the Importance of Good Writing
“Chad’s such a snob.”
My dad will most likely say this after seeing any given action flick at the theater. It’s a little true, I admit. Sometimes my opinions of certain films are, well, a little more highbrow than others care for. Honestly though, am I really alone on this? Does anybody else feel that cinema has become cheapened over years of higher budgets, higher paid actors with over-inflated egos, and directors who come straight from the commercial industry (cough, cough, Michael Bay, cough)?
What ever happened to the great writers and directors who created film as an art as opposed to a fundraising opportunity for their producer buddies? Sure, movies are still good, but the truly great films are few and far between. Now, I’m no film critic, but off the top of my head I would guesstimate that there are around five to ten well written, intelligently and artistically crafted films produced each year that truly engages the audience’s intellect and emotions.
So what’s my gripe exactly? The fact that so few movies actively engage the audience’s intelligence and emotions—or maybe a better way to put it is the fact that we assume our audiences to be stupid; it’s insulting. I mean, seriously, did anybody think James Cameron’s glorified 3-year-old’s wet dream, Avatar, was emotionally and intellectually engaging? Here’s another way to put it: when you left the theater, what did you say? “Man that was cool!” or “That was such a deeply moving film!”
I’ve seen Avatar (or should I say Pocahontas in Space?) and I have to admit it’s good qualities:
- It certainly looked pretty
- It was extremely well structured, following the traditional hero’s journey arc that can be internationally enjoyed (which is where the true success came in)
- It had a lot of explosions
That’s about it. My problems with it included:
- Ripping off of Pocahontas
- Horrible, horrible, horrible dialogue (“un-obtainium”)
- Even worse casting (case in point, the guy who played Owen in Dodgeball—how am I supposed to believe he’s anything more than an idiot?)
- Completely predictable story, which ties in with the first point
- Little to no deep character arcs
- The portrayal of Native Americans as aliens
- No character motivation whatsoever; it’s all plot device, plot device, and more plot device
In other words, it’s the shallowest movie I’ve ever seen and yet it holds the record for largest profits in the international box office. Why? Just the thought that people would willingly see that movie twice disturbs me on a fundamental level.
My biggest beef with movies like Avatar is how people consciously and willingly give up the active engagement of their intelligence, pay twenty dollars for a 3D ticket, and see a movie that assumes they’re too dumb to care anyway. People aren’t stupid because they’re innately stupid; people are stupid because those who want to make a fast buck reinforce a lazy mind by throwing in dazzling visual effects to literally take their minds away for two hours (or maybe more, considering people have seen it more than twice).
For this reason, I’m willing to bet the Avengers is going be equally as unemotional and unintellectual as Avatar was. It’s easy to do—just drop in archetypal bad guys that need reckoning, awesome heroes (okay, let’s be honest here, Iron Man is the only awesome Marvel character), and a shit-load of explosions and BAM! You’ve got yourself 200 million dollars in the bank on the first weekend alone.
I understand why they need to do this (“they” being the producers of any given Hollywood movie); they need to get out of debt. The estimated cost of the Avengers was 220 million dollars—not including the marketing budget, which is never disclosed but most likely half if not equal to the production budget. Considering the price a movie costs to make nowadays—the average being 50.4 million dollars—it’s no wonder that producers are not looking for a writer who can write an amazing story, character arc, or theme into their movie. The just do not care. They only want to make a fast buck, and the fastest way to do so is to dumb down the movie so that everybody can just sit there and go “Whoa! Wow!” just as they would while watching fireworks explode not fifty feet from their faces.
Compare Christopher Nolan’s films (any of them… No really, any of his films) to Avatar and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Every single one of Nolan’s films is constructed in such a way that the protagonist drives the plot, not the other way around. Sure, Batman finds himself having to choose between saving Rachel or Dent at the midpoint of the Dark Knight, but it’s still his choice. And, more importantly, it’s a believable choice he makes; he loves Rachel, so instantly he knows whom to save. Now, am I claiming there are no believable choices in Avatar or the Avengers
? No, but I am claiming there aren’t nearly as many; further more I can guarantee either film is driven by the plot first and the characters second. Think about the way Nolan’s Batman trilogy is set up. At the bottom-most layer of the pie, the film is about Bruce Wayne. It’s about his arc, his changes, and his choices. The audience loves Bruce Wayne because we are meant to see an aspect of our own struggles through his story. Everything else is layered above that—the crime fighting, Gotham city, love interests, and, finally, explosions. The movie isn’t shallow; it has a lot of depth to it—not just plot, but depth.
What is shallow, then?
“AVATAR takes us to a spectacular world beyond imagination, where a reluctant hero embarks on an epic adventure, ultimately fighting to save the alien world he has learned to call home.”
Shallow is a logline, like the one you see above. Shallow is something that can easily, easily sell (to a production company). Shallow is 90% of movies that come out each year. What makes Christopher Nolan so good is that he obliterates all of Hollywood’s preconceived notions of success. He and his writing partners come up with compelling characters and their stories that actively challenge the audience on both an emotional and intellectual level. In other words, he doesn’t think we’re stupid. James Cameron seems to think otherwise.
So why does this happen, this sudden disregard of audience IQ? Are we really that stupid? No, of course not. It happens because of—drum roll, please—money! Just over forty years ago (in 1969 to be exact) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid cost a whopping six million dollars (which would be 35 million today due to inflation). Now think about that number, 35. It’s well under the average, and well below the highest grossing films of our age. Now what’s more important is that Paul Newman—in his prime as an actor—and Robert Redford—on the upswing of his career—cost enormously less than Robert Downey Jr. would in any film today. Now, that’s not to say Robert Downey Jr. isn’t a good actor, but rather that actors nowadays cost excruciatingly more, as do visual effects, stunts, directors, and so on.
The bottom line is that movies simply cost more than they used to, perhaps more than they should. Greed is a powerful thing, one that comes from our believing that we can own the world and everything in it if we only had enough money to buy it (something that shall be discussed in a later article, I’m sure), and it effects every part of our lives, including the “art” that which we enjoy. Or at least try to enjoy.
One last point I’d like to make. Christopher Nolan’s big break came when he decided to do Batman Begins. Not just direct it, but craft it from the ground up. He, Bob Kane, and David Goyer reconstructed the characters, world, and story of the movie, rebirthing what otherwise has been a laughing stock of a film genre—the super hero movie. What made Batman Begins such an astonishing success was the talent these three had when writing the movie. They made Bruce a highly complex character from which the plot is born. They interweaved several themes—facing your fears, promoting justice over vengeance, self-empowerment, and even compassion—beautifully into one amazing story; the story of Bruce Wayne’s Batman.
This career choice of Nolan’s to work on the project single handedly (I’d say) changed the fate of his career. Because of these huge-budget Batman films, Nolan gained the recognition needed to pull off an equally engaging and amazing film, Inception, years after creating the Dark Knight. The film he did before Batman Begins, Memento (2000), was given a budget of—I couldn’t believe it when I researched this myself—9 million dollars, which would be approximately 11.3 million today due to inflation. That’s nothing compared to titles being released this summer. It barely qualifies as a non-indie film (indies are budgeted at 5 million and under). It grossed 39.7 million dollars in the box office (and, due to inflation, would be around 49.8 million dollars today). That’s more than a 400% return.
I leave you with one final question: do we really need all those explosions, high-paid egos, and dumbed down films? Sometimes, it really does pay off more to do less. In this case, less means treating your audience as smart as they really are. It means adding value and intelligence to the writing rather than increasing the amount of action, sex appeal, and special effects—which in production costs a lot less to do. It means being a Christopher Nolan instead of a James Cameron, and boy, wouldn’t that be the day to see more films like Memento or Inception being released each year rather than Avatar or the Avengers? Give credit where credit is due. Writing is important. No, scratch that—good writing is all that is really important.