The Danger of Needless Script Rewrites

Film poster for Gravity (2013)

With Gravity soon to hit bluray in what I have read is an impeccable and remarkable transfer, I figured in lieu of writing another piece about why this film is so great (since everybody has been doing that lately), I’d instead approach the film from a different angle, that of responding to its critics who attack the film for what they perceive as insurmountable flaws in the film (since everybody has been doing that lately, too).

Several months ago a man wrote to me describing his issues with the plot of Gravity, and enthusiastically offered me what he believed to be an improved rewrite. As an immense fan of the film, I was suspicious, but was nonetheless taken with his bravado. Reading his version I wanted to be positive, I wanted to agree with his central premise that his version was inherently superior, but as his specious claims mounted, my enthusiasm waned. I knew immediately that I was reading the ravings of one indoctrinated by devastatingly useless ideas, lost on a vainglorious crusade for the formula of the perfect script. To be clear, the ideas were sound in and of themselves, but troubling when proffered as the “improved” version of what was an already sufficiently realized plot. It amounted to a subjective opinion being passed off as incontrovertible objectivity. It completely overlooked the merits of the film as it was to describe a completely different version of the plot as it should have been according to the tastes of one man, bearing as much semblance to Cuaron’s vision of the film as Lindelof’s version of Prometheus did for Jon Spaits original script. Though, to be fair, his was more complete than Lindelof’s hack efforts. By the time I finished I contemplated turning off my computer and never penning a reply. I had almost nothing positive to offer in my criticism. But he had asked me for my thoughts, and I had never maintained any illusions with my readers about my affability.

The problem with the rewrite was that it sought to rewrite what was already a cogent film into something approaching the vast majority of other works produced these days. The rewrite argued for a seven-step process to improve the quality of the movie, ranging from features such as infusing moments of “weakness and need” to “self-revelation” (nevermind that the latter point requires we casually overlook such moments already present in Cuaron’s version). One of his fundamental claims was that the film’s plot as-is left him emotionally uninvolved without any sufficient reasoning.

I wondered, had I done the same in my Star Wars analysis? Had I, in my reckless candor, championed a complete rewrite that blatantly contradicted the original vision of the author? I’m quite confident I did not, insofar as the artist I evoked was the same creative vision behind the original Star Wars, and, to a greater extent, The Empire Strikes Back. But what made my rewriting so substantially different, if only in my own mind? (My answer is included below.)

I won’t offer up his side of the conversation, except to detail it in brief when necessary, and be warned there are spoilers within it. Here was my less-than-cordial reply:

After reading all this, frankly I’m not sold on the seven step process. I don’t see how telegraphing emotional beats somehow makes the film more emotional. The seven steps are really just appropriations of Joseph Campbell and the stages of the monomyth, except lacking Campbell’s useful reliance on a structuring myth. Campbell presents the hero’s journey as a series of three stages each comprised of four interlocking steps (so there’s twelve there if you really want lots of steps). But they are not prescriptions for action or proscriptions for emotion. Emotion and drama are natural correspondents of action, they are not features that can be plugged in to a story. Otherwise it’s manipulative, and it’s unnecessary. It’s like using music to sell the emotion of the scene. More often than not it’s compensatory. You’re describing your subjective opinion of the movie (that you were not engaged) to suggest that somehow it’s a fault of the plot beats. That may true, but it doesn’t account for the fact that I was myself emotionally engaged, and was invigorated by the climax, and by Ryan’s renewed desire to survive. I’m not using my response to the movie to suggest it should have been left as is, but only to suggest that trying to manipulate subjective experiences is doomed to fail because you never know what you’ll get from the audience. All you can do is plug in the variables and hope to reach the intended desire. And so it also begs the question, why was this movie made? What is the intended desire? What is it trying to say? I don’t get the feeling Cuaron was trying to get us to be “emotional” (and maybe my confusion stems from the fact that I don’t know what you mean by that), but rather to remind us to live, in whatever way we choose to live. Clooney’s character knows he’s going to die, for example, but he still manages to see the beauty of the Ganges. Even when faced with death there are still things to experience. I never felt “disconnected” from the characters, or their plight, but then perhaps that’s just a subjective thing.

More importantly however, and a question which may account for my reticence to your claims: why is it even important to be “emotional” or “emotionally engaged”?

Sorry to be more frank, but what you’ve proposed seems no more appropriate than the story we got. [His plot centred on Sandra Bullock’s character working on an advanced telescope to allow her to see to the furthest reaches of the known galaxy, think Contact but in space, and that she should act as an “asshole” but eventually come around and not be so obsessed about her job. The entire film would be about trying to repair the telescope at the risk of her crew—presumably they would have survived longer in his version, another point which completely undermines Cuaron’s intent with isolating Ryan.] None of it even seems necessary for that matter. Yours is centred on a literal search for answers rather than Ryan’s metaphorical search for meaning, but in either case it’s still a concrete searching. I don’t see the value in complicating the narrative with all this business about searching for intergalactic signs of life (or god). The movie is not about finding answers out there, it’s about finding answers within. Your plot is fine, and would make a fine movie in its own right, but it’s an entirely different movie; it’s not what Cuaron was trying to communicate at all. Besides which, 90 minutes is a short amount of time for a person to undergo an entire psychological and somatic transformation, as Ryan does here, and it’s sufficient without needing her to go from being an asshole to a nice person. [He also took issue to the lack of an opponent in this film, a claim which I couldn’t even begin to understand.] She doesn’t need an external antagonist, she is her own antagonist. I don’t know why you need Clooney to suddenly become one just to satisfy a beat [here-in lies the danger of prescriptive judgements. The movie is nothing but an obstacle course, so what would be the point in providing an anthropomorphic antagonist? Much less having George Clooney (?!) serve as one?]. Again, it goes back to Cuaron’s message that the conflict remains within. Everything in this movie could be construed as a physical manifestation of Ryan’s psychological trauma, all the debris and destruction are symbols (and obvious ones at that, I admit) of her journey. Any time anyone ever offers a prescriptive statement (you SHOULD have this) I flinch. I do so because the statement is always wrong, and almost always because the mind producing the statement is trying to justify a subjective opinion. You shouldn’t need to do anything other than try to say something. From there we can make provisions about how best to communicate those thoughts. If the point of the movie was to follow this seven beat structure, then yes, it failed. But that’s not the point of the movie. The central thesis of the movie is what every instance and every decision concerns. Otherwise it’s bloody confusing and sends conflicting messages to the audience. If you’ll notice, a few studio execs actually tried to add some of the elements you suggest, like the antagonist, but Cuaron refused to do so. It wasn’t because he was trying to be difficult, it’s because that wasn’t the movie he was trying to make. He made exactly the movie he was trying to make.

In the case of the Star Wars videos I made, I used the original trilogy to consider what I thought Lucas was trying to say and then consider it in light of the prequel trilogy. I don’t make it a habit to try to rewrite others [except for when I make it a necessity], but in the case of the prequel trilogies Lucas seemed incredibly confused about what he was trying to say. Or at least, that’s how I read it. So my version was essentially “look, Lucas, this is the idea of Star Wars you sold us 30 years ago, and here’s where in the new trilogy you seem to have gotten confused or failed to articulate the correspondents”. So if you’ll notice, my revision is quite different that Belated Media, because he’s essentially pitching his own movie based on his idea of what constitutes a movie. Which is fine, but you’re not dealing with the same movie at the point. His Episode 2 is nothing in common with the Episode 2 Lucas had any interest in making. Likewise, your version of Gravity has nothing in common with the version of Gravity Cuaron wanted to make. That’s fine, but it’s not an improvement at that point, it’s an entirely different movie.

To say Gravity ripped off this scene is to look for the most obvious relationship between movies.

[Then, after decrying a scene about a third of the way into the movie as both scientifically inaccurate, and worse—a rip-off from Brian DePalma’s Mission to Mars (!)—he suggests, rather than cut the offending scene, that the scene failed because it lacked the earlier film’s emotional resonance. My reply to this bit of pseudo-logic:] I was also confused about the mention of the Mission to Mars bit. Weren’t they in Earth’s gravitational pull in the movie Gravity? [Why do the detractors always forget that, or more strangely, not understand it?] I admit it’s a similar scene, but in this movie especially the action is significant to her character since the whole movie is about learning to “let go”, which Ryan needs to do. The adversary then is both her own internal need for control and the complete apathy of the universe. In Mission to Mars, on the other hand, that scene felt needlessly manipulative. It was a calculated moment of heightening the emotional tension of the scene, but it’s simply exploitative since it means nothing for our characters other than a note of false gravitas to reference back towards on only two occasions. The movie isn’t about the wife overcoming the grief of her dead astronaut husband, or the high cost of discovery. That moment is cold and calculated murder to hit the audience right in the feels. It doesn’t succeed.

[END OF LETTER–and spoilers]

Was I surprised I never received a reply? Not really. Despite his assurances he had a strong constitution I suspected he was hoping I would submit my critical faculties and laud his ideas. It baffles me that people who profess to be critical are so inept at receiving it themselves (and believe me, my videos have earned me hearty obloquies; often misspelled, frequently ad hominem, and rarely ever on point). I grant there is a difference between criticism and attack, but the two are not mutually exclusive.

What I never told him, for I knew it would serve no purpose, was that the entire time I was reading his version I wondered where he had acquired such debilitating notions of what constitutes a “perfect” film, and how he believed he had found—and insisted without any cogent evidence—that he had created the superior version of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Thankfully he answered the question for me, noting that he’d been in touch with a prominent script-doctor who claims responsibility for over a thousand script rewrites over several decades in Hollywood, but whose IMDB page is curiously sparse. But no matter, science had its alchemists, cinema has its script-doctors. This one in particular, whose name I’d rather not mention, had not only parasitized the mind of our rewriter, he had done it with a system for screenwriting that is as staggering in its complex ineptitude as it is in its inept complexity. His system offers as anathema the very evil he rails against: establishing the three-act structure as the stereotypical Hollywood script (it isn’t and never was), so that he can replace it with a muddled list he’s perched on the precarious precipice of a naturalistic fallacy. He’s spent more than a quarter of a century advocating in hyperbolic pitch that all writers ought to avoid the three-act structure, while they ought to follow his patented  steps (after purchasing the book and paying for the seminars, of course). If the irony of this assertion is not immediately apparent then no length of explication will unveil the fallacy. Before I lay the criticism any thicker, however, I should clarify from what I can ascertain that the author offers these insights as proscriptive rather than prescriptive rules. Nevertheless, it is both ludicrous and stupid to contend what any film must have, except to say that the film must have a meaning to exist and must provide the means to determine this meaning. Otherwise it’s not a film but a crass exploitation of the medium. (I’m fully aware that I offer up a straw man for a desiccated argument too easily roasted, but the pyre nonetheless is worth burning.)

Voici: the ONLY correct way to write a movie. That’ll be $50.

Is my ire misplaced? Perhaps, I do abide by the old credo of the gentleman in that he is never rude except on purpose; but consider that the Merlin of this Arthurian quest for a grail is not only aware of this aberrant version, but approved of it, calling the suggestions “far superior to [Cuaron’s] Gravity”. Come again?

If I seem mad as hell it’s because I am. This system piques my antagonism because its fundamental precepts are so galling and infantalizing to both scripts and their authors. It offers as the only legitimate tool for expression a totalitarian vision of creativity; a system that requires all modes of creative expression be submitted to the mind-forged manacles of a capitalist screen-writer—one who believes with a conviction as genuine as it is maddening that his system is a guaranteed, foolproof means of story-telling. Yet the belief contains within itself its own damning critique, since only a fool would believe in such a proof, let alone in its necessity. It reminds me of the incipient era of ancient Greek drama. This heterodoxy was decried at first (two voices?!), celebrated for a time, then later guffawed as passé (only two voices?) all within the span of roughly twenty years as the field of Greek drama underwent enormous changes in form, style and composition. The proscriptions existed insofar as they remained the best and most efficient way to communicate a story to an audience. Imagine if the playwrights had stopped their cultivation at any point and declared whatever arbitrary moment they had decided to mark the ultimate and final form of the art? Thankfully this never happened, and the later Roman playwrights, inspired by their Hellenic antecedents, pushed the art further, incorporating new methods and new modes of narrative expression. The key distinction between their cultivation and that of today is that the innovations came as a means of communicating something, in much the same way that the innovation of sound in film enabled new forms of dramatic storytelling, or colour photography, both of which added to the artistic toolkit.

Are my arguments an aggrandizement of a non-issue? No. The danger of this vitiating system is that it leads otherwise rational writers to believe in such profoundly debilitating notions like the plot of Gravity could be enhanced (“made good”) by the insertion of a literal antagonist. Come again? The story could be great, he seriously contends, if only it were like every other story that follows this multi-step process. Once more for the incredulous? Gravity would have been more emotional, he contends, if only it had used the structure to manipulate the audience. To be clear, I do not mean to argue that the story itself was above reproach but to counter the ridiculousness of the assertion that this new version was inherently superior because of an arbitrary adherence to a step plan.

I’m all for cultivating the art of screenwriting, and taking filmmakers to task when they mistake story-telling as a means to make money off our innate desire for stories, but this naturalistic fallacy masquerading as pseudo-profundity is not a viable future of any art, let alone cinema. Moreover, it blinds us from recognizing quality work when we see it, and inspires only the audacity to fix what was never broken. If I may offer my own prescription then: beware anyone who comes bearing revealed wisdom who expects you to pay for the full revelation. There are countless ways to improve your story-telling abilities, but relying on just one formula is not one of them.


6 thoughts on “The Danger of Needless Script Rewrites

  1. You suck. You suck because at the end of reading your essays, I’m reduced to having so little to say that I end up typing something as lame as “you suck.” When I saw the topic of the essay, and began reading about the man’s letter to you about GRAVITY, I thought, “Oh, I’ll respond with a comparison between this guy’s GRAVITY rewrite and the reworking you proposed for the newer STAR WARS films, and the way those were merely trying to get the newer stories to honor the original intent.” But, nope, of course you were already heading in that direction. But, I would have ended there, whereas you go on to dig deeper and deeper, schooling me in ancient Greek drama and tying together all sorts of disparate ideas together into one beautifully blended piece of art.

    One of these days I’m going to make write a long, well-thought out rebuttal of one of your analyses, and disagree with you the whole while just to have something to say. I won’t mean a word of it, but at least then there will be some words for me to offer.

    Did I say “You suck.” My bad. I mean to say, “I suck.” lol. Great essay.

    • Thank you for your support, and for your honesty. I admit, I have a tendency when enraged to ramp my rhetoric into overdrive (the Pyrrhic victory of most academia), the linguistic equivalent of shouting down the opposition. Some men puff up their chests, I puff up my grammar and vocabulary. I’ll go back in and see if I can identify any points where I obviously overdid things and shave off the bark. Out of curiosity, were there any passages you remember reading and groaning at? Or could you maybe clarify a bit what you mean about overwritten? The main thing about these pieces is that they should be fun to read, as much as they should avoid the cliché and the obvious, and if I’ve failed at any of those points then I have my work ahead of me.

      • No, no, honestly, you’re perfectly right. You are the reader, and the reason why I write a blog (and not a diary) is to allow others the opportunity to read, comment, and reflect on my ideas AND the manner in which they’re phrased. I appreciate and value any constructive criticism my readers might have to offer, mostly because it makes me a better writer, but also because it let’s me know where I’m reaching people and where I’m alienating them. After all, what’s the point in communicating if no one wants to listen to what you’re saying? The reader comes first, otherwise I might as well keep it to myself. So really, if you have the time and the inclination to assist me in improving my skills, I would graciously welcome and appreciate it.

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