May 30, 2008

Iron Man review

It’s an easy bet to say that Iron Man will be the best action picture of the ’08 summer. Some of the credit has to go to the casting and performances of Robert Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow. They’re so good it makes us realize these two actors should be in a lot more movies than they are. But most of the credit has to go to the script.

There’s a natural tendency to think of the action genre as the most director-dependent of all the forms, what with all their spectacle, staging, and special effects. But this is just another example of where conventional wisdom is wrong. Invariably when an action film goes wrong, it’s because of the script. And when it stands above the crowd, it’s definitely the script.

Comic book action films like Iron Man look deceptively easy to write. Just a fun, heroic character flying around and fighting evil villains. It’s actually a tricky form, because you are combining three genres: action, fantasy and comedy. In this script, writers Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway avoided every pitfall of the form and made all the right structural choices.

One choice was already made for them. As the film that introduces the character to the audience, Iron Man is an origin story, and that is always the best story in a series. Think of Batman Begins vs. all the others, even the Nicholson one.

But the key choice the writers made that set this action film apart had to do with the characters. In the Action Class, I talk a lot about how to create characters that have the capability to change, a structural element that becomes even more important when you combine action with fantasy. Here in Iron Man, instead of a superhero who is super heroic, main character Tony Stark has a number of weaknesses and is in many ways an unlikable person. Instead of being a one-note fighter for good, he is a real man with a deep need that is both believable and relevant in today’s world.

The writers take this same approach to the opposition. Instead of battling a silly, over-the-top villain, Stark must go up against a deadly Afghan warlord and a corporate boss who will let nothing get in the way of profit. These opponents are not detailed or deep in any way. We’ve certainly seen them many times before. But they are believable and relevant to the audience in the real world, and that gives the contest power beyond the boundaries of the comic book world.

This grounded and real character work makes it even more surprising that this is also the funniest script of the season. The action-comedy combination has been popular for a long time (it’s one of the seven comedy sub-forms I detail in the Comedy Class). In the past this has been used most often in action-crime films, like Beverly Hills Cop, as a way to show that the action hero is so good he can make jokes in the face of death. But here the comedy is used to undercut the natural pretentiousness of the superhero character. The writers extend this technique by having the main character make fun of the comic superhero form itself. This again makes him seem more real as he performs his heroic deeds, because the comic book heroes are all those other guys.

The combination of action and fantasy is now virtually the sole genre of summer blockbuster films. It’s obviously one of the main products that Hollywood wants to buy in their never-ending quest for worldwide popularity. If you want to write an action fantasy, do not underestimate it. Going back to the deep structure techniques necessary for any great story is your only guarantee of success.

May 28, 2008

Son of Rambow

When you're making an indie film, you're always looking for ways to save money. And if you're smart the first and foremost place to do that is in the script.

One great strategy is to make a virtue of having no money - the old turn-lemons-into-lemonade trick. You know you can't compete with the big budget pictures on production values. So you come up with a story that relies on amateur video. This was the main technique used by sex, lies and videotape, generally considered the beginning of the modern indie film movement in the US. And it was used in The Blair Witch Project, one of the highest grossing indie films of all time. It's also used to great effect in Son of Rambow.

Of course, this strategy won't mean a thing if your story is not well structured. Ironically, script is even more important in indie filmmaking than in big budget movies, because the script is usually all you have going for you. And it doesn't cost any more to write a good one. Son of Rambow is a love story between two young friends, and writer Garth Jennings came up with a structure that not only carries a lot of comedy, it packs a surprising amount of emotional impact.

Like most good love stories, Son of Rambow is based on the fundamental opposition of the odd couple. Here a delinquent schemer and religious straight arrow team up to make a First Blood sequel where the son of Rambo tries to save his father. Matching the concept to the personal weakness and need of the leads, both boys are missing a father at home. The odd couple sets up the main opposition, but the similar need sets up the emotional payoff at the end.

But the key structural decision the writer made in this film has to do with the desire line. The normal desire in a love story is for the characters to want each other. But using the normal structure for these characters would have meant no plot and a sticky sentimental mess. Instead, these boys want to make a movie that will win a short film contest. Notice that this external goal allows the writer to sneak up on the audience, to tell a love story where the payoff is a complete surprise.

One of the big problems a lot of love stories have is lack of plot. That's also the case here. The desire, though effective at setting up the final punch, does flag a bit since it is essentially a stall. To increase the plot in the slow middle of the story, the writer adds outside opponents from each boy's family, along with the older kids at school. This character web is not altogether successful, especially the cool French boy that all the English kids worship. But it does complicate the making of the video enough to justify waiting so long to find out who wins the award.

In the Love Story Class, I talk a lot about how to transcend the form, by twisting the beats so the story pays its dues but also gives the audience something new. Writer Garth Jennings has come up with a unique love story structure through which to express the joys of friendship and the power of the imagination.