Archive for movies

writing, movies

Ending With a Bang

I’m getting close to the ending of the first draft of the book I’m working on, and that has me thinking about endings. There’s a frequently repeated bit of writing advice about how the first few pages sell this book and the last few pages sell the next book. You want readers to get to the end of the book and want to immediately read the next one. But what, aside from a huge cliffhanger, has that effect? As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that it has to do with leaving a reader feeling something.

I discovered one trick for this a number of years ago when I was reading books to judge for a romance contest. I ended up with a book by a top-selling author, and I’ve got to admit that I wasn’t impressed. The book was doing nothing for me, but then I got to the end and read the resolution with a tear in my eye, and I realized she got me, in spite of my misgivings. The next year, I got another book by that author in my selection of books to judge. I read that book on a plane. Near the end of the book, something bad happened to a kid, and it was a real tearjerker moment. I just had the final scene or two of the book to read when the plane got to the gate and I had to put the book down to get off the plane. Then I had to get out of the airport, take the train downtown, get to the office of the friend I was visiting, get shown around her office, then go to a nearby bookstore cafe to hang out until she got off work before I was able to pick up the book again and read the ending. And that ending left me cold. That’s when I realized what she did. She’d have some really emotional thing that didn’t even have anything to do with the plot happen just before the ending so that you read the resolution of the romance and ended the book with a tear in your eye, and that gave you the impression that the book had really touched you. It was so quick from the tearjerking moment to the end that I may be the only reader who put the book down at exactly that point, since I had to. If you separated the ending from the previous scene, there was nothing special about it. She’d done a similar thing in the previous book, only it was an old person with a health crisis.

In my recent Star Wars viewing project, I was also looking at the endings because I recall always leaving the theater after one of those movies excited and wanting to see it again, even when the movie itself wasn’t actually that great. I remember feeling that way about The Phantom Menace, and I can barely sit through that movie. I’ve noticed that there’s a sequence in the last part of almost all of those films that I think has a lot to do with the way people react to them (the rest is due to John Williams because the music really helps). The last quarter or so of these movies builds to a climax with intense tension and high stakes, resulting in a cathartic moment that releases the tension (usually, it involves reaching safety in some way). After that, there’s celebration and connection, usually with hugging. And then there’s something to create a lingering emotional impression that has the audience feeling something as they leave the theater (again, with some help from John Williams).

The throne room scene at the ending of Star Wars, with the characters lined up on the temple steps and Han and Luke wearing medals
Yay! We won! And we’re heroes, with the medals to prove it.

Take the first movie: We have the space battle with the ticking clock — will they destroy the Death Star before it destroys the rebel base? — with the space station blowing up being about as spectacular a catharsis as you get. Then they return to the base, and there’s lots of hugging. Our final emotional impression is one of triumph with the medal ceremony. You get a similar sequence in Return of the Jedi and the sequel trilogy. Battle, something blows up, hugging, then a big emotional hit. The Empire Strikes Back works a little differently, since there’s no clear victory. Our cathartic moment is the ship going to lightspeed, which means they’ve escaped and will be safe, but we get the bonding and hugging before that, when the Falcon rescues Luke. The prequels are all a downward slide. We get the regular sequence in The Phantom Menace, with that final celebration mirroring the first movie, right down to ending with everyone lined up on the stairs. The lingering emotional impressions are mostly nostalgic, since we’re seeing things happen that we’ve heard about or known must have happened, like Obi-Wan taking on Anakin to train or the start of the Clone Wars. Revenge of the Sith goes for full nostalgia, with a repeat of the twin sunset moment from the first movie, but with baby Luke and his aunt and uncle.

I’ve been looking at how this works in other movies and books. It’s less obvious in books, since they don’t have visuals or John Williams, but I have spotted it in some books. In The Mummy, we had the frantic escape, the “whew, we’re safe” moment, and the bonding, since that’s where the romance was resolved, though I don’t think the lingering emotional impression was as strong.

Oddly, the one of the Indiana Jones movies that does this the best was the most horrible. I rewatched Temple of Doom last weekend, and I kept pondering turning it off because it was so unpleasant, but then I found myself weirdly happy at the end and realized they’d done this sequence. We had the big action sequence, ending with the defeat of the villain (one of the few times Indy has something to do with that) and the cavalry showing up. Then they return to the village with the captured children and there’s lots of hugging as all the families are reunited. Our final impression is of Indy and Willie kissing, with Short Round on the baby elephant in the background, and everyone is happy. Doing a satisfying ending can salvage even an unpleasant movie.

I need to look back at my favorite books, the ones that have me wanting to either re-read them or read the next one right away, and see what the lingering emotional impression is. And then see if I can figure out how to use this. What do I want readers to feel when they close each book?


Women of Action

After I finished my Star Wars marathon, I decided Indiana Jones would be a good next step, so last Friday I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark. And then I guess I was in the mood for more adventure set in Egypt, so I watched The Mummy, the late 90s version with (Oscar winner!) Brendan Fraser. And I realized that this whole thing has given an interesting perspective on the role of women in action movies over about four decades.

I still remember vividly my reaction to Princess Leia when I first saw the original Star Wars as a kid. Our first impression was very princess-like. She wore flowing white robes and had that soft cowl hood around her head, making her look angelic. And then she whipped out a blaster and shot stormtroopers. That blew my nine-year-old mind. After that, she sassed Darth Vader, who intimidated everyone else. I’d never seen a woman get to be like that in a movie before. But in my latest viewing, I noticed that once the guys are on the scene, she practically gets demoted. She gets them out of the detention area and she gets a few snappy lines, but she mostly functions as the person to get rescued and helped by the big, strong men. It had never occurred to me before how Han just assumes Luke is the one to put on the gun when they’re escaping from the Death Star. It’s like he doesn’t even consider Leia could be useful, even though this is only Luke’s second time in a spaceship (the first time was on the trip to the Death Star). Luke had said he was a pretty good pilot, so wouldn’t it have made more sense to have him helping Chewie while Leia shoots the gun? They’d seen her handle a blaster. And it’s even odder to watch now that we know more about Leia. She totally could have handled that gun. After her strong start, she spends the final battle watching anxiously, and then in the second movie she’s essentially a love interest.

She doesn’t really get to do much interesting stuff until the third movie, when she’s part of the rescue operation and then gets to do some fighting (with the infamous gold bikini in between).

Marion from Raiders comes during those movies. I remember reading an article the summer that movie came out about how it was the summer of strong women in movies. Marion could out-drink men and punched Indy when she saw him, and she took out some bad guys with a frying pan in a fight. They also referred to the Bond girl in that summer’s Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, who was a scientist and fired a mean crossbow, and the girl in Dragonslayer, who posed as a boy. But Marion follows a similar trajectory to Leia, with a strong tough-girl start but then getting turned into the person who has to be rescued (and who keeps getting put in ridiculous costumes). Whenever she does something to help out, it backfires, like when she hides in the basket that makes it easier to capture her or she gets in the gun turret of the plane to shoot but then gets stuck there and has to be saved.

The Mummy (1999) movie poster, with the guy in the foreground and the woman behind him.
The guy may be in the foreground, but the woman is actually the protagonist of this movie. He’s just along for the ride while she drives the action.

Then we get to The Mummy, nearly 20 years later. They basically split the character of Indiana Jones into two people, with Evie as the brainy archaeologist side and Rick as the action hero side. She drives a lot of the action with her choices (some of them bad). I would say that she’s actually the protagonist of the movie, rather than being a reward or a sidekick. She’s the one with the story goal who makes the choices at each turning point that drag them deeper into the story. She’s the one with the knowledge that gets them out of trouble sometimes—and often gets them into trouble. So this is all a huge improvement over the way women tend to be depicted in action movies. And yet she’s also the damsel in distress who needs to be rescued frequently, and a lot of this happens when she’s wearing either a sexy outfit or a sexy nightgown. I do like the way the romantic relationship in the movie is treated as a partnership and her brains are shown to be an equal asset to his brawn. Not every “strong female character” has to be quick with her fists or good with a gun. Evie is just about unflappable, has a lot of knowledge, and thinks well on her feet. I just wish she didn’t need rescuing so often.

The Star Wars prequels came out around this time, and I’m not sure Lucas knew what to do with Padme as a character. There had to be a girl, since this is the story of how Luke and Leia came to be. Padme has a position of power and is shown to be brave and smart, but most of the time, she exists as a beautiful lamp. She doesn’t really do much of anything that’s all that important to any of the stories other than give birth and motivate Anakin. She doesn’t even really make a lot of sense. Anakin has opinions and actions that go against everything she supposedly passionately believes in, and this doesn’t seem to change her view of him.

But I think we’ve come a long way by the time we get to the more recent Star Wars movies and TV shows. We get a heroine in Rey who doesn’t need to be rescued. She’s not a “Rambo in drag” type. She can be gentle and caring. One of her Force strengths is in healing. But she’ll fight if she has to. She makes choices and sometimes screws up. We also get to see an older Leia as a true leader who’s capable of making difficult decisions for the greater good. Then there’s Rogue One’s Jyn. I love how in the finale of the second season of The Mandalorian, Mando’s team when they take on the Imperial ship is three women.

Most important to me is that it’s no longer just The Girl with all the guys. When I was a kid playing Star Wars with the neighborhood kids, when we’d run around playing lightsaber battles or pretending our bicycles were X-wings or TIE fighters the girls would fight over who got to be Leia. Some of my earliest storytelling came from making up new characters to play when I didn’t win the fight over getting to be Leia. Girls today might fight over who gets to be the main female character, but they wouldn’t have to make up new characters in order for everyone to play. There are female X-wing pilots, commanders, politicians, mechanics, rebel leaders, etc. True, there are generally still more male main characters than female main characters, even when the protagonist is female, but that’s better than in the earlier movies when there were two female characters who had speaking roles, and one of those had one to two scenes early in the movie before vanishing.

Of course, not everyone is happy with this development, and female characters come in for some harsh criticism, but that’s a subject for another post.


Rogue One and Romance

I mentioned in my previous post that the movie Rogue One shares a structure with historical romance, so now the explanation. This post will spoil the whole plot of the movie. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it. Even if you don’t like Star Wars, this movie is possibly the least Star-Warsy of the movies. It’s more like a war movie that has some spaceships. And maybe kind of like an old-school historical romance.

I haven’t read historical romances in ages, so this is based on the ones I read from the 70s and 80s, and it’s possible that there’s some selection bias here, in that it’s the ones I happened to read, but those old-school romances that were often dismissed as “bodice rippers” were often pretty decent adventure stories. There was generally some external plot, like war or piracy. You’d lose a lot of the story if you removed the romance, but there was still a plot outside the romance. Our hero and heroine were thrown together by some circumstance, and they had internal issues with each other. They might see past each other’s facades and resent that, or they might make each other feel uncomfortable things. Sometimes they were on opposite sides of a conflict (he’s a Norman, she’s a Saxon, etc.). In the first half of the book, there was a lot of bickering and bantering as they clashed. Then as they went through some kind of adventure ordeal, they’d realize they could trust each other and dropped their facades to fall in love. This was when the spicy stuff would kick in (though there might have been some less than consensual spicy stuff earlier because this was the 70s-80s). From that point forward, the conflict wouldn’t be between them, but was the two of them against the world, as they had to resolve that external conflict in order to be able to be together for good. I was the weirdo who read these for the war and adventure part, not the spicy stuff, and my favorite part was when they got over their conflict with each other to take on the bad guys together.

Now, Rogue One would never be classified as a Romance, given that there’s not so much as a kiss and both of them die at the end. But it does follow the same basic plot structure as those old romance novels.

They’re initially thrown together in an assignment, and neither of them is happy about it. Jyn is being coerced—if she doesn’t help the rebels get the information from the splinter rebel group, she’ll get sent back to the prison they broke her out of. Cassian has better things to do than babysit this brat. Now that we’ve seen some of his origin in the Andor series, it seems like it’s the case of people who remind us of the parts of ourselves we don’t like being the most annoying to us because he was once exactly like she is at the beginning of the movie, a rebel with no cause, just lashing out at the universe in general and taking no responsibility for anything higher or greater than himself. So, there’s lots of bickering as she gives him attitude and he doesn’t take it.

But they start to grow on each other as they go through the adventure together. They’re both good in a fight and work well as a team. He sees that she’s capable of being unselfish when she risks herself to save a child during a firefight. They start to bond as they escape together and move on to the next phase of the mission: finding her father, who’s been working for the Empire but who may have information on how to destroy the Death Star. But even as they bond, there’s a secret between them. She doesn’t know that his orders are to kill her father when they find him.

There’s another big action ordeal when they get to the Imperial base. He can’t go through with killing her father and sympathizes with her when her father is killed in an attack, anyway. She feels betrayed by his secret. But then he totally redeems himself to her when he takes her side and commits to going rogue to go steal the Death Star plans with her, along with other rebels he’s recruited. From there, it’s the two of them against the world as they work together to get the plans. Then they spend their final moments together, with him reassuring her about her father being proud of her, and they die in each other’s arms. There is a moment between them after they’ve completed their mission that seems pretty loaded, like something might have happened if the Death Star hadn’t shown up, but I don’t know if that was scripted or the actors playing with subtext.

Cassian and Jyn embrace as the Death Star shock wave approaches them at the end of Rogue One
I couldn’t find a good picture of the elevator scene, but this is our last image of these two, and it’s not entirely unromantic.

This may be why I like this movie so much. I’m totally a sucker for the “start with bickering, then take on the universe together” trope, whether or not it’s overtly romantic. It even works when it’s just friends, like all those buddy cop stories with the mismatched partners who start out hating each other and then become a great team.

I guess I’ve been thinking about this because the book I’m working on now fits into this pattern. I’m at the part where they’re starting to bond after going through something difficult together, and it’s so much fun.

writing, movies

More Star Wars Story Structure

In my last post, I talked about how the story goal was a problem for The Force Awakens, and that got me started thinking about the whole Star Wars series. It was a fun exercise, so I thought I’d share. I’m going to try to avoid totally giving away the endings, but I figure if you don’t know how the Star Wars movies end, then you probably don’t care.

I have absolutely no idea what the story goal for The Phantom Menace is supposed to be. Something about stopping a trade blockade? But that’s mostly offscreen for most of the movie. I think it might work best if you consider that Palpatine is the protagonist, and his goal is to be made chancellor. Everyone else is just running around being manipulated by him, thinking they’re doing one thing but it’s all part of his plan.

In Attack of the Clones, I think Obi-Wan is our protagonist, with his goal to track down who sent the bounty hunter, which leads him to learn about the clones. But still, I think Palpatine has his own plan to get emergency powers, which the rest of the movie is about, with him manipulating them into doing things that support him.

And that’s still going on in Revenge of the Sith, in which his goal is to take power and turn Anakin to the Dark Side.

I think the fact that the villain is driving the action of these movies may be part of why they’re not very satisfying. It’s not that much fun watching a master manipulator at work when the characters you’re supposed to like are being utter patsies and falling into all his traps. The tricky thing is that since these are prequels, the outcome was already decided. We know Palpatine has to win. The good guys can’t stop him. But there had to be better ways to go about structuring these stories to give the good guys more to do. My favorite part of the whole trilogy (aside from the truly epic lightsaber fight in the lava fields, which is even more impressive when you learn the actors trained hard to do most of it themselves) is the Obi-Wan plot of episode 2, where he actually has something to drive toward and has some success. Another thing that’s unsatisfying about this is that there isn’t really any room for character growth. I don’t feel like anyone truly learns anything or has real personal growth in this trilogy. As much as I like Obi-Wan in this, he’s a fairly static character. Anakin regresses. Palpatine doesn’t have a true protagonist arc, even as he’s driving the action. It’s not like he’s going through any kind of internal struggle.

As I mentioned previously, the goal in the original movie is to blow up the Death Star, with Luke as our clear protagonist.

The Empire Strikes Back is another villain-driven story. The only way I can make it work is to consider Darth Vader as the protagonist, and his story goal is to capture Luke so he can turn him to the Dark Side. The heroes don’t have the kinds of arcs that can drive a whole movie. Han and Leia just want to get their ship fixed so they can meet up with the fleet, and Luke wants to train to be a Jedi. Luke’s goal is more of a character goal than a story goal. Generally, a protagonist has to go through some kind of growth or change in order to carry out the story goal (like Luke learning to trust the Force before he can destroy the Death Star), but Vader fails here, so I guess he doesn’t go through that growth. But since it’s an evil goal, it may mean that since he didn’t pull off the evil goal, it meant he made the right choice and failed to be the villain he should have been.

In Return of the Jedi it gets pretty complicated. The big-picture goal is to blow up Death Star 2.0 while the Emperor’s on board, while the villains’ goal is to trap the Rebels and destroy the Rebel Alliance. But Luke has the secret goal to turn Darth Vader against the Emperor, while Darth Vader has the secret goal to turn Luke and gang up on the Emperor. All of these things are in opposition, and it’s zero-sum.

I was actually pretty disappointed in Return of the Jedi when it first came out, but I found myself liking it a lot more this time around, while I was less enthused about The Empire Strikes Back, which is considered by many to be the best of the films. I wonder how much of that is the dark=automatically good attitude.

I’ve already gone over the issues with The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi is a bit more focused, though it’s split into two plots that converge at the end. The Resistance wants to escape from the First Order, but there’s internal conflict because there are opposing factions within the Resistance who have different ideas for how they should go about this. Meanwhile, Rey’s side of the plot has her goal to recruit Luke to help the Resistance. Ultimately, this help is a big part of what allows the Resistance to escape. However, the protagonist isn’t all that clear. It’s Poe who learns the big lesson and undergoes a lot of change, though that doesn’t have much to do with whether they succeed or fail (he learns from the near-failure, but his learning the lesson doesn’t help them have success) and then there’s Luke realizing that he’s been wrong all along and finally taking action. I guess Rey learns not to be so afraid of the Force and to use it consciously when she lifts the rocks to allow the Resistance forces to escape through the tunnel.

In The Rise of Skywalker, the big-picture goal is to stop the First Order mega-fleet and deal with Palpatine once and for all. Rey’s our clear protagonist, as she has to face some tough truths about herself and finally open herself up to the Force in order to prevail, and she’s also helped by some groundwork she’s laid.

On the side stories, I think Han’s story goal in Solo is to free the woman he loves from what he sees as servitude, though things aren’t what he thinks. And Rogue One is about getting the information about the Death Star. That one has kind of a two-headed protagonist, with both Cassian and Jyn working together toward the same goal, in spite of having some conflict with each other. Basically, that movie is structured a lot like a romance, in spite of it not being romantic, and I think that may be a topic for another post because it’s an idea intriguing enough that I want to dig into it.

Incidentally, if you’re writing a story that’s not working, this is a good exercise to go through to spot plot problems. What is the story goal and who’s the protagonist? From there, you can figure out what the stakes and conflict are. This is also a good way to figure out what to focus on when writing a book blurb.


Story Structure and the Sequels

I’ve reached the sequel trilogy in my Star Wars rewatch, which means it’s almost over (but just as a new season of The Mandalorian is coming on, so there’s still new Star Wars). I actually like the sequel movies, mostly because I love the characters. The casting is perfect, and they all have a wonderful dynamic. I just wish that some of the storytelling around these characters had been better.

For instance, I watched The Force Awakens last weekend, and it struck me that the story in this movie is fundamentally flawed, with one giant, glaring problem: It doesn’t have a clear story goal, which means it doesn’t really have a protagonist.

A story basically boils down to a protagonist trying to achieve a story goal, with conflicts and obstacles making it difficult and some kind of stakes if they don’t succeed. The protagonist is the one who strives for and achieves (or doesn’t, if the story is more tragic) the story goal, with the struggle being difficult enough that they have to transform or resolve some personal issue in order to achieve it. Take The Lord of the Rings. The story goal is to destroy the ring. If they fail, then Sauron will take over all of Middle Earth and destroy it. Sauron and all his forces are trying to get the ring before they can destroy it, and if Sauron gets the ring, he’ll have ultimate power. While all the good guys are on board with the plan to destroy the ring, it’s Frodo who’s the protagonist. He’s the one who has to stick with it, and the experience leaves him transformed, so that he no longer really fits into his old world.

To analyze The Force Awakens, it helps to compare it to the original Star Wars, since to a large extent it was essentially a remake. Spoilers ahead for the whole plot for both movies.

In the original movie, the story goal, conflict, and stakes were laid out in the opening crawl: the rebels wanted to destroy the Death Star and the Empire wanted to stop them from getting the plans that they could use to destroy the Death Star. If the rebels failed, the Empire would be able to blow up planets (and might use that capability to destroy the rebellion). The whole movie is about the threat of the Death Star and the efforts to get the plans to the rebels so they could blow up the Death Star. While all the good guys are on Team Destroy the Death Star, Luke is our protagonist, since he’s the one who undergoes a character change in order to do so. He has to choose the Force over technology and accept his heritage as a potential Jedi. But he’s not a very strong protagonist, in the sense that he’s not really driving the action. For most of the story, he’s forced into turning points by the actions of other characters rather than truly making decisions. He doesn’t step up and take initiative until he decides to rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star prison. His relationship to the story goal evolves through the course of the story. Initially, he’s just trying to get the plans to the rebels. Then he joins in the attack, wanting to help the rebels destroy the Death Star. It’s only at the last minute, after everyone else has been wiped out, that he actually takes on the goal of destroying the Death Star.

Now, The Force Awakens. Again, the opening crawl lays out the story goal and conflict. The Resistance needs to find Luke Skywalker. The First Order also wants to find him (to eliminate him). Our two forces are in opposition. The Resistance not only needs to get to Luke, but they need to stop the First Order from getting to him. Instead of needing to get Death Star plans to the rebels, they need to get the map to find Luke to the Resistance. That’s what the first half of the movie is about. Poe gives the plans to BB-8, who runs into Rey, who escapes from the planet with Finn and BB-8 and is trying to take BB-8 to the Resistance. Then she gets personally invested in the quest to find Luke when she has a disturbing experience with the Force, so she knows she needs to find him and get some training, but this also terrifies her, so she resists it and tries to run away.

And then the movie abruptly switches tracks. At almost exactly the halfway mark, we learn about Starkiller Base, which can blow up whole systems. Suddenly, the story goal veers over to being about destroying this base before it can destroy the Resistance. We get a few bits of the Luke story in Kylo Ren trying to get the map Rey saw out of her head, and I guess that’s kind of what the lightsaber fight is about (I suspect it was mostly because a Star Wars movie needs a lightsaber fight, but I think Kylo Ren was trying to keep Rey from getting away with the knowledge in her head and her latent Force powers), but the climax of the movie is about blowing up the base. Then we get back to the Luke story in an “oh yeah, that” way, with R2-D2 suddenly waking up and giving them the rest of the map, so Rey and Chewbacca can head off and find Luke.

So, which is the story goal, finding Luke or blowing up the base? The Luke story takes up most of the screen time. The base story doesn’t come up until midway through the movie, and then there are still bits of the Luke story woven in, plus the coda. There’s probably more conflict in the Luke story, since the First Order is not only trying to stop the Resistance from finding him, but they also want to find him themselves for their own reasons. Every bounty hunter, First Order sympathizer and criminal in the galaxy is on the lookout for BB-8. Rey has personal internal conflict relating to this quest. On the other hand, there’s no conflict at all in the resolution of it. R2 wakes up for Reasons. No one does anything to make that happen. Ultimately, finding Luke comes down to following a map. There’s no race against the bad guys, no one trying to get in their way. The conflict for the base plot mostly comes down to the First Order not wanting the base destroyed and sending some fighters out to intercept the Resistance attack force. All the effort to learn about the base comes in an offscreen recon mission, and then they have what Finn knows from having served on the base, so there’s not a lot of struggle.

But the stakes are all with the base story. If they don’t destroy this base, the First Order will be able to destroy anyone who opposes them and will probably wipe out the Resistance. On the Luke plot, we don’t really know why this is so urgent. As Luke himself says in the next movie, it’s not as though one old guy with a lightsaber is going to make that much of a difference. It’s mostly important because the audience knows Luke and wants to see him. I don’t think they ever articulate what will happen if they don’t find Luke. If the First Order caught up with them and they destroyed that thumb drive with the map to keep the bad guys from getting it, even if that meant the good guys couldn’t find Luke, what would the consequences be? We don’t know.

A test of the story goal is the role of the protagonist in making it happen and the effect on the protagonist. But who’s the protagonist of this story? Poe is involved in both plots. He’s the one who gets the map and sends it with BB-8 and he’s the one who blows up the base, but he doesn’t really go through any growth or change or personal struggle. Rey is the protagonist of the trilogy, but she’s not actually a driving force in either story here. She does help BB-8 and gets him to where he can return to the Resistance, and she has to change her mind about returning home instead of getting involved and about dealing with the Force when she sees for certain she has some kind of power she doesn’t understand, so she goes through some personal change related to the Luke plot. She has almost nothing to do with the base plot, aside from being present. I think this fuzziness about her role may have a lot to do with the reaction of some fans to this character (but that’s a topic for a whole other post).

It looks like in essentially remaking the original movie, what they did was divide that plot into two plots. Leia was on her way to recruit Obi-Wan when she was captured and had to send the plans with R2 (who may actually be the protagonist of the whole saga), but it’s likely her father’s real intent there wasn’t so much to bring in one old guy with a lightsaber, but rather to signal Obi-Wan that it was time to bring in Luke, since Luke would be Vader’s weakness (Leia would also work for that, but Bail was probably more open to using some kid he didn’t know as Vader bait than he would be to using his own daughter). Instead of weaving the threads together, they split the killer weapon and the old Jedi plots into separate elements that had nothing to do with each other.

I think it would have made for a stronger story if they’d ditched the killer weapon plot and fleshed out the Luke plot. What, specifically, did they need Luke for? Did they need a real Jedi to be able to deal with Snoke? Had Leia found a group of Force sensitive people who could be trained as Jedi, but needed someone to finish their training? And then build action around the search for Luke, so it takes more than following a map. They can’t follow the map because the First Order is tracking them, and they can’t lead them to Luke. They have to have a space battle to fend off the First Order. Let Rey still get captured and have to fight Kylo Ren and then escape. Maybe they do have to destroy the map to keep the First Order from getting it, so all seems lost, but then R2’s map points them in the general direction and Rey has to use the Force she’s been resisting to sense the Jedi temple.

It’s frustrating when professional screenwriters get something this basic wrong. It kind of feels like a movie made by committee by weaving together two different scripts. But at least I can boil down the problem here. I can’t figure out what The Phantom Menace is actually about or who the protagonist is supposed to be. Whatever George Lucas knew about story structure when writing the first movie, he totally forgot when it came to writing the prequels because there’s almost no structure there.


The Star Wars Dystopia

I’m getting close to wrapping up my epic Star Wars rewatch, and something that’s struck me is how much of a dystopia that universe is. It’s not just during the reign of the evil Empire. The whole time, it’s a pretty unpleasant place.

Even during the Republic, this was a place where people were owned as slaves, and this was apparently perfectly legal. The good guys who were the guardians of truth, justice, and peace took small children away from their families to train them as warriors and allowed them no contact with their families. “Bounty hunter” seems to have been a major career field. There were crime syndicates running drugs and slaves.

Some of that may have been in the more marginal areas that were under less control, but the capital planet is basically an urban hell, an entire world covered in a massive, multi-level city, so the only people who get daylight live on the upper levels and the actual surface of the world is a dark underworld. This is the “good” planet.

I wonder how intentional some of this was when it was first envisioned. I’m sure some of it comes down to storytelling, since you don’t get good stories in happy, nice places with no conflict. The whole urban planet thing seems to have been an effort to make something look really science fictiony and take advantage of special effects, but I wonder if Lucas thought this was a nice place or if he was saying something with it. This is, after all, the guy who established his own headquarters at a ranch in the country rather than in a major city.

The people creating Star Wars stuff now seem to be leaning into the dystopian elements, acknowledging where the problems were. I got the impression that the sequels were about to really try to examine that, particularly The Last Jedi, which was pointing out that there was rot, whoever was in charge, and questioning some of the premises of the Jedi order. That didn’t get followed up on much in the next movie, but it seems like some of those questions continue to be raised in the other shows.

In a way, it makes this universe a better place for telling stories when it’s flawed and those flaws are acknowledged, but I’ve gotta say, this isn’t a universe I’d particularly want to visit. I would love to tell stories there, though, especially if I were allowed to question some of the things that underlie that world, even when the “good guys” are in charge.


Pacing Star Wars

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been rewatching the Star Wars saga (live-action movies and TV series) in interior chronological order. It blows my mind how much of it there is now. I think I started in November, and I only got to the original movie last weekend, with five movies and two TV series before it and five more movies plus 1 2-season (3 by the time I get there) and 1 one-season series to go. And that’s not even counting the animated stuff. I remember a time when watching all Star Wars content would have meant just watching that one movie.

It had been a long time since I watched the original Star Wars (I still can’t make myself call it A New Hope), and it was interesting seeing it again in the context of all the stuff that’s been added before it, especially the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, as well as Andor and Rogue One (I got a giggle out of thinking that Disney+ could put a “skip recap” button on the opening crawl if you’ve recently watched Rogue One). But the other thing I found interesting on this viewing was the story structure. I usually use this movie as an example when talking about story structure because the beats are so clear and it uses such a simple, fundamental structure (plus, most people are familiar with the story, so I don’t have to worry about spoilers or people not knowing what I’m talking about). But I’d never actually timed out the beats, looking at where they fall in the story. This time I did, and it turns out that while all the beats are very clearly there, they fall in unusual places, so this movie is paced rather unusually.

For one thing, we don’t even meet our hero until nearly 20 minutes into a 2-hour movie. And then it takes a little more time to get his Call to Adventure. He doesn’t accept the call and enter the “new world” of the story, in which he leaves the familiar for the unknown, until about 40 minutes in, close to the halfway point. This is stuff that usually happens within the first half hour or so.

But this is the final, edited movie. The script originally had something different, cutting from the opening space battle to Luke spotting a glint in the sky and then watching the battle through his binoculars. It then cuts back and forth between the stuff happening on the ship (the battle, Darth Vader’s arrival, Leia making the message with R2 and then getting caught, etc.) and Luke rushing to town in his landspeeder to excitedly tell his friends about the space battle he saw and getting mocked for it, then running into his friend who’d gone off to the Academy but was home on a break. His friend said he was going to run off to join the Rebellion and encouraged Luke to take some kind of action. This is the friend he runs into just before the final battle and who dies near the end of the battle. All this is in the novelization that was written from the screenplay before the movie was finished, and it was shot. You can find these scenes on YouTube. Lucas left them out even from the special edition.

That does introduce our hero sooner and show more of his motivation for what happens later, but if it had been left in, it would have delayed the Call to Adventure and the Threshold Crossing even more. Most of the info about Luke and his life that we get in this segment is repeated in his conversation with C3PO in the garage and then with his aunt and uncle at dinner. The only thing that’s sort of left hanging out there is the thing with his friend and why he’s so affected by the death of this one guy in a squadron full of people he barely knows. They added in a bit more of the reunion at the rebel base in the special edition so it’s not totally out of the blue. I think the pacing does work better the way it is, focusing on introducing the world and its greater conflicts before drilling down to the guy who’s going to have to deal with it.

With the Crossing the Threshold moment coming so late, there’s only about 20 minutes for the Tests, Enemies, and Allies segment — arrival in Mos Eisley, the cantina, meeting Han and Chewie, escaping from Tatooine, and the lightsaber training on board the ship. The midpoint of the movie happens when they’re brought on board the Death Star. In Joseph Campbell’s terms, that’s when they go into the belly of the beast, so that tracks.

This means that the last half of the movie is utterly packed with action. We’ve got the prison break, the trash compactor, a lot of running through the Death Star, the Swing across the gap, the lightsaber duel, the escape from the Death Star and space battle, and then the final battle. No wonder the movie leaves you breathless. After all that, you’re exhausted just from watching it. Going back to that idea of the first page selling this book and the last page selling the next one, the last half of this movie probably has a lot to do with its success. You leave with a sense of triumph, like you’ve just had a really good workout and have all those endorphins buzzing through your system.

It does start with a bang, with that iconic opening shot of the small ship pursued by the massive Star Destroyer, but then the first half is mostly worldbuilding and exposition. There are little bursts of lower-stakes action, but there’s still intense tension in just about every scene. You get the feeling of something building, and then the second half provides the catharsis for all that tension.

I may need to reread the novelization to see how Alan Dean Foster handled it in novel form (especially since I’ve met Alan and heard some of his stories about writing that book, which was published under George Lucas’s name).

Now on to The Empire Strikes Back, and I can get a bit misty-eyed at the idea that Rogue Squadron in that movie is an homage to the Rogue One team (even though it was reverse-engineered).

musicals, movies

Movie Musicals

I seem to have gone on a movie musical kick lately, and they were all relatively recent (21st century, not the 50s and 60s when Hollywood musicals were a big thing).

First, one I hadn’t heard of and stumbled across on Amazon, Walking on Sunshine. This is basically Mamma Mia, but set in Italy instead of Greece and using 80s pop music instead of ABBA music. A young Englishwoman travels to Italy to join her sister on vacation and learns that her madcap sister is about to get married, and the groom is the man our heroine fell for during a previous vacation to this place. The Mamma Mia influence is really obvious, with a lot of character and situation parallels. You can tell that someone was trying to cash in on that. And I have to admit that I might actually like the story in this movie better than Mamma Mia. It’s less creepy than “one of these men who slept with my mom around the same time might be my dad” and the ending is more satisfying. It’s fun, fluffy, extremely lightweight entertainment with catchy music, and if you grew up in the 80s there’s a bonus nostalgia factor with the music. It’s fun guessing which pop song they’ll use for each situation. It’s amusing to consider that there’s also an element of E.M. Forster a century or so later to this story, since it’s about English people going to Italy and finding themselves and learning to loosen up. It’s like moving Where Angels Fear to Tread to the 21st century, removing the tragedy, and adding pop music.

Under other (non-pandemic) circumstances, I would have gone to see the latest musical version of Cyrano at the theater on opening day because this sort of thing is totally my jam. But it showed up on Prime Video and I may be watching it repeatedly (I’ve already been listening to the songs on YouTube so often that they keep popping up in “listen again” for me). This is the classic story of the brilliant and witty but physically unattractive man who helps the handsome but inarticulate man woo the woman they both love by ghostwriting love letters to her, but with some twists. There’s the music, for one thing. The other is that instead of him having a big nose, as Cyrano is usually portrayed, he’s a little person (since he’s played by Peter Dinklage). That adds some nuance, since Dinklage is a very handsome man, but his stature might be harder to get past than a big nose, especially in that time period (the adaptation was written by his real-life wife, so I’m sure there was some thought put into that). It’s a romantic story, but not a genre romance. I’d say the vibe is kind of Moulin Rouge meets Les Mis. There are occasionally some surreal anachronisms (like breakdancing in the historical setting), but then a lot of it is very grounded, so that it goes into this dreamlike place when the musical numbers kick in. “Dreamlike” is a good description of this film. I find myself wondering if I really saw it or if I dreamed it. The music is kind of ear-wormy and the actress playing Roxane is utterly incandescent. This gives you an idea of what it’s like:

Then last weekend I rewatched La La Land. I watched it on HBO when it first showed up there after release, and I recall liking it, but it didn’t make a strong impression and didn’t give it much thought until a few months ago, when I was listening to a radio show on musical theater and movie musicals. It was an episode on “to dub or not to dub,” looking at movie musicals that had the singing dubbed by professional singers, those that maybe should have, and those in which the actors were able to sing for themselves. As an example in the category of “it may not be the best singing, but it’s about the acting of the song and the emotional impact” they played this song:

That’s probably what won her the Oscar for this role, and it’s more impressive when you know that this was sung live, not lip synced to a studio recording, and it’s one continuous take with no edits, so she had to get the whole thing right. Anyway, this song hit me at that time on a tender spot emotionally. I was pondering whether I’d made the right choices in my life and trying to decide whether I should keep trying with writing or give up and get a regular job so I’d have more financial security, and this idea of the world needing dreamers was what I needed to hear. At that time, the movie wasn’t streaming on anything I had access to, but it recently showed up on Prime, so I rewatched it, and I think because of what I’ve been pondering, it had a much bigger impact.

The story is about an aspiring actress and an aspiring jazz musician who meet when they’re both at pivotal points in pursuing their respective dreams, when they’re going to have to decide whether or not to give up and try something else. It looks and feels a lot like an old Hollywood musical while at the same time being somewhat realistic about how hard it is to make it, how rare and difficult those big breaks can be, and what compromises and choices you might have to make in pursuit of your dream. I think one reason it worked better for me the second time was I had my expectations set better. Because it feels like an old Hollywood musical, you’re expecting it to be a romance and to work out that way, but it’s really a love story about a dream, not a person. If you’re expecting it to be a romance, it feels like a bait and switch, but if you know it’s about the dream, it works a lot better.

It reminds me that what I’ve always wanted to do was bring stories to life. I wanted to go into film or television, either as a writer or as someone who puts together the pieces to bring it all together. I didn’t know enough about the business to even know what, exactly, it was I wanted to do. Now I know I was looking at being either a development executive or being a TV staff writer who might eventually work up to showrunner/executive producer. But I knew I didn’t want to live in LA. Even when it’s heavily romanticized, like in this movie, it holds zero appeal for me. If I were to list the things I want in a place to live, it would be the polar opposite of every one of them. So I didn’t pursue it, since there’s no point in training to do something that would require you to live in a place you’d hate while also having to struggle to break in. When I actually visited LA, my impressions of what it was like were confirmed — and my first visit was even pure Hollywood, going to a red-carpet movie premiere.

So, anyway, that movie gives me a lot of feelings. I’m still not sure what choices I’d make if I could go back in time and have a do-over, knowing what I know now. Back when I would have been studying TV and film, it was before the Internet and Zoom meetings, before you could make a decent movie on your iPhone and post it to YouTube, where it might go viral and get you a break. If I could be 18 again but now, I might make different choices, but I’m not sure I would pursue that dream if I had to be 18 again back when I was 18. Now I just have to hope that one of my books gets made into a series and I get to be involved somehow.

I do think I could suck it up and move to California if I got a chance to work on one of the Star Wars series. Just putting that out there.

Speaking of Star Wars, I think after my sidetrack into rom-coms and musicals I’ll get back to my Star Wars rewatch. I’m just about through rewatching Andor, so I think I’ll go for a Rogue One/A New Hope double feature this weekend. I haven’t watched them back-to-back, though I’ll have to do it on subsequent nights since I don’t have the stamina for watching two movies in one evening.


The Rom-Com Film Festival

For the past couple of weeks, I took a break from my fantasy and Star Wars viewing and watched a bunch of romantic comedies. There were the Christmas/holiday movies, and then there were a bunch of movies leaving Prime at the end of December that I wanted to watch, most of which were rom-coms, so that was what I did between Christmas and the new year. Here’s a quick rundown of the ones that were good enough to be memorable.

Something from Tiffany’s (Amazon Prime original) — I’d put this into a similar category as The Holiday or While You Were Sleeping, since it’s a movie set during the holiday season rather than really being a “Christmas movie,” and most of it takes place between Christmas and New Year’s Day. There’s just enough holiday to give it a festive vibe, but not so much that you would feel weird watching it at any other time of year.

One man is buying an engagement ring to propose to his girlfriend at Tiffany’s while another man is buying a small pair of earrings for his girlfriend, and when there’s an accident just outside the store, the bags get swapped, so the girlfriend of the guy just buying earrings opens her present to find an engagement ring, while the one expecting an engagement ring gets earrings. The mix-up leads both couples to reconsider things. I thought this one was a lot of fun. The cast is very engaging and there’s a good energy to it. I think it might even have worked as a big-screen release, if they still made rom-coms for the big screen.

Sleepless in Seattle — this is a classic, and I’d been planning to rewatch it ever since reading a biography of Nora Ephron earlier in the year. I think I’ve only seen it once, so it was like seeing a new movie. I was supposed to see it on a date — the guy asked me out specifically to see this movie but he hadn’t checked the listings, so he didn’t know where or when it was showing. When we finished dinner, he suggested we drive by the nearby theater to see if it was playing there. It had started about half an hour earlier. I wasn’t having enough fun to want to drive around to other theaters (this was in the days before smart phones allowed you to look up things like movie times) or hang out to wait for the next showing, so I didn’t end up seeing the movie until about a year later when I rented it while I was recovering from knee surgery. I remembered some parts of the movie, but the whole middle was new to me and some of the mental images I remembered weren’t in the movie, so I might have zoned out while on painkillers for part of the movie and dreamed something. I liked it more this time than I recall liking it then. I was hanging out with a lot of romance authors at that time, and they hated it because it wasn’t really a romance to them. I think if it were published as a book it would be more of a “chick lit” sort of thing. It is a little creepy how she basically stalks him while she’s engaged to someone else, but I still like the characters and the idea of not settling.

The Cutting Edge — another classic. I hadn’t realized this was written by Tony Gilroy, who’s the showrunner and one of the writers for Andor. I’d seen this one over and over because my friends and I often rented it for movie nights during the 90s but hadn’t watched it in a long time, and I think it holds up well. I love figure skating and rom-coms, so win! The day after I watched it, I found the DVD on the clearance shelf at the used bookstore, so now I have a copy.

The Proposal — I’d never actually seen this one, in which a Devil Wears Prada-type book editor forces her assistant to marry her so she can stay in the country, only to find herself falling for him and his family. I’m not sure anyone but Sandra Bullock could have pulled this role off and managed to make that character vulnerable and charming under the bitchy exterior. It’s funny how closely it parallels While You Were Sleeping, in spite of it being a very different story and polar opposite character. I have to give Sandra Bullock huge props for gender flipping the usual Hollywood age difference and getting much younger men as her romantic leading men in both this and The Lost City.

About Fate — Another Prime original new this year. It’s hard to describe this one without giving away some twists, and I don’t think the description on their site is very good or at all accurate, so here goes my blurb: A man and woman have to consider the role of fate when their eerily parallel lives intersect on New Year’s Eve.

This is another one that could have been released for the big screen. I liked the characters and actually wanted them to get together. It was sweet and romantic and funny. Apparently, it’s a remake of an old Soviet movie that’s a major tradition in Russia. It’s shown on TV every New Year’s Eve, and just about everyone has it memorized. The reviews from people familiar with the original are very negative, so now I’m curious if there’s a subtitled version of the original out there, but I liked this one a lot. It even inspired a couple of story ideas I want to play with.

I noticed while watching all of these that the romance is seldom my favorite part of a romantic comedy. I tend to like the other relationships — the family and friends. Or I like the relationship between the hero and heroine before things get romantic. My favorite part of most of these movies, though, is the character growth, seeing the transformation of the characters. That may be why I don’t mind that the hero and heroine in Sleepless in Seattle don’t meet until the end. It’s not really about the romance, it’s about her figuring out who she is and what she really wants.

This could explain why I was wildly unsuccessful as a romance novelist. I managed to fake it long enough to sell a few books, but I couldn’t sustain it. I’m better off writing things that are about something else but that have romantic possibilities.

writing, movies

Saving the Cat

I’ve started a rewatch of the Star Wars saga, going in internal timeline order, since some of the recent series have put things in a new context (I’m only including live-action shows and movies in this because there’s so much of the animation that it would take me years, and I recently finished watching Clone Wars). I’m on the prequels now, and I figured out a valuable writing lesson from watching Attack of the Clones last weekend that I actually used in my own writing because it made me realize what I needed to do in the scene I was working on.

I normally fast-forward through the Anakin and Padme scenes when I watch this movie because that part is painful while the rest of the movie can be a lot of fun. I made myself watch the whole movie this time, and I think Hayden Christensen gets a lot of unfair criticism for his performance. He actually does a good job portraying the character as he’s written. The problem is that his character seems to be in a totally different movie from everyone else, particularly Padme. They’re all reacting to a different person than we actually see, and I think that has a lot to do with it all being so unconvincing. He’s this seething volcano of arrogance and adolescent rage, someone who hates the universe the way it is and thinks he could fix it if he could force everyone to do what he wants, but everyone’s acting like he’s this great guy who’s just a little cocky.

The romance really feels out of sync. It seems like every romantic moment is preceded by a scene of him being kind of scary, or at least creepy. Padme hears him having a hissy fit about how he’s the greatest Jedi ever and how unappreciated he is, and she has to ask him to stop staring at her because he’s making her uncomfortable, then she calls him out for mansplaining her home planet to her — and that’s what leads up to their first kiss. Since I usually skip these parts, I’d forgotten what happened, and based on her behavior leading up to that moment, when he started touching her and leaned in for the kiss, I expected her to flinch away and tell him to back off, so the kiss came as a shock. Later, the scene of them romping in the meadow and rolling around on the ground, giggling, comes after the conversation in which he talks about a dictatorship being a good idea, something she actually seems to find alarming since it goes against everything she believes. So why is she getting all romantic with him immediately afterward? And then before she declares her love for him, she hears him go on yet another rant about being better than everyone else and admitting that he slaughtered all the sandpeople, including the children.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that not only were there a lot of reasons why she wouldn’t have fallen in love with him, but they also didn’t bother to give any reasons why she would. During their whole side of the story, we don’t see him do anything kind or heroic. There’s the chase through the city scene at the beginning, but she didn’t see that, and then there’s the battle after she declares her love. But during the middle of the movie, when she’s supposedly falling in love with him, he doesn’t actually do anything. He’s there as a bodyguard for her, but he never has to save her. They don’t have an adventure together where they have to work as a team — even when they’re in that factory, they’re off on their own, not working together. She doesn’t see him help anyone else.

The funny thing is, George Lucas has managed to make this sort of thing work before. I also rewatched Willow last weekend (to prepare for the launch of the series). That story has an even higher hurdle for the “why?” since it’s an enemies-to-lovers story, but you can see why she fell in love with this guy (the actors were falling in love in real life and ended up married, so there is something of an unfair advantage since they had crazy chemistry, but I think the script still supports it). First, we saw the way her mother constantly criticized and berated her, so when the guy starts spouting poetry at her and praising her, we can see it get to her (he was under a love spell at the time, but she didn’t learn that until later). It may have been the first kind words she’d ever heard. Later, we see her react to him being loyal to and protective of Willow and the baby. Still later, we see her impressed by his swordsmanship and bravery, the fact that he’s singlehandedly taking on her army in order to protect Willow and the baby.

In screenwriting, there’s a term, “save the cat,” which basically means a moment in a story when you make the audience like a character by having that character “save the cat” — they have a moment when they do something kind or heroic without receiving any benefit from it. That’s particularly useful when introducing a character who might be edgy or problematic if the story isn’t going to show them being heroic or good for a while, but you want the audience to like them. For instance, in the animated Disney Aladdin, Aladdin is introduced as a thief, stealing bread and then running from the guards. Along the way, he sees a starving child and hands over the bread he stole for himself. That’s a save the cat moment.

But I think the save the cat can be more than just for the audience. It can be a way of making a character like another character. There’s an example of this in another Star Wars film. Early in Rogue One, Jyn Erso is kind of being a brat. She’s being forced to do something she really doesn’t want to do, and she’s got an attitude about it. Cassian Andor is having to babysit this brat on a mission he’s not crazy about, and he’s tired of her attitude. Then they get caught in the crossfire when a group of rebels attacks some Imperials. She spots a small child who’s out in the open, in danger, and she jumps out of her hiding place to whisk the child to safety and return her to her mother. It works as a “save the cat” for the audience because we see that there’s a kind heart underneath the attitude, and I think it affects the way Cassian sees her. They get along a bit better after that point. In Willow, there’s not really one particular save the cat moment, but the fact that this brash swordsman is willing to risk it all to protect the small, weak, and helpless has a similar effect.

And that’s what we needed some of in Attack of the Clones. Lucas may have gone too far in showing Anakin’s downward spiral starting so soon. Maybe he could have held off with the ranting and slaughter of children until after Anakin was already married to Padme, or maybe it should have been in secret and she didn’t know about it. But at the very least, Anakin needed to save a few cats. He needed to whisk a child from danger, use the Force to levitate a kitten out of a tree or stop something from falling on someone. We needed to see that he had a good heart underneath the attitude and the rage. And we never did see that. The audience does see him saving Obi-Wan a time or two, but Padme doesn’t see him doing or being good in the whole time between their reunion for the first time since she met him as a child and the time she declares her love for him.

The characters I’m working with aren’t nearly that problematic, but I did have a situation in which I needed to get one character to trust another character quickly, even though she met him in difficult circumstances, and after thinking about these movies it struck me that she needed to see him doing an act of kindness that showed a gentler, softer side to him. And from there, I knew what my next scene needed to be.