. Then, of course, there’s an actual Alien… Thing… that looks pretty much just like the original Alien, which was an original and terrifying film… 40 years ago! There was also Kong: Skull Island, War for the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and Ghost in the Shell– and probably one or two others I can’t remember. 

Now, I’m not saying that none of these will be entertaining. I’m really looking forward to GotG2 and I’ll

probably see the PotA flick because it’s just something I do (I actually own every Planet of the Apes story committed to video, outside of the last film, which I thought was awful, and the Tim Burton abomination), but the point is the death of originality. 

And the problem is that not much transcendence is to be had without originality. George Romero is one of my all time favorite directors, and his Dead films, to me, are some of the best sf to be found anywhere. Made on less than a shoestring, Night of the Living Dead transformed the horror genre in the late ’60s and then, incredibly, his “sequel”, Dawn of the Dead, Made on barely a shoestring, practically did it again in the late ’70s. (My favorite Dead film is the third, Day of the Dead, but that’s another story for another time.) Years later, these would both be remade into very creditable films with much larger budgets. The remake of Night stars Patricia Tallman (of Babylon 5 fame) in what I’ve always thought of as her best role, and is a very enjoyable film. The remake of Dawn made a ton of money at the box office and served as director Zack Snyder’s springboard to things like 300, Watchmen, and overseeing the DC Comics cinematic universe. But… The original Dawn of the Dead is a classic piece of film. Gory in the extreme (for the time), it has subtext and nuance, and is a piece of Art in its own right. The remake of Dawn is a very good film. It is entertaining and well-made, has an excellent narrative structure that carries through to a satisfying (or, at least, fitting) conclusion. But it ain’t Art. It’s a faded though flashy copy of the original, and, in the end, that’s all it is. I’ve watched the original Dawn, with and without commentary, at least 150 times; I’ve watched the remake three times, once with the commentary (which is awful, BTW). 

Why do the makers and shakers of Hollywood toss us these well-chewed bones, you ask? Well, first and foremost, it’s money. As incredible as it sounds for studios willing to send actors all over the world to film, and pay all the money in the world for certain actors and actresses, risking that investment on a truly original and innovative script just doesn’t sit well with them. And even when it does… Take the original Guardians of the Galaxy, which had an excellent script and was a major smash hit. It also benefited from being the property of Marvel, which has a good track record of success since the advent of Iron Man (Marvel’s record with the visual medium before that was… not, uh, not good at all; maybe we’ll talk about it sometime). Hollywood, though, is mostly a proliferation of small studios and middle men trying to pretend to be The Man. Most studios and producers simply don’t have the money they like to pretend they have and would rather sink their resources into something with a known, or at least semi-predictable, consumer base. Low-budget horror is always around because it has a very predictable and consistent audience. Same with slick sci-fi (pronounced “skiffy” and never to be confused with “sf”, at least in this column), especially if the studio can attach a “bankable star” to it. Likewise, sequels, which are generally just remakes, and adaptations are generally seen as being worthwhile by studios. 

But James Gunn, the writer/director of Guardians of the Galaxy also benefited from something else, and, to me, this is the main ingredient in getting something you’ve written bought for filming. People atthe studio knew him. Networking is the biggest thing you can have going for you in Hollywood. I know, I know, you would think talent was obviously necessary, but if you’ve seen The Strangers you know that isn’t always true. The truth is that knowing people, or, at least, knowing people who know people, is as important as anything else. For instance, my partner and I just sold our first script. Our agent told us that someone was looking for a story idea that fit a certain criteria, we talked it over for about 10 minutes, I came up with a premise that we then spent roughly two hours hammering out into a script (we only needed about seven pages), and we were paid for it a couple weeks later (after having beaten out about 20 other ideas in a contest we didn’t know we were in). Now, if our agent didn’t know these people, we never would have even known about the opportunity. Of course, Gunn also had a track record of success– he had written the aforementioned Dawn of the Dead remake, as well as Scooby Doo and Slither– which is a very good reason for him to be considered seriously to helm a big budget film like Guardians. And, remember, the studios aren’t looking necessarily for Art; they’re looking for a return on their money. Certain writers or directors or producers may make nothing but dreck, but as long as they make dreck people will pay to see they’ll keep getting hired to make more of it. (Gunn, of course, isn’t in that class at all.)

Networking, especially for those of us who don’t live in SoCal, can be difficult, but not as difficult as it used to be. The internet, especially with the advent of social sites like Facebook and Twitter, makes the task of meeting people “in the business” much easier today. Online writer’s groups are a good start for meeting people and interacting with them. Be real and be friendly. Be helpful if you can. Always be mindful that not everyone is on your level, as a writer or as a professional. And, while it is helpful to deal directly with people who are in the same vein of writing as you are– scriptwriting, in this case– it’s also good to chat with people who are into other forms of writing. Writing is all about perspective, and the more perspectives you can see from, the better. Most of the time, the people who run these groups are there to help in any way they can, and will bend over backwards to help you if they can. 

And then there’s luck. We live in a military town and a few years ago a pilot came through who also happened to go to church with my writing partner. This pilot had always been interested in making film and had planned to get into it when he finished his tour of duty. My partner and I wrote a couple things together and he mentioned this pilot to me. I said, “Send him an email.” It took him a week and a half to respond because he was filming a commercial for a local business in San Diego. He had an idea for a show he wanted to try and sell to Netflix. He sent us the idea and was blown away by our take on it. 

Things are moving slowly, but they are moving. Which is nice, given the fiasco that was our “Thailand movie” (maybe we can talk about that later). The point here is that you just never know when and where you’ll hit something that might lead to something else. If nothing else, always look at every contact, every experience, as a learning process. 

Also, and this is something I see people complain about all the time, remember that not everyone is you and not everything that works for you will work for others. If someone asks your advice and then doesn’t follow it, instead of being irritated they didn’t do what you said be honored they respect you enough to ask in the first place. Of course, some advice almost must be followed. J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5, tells a humorous story of the time he got Harlan Ellison’s phone number and called the sf legend for advice. Straczynski had been in Hollywood for awhile and been completely unsuccessful in selling anything to anyone. He called Ellison and asked what he could do to change this. Ellison’s response? “Stop writing shit.”
-Sam Christopher

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