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HACKING THROUGH THE UNDERBRUSH



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35 HACKING THROUGH THE UNDERBRUSH


Hack.

That's the word. Writers loathe it; it chills them; used as invective, it can raise any writer's -- well, hackles.

I admit it: I have had those long dark midnights of the soul when I am struggling with a particularly difficult story problem, or am trying to execute some particular studio note, when the ideas just aren't coming and the deadline is looming and I am about to resign myself to just grinding it out... and that fear comes swimming up, unbidden, from the depths of my psyche: Am I... a hack?

There's no better motivation for me to knock off the moaning and re-double my efforts to find the solution that will satisfy me, as opposed to just let me go to bed.

And it's a question that every writer faces, at some point or another.

Am I a hack?

hack : a writer who works on order

Uh-oh. I've taken assignments; I've done re-writes to studio specification; I've --

Thank God there's more:

hack : a writer who works solely for commercial success

Whew. Some wriggle room. I'm not out solely for commercial reasons -- although that is a consideration.

hack : esp. with mediocre professional standards

Okay, I'm safe. What I write may be good, it may be bad -- but I never aim for mediocre. I have often said: if a person decides to become a screenwriter after seeing some movie and thinking 'I can do better than that crap,' then they may as well quit before they begin. Better to be inspired by and aspire to the very best, as opposed to simply doing crap plus one.

Which brings us to our real topic: how do you avoid doing crap plus one? At the onset, I give you warning: the following column may appear to be a screed against Bob Dole, politically correctionists, money-motivated filmmakers, and people who can't take a joke.

It's not. I swear. It really does have something to do with the nuts-and-bolts of screenwriting. Call it: Zen and the Social Responsibility of Writing, or: How to Avoid Being a Hack. And, yes, the two are linked.

But it'll take awhile to get there. So bear with me.

In 1966, NBC showed THE DOOMSDAY FLIGHT, a movie written by Rod Serling. The story concerned a mentally disturbed man who plants a bomb on a passenger plane -- the first use of this idea. It inspired a number of bomb threats to airlines, one of which came even while the movie was still on the air.

In 1972, Evan Hunter's FUZZ, based on his own much-better novel, included a sub-plot that had sociopaths setting derelicts on fire. Two men who did just that in real life cited the movie in their defense.

During the sturm and drang leading up to the 1996 presidential election, Bob Dole took the makers of MONEY TRAIN (written by Doug Richardsen and David Loughery) to task. In the movie, an arsonist is setting subway toll booth workers on fire. Two days after it was released... well, you can guess.

According to Bob Dole, this was yet another example of Hollywood's corrupting influence, lack of morals and destructive force on the fabric of society.

One problem: In MONEY TRAIN (as in the other two examples), the character who inspired the crime is clearly presented as a criminal. He has a spooky voice, wild eyes, burn tissue on his hands, and a hand-made gasoline pump strapped to his back. He sets people on fire, for God's sake. He's a bad guy -- get it?

And the good guy who almost loses his life bringing this psycho to justice? He's a cop. Played by Wesley Snipes. You know, the movie star? He's the hero. In development meetings, he's the character everybody worked to make sure audiences identified with, sympathized with, wanted to be like.

The hero. Not the toll booth attendant-burning psycho. Who the hell could possibly believe that the movie is in any way portraying this guy as a role model to be imitated?

Apparently, only the derange-os who had enough bad wiring to actually set fire to a real, live human being --

-- and Bob Dole.

(An aside: The incident in the movie was itself inspired by an actual series of crimes that occurred in New York in the '80s. Somehow, that original perpetrator was able to come up with his char-broil technique all by himself. Who says creativity is dead?)

One must wonder: if a neo-Nazi climbed a tower and started shooting people outside a synagogue, would Bob Dole attack SCHINDLER'S LIST as the cause?

Okay, okay -- it's not fair to compare MONEY TRAIN to SCHINDLER'S LIST. I'm stacking the deck, using Schopenhauer's first stratagem, comparing apples and oranges.

So I'll be fair. I'll compare it to a movie that is in the same action-adventure genre, that has the same audience in mind -- and that Bob Dole cited as the type of morally sound fare Hollywood should make. One of his examples of good family entertainment: TRUE LIES.

What moral position do these movies take? One portrays a dysfunctional family wherein one member is lying to the other, behaving in a self-centered (and destructive) way. In the course of the story, the other member also behaves deceitfully, but, ultimately, the two solve their problems, reach a new level of understanding, and a stronger, more functional family unit emerges.

That's MONEY TRAIN.

On the other hand, TRUE LIES portrays a dysfunctional family wherein one member is lying to the other, behaving in a self-centered (and destructive) way...

Well, we're all writers here. We know a set-up/payoff when we see one. Both movies have exactly the same thematic story. And MONEY TRAIN doesn't have the misogynist elements that made a lot of people uncomfortable with TRUE LIES.

(Another aside: In Film Analyst #31, Arthur Taussig presents a fascinating examination of TRUE LIES, proposing that it is a portrait of the healing of an abusive husband. For more information on the Taussig's newsletter, now titled "Hi-Q Film Review," contact: Hiqrevu@aol.com)

(Another aside, part 2: Here's the only place I agree with Bob Dole. He says Hollywood should make fewer movies like MONEY TRAIN, more like TRUE LIES. If that means less bad movies and more good movies, I'm all for it.)

Now, I'm not defending MONEY TRAIN. I didn't like it. But is it an evil movie? A corrupting movie? A movie aimed at undermining the American Way of Life? Hardly.

Because MONEY TRAIN attempted to tell a story that showed the importance of family, the consequences of actions, and the need for honesty. Just because it didn't do it well doesn't mean that what it tried to do was bad.

It wasn't responsible for the violent assault on an innocent person. And it wasn't the work of hacks.

It just wasn't very good.

That's point number one. Let's move on...

When ALADDIN came out, it was -- surprise, surprise -- attacked for 'Arab-bashing.' During the making of it, everyone involved was aware of this possibility -- and did everything they could to avoid it. But not to the extent of damaging the plot, of betraying the theme -- or failing to tell the story as well as possible.

The people who protested were genuinely offended. They were totally within their rights to complain. And I am totally within my rights to dismiss those complaints as nonsense.

I am not insensitive to negative portrayals of races, genders, cultures, etc. They offend me. If you have ten characters in your movie, and eight are male (about average these days), and one of them is an idiot -- no problem. One idiot balanced against seven non-idiots seems fair (and better than real-life odds). But if you only have two female characters, and one of them is an idiot... well, you do the math. It's not that there are no idiot-women, it's that not enough female characters are portrayed in movies to provide balance.

(Yet another aside: Speaking of balance, is anyone as sick as I am of the cop movie cliche of the black boss? It's a knee-jerk casting decision, to make amends for the (usually) black villains. While an authority figure is a better stereotype than a drug dealer, it's still a stereotype. And why is he always yelling, threatening to yank people's badges, and obstructing the hero?)

(Me again: I bet, over the next couple of years, we start seeing more women in that role. It's already happening on TV.)

(And again: You know, French people didn't rise up in anger against their portrayal in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. They may be wine-swilling, snail-eating beret heads, but at least they have a sense of humor and a healthy amount of self-confidence. So to them I say: "Beau coup ooh-la-las, mes amis.")

But ALADDIN didn't have balance problems. Everyone in the movie was Arabian. The hero, the heroine, the villain -- everyone.

One charge was that the only characters with faux-Arab accents were villains. Fine -- except Jafar, the evil vizier, spoke with some sort of mid-Atlantic oily accent, and his sidekick Iago spoke with -- I don't know, a Bronx accent? He spoke with Gilbert Gottfried's screech, whatever that is.

(Terry and I made an argument early on that no one should have an Arabian accent -- not for any politically- or culturally-sensitive reasons, but for 'reality of the movie' reasons. Everyone in the film spoke American English, not Persian. Therefore, in that "Star Trek" universal translator sort of way, there shouldn't be anyone speaking with Persian accents. We didn't win -- but, while the thief at the beginning speaks with an accent, so do various shopkeepers, on-lookers, etc.)

Another complaint concerned the man who threatens to cut off Jasmine's hand for stealing. This is an inaccurate representation of the culture, we were told. But we weren't making a documentary. And it is absolutely accurate to the source and inspiration for the movie: Scheherazade's "Arabian Nights." Boiling oil poured on people, people buried alive, heads cut off for minor transgressions... hand-chopping fits right in there.

The final complaint was about a lyric in the "Arabian Nights" song: "[W]here they'll cut off your nose if they don't like your face/It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home." A stereotypical portrait of Arab culture, went the cry. Not that it mattered that the setting was about 8 A.D. Every culture in 8 A.D. could be characterized as barbaric.

And, on this point, the studio capitulated. In the video release of the movie, the lyric is changed to: "[W]here it's flat and immense and the heat is intense/It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home."

(Still another aside: The protesters still weren't satisfied. It wasn't just the 'cut off your nose' stuff they objected to -- it was whole 'barbaric' concept. They didn't care about the context -- only the word. To which I respond: 8 freakin' A.D.)

Making that change was wrong. The lyric itself was written by Howard Ashman, as part of the longer version of the song. That's not the problem. Changing the work to satisfy outside demands -- not because the creators feel it's necessary, not because the story needs it -- that's hackwork.

That's point number two. Onward.
When the late '70s-early '80s cycle of the slasher film finally abated (I always liked Roger Ebert's name for them: "Spam-in-a-cabin movies"), it was a relief. You seen one dead-teenaged-couple-with-a- pneumatic-drill-shoved-through-'em-during-sex -- you don't want to see any more.

But at its peak, a holiday wouldn't go by without another one popping up, like an unstoppable monster bent on violent retribution. MY BLOODY VALENTINE, MOTHER'S DAY, PROM NIGHT, SILENT NIGHT BLOODY NIGHT, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, etc. (When I first heard about GROUNDHOG DAY, I was afraid that the genre was making a comeback. "If he sees his shadow, it's six more weeks of... killing!")

And most of them were dreck, nothing more than a showcase for gore effects and imaginative ways of killing people. The filmmakers would trot out the usual defenses: that the movies were morality tales, supporting an absolutely puritanical status-quo. You transgress, you die. You treat someone bad, you die. Step out of line, you die. Have sex, you die.

It was an empty argument, trying to justify the product after the fact. Most of these movies were made for one overwhelming reason: money. No intent other than to cash in on the box office generated by the two biggies of the genre: HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH. The contrast between these two is compelling (not comparison -- HALLOWEEN is so much better than FRIDAY THE 13TH, it defies comparison).

HALLOWEEN is a good movie. Genuinely suspenseful and frightening. An interesting, well-told story, made with real affection for its characters, particularly the women. A lot has been made of the fact that Laurie, the heroine who slays the Shape (or does she?), is a virgin. But I think that the truth of her character has been blurred by Jamie Lee Curtis' similar roles in other, lesser movies in the genre.

Laurie is an independent, strong-minded person. She doesn't live or die based on a boy liking her, she doesn't drink, she gets good grades, she fulfills her obligations (she baby-sits instead of partying) -- and she's still well-liked. That she's a virgin is simply an aspect of her character -- not the definition of it.

And she survives because of her character. Because she goes her own way, makes her own decisions, fights her own battles -- always remaining true to herself.

Made for $320,000, HALLOWEEN grossed over $50 million (the last number I could find -- that was 1981(!)). (Here I credit Danny Peary's book "Cult Movies." There are three of 'em. They're great. Go buy 'em.) HALLOWEEN was the most profitable independent movie ever made. And imitation is the highest form of cashing in on someone else's success...

In FRIDAY THE 13TH, the characters are shallower than their blood puddles. They exist simply to get killed. And the virgin survives just because she's supposed to ('cause, you know, in HALLOWEEN, the virgin didn't die) -- not because of anything she does. It is simply an '...and then' story ('...and then the killer crashes through the window. And then the sheriff arrives and machine guns the killer. And then the killer stands up -- he's wearing a bullet-proof vest. And then he starts up the leaf blower, shoves it down the sheriff's throat, and inflates his lungs until they explode in a slow motion shower of gore and cilia. And then...").

It has no point of view. It's a series of incidents. It has no thematic glue. It is hackwork.

(Of course, due to Kevin Williamson's and Wes Craven's witty revitalization of the genre in SCREAM and SCREAM 2, it won't be long before the first movies to cash on their success hit the screen -- and the very elements that the filmmakers were so aware of in the SCREAMS will once again become the formula.)

(Williamson also added a new element in the SCREAMS, one which will be undoubtedly overlooked by its imitators. SCREAM was a fair, play-by-the-rules whodunit. The suspense did not come simply from the question of how the killer would eviscerate his next victim, but from the question of: who do I trust? Trust me: this will be lost on the hacks who glom onto SCREAM's success.)

And, now... how to avoid being a hack yourself. I told you we'd get to it.
Movies do influence people. There's no getting around it. In IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, Clark Gable took off his shirt, revealing a bare chest, and the sales of undershirts dropped. Reports of shark sightings escalated after JAWS came out. People actually use the word 'Ssssmokin!'

Be aware of it. What you are writing will have impact. So have something to say. It's one of the cliche bits of advice, but -- write about something you care about. That doesn't mean it has to be a small, intimate movie. And it doesn't have to be an 'issue' movie.

Here's Harold Ramis on GHOSTBUSTERS: "[T]he whole world of the paranormal seems to represent people's abstract fears... But the real source of that dread is in very real things like violence and death and economic uncertainty. So it seemed very appropriate to me that when our monster finally appeared, it turned out to be a marshmallow -- that, literally and figuratively, our biggest fear of the unknown was as insubstantial as marshmallow."

And the movie supports this: the Ghostbusters go in to business because they're broke and unemployed, and have to deal with bureaucrats, real estate agents, and officious prigs. Who is the real villain of GHOSTBUSTERS: Gozier -- or William Atherton's EPA agent?

Find a central 'big idea' you want to relate. Consider it the wellspring, and let it inform your script.

Terry and I do this -- for one thing, it's a good step toward avoiding writer's block (more on that in a future column). In ALADDIN, we were writing about the source of identity. In our GODZILLA drafts, we were dealing with inappropriate grief response. THE MASK OF ZORRO focuses on the need for redemption, instead of revenge. SMALL SOLDIERS is about having the strength to move beyond your programming, social or otherwise.

And once you say something -- stick to it. Executing notes is always difficult -- but it's part of the job you want to do. The only notes Terry and I absolutely will not consider are ones that could poison our wellspring.

On THE PUPPET MASTERS, we were given a note that would have completely destroyed the arc of one of our characters, the female lead. It would have removed her importance -- even purpose -- to the plot. We were told that "[I]n this kind of movie, the women is just the hero's girlfriend" (And the saddest part: the executive who told us this was a woman.)

The problem (beyond the obvious)? Our wellspring was 'the importance of the individual.' To make one of our lead characters unnecessary to the plot would completely violate the big idea. Particularly since one of the permutations of that idea was that we simply cannot afford to waste our most important resource -- people -- on the basis of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or any of those arbitrary distinctions.

So we didn't do it. We worked to make her character sub-plot more clear, more immediate -- better, I think is the word. But we refused to execute the note. Because doing it would have made us hacks.


And, finally -- don't do it for the bucks. We're supposed to be telling stories. We're supposed to be making movies. Not money (if you do it well enough, the money follows).

Say you come up with a sure-thing high concept (or Strange Attractor or whatever). "A lone cop, trapped in a skyscraper, must rescue his wife and other hostages from terrorists who've taken over the building." Great.

Except you don't particularly like cop stories. Violence doesn't appeal as something you want to write about. You work as a temp in a skyscraper, and hate anyone who thinks the arrival of the muffin cart is the high point of the day. Whatever.

Then don't write it. Don't bother.

But if the concept is so good -- maybe there's a way to turn it into a story you like. Romantic comedy? Maybe in the time the terrorist story plays out, you can do an entire relationship: cute meet, getting to know one another, sex, jealousy, breakup, reconciliation. Character study? There's this one hostage who has figured out an escape route... and can take only three people with him. Historical drama? Hmm... the best I can come up with would be the defense of the temple of Jerusalem against the Syrians, but that's not quite right...

It doesn't matter if the DIE HARD version will potentially be the big money item. If you don't really care about it -- then the script will suck. 'Suck' as in be bad, as in drain your vitality, as in absorb anything you throw at it and give nothing back.

By remaining true to your own muse, by telling your story in the best possible way, by not sacrificing your own values -- that's how you do your job as a writer, and avoid being a hack.

And that is the full measure of a writer's social responsibility (hey, it's all coming together. I'll admit -- I was getting worried).

Kurt Vonnegut has compared the role of an artist in society to a canary in a coal mine: it is a gauge of the society's continued health. An artist agrees to be that canary. And if the canary dies, the society won't be far behind.

But what if the canary abandons its duty? Ignores its agreed-upon role, deep in the tunnels where the miners depend on the canary to warn them of poisonous gasses that can make them sick, paralyze them, choke them to death?

Simple.

Hack, hack.


(In the course of this column, a number of people may have been offended: Bob Dole, PC proponents, capitalists, Zen Buddhists, hacks, Rod Serling, mentally-disturbed bombers, Evan Hunter, derelicts, sociopaths, Doug Richardsen, David Loughery, arsonists, subway toll booth workers, criminals, people with spooky voices, people with wild eyes, burn victims, psychos, cops, Wesley Snipes, movie stars, development executives, audiences, derange-os, neo-Nazis, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, dysfunctional families, self-centered people, writers, misogynists, Arthur Taussig, abusive husbands, Arabs, Arab-bashers, men, women, black bosses, drug dealers, Gilbert Gottfried, Terry, Trekkies and Trekkors, shop keepers, on-lookers, Scheherazade, noseless people, barbarians, Howard Ashman, slashers, slasher movie fans, Roger Ebert, Hormel, dead teenagers, Puritans, John Carpenter, Sean Cunningham, Jamie Lee Curtis, women named Laurie, virgins, Danny Peary, sheriffs, gardeners, Kevin Williamson, Wes Craven, Frank Capra, Clark Gable, Jim Carrey, people who like Jim Carrey, Harold Ramis, people who believe in the paranormal, people who don't believe in the paranormal, diabetics, bureaucrats, real estate agents, officious prigs, Gozier, William Atherton, the EPA, the female executive who shall go nameless, bigots, Syrians, Kurt Vonnegut and canaries. Tough. No apology or retraction will be forthcoming.)


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