Archive for September, 2010

HAIL CENTURION

September 7, 2010

Since I’ll be in London in a few days I thought I’d see a right old British-made movie and caught a matinee of CENTURION, Neil Marshall’s film about a Roman legion that vanished in what is now Scotland.  I enjoyed it on many levels.  For one thing, it is quite similar to an idea I’ve been cooking for years, and I’ve gotten over my ego enough now that I wasn’t crushed to see someone else realize it.  Eventually all my projects will get made by Other People Productions, and I am almost as happy about that as if I had produced them myself.

For another, they got it right on those things that matter to fans of (more or less) accurate historical and military subjects.  The armor, weapons, and fortifications were all convincing enough, and the depictions of Roman camps and forts were particularly realistic-looking.

I was pleased that Marshall was content to tell his story without benefit of Jerry Bruckheimer-style over-the-top athletics, supernatural embellishments, and egregious special effects.  Just good old-fashioned action.  No one was flying through the air or doing impossible somersaults like in PRINCE OF PERSIA, and there were no fantastic, digital gimmicks like the skeletal pirates and monsters in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  Nothing wrong with those elements in their places; it’s just refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t depend on them.  To do a period piece “straight up” these days without the crutches of heavy CGI or fantastic elements is an act of courage.  The female Pictish hunters who pursue the Romans so doggedly seem almost supernatural with their keen senses and quick reaction times, but it’s all quite believable and within the bounds of movie “reality”, whatever that is.

I took pleasure in watching good actors working and in seeing all the other arts of cinema being exercised by pros who should be working more.  I want to live in a universe where more movies like this can get made and seen.  CENTURION is getting art house distribution in the U.S. and it will be a long march through hostile economic territory before it makes back its reported budget of US$ 12 million.  But it might get there, through the long tail of selling rights to DVD, cable, download, etc.  It will make a good companion to my GLADIATOR DVD.

I liked the way Marshall “bookended” the story with identical statements made by the main character (Michael Fassbender’s eponymous hero, Centurion Quintus Dias) at beginning and end, to the effect that “This is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.”  We first see Quintus running bare-chested through a frozen Highland landscape, being pursued by vengeful Picts.  This is a flash-forward, tossing the audience some information from the middle of the story’s actual temporal order.  It has the effect of putting us in immediate sympathy with the hero, a determined survivor, and in fear for his safety.    Marshall is then able to reel back his story to a chronological beginning, when Quintus’ boss, General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West) is sent north to put down unruly Pictish tribes.   It was important and necessary, I think, to establish an emotional bond with Quintus in this flash-forward, or else the audience might easily be confused, perhaps thinking the movie is going to be about General Titus, a larger-than-life character played by a charismatic actor who eats up the screen in the early scenes.

At the end, Quintus has bested all his enemies and overcome every obstacle, and instead of rejoining the Roman army he returns to a now somewhat safer Scotland, falling exhausted from his horse into the arms of a Celtic maiden with a bit of intuition and healing power.

The line “This is neither the beginning nor the end of my story” is repeated, suggesting that this apparent happy ending may not go on happily ever after, and that in the mostly realistic world the movie presents, there may be other opponents and obstacles to face.  And maybe a sequel.

One little thing amused me — the word “Okay” has now crept in as an acceptable expression in movies depicting long-ago times.  Marshall used it a couple of times in short succession — once in subtitles translating a bit of Pictish dialogue, and then again a few seconds later in dialogue among the Roman characters.   I guess “okay” is such a useful expression that it has become part of a standard English or international vocabulary, and no longer connotes a contemporary or American idiom.  (The true origin and meaning of O.K. or okay is much disputed but it originated in the U.S. in the early 19th century and has a particularly Yankee ring to it.)   In a movie like CENTURION it still jars my ear and distracts me, taking me out of the illusion that I am watching a story taking place in another time.  It reminds me a bit too much of my own time, like seeing a jet plane cross the sky or noticing that a Roman soldier is using a mobile phone.   I found it amusing because I had just chastised a writer for using “Okay” in a script that took place in the 4th century A.D.  I accept that historical dialogue needs to be a bit contemporary so that characters don’t sound stilted, as if they were reading from an antique translation of the Bible.  We want the characters to sound a bit like we do, but to my taste “Okay” is a bridge too far.

I also felt a small sense of impatience with the structure of the film, which seemed to have one or two extra loops or sequences.  My sense of a satisfying structure called for the movie to end a bit sooner than it actually did, and I couldn’t quite figure out where the act breaks were falling.  Several times I thought “Ah, this must be the end of Act Two, and now we will be accelerating towards the climax,” but found that these turning point events were actually marking smaller increments of the story, and the real end of Act Two was still to come, several scenes further along.  It was a fairly complex story in which Marshall had to track different groups of the fugitive Romans who had gotten separated as they fled from their relentless Pictish pursuers, so that may have accounted for the structural intricacy.

It may not be a movie for everyone — my wife wouldn’t have enjoyed it because of the intensity (or honesty) with which violence is depicted.  Almost every stroke of the sword or thrust of the spear is a lethal blow, with bodies transfixed and heads lopped in half or sawed off with some difficulty.  But that’s how it was, folks!

The film delivered an extra treat for me because I followed my usual practice of sitting all the way through the end credits, something I learned to do in film school, out of respect for all the people who worked on the film.  It’s also a good source of information about what skills were required to make the movie, what music was used, and where the movie was shot.  In this case, the extra reward was one of the last lines in the credits, something like “Thanks to Walter Hill and Zenophon (sic) for all the inspiration.”  I hadn’t consciously realized the Hill-Xenophon connection until then, but instantly recognized that Marshall was acknowledging his debt to two storytellers whose work had influenced and inspired his own.  Walter Hill’s film THE WARRIORS (1979) about gangs in New York bears a plot similarity to CENTURION, in that both films describe the escape of a small band through hostile territory after the death of a charismatic leader.  Hill’s film,  a cult classic that has spawned a video game, a TV series, a comic book series and an upcoming Tony Scott remake, was based on a novel by Sol Yurick that was based in turn on an ancient work, the “Anabasis” of Xenophon, a Greek soldier in the service of Cyrus the Great of Persia.  When Cyrus was assassinated, Xenophon and about 10,000 Greek mercenaries had to fight their back to Greek lands through thousands of miles of rough terrain, peopled by hostile tribes.  The exploits of the gang members in THE WARRIORS, and of the Roman survivors of a massacre in CENTURION, mirror those of Xenophon’s companions in the Anabasis (“Up Country” or “The Journey Upcountry”).

All this goes to support my belief that there is treasure in the stories of the past, and that the classics can be mined again and again for contemporary stories, for science fiction, or in this case, to provide some plot points and inspiration for  a story taking place in a different time period from the original source.  I had an interesting discussion about that with a group of film writing students in New Zealand, at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington.  I talked about a chapter in my new book on how A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM is the lineal descendant of a pamphlet on character flaws written by a follower of Aristotle.  I love to find examples of new stories based on old ones, and CENTURION is a good one.

CENTURION is also notable for being partially financed by the UKFC (United Kingdom Film Council), a funding body which supported many worthy films that might never have reached the screen otherwise.  The world economic flinching has brought about some changes and I understand the UKFC has been cut back severely, which is a shame, because other CENTURIONS may now never get made or be seen.

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The 48-hour Sunday

September 1, 2010

Again I say, very soon (September 11 and 12) I will be in London to present a 2-day Writer’s Journey Master Class hosted by Raindance:

http://www.raindance.co.uk/site/

If you’re within reach of London, as are many of my friends and fans in Europe, please come and hear my latest thoughts about 3-D, polarity as an engine of story construction, techniques for building characters, and many other treats sampled from my upcoming book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT.  I’ll also present my templates for story design and character building, drawn from the hero’s journey in myth and movies.

THE 48-HOUR SUNDAY

This weekend I had one of those impossibly long days, a forty-eight-hour Sunday, caused by flying back to L.A. after a trip to lecture in New Zealand.  We crossed the International Date Line somewhere around midnight Sunday, automatically re-setting the clock to midnight Saturday and starting Sunday all over again.  Of course I wasn’t really gaining anything — just getting back the day I’d lost when I crossed the Date Line from East to West, ten days before.

I travel quite a lot these days, or at least this is a busy season after a couple of years of not much travel because of the world recession.  I’m beginning to think that there is an element of time travel in flinging your body thousands of miles at three hundred miles per hour, five miles up in the sky.  I notice that though all air travel is damaging to the body, it   feels  a bit easier, a little less stressful, to travel from West to East as I did on the return flight, because you are traveling in the same direction as the rotation of the Earth.  You go where the Earth is going, you just get there a little faster.  That’s not too hard on the human frame, just accelerating your movement through time a bit.

But in the other direction, flying fast from East to West, you are traveling against the rotation of the earth.  In effect you are going backward in time, against the flow of the time stream, and that seems to be much more punishing on the body.  The outward-bound flight from L. A. to Auckland was noticeably harder to recover from than the homeward-bound flight.

Jet lag aside, the trip to New Zealand was great fun and very eye-opening.  First it must be said, New Zealanders are nice.  Also thoughtful, considerate, helpful, compassionate, reasonable, and responsible, but primarily nice, and all the rest seems to stem from that.  They reminded me of the people of Portugal, who were also open to human interaction in a way that I don’t see or experience very often in Los Angeles, where people are more guarded.  It was refreshing to feel this openness in both countries, and I think it has changed me and how I deal with other people.  I like it.

Kiwis are also smart people, at least the ones I met.  I had good crowds full of intelligent people at both my events.  The first weekend I was in Auckland to give a one-day workshop on Friday sponsored by the Romance Writers of New Zealand, a lively and whip-smart group made up mostly of women, as you might expect.  I have always had a romance going for the romance writers and I hope I make their hearts throb a little.  They were the first audience to really “get” me and my act, and they took the ball and ran with it, creating their own heroine’s journey templates to craft more intricate, realistic and emotional plots.  The Kiwi romance writers gave me another hour on Saturday to talk about “the power of inspiration” and I Mused about how Memory is the mother of the Muses in Greek mythology, and how writers have to cultivate and harvest from their memory banks.  I finished with a version of my “Trust the Path” story that always chokes me up.

I had an interesting discussion with one of New Zealand’s most successful romance writers, Stephanie Laurens, about how certain things we write, the best things, have the power to make us feel the same emotion every time we read them.  The same is true in the movie editing room.  Sometimes you get the right combination of music and image, the right catharsis from an actor, the right punchline for a joke, and it works on you every time, making you cry or laugh, giving you a shiver down the back, even after viewing it dozens of times.  That’s a “keeper”, a bit you know will have to be in the book or the movie.

A lot of advance work had been done for this trip by the able organizers of my events, and so there was a lot of “press”, meaning I got interviewed about seven times for various media.  The process opened my eyes a bit about how things you say in interviews and on your blog are seized upon, condensed and interpreted by future interviewers.

I noticed that anything negative or critical I had said, or anything negative an interviewer had said, was picked up and passed on by subsequent interviewers.  In a print interview for an Auckland newspaper a couple of weeks before the events, I had complained about some changes that were made in translating parts of  Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” series into the film directed by Peter Weir.  From that point on, interviewers reading up on me assumed that I hated the movie and tended to throw me questions like “You really hated “Master and Commander”, didn’t you?”

In fact I loved the movie, saw it several times, and will see it again with great pleasure.  No one loves the underlying material more than I do — I have read my way through the 20 novels in the series three times over and am embarking on my fourth voyage of adventure.  Fans of a literary series like M & C or Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings are notoriously fussy and protective, and always find things to be disgruntled about in the film adaptations.  I was bemoaning the loss of some levels in the movie version — the fact that in the world of the books,  the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin, is not only a doctor and a naturalist, but also a valuable intelligence agent, the fact that he is not only Irish but Catalan, the fact that a formidable American opponent was changed to a French enemy in the film.  But I know, as someone who has worked in movie development and has assisted in adapting many novels to the screen, something is always lost in translation.

In another instance of the media’s tendency to repeat itself, especially when negativity is involved, one of my radio interviewers picked up on the initial print interviewer’s dismissal of one of my keystone movie examples, “An Officer and a Gentleman”, as a not particularly good film.  I hope people didn’t think I agree with him.  I like that movie, was very moved by it at the time, and referred to it often as a structural and emotional model when writing development notes on other projects when I was working for Disney and Fox studios.

My swipe in this blog at one little part of “Julie and Julia” was also noticed and reanimated by one of the Kiwi interviewers.  There’s another movie I liked and enjoyed, and I was only noting one element that didn’t quite work for me.  To be fair, the same interviewer also picked up on my ecstatic and unaccountably tearful reaction to “Mamma Mia!” and encouraged me to talk about the positive experience I’d had.

Now that I know how the media machinery works, I will be more conscious when commenting on movies and books.  I suppose one can manipulate the press — by tossing out a few negative comments about something, you can almost guarantee it will be brought up by future interviewers and article writers.

After being treated very nicely by the Romance Writers in Auckland, I took off for a few days and drove the gentle, hilly length of New Zealand’s North Island, taking five days to reach Wellington at the island’s southern tip.  Along the way I sampled the wineries, marveled at geothermal vents, and struggled with driving on what to me is the wrong side of the road.  I made a quick stop at a fascinating replica of Stonehenge that’s been plunked down in a sheep field, a project of local astronomy buffs to create a working Southern hemisphere version of the monument, accurately predicting solstice sunrises and other cosmic events.

In Wellington, a bustling, hilly city on a bay,  reminding me of San Francisco, I did a one-day workshop for a local film initiative, Script to Screen.  The audience were a mix of seasoned professionals and students, many from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Wellington’s Victoria University.

The Saturday event for Script to Screen was held in a very special place, Sir Peter Jackson’s post-production facility known as Park Road (because it’s on a street called Park Road).  It’s housed in an impressive-looking building that could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  My lecture was delivered in a beautiful theatre in the complex, supposedly an exact copy of an old San Francisco movie palace.  It was certainly lush and fantastic, done up in romanticized Moorish style with gilded mythological figures and touches of Alhambra-esque architecture.  The ceiling twinkled with fiber-optic stars, representing the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere.

I had a good response from the Wellington audience and was able to explore some of the more sophisticated aspects of the hero’s journey, such as the tragic option, in which the hero fails to learn his or her lesson or slides back into unhealthy behavior after a brief victory.

I held a four-hour workshop with the students from Victoria University on Sunday, a real highlight of my trip, arranged by their professor, David Geary.  The students were very bright and seemed hopeful about the world of storytelling they are entering.

Now I’m back on the ground in LA, prepping for the next trip — to London for the Raindance seminar.

Sept. 11-12, 2010 Workshop in London

September 1, 2010

Very soon (September 11 and 12) I will be in London to present a 2-day Writer’s Journey Master Class hosted by Raindance:

http://www.raindance.co.uk/site/

If you’re within reach of London, as are many of my friends and fans in Europe, please come and hear my latest thoughts about 3-D, polarity as an engine of story construction, techniques for building characters, and many other treats sampled from my upcoming book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT.  I’ll also present my templates for story design and character building, drawn from the hero’s journey in myth and movies.