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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Advice for Writers: Three Movies

As we transition from normal life to cowering in terror and hiding indoors mode, Friday dinner-and-a-movie night has transitioned from “What’s playing at the local twenty-screen cineplex?” to “What’s streaming on Netflix or Amazon Prime that we haven’t watched a dozen times already?” Two weeks ago, when this change in lifestyle really began, my wife had already chosen the movie before I asked the question, and with her usual puckish sense of humor she’d picked out—

The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Based on the pioneering 1969 novel by the late Michael Crichton—that’s Doctor Michael Crichton, by the way, MD Harvard, who did post-doc work at the Salk Institute before turning to a career as a novelist and screenwriter—this nearly 50-year-old movie remains a surprisingly taut and effective thriller. Despite my having read the original back when it was this exciting new first novel everyone was talking about written by this new guy no one had ever heard of before—actually, it was Crichton’s seventh novel; he’d been writing novels under a variety of pseudonyms for a few years before The Andromeda Strain and had three more such novels in the publication pipeline when The Andromeda Strain became his breakout bestseller—

And despite my having watched the movie in the theater during it’s original theatrical run, and several times since in various video formats—

This one still works. It sinks its hooks into you early, builds slowly, layer by layer, establishes characters whose fates you care about, and everything in the film goes towards hitting a nail-biting dramatic crescendo at just the right time, followed by a short denouement that wraps up those few loose threads that still matter. Admittedly, there are some clunky moments in it: for example, when one of the characters gets to deliver a grumble about “The Establishment” that must have seemed terribly relevant back in 1969 but seems pretty fatuous now, or the occasional use of split-screen in what seems to me an ostentatious Sixties art cinema technique, but to an audience raised on 24 and CSI might seem perfectly normal.

Still, it works, and fifty years later, it still seems fresh and original. Recommended watching.

So to compare and contrast, the next week, my wife picked out—

Outbreak (1995)
Oh. My. Fricken. God. All-star cast. Made on a budget of $50 million. Ostensibly based on Richard Preston’s bestselling non-fiction book, The Hot Zone, although having read Preston’s book I believe the only thing this movie has in common with that book is the occasional use of the word “ebola.” Not to put too fine a point on it, this movie is such an enormous, expensive, stinking steaming pile of formulaic crap I had to go back to IMDB twice, to make certain I hadn’t missed Roland Emmerich’s name somewhere in the credits.

Interestingly, while Outbreak and The Andromeda Strain are almost exactly the same length, watching Andromeda seemed like an accelerating headlong rush to a dramatic climax, while Outbreak felt like a slow and extremely painful slog through the swamp of timeworn screenwriter’s clichés. Which got me to wondering: just why is it that The Andromeda Strain seems so very good, while Outbreak seems so very, very, very bad?

The answer, I think, lies in what I wrote above: The Andromeda Strain takes the time and takes special care to establish characters whose fates you care about. Everyone in this movie, even in the minor bit parts, is in the story for a reason, and you find yourself rooting for them to succeed, or at least to survive. The major characters are for the most part military and scientific personnel, facing a crisis of catastrophic proportions, and for the most part they face this crisis with the serious intelligence, dedication, and competence I’ve seen time and again in these kinds of people.

In contrast, the major characters in Outbreak are also a mix of military and scientific personnel, facing a similar crisis of catastrophic proportions, but—well, to be blunt, they face it like a bunch of actors. They scream. They shout. They posture, threaten, and issue ultimatums. They argue about their personal relationship problems at the most inopportune possible times. There is not one single character in this movie who behaves as if he or she is rational, much less an intelligent professional facing a life-or-death crisis. This movie is two straight hours of drama queens in slap fights, and it’s exhausting to watch.

You know what I said earlier about the characters in The Andromeda Strain all being people whose fates you care about? By the 90-minute mark in Outbreak you’ll be wishing all these characters would just catch the virus and die already, and then you’ll want to withdraw and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

So for last night’s movie, my wife picked—

Contagion (2011)
Which was probably a mistake.

It seems like a promising movie. Good cast. Good script, from what I saw of it. Really well-done multi-threaded storylines narrative technique.

But to be honest, we didn’t even make it to the halfway mark in this one. Perhaps it was simply because by this point we were suffering from disaster movie fatigue. Or perhaps it was because at some point I switched to my Team America voice and began saying “Matt Damon” every time his face popped back on-screen. But in any case, watching this movie very quickly devolved into a Mystery Science Theater 3000 sort of experience, as we filled in the obvious gaps in the dialog with snarky and sarcastic quips, and then it became impossible to take this movie seriously. The commentary during the Gwyneth Paltrow autopsy sequence in particular was brutal, in very poor taste, and (to us at least) very funny.

Any time you’re watching what’s supposed to be a thriller but finding yourself laughing more than gasping in shock and fright, it’s time to turn off the movie and go play Scrabble.

So given that I set out to write an advice column for writers, what are some lessons to be learned from these three movies?

1. Your readers need to care about the fates of the characters who inhabit your story. If they don’t care about your characters and what’s to become of them, they’re unlikely to care about anything else that’s going on in your story, no matter how brilliant your writing skills.

2. Positive engagement is stronger than negative. In The Andromeda Strain, you find yourself rooting for the characters. In Outbreak, you’ll mostly find yourself rooting against characters. Donald Sutherland’s General McClintock, in particular, is damn near a mustache-twirling villain straight out of a silent movie. It’s easy to make your readers hate a straw-man villain, but it’s weak and lazy writing.

3. Don’t be so in love with your original concept of your characters that you’re afraid to change them. In Crichton’s original novel Dr. Peter Leavitt is pretty much a spear carrier, there to advance the plot by making one key mistake at a crucial moment but otherwise irrelevant. For the movie, the character was changed to Dr. Ruth Leavitt and given a backstory, and every time I re-watch the movie, I appreciate her more. The addition of a tired and cynical middle-aged woman to an otherwise all-male cast rescues the movie from being a manly men doing manly things sausage fest, which I’m sorry to say, the original novel kinda was.

4. Model your characters and their dialog on real people! That is the single biggest problem with Outbreak. Everyone in it speaks and behaves like an actor who knows they’re playing a role in a movie, and it’s all conflict and drama, all the time. If you find yourself giving your character lines that sound like they could be dialog from Outbreak, throw them out! They’re no good!

5. Finally, sometimes a story, no matter how good in concept and how well-executed, is just the wrong story at the wrong time, like Contagion. I predict that in about six months YouTube and Netflix are going to be flooded with low-budget “last person on Earth” movies shot using iPhones on selfie sticks and with all the fine production values of The Blair Witch Project, and at about the same time every fiction magazine slush pile in America will be overflowing with stories set in post-Apocalyptic wastelands following a viral plague. Don’t be the person who writes one of those stories or makes one of those movies. There’s already an adequate supply of “me too” formulaic dreck in this world. Don’t add your contribution to that vast and stinking heap.

Kind regards,


ray p daley said...

I was in the RAF when Outbreak was released. We were genuinely concerned we'd be deployed to such an area, so our entire office went to see the movie. Well, all the junior ranks. We saw a terrible movie (still not as bad as Stallone's Judge Dredd)& stayed in England.

~brb said...

Speaking of which: what did you think of Karl Urban's Dredd?

Ana Reis said...

Fantastic piece, Bruce! I never watched Contagion and probably never will! When you have a PhD in microbiology it's hard to enjoy a movie about a deadly strain causing havoc, but you got me curious about the Andromeda Strain

-blessed b9, Catalyst4Christ said...

'obiter distum'
Latin: offhand remark.
God bless you.