Submitted by Richard Hogg
In my previous article I wrote a brief piece about the William Goldman quote “nobody knows anything.” As a great admirer of his work I decided to go and see Dreamcatcher when it was released.
Looking down the credits it was hard not to take each name as a benchmark of quality. Surely with this many names, this many years, and so many movies between them they might be able to do justice to a book written by one of the, if not the best selling fiction writer of modern times.
But Mr. Goldman’s quote came back to bite him on the ass, and if you’ve seen the movie you’ll get the little joke. If you haven’t seen the movie some of this article may pass you by.
WHAT A LOAD OF CRAP. In a lot of films the script gets the bad press as a lot of people who know nothing about script work start throwing about words like poor structure and loose characterization. Here the common complaint from critics was that the plot was incoherent. If this means they spent more time looking at their watch than the screen as I did, then I agree.
Forget the three act structure and all the other supposed requirements of a script. The simple fact was that the story on screen was about as appealing as a holiday package to Iraq.
To sum it up. Aliens crash land-telepathic friends get caught up-insane special alien task force general goes insane-friend taken over by alien entity-other friends killed-alien tries to escape to spawn and infect others-remaining friends collect other strange friend-strange friend and alien do battle-humans win-hooray–the end. At this point most would be cursing the two hours they’ll never see again, but for a scriptwriter watching something this bad has proved to be more useful to me than watching something of real quality and I’ll tell you why.
The day after deciding I wanted to give this screenwriting thing a real go, my mum rented out The Shawshank Redemption. That night I lay awake, distraught, a broken fourteen year-old boy. I was convinced I would never be able to write something that good. What the hell did I know about the power of hope above all things, desire for freedom, and life inside an American prison (the other prison films I’d seen up to that point involved women only, but those films were altogether different). Two days later I went to see Street Fighter with Jean-Claude Van Damme. With my confidence restored I set about writing down some ideas for my first film.
The lesson I learned and stick to to this day, is never to compare my work to that of others. Learn from it sure, but don’t get depressed and give up if you see some hotshot twenty year-old write an amazing script. By the same token don’t get all cocky if you see something that’s not as good as your own.
The second thing I came away with was the limitations of the writer. I’d never really given it that much thought before, especially when writing. When I write I can see a clear picture in my head. Not only the action takes place but also the expression on the character’s faces. In Dreamcatcher we have some excellent actors and a few mediocre ones. Morgan Freeman is my first example as he seems to be the one with highest pedigree. Such talent, presence, and charisma, and yet here he delivers lines where his expression doesn’t change for the entire film. Does he hate the dialog (not Goldman’s best, for example take “the shit has hit the interplanetary fan”), or is it simply him putting his own take on the character, whereas Goldman was picturing something completely different. He just seemed empty, as if there was nothing to him. He may shoot a guy through the hand for disobeying orders, but I always felt as if I was grasping at thin air when trying to get inside this guy’s head.
Then there’s Damien Lewis (the ginger one). Outstanding in Band Of Brothers and the BBC dramas he’s been in. Here he appears to be underplaying the role, as he seems deadpan for the most part with the only meaty bit being when he’s taken over by the aliens. Here he has to change mannerisms and accents. Surprise, surprise, the epitome of evil has a upper class English accent. We’re not all bastards you know.
I hate to criticize a fellow Brit but the criticism is lessened by the fact that he’s still better than most of his companions. I won’t give a rundown but the one thing that stood out for me was that for a group of friends who are so close, they hardly react when bad things start to happen. Military quarantine-rant a bit; best friend dies-take a moment, wince, and then go about your business.
The lesson from this film was one I still find hard to do. You must know you’re characters. Instead of writing lists of favorite foods and colors as the books suggest, I try to get inside their skin when I’m just going about my day. I think to myself how a certain character would act in this situation. Another tool I have found to be very useful is to write short stories involving the main characters. This helps set up the world in my head as well as give me story ideas, and because it’s prose I can describe what they’re thinking. I recommend you try this.
Lastly, read you’re script out loud. That includes the descriptions. If Goldman and Kasdan had done this and still gone “Yep, this sounds good,” then I refer you back to Goldman’s famous quote.
Going to see bad films made by talented people can be enormously helpful. You may recognize similarities between the film and a script you’re working on. For example, do all of the characters speak in the same way? For me though, the benefit is much less practical and far more superficial. I come out thinking if that script which was deemed good enough to get passed through dozens of money men, as well as those with creativity, and all the changes that were supposed to make it better resulted in what I’ve just seen, then maybe the odds of my making it aren’t as bad as I thought.