Monday, March 7, 2016

Learning from Failed Movies

(SPOILERS: Eddie the Eagle, Valkyrie, Titanic)

This weekend I saw Eddie the Eagle (story by Simon Kelton, screenplay by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton) and was very disappointed. A big part of the reason I thought the movie didn’t work was the screenplay. When confronted with a movie like this, I think it’s important, as a professional screenwriter, to be able to analyze what went wrong and consider how I would have fixed those problems.

Eddie the Eagle is based on the fantastic, heart-warming story of British ski jumper Eddie Edwards. These kinds of projects can be deceptively difficult. Since the true story is so good, it seems like all you have to do is put it into a proper structure, maybe heighten the obstacles, and you’re good to go. The trouble with this approach is that the audience already knows how the story ends.

Granted, Eddie’s story may not be widely known (I remember him, but younger audiences wouldn’t). However, anyone buying a ticket will be going to the movie about the underdog ski jumper who made it to the Olympics. The marketing tells them how it came out. So the first mistake the movie made was that it tried to build suspense through act two as to whether Eddie would qualify for the Olympics.

Let me illustrate the issue with another movie that had the same problem: Valkyrie (written by Christopher McQuarrie & Nathan Alexander). It was a true story about a plot by German officers to assassinate Hitler. However, everyone who knows even a little history knows that Hitler was not assassinated by German officers. The movie tried to build tension over whether the scheme would succeed – for example, there was a long sequence where we were supposed to be on the edge of our seat waiting to see if Hitler would stay in a room where a time bomb was set to go off. Except we already know he won’t, so the sequence came across as tedious instead of tense.

When I came out of Valkyrie, my friend said it was like they tried to make a movie about the Titanic from the point of view of the Captain and whether he would hit the iceberg. Of course, the movie Titanic (written by James Cameron) was a gigantic success… but it wasn’t from the point of view of the Captain. The tension in Titanic was not whether the ship was going to sink – we all knew it would – it was a romance about whether lower class Jack and upper class Rose would end up together, with the fate of the ship used as a backdrop.

So one technique to making a known story interesting is to focus on a different dramatic question than the outcome of the main historical event. In Valkyrie, the main character was an officer who knew from the first moments of the movie that Hitler was bad for Germany and wanted to get rid of him. The officer never wavered in that belief. But there was another officer who struggled with his loyalty to Germany. Could he betray his country by participating in a coup – even if the coup would ultimately be good for his country? What does patriotism really mean? I think an interesting movie could have been made about that character and his struggle.

So getting back to Eddie the Eagle, in the second act, Eddie has to jump 61 meters to meet a newly imposed safety requirement to make the British Olympic team. He goes on the European ski jumping tour in a long sequence of practicing and competing, trying to make the distance. Practice and repeated attempts are probably the way he did it in real life, but it’s not that interesting on film, and it’s not tense since we know that eventually he will succeed.

But the truth is, we know how most stories are going to come out – even fictional ones. In action movies, we know the hero will beat the bad guy. In romantic comedies we know the lovers will end up together – and in romantic tragedies, they won’t. What usually makes a story interesting is not whether the hero will win or lose, but how.

Here was one of Eddie the Eagle’s big challenges: a ski jump is difficult but simple. You slide down the hill, you lift off, and you land… or you don’t. It’s hard to make the technical aspects of the sport interesting. So if I were writing this story, I would have looked for some kind of internal challenge Eddie had to overcome, some sort of self-doubt, fear, arrogance, etc. The arc of the movie would be about how he overcomes that flaw to achieve the goal we know he will achieve. (There are other possible alternative stories – it could have been about him raising money for his training, for example. But this is a heartwarming sports story, so I would look to the character for the solution.)

A second problem Eddie the Eagle has is that it doesn’t just use every sports movie cliché, it doubles down on them. Is it a cliché that the really good athletes will be mean to our scrappy underdog? Then the really good athletes in this movie will be the cruelest people on Earth! (This is the worst kind of cliché… one that isn’t true in the real world.)

I want to focus on one cliché in particular: the unsupportive father. Practically every line out of Eddie’s father’s mouth in this movie is some version of, “Give up your silly dream and get a job,” with the occasional, “Don’t expect me to pay for your skiing” thrown in. (And then, of course, in the very last scene Eddie’s father tells him he’s proud of him, for no apparent reason other than it’s the last scene and that’s the movie cliché.)

Now, an unsupportive father might be a good obstacle to put in Eddie’s way. But given that it’s a cliché, the writers ought to have tried to find a variation on it. Perhaps they should have thought more about why the father was unsupportive. Here are three ideas:

1. Focus more on the financial aspect. Skiing is an expensive sport and Eddie’s family is working class. There’s only the briefest nod to this when his father mentions they haven’t taken a vacation in three years, but it’s not treated as that significant a sacrifice. If Eddie’s father was shown to really struggle for every dollar, it would be plausible that he would resent his son’s spending so much on what the father thinks is a waste of time.

2. Eddie’s father could worry that his son will make a fool of himself, and want to protect his son (and himself) from ridicule. Maybe there could be a scene in the local pub where Eddie’s father hears people making jokes about his goofy son’s attempts to be an athlete. Then there would be some subtext if the father goes home and tells Eddie he should give up his silly pursuit.

3. Eddie’s father could be worried that his son will get hurt. Eddie had bad knees as a child and spent a lot of time in a hospital. It would be perfectly reasonable – and even sympathetic – if his father feared ski jumping was too dangerous a sport for his fragile son.

I think any of these options would have been far more interesting and engaging than the one-note lout we’re given. When you find yourself writing a cliché, try to get deeper into the character. A believable character motivation can make the cliché seem fresh and unique.

And when you see a bad movie, use it as an opportunity to learn how to make your own writing better.


Hone your craft with my book, The Three Stages of Screenwriting


Alice said...

I read most postings of your blog even though I'm trying to write a novel. I love your Schmooze.

I didn't see this movie but my son did. (He's in his early 40's) He was picked on in school and has turned out to be quite successful with a wife and kids. My point? He loved this movie. He could identify with the protagonist in everything he did. He said he actually cried. He probably has never heard of Eddie before, but I'm guessing he knew he would make the Olympic team. The movie is a follow your dream, which is also cliche.

My point being, someone did enjoy the movie and sometimes instead of analyzing we must just sit back, eat popcorn and enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis and I agree with most of what you've written...Giving a new perspective on the story, perhaps from the dad's stance, would give the movie deeper meaning. But even so, wouldn't the outcome still be the same? He's proud of him in the end. The end.

Doug Eboch said...

Alice: I've learned that no matter what the movie, someone will love it and someone will hate it. And good for them! I try never to criticize a movie to a "civilian" who has loved it. But I still think it's good to try to write well and not rely on the theme to carry your story.

grfrazier: It's not that the ending would change, but it would be earned. Right now, his father's pride seems unbelievable because we never saw any reason for his father's change of heart (or rather, we saw some reasons but his father didn't change at those points - the change happens when nothing has occurred to motivate it). Thus the ending has little emotional impact. But if the writers had built a complex, believable character and then showed what caused the change of heart, it could have been a powerful scene. We rarely watch movies to find out what happens, instead we watch to see how it happens.