Quick Takes August/September

Hi. After several abortive attempts to resurrect this blog that I didn’t have time to execute, I’m going to try writing about what I’m watching to capture what I learned (or didn’t learn) about storytelling. Here we go. 

The White Lotus

Mike White’s Hawaiian resort set mini series is the closest thing to a filmed adaptation of the iconic subreddit r/AmITheAssHole that we’re ever going to get. That question is the best way to describe nearly every permutation of character interactions that make up the show, and with a few exceptions, the answer is ESH: Everyone Sucks Here.

Bleak? Yes, very. White doesn’t give us a character that we can back 100%, which in less skilled hands could be a real problem. But like that subreddit that I spend too much time scrolling through, these dynamics are so interesting and so painfully realistic that you can’t look away. The promise of a dead body given in the show’s first moments wasn’t even necessary to keep me glued to the screen.

As a side note, Mike White being a huge fan of (and participant in) reality TV make me feel better about the fact that I’ve watched five seasons of Love Island in a fiscal year.

Learned: You don’t need any conceptual bells and whistles to make something incredibly compelling IF you’re good enough at writing characters.

Meanwhile, at Hulu…

Nine Perfect Strangers

When compared to The White Lotus, this ended up being a useful study in suspense versus mystery. Nine Perfect Strangers leans heavily on the implication that the strangers in question, and their weirdo Galadriel meets Gwyneth host played by Nicole Kidman, are hiding a lot. Much of the character information is doled out via rapid-cut silent flashbacks, which compared to the sharp character writing in White Lotus feels like a tiresome cheat.

I was mildly interested in the mechanics of what Kidman was trying to do to these people (mystery), but getting there wasn’t enough fun for me to stick around. I made it about five episodes before jumping ship.

Learned: A Big Question isn’t enough to sustain drama. You have to have interesting stuff going on the entire time.

Another Round

Mads Mikkelsen – Another Round

In September, I was thinking a lot about what it means for a film to have a concept, or premise. It’s easy to know it when you see it (or don’t see it) but a bit hard to define concretely. One way to say it could be the following: a good premise is an idea that inherently suggests character action.

An example I heard discussed on a podcast recently was Bruce Almighty:

Jim Carrey becomes God for a week.

That is a premise. I could have a decent idea of how to approach writing it. As a counterexample, Napoleon Dynamite does not have a premise. It is about a strange person’s boring life. Am I saying Bruce Almighty is better than Napoleon Dynamite? No. Napoleon Dynamite is one of the great films and you can quote me on that. But its creation was an act of God that cannot be replicated.

I am not Jared Hess (or Mike White) and it is not 2004, so if I want to get paid to write someday, I need to stick to punchy concepts. This month I was on a five-hour flight, so I decided to go through the airline’s selection of streamable films to hunt for premises. After a few minutes I came across the description for Another Round:

Four high school teachers embark on an experiment to see if a constant level of alcohol in their blood will improve their lives.

Hell yes. Now we are talking. Hijinks must ensue!

I won’t go too far into analyzing the filmmaking of Another Round, but it was an absolute joy to watch and delivered on its premise in both humorous and heartbreaking ways. I did cry on the airplane.

I think this exercise was useful in separating out the ideas of premise/concept and world. Generally, when people think “high-concept”, they think elaborate world building, which in turn implies budget, vfx, and genre. The two can go together and frequently do, but they are not the same thing. Another Round is a concept-driven film populated by normal people in a normal place. Just because you have a lot of fancy visual stuff in your idea does not mean that you have a solid concept.

Learned: Concept-driven does not equal big budget genre studio film.

Motherless Brooklyn

This was another film that I found on my airplane premise hunt. The concept is not as strong as Another Round, but a 1950’s PI with Tourette’s syndrome was hooky enough for me. And having just visited Brooklyn for the first time, I was an easy mark.

Based on a novel, Motherless Brooklyn contains lots of interesting New York history, but the characters are all fictional. I think this is a better way to do historical drama. Being married to the facts can bring a lot of tedium and stilted storytelling to these type of period films, and the visuals frequently follow in the same boring vein.

This movie was… just really cute? The small-time gumshoes played by Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bobby Cannavale, and Dallas Roberts have a sweetness to their dynamic that you don’t see often in this type of movie. These guys really care about each other, and that’s what holds our interest more so than whatever detective plot mechanics are going on in the background. This warmth makes Motherless Brooklyn feel like a lot more than the sum of its fairly basic parts.

Learned: Warm character relationships go a long way towards making a movie fun to watch. We care about characters when we see them caring about each other.

Ocean’s 13/ Ocean’s 8

I joined my friend as she went through the Ocean’s movies for the first time, giving me the chance to watch Ocean’s 13 and Ocean’s 8 back to back. This afforded a stark illustration of the difference between great and just passable screenwriting. I’m not going to do a full forensic analysis of what went wrong with Ocean’s 8, but I will focus in on one moment that was illuminating for me.

My working understanding of plot is that events need to follow each causally, not just temporally. Matt Stone and Trey Parker formulate this idea as the “But and Therefore Rule”: between each plot event, you need to be able to insert a “but” or a “therefore”, not just a “then”.

In Ocean’s 8, Sandra Bullock gets out of prison, and THEN wants to rob the Met Gala. The screenwriters are aware of this glaring THEN in the middle of their first act, so they try to turn it into a THEREFORE with dialogue (recreated by me in WriterDuet): 

Not even Cate Blanchett’s character is buying this narrative band-aid. If anything, the problem is made worse by drawing attention to it.

I also can’t help but feel that Bullock was miscast as the lead here. She plays Debbie as “cool” and unaffected, which just reads as her not taking much joy in any of the fun crimes she’s committing. This is agonizing, because robbing the Met Gala is the most fun crime I can think of!

On a bright note, Anne Hathaway’s performance is incredible and it alone makes the movie worth watching.

Learned: Do not try to fix fundamental story issues by acknowledging them in dialogue.

Leave a Reply