Nightmare Royale #7: On the Crushing Weight of Hollywood “Story Gravity”, and Why Saving the World Can Kiss My Ass (Plus a Tip of the Hat to Brian Keene and Edgar Allan Poe!)Columns,John Skipp's Nightmare Royale (On Making Horror Better),News John Skipp
Dear gang —
First off: you gotta admit, it’s been a great week for Damon Lindelof hating. Even people who like him — who swear by LOST or the end of WORLD WAR Z, or (gulp) PROMETHEUS — have to admit that Vince Gilligan and friends handed him his ass last Sunday night. As I’m sure he’d be the first to agree.
BREAKING BAD, it seems, has achieved the miraculous. Which is to say: it never got stupid, and it never lost its way. To prove that you can sustain a riveting long-form drama for sixty-five hours or so, and then thoroughly deliver on the ending, seems like a cosmic revelation, or a virgin birth. “Wait! You mean a series doesn’t have to dissolve into shit pudding by the end?” (I’m looking’ at you, DEXTER!)
This is, of course, a triumph of great writing, and of a production team that knew great writing was the fucking foundation on which all those great character moments were built. As such, it’s a triumph across the board.
So why did BREAKING BAD rock so hard, all the way to the end, while so many others screw the pooch, and so many big-budget movies suck at a mere two-anna-half hours or less?
As it turns out, the best answer I’ve seen in print comes from Damon Lindelof himself.
A couple of weeks back, as faithful readers may recall, I was getting ready to tear big-budget Hollywood a new asshole. Or more accurately — since I don’t have that kind of power — to point out the enormous new asshole it’s already carved into itself.
This is the “tentpole” phenomenon (or “Biggest Dick syndrome”), wherein $100-$200 mil are thrown at epic destructo-porn spectacles, often featuring a) superheroes or b) A-list superstars as ordinary joes who somehow wind up global saviors.
The reason for this, as Lindelof clearly lays out in this smart and revealing article in Vulture.com, is that…
“Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world,” explains Lindelof. “And when you start there, and basically say, I have to construct a MacGuffin based on if they shut off this, or they close this portal, or they deactivate this bomb, or they come up with this cure, it will save the world—you are very limited in terms of how you execute that. And in many ways, you can become a slave to it and, again, I make no excuses, I’m just saying you kind of have to start there. In the old days, it was just as satisfying that all Superman has to do was basically save Lois from this earthquake in California. The stakes in that movie are that the San Andreas Fault line opens up and half of California is going to fall in the ocean. That felt big enough, but there is a sense of bigger, better, faster, seen it before, done that.
“It sounds sort of hacky and defensive to say, [but it’s] almost inescapable,” he continues. “It’s almost impossible to, for example, not have a final set piece where the fate of the free world is at stake. You basically work your way backward and say, ‘Well, the Avengers aren’t going to save Guam, they’ve got to save the world.’ Did Star Trek Into Darkness need to have a gigantic starship crashing into San Francisco? I’ll never know. But it sure felt like it did.”
He then goes on to describe this thinking as “story gravity”: an inexorable studio tug toward hugeness that must be obeyed at all costs, lest your colossal Earthtastrophe be less catastrophic than the next one down the pike.
Because God help you if you should bomb at $200 mil.
Which, as you may have noticed, is happening an awful lot these days.
And it made me think, “You know what? Thanks, Hollywood! I never thought I’d say this, but fuck saving the world! You’ve got me to the point where if I have to hear the story of how ONLY ONE BRAVE MAN CAN SAVE US, one more time, I’ll fucking blow the world up myself!”
Cuz here’s the deal. You know the last time one single guy saved the world? Never. It doesn’t happen. That’s not how it works. Not even Jesus could pull that off, and saving the world was pretty much his whole gig. (The best he had to offer was a good example, which millions have been missing the point of ever since.) And last time I checked, the world’s still screwed.
What I’m saying is: THIS IS A BULLSHIT NARRATIVE. It’s got nothing to do with our real lives, and the expectations it sets up are every bit as unrealistic and hurtful as the cover of Cosmo for a chunky teenage girl. It seizes simple human virtues like honor and courage and then sticks a giant air hose up their ass, inflating them to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade cartoon size. With giant cartoon Bad Guys to match. Over and over and over again.
Lemme tell ya: if in the end, Walter White had to save the whole world, we would have hurled our beers at the TV screen. And we wouldn’t be talking about what a masterpiece it was. We would be demanding the last five years of our lives back.
Which is what happened to poor ol’ Damon Lindelof, with LOST.
Speaking of which: I gotta tell ya, this Vulture article is superb. I suggest you read it all the way through. The most revelatory part is where he spells out precisely how studios rotate writers in and out of projects. Kind of like THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE, only with less creative control. It made me wanna puke, but it sure helps explain how studio films get that distinctive “written by committee” smell!
In the end, I really came out liking Lindelof a lot. Not exactly as a creative writer, but as an intelligent guy who truly understands the game, and was kind enough to honestly explain the rules he works by.
Speaking personally, I consider it reparations for all the unforgivably stupid shit in PROMETHEUS, which would have been a masterpiece if it weren’t so fucking dumb.
But that, as they say, is another story.
Speaking of stories that don’t require one hundred million dollars, but still can’t be made for free…
A pair of Kickstarter campaigns launched yesterday, both of which I feel compelled to support. The first is for NEVERMORE, a film by Stuart Gordon, written by Dennis Paoli (based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe), and starring Jeffrey Combs as the father of the modern horror story.
I saw the one-man stage play in its opening weeks, and was transfixed. After about ten minutes, I was no longer aware that Jeffrey Combs was even in the room. I was watching Edgar Allan Poe, standing fifteen feet away from me: funny, charming, frightening, garrulous, and getting drunker by the second.
It was an amazing sustained performance, and he was a human time machine, launching the theatre back 150 years so that we could taste his wit, his sorrow and rage. One of the greatest live theatrical experiences I’ve ever had.
When I came out of the Steve Allen Theatre, I ran up to Stuart and told him he had to make this film. For posterity. Because not everyone would get to see this show. But everyone needed to. He rolled his eyes and sighed.
Now, it seems, he’s listening to reason, and the team’s reuniting to bring it to the cinema. They need $375,000 to make it happen. (That’s probably 1/10th the cocaine budget of CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2.) Please listen to their goofy, impassioned pitch.
And then we’ve got Brian Keene’s THE CAGE, Kickstarting in search of a mere $85,000. Which is barely a sneeze in Hollywood terms, but a shitload of money by any ordinary standard.
Keene is one of my favorite 21st century horror writers, a hard-punching hardcore pulp original with a wild brain, a fierce heart, and balls the size of Pennsylvania. On top of books like THE RISING, TERMINAL and TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME (wherein I dubbed him the literary working-class equivalent of Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and Eminem), he also co-wrote THE DAMNED HIGHWAY (with Nick Mamatas), which is essentially “Hunter Thompson Meets Cthulhu on the Campaign Trail ’72”. And which is absolute genius.
Keene and crew want to make THE CAGE, and get Keene’s motion picture momentum rolling in the right direction. I for one salute this effort, and hope that you do, too.
And finally, as a little bit of self-promotion: Cody Goodfellow and I have just released our book THE LAST GODDAM HOLLYWOOD MOVIE. And to celebrate, we’re throwing a video contest — in conjunction with Bizarro Central and Creative Underground Los Angeles — in which you’re invited to blow yourself up in a nuclear blast, while on your cellphone. (You know that’s how it’s gonna happen!)
For more details, check out Bizarro Central.
Meanwhile, here are the first six videos, with more crazy shit comin’. Comin’ from YOU!!!