I once saw John Carpenter in Dupar's Diner in Studio City eating breakfast. He'd have a forkful of eggs, then amble outside and have a smoke, then come back in for another forkful of eggs. When he walked past me, I whistled the theme to ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. He either didn't notice, or purposely ignored me. My guess is the latter. But even after he has said terrible things about the profession of screenwriting, and given us some recent stinkers – I am still a big fan.
Carpenter movies are well-crafted, goofy, fun. To me they are meatloaf and mashed potatoes – comfort food. You won't find them on the menu at some snooty restaurant, and gourmet chefs will look down their noses... but it tastes great! Carpenter is never going to win an Oscar, but 50 years from now some of his films will be classics in the same way his idol Howard Hawks' films used to be popcorn and are now masterpieces. Some of his films are some form of classics *now*. Can we talk about modern horror films without bringing up HALLOWEEN? And then there is that great remake he did of a film Howard Hawks may have secretly directed, THE THING.
You can tell THE THING is considered a classic by the amount of anger over the remake-prequel from the moment it was announced. I thought much of this was amusing, in the same way I find the current outrage over the new remake of SCARFACE to be amusing – um, remaking a remake isn't exactly sacrilege. Hey, this could be THE THING for a new generation! But the weird thing about the “prequel” was that it would be the story of the Norwegians from the first couple of minutes of the Carpenter version... except Carpenter's version has video of the Norwegians that is either footage from the Hawks' version or a recreation... making the *Hawks* version the prequel. Um, are they remaking the Hawks version?
Just before the new prequel came out, I posted a scene from the Hawks Version here that was also in the Carpenter Version as the video footage. That was an iconic scene that, um, found its way into one of my scripts (in a completely different situation). In the Hawks Version the scientists circle the flying saucer in the ice with arms stretched to get an idea of the size of the object, in my script a group of people – one of whom may be a werewolf – join hands in a circle and wait for the moon to come up (while one sings a bastardized song from ANNIE). The thing about THE THING is that you have *two* great previous versions you have to match in quality. That's tough.
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
The problem with remakes is that people will compare them to the original – but the *solution* is that the original shows you the path to doing it right. Though you want it to be “the same but different” that doesn't mean you can just do a substitution thing like they did with HANGOVER 2 – because one of the things that make films work is their *originality*. Both ALIEN and ALIENS are spooky monsters in a dark house movies – and work in similar ways: isolating a member from the group in a dark place where we know that monsters lurk. But each tackles the basic idea from a different direction, and become different films. No “search and replace” involved in the screenplays. They understood that *originality* is one of the elements that made the first film popular, so they did something original and different for the sequel. Not a carbon copy – but still a member of the family.
And the two previous versions of THE THING were different and yet the same. The Hawks Version (directed by Christian Nyby) was a straight monster attack movie - and it was creepy as hell. A group of people living in isolation – no escape - with that carrot dude *somewhere* in the building. Not blasting through walls and killing people. Mostly hiding in the shadows. Suspense and dread were created by people walking through the Air Force Station hallways knowing that it was... somewhere. When the monster *does* attack – they are shock attacks where the creature is exposed for a couple of minutes before disappearing back into the shadows. I'm sure that one of the reason the “carrot-monster” played by James Arness (Matt Dillon from GUNSMOKE) is only seen briefly is that make up effects weren't that great at the time, so keeping the monster in the shadows was a great way to keep it from looking stupid. But as we know from JAWS, that's also a great way to amp up the dread-factor. So our shrinking group of survivors – civilians and scientists and Air Force guys – must learn to work together to fight the monster and survive. I'm sure this was a Cold War anti-Commie movie about coming together for the common good (ironic, huh?).
The Carpenter Version is is a paranoid horror story about the difficulty in trusting people these days. Going back to the original story by John Campbell, screenwriter Bill Lancaster (Burt's son – writer of THE BAD NEWS BEARS... and *there's* a double bill) has a monster that basically takes over the bodies of others... so that trusted friend may actually be the monster in disguise. We have the same snow-bound lab full of scientists (though I think they changed poles) and the same dark hallways and the same possibility for a monster to spring from the darkness, but the difference is that the monster may also be that guy sitting next to you at dinner. This is a core change that makes the film all about trust. And I think that is why the Carpenter Version is still will us all of these years later. The film was not a theatrical success, but had a long shelf life on video... because it's actually about something. Sure, it's got cutting edge for the time special effects that crank it to 11 on the gross-out meter, and some snappy dialogue... but the theme of *trust* is something we can relate to even today. Every scene in the film ends up being about *trust* - and all of those great moments are trust related: the wire in the blood is all about “who can we trust”?
Though the Rob Bottin special effects were cutting edge then (and look amazing now – better than much of the CGI stuff in the prequel) they were still smart enough to keep the monster mostly off screen and create *mystery* around it. Yeah, we got to get a good long look at the spider-head, but when the thing is in the dog cage it's mostly in the shadows. Familiarity breeds contempt – and that extends to monsters in monster movies. There are some great monster set-pieces where we see the monster, but like the Hawks Version the creature is never on screen long enough to wear out its welcome... or just become a boring effect. We fear the unknown – and the minute we “know” the monster too well, we can not fear it.
Which brings us to the “prequel”. I wanted to like it, because the first two versions are great and it would be swell if the third was great in its own way. The ALIEN series dropped the ball on the third film and never really recovered. Can THE THING have a great third entry? I really like Mary Elizabeth Winstead from SCOTT PILGRIM (and if you have not seen that one – it's a blast) even without blue hair... but she doesn't look the least bit Norwegian. And that angry guy from BOURNE IDENTITY who played Robert Mugabe doesn't look Norwegian, either. This film *is* about Norwegians, right?
FORSHADOWING IN THE SHADOWS
One of the things that I anticipated would be fun in this film would be the plants that all pay off in that scene in the Carpenter Version where MacReady and Blair visit the Norwegian camp. One of the things that made the 3rd STAR WARS prequel barely tolerable were the things leading up to Anakin becoming Darth Vader. So I was waiting to see which character was *defined* by using an old fashioned straight razor to shave with. That's unusual, so it's character related... but no razor is used in the film until their tacked-on ending. It's almost as if it became a “prequel” in post production. Talk about missed opportunities! A straight razor is such a cool thing for a character to use, that it would have added to the film even if it wasn't part of that tacked on ending. One of the great things about the Carpenter Version is that all of the characters – and it's a large cast – are distinctive and different. Each has an arc, too. I love how Gary shoots the Norwegian in that opening scene and takes flack from the others for *wanting* to use his gun, but the character gets this great moment of regret and sadness. He has taken a man's life. And if we take Gary or any of the other characters in the story and just follow them – they have their own story and their own journey in the film. In the “prequel” the characters are thin and not well defined... and none of them uses a straight razor.
By the way – if the fear was that showing one of the characters using the straight razor would be a dead giveaway that they'd be that frozen suicide dude at the end, the solution is to have another character *hate* that straight razor, think it's dangerous and doesn't want to be in the bathroom while the guy is shaving with it... and *that's* the character who uses the straight razor to kill themselves at the end. Or some fake-out version. But by *not* establishing that there even *is* a straight razor, that end just seems tacked on fake and makes me want to kill the filmmakers. But not with a straight razor. A ripe tomato.
The funny thing about the “prequel” is that it ends up being a remake of the Hawks Version, kind of... and yet also a "search and replace" of Carpenter's version. It's a monster attack movie in a snowbound location. But unlike the Hawks version – the monster is always in full light and they *dwell* on it! And it seems like every scene from the Carpenter Version gets a dopey version here: they did a "search and replace" on the wire in the blood scene and gave us a fillings in the mouth scene. Huh?
My main complaint with the prequel is that it's hollow - a movie about nothing. Not about a group of different people banding together to fight a common enemy like the Hawks Version (Cold War stuff) nor about the difficulty of trusting people in the modern world (Carpenter Version). It's just a monster attacking people. And it has no logic - if the creature doesn't want to be discovered why is it blasting out of places and killing people? And if it just wants to blast out and kill people, why doesn't it just do that (and the movie will be over in 10 minutes)? The story makes no sense at all. There is a point in the film where the monster has *escaped* - but then comes back just to kill some more people. It's one of those movies where the monster's goal seems to be: kill everyone, but kill the cute girl last.
The cute non-Norwegian girl.
The Hawks Version had a female in the cast, the Carpenter Version was all testosterone – and used that as an element. The “prequel” has a female lead and another female character – and this might have been an interesting thing to make the film *about*. To give it a story between monster attacks. As silly as it sounds, rom-com THING would have been a good angle for this film: not the com part, but use romantic part - and have these isolated people hook up because they are lonely... "Trust in a relationship's a tough thing to come by these days." We all seem to live in some form of isolation these days – we used to interact with each other in person, but instead of sitting in Residuals Bar listening to me talk about THE THING you are reading this online and I am writing it online. We do more and more things *alone* - and we may even date people who we previously knew *from online*. So, take an isolated group of people who are stuck in the same building for months, maybe years... and they become more lonely and more likely to hook up and the dating pool is all shallow-end.
I can tell you from experience that a film crew – working together for 12 hour days and maybe staying at the same Holiday Inn on location will sprout a bunch of set romances. And that leads to set break ups and no shortage of awkward situations where people who just broke up badly must be inches away from each other. That's some great drama to happen between monster attacks – and can become part of the story when your monster assimilates the bodies and memories of its victims. Oh, and monster-wise: if I'm going to have a scene where two guys' heads meld together, one of those guys is going to be set up hitting on the other earlier in the film... and have the other guy turn him down flat and be creeped out having to work with him for the rest of their time in the research center. Put a bunch of guys in an isolated snow bound place together and a certain amount of homophobia will bubble to the surface – and we can explore that in the story. They could have made the monster elements about the characters and the story instead of just a series of attacks in full light.
So the “prequel” becomes nothing more than a crappo monster movie with a tacked on ending that turns it into a prequel. But not only is the version of the script that ended up on film lacking, the direction kills any suspense and dread and scares that might have existed even after they keep showing the monster for expended periods in full light. This director has no idea what he is doing and needs to be kicked out of Hollywood as soon as possible – or forced to watch good movies until he can figure out *what makes them good*.
SUSPENSE ON SCREEN
Okay - someone is walking through dark, spooky room... what is it we (audience) want to see? The person *walking* or what might be skittering in that shadow in front of them? It's all about POV - what is important isn't the person walking, it's *what they see* (or think they see). Only an idiot director would keep the camera on the girl with the flashlight and not show us what the girl *sees* with that flashlight! If you look at 1955s DIABOLIQUE's end - there's more screen time spent on what Vera Clouzot is looking at than on hottie Vera Clouzot looking. The long hallway, the sliver of light coming from the door - jeeze - is her dead husband in there *typing*? The key to creating suspense is to put the audience in the protagonist's shoes – and we can't be in their shoes and be looking at the shoes. The most important shots are *not* the star, but what the star is looking at. The problem with THE THING prequel is that we **never** see what she is seeing – we only see her looking. No suspense or dread in that at all. That DIABOLIQUE scene works – not because we see *the star*, but because we see *what the star sees* - and by alternating those shots we feel like we are in her shoes looking through the shadows. Wait... I can describe that scene from DIABOLIQUE, but why not just show it to you and talk about it afterwords?
OKAY: MAJOR MAJOR MAJOR SPOILERS!!!!!!!
THIS IS THE **END** OF THE MOVIE!!!!!!
The story until now: Vera Clouzot is a shy (but hot) school teacher who has inherited this huge old private school. She has also inherited a heart condition, and could drop dead at any time. She's frail. Isn't supposed to get excited. And discovers that her slimy husband has found excitement outside of their marriage... with another teacher at the school played by the sultry Simone Signoret. Now usually these two would be fighting each other, but did I mention the husband is slimy? What happens is both women turn against the husband, and decide to kill him. Over a holiday break, Signoret lures him to her house where the two women drug his wine and drown him in the bathtub, and then take his corpse back to the school in a huge wicker basket and throw his corpse in the school's swimming pool that is closed for he season. A drowning accident. But the body is never discovered, and when they find an excuse to drain the pool... no corpse. WTF? The two women panic – what could have happened to his body? Did animals drag it away? If so, how can they prove that he's dead?
Which brings us to the scene....
Okay, let's take a look at how it works.
1) She's sleeping and a sound wakes her up... Footsteps climbing the stairs - then light from across the courtyard.
2) She looks out her window and there is a light on in her husband's office. Notice that she looks out the window, then we see out the window (and from her point of view – in Hitchcock/Truffaut they talk about the remake of THE 39 STEPS and how instead of using Hannay's POV looking at the two men watching on the street, they have a non-POV eye-level shot of the two men, which doesn't come from anywhere and takes us *out* of the protagonist's shoes, undercutting our identification – when people say “well, maybe the editor decided to do that”, the problem is that the editor can only work with the shots the director gives her... and if the director doesn't have a plan for the sequence and just shoots coverage, you end up with a bunch of junk shots that do not work). We see what Vera sees, then back to Vera looking, as she decides to investigate.
3) She opens the door and looks down the hallway... and WE see down the hallway from her POV. She walks down the hallway. She hears footsteps... and we see someone walking – this is a break in POV, and I think it doesn't work well. It splits us from knowing only what Vera knows and also having the additional knowledge that there is a man walking in the hallway. In the film there is a nosy cop – and I'm sure this was put here to suspect the nosy cop of setting her up... but *that* undercuts the scene. I think these shots are stumbles... but there are only a couple of them, and the rest of the scene just kicks ass.
4) She enters the next hallway. Looks down the long hallway... and WE see down the hallway from OVER HER SHOULDER at a faint light at the end of the hall (this is a great moving shot). An Over The Shoulder Shot is a great combo of POV *and* Star – even though it's usually just the star's back. Sometimes there's enough of the side of their face that it's really the best of both shots. Here the shot continues to see a door open *behind her* and someone step out. The cop?
5) The sound of the typewriter pounding away in the office. How is that possible? She walks down the long hallway, and this is the core of the scene. We cut back and forth between her cautiously walking to her husband's office and a POV shot of her getting closer to the office door... the light slicing from under it. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST we get shots of Cary Grant running and looking over his shoulder alternating with the zooming crop duster heading right at him. One of the great things in that sequence is the *pacing* - the length of the shots (in frames) becomes shorter with each shot – making the scene more and more frantic as it goes on. This was a common suspense editing technique in the days of Steinbeck Film Editors where actual physical frames of film were part of cutting. You counted frames and created a rhythm... or created an anti-rhythm to throw the audience off. Now, with editing on digital media I'm not sure editors even think in terms of frames anymore. The technique of shaving a frame or three with each shot to build tension may be lost.
6) When Vera gets to the end of the hall, the office door slowly opens sending a slice of light towards her – as if it's searching for her... and finds her!
7) She cautiously enters the office – and again we get shots of her alternating with her POV of inside the office – this puts us in her shoes and builds suspense up the wazoo. She sees the typewriter on the desk with a piece of paper in it – and that is two shots. She moves to the typewriter (shots of her, POV shots of the dark spooky room), pulls out the paper, and reads it – and we get a POV shot of the paper so that *we* can also read it. Her husband's name over and over again.
8) Footsteps coming from the darkness in her husband's room. She runs like hell.
9) Shots of her running all the way back to her bedroom - her running away, her running towards, her feet running. This is all about panic.
10) In her bathroom, she splashes water on her face... sees something and clutches her heart – this is a great tease shot, because we have not yet seen what she sees... THEN we get her POV shot of her dead husband's corpse in the bathtub. How did he get there? Who put him there? The nosy cop?
11) She backs up, looks... Her POV of her husband rising up!
And that's how you create a suspense scene on film. It's not just shots of cute Mary Elizabeth Winstead holding a flashlight walking from room to room – it's WHAT SHE SEES. That flashlight's pale beam searching the shadows and things skittering in the darkness.
I thought THE THING “prequel” was a let down on many levels, but just as a monster attack movie, the *director* screwed up by not giving us those POV shots and only shooting the star wandering around with a flashlight. Is that because they think it is all about the star? Or because they are *not* thinking about the audience and how to create emotions within the audience? Alternating shots of the character and shots of what the character sees goes back to the pioneers of cinema – they knew how to do this stuff... how come directors today don't seem to know it?
TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Research For Story - and BLUE CRUSH... some warm weather background on a chilly day!
Dinner: China Wall in Concord, CA - all you can eat Chinese food.
Pages: Well, I finished revising the Action Book... and today I wrote this blog entry, and I *still* plan to write a new spec by the end of the year in warp drive mode!
Bicycle: No... but a long walk.
Movies: THE MUPPET MOVIE - I laughed, I cried. But, then, I love The Muppets. And the Muppets are back - in a great fun film filled with big Hollywood musical numbers. It's the most old fashioned musical made in the past couple of decades. I loved it - but that made me wonder who the audience for this nostalgic flick about smart-ass puppets is: It seems to be made for fans of the 70s TV show and the 1979 movie... and we are, um, old people. Will kids like this film? That's actually part of the plot - are the Muppets *relevant* in 2011? Well, whether they are or not - they are still entertaining. There's a huge musical number with thousands of dancers on Hollywood Blvd, a great song about being a man or a muppet than opened my tear ducts, and some other great stuff. At one point I thought we were going to go full-on MEET THE FEEBLES when they round up the old gang, but they kinda pulled that punch. A nice return for these furry friends, but I think the script needed another pass - especially in the Kermie-Piggy subplot. Also - considering all of the guest stars from the past, why pick these people? James Carville?
Movies: DESCENDANTS - Screw Sean Penn, George Clooney is our greatest living actor. Clooney manages to be a *real* movie star, plus do films like this that are small and interesting and dramatic... and the dude can act. There are scenes in this film that require a bunch of emotions playing behind his smile - and he does an amazing job of showing you each layer of emotion. The story: Clooney is a Hawaiian businessman whose wife gets hurt in an accident and is not expected to live - so this absent father must now take care of his two daughters while he tracks down all of his wife's friends and family to break the news that she's got about a week of life left. It's a sad movie, and an angry one. Here's a great screenwriting lesson: the story may sound like a small drama, but it has stakes up the wazoo. Clooney is the most hated man in Hawaii - his family owns a huge chunk of the island, and they may sell it to turn it into condos and crap. That's the big business deal that he's working on. And his family - "the cousins" - have formed groups and each has a developer to sell to - and Clooney is the man in the middle getting beat up on all sides... and that's before his wife gets in the accident and has about a week to live. His two daughters? Not some sweet sitcom kids - one is a recovering drug addict in a boarding school for problem kids, and his youngest (aged 10) is about to be expelled from school for acting out big time. She's a hellion. He has no idea what to do with these girls. So instead of some small quiet drama - he's in the eye of a tornado of crap... and his wife will be dead in a week. High stakes. Not some little story about a dying wife - the fate of Hawaii hangs in the balance, here. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the wife has/had a HUGE secret that is uncovered along the way. One of the things I liked about the film was how every character gets a great moment - there's this idiot stoner that the teen drug addict daughter *brings with them* as they go to tell friends and family of the wife to go to the hospital and say goodbye *now* because she'll be dead in a week. This dofus is great comic relief - when scenes get tense he says something stupid (and in one scene someone has a negative reaction to that) - but he also gets a great scene later in the film where you understand him. The two actresses playing the girls are both great. This is not a great film - but it's a very good one. And all of the cast does a great job - especially Clooney, who manages to use his charm in dark scenes where I think any other actor would have taken it too far. He gives a great layered performance.
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