Tuesday, September 15, 2009

White Out... A Movie About Correction Fluid?

WHITEOUT... Screenplay by Jon & Erich Hoeber and Chad & Carey Hayes.

What? I mean, I kind of understand basing a movie on a toy, like GI JOE, but making a movie about office supplies? That’s crazy! Did Mike Nesmith’s mom really need the extra million from a film deal? (Pisser - I’m halfway finished with my new script, LIQUID PAPER: THE MOTION PICTURE, I hate when that happens!)

Of course, WHITEOUT isn’t based on that correction fluid stuff, it’s based on a comic book or graphic novel that I didn’t read because my parent’s banned comic books when I was a kid so I never really got into them. From the trailer, it looks like THE THING meets MY BLOODY VALENTINE, but the bad reviews made it sound like neither. They made it sound like a mystery... and I really love mystery films.

Many of my scripts that have ended up on screen began as mysteries. I say “began” because the first thing they always do is a “mysterectormy” - they remove the mystery part because they say it’s too clever for the audience, too much work for the audience to keep up with all of those clues and suspects and motives. I think the problems is - it’s too hard for *them* to keep up with the clues and suspects. On one of my films over a decade ago they just forgot to film the clues, so they had to get rid of the mystery part. One of my recent films, they cast nobodies in all of the suspect roles except one - the one who was the killer. When they showed this to a test audience, everyone knew right away who the killer was, even though the detective doesn’t figure it out until the end of Act 2. They thought because these other roles were not the villain, they were not important enough to spend the money on a name. In a meeting, I told them that the minute they cast Gary Busey as one of the suspects, the audience is going to know he’s the killer, even if they hired a bunch of actors at his level to play the other suspects. Well, the movies ended up sucking. That was one of those films where they told me they loved my script and wouldn’t change a word, and afterwards they pointed out that one word they *didn’t* change.

I love mystery films, and wish they made more of them, but I also don’t think that’s likely. A few years back they announced they were going to remake one of the greatest mystery films ever, THE LAST OF SHEILA... but they were going to get rid of the confusing mystery part and make it as a comedy.

So the mystery thing was a major plus for me... but WHITEOUT still ended up in the minus column.

Story is about the hard-as-nails US Marshal at the international outpost in Antarctica, Carrey Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) who is about to take her first vacation in years when (cliche) someone finds a dead dude out in the middle of nowhere. She and the outpost Doctor (Tom Skerritt) who’s also the coroner, investigate and find that the dead guy is a scientist collecting meteorites with a couple of other scientists at a facility out in the middle of nowhere. Kate snags a Pilot (Columbus Short) and flies all over the frozen wasteland looking for clues, but instead finding some crazy dude with an ice axe who keeps trying to kill her. Then, this guy who claims to be a United Nations Cop (Gabriel Macht) just shows up out of nowhere and insists this is *his* investigation, but she can tag along if she wants. Crazy dude with ice axe keeps attacking, and eventually Kate figures out who the bad guys are and captures them, but misses her vacation.

The movie opens with lengthy scene where an airplane full of Russians in the 1950s kill each other in mid air over... something... then the plane crashes in the snow. So when we cut to present day and Kate and Skerrit are talking about their upcoming vacations, we are already way ahead of the movie. In fact, we spend the first half of the film wondering when Kate’s going to find the plane... this is a basic story mistake, because it makes that first half of the film tedious, and makes Kate look like an idiot. Didn’t she see that opening scene? This movie is about stuff on a plane!

The dialogue is awful - trite, OTN (on the nose - obvious) lines, and often the characters *do* seem like they’re read the script, because they jump to some crazy conclusions that they had to know what happened next. There are also about 20 too many flashback scenes to Kate’s traumatic backstory... now a good tragic backstory should have something to do with the main story. Think of how in SIXTH SENSE Bruce Willis having that ex-patient of his shoot him and then kill himself impacts the current story of Bruce trying to help his current patient. But in WHITEOUT Kate’s backstory is some thing that does not impact the current story *except* if a certain character is the bad guy - making the flashbacks a dead giveaway! Oh, and we not only got all of these flashbacks of her past traumatic event, we had a scene where she *tells* the story to another character, so that we get all of those flashbacks *again*, *plus* her sitting there telling us what we are seeing in the flashbacks! And instead of each flashback giving us just a small piece and ending in a cliff-hanger, we basically get the same scenes again and again and again.

Oh, and everything gets flashbacks - even the opening scene! There’s a scene where we get most of the Russian guys shooting each other in the plane as flashbacks. A quarter of this film was made up of scenes we had already seen! I was half expecting each of the naked jogging guys in the first scene to have flashbacks to some traumatic incident in their past.

I went *expecting* AND THEN THERE WERE NONE meets THE THING - and that seems to be the *concept*, but the execution just sucked. Um, where were the clues? Where was the mystery? Because there were no real clues and no real suspects, I knew who the bad guys were about 5 minutes in because they were the only characters to choose from. You will know who the killer is and who the mastermind is right away - there are practically big arrows hanging over them that say “Guilty”. That makes the mystery part completely pointless... we figured out, so why can’t Kate? Is she stupid? Oh, and what’s the point of sitting through the rest of the film and all of those endless flashbacks of her traumatic backstory?

This script needed a rewrite by someone who knows the mystery genre... or maybe Kevin Williamson, since he did a pretty good job with SCREAM.

The only mysteries in WHITEOUT were these fade out sequences that litter the film: Heroes are trapped somewhere, someone comes up with a possible way out, fade out, fade in, they are safe and warm somewhere - and we do not see the actual escape! WTF? It’s like having the boulder chasing after Indiana Jones, then cutting to Jones back at the University teaching class. Hey, we don’t need to *show* Indy escaping, we just need to know that he has a plan, right? I don’t know whether this was something one of the two sets of screenwriters of WHITEOUT came up with, or if it’s part of the comic book format. Either way, I felt ripped off.

A major problem throughout was characters doing things without motives or doing things that just made no sense (in service of some silly thing the plot required them to do).
I would think that living in a cramped room at an outpost thousands of miles from civilization with a hundred other people would make you crave privacy. Yet, throughout the film people just barge into people's rooms without knocking! That was so wrong it took me out of the movie a couple of times. Characters were not behaving as they should - and that makes the whole thing seem false and contrived... which it was. Characters need to act like people... and it’s often the simple things that trip them up. About the third of forth time someone just barges in to a room where the door was unlocked (once when a character is naked) you wonder why they don’t lock their damned doors! And nobody questions why these folks just barge in.

Not only was the dialogue just awful, so much of it was filler material instead of story or character... and by the time we get to the end we get ultra-bad dialogue and 2D characters and just crappy writing. Um, the villain gives a short speech that is not reflected *at all* by his character so far. Not only does this character who was least Likely Suspect Therefor Really A Bad Guy suddenly become the bad guy (without a single thing to set that up) he has no real motives and there was never a single clue until the very end (and that clue is completely contrived). Again, bad mystery writing skills. In a mystery the villain is always the villain, and his character is consistent - but through use of diversion/good writing/etc we don't realize that these are clues to them as the villain. When the villain is revealed, you want the audience to realize the clues were there all along. Again, in SIXTH SENSE once we know the twist at the end, we can watch the whole film again and see clue after clue after clue to that twist. Because what’s true about Willis’ character at the end of the movie is also true throughout the rest of the film. Like a magician, a good writer uses diversion to keep the audience from seeing the obvious.

One of the things I often do in my mystery scripts is come up with dialogue that has a double meaning, so that the audience thinks the character is talking about something story/plot related, but they are actually talking about their motivations for the crime. The audience doesn’t notice until the second time the see the movie. If you watch my HARD EVIDENCE movie again after knowing who the bad guy is, it suddenly seems obvious that he’s working to manipulate the situation so that our hero gets in even mote trouble... even though most people never notice this the first time they see the movie. You have to write the script to lead the audience to believe one thing when another is true. To have dialogue and actions that seem to mean one thing but actually mean something else.

In WHITE OUT, the character who ends up being the villain does a complete 180 at the end of the movie and turns from one character into another. Um, basic Egri stuff - you have to show the change (or, as in a mystery, have the characteristics that make them the villain look like something else). Oh, and the most stupid, 2D line in the whole film has to do with a certain element from a character's backstory being false... Why? No reason at all for this! Better if that element were true, because it makes for a more well-rounded villain. This awful line makes an obvious villain even more obvious! It removes any shading from the character and turns them into a completely black-hat villain.

Even though WHITEOUT has the characters trapped in the middle of nowhere - I never felt they were trapped the way I did in either version of THE THING... or even MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. They kept flying from place to place, and even when they were in a whiteout, they went out doors! This is a basic of thrillers - trapping the protagonist and making the walls seem to close in - but here, even when they were indoors there was always someplace to go... some new room we had never seen before. Major story mistake - thrillers trap the hero or chase the hero. Here we had no chase, and that leaves trapped... and no one seemed to be trapped.

By the time we get to the end and the MacGuffin, it makes no sense at all. Why would the Russians be doing this in the first place? It makes no sense. It's a twist thrown in that isn't set up and probably can not be set up. More rookie writing problems!

Now, I have no idea whether any of these problems are the writers’ faults, because I’ve been in the room when the bad story notes started flying and they say it’s too clever for the audience, too much work for the audience to keep up with all of those clues and suspects and motives... so they give it a “mysterectomy”. And directors forget to shoot the clues, and actors change good dialogue into bland dialogue. But somebody somewhere who is in charge of movies with a mystery element needs to understand the basics of the genre. In an interview in Script Magazine a few years ago, an agent seemed to have no idea what the mystery genre was all about... and that was kind of frightening. You want the guys making the decisions to understand the basics!

The film was directed by Dominic Sena, and Sena can't direct. He needs to be taken out behind the Hollywood sign and shot. He doesn’t understand the basics, and here’s why:

First: When characters are walking down a long spooky hallway where the killer could jump out at any minute? ONLY preceding the protagonist with the camera to show them walking, can't work; because we can't see the dark places where the killer could jump out of. You need to do POVs or some sort of over-the-shoulder POV, so that we can see what the character sees - and see all of the places where the killer may jump from. Instead, Sena gives us shots of Kate (or whoever) walking towards us in the dark with a flashlight - and there is no dread or suspense or anything.

Next: He skips the freaking detail shots! In the scene where she has no gloves, the scene is *obviously* about her hands, yet we get almost no shots of her hands doing all of the things her hands need to do. Instead, we get her face. Um, nice face, but I want to see the hands fumbling with the rope because they are numb. That's what the scene is *about*. Sena read that scene and didn’t get it - yet I saw the scene and knew what it was supposed to be about. It’s obvious. She’s outside in subzero weather and doesn’t have her gloves. She has to hold on to the guideline rope... with her hands. She has to pick things up.... with her hands. She needs to unlock the door... with her hands. But we don’t get any shots of her hands! Her hands are off screen while we focus on her face! We don't even see the big hand thing at the end of the scene until about ten beats after I already figured it out - making the film seem stupid to me.

Last: When we get to the end whiteout scene, it is shot with such confusion that I had no idea who was who and what was happening half the time. Part of this is costume department - everyone needs a specific color that we can identify them by, but Sena should have been aware of that. And he should have *shot* the scene with more detail shots and set up the goals in the scene so that we could understand them better. Instead, it's just a mess. You have no idea who anybody is in the snow and what they are doing and why they are doing it. A bunch of people running around in the snow.

Best thing about Sena's direction - the Antarctic means he can use that baby-crap yellow filter he uses in every movie.

Good things: I liked the opening of the film, that kind of made this outpost like MASH (missing Larry Gelbart already) complete with crazy loudspeaker, and then they introduce Tom Skerritt as the doc (who was a doc in MASH!). And the review I read mentioned how Kate should be a big enough star not to have to do the naked shower scene... and that scene was right up front and delivered. Until someone just opens the door to Kate’s room and walks in.

This whole script needed some of that White Out correction fluid.

Classes On CD - Recession Sale!

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Writing Over 40 - are you too old?
Yesterday's Dinner: El Pollo Loco chicken, black beans, corn, flour.
Bicycle: Just down the street.
Pages: Still working on the Script Magazine article, and prepping my London and Hong Kong Masterclasses.
SCRIPT SECRETS: LONDON - October 10 & 11, 2009 - BIG IDEA class, using GHOST as our primary example... wow, do you realize how many pivotal movies Patrick Swayze was in?

And, on the UK's Movies 4 Men 2 *today*:
14:00 - Steel Sharks - When a United States submarine is seized by terrorists, a rescue attempt by Elite Navy Seals goes awry. The submarine crew wages a silent war beneath the waves in this tense undersea thriller.

And just to show I will unleash my bad films on America...
9/18 - 10:00PM - Encore Action - SOFT TARGET. Mystery and clever lines completely removed, Gary Busey, and one word that's the same as my original script!

As usual, I am sorry to all.

- Bill


Rusty James said...

Hey Bill,

Maybe you should think of writing Comedy, too?

Is your Script article concerning mixed genres?

Anonymous said...

Absoluitely love your blog. Keep it up.


Wojciehowicz said...

Don't hold back. Let us know how you really felt.


The first take I had on White Out was it was going to be some sort of supernatural or sci-fi movie. I rather think it would do better explicitly as one. We'd have not been so happy with 30 Days of Night if the vampires were a very small part and the plot was instead centered on a mystery that was as you noted excised ultimately and chock full of deus ex machina touches with preternaturally informed characters.

If anything, the characters pointedly being kept in the writer's mind as only having information they are directly exposed to is a giant plus as it allows you to use them to misdirect and distract. A character with limited information is going to make deductions and guesses in line with their psychology and personality. That rarely coincides with accuracy, which allows you to send the audience on any number of wild goose chases.

Anonymous said...

Whiteout was a mystery -- as in what the f*&k did I just watch?

Martin_B said...

Your point that everyone needs to wear a specific color for identification -- this was a problem for me in PUBLIC ENEMIES. Everyone had similar 30s clothing and 30s haircuts. I couldn't tell them apart. Johnny Depp isn't very distinctive looking. He needed something in the clothing department to stand out. A bit of flash or pizazz.

wcmartell said...

Another problem (that isn't screenwriting related) is when they cast actors who look like each other. Some movie I saw a while back had a female lead and a supporting actress who looked exactly alike - as if the supporting actress were the stunt double given a role. Meanwhile, I saw RED CLIFF and it starts a bunch of Chinese people - and each has a very distinctive look and wardrobe and personality. I only knew a couple of the actors, but could easily tell all of the other characters apart. You have to think of these things when you are making a movie.

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