A little light gossip: I just closed a deal to do a new thing! In this business, many of my projects have to stay under an annoying cloak of secrecy. So secret, in fact, that I’ve been working on a film for two years that I STILL can’t tell you about. But when I can tell you, I will. It’s exciting to already know what my next film is going to be before I finish my current one. I’m chomping at the bit to tell you more… but not yet.
Along the way, the creative process provides some universal lessons that apply to just about anyone working on anything. And until I can talk about “behind the scenes” work, I’ll keep discussing more “broad topic” items on this blog. Recently I’ve written a lot about the value of the details, of getting specific little things right. Now I’m going to talk about the opposite: the larger view. The whole. Seeing all of a project, beginning to end, as soon as you possibly can. In the end, it’s ultimately more important than any detail.
As I go into story and script mode for a new project, I have to resist the urge to look at any one “cool scene” or “great joke.” One of my former collaborators pointed out that you’ve got to make sure the “tree” is sturdy before you get too excited about the “ornaments” hanging on it. Movie trailers have great “ornaments.” “Did you see that shot?” “That effect was incredible!” “The new uniform looks weird.” “I cried when Han said ‘Chewie, we’re home.'” But those are all ornaments. Until we see the movie itself, we have no idea if the “tree” will prop them up. So here I am, once again, growing the tree.
Before you write a script, you need an outline. You MUST have an outline. And it’s okay if the outline takes weeks to finish. Because that is your “tree;” your scaffolding on which the script will be built upon. It’s a huge stress-reliever once I have my story outline. Then every day I don’t sit down to write a whole screenplay, I just write one small part of it. I look at my outline and give myself a small assignment for that day. I’ve got the broad view of the whole thing and I know where the set-ups and payoffs are. I know how it ends. I know what my character needs to experience in any one particular scene and where that fits in their progression, their arc. Anyone who tells you that they just “start writing and see where it takes them” is probably not a professional screenwriter. They might be a poet or a songwriter or a novelist who doesn’t like to be a slave to plot. But movies are nothing but plot. Many will argue character is more important, plot is just a vehicle for that character. But when I say “plot,” I really mean what HAPPENS — what happens to that character? And what happens for the audience as they watch?
I used to outline solely on the computer, but that gets restrictive and you can’t see the whole story laid out in front of you. Eventually you have to move to index cards or Post-It Notes or a whiteboard. Index cards are great because you can lay them out on the floor and move them around. What if the big action scene happened before the big emotional scene? What if this character died much later? Or much earlier? Move them around. Nothing is solid, everything is negotiable. One step better for me has become Post-It notes, up on the wall. I can move them, but I can also fix them in place and add to them quickly. Brian Smith is a fellow writer / director I’ve worked with in many capacities over the years, and when he was making features at Disney with his co-director Jim Kammerud, they came up with a story system that I think is genius. It’s a way to track the horizontal and the vertical at the same time. The horizontal is the page count and minutes into the film. This line dictates the chronological events in the story. But then I can also drop a vertical string of Post-Its from beneath each of these main events. Each vertical can contain details of that event, or elements of the theme that need to be accomplished, or a character’s epiphany, or a piece of key information revealed. The genius of this kind of layout for the story process is that the whole movie stays on one whiteboard, maybe seven feet wide, and you can step back at any given moment and see the WHOLE THING. First page to last page, opening shot to credits, you can step back and see your movie as a whole, immediately. This is crucial.
In many art forms, you can’t see the entire end result until the end of the process. Painting, theater, dance, sculpture, even a lot of musical pieces. You have to add a lot of the elements before you can understand if you even have something good. And in film, the actual finished MOVIE is like that too. I’ve written here before about the need to not judge the success of a film while it’s still being made. Pieces are everywhere, in various stages of quality. But I’m talking about the STORY. I can see the story in a matter of days, even hours, right in front of me. Start as broad and simple as you want: “Big Action Scene Here!” “Something Tragic Happens,” “Meet John (Funny Scene).” Then bit by bit, you add and add and fill in the connective tissue.
Post-Its also come in many colors, so I assign action scenes one color, emotional scenes another color, etc. Once I step back, I can chart where my story is lacking in action or is too full of action. Pacing is everything, and it is never more clearly defined than with this simple, color-coded process.
For this new project, I had to get the story in shape very quickly. One week later, I was looking at the whole story for the movie, front to back. If you have a good imagination, you can actually zero in on parts and play the movie in your head. How fast does this part need to go? Does this part need an emotional LOW before we go HIGH again? Step back and look, over and over.
And not to get too deep, but lately I’ve realized that it’s the best way to look at your life, your relationships, your hardships, your faith. Don’t fixate on what you’re going through right now, today. Good days come and go. Take a step back and see the whole board. Where your life has taken you. Who you were ten years ago and what you’ve learned. Maybe even where God has orchestrated events to place us in what we call our “destiny.” But seeing it all from such a global perspective requires years, and after those years, stepping back to see it all at once.
We respond to story because we are narrative creatures. We live stories. We ARE stories. And no story is clear to us until we see as much of it as possible, all at once. So if your career is on the skids right now, or you just broke up, or you feel painted in a corner, just know that it’s only part of your story. The broad view will show you something you never saw in “close up,” even if it takes years until you can “step back” and see it. But get through this event in your timeline, endure this particular “Post-It” and see where the next part of the story takes you. For me, stepping back for the broad view gives me constant gratitude and allows me to shake off a lot of the terrible people that come with this business. A loving family or a good life well-lived is a lot like my favorite movies. When someone asks me, “What was your favorite part?” I have to say, “All of it.”
That’s when you’re telling a great story — when the best part is all of it.
A friend of mine in the industry named Phil Cooke writes a very savvy blog about the industry, and he posted a chilling analysis of the big studio machine and the big studio stuff they make. While almost all studio movies are now super-expensive franchise-makers, even the execs at these companies are nervous. There are some ominous trends for 2016 that keep them up at night, which you can read HERE:
I chimed in with my perspective, which you can read below… a long enough response that it became a very lazy way for me to post a new blog here!
I am not as plugged in to creating movies at the big studio level, but what I can add as a thin ray of sunshine is that as studios gamble larger and larger brand-oriented, franchise-building movies, there is an opportunity for mid-budget investors and mid-budget companies around the globe to step in.
While a major studio can’t understand anything under $100M, there are many, many new mini-studios springing up to take the crumbs left under the table and race past these behemoths to make smaller but more consistent profits. And smaller means everyone involved in a project relaxes a bit and takes risks. Smaller means that original voices, stranger perspectives or narratives with “rough edges” make it to the final product. Minis like A24 or STX are stepping into the void left by majors to do the films the majors used to do. And the result is more “movies for grown ups” and original stories.
Granted, this is at a smaller level that cannot compete with the Avengers that dominate every cereal box and Happy Meal, but it is happening more and more. In my world of animation, I see much more success and control with smaller studios around the globe — animation houses who can generate beautiful films for $20M and under.
Would I like to make a Marvel movie? No doubt! But until that day, there are places to make good films. And GOOD FILMS are the ONLY formula that’s reliable. This seems obvious, but it should be stated again: Movie stars successfully open a GOOD FILM, not any film. Netflix will have a smash hit when they make something better than “Ridiculous 6.” And comedy, even with a little raunch, only works in the context of a GOOD FILM. The next 5-10 years will be a very interesting time for the big, slow, money-heavy, fear-based major studios, to be sure.
I did it last year and now, back by no demand whatsoever, are movies reviewed with a single catchphrase.
Ex Machina – Get Scared, Get Turned On, Get Killed!
Chappie – Pimp my robot
Trainwreck – She was. It wasn’t! Cutest use of a Billy Joel song ever.
Shaun The Sheep – Too good for words (& not one spoken)
Furious 7 – More flying cars than “Back To The Future 2”
Avengers 2 – A movie in a movie in a movie… A “Movie Turducken.” **
Mad Max, Fury Road – Furious 7, meet Furiosa. Take notes.
Tomorrowland – Too much “Today,” not enough “Tomorrow”
Spy – Long live the McCarthy Era
Inside Out – Weeee colors! Why is daddy crying?
Jurrasic World – I need more Peter Quill in my Pratt
Minons – Sidekicks become Frontkicks. Banana!
Terminator Genesys – He’s back before he’s back, then after he’s back
Ant-Man – Best Thomas The Train cameo of all time
American Ultra – Emo Bourne… and better than it should be
Steve Jobs – Mac-nificent.
MI: Rogue Nation – Enthused Cruise proves new fuse woos accrued views
The Martian – Save Matt Damon! Again! Too many potatoes!
Pan – Don’t count your franchises before they’re hatched
The Peanuts Movie – 2D plus 3D minus Snarky Chipmunks = Me smiling
Hunger Games 4, Mockingjay 2 – It’s over, I’m exhausted.
The Good Dinosaur – More like the “Kind of Okay” Dinosaur.
Creed – The best Rocky since Rocky isn’t even Rocky
The Force Awakens – 4 & 5 had a baby. Finn-tastic. Poe-erful. Hoo-REYYY!
** Shout out to writer / director Brian Smith for this one. I’m stuffed.
Have you heard of “Hamilton?” Sooner or later, someone will ask you that question. Because once you’ve heard the Broadway smash that is breaking records, you not only love it too, you feel compelled to tell someone else about it. “Hamilton” is, oddly enough, a musical about Alexander Hamilton’s life and his part in the founding of America… set mostly to rap music. Starring a multi-ethnic cast in period costumes and throwing down the thickest, densest rhymes since Eminem, your ears won’t believe it when you listen for the first time. I’m not saying you have to fly to New York and wait for a year to see one of the sold-out shows. Just find the whole soundtrack on iTunes. Preview the tracks just once. Then you’ll buy it. You’re welcome.
“Hamilton” is not only good, it’s crazy good. And the best part about it is that it shouldn’t be good at all. On paper, it sounds like a horrible idea. A rap musical about American history? That should be a train wreck performed at some experimental 99-seat theater. But anyone who encounters this show has to tell everyone they know about it. Celebrities, teachers, music snobs… The President. Everyone is tweeting about it. I checked it out because I was tired of reading all the love. “What is this thing?” I finally said. “Alright, I guess I HAVE to check it out.” And then I became one of those super-fans tweeting about it myself. The brainchild of Lin Manuel-Miranda is inspiring as a work of art, but what’s equally inspiring is the effect that it has on the audience. It is the kind of art that is so good that you are compelled to tell someone else about it. That’s a rare thing. And what a goal to shoot for! As an artist, there is no greater success than your art transcending marketing and sharing itself.
So how does that happen? Lots of people have great ideas that turn into forgettable art, and some great ideas never see the light of day. A great idea isn’t enough. And carrying that great idea around in your head like a precious treasure doesn’t get it made. Many of my friends are artists who have big dreams and some truly fantastic ideas that the world should enjoy. But somewhere between that spark and the final product is the deadly uphill battle called EXECUTION.
Making the idea a viable product and the best version of itself involves work that very few are willing to endure. It’s long hours of doing it wrong. It’s countless failures, or being rejected by those who don’t get it. It’s doing all the thousands of little tasks that must be done: raising the money, filling out the paperwork, plotting out the details. There are so many tiny steps between the big, fun milestones that you can be worn down and abandon the idea before it is complete… or before it is the best it can be. If you skip some of the steps out of sheer impatience or end up saying “good enough,” your idea falls short. And then it may not be successful at all, even if it’s a “great idea.” I used to be in the Music Video business, where the one who pitches the best idea wins the job. That always made me crazy, because a two-page pitch has very little to do with the final result: a good video. A client-winning pitch in the wrong hands is nothing special. It has to be in the hands of a someone who is a master of execution; someone who will use the best lenses and the right locations and know when to cut to the band and when to shoot the actor at 120 frames-per-second. It’s hundreds of details that make that pitch into three minutes of great art. The IDEA wins the job? The idea is step one. I would posit that almost ANY idea can become great art in the hands of a great artist, but the most ambitious idea in the world will be crummy art in the hands of a bad artist.
Execution. That’s what turned “Hamilton” into a smash hit you can’t deny. It went from a cringe-worthy idea that might have been amusing at best to 100% fantastic. Lin-Manuel Miranda spent five years writing handfuls of songs that he threw away to find the right ones, workshopping it off-Broadway, trying things that didn’t work, arranging orchestrations to figure out what traditional melodies and harmonies would complement rap lyrics. And this is AFTER he won a Tony for “In The Heights.” Five years? Think about what that must have been like, in the middle of Year Three. That’s about the time he was probably wondering if it would ever be finished. Or maybe it was when a lot of people around him were wondering if it was an obsession he should abandon. It’s that extra push into Year Four… and Year Five… that made it into the highly polished, fully-produced, air-tight show that it is today. It’s the same push that made Edison try over 500 items to discover what filament would conduct electricity inside a light bulb. He didn’t stop at 450. That’s when I would’ve stopped! But he saw the end game and couldn’t stop until he made it happen. Execution is longevity, but it’s also a commitment to achieving the ideal quality. I’ve seen attempts at rap musicals before. They are sloppy on lyrics and use one track made with synthesizers and samples. “Hamilton” uses a full orchestra, a full chorus, and probably a thousand words more than the average musical. That takes a lot of tenacity and a lot of saying “not good enough” for a very long time. That’s execution in the hands of a great artist.
I have to nod one more time to J. J. Abrams and his work on “The Force Awakens.” The whiny babies and film critics who keep playing the same song of “It’s just ‘A New Hope’s’ plot all over again” don’t seem to realize the amazing feat that J.J. just accomplished. Let’s say they’re right. Let’s say this new Star Wars movie is just a cover tune of an old one. Then why are people having such an emotional reaction? Why is it selling more tickets than any other Star Wars movie (or ANY movie) ever made? Execution. The right characters cast with the right actors playing the right moments under the right music. Need I go on? These “cover tune” critiques fall apart when you try to find any version of Finn, Rey or Poe anywhere in the old movies. You can’t. But even if this was an instant replay of every Star Wars trope we’ve seen before, the execution has made the whole world go see this thing again and again and again. I’m sorry to say it, but not even George Lucas himself has made that happen in 30 years.
So the next time you have a good idea, write it down. That’s the first step. But then take the next step — lay out your plan to bring it to life. And prepare for the long slow climb up the hill of countless, mind-numbing tasks and setbacks. That’s the gauntlet you must survive to see your idea become not just real, but successful and the best version it can be. Masterful execution is the only way to a great piece of art. Anything else is just another cool thing you told somebody in a coffee shop.
SPOILERS -SPOILERS -SPOILERS -SPOILERS -SPOILERS -SPOILERS -SPOILERS, DEAD AHEAD!
It’s happened. Not only do we have a new Star Wars movie, but it’s good. Really good. Like, so good it makes you forget the prequels. I’ve seen it two times so far and I plan to see it many more, and I’m still processing everything in it. My short review is that it’s as if Episode 4 and Episode 5 had a baby. It’s literally the best parts of “A New Hope” and “Empire Strikes Back” with some modern sensibilities thrown in. It’s what we needed.
We now have a Star Wars movie where Oscar Isaac wisecracks. It’s a movie where John Boyega says, “Droid, please!” And Daisy Ridley becomes a female hero who is part Han, part Leia, and part Luke. You love these new characters so much that the original cast is just a nice bonus. Yes, I was sad to see Han Solo die. But by the time it happened, I knew it had to be so. I had this horrible feeling as Harrison Ford stepped on to that long catwalk, but it was right and inevitable for the story. The more I think about this one, the more I’m actually considering dethroning one of the other episodes as my favorite. Is it better than “Empire?” It’s at least as good, and it’s more of a stand-alone movie than “Empire” was. Is it better than the original? While “A New Hope” is perfect and elegant in its archetypes and clarity, this movie takes all the basic ingredients from that one and turns all the dials up. Yes, 4 and 5 had a baby. A SUPER BABY.
The box office speaks for itself, everyone went. And most everyone I talk to is smiling from ear to ear about it. But there have been some nitpickers. Some naysayers. There have been some “super fans” who have found a few things to get grumpy about. These are the people who used to like some indie band but can’t like them anymore because they got too popular. But GOOD IS GOOD, people. Who could possibly have some ill thing to say about “The Force Awakens?” What Ebenezer Scrooges are these monsters to poop on such a Christmas present to us all? I’ll tell you this, if I meet anyone who says this isn’t one of the best Star Wars movies ever made, I will fight them with boxing gloves. Because there is so much energy and humor and passion in this thing that it overwhelms me.
The little bit of poo-poo I’ve heard on Twitter is, “This is not very creative or very different. It’s relying on the nostalgia of the fans, rehashing some of the same art design and plot points of the old films.” It’s hard to deny that many of the elements seen in “Force Awakens” are very, very familiar. A droid is chased for the information he carries. A battle station must be destroyed. A guy in a black mask fights the light side. An old guy dies. Many echoes of the other episodes. But echoed events and a new generation repeating the sins of the old is part of the saga. If this is a reason for you to say, “Nahhh, not good enough,” then this is where I say, “You can’t have nice things!!”
If J.J. and company felt the pressure just to be different or “new,” they might have left behind the essential DNA we’ve been missing. Remember, totally leaping away from what was already working is probably what gave us the chrome “hood ornament” ships and cartoonish CGI critters of Episodes 1-3. I would argue that the prequels are the ones that took our fan love for granted. The prequels rode on the momentum of our nostalgia, instead of succeeding on their own merits. “The Phantom Menace” is still one of the top grossing movies of all time. They got our money. But they got it because we were starved for more “Star Wars” and would accept any version we could get.
But this time around, the filmmakers made a distinct philosophical choice. They decided to give us “more of the best of the same.” Follow me? What worked? Give them more. Give them the best version of that same feeling. There is a ton of fresh stuff in “The Force Awakens,” but it rarely deviates from some strict rules and look of the original films. That takes incredible restraint. I think we’re going to see future movies embrace more of the possibilities of where we can go and what things look like, but this was the movie to get us all back onboard.
You want the Falcon? We got the Falcon. We don’t just get to see the Falcon again — we see Finn sit down in that EXACT gunner seat and turn on that EXACT 1977 targeting screen. That crummy orange-and-yellow graphic! That’s when I saw the restraint and the lengths J.J. Abrams was willing to go to to take us back to the best place in this universe. Back to 1977. And it was all justified. It was the same old ship, left dusty and unused until now. Then a brand new character flies that 1977 time capsule in a whole new way, over new landscapes, with new, modern camera shots. I start to purr like a kitten just thinking about it. Then on top of that, we have new friends who we BELIEVE are friends. We have humor, we have hugs, we have tears. These are things we haven’t had for 30 years.
So once you have gotten over the shock of, well, actually SEEING a new Star Wars that doesn’t suck, go see it again. Now that you know what you’re getting, absorb it with a cleaner palette, so to speak. Even as you see repeated motifs from the earlier greats, I predict this one will rise to be one of them if you give it the chance. I think it will appreciate with each viewing, and be seen years from now as the one that brought Star Wars to a new level.
And before I sign off, can I just geek out for a moment with you about Luke’s Lightsaber? The impact of that object appearing in this film is lost on a lot of people. That is not just Luke’s saber, it is Anakin’s saber. It is the one Anakin became a Jedi with, the one he fought Ben with, the one Ben passed to Luke. It has appeared in four films and was last seen falling into oblivion in Cloud City when Luke got his hand cut off. Luke lost it. It’s not even in “Return of the Jedi.” He crafted a new green saber by then, his father’s original saber lost seemingly forever. And now Rey is holding that saber out to Luke in the final moment of Episode 7. Drink in the fact that Luke has not seen this blue-bladed saber since the day his father revealed himself. And here it is, in this girl’s hand, 30 years later. How?? What is Maz Kanata not telling us? Nerd senses tingling!
Thank you, J.J.. You did it. RIP, Han Solo. Take care of her, Chewie. And let’s get more C-3PO and R2 in the next one, okay Rian Johnson?
One of the frustrating things about working on this movie is that I am not supposed to talk about it… yet. But things are looking really good and sooner or later I will be sharing a lot. What I can talk about are some of the epiphanies I have had while climbing this particular mountain. As both writer and director on this film, a great deal of the movie is locked up in my head, and others working with me have to patiently wait for it to come out. During each phase of the project, a new pile of ingredients must be assembled into a whole: The script. The storyboards. The music score. Each one is its own little project. At each phase, the producers and crew around me go through a period where they are totally in the dark and nervous about how the ingredients will come together. Because they don’t have the luxury of living in my head. They have to sit outside my head and wait for it all to assemble. And it doesn’t matter how much I talk about it in detail, there are still nerves. “Well, is that going to be cheesy?” “Is that going to be confusing?” “Hmm, that doesn’t sound like it’s going to be good.”
Well it IS going to be good, trust me! I just KNOW it! (FYI, it doesn’t work when the director keeps saying that.) The truth is, half the time I don’t really, actually, honestly know if it’s going to all come together and work. I trust that through the process of shuffling enough pieces around, a “whole” will emerge. That’s the process. That’s creation. But anyone watching something being created is confused by it and can be very worried by the mess it has to be before it’s done. Dan Harmon, creator of “Community” and “Rick and Morty” and basically a creative mad scientist, said something really great about this: “If you’re present when things are being created, then what you’re seeing is always going to look like a mistake. It’s messy and a lot of it is wrong until it’s done. No decision makers should be anywhere near where creation is happening.”
Amen. But most of us don’t get to shove everyone out of the room until the art is done. We have to let them be a part of the process. The challenge I have founds is that a lot of a director’s time is spent managing expectations and reactions to the process, not the process itself. You have to keep all these people in the loop as you make something. That’s the job.
One of the biggest hurdles I’ve found with managing these expectations is that, while I’m looking at the “whole,” many others get stuck looking at the pieces. They can obsess over them. Many times I deal with executives who cannot have a conversation about the entree because they are really worried about the ingredients. Not even the recipe, but the single ingredients. Follow me? If I was making a cake, the discussion would not be about how much lemon juice is going in the batter, it would be about how sour and wrong lemon juice seems to be for something as sweet as cake.
“It’s cake! Cake is sweet!”
“Yes, but just a little bit of lemon juice in this particular cake will make the sweet part really good. Trust me.”
“But it’s from LEMONS!” (Producer presses intercom button) Linda, get me a lemon juice specialist. We need to have a meeting on the sweet or sour properties of lemon juice.”
“You’re not listening. It’s not about the lemon juice alone. It’s about how it will taste with everything else. Just let me put the lemon juice in and taste it.”
“The studio just called. They are telling us all kids hate lemon juice.”
I love metaphors. But you see what I mean? It’s not about the ingredients, or the pieces, or even the very skilled talents of individuals. It’s about the collective result of all of it. The end result will ONLY be the unique thing it can be with ALL the ingredients mixed in that unique way. Studios who bet their summers on movie stars or brand names or even “a really good script” still scratch their heads when the whole recipe does not cook up well. They were too focused on landing key ingredients. And no, I don’t know 100% how to make it all work either. If movies were easy, everyone would make hits.
The other part that grinds me is when well-meaning experts tell me the opposite: They tell me that NONE of the ingredients will save me, and any talk of relying on this ingredient or that ingredient is a weak position. As a script is written and rewritten, there’s a point of saturation where the page is not going to reveal anything more. You’ve got to get off the page and add a new “ingredient.” Perhaps the actors will bring something to it, even improv something I could never write. But I’ve had producers tell me, “Don’t rely on your actors to save the script.”
When we are finally storyboarding, there is a concern that the boards don’t have enough comedy or emotion yet. Trust me, I say, we will get more of that when we add music. “But we can’t rely on music to save the boards,” they say. As we edit the boards, dialogue and music together, we are still just watching sketches without much performance in them. I say a lot of that will change as we move into animation, but I’ve had very well-meaning producers tell me, “You can’t rely on animation to save you.”
Over and over, in every phase of the project, I’ve been warned not to lean on one ingredient to help other ingredients. “You can’t rely on actors to save the script.” “You can’t rely on music to save the performance.” “You can’t rely on animation to save the boards.”
While I completely agree that every phase needs to build on a solid foundation from the last one, I realized that another fact is true:
EVERYTHING RELIES ON EVERYTHING ELSE. EVERY PIECE “SAVES” EVERY OTHER PIECE.
Yes, I WILL rely on the acting to save the script, and the music to save the acting, and the editing to save the music, and the animation to save the boards, etc. etc. etc.! NONE of it works until it works together. NONE of it will be “good” or “finished” until I put the last piece in the puzzle. If the joke I wrote is still not funny, many times it’s because the right shot still hasn’t been paired with the right music and the right actor saying it the right way. Directing is all about working the ingredients until they taste good. It’s not math, it’s not a formula, and it doesn’t work the same way every time. Just let me stir everything some more. It’s that annoying creator thing again — it’s all in my head and the cake isn’t done yet.
I will be relying on everybody, thank you. There is no “whole” without the pieces, and I need them all. I think the disconnect and frustration with many who live outside of the creator’s head is that they don’t know how to look at the pieces. Love them only as pieces, and be patient until they form the “whole.”
Now for some reason I really need to go eat some cake.
Howard the Duck showed up at the end of “Guardians Of The Galaxy” for a few seconds, to the delight of cult film geeks like me. There’s no mistaking how awful the 1986 film was, and it’s always a great “bad movie reference” to make. But it’s also a character who’s time has come. With “Guardians” setting the tone for such weirdness, I think it could happen. In a recent interview, George Lucas made an interesting observation that shines light on what is really important when creating a character. Sadly, I think he’s got it wrong.
Lucas said of the original 1986 film, “I told the producer and writer it’s not gonna work. … You can’t put a dwarf in a duck suit and make it work!” He said that the recent cameo in “Guardians” proves the character will be far better received now because, “It’s a digital duck. When you have a digital duck, you can do anything. You can make it act.”
While I could devote a whole blog to the dangerous tendency Lucas has to “make anyone act” with digital manipulation, I find it more interesting that he still doesn’t know why “Howard the Duck” bombed. It wasn’t because the servos in the head of the duck suit couldn’t make the eyes emote properly. It was a BAD MOVIE. Howard was written as an annoying jerk and a whiny wimp. The tone of the film from start to finish missed the target set by the comics, and overall it was just… really silly. But Lucas, like many filmmakers in love with today’s tricks, has forgotten that characters can be wonderful even with the cheapest execution. CGI is amazing, but flawless execution does not make a character great. It’s not the HOW, folks. It’s the WHO.
Who is your character? Where does he come from? What’s her perspective on life and the conflict she has to survive? Is he funny? Is she vulnerable? Are they like us?
To make my point, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit Kermit the Frog. Probably the least impressive execution of a character in 2015. He’s… a felt puppet. You can see the stitches in his head, for Pete’s sake. Yet he is still one of the most beloved characters in the world. Exhibit B: Mickey Mouse (the definition of simplistic design). Exhibit C: Chewbacca (a guy in a suit). Exhibit D: E.T. (another dwarf stuck inside animatronics). Beloved, beloved, beloved!
On the flip side, Howard was one of the most sophisticated animatronic achievements of its day. It’s nice that George is pinning “Howard’s” failure on the writer and producer of the film — the film that also bears his name as Executive Producer. “I told ’em!” But I would actually say they DID make that duck suit work. Very, very advanced execution, resulting in an unlikeable character. When the perfection of CGI came along, well… a lot of characters got worse. Exhibit A: Jar Jar Binks. Why no likey? His CGI was the best in the world.
Now Groot and Rocket Raccoon certainly prove you can have both beautiful CGI and lovable characters. But James Gunn and company didn’t take their eyes off of the “WHO” before they got to the “HOW.” Your character has to be someone you believe is real. And if they are the main character, they should be someone we all want to hang out with. Even if they have bad habits or dirty secrets, they need to be relatable and have lives that mirror our own. That’s when we care. I love animatronics. I love claymation. I love puppets. And when you see a kid’s eyes upon seeing a Disney mascot walk up to them, you know it’s not because it looks so REAL. It’s because that character is a friend. It’s someone the kid KNOWS and understands.
I only share this because I am in the midst of some character building of my own on an animated film and I don’t have $100 Million to do it. So this interview came as a good reminder. I’m not one to knock Lucas as a habit. After all, he is the man who gave us some of the greatest characters of all time. But “Howard The Duck” still remains one of the great lessons in character creation. Don’t worry about the “How.” There are 1000 guys in Hollywood that will figure that part out. There are far fewer people who can get the “Who” right.
(You can read the original story in The Hollywood Reporter here: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/howard-duck-marvel-george-lucas-789746)
Here’s an oldie but a goodie. Not many know I used to host a game show in the mid-seventies. But I did.
Robocop – Too much talk, not enough rock
Lego Movie – Terrible idea. Shouldn’t have worked. Awesome anyway.
Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson does Wes Anderson
Neighbors – Way better than a Seth Rogen movie should be
Muppets Most Wanted – Ty Burrell: Best Muppet (& the new Clouseau)
Noah – Rock people. Rock people????
Cap. 2, Winter Soldier – Superman, take notes
Divergent – In the future we’ll all be color-coordinated
Amazing Spider-Man 2 – Becoming a villain takes only two minutes!
Godzilla – Why why why did Cranston die?
X-Men: DOFP – Wolverine is Marty McFly
How To Train Your Dragon 2– How to make a sequel
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Apes + Guns = Ape – pocalypse!
Guardians of the Galaxy – Dance off, bro. You and me.
The Expendables 3 – More people on the poster than in the theater
Birdman – Great opening shot
Big Hero 6 – Naming the second one will be a problem
Into The Woods – James Corden is the upscale Jim Gaffigan
The Hobbit 3 – I wish it had actually been about The Hobbit
The Interview – Congrats hackers, you just hyped what you hate
I am a hardcore Star Wars fan… so you can imagine how excited I was to see the teaser for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Yes, it was awesome. But it also made me realize how much I love knowing nothing else about this movie. Those 88 seconds are still a complete mystery to me, and that may be the best part about it.
In an era where “Behind The Scenes” clips are everywhere and it’s common to know all about a movie a year in advance, we have robbed ourselves of the delightful effect of being totally surprised when we go to the movies. But this is not a blog to scold spoilers. This is more about celebrating the “Audience Experience.”
When I first heard that new Star Wars movies were being planned, my first thought was, “Will my career trajectory raise to the level that I could ever get to be involved in one of these new movies?” I was envious of the new talent being invited into the candy store. My whole life, I’ve dreamed of getting to make a movie with these characters and in this universe. But now that the first images of Episode VII have hit my eyeballs, I’ve had an epiphany: I am SO GLAD I am not the guy making this movie. I am SO GLAD I have no job other than to sit down in a dark theater and experience it.
If I were ever so lucky to be the one behind the curtain on a Star Wars film — to stand on the set, to watch every daily, and to spend months reviewing every effects shot — I would be robbed. I would never be able to watch that movie like a fan. But next December, I get to. I get to have NO IDEA what’s going to happen, and that is a real gift.
Remember the first time you saw “Star Wars?” Or “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Terminator” or “The Matrix?” I don’t know about you, but I was not prepared. I was blindsided by those movies and it was AWWWWWESOME. To not know anything at all about those movies was the best possible way to see them. I wish I had a “Men In Black” mind-wiper so I could have that experience again! The next best thing is introducing films to my kids. I get a little taste of that completely fresh viewing experience, one more time.
As someone who’s been involved in making features, I get a different sense of satisfaction from my film than the people watching it. My satisfaction is, “It’s DONE! The thing in my head is out there!” But I will never experience it the way the audience does. That’s how I introduced “Hoodwinked” at the premiere. I told the audience, “I’m envious of you. You get to see this movie for the first time. You don’t have to see all the bits and pieces, all the failed attempts, all the bad ideas. You just get to see it all at once, in the best way possible.”
I love making movies, but being part of the audience rocks. In this irritating culture of spoiler-heavy media, do yourself a favor and steer clear of the rumors and leaks. Enjoy your role as an audience. Enjoy not knowing. As a storyteller, I can tell you that’s the best audience to entertain. And as an audience member, I think it is the most blissful way to experience a story.
(Having said all that, if Lucasfilm and Disney are looking for someone to tackle Greedo’s spinoff movie, call me.)