Wednesday, May 09, 2007

10 Rules For Making A Good Genre Movie Series

This rant was first voiced on Wyrdstuff...

Spider-man 3
is out and, as we all feared, it’s a blunder from top to bottom. Just like X-Men 3, Pirates Of The Caribbean 2, and too many other genre films.

But with so much built in appeal, how could they go wrong?

While there are many reasons a film can flounder, there are a group of basic rules I’ve discovered that a genre film series should never break. These rules have been proven through constant violations by studios and filmmakers who think they know better than the fans. They are (in no particular order):

(1) If your source material has a built in audience, do all you can to honor that audience.
(2) Only one villain at a time.

(3) More is not always better.

(4) Re-imaginings & sparks of originality are fine… as long as you stay on message.

(5) Don’t always start with origin tales.

(6) Don’t give the hero any kids.

(7) Casting is everything.

(8) Keep consistent with the MPAA rating.

(9) Love and understand the genre your film belongs to.

(10) If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Allow me to expand on this list of “dos and don’ts” so perhaps people can learn from them and avoid further travesties (who am I kidding? Spidey 3 made a killing so far. It would take a 60% drop in second weekend box office for Sony or Avi Arad’s Marvel to realize they screwed up. I’ll try to enlighten them anyway).

NOTE: These rules are my humble opinion. While I’m certain many of you share them with me, I know there can be exceptions and addendums. There will also be a few SPOILERS for those who haven’t seen Spider-man 3 yet.
(1) If your source material has built in audience, do all you can to honor that audience.
Hollywood loves built in name recognition for their film projects. In their futile quest for a magic box office formula, the studios feel the more recognizable names attached to a movie, the more they’re guaranteed money. That’s why we have so many sequels, remakes and adaptations of famous properties around Summer (all with brand name stars if they can afford ‘em).

The problem is Hollywood gets a known property and then drains it of everything recognizable, usually in the name of broadening the audience. But this actually has the reverse effect and loses the built in audience that used to be a sure thing.

One of the reasons the Harry Potter films are so successful is that they stick to the source material. Sometimes slavishly, but fans are usually pleased (they’re more upset about what’s left out than anything put in, but, hey, those books get long). The films also gather new fans along the way. Why?

Because the Potter books were good to begin with. They’d already been road tested on people and were proven successful. Whatsmore, new initiates recognize the quality behind the Boy Who Lived (this point ties in to Rules #4 & 10).

Once you’ve earned the audiences trust, you can mix it up a bit. By Prisoner of Azkaban (Film 3), the Potter filmmakers felt safe enough to leave bigger bits of the book out and build on Rowling’s source material. They made something true to the book, but all its own.
A film series has to earn this trust, however. You can’t stray too far in the beginning. Otherwise you end up with head scratcher flops like Daredevil and League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
My favorite example of this is actually not a genre film. It’s The Honeymooners.

First, the studio faced an uphill battle in the casting of Ralph Kramden. Jackie Gleason IS Ralph Kramden (see Rule #7). Unless they could raise Gleason from the dead, however, the studio was already losing some of that built in appeal. Then they decided to “update” Ralph and make him a black man. While the studio would win an A for progressive thinking, they were already straying far from anything recognizable as The Honeymooners.

Ultimately fans of the original stayed home. They might as well have saved the money licensing the name The Honeymooners and done something original. It would have been just as tough a sale.

(2) Only one villain at a time
This one’s for Spider-Man 3. Didn’t Raimi & Co. learn anything from the Schumacher Batmans?

In a 2 hour period (even a 2 hour and 40 minute period), you only have so many minutes to tell a story. When you have three villains, you have to exhaust precious screen time establishing each of these characters. That robs the hero (the guy whose name is in the title) of his moments.

Now you could cheat the new characters of development and give the time back to the hero (as Raimi tried and then squandered away on dance numbers), but then you have underdeveloped characters. Or worse you’re forced to use canned motivations so hackneyed that even George Lucas would question writing them in.

Also the driving force behind a villain doesn’t always gel with the other villains in the piece. That’s why they had to give Harry Osborn amnesia for most of the Spidey 3, just to get his storyline out of the way.

Harry’s revenge tale doesn’t quite fit with Sandman and his crimes of passion for his little girl. If you’re going to have these bad guys synch up, you have to cover a lot of real estate before they’re on the same page. That means one of them is usually benched until the time is right. Hence the lame use of amnesia… so old it’s got whiskers!

Now try adding a third villain and all of his baggage. And a new girlfriend. Ugh, I’m getting tired just typing it. Next rule!

(3) More is not always better.
If your film is over two hours, why not split it into two films? A single film can only handle so much before it blows.

Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was too long. There was, by my count, five storylines going (which is almost as bad as three villains). And the whole cannibal affair was amusing, but unnecessary to the major plot of Captain Jack and his escaping Davy Jones. No wonder fans were overloaded to dissatisfaction.

Now the trailers for Pirates 3 are filled to the gills with good set pieces. Each one I want to see. But in order to squeeze them all into one film (and give them the screen time they deserve), Pirates 3 will have to be 3 1/2 hours long (which at press time, it just might be).

Here’s an idea. Take all that good stuff and make two films out of the one. Why does everything have to be a trilogy these days? Stretch out that payday and go for 4 movies.

This would have done Venom some justice as opposed to shoehorning him into Spider-man 3. Raimi has commented about how he originally planned to introduce Venom at the end of 3 and leave the toothy villain to a 4th film all his own. Obviously, muddled heads prevailed and the audience was gypped.

(4) Re-imaginings & sparks of originality are fine… as long as you stay on message
Consider The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. While Peter Jackson was primarily faithful to Tolkien’s books, there were some significant changes.

The character of Faramir is totally different from the book (where he isn’t tempted by the Ring and lets Frodo go early on). Arwen’s conspicuous nature was drawn from the Appendices. The Elves fighting alongside Men at Helm’s Deep… never happened!

While these things weren’t in the books, they were in the spirit of the book. This is a tricky thing to master. Different people have different ideas as to what that spirit is. That’s why it’s better to stick to the original when possible.

Re-imaginings are a new phenomena. They’re also code word for “let’s mix it up” (I, again, point to Rule #1). Still, Batman Begins seemed to do the trick. Why? Because Christopher Nolan went back to Batman basics. No more nipples on the Batsuit. No more garish colors and villains who seemed to prep by watching Jack Nicholson’s Joker… and nothing else.

The revived Batman series is at a crossroads, though. They’ve succeeded in their revisionist take (which is actually a classical take). Now they may feel empowered to screw with The Joker. Casting Heath Ledger and, if rumors are to be believed (and they usually are), making him look like The Crow are not staying on message.

The Joker is Hugo Weaving or Guy Pearce (both originally rumored to be in the running for the Clown Prince of Crime). What I mean to say is that Joker is a little more street wise than Batman. He’s a total nutter and a psychopath. He doesn’t just laugh a lot.

Weaving and Pearce could pull of this combination of madness and genius. Heath “I Can’t Quit You” Ledger? He’s a good actor but, hasn’t as yet displayed the range needed to play this role properly. That only tells me that Nolan has decided to take Joker in a new direction.

Fans have another way of saying “new direction”. It’s “utter bulls*#t”!

(5) Don’t always start with origin tales.
Sometimes we don’t care where they came from. We just care who they are.

One of the keys to telling a story is knowing where to start. The beginning is not always the best place. Sure the more die hard fans will be curious how that kid got to wearing that spandex suit, but you could deal with that in other, more concise ways.

Yes, I mean flashbacks. Don’t believe the Robert McKee hype! Flashbacks are not lazy writing. They’re an essential mode of storytelling that’s been with us for years.

In Tim Burton’s Batman, one of the few things he got right was taking all of 5 minutes to tell us what spurred Bruce Wayne to become The Bat. And he did it at the mid point of the film. It’s more important to know who Batman is rather than who he was. Yes, the death of his parents is an important element, but you don’t need to throw it up front and you don’t need to spend the first half hour of your film showing it (see Batman Begins). Keep some mystery going.

Allow me to bring up Star Wars as another example. The two sets of trilogies prove this rule perfectly.

In the original film (celebrating its birthday this month), Lucas was wise to start in the middle. We don’t need to know how the Empire started. We just need to see they’re bad news for the galaxy. We don’t need to see what’s behind Darth Vader’s helmet. We can tell he’s an uber-villain. ’nuff said.

Then someone stole George’s brain. He decided to go against what worked before and tell us all about what made Darth Vader into a baddie. To sum up: His mom died. His friends didn’t appreciate him. He knocked up his girlfriend while being a monk (sorry, Jedi) AND he was tempted by the power of the Dark Side.

It took 3 whole films to tell us this?!

By showing us that Darth was just a boy crying for Padme robs the villain of his mystique. It’s kind of like showing the monster in a horror movie. Once you see the beast, you can come to terms with it. “Oh, it’s just a furry thing with teeth. I can handle that.” That monster was a whole lot more scary when our imagination filled in the blanks.

Same thing with Darth Vader. The person we imagined inside that metal suit (and how he got there) was much more thrilling than a crispy Hayden Christensen. Once we’ve seen Darth is just a hurt little boy, we’ll never see him any other way. Lucas has ruined that villain for anyone who watches Star Wars in episodic order (which you should never do unless on a dare and then only for great gobs of money or guilt free lovin’).

(6) Don’t give the hero any kids.
The recent “Marvel/DC” spin on the Mac/PC ads nailed it. If you give a hero a new girl, villain or fancy power, everything can go back to normal (if need be) by the end of that installment. If you give your hero a kid, that kid is always going to be there. Now you have to find a babysitter for every adventure. Otherwise your hero is jsut a deadbeat.

I’m looking at you Superman!

Most of your ill advised filmmakers think kids make characters identifiable. But as anyone with kids can tell you, they change everything. You don’t go to the movies anymore. Nor go out for dinner. Get sleep. You certainly don’t fight crime, monsters, or things from another world.

Kids in genre films (unless the kids are the protagonists) are a drag on the story. The reverse is true as well. In The Chronicles of Narnia, we know the kids have a mom. The filmmakers are wise to get her out of the way early, though, so you don’t have to constantly address her. Save that screen time for some White Witch battling.

It’s rumored Indiana Jones is getting a son. **Sigh!** It would be one thing if Indy, Jr. was just like his two fisted dad. With the casting of Shia LaBeouf, however, the film seems primed for another odd couple relationship where Indy, Jr. is the nebbishy goofball LaBeouf usually plays. I hope I’m wrong.

Now there are some films that manage to balance family affairs within the story. The Incredibles and… well, that’s pretty much it.

(7) Casting is everything.
All due respect to Brian Cox, but Anthony Hopkins is the face we see when we think of fava beans and a nice chianti. The two are so interchangeable, a film like Hannibal Rising never stood a chance (and it violated Rule # 5 at their own cost).

The only ones who’ve had success with changing their major actors are the British. James Bond and Doctor Who have the actor shell game locked. Masked heroes can also survive a change since they’re mostly behind a mask and its the mask that puts butts in the seats.

Still, sometimes you need to re-cast. If so, it’s wise to remember the qualities of the original character. The reason Daniel Craig works as James Bond is because his characterization is straight out of Ian Fleming (with a modern point of view).

Unless the character was originally created on film (like The Terminator), it’s not hard to picture someone else in the role… especially since the original description from the book or comic probably bears little to no physical resemblance to the actor playing him in the adaptation. Only the soul / essence needs to be retained.

NOTE: Hannibal Lecter seems to contradict this. Even though he was a literary creation, however, it was Silence of the Lambs that gave him broad appeal. Up until then, no one was crying out for a Hannibal Lecter movie (not even after Manhunter). He wasn’t as famous as Superman or Bilbo Baggins. Not before the Oscar winning film. So, in essence, the character as we know him was created for the film by Anthony Hopkins.
As tricky as it is to re-cast an established role, the choice of the first actor to play a main character is just as crucial. You’ve already been through my rant on The Joker. Allow me to rag on Reed Richards of The Fantastic Four.

Hero. Scientist. More than that… Richards is a friggin’ genius! Ioan Gruffudd, while being a talented actor, doesn’t project the sense of knowledge and experience necessary for us to believe he is any of these things (let alone a leader of mutant heroes). He’s too young. Too much of an everyday nice guy.

Same thing with Jessica Alba. Believing her as Sue Storm, Reed’s equally smart second in command, is as much a stretch as believing Denise Richards is a nuclear scientist! You Bond fans know of what I speak.

(8) Keep consistent with the MPAA rating
This one is mainly for horror films.

In 1979, audiences saw something they’d never seen before. Alien was a film about foul mouthed space truckers who came across a xenomorph that gestated in a human host before taking the entire crew out one by one. The scene everyone talked about… the chest burster. Gory. Shocking. An instant classic.

Alien was rated R.

Then Aliens came out in 1986. James Cameron (paying close attention to Rule #4) gave us an action movie spin on the bug hunt. Foul mouthed marines battled a whole bunch of xenomorphs and one big bitch! The gore was there (albeit less so).

The film was still rated R and the rest of the series followed suit (even if they did violate Rule# 4).

Then Aliens vs. Predator arrived. Rated PG-13. Less gore. Less swearing. Less intensity. It was like paying to see a silent movie version of Pulp Fiction. We recoginize the images, but somehow it’s not the same thing.

In horror films, gore and other taboos being broken are as integral as spandex to superheroes. Can you have a scary film that’s not rated R? Yes. But before you whip out The Sixth Sense at me, imagine a Sixth Sense sequel where the film was rated G. All the ghosts are no worse than Casper. The scares a little less intense. It wouldn’t be the same experience, would it?

(9) Love and understand the genre your film belongs to.
There are still a lot of studio suits out there who don’t get comics. They just know they make money. As a result, the studio feels they have to broaden the appeal of the source material (i.e. water it down for mass audiences). The problem is you usually end up alienating the original audience. I know this sounds a lot like Rule # 1, but there’s a difference.

If you think comics, fantasy or science fiction is juvenile, you won’t be able to suspend your disbelief. You’ll try to make grown up sense of things. To paraphrase Freud… sometimes a gamma radiated cigar is just a gamma radiated cigar.

Ang Lee did not understand The Hulk. He understood Sense & Sensibility, but had neither when it came to the big green guy. The Hulk is about rage and “Hulk smash!”. It’s not really about daddy issues (though I’m sure Bruce Banner had a few). It’s Jekyll & Hyde.

What was vexing about Ang Lee was he had a clear appreciation of fable. Somehow a bright green lug didn’t strike a chord.

Another side effect of not loving the genre you’re with is you get sloppy writing.

Audience Member: How did our hero survive falling all the way down that ravine?
Jaded Producer: What does it matter? It’s make-believe.

See a film like Van Helsing for this kind of nonsense. What the hell is a werewolf doing climbing the walls like a human fly… on his back? Even make-believe has rules. Anyone with a respect for genre entertainment would know that.

10) If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Tom Rothman… CEO at Fox… bane to a fanboy’s existence (fangirls, too). We may have to add Avi Arad, the man who forced Venom on Raimi, to the list.

Consider two successful franchises. X-Men and Spider-man.

Both had solid, but slightly stodgy first films. Then the second films (directed by the same director) were even better. Home runs! Obviously the filmmakers had a grip on the material. You’d think the producers would leave the directors alone to make the studio a lot of money.

Then Film Three comes out and the sound you heard was the hearts of fans breaking everywhere. The next sound you heard was fans collectively flipping the finger at the studios (and believe it or not that sound can be deafening).

NOTE: Yes, the third installments of both these films made cash based largely on the fact that fans trusted them. Think of how much more money they would have made if the films were good.
X-Men 3 can blame Brett Ratner. He was a studio replacement hire and hadn’t the clout to say, “Don’t kill all of the primary founders of the X-Men (Cyclops, Jean Grey and Professor X).”

He also knew better than to challenge the studio mandated Wolverine / Phoenix love story (especially the part where they get to have Hugh Jackman all naked in the climax).

While women may not quibble, this was such a contrivance. Here is an all powerful killing machine (the Phoenix/Jean Grey) and nothing can stop her power. Except for the kid who dampens any mutant’s power that gets in the same room with him. They should have thrown the kid at Phoenix, but then audiences would have been denied the sight of Wolverine’s uniform being disintegrated.

Spider-man 3 has no studio stooge to blame. Sam Raimi had the clout to say “No” to Venom especially since he went on record saying he didn’t care for the character. Marvel’s Avi Arad insisted, though. Even if it meant more villains than one film could handle.

Bad Avi! Even badder Sam! You went against your better judgment. You knew what made a good Spider-man film and you chose to listen to lesser opinions. For shame!
Well, there are the rules. Take them as you will. If studios even follow one of them, who knows? We may actually be safe to go to the movies again.