Monday, April 16, 2012

"Eating your vegetables" vs a "Five-Course Meal"

Michael asked:

I have a question relating to your very apt characterization of the "eat your vegetables" movie. Extending the metaphor, when you read scripts in your professional capacity, are you most looking for a "five course meal" movie- something with delicious apps, fresh salad, interesting soup, bright, seasonal vegetables and a champion's share of meat, overlaid with an astonishing wine and finished with an inspired desert, or in all honesty, when you are on the job, is it just booze, meat, and desert you want?

Great.  Now I'm hungry.

It depends.  With who I'm reading for now, booze and meat probably dominates, but I'd have no problem bringing them a fantastically-prepared steak.

The "five-course-meal" you speak of, that is to say, a script that is exemplarly in every field - structure, characters, concept, pacing, tone, theme, subject matter - is extremely rare in nature.  There's a certain snobbery in writing that I never enjoy puncturing, namely that it's impossible for something mainstream to be "better" than something "important."

Let's say you write a script about how horrible a South African dictator is, and the script is one downer after another.  We're shown this warlord kidnapping children from their homes, forcing them to be child soldiers and sex slaves and repeatedly abusing them.  If all your script does is show us atrocity after atrocity, with no real through-line, it's a bad script.  (And yes, I've read at least one like this.)  It's meaningless if you feel this movie must be made to raise awareness of an issue important to you.  I don't care if it IS based on a real dictator - if there's no story and no structure to make it palpable, it's a bad script.

A fair amount of "eat your vegetables" scripts come out like this - a lecture on a social issue.  "Here, take this because it's good for you," it says.  If that's the story you want to tell, then make a documentary or a PSA.  If you're writing a feature film, there'd better be a story there - and you'd better know how to make it accessible and appealing.

My idea of a five-course meal might be something like Terminator 2.  It is quite simply one of the best action movies ever made, and also a "Great Movie," period.  It's got it all:

- strong core concept.
- vivid, compelling characters.
- strong character arcs for several of lead characters (John, Sarah, and the T-800) as well as at least one of the supporting characters (Miles Dyson.)
- intense pace and momentum, due in no small part to the relentless pursuit of the T-1000, which brings me too...
- A formidable antagonist.

Terminator 2? Five-course meal.  Pulp Fiction?  Five-course meal.  Raiders of the Lost Ark? Five-course meal.

So, yeah, if that fits your definition of a Five-Course Meal, then of course I want that.  But if you bring me something like Taken or a Fast Five, I'll probably jump on that too, because there's money in those.

But it's pretty hard to convince me to make a meal of something preachy like Green Zone.  Given the choice between vegetables and booze, I'd pick booze.

Hopefully that post wasn't too thick with the metaphors.


  1. The following is a serious question, not a flame.

    Why is GREEN ZONE vegetables? Didn't it have a strong core concept, vivid compelling characters with arcs, intense pace, and a formidable evil?

    As far as I can see, the only preachy thing about it is that the evil is REAL evil, not robots from the future or cartoonish Nazis.

    What am I missing?

    1. I should state that in fairness, I've not seen the movie - I'm going off of the script draft I read years ago. I went looking for my old coverage to reinforce it, but after checking two computers, I can only conclude that it was lost in a hard drive crash a few years ago.

      First problem - it's hard to follow. I remember there being a lot of supporting characters and side plots being introduced throughout the course of the script. It was more complicated than complex. That's a problem - I've read plenty of scripts with really intricate complex stories and they can be great reads when done right. What doesn't work is when things get complicated and muddled. The more I have to keep going back and checking names or my own notes, the more likely it is that an audience will get lost too. I've read some great scripts where I almost didn't have to take a single note because the story just moved and carried me along. I remember having to restart Green Zone twice and making notes on almost every other page.

      Strike two - especially at the time I read the script, no one wanted to make a movie about Iraq and WMDs because no one wanted to SEE a movie about Iraq and WMDs. Marketability counts. It ain't the parsly on the side of the plate the no one ever eats.

      Strike three - related to strike two, it was political - which means it's possibly polarizing. That scares off buyers and it chases away audiences. But more to the point, there's probably no faster way to write a "vegetable" than to get political. Someone like Sorkin is often able to produce material that might depict a particular point of view without turning it into too much of a lecture. (And frankly, even HE has ended up on the wrong side of the line.)

      I didn't care about the characters because I didn't feel like they were there for any reason other than to express the film's underlying anti-Iraq War message. It didn't have anything to say beyond that, and after (at the time) eight years of debate on this, the country clearly had fatigue.

      You can't have lobster as the main dish of your five-course meal if a good portion of your audience is allergic to shellfish.