Friday, March 5, 2010

Twisted Hollywood

Let’s talk about movie twists. At the end of the 1980s, a friend of mine told me I had to see the movie Black Widow. You probably don’t remember it, if you ever heard of it in the first place. The reason I remember this movie has less to do with the film itself than the trend it started. This movie seemed to begin the era of the twist, an era that has served the movie going public very poorly. These days, there's hardly a movie that doesn’t promise a twist.

Now don’t get me wrong, twists are great things. They have always been a feature of storytelling, and if done correctly, can take an otherwise excellent movie and raise it to a whole new level. Indeed, some of my favorite movies involve dramatic twists: The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, and even The Caine Mutiny.

But few movie twists are of this caliber. Unfortunately, inserting a twist has become one of the biggest crutches for hack screen writers. By adding something “unexpected” to the movie, these pathetic scribblers convince a few gullible souls that they have in fact been watching a decent movie, when the reality is sadly different.

Indeed, most of what passes for twists these days are simply random information jammed into movies, near their ends, to give the director another car chase or an easy wrap up for a problem the unskilled writer didn’t know how else to resolve. It is not surprising either that these things have quickly become clichéd.

How many times have you watched a movie lately where the hero seems to solve the mystery and defeat the bad guy, only to discover that the hero’s boss/life-long friend/girlfriend/partner is the “true bad guy.” And how many times has this made sense? Gee, I never suspected that my ten year cop partner, who I see every waking moment of our working days, was really running the syndicate that controls the city’s underworld. Who knew? Or what about the young hero who finds meaning in the wise words of a janitor, who just happens to be the boy’s long lost father? Princess falls for a commoner? Don’t worry, he just doesn’t know yet that he’s really prince. Need a cause for some disaster? Maybe we brought this on ourselves? Hey, what’s that kid next door playing with? Why, that’s the missing piece of the very ancient weapon we need to defeat this here monster! Yee haw! If you’ve written any of these clichés, then you suck and you should go back to your day job. . . milking cats.

Unfortunately, Hollywood marketing departments have learned that inserting any surprising information near the end of the film (in its proper formulaic place of course) will generate a buzz -- whether it makes sense or not. Indeed, many a times I found myself reaching for my cell phone determined to find out the location of the nearest gun shop and the writer’s home address after seeing such a “twist,” only to hear some slack-jawed moron walk by saying: “I really didn’t see that coming. What a great film. You smell perty.” And I just wanted to scream at said moron: “Senator, you’re a [expletive deleted]!!”

A good movie twist needs to derive from a combination of factors, each of which must be present.

First, you need a well written movie regardless of the twist. Each of the movies identified above was a strong movie even without the twist. If you’re relying on the twist to save your movie, then you’re doing it wrong. Similarly, if you find yourself racing the story along just to get to the twist, then you’re doing it backwards. The twist needs to come naturally out of the story, the story should not be a crutch to support the twist.

Secondly, the twist needs to be deeply entwined with the story. If it’s just an add on to give your story a surprise, then you should give up writing and follow your true calling instead. . . marketing. Here are some examples of add ons that I see all the time: If the twist can happen to any of the characters, as if the writer threw darts to decide which team member will betray the others, then the twist is an add on. If the twist isn’t related to the themes of the film, then it’s an add on. If the writer can’t really explain why the twist is needed in the story without just citing the plot that follows the twist, then it’s an add on. In other words, if you’re asked why you included the twist, and your explanation is something like: “if we don’t expose the real bad guy, then the audience won’t know about the real bad guy” then it’s time to leave the writing to others.

Third, a twist must be foreshadowed. This is the hardest aspect of getting a good twist, but it’s also the most important. This is difficult because “foreshadow” doesn’t just mean you make a few passing references to the twist as the movie meanders along. But you can’t give it away either. A twist should be surprising, but it also needs to seem like it was always there for the viewer if they would have just stopped to think about it. Indeed, twists that have done this successfully are the ones that make you want to rewatch the movie for the clues that you missed the first time. The best way to tell if a twist is gratuitous is if the foreshadowing is forced. . . does it seem jammed into the story, or does it flow naturally from the story as it progresses.

Finally, the best twists need to change the meaning of the entire movie, not just drive the plot in a different direction. Each of the movies identified above does that. Consider The Caine Mutiny where you suddenly find yourself changing sides after the twist is revealed and you realize that you misinterpreted each of Queeg’s actions. Or consider the scene in Fight Club in the kitchen, after Helena Bonham Carter has slept with Durden, where you are convinced that Carter is a nasty, hateful woman, until after the twist, when you realize that she’s actually trying to be nice but Norton is the one who is acting insanely. Consider The Sixth Sense where a horror story turns into a touching relationship film, as you realize what Osment is doing for Willis. Or consider The Usual Suspects, which I need to review, where you suddenly learn that nothing you’ve seen over the prior two hours is true and every motivation you attributed to the characters was false. Those are well done twists, because they give you a new take on everything you just watched and let you see the movie again from an entirely new perspective.

If a movie can achieve each of these four factors, then it likely includes an excellent twist that will make a good movie even better. If it doesn’t achieve one of these factors, then you’ve probably got cat milker masquerading as a writer.

Come on Hollywood, it’s not that hard to do this right.



45 comments:

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

Uh, ... Hmmmm..... Have you ever written a screenplay?

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: If possible, it's even worse on TV, including some otherwise decent shows (like NCIS). It's so formulaic that I've just given up. There will be one to three serious supects, and in the better versions, it's down to just one by fifty minutes into the show. So you can just lay money down that the fifty-minute person didn't do it. Wait until after the last commercial. That's when you'll find out which entirely implausible character actually did the deed.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, It reminds me of the old mystery books where they introduced the real killer in the last chapter or two.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, What's your point? Are you saying that someone who hasn't written a classic can't teach Shakespeare? Or maybe someone who didn't discover the atom can't teach atomic physics?

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

From your answer, I would suspect that you haven't. Remember what Scott went through with his script?

That happens with every screenplay. Usually by the time we see it on the screen, it has been homogenized so badly that sometimes the original writer divorces himself publically from the movie.

Writing 120 page screenplay from start to finish took me over three months. Which is about average. I still very rarely let anyone read it. It is quite good, but not great and it will never be made unless it is GREAT.

A screenplay to put it lightly is the modern day version of a haiku. I don't know what else to say. Except that EVERYONE seems to think they could write better than the current crop. Well if you feel it is so easy ..... write one. I did. Now, I have a whole lot more respect for movies. Even the bad ones.

ScottDS said...

Andrew, all I'll say is it's a good thing I've seen all the films you use as examples in the last paragraph. No spoilers for me! :-)

Foreshadowing is extremely difficult and can often be a double-edged sword: foreshadow too much and the audience will guess the twist; don't foreshadow enough and the audience might ask, "Where the hell did that come from?"

It's the same with setup and payoff: if the director holds on a shot of a gun for too long, you know it'll be used. But if it's supposed to be a surprise, why show it at all? The best filmmakers do this so well we don't even notice it.

I'd love to get your opinion of two other twists: The Empire Strikes Back and Unbreakable.

Tennessee Jed said...

Of course twists have been around long before Black Widow. The notion that good writing is an element to a good twist seems almost too elemental to include. Ditto for the entwinement factor. Nevertheless, point three is spot on, and, almost to the same extent, so is point four.

Probably my favorite twist of the decade comes from Mulholland Drive, and The Usual Suspects is right there as well. Although it is probably not a full blown twist, the way Ryan Gossling finally traps Sir Anthony Hopkins in Fracture is another favorite

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, You're right, it really is a difficult balancing act. But, I think that if your twist really fits within your story, then it should be a lot easier to foreshadow without it seeming obvious. The problem with foreshadowing seems to arise most often when something is wedge in out of the blue, i.e. doesn't fit organically in the story.

I would suppose it's the same in directing, as directing is really just story telling in pictures.

I'll get back to you in a bit on the movies you mention.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - I would completely agree. Good foreshadowing would seem the most difficult. Joel, it does seem all to easy to criticize at times, I imagine.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I would certain agree that twists have been around since the beginning (note that I including The Caine Mutiny for example). In fact, I would say that twists probably got their start with Ancient Greece.

That said, it was the rare movie before the end of the 1980s that was sold as "come see the twist," which seems to have become the marketing gimmick since that time. Indeed, usually, twists were hidden to increase the surprise to the audience. Today, they want you to know a twist is coming so that you'll see the movie.

To me, that's kind of sad.

ScottDS said...

Jed and Andrew -

SPOILER ALERT

When I was at Full Sail in DC class, we watched a scene from The Italian Job (the remake from 2003). Ed Norton is revealed as a traitor and our instructor illustrated how this was done, both visually and psychologically. The gang is just standing around: everyone is shot in two-shots and three-shots... except Norton who is only seen in close-ups by himself. Mentally, this causes the viewer to maybe think, "Okay, something's up."

My issue is this: if it's supposed to be a big surprise that Norton's a bad guy/traitor/whatever, why shoot him any differently? Why give the audience any clue at all?

It's like giving Darth Vader a line like, "Ya know, I had a son once. He kinda looks like that Skywalker kid I'm trying to kill!" :-)

LawHawkSF said...

Tennessee: Ryan Gosling has gotten a couple of good scripts like that. I had to keep waiting for the next twist in The Believer, where he played a Jewish neo-Nazi. I didn't find out until much later that it was based on a true story.

Joel Farnham said...

Scott,

What was the name of that movie that literally ended in a cliff-hanger? It was a robbery movie and the getaway vehicle was a bus carrying gold. The movie ended with the bus hanging off a cliff.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I avoided your question because I utterly reject the argument that you can't criticize something you haven't done.

We're here to have a conversation, not to play games by telling people that they can't say certain things because they have or haven't done something. That's not a productive discussion.

As for Hollywood, there certainly are movies that suffer from script problems because there are too many chefs in the kitchen. Some of those are in fact well known. But that doesn't excuse the crappy final product, nor does it explain the vast number of scripts that are pure garbage from start to finish. I don't respect crappy work in any field.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think the idea is to give the audience a hint that something is wrong with him, without actually saying it.

On Empire: tough call. I have a philosophical problem with the Vader twist at the end in that I don't like stories where everything in the universe revolves around a handful of people (that was a big problem I had with STNG -- it almost seemed like the Enterprise crew were the only Star Fleet officers in the galaxy). But the rest of Empire was ultra solid, and the relationship actually made sense, and it did add something interesting to the movie. So over all, I'm ok with it, though I would probably have avoided it personally if I was making the movie -- especially knowing the way it played out in Return. But it's a choice I can't fault.

Unbreakable lost me before the twist because the story was just too flat. It felt to me, like the movie was trying to be ultra profound, but it never really gave you enough to think about. Also, I felt that M. Night over did it in atmosphere, though I usually like his style a lot (though I haven't liked his movie in toto lately).

What are you thinking?

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

Very rarely it is the writing per se. Unless we are talking about James Cameron. His movies make money. Never mind that the screenplays he writes are plagarized (Terminator) or involve a proven movie (Aliens) or involve some historical ship (Titanic). His latest (Avatar) I have not seen. He makes money. That is the name of the game. People do not put good money down unless they expect something back. Either entertainment, or money back from investment.

Twists, used exclusively, are a gimmick. That I agree with. What I find alarming is you getting upset at the writer. He or she could have had nothing to do with it. It could have been put in because the backers wanted some reassurance on their return, or the producer didn't see it, or the director.... Or maybe, just maybe, it was the writer all by his lonesome.

I do think you should give writing a screenplay a try though. It really tightens up your writing. You have to write a two inch description of the room or scene. You have to write believable dialogue that in true life doesn't happen. You have to have characters that people love to hate and want to emulate. Descriptions are short but detailed. And to top it off. You must write at an eigth grade level. Actors can't seem to get through erudite manuscripts.:)

ScottDS said...

What was the name of that movie that literally ended in a cliff-hanger? It was a robbery movie and the getaway vehicle was a bus carrying gold. The movie ended with the bus hanging off a cliff.

Joel -

I have no idea but it sure sounds interesting.

While I went to film school, I'm only 27 and have a lot of catching up to do. When I worked at Best Buy (2003) where I was the resident DVD guru, I admitted to my boss that I had never seen The Godfather films. He looked at me like I was an alien from another planet.

Don't get me wrong - I'm flattered that you asked me. I wish I could help! (And I have since seen The Godfather films.)

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I agree that it's often not the writer's fault -- though there are many bad writers out there.

But you are correct that the finished product we see in films is a group effort and that money matters and directorial issues typically trump what writers have done. So let's broaden the criticism to "filmmakers generally".

Joel Farnham said...

Scott,

I have never seen it either, but part of the charm of that movie is the guys would get into trouble with the robbery attempt. One of them would always stop and say, "Wait, I have an idea!" Then would proceed to explain a solution, the guys would do it, and then move on. The bus was on the cliff. We see it from below. We hear, "Wait!! I have an idea!" and the movie ends. There has been an ongoing contest to solve that problem logically. It was won a year or two ago.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

I agree. Most of what I watch today is House, Psych, Chuck and Burn Notice. The actors are fun to watch.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

One more thing on the hypothetical screenplay. Any word longer than two syllables throw out. Polysyllabic words will be rejected out right. The easiest way is to substitute the latin intestinal ones with the germanic gut style. :)

Writer X said...

I think that before you can get to believable, unexpected twists, you first have to have sufficient character development which, of course, can extend throughout the life of the film. But if a person doesn't love/hate/understand your characters, it doesn't matter whether the plot (and the twists) are clever.

Very interesting post, Andrew! I agree with you completely that if twists are forced (e.g. plot, plot, insert twist, plot, plot) the reader/viewer will be disappointed. And I hate it when I guess the endings in movies.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I agree completely -- it all begins with characters. It's rare that a plot can save a story with bad characters!

Glad you liked the post. I was watching a movie the other night and it just struck me how tacked on the twist seemed.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

What was the movie called?

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I think the words you use will depend on the characters and what they are doing. They need to sound like people will expect them to sound. For example, people expect bigger words from a judge hearing an appeal of a complex case than they would from two high schoolers drinking beers at a party -- though the judge would probably talk very differently at home.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

You are half-way there to writing a screenplay. :)

Of course, you don't put words in the mouth of a character who won't use them. Not unless, you want a twist. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Angels and Demons. I don't want to go into detail, as I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but I thought the ending really violated the characters they had established and very much detracted from a movie that was otherwise surprisingly decent -- much better than I expected.

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

I am sorry. I did not see that movie. Partly because I didn't like The Davinci Code. I felt it was like National Treasure, only set in France and less well acted.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Yeah, the twist in Angels and Demons was kinda unnecessary. As for the film itself, I thought it was okay, but better than The Da Vinci Code.

I haven't read the novels and any anti-Catholic content doesn't really bother me... but both films are just so dark and dour. They're not really that "fun" despite having an Indiana Jones vibe going on. And sadly, like most films today, neither is worth a second viewing.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, That's ok, I just don't want to go into detail about the movie -- it's too recent and I think many people likely haven't seen it yet.


Scott, I had the same thought -- better than Da Vinci, but a little too dark. I did think though, that if they had not tacted on the ending, they would have a very interesting ending.

By the way, you never answered about Empire and Unbreakable -- what did you think?

ScottDS said...

Well, I probably saw Empire for the first time in the early 90s (along with the other SW films) and by then I knew what the "twist" was since it had already been part of pop culture for a decade. I guess it worked for me. I feel bad for kids today who watch all six films in order, knowing everything in advance. But then again, knowing Lucas, I have to ask, "Okay, was that planned? Or did he create this backstory after the first film was a hit?"

As for Unbreakable, I understood it in the context of the film, but in terms of realism... no. I think it strained credulity just a tad. :-) I like the film but I haven't seen it in a long time. I think Shyamalan has yet to top The Sixth Sense.

Tennessee Jed said...

I think the movie Joel and Scott were trying to think of was the original Italian Job. Another Twist I actually enjoyed was David Mamet's movie Heist with Gene Hackman (almost always solid) and Rebecca Pidgeon.

Also, in the spirit of earlier zesty argument, I would certainly agree with Andrew that one can credibly critique something without having done it. Maybe a couple of his examples were a tad misleading. I don't know if one actually needs to have split the atom to teach nuclear physics, or be a lawyer to teach the law, but it certainly it would help to have at least studied nuclear physics or the law to credibly teach either. Of course we aren't talking about either of those things here unless I missed something. (L.O.L I'm just jerkin' you around here Andrew, it was a fun post and lively discussion :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, That's ok, I'd rather have a lively conversation than everyone just saying "yep, sounds good."

(P.S. If you don't like those examples, I've got a bazillion more. . . I counted. ;-))

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It really was a shock when Empire came out. I remember people trying to figure out if Vader was lying, etc. I think my jaw dropped when I first saw it. You could literally hear the theater gasp.

Don't get me started on the prequels though. . . I could go on for days with my contempt for Lucas. I actually think he was jerking the audience around out of spite, because the rest of his films tanked.

As for M. Night, I agree. The only one I truly didn't like was The Happening, though I felt that Lady in the Water was weak and The Village could have been so much better if he'd refocused it as either a horror story or a love story and dropped the twist.

ScottDS said...

Jed - funnily enough, I just saw Heist for the first time last week (thanks to Netflix Instant View). I liked it but there were so many twists, it was like, "Okay, we should be getting another twist... now."

As for Rebecca Pidgeon, man, David Mamet is a lucky guy! (They're married.)

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - Mamet has a habit of casting his spouses in his movies (e.g. House of Games, and Verdict for Lindsay Crouse as well as Winslow for Pidgeon. You are right though, it did verge on the edge of being too gimmicky, but was still fun.

Individualist said...

I read an article once about the predictability of certain science fiction stories in comics that I think relates here.

Essentially the heros would have a problem requiring a technical solution and the teams tech would be stunped. This despite the fact that "reversing the polarity of something" always works.

The problem would continue until someone other than the team technologist said "why don't you just reverse the polarity of something".

The team tech would then respond in great surprize "that's so crazy, it just might work". This even though every problem can be solved by "reversing the polarity of something"

Then the team tech would "reverse the polarity of something" and then wait in horrifying suspense even though "reversing the polarity of something" always works. Then at the last minute the problem would be solved.

I am taking that this is the way you see many of the twists in Hollywood movies.

ScottDS said...

Indi -

In the audio commentary for Star Trek Generations writers Ron Moore and Brannon Braga touch on that very thing.

Moore says, "We would add the word TECH to the scripts but too often, the scripts would end with Picard saying, 'Geordi, TECH the TECH.' Geordi would say, 'Captain, I TECHed the TECH but it's not working, but if we TECH the TECH in a TECH direction, then maybe I could TECH the TECH.' And Picard would reply, 'Very well, Mr. LaForge. TECH the TECH.'"

It started on TNG but got worse on Voyager. My problem was - and this doesn't apply just to Trek - every time someone on a TV show needs to improvise or jury-rig something, they always seem to forget how to do it a few episodes later when faced with the same crisis.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist -- same problem. If you think of stories like computer programs, then Hollywood is big on inserting well known, very cliched subprograms. They often, don't even bother to try to blur the edges to make the whole thing seem even somewhat fresh.


Scott, I'd heard that, and I think it really was a problem for STNG. Not only did they always follow the same pattern in solving the problem, but you're right -- they forgot again the following week.

ScottDS said...

Andrew - I know you're no fan of Moore but he comes across as a good guy in the DVD commentaries for Generations and First Contact, as does Braga who is hated among many Trek fans. Both are refreshingly candid.

They admit their mistakes but more revealing are the brief anecdotes about the making of the TNG series itself. Neither is a fan of technobabble but very often they wrote themselves into a corner. Or they had a deadline to meet. Or the studio/Rick Berman/etc. forced them to write something. It's kinda funny listening to Moore as he describes very heated meetings with adults "arguing" what the warp core could or could not do. Man, I'd kill to be a fly on that wall. :-)

ScottDS said...

One last thing...

Both writers indicate that not everyone who worked on Trek believed in Roddenberry's Utopian ideas or that mankind would somehow rid itself of war, famine, etc. All nice ideas to be sure but when Picard is explaining to Alfre Woodard that they don't work for money, but to better themselves, Moore jokes, "Oh, I get it. It's a Socialist state!"

But this is all fodder for another article. :-) (Now that I've gone completely off-topic.)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I doubt I'll be changing my mind about Moore anytime soon. I have no opinion about Braga at all, and I never did figure out what he did that made so many people hate him. But you're right, he seems to be truly hated by many Star Trek fans.

Individualist said...

Scott,

That is an issue that appears in the Original Star Trek series as well. Sorry I just have not watched enough next generation episodes to speak authoritatively there.

There was actually an episode where spock say to Scotty as he is dying from radiation exposure in the warp core "Why don't you reverse the polarity of the {whatever it was I forget the exact term used}.

But if you go through enough old comic books I think you might be surprised at the number of times the term "Reverse the Polarity" is used.

Andrew: I think the problem with Sci Fi (especially recurring TV shows) is that there is not enough real scientific understanding am ong the writers. The real science fiction gems come from stories lie Jules Verne, Orwell, the makers of Gattaca etc. where the story is told by both a writer and a futurist. Someone that considers the svcientific implications of technology that might be and writes around that.

The poorly written twist is worse in Sci Fi pictures I think.

The secret word for this post was liess - - hmmm Google is trying to tell me something!

MegaTroll said...

Interesting debate and interesting article. I have nothing to add.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, I'm not sure if the cliches are worse in science fiction, I think they're pretty bad all around. Action flicks and chick flicks are nothing but formula at this point. At least science fiction hasn't gotten to that point yet.

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