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Rewrites: T2 Trainspotting

Moderator Mark Olsen (LA Times) and director Danny Boyle

So, T2 Trainspotting. I’m afraid I didn’t find much of interest. That doesn’t mean I found nothing of interest. The most interesting thing is the title. Director Danny Boyle said that the title is an intentional tip of the hat to The Terminator sequel because the characters in Trainspotting would appreciate being in a film called T2.

This is interesting. T2 Trainspotting ends with two of the characters in room stuffed with piles of DVDs. They’re film nuts. Robert Carlyle’s character and antics recalls the Terminators (especially T-800, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and T-1000, Robert Patrick) in both of Cameron’s Terminator films, as does several chase scenes.

But more could have been done with this parallel between the lives of the characters in T2 Trainspotting and those in the action films they shape their lives around. It would be tricky, but I think there was a untapped comic goldmine there in the contrast of the two T2’s, something along the lines of what James Joyce did in Ulysses, contrasting the life of ordinary man Leopold Bloom with the heroic adventures of the great hero Odysseus/Ulysses.

T2 Trainspotting does this a little, but if it had gone all the way, it may have been very interesting instead of just a wee bit interesting.

2T2

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Written by David Kilmer

March 7, 2017 at 3:47 pm

Posted in Films, Rewrites

John Carter (of Mars)

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John Carter of Mars poster by Mondo recalls the paintings of the Hudson River School.

Last night my family and I were lucky enough to see an advance screening of John Carter hosted by Hero Complex in Burbank. The screening was followed by a Q & A with the film’s director, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) hosted by Geoff Boucher.

Here are some of my thoughts on the film.

1. My father has been a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creations, including the John Carter of Mars series, for longer than I can remember. He has not yet seen the film, but he’s been griping about one thing ever since they announced it: the title. He does not like John Carter. Does anyone? In my mind, the name “John Carter” conjures up images of a doctor (such as the character Dr. John Carter on the television show, E.R.) or a detective (Get Carter) rather than an adventurer who travels between worlds.

Burroughs’ novel was published in book form as A Princess of Mars, and a princess of Mars is indeed a main character. However, this was not the work’s original title. According to Wikipedia, Burroughs “struggled to find an appropriate title for the novel: My First Adventure of Mars, The Green Martians, and Dejah Thoris, Martian Princess were all early attempts to solve this problem.” It was eventually published in The All-Story magazine as Under the Moons of Mars before being published in book form as A Princess of Mars. This publication history probably makes justifying the movie’s title change a bit easier. However, regardless of this, the question remains: Is John Carter is a good title? The film was originally titled A Princess of Mars, then John Carter of Mars, and the actual film concludes with the latter title. According to Stanton, the film is “about a guy becoming John Carter of Mars.” This makes sense. The film plays on his name and where he’s from. At first, the Tharks, through a misunderstanding, call him Virginia. At another point in the story, the princess calls him John Carter of Earth. Finally, he realizes that he has become John Carter of Mars and calls himself that. The film, in effect, has two titles that book-end the film: John Carter at the start; John Carter of Mars at the end. The change in title reflects the change in the character. However, none of this changes the fact that the official title, John Carter, is more boring than John Carter of Mars. Note that the poster above reads “JCM,” i.e. John Carter of Mars.

2. The film is not a “faithful” adaptation. During the Q & A after the screening, Stanton said that the relative obscurity of the source material made it easier to make changes. It’s fine to make changes if they lead to a better film, but I don’t know if that is what we are dealing with here. Many of the changes involve incorporating material from the later novels, especially the second one, The Gods of Mars. The original story is already confusing. There are the Green Martians, Tharks, and the Red Martians. Then there’s a war between factions of the Red Martians. Barsoom, Tharks, Dejah Thoris, Tars Tarkas. It’s like taking a course in a foreign language. But the film makes this already confusing story even more confusing by adding parts dealing with Red Martian religion, and a mysterious group of bald headed priest types who appear to be the puppeteers behind everything that happens. I suppose they’ll be explained in the third film.

There’s enough intriguing elements in the film that there will probably be a large number of people who, not catching all the plot elements during a first screening, will be lured back to the theater a second or third time, hoping the confusion will be replaced with clarity and revelation. However, it seems more likely that nothing will be understood completely until the final installment of the series.

3. If the source material is going to be approached with an idea that one does not need to be faithful, I think the best approach would be to aim for less, not more. The best part of the film is the Tharks. I would have made Carter an unmarried millionaire, bored with his life. When he’s thrown in the Thark society, he must start from scratch again, while all the time trying to get back to Earth and his mansion. As he slowly becomes accustomed to the Thark society, he moves up in status as well until he finally ends up top of the heap. In the film, Carter more or less follows this path, but it comes a bit too easily and quickly because they want to move the story along a different path. For example, he doesn’t have to learn the language because a female Thark gives him a magical potion that enables him to understand everything everyone says, both Green and Red Martians. In my story, the story would become a version of Brigadoon. Just as he is accepted completely by the Tharks, and finds love among the Tharks, he’s transported back to Earth. The film would end with him looking up at Mars in the sky, vowing to find a way to return.

4. Was John Carter the source for Superman? When Carter is transported to Mars, he finds that because of the lower gravitational pull, he has super powers. Besides super strength, he is able to jump very high and very far. Superman’s powers were originally explained the same way, but instead of being the Earthling who travels to another planet, he’s an alien from another planet who travels to Earth.

So, is there a connection? According to Wikipedia:

Siegel and Shuster have themselves discussed a number of influences that impacted upon the character. Both were avid readers, and their mutual love of science fiction helped to drive their friendship. Siegel cited John Carter stories as an influence: “Carter was able to leap great distances because the planet Mars was smaller that the planet Earth; and he had great strength. I visualized the planet Krypton as a huge planet, much larger than Earth”. (Source.)

5. During the course of the film, the princess, Dejah Thoris, goes from being mostly covered by armor, in the style of a warrior princess, to being rather scantily clothed, which is more than a little reminiscent of the costume change Princess Leila undergoes from Star Wars: A New Hope to The Empire Strikes Back. Stanton, in the post-screening discussion, said this was meant to represent the character rediscovering her “vulnerability.” Whatever. Even Geoff Boucher made a joke about some guy in the audience enthusiastically nodding in agreement.

6. It’s interesting to compare the setup of John Carter to that of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (I wrote about the latter here.) Both films are about fish out of water Earthmen, characters who find themselves held captive by strange aliens on a strange, alien planet. Despite being among everything alien, in POTA Mark Wahlberg escapes and is leading a group of natives to a place he’s never been within 24 hours of his capture. In JC, Carter attempts to escape, but fails several times, in part because he doesn’t know which way to go. He gets lost, as you would expect when you are on an alien planet with alien customs. When he’s finally released, he needs the help of native guides because he has no idea where to go. But the film goes further than this. When Carter first gets to Mars, he cannot even walk, much like a baby. Carter’s baby status becomes even more obvious when he’s thrown into the Thark nursery along with the other Martian babies. At this point in the story, Carter is like a newborn baby which sees everything as strange and alien. In effect, he has been “reborn,” and the rest of the story is going to show Carter “growing up.” Stanton said that at first he thought Taylor Kitsch was too young for the part, but a younger John Carter actually fits a coming of age story such as this better than the thirty-ish Carter Burroughs envisioned.

It’s also interesting to note that both Planet of the Apes and John Carter have their hero helped by a female alien who is a misfit among her people, yet at the same time the daughter of a high ranking male. Perhaps Pierre Boulle, author of the source novel for POTA, was influenced by JC. But my main point is that JC, despite the cheat of using a magic potion to allow Carter to understand all Martian languages, gets it right whereas Burton’s POTA gets it very wrong. Walhberg acts as if he’s taking little more than a trip downtown; Taylor Kitsch, as Carter, acts and reacts like he’s on an alien planet.

7. At some point the princess admits to Carter that she ran away. It’s a bit more complicated than usual, but it still comes down to a classic situation: she ran away because she does not want to marry the man that her father has arranged for her to marry. (We don’t see her run away and we get the impression that something was cut out. Perhaps one of the six deleted scenes that Stanton mentioned that will appear on the home video version will cover this.) This part of the film begins to resemble It Happened One Night, as the hero and princess show how incompatible they are while on the road, but we know where they will eventually end up. At this point, I would rather have been watching Colbert and Gable in Capra’s film. But Woolah partially redeems it.

8.  This is Woolah, John Carter’s dog-like friend, who can move extremely fast.

Woola

This is Lockjaw, a bulldog-like character, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, that first appeared in Fantastic Four #45. Among his powers is the ability to teleport himself, which is sorta like moving very fast.

Lockjaw

Could Burroughs’ Woolah have been the inspiration for Lee and Kirby’s Lockjaw?

9.  Jumping is what John Carter does best on Mars, but I wasn’t impressed by how it was handled. I wanted to feel like I was there jumping with Carter instead of admiring him from a safe distance, but the film did not convey to me how it must feel to jump like a superman. However, there is a film that does a pretty good job of this. Here it is, Osamu Tezuka’s “Jumping.”

10. There’s nothing to suggest that in addition to traveling through space, Carter travels in time. However, if it proved to be the case that his trip was possible only because he did travel backwards in time, and he were to discover than present day Mars is as dead as any planet can be, it would make his loss, which he experiences after returning to the same Earth he left, even more poignant.

11. My Dad likes to talk about how the only time he was with an audience that applauded at the end of a film was when he saw Star Wars in 1977.  If he had been there with us to see John Carter at the Hero Complex screening, he would would not have to change his story because the audience did not applaud at the end, at least not until Andrew Stanton appeared. Whether this bodes ill for the film’s prospects remains to be seen, but I would not bet in favor of the film.

12. Why didn’t Disney bring John Carter to Comic-Con last year? I propose my theory here.

13. People like to think of stories such as this as nothing but escapism. You open the book, read the story, then close the book. End of story. The book has no long lasting affect on your life outside of its affect on the imagination. However, I think it’s more interesting to see this story as a metaphor. It’s not so much a wish-fulfilling power and sex fantasy as a story about a guy who discovers his true powers in the course of discovering his true identity. This is the story of every one of us. The limit of this story is not so much its escapism, as its ignorance of the limits of the actual world of its readers and viewers. The story was called  A Princess of Mars, not The Princesses of Mars. In other words, there can only be one John Carter. The upper levels of society have a limited number of slots. In theory, the same cave that transported Carter to Mars could transport millions of others. But there would still be only one Princess for all of them, despite all of them having super powers. Someone such as Andrew Stanton identifies with Carter because he found that when he jumped, there was a place to jump to. But for millions of others who can in fact jump just as high as Stanton, there is no place to jump. The slots are already filled. The Princess already has her Prince.

14. Some might see Carter as a Christ figure. Of course, Christ lies behind many American heroes, including Superman, which was heavily influenced by the John Carter stories. And yes, the two share initials. However, there is at least one significant aspect of the film’s story that is not part of the Christ story and that is Carter’s “I stick my neck out for nobody” attitude. He demonstrates this attitude on Earth as well as Mars. The film shows Carter growing beyond this egotistical stage and deciding that it’s worth fighting for the Princess’  and her city’s cause. In other words, the film identifies maturity, or growing up, with helping other people as opposed to thinking only of oneself. Carter’s initial egotism separates him from Christ (and Superman). However, it aligns him with many other American heroes such as Spider-Man and Han Solo. It’s called the Refusal of the Call (in Joseph Campbell’s terminology.)

The ending also separates Carter from Christ. Yes, after Carter marries the Princess, he leaves, involuntarily, returning to Earth. But only for awhile.  The film ends with him returning to Mars and the Princess, which is a very un-Christ-like thing to do, as well as a bit unusual for an American hero: think of all the broken hearts left behind across the universe by Captain Kirk.

What’s really going on is the shaping of the original material by Burroughs into a form that most resembles the currently popular “Hero’s Journey,” based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. Here’s the short version in the words of David Brin:

…the hero begins reluctant, yet signs and portents foretell his pre-ordained greatness. He receives dire warnings and sage wisdom from a mentor, acquires quirky-but-faithful companions, faces a series of steepening crises, explores the pit of his own fears and emerges triumphant to bring some boon/talisman/victory home to his admiring tribe/people/nation. (Source.)

What’s interesting about Carter is that Carter begins with no allegiance to a nation. He fought for the South in the American Civil War, but refuses to fight for the United States against the native Americans. He does not want to fight at all. It’s an interesting story, but of course it’s not an unfamiliar story: Avatar, Dances with Wolves, and, a film that’s a favorite of Stanton’s, Lawrence of Arabia. (The film was pitched as Indiana Jones on Mars, but should have been pitched as Lawrence of Arabia on Mars.) These are stories about characters who come from the land of the colonialist, but end up fighting alongside, even leading, the colonized. Pretty much the story of John Carter. To reduce Carter to a Christ figure is to miss a lot.

15. Some people love to express their views on the reasons for a box office flop. (Perhaps they hope to be hired as well-paid “consultants” next time out.) Some of these people are saying John Carter “flopped” because it’s not original. That is, the books were already adapted to film, primarily as Star Wars. (Others say it was too much like Avatar, which Cameron admitted was partly inspired by the Carter stories.) All you have to do is look at the box office results of the last twenty years to prove how absurd that is. As we know, sequels and adaptations dominate. Originality is not what drives Hollywood. If you must compare it to Star Wars then it’s the clarity of that film’s plot that should be noted: damsel in distress sends a message asking for help from a specific person; that person responds, but the task is completed by others he picks up along the way.  Message sent; reply received. John Carter‘s plot is already a mess, but even more so in comparison with Star Wars. (Added 3/18/12.)

UPDATE: 2/29/12

Here’s a new quote from Stanton about the title change, which is (mostly) in sync with what I had to say about it above:

At the time there was panic about Mars Needs Moms. That wasn’t convincing to me to do anything. Then they did all this testing and found out that a huge bulk of people were saying no off the title. You can’t lie about that stuff, that’s the response you’re getting. I was like ‘Eh, that’s what the movie is.’ But I don’t want to hurt people from coming to the movie. Then I realized the movie is about that arc [of John Carter’s character], and I said, ‘I’ll change it if you let me change it at the end. And if you let me keep the JCM logo.’ Because it means something by the end of the movie, and if there are more movies I want that to be what you remember. It may seem like an odd thing, but I wanted it to be the reverse Harry Potter. With the latest Harry Potter they had Harry Potter and the Blah Blah Blah Blah, but you just see the HP. I wanted the JCM to mean something. (Source.)

 UPDATE: 3/12/12

If Disney gave Mr. Stanton rope, he certainly ran with it. Accustomed to reworking scenes over and over at Pixar, he did not take well to the usual constraints of live-action — nailing it the first time — and went back for at least two lengthy reshoots. “The thing I had to explain to Disney was, ‘You’re asking a guy who’s only known how to do it this way to suddenly do it with one reshoot,’ ” he told The Los Angeles Times. “I said, ‘I’m not gonna get it right the first time. I’ll tell you that right now.’ ” (Source.)

Two comments: First, it’s not unusual to reshoot stuff in Hollywood, but whenever this quote from Stanton is pulled out, the article seems to be implying that re-shoots are rare and done only when the production is “troubled.” In any case, Stanton’s re-shoots did not help. Why? The script. It’s too diffuse. His pitch to Disney, Indiana Jones on Mars (although the pitch should have been Lawrence of Arabia on Mars), implies a clear cut film, but this film is about as clear as a smoggy day in Los Angeles. Why couldn’t they come up with a good script? Were they too close to the film? Articles have appeared which talk about how the three writers were all smitten by John Carter as children. But passion does not ruin films. At the screening, Stanton spoke of how he felt free to change the story because its fan base, which would be upset if one name was changed, was relatively small, but the things he changed were the wrong things. Instead of distilling the story to its essence, he diluted it by adding even more story from the Burroughs sequels, probably in the hope of setting up his film’s sequels. The result? John Carter of Confusion. Even though they say “One area in which  [Stanton] exerted his influence was marketing, where he frequently rejected ideas from Ms. Carney and her team, according to people who worked on the film,” the reason the ad campaign was so lackluster was probably because of the film’s confusion. There was no clear concept to sell. (It is true that Stanton had a lot of power as a director, which is somewhat unusual for a first time live-action director. At the screening Stanton said that Disney pretty much left him alone, saying that they were afraid of him and didn’t want to upset the hotshot from Pixar, the one who had made films that had added billions to Disney’s coffers. However, at no time did he say something like, “If this film fails, I alone will be to blame.” In fact, he sounded a bit bigheaded.)

Here’s another quote from the NY Times article cited above:

On Sunday, Rich Ross, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said in a statement, “Moviemaking does not come without risk.  It’s still an art, not a science, and there is no proven formula for success. Andrew Stanton is an incredibly talented and successful filmmaker who with his team put their hard work and vision into the making of ‘John Carter.’ Unfortunately, it failed to connect with audiences as much as we had all hoped.”(Source.)

I’ve already said that Stanton spoke of how Disney left him alone because they were afraid of making him angry, but perhaps they were also in awe of him based on his track record. I can’t help but think of certain talents of the Thirties who were likewise treated as gods when they were lured away by others, not just to direct films, but to found entire studios, that is, Ub Iwerks (co-creator of Mickey Mouse), Burt Gillett (director of the incredibly popular Three Little Pigs Silly Symphony), and David Hand (director of Snow White.) The subsequent efforts of each of these ex-Disney figures disappointed nearly everyone. Why? Probably because the ones who lured them away failed to appreciate the slippery nature of credits in the animation business as well as the collaborative process that produced their films. No one person was the auteur of these films, not even Disney himself. Likewise, whatever the credits say on Stanton’s Pixar films, there is no single person responsible for story or direction at Pixar. John Carter may have had input from the Pixar folk, but it was not a true Pixar film. Perhaps Stanton should have begun with a smaller project which would have given him time to build up a new team.

Here’s another quote to chew on:

In recent weeks, as a weak marketing campaign failed to generate audience excitement for “John Carter,” Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, made it clear in conversations with senior managers that he would not tolerate finger-pointing; this may be a colossal miss, he told them, according to people who were present, but it’s the company’s miss and no individuals would be blamed — including Mr. Stanton. Learn from it, was Mr. Iger’s message. (Source.)

So what should we learn from this? Don’t mix Westerns and Science Fiction? After the failure within the last year of two big budget films that did just this (the other being, of course, Cowboys & Aliens), I can imagine many Hollywood execs thinking exactly this.

Or perhaps execs will think that films having anything to do with Mars are out? We already know that Disney feared Mars in the title so much because of the Mars Needs Moms flop that they made Stanton change the title from John Carter of Mars, so you can be sure that future years will see many Mars film concepts torpedoed simply because of the Mars connection. Kim Stanley Robinson and Ben Bova can kiss goodbye any hopes they had of films based on their Mars novels. Maybe our imaginations have dried up like the water on Mars and we are no longer possess imaginations capable of putting an imaginary form of life on Mars. Heaven help the Total Recall remake, assuming it takes place on Mars like the original version.

However, mostly, I think, the lesson will be that it’s dangerous to give a director too much power on a big budget film.  Should this be the lesson? I wonder if the problem was really the exact opposite. Perhaps Stanton had grown too accustomed to how he worked at Pixar, as part of a team. He didn’t stick to his gut convictions and was persuaded to make changes that he should not have made by his friends at Pixar who were not really part of his team on Carter. If this was indeed what happened, then it’s too bad. Stanton’s lone collaborator should have been his teenage self. At the screening, he spoke of how he wished he could travel back in time and tell his younger self not to blow it. But I think his younger self would have had more cause to say, “No, don’t you blow it.”

UPDATE: 6/7/12

It is a common practice in Hollywood to pitch stories in the form of a short, single sentence. According to  a long piece about John Carter and Andrew Stanton which originally ran in the October 17, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, ever since Stanton read Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing he begins a project by distilling the movie “to one crisp sentence before making them. For Finding Nemo, it was “Fear denies a good father from being one,” and, for Wall-E, “Love conquers all programming.”‘ However, unlike the one sentence summary of the Hollywood high concept movie which are meant to demonstrate the commercial potential of the idea by showing how simple and brainless it is, Stanton’s sentences are meant to summarize the movie’s theme, the abstract concept behind the story’s action. For John Carter, the one sentence distillation was “We survive to fulfill our purpose for others.”

“We survive to fulfill our purpose for others” sounds like the answer to a question, that question being, “Why do we  strive to survive?” (One of Hollywood’s big themes, which is not really a theme at all in the sense that Lajos Egri meant it, is survival. That is, most Hollywood films tell stories about characters attempting to survive. They never ask why. Apparently, Stanton wanted to tell a story in which this question was asked. However, if this is indeed what John Carter is about, the theme doesn’t really come across. If John Carter is asking himself why he should go on living at the start of the film, he certainly does not act like it. When we first see him, he’s prospecting for gold, and soon after that he’s repeatedly attempting to escape from the army. If he had no reason to go on living, why would he keep trying to escape? Why would he be looking for gold? It would have made more sense to begin the story with him living happily with his family. When they die, he wants to die because he sees no reason to go on living. He goes into the mountains to kill himself, but he ends up on Mars where he finds a new purpose for his life.

However, I can’t help wonder why he would have to go to Mars to find a purpose in life. Stanton’s theme doesn’t really fit this story, perhaps because that’s not the theme Burroughs had in mind. Perhaps one solution would be to make Carter not just someone who does not want to go on living, but a misanthrope like Ebeneezer Scrooge. His Barsoom experience would then be somewhat like Scrooge’s experience with the ghosts and when he returns to Earth, he has a different outlook on his fellow humans. But in the film, after he returns to Earth, all he wants to do is to return to Barsoom because he prefers Barsoom to Earth.

The story definitely doesn’t follow Joseph Campbell hero’s journey archetype where the hero brings some sort of boon back to his home after his journey. Carter does not bring anything back from Barsoom to Earth other than his longing to return to Barsoom. In the end, the story comes across as a vague critique of American society simply because Carter prefers Barsoom. But the critique is so vague that it can hardly be called a critique. It resembles a film such as Dances with Wolves or Little Big Man, but only in a vague sense. Another film that it resembles is Brigadoon. But all of these films have sequences in which it is clear what the hero does not like about his “home.” It’s like Stanton was telling a story that he didn’t really understand or want to tell.

Written by David Kilmer

February 28, 2012 at 9:31 pm

Juxtaposition Blogathon: Double Features: CE3K = Jaws with BEMs instead of Bruce

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Don't be fooled! These posters are really for the same movie.

This post is an entry for the Juxtaposition Blogathon which is being held September 12-16, 2011 and is hosted by the Pussy Goes Grr blog.

Have you ever thought that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is really nothing but a remake of Jaws? No? Well, what’s the main difference? Instead of a giant shark that keeps popping up and killing people, CE3K has giant flying saucers that keep popping up and abducting people.

Still skeptical? Please continue.

1. Just like the shark, we see the saucers bit by bit. In Jaws, instead of seeing the shark all in one go, we see signs of the shark: bodies and buoys that are pulled down below the waves, shark bites on bodies, giant shark jaw skeletons. Most ominous of all, a shark fin. It’s well into the film before we see the whole shark. (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”) It’s the same for the flying saucers and aliens in Close Encounters. We see a giant ship in the desert, pots and pans shake and rattle in a kitchen, blinding lights, smaller flying saucers, etc. before we see the mother ship itself near the end of the film. (For what it’s worth, the fancy words for this sort of thing, showing the parts instead of the whole, or showing something that’s related to the thing instead of the thing itself, are synecdoche and metonomy.)

2. Both films have characters who represent science and expertise. In Jaws, it’s Richard Dreyfuss. In CE3K, it’s Francois Truffaut. Both films also have an everyman character who in the end wins out in some way over the expert. In Jaws, it’s not Dreyfuss who kills the shark; it’s Sheriff Brody, who not only knows little about sharks, he doesn’t even like water. In CE3K, it’s not Truffaut who is chosen to go with the aliens, but Dreyfuss, a simple lineman for the county.

3. Many people are called, but few are chosen. In Jaws, the shark affects many people, and there are many who attempt to claim the shark bounty reward, but in the end only three make the journey that destroys the shark and only two of them survive. It’s the same in Close Encounters: many people throughout the world have images seared into their minds and are drawn to the Devil’s Tower landing site, but only one, Richard Dreyfuss, is rewarded with a cosmic journey with the aliens. (I like to read this as a metaphor for movie marketing: we are drawn by images planted in our brains by movie marketing to movie theaters where we are transported to another world by films made by aliens from planet Hollywood. It also works as an allegory for Spielberg’s escape from suburbia to Hollywood where the stars live. Then there are those who see the shark in Jaws as a symbol of Hollywood, but that’s another matter.)

4. Some critics think that CE3K is a remake of Firelight, a film that Spielberg made when he was a teen. I haven’t seen Firelight, so I’m sticking with Jaws. It’s more fun.

So there it is, my little compare and contrast exercise proving that:

Jaws minus shark + flying saucers + aliens = CE3K.

Written by David Kilmer

August 27, 2011 at 10:23 am

The Disney smile

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Written by David Kilmer

August 22, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Posted in Are they serious?, Rewrites

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Rewrites: Cowboys & Aliens

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1. Cowboys & Aliens is a film made by someone who is obviously a fan of the master of stop-motion animation,  Ray Harryhausen. In particular, it made me think of The Valley of Gwangi, an old Willis O’Brien project that Harryhausen made in 1969, that brings together cowboys and dinosaurs.

The aliens in this Cowboys & Aliens move quickly and are shown in shots that do not last very long, whereas the monsters in Harryhausen’s films move slow enough to be seen. The lighting, composition, and animation of a Harryhausen monster are almost always such that the monster can be clearly seen. This is probably the main reason that fans love to see Harryhausen’s models on display. Even minus their animation, they are distinct characters. The most notable exception to this is Clash of the Titans, in which Medusa is shot in shadows and closeups that rarely show all of her, but even there her movements are slow and deliberate and you do not need to worry about missing anything if you blink. Of course, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with aliens that move very fast, but the danger is that this can become monotonous. There’s no chance for the kind of suspense that Harryhausen gets out of the slowly coming to life and squeaky movements of Talos in Jason and the Argonauts or the tension that builds as the skeletons, ready to pounce, but not yet pouncing, spring from the ground one by one in the same film.

This is a Western. I would have loved to see variations of classic Western shootouts between an alien or two and a gunslinger. Or a version of the Mexican standoff, that Leone loved so much, but with aliens, Indians, and cowboys. These situations are all based on the rhythm of stillness and sudden release that is missing in Cowboys & Aliens. I thought one of the most memorable scenes in the film is the one in which the boy is trapped by an alien in a rock opening. It is effective is because the alien is in one place, threatening the character.

Is it an accident that this is similar to a scene from King Kong?

 

Cowboys & Aliens is hardly the first film to mix Western and science fiction elements. That honor appears to go to the Gene Autry serial, The Phantom Empire (1935). I remembered this film when speaking to my Dad about Cowboys & Aliens. (My Dad gave a copy of the film to my stepmother, a Gene Autry fan. She watched it until the science fiction elements entered, then said, more or less, “WTF!? Turn that crap off!” The Cowboys & Aliens producers should have taken note.) I saw The Phantom Empire, or at least part of it, many years ago when I stumbled upon it when it was being broadcast in the wee hours from a New York City station. Who could not be intrigued by a Western with a robot? The truth is that despite the advances in special effects evident since 1934, when The Phantom Empire was made, Cowboys & Aliens did not have any of the charm or sense of the marvelous as did the micro-budget Autry film. Read more about it here.

2. Themes.

Former US President Regan said:

…I couldn’t help but say to him, just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this planet from some other species from another planet outside in the universe. We’d forget all the little local differences that we have between our countries and we would find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this earth together. (See him say it here.)

Sometimes Cowboys & Aliens plays like a direct illustration of Regan’s hypothesis. The alien invasion unites all of the main natural enemies of the Western genre: good guys, bad guys, and aliens. The film shows them overcoming their differences and uniting against the aliens.

(Update: 8/17/11: The notion of salvation through alien invasion has popped up again, but apparently economist Paul Krugman was not inspired by Cowboys & Aliens, but by a nearly 50 year episode of Outer Limits, “The Architects of Fear,” when he recently said:

No, there was a Twilight Zone episode like this in which scientists fake an alien threat in order to achieve world peace.  Well, this time…we need it in order to get some fiscal stimulus. (Source.)

Krugman’s mistaken in citing Twilight Zone as the source for the idea, but he could just as well have cited President Regan or even Watchmen, the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons well-known graphic novel. Imagine Paul Krugman as Ozymandias!

Paul Krugman as Ozymandias in Watchmen

But there’s also another theme. The town is called Absolution and it’s presumably for a reason. Perhaps we’re supposed to think everyone is guilty of some kind of sin, or something as simple as not appreciating their loved ones enough until they are abducted by the aliens. You might even say that at least some of the characters are a bit like the aliens in that they value humans more for their gold than their value as a human being.

The abductions appear to follow a pattern. Saloon owner and wife fight, wife is abducted. Harrison Ford and his son fight, son is abducted. But this pattern is not developed enough to amount to anything. There’s enough of it to suggest a pattern, but not enough to make us sure the pattern is not accidental.

In the end, I would have preferred no theme at all, to all of these under-developed and confusing themes. Ford tells the kid to yell when he spots their “people” coming back, that is, the ones that were abducted. The truth is that I did not care whether or not they returned.

3.  I love the idea: a mashup of the Western and alien invasion film. What I love most about this idea is that the replacement of Indians with aliens allows for the reintroduction of the mystery and wonder that explorers must have felt when discovering new lands and the strange people, as well as strange creatures in general, that inhabited them. The mashup can bring the sense of wonder that is the bread and butter of science fiction back to our own planet. But I think it would have worked better if the Western part of the equation came from a pioneer type Western. That is, pilgrims setting forth in covered wagons looking for the promised land out West, not knowing what strange encounters awaited them. Perhaps even better would be a Lewis and Clark type expedition with a small group heading into uncharted territory. They don’t know what they will be encountering and aliens would fit right in. After all, even today there’s enough unknown in the West to allow for the existence of Bigfoot, but more common is the experience of finding pretty much the same thing wherever we go: a McDonald’s and a Starbucks on every corner.

Of course, the pioneer idea is a different film, but if we like the idea of bringing back a sense of wonder and mystery to our own back yard, then we should get rid of the Olivia Wilde character. Her character is similar to the Indian guide that helps the white men track rebel Indians or translates whenever there’s an enounter with an Indian tribe. She’s also a bit like Star Trek’s Spock, especially in the similarity of her sacrifice to Spock’s in Wrath of Khan. But why do we want a character who can explain mysteries away so easily? The aliens are not like Indians because in Westerns the first encounter between White men and Indians already occurred centuries ago. In this film, the cowboys are encoutering the aliens for the first time. A translator character is helpful for the cowboys, but it hurts the impact of the story.

4. It appears that this is the season for alien abductions. First Super 8, now Cowboys & Aliens. Both produced by Steven Spielberg who also made Close Enounters of the Third Kind and, as a teenager, Firelight, two other films about alien abductions. It seems he’s really into this subject. No complaints, although I do wonder if they would be made without Spielberg. But I’d like to see someone do a mashup of Super 8 and Cowboys & Aliens.

5. Sure, it’s a great iconic image, but I’m not sure that I like Daniel Craig’s arm bracelet weapon. At least not how the film starts off with him already having it. It seems to give the cowboys too much of a head start. When you hear Cowboys & Aliens, you immediately wonder: how the devil can cowboys beat aliens? But when you see Craig with the weapon in the very first scene, you no longer are thinking that. Starting the film this way makes the film miss out on what could have been a great David vs Goliath story. One can only wonder how the cowboys could have won if they had not had the weapon or the help of the Olivia Wilde character.

THE POSTER THAT STARTED IT ALL

I love how the film essentially began with nothing more than a poster produced by Scott Rosenberg’s Platinum Studios. (Read the story here and here.) That poster was apparently pretty much the same as the image that was used as the cover for the comic:

So when critics refer to this film as yet another comic book movie, they are technically incorrect. They should be calling this a “poster movie.” The only precedent that I can think of for a poster movie is Glen or Glenda, as shown in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Ed asks the producer if there’s a script. “F@!k no! But there’s a poster.”

The producer tells Ed that while there is no script, there is a poster.

Was this scene the secret source of Scott Rosenberg’s inspiration?

There is a Cowboys & Aliens graphic novel, but this was produced years after the poster that originally sold the concept. According to my son, who may be one of the few to have actually read it, the graphic novel has little in common with the film.

I love this story because I also began one of my projects, Star Man, with nothing more than a poster:

THE AFTERMATH (8/17/11)

The relative failure of Cowboys & Aliens at the boxoffice may not have come as a total surprise. Here is Jon Favreau at the Visionaries panel at Comic-Con more than a week before the film’s opening:

I think really what happens is if your movie makes money, you’re on a good list, if your movie doesn’t make money you are not on the good list and that changes all of the time. Right now after the IRON MAN movies I’m there, if this one works out I’ll be there, if not I’m in a different spot….

I started off with very little being an actor, I learned to live with not much and as I’ve built up I’ve never gotten cautious and even this movie to hear everybody cheer it is wonderful, because this was not the safe move, but I figured I was in a position to do something different, because as the movies get bigger to be honest with you they start to be the same. A lot of the movies this summer were versions of other things you have seen before and so I took a big risk. The secret though is that when it pays off, it’s wonderful, and if you fail and you are comfortable with that, then you’ve got to just keep doing it and then you stop taking the risks.

When Favreau said, “…if not I’m in a different spot” and “if you fail” suggest, in retrospect, that he was already preparing himself for the film’s failure and himself being “in a different spot.” Perhaps he premiered the film at Comic-Con knowing that this was one place where it was certain to be cheered and “to hear everybody cheer it is wonderful.”

Written by David Kilmer

August 20, 2011 at 5:07 am

Cowboys & Aliens: The San Diego Premiere; or Why Life Is Just One Big Chase

WARNING: SPOILERS AND GEEKY STUFF AHEAD!

I consider the Cowboys & Aliens film to be just part of a larger experience that revolved around the film, but if you only want to read about the film you can skip down to the “The Film” section.

THE CHASE

When Jon Favreau announced that he wanted to say thanks to the fans at San Diego Comic-Con by holding the world premiere of his film Cowboys & Aliens in San Diego, we immediately placed getting tickets

at the top of our list of things to do at this year’s Con. We knew it would not be easy, and it wasn’t. Last year we were one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, who stood in line for the Cowboys & Aliens Hall H panel only to be shut out. That was the panel during which the infamous eye stabbing occurred, but it was also the panel during which Harrison Ford made a surprise appearance.

The many fans who did not get into last year’s Cowboys & Aliens panel heard about the eye stabbing incident through Twitter

This year we vowed that we would not be shut out.

No one knew how the tickets would be given away. The first hint came by way of the huge Hilton Bayfront Hotel poster. After sending a text message to the number on that poster, we received these messages Wednesday: “Be on the lookout for Cowboys & Aliens gold bricks. Get one and you could win tickets to the world premiere,” and “Starting Thursday look for cowboys handing out gold bricks at Comic-Con. They could be your ticket to the premiere.” Luckily, we had a phone capable of receiving these messages. Throughout the week we received many text messages. Each time a text message came through, the phone went “Ding!,” like a small bell. That “Ding!” came to mean one thing: Run! We heard it so many times, that even now, days later, we automatically, without thinking, launch into our run mode when we hear a bell. We know how Pavlov’s dogs must have felt when Pavlov conditioned them to slobber when he rang a bell. Perhaps we should ask Jon Fabreau to pay a shrink to decondition us.

Cowboys & Aliens ad on the side of the Hilton Bayfront Hotel in San Diego with information useful for the gold rush

 The first message about gold bricks being handed out came through Thursday morning when we were on the second floor of the Convention Center. It said that 50 gold bricks were being handed  out at a 7-11 store several blocks from where we were. We started running.

7-11’s promotion was similar to Universal’s, using the same gold bricks, but we only participated once

Despite using our phone’s GPS, we went the wrong way and arrived much too late to get any gold bricks. The most memorable moment of this round was when a woman in an apartment several stories above yelled, “What are you guys standing in line for?” One of the answers was “Slurpees.” She expressed some skepticism, but there was more truth in that answer than we realized at the time because each gold brick also came with a 7-11 coupon for a Slurpee. We accumulated so many of these that we could live on Slurpees for the rest of the year.

We have so many of these, which also came in the gold bricks, that we could live on Slurpees for the rest of our lives

The next text message came about 30 minutes later. This time our running put us in line in time to get our first gold bricks and our first “Sorry! Try Again” lottery cards.

These lottery type cards came in the gold bricks

This round took place outside the World Market at 4th and J, one of the three main locations throughout the Gold Rush. We learned some useful information: the 7-11 stores were running their own promotion and the odds of winning a ticket there were lower than for the one run by Universal. So that was it for 7-11. We also learned where the Cowboys & Aliens gold rush crew was headquartered, and we made it our headquarters too for the next few days, sitting, when possible, on a bench in the shade and a nice, cool breeze.  About 50 feet north of us was a large and very loud Sprint exhibit tent which gave out prizes, including premiere tickets. The emcee liked to make cracks about how nice it was to get out of the Convention Center into the fresh air. A surprisingly large crowd moving constantly back and forth. Frank Miller and Paul Pope passed close enough for us to smell them. But all of this barely registered as we waited for the appearance of the Cowboys crew wearing dark shirts and pulling black tote bags filled with gold bricks. The longer the wait after an earlier round, the greater the tension became. Sometimes a pedicab would pass by and ring a

bell, causing us to jump into our running mode before we realized it was a false alarm.

Of course, sitting on our bench meant sacrificing many of the other events on our list. We missed Francis Ford Coppola, James Steranko, Grant Morrison. However, we didn’t turn the bench into our home away from home. Thursday afternoon was spent mostly in Hall H along with Favreau, Del Toro, and Rodriguez. It was at the latter’s panel that we learned about the Frank Frazetta exhibit at the IGN Oasis/Hard Rock Hotel Friday afternoon.

The Frazetta exhibit was great, but of course it meant missing a round of bricks. We also missed out on some bricks when, not at our bench, our sense of direction was completely screwed up and we ran in the opposite direction we should have run in.

Some gold bricks came with a plastic replica of the Daniel Craig wristtband gun

More Cowboys & Aliens swag.

Sometimes our 14 year old son, Tristan, was with us. One of those times was especially memorable. It was Saturday afternoon and the penultimate gold rush. By that time hundreds of people had figured out where the Cowboys were headquartered and that the best way to get bricks was to hang out there and follow them to the next location. When all of these people saw the Cowboys cross the street, a huge crowd appeared out of nowhere, following them. I was hanging out near the “Begin” sign in the picture below and had a great view of what happened next. The crowd of hundreds of people suddenly stopped in the middle of the street, reversed direction, and ran into the front lobby of the Hilton Gaslamp Hotel. The text message had just come through and these people had apparently interpreted it to mean that the round would take place inside the hotel. Tristan had been in front of all of these people first going across the street, then into the hotel. He says that the look on the hotel desk clerks when they saw the mob of people coming in was priceless. Someone yelled, “Stop!,” and it was eventually conveyed that the line was supposed to be in front of, not inside, the hotel. Here’s the funny thing. Despite being inside the hotel and in front of this huge crowd, Tristan managed to end up first in line. I had lost track of him and was surprised when he appeared at the front of the line. How he did it, I still do not know, but this is a Convention about characters with super powers. Too bad he didn’t win any extra points for being first in line.

The long line for the last gold rush, in front of C & A’s HQ, the Hilton Gaslamp Hotel. The line begins where the sign says, “Begin,” then moves towards the Convention Center in the background, then to the right and behind the palm trees.

So there was one more round. Tristan left for a panel in the Convention Center leaving us with just one more chance. After what had happened during the previous round, and with even more people waiting for the crew to emerge, it seemed almost certain that the last rounds would be in front of the hotel like the previous round. At that time we still expected that there would be three more rounds, but the next one would actually be the final one. We got our bricks, brought them to our bench and opened our 19th and 20th bricks. This is what they said: “Sorry! Try again.” But there would be no again. Kelly asked if she should thank the Cowboys & Alien crew. We were disappointed, of course, but I for one did not feel it was a complete loss. It had been fun chasing the gold. It was no different than the chase for tickets to the convention itself. No different from the game of getting hotel rooms. We had a lot of time to think while we were sitting on that bench and we could not help but think that the chase for fool’s gold was nothing less than a metaphor for life itself. We’re all chasing after something that everyone else wants. Sometimes we’re the lucky ones, sometimes we’re the unlucky ones. But we had had fun. The crew had been very nice. So Kelly went over and thanked them. We were about to experience an unexpected and sudden reversal of fortune.

Kelly, on the right, thanks the guy who ran the show, on the left. Before this, we did not have tickets.

I stayed near our bench and waited, taking pictures. I had no idea what was going on. Then she told me that we had tickets. Four fucking tickets! I was completely surprised. The premiere was just hours away. While we walked several blocks to the Cowboys & Aliens Saloon to register and get our tickets, we tried to think of someone we knew to whom we could give our extra ticket. We asked several friends and none of them could make it. We even tried to find someone at the Civic Center to give the ticket to, but everyone in line there already had a ticket.  We still have the ticket.

16 of the 20 “fool’s gold bricks” we accumulated in our chase after tickets

My son’s golden ticket to the Cowboys & Aliens world premiere signed by Jon Favreau

THE PREMIERE

This was the ultimate Hall H experience. You cannot top seeing a new film with two thousand super excited fans. As we went from the waiting room to the theater, we crossed the red carpert where the celebrities were. The guy in front of me yelled, “Oh my god, we’re walking on red carpet! I have to get this on twitter!”

Before the film was shown, Jon Favreau appeared on stage and introduced the actors, producers and writers one by one. Yes, Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig were there with Ron Howard and Stephen Spielberg. The writers were introduced last. I thought it a bit funny that there wasn’t enough room for all of them at the end of the line so they had to angle out to fit. Writers are the Rodney Dangerfields of the movie business.

So close, yet so far away. The cast and crew of Cowboys & Aliens at the premiere. Jon Favreau is on the left. Can you identify the others? Where’s Waldo?

THE POST SCREENING PARTY

Apparently only Jon Favreau stayed with us while we watched the film. We did not get a chance to talk to him and only saw him as he made his way to his limo, which apparently took him to the real premiere party. My son was lucky to get his ticket signed by Favreau, but it was a bit disappointing to not have a chance to talk to the diretor after hearing, at earlier panels at Comic-Con,  him, as well as the producer, Spielberg, talk about how much the fans’ opinions meant to them. At the Tin Tin panel, Spielberg had said that fans had made his films possible and that he should be sitting in the audience. Well, he passed up a great opportunity to back up his words with action. If Spielberg and Favreau had not said things like this, perhaps it would not have mattered as much that they were not there. But they did, and they weren’t.

How can I best describe how we felt when I saw Favreau leaving so early? A little disappointment, perhaps, but it was really more like being jilted. I felt Favreau was sincere in everything he said about wanting to give back to Comic-Con fans. This made his exit all the more disappointing. Perhaps he wanted to stay, but the others did not and for whatever reason he could not stay while the others left. If I had been him, I would have wanted to stay and find out first hand from the fans what they thought of my film. Despite this minor disappointment, I hope that this is the start of a new trend of premieres at Comic-Con along with gold hunts.

Thanks, Jon. It was fun.

Jon Favreau signing autographs on his way out of the Cowboys & Aliens premiere

Jon Favreau at the Cowboys & Aliens premiere

A large replica of the alien ship hung above the post screening party

Partyers ignore the replays of the earlier red carpet arrivals while the alien ship hangs over their heads

Once again, where’s Waldo?

 “Jeesh! What some people will go through to see a movie!”  – A comment on this post from Facebook.

THE FILM

1. This is a film made by someone who is obviously a fan of the master of stop-motion animation,  Ray Harryhausen. In particular, it made me think of The Valley of Gwangi, an old Willis O’Brien project that Harryhausen made in 1969, that brings together cowboys and dinosaurs.

The aliens in this Cowboys & Aliens move quickly and are shown in shots that do not last very long, whereas the monsters in Harryhausen’s films move slow enough to be seen. The lighting, composition, and animation of a Harryhausen monster are almost always such that the monster can be clearly seen. This is probably the main reason that fans love to see Harryhausen’s models on display. Even minus their animation, they are distinct characters. The most notable exception to this is Clash of the Titans, in which Medusa is shot in shadows and closeups that rarely show all of her, but even there her movements are slow and deliberate and you do not need to worry about missing anything if you blink. Of course, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with aliens that move very fast, but the danger is that this can become monotonous. There’s no chance for the kind of suspense that Harryhausen gets out of the slowly coming to life and squeaky movements of Talos in Jason and the Argonauts or the tension that builds as the skeletons, ready to pounce, but not yet pouncing, spring from the ground one by one in the same film.

This is a Western. I would have loved to see variations of classic Western shootouts between an alien or two and a gunslinger. Or a version of the Mexican standoff, that Leone loved so much, but with aliens, Indians, and cowboys. These situations are all based on the rhythm of stillness and sudden release that is missing in Cowboys & Aliens. I thought one of the most memorable scenes in the film is the one in which the boy is trapped by an alien in a rock opening. It is effective is because the alien is in one place, threatening the character.

Is it an accident that this is similar to a scene from King Kong?

 

Cowboys & Aliens is hardly the first film to mix Western and science fiction elements. That honor appears to go to the Gene Autry serial, The Phantom Empire (1935). I remembered this film when speaking to my Dad about Cowboys & Aliens. (My Dad gave a copy of the film to my stepmother, a Gene Autry fan. She watched it until the science fiction elements entered, then said, more or less, “WTF!? Turn that crap off!” The Cowboys & Aliens producers should have taken note.) I saw The Phantom Empire, or at least part of it, many years ago when I stumbled upon it when it was being broadcast in the wee hours from a New York City station. Who could not be intrigued by a Western with a robot? The truth is that despite the advances in special effects evident since 1934, when The Phantom Empire was made, Cowboys & Aliens did not have any of the charm or sense of the marvelous as did the micro-budget Autry film. Read more about it here.

It’s certainly not the first time that the story of cowboys vs aliens was told. Although I’m sure this wasn’t the first time a comic book told this story, here’s a comic book cover featuring a story called “Cowboys and Aliens” which was published in 1995. The story is basically the same as that in the film: natural enemies cowboys and Indians put their differences aside to fight their common foe: monster invaders from outer space.

2. Themes.

Former US President Regan said:

…I couldn’t help but say to him, just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this planet from some other species from another planet outside in the universe. We’d forget all the little local differences that we have between our countries and we would find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this earth together. (See him say it here.)

Sometimes Cowboys & Aliens plays like a direct illustration of Regan’s hypothesis. The alien invasion unites all of the main natural enemies of the Western genre: good guys, bad guys, and aliens. The film shows them overcoming their differences and uniting against the aliens.

(Update: 8/17/11: The notion of salvation through alien invasion has popped up again, but apparently economist Paul Krugman was not inspired by Cowboys & Aliens, but by a nearly 50 year episode of Outer Limits, “The Architects of Fear,” when he recently said:

No, there was a Twilight Zone episode like this in which scientists fake an alien threat in order to achieve world peace.  Well, this time…we need it in order to get some fiscal stimulus. (Source.)

Krugman’s mistaken in citing Twilight Zone as the source for the idea, but he could just as well have cited President Regan or even Watchmen, the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons well-known graphic novel. Imagine Paul Krugman as Ozymandias!

Paul Krugman as Ozymandias in Watchmen

But there’s also another theme. The town is called Absolution and it’s presumably for a reason. Perhaps we’re supposed to think everyone is guilty of some kind of sin, or something as simple as not appreciating their loved ones enough until they are abducted by the aliens. You might even say that at least some of the characters are a bit like the aliens in that they value humans more for their gold than their value as a human being.

The abductions appear to follow a pattern. Saloon owner and wife fight, wife is abducted. Harrison Ford and his son fight, son is abducted. But this pattern is not developed enough to amount to anything. There’s enough of it to suggest a pattern, but not enough to make us sure the pattern is not accidental.

In the end, I would have preferred no theme at all, to all of these under-developed and confusing themes. Ford tells the kid to yell when he spots their “people” coming back, that is, the ones that were abducted. The truth is that I did not care whether or not they returned.

3.  I love the idea: a mashup of the Western and alien invasion film. What I love most about this idea is that the replacement of Indians with aliens allows for the reintroduction of the mystery and wonder that explorers must have felt when discovering new lands and the strange people, as well as strange creatures in general, that inhabited them. The mashup can bring the sense of wonder that is the bread and butter of science fiction back to our own planet. But I think it would have worked better if the Western part of the equation came from a pioneer type Western. That is, pilgrims setting forth in covered wagons looking for the promised land out West, not knowing what strange encounters awaited them. Perhaps even better would be a Lewis and Clark type expedition with a small group heading into uncharted territory. They don’t know what they will be encountering and aliens would fit right in. After all, even today there’s enough unknown in the West to allow for the existence of Bigfoot, but more common is the experience of finding pretty much the same thing wherever we go: a McDonald’s and a Starbucks on every corner.

Of course, the pioneer idea is a different film, but if we like the idea of bringing back a sense of wonder and mystery to our own back yard, then we should get rid of the Olivia Wilde character. Her character is similar to the Indian guide that helps the white men track rebel Indians or translates whenever there’s an enounter with an Indian tribe. She’s also a bit like Star Trek’s Spock, especially in the similarity of her sacrifice to Spock’s in Wrath of Khan. But why do we want a character who can explain mysteries away so easily? The aliens are not like Indians because in Westerns the first encounter between White men and Indians already occurred centuries ago. In this film, the cowboys are encoutering the aliens for the first time. A translator character is helpful for the cowboys, but it hurts the impact of the story.

4. It appears that this is the season for alien abductions. First Super 8, now Cowboys & Aliens. Both produced by Steven Spielberg who also made Close Enounters of the Third Kind and, as a teenager, Firelight, two other films about alien abductions. It seems he’s really into this subject. No complaints, although I do wonder if they would be made without Spielberg. But I’d like to see someone do a mashup of Super 8 and Cowboys & Aliens.

5. Sure, it’s a great iconic image, but I’m not sure that I like Daniel Craig’s arm bracelet weapon. At least not how the film starts off with him already having it. It seems to give the cowboys too much of a head start. When you hear Cowboys & Aliens, you immediately wonder: how the devil can cowboys beat aliens? But when you see Craig with the weapon in the very first scene, you no longer are thinking that. Starting the film this way makes the film miss out on what could have been a great David vs Goliath story. One can only wonder how the cowboys could have won if they had not had the weapon or the help of the Olivia Wilde character.

THE POSTER THAT STARTED IT ALL

I love how the film essentially began with nothing more than a poster produced by Scott Rosenberg’s Platinum Studios. (Read the story here and here.) That poster was apparently pretty much the same as the image that was used as the cover for the comic:

So when critics refer to this film as yet another comic book movie, they are technically incorrect. They should be calling this a “poster movie.” The only precedent that I can think of for a poster movie is Glen or Glenda, as shown in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Ed asks the producer if there’s a script. “F@!k no! But there’s a poster.”

The producer tells Ed that while there is no script, there is a poster.

Was this scene the secret source of Scott Rosenberg’s inspiration?

There is a Cowboys & Aliens graphic novel, but this was produced years after the poster that originally sold the concept. According to my son, who may be one of the few to have actually read it, the graphic novel has little in common with the film.

I love this story because I also began one of my projects, Star Man, with nothing more than a poster:

Click on the poster to see and read more.

UPDATE: 4/14/12

Another film that began as a poster:

The second project I sold on one line was when I was Creative Head of Cannon Films. I was talking to Stan Lee (creator of Spiderman, the Hulk, and other comic book heroes) and asked him if he had a super hero that was not tied to a studio. He said Captain America was available. I asked him to give me a poster of the ol’ Cap.

I took that poster into my boss’ office; Menachim Golen was an Israeli who probably didn’t know Captain America from Magic Johnson. I held the poster in front of Menachim, and said, “Menachim, you of all people should make this movie!” He looked at this masked hero with his skin-tight red, white, and blue uniform, a white star on his shirt, and said, “Let’s do it.” (Source.)

THE AFTERMATH (8/17/11)

The relative failure of Cowboys & Aliens at the boxoffice may not have come as a total surprise. Here is Jon Favreau at the Visionaries panel at Comic-Con more than a week before the film’s opening:

I think really what happens is if your movie makes money, you’re on a good list, if your movie doesn’t make money you are not on the good list and that changes all of the time. Right now after the IRON MAN movies I’m there, if this one works out I’ll be there, if not I’m in a different spot….

I started off with very little being an actor, I learned to live with not much and as I’ve built up I’ve never gotten cautious and even this movie to hear everybody cheer it is wonderful, because this was not the safe move, but I figured I was in a position to do something different, because as the movies get bigger to be honest with you they start to be the same. A lot of the movies this summer were versions of other things you have seen before and so I took a big risk. The secret though is that when it pays off, it’s wonderful, and if you fail and you are comfortable with that, then you’ve got to just keep doing it and then you stop taking the risks.

When Favreau said, “…if not I’m in a different spot” and “if you fail” suggest, in retrospect, that he was already preparing himself for the film’s failure and himself being “in a different spot.” Perhaps he premiered the film at Comic-Con knowing that this was one place where it was certain to be cheered and “to hear everybody cheer it is wonderful.”

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

1. Who were the people doing the grunt work of running the Treasure Hunt? Interns, according to the people at Cowboys & Aliens HQ. What that most likely means is that they were unpaid workers, working as “interns” for the summer in the hope that such a credit will look good on their resume or that they will make connections that will lead somewhere they want to go. I hope it worked out for them. The Industry would be very different without its “interns.” Most people outside of the film industry have no idea how much work is done without pay by interns. They are not necessarily called interns. I did it myself, working without pay on Watchers III part time for a couple of months, mostly syncing dailies. Roger Corman has an executive producer credit on it and the work I did was done at his Concorde studio in Venice, California, not far from where Orson Welles shot much of Touch of Evil. (Unfortunately, I did not get to meet Corman.) What I remember most is when Peter, my supervisor, informed me upon my arrival at work that I had screwed up. The sound had been out of sync for that morning’s daily screening. Quite embarrassing, but not surprising given the lack of traditional sync markings on much of the footage. Also unsurprisingly, the job led nowhere. I didn’t even get a credit.

2. Promotions similar to the Cowboys & Aliens treasure hunt might be something we will be seeing more of in the future. Smartphone + texting + running legs = a lot of people chasing after something having to do with a promotion. You could be next!

UPDATE: 11/3/11

The president of Universal Studios, Ron Meyer, was surprisingly candid in his assessment of this film this week at the Savannah Film Festival:

Cowboys & Aliens wasn’t good enough. Forget all the smart people involved in it, it wasn’t good enough. All those little creatures bouncing around were crappy. I think it was a mediocre movie, and we all did a mediocre job with it. […] Cowboys & Aliens was a big loss, and Land of the Lost was a huge loss. We misfired. We were wrong. We did it badly, and I think we’re all guilty of it. I have to take first responsibility because I’m part of it, but we all did a mediocre job and we paid the price for it. It happens. They’re talented people. Certainly you couldn’t have more talented people involved in Cowboys & Aliens, but it took, you know, ten smart and talented people to come up with a mediocre movie. It just happens. (Source.)

Does anyone believe that Meyer would be saying anything like this if Cowboys had lit up the box office? What does he mean when he says “we paid the price for it?” Who is “we” exactly? He, for one, does not appear in danger of losing his job. Perhaps he had to give up some stock? That’s really paying the price. I wonder if he knows what “good” is. Did he know the movie was “mediocre” before it was shown to audiences, or did it slowly dawn on him as he watched the box office returns come in?

THE CONTEST (CLOSED)

How would you like to win a gold brick containing a Large size T-shirt, a wristband and a 7-11 drink coupon?

This is what you have to do:

Blog, tweet or post to facebook about this contest, making sure that you link back to this blog.

The more ways you publicize this contest/blog post, the more likely you are to win.

Each blog post, tweet, facebook post, etc counts as one point.

Make sure that you leave a comment with a link about your blog post, tweet or facebook post. Please don’t forget to include your email address so that we can get in touch with you (if you win!)

The contest ends Friday, August 5th at midnight PST. Winner will be chosen and announced on Monday, August 8th.

One winner will be selected randomly.

Thanks and good luck!

UPDATE: 8/8/11

Congratulations to contest winner Samantha Harriman! Many thanks to everyone who participated.

Whatever Happened to Michael Lehmann?

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Thursday, July 14, 2011 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California

Hudson Hawk director, Michael Lehmann, and writer, Daniel Waters, are surrounded by their fans

Last night my family and I saw Hudson Hawk, Daniel Waters and Michael Lehmann, and I got to talk to Lehmann. Normally, I would be too shy to talk to someone such as Lehmann, but I had a question I had wanted to ask him for years: how the hell did he convince USC to let him make Beaver Gets a Boner?

I first heard about Michael Lehmann in the film mag Premiere before I went to USC. It told about how the film school’s admissions office called him out of the blue asking him if he still wanted to go to USC. He had sent in his admissions application a year or two earlier, but it had been lost. At USC, as his 480, Lehmann made a twenty minute film called Beaver Gets a Boner. I’m not sure if the Premiere article mentioned this film, thus planting the desire to see it as soon as I could, or if other film students mentioned it, or both. In any case, I saw it and it was one of the most impressive student films that I saw at USC, including those made by George Lucas. Beaver was a film that made you wonder: How the hell did they get that made? It begins with a Boy Scout selling drugs on a school playground and builds from there.

USC was, and probably still is, a mostly conservative school. As Lehmann told me, it was hard to get anything original or daring made there, especially when it’s a 480, a class project that needs to be greenlit by a committee made up mostly of faculty members. (Of course, the same is true of Hollywood.) But the feat was not just getting Beaver greenlit, but in guiding it safely through the entire 480 process experienced. Despite being initiated by the director, 480’s were really filmmaking by committee rather than filmmaking by an auteur. The class was made up of at least four crews and everyone in the class had their own ideas about how the film should be made and most of them were not shy about telling you what was wrong with your film when the dailies and rough cuts were shown during class. As a director it’s hard to remain true to your vision when everyone’s offering advice about how to fix or improve the film. Many of these students want to be directors and they all think they know the film as well as the actual director. Despite this, Lehmann managed to create a distinctive film that, based on his later films Heathers, Meet the Applegates, and Hudson Hawk, clearly bears his mark. Beaver Gets a Boner is a film that more people should know about. So why isn’t the film better known? Over the years I had heard a story that when USC tried to show the film, Lehmann had called up and asked them not to show it. Why? He was supposedly embarrassed by it. (Sounds a bit like Stanley Kubrick and Fear and Desire.) However, Lehmann told me that this is not true. It may have problems with music clearances. (Did he mean the music performed in the film by the band Pop Defect? I don’t know.)

So how did they ever make Beaver Gets a Boner? How the hell did they make that film? Lehmann said that he simply challenged the committe, a sort of dare, and  they went for it.

Before last night I had mistakenly come to think at some point that Daniel Waters, who wrote Heathers and Hudson Hawk, had also written Beaver Gets a Boner. This had led me to believe that I had been mistaken to think that all of Lehmann’s early films may be auteur works, but that the auteur was the writer, Daniel Waters. However, last night I was reminded of something that I had once known: Redbeard Summers wrote Beaver Gets a Boner as well as Meet the Applegates. So once again I’m thinking that the main sensibility of these films is that of Lehmann.

How did they ever make….? This could also be asked of Heathers, Meet the Applegates, and Hudson Hawk. After that, the question is a bit pointless, meaning the films Lehmann has made do not go against the grain. They are not subversive. They do not buck the system. He’s become a journeyman director. The question then becomes: whatever happened to Michael Lehmann. Based on last night’s discussion, you almost have to conclude that Hudson Hawk happened. Lehmann and Waters talked about the film last night, only half jokingly it seemed, as the worst, or nearly worst, movie of all time. Waters said that it was hard to imagine how hard the critics at the time came down on the film. The film was not cheap. It became one of the legendary boxoffice bombs of the nineties, a distinction it shares with Last Action Hero, a film that, coincidentally?, takes also takes a playful attitude towards the action genre. (I was a bit suprirsed that they listed J. Hoberman as one of the critics in the attack force because Hoberman often talked about genre busting, and this surely is a concept applicable to Hudson Hawk.) Although Lehmann survived the financial failure of Hudson Hawk in the sense that he still has a directing career, can you really compare Air Heads or The Truth About Cats and Dogs, or any of his TV episode work which he has concentrated on, to his first work? It was a bit surprising to hear Lehmann and Waters talk so disparaging of Hudson Hawk during the post screening discussion. If they were embarrassed by it, it seems unlikely that they would have appeared at the theare to discuss the film. In fact, Lehmann told me afterwards that he is proud of the film.

So how did they ever make a film like Hudson Hawk? Joel Silver was impressed by Heathers. Waters and Lehmann said they thought audiences, tired of action film cliches, would appreciate a film that takes a less serious appoach. When Silver brought Lehmann and Waters on board, there was already a script written based on an idea that Bruce Willis had had in the back of his mind for many years. Lehmann and Waters described this script as “conventional.” The final film is not conventional, and this is entirely due to the unique visions of its director and writer. Even though they kept most of the original script elements (Willis was unwilling to cut much, it seems) while giving it their own unique spin. However, critics and audiences alike did not appreciate their effort. Lehmann told the story about how he word a Hudson Hawk shirt to a favorite deli and when the  server saw his shirt she said something like, “So you made that horrible film?” When Lehmann asked her if she had seen the film she said she didn’t have to. This was especially funny because earlier this evening my sister-in-law, upon learning where we were headed, said that she had heard Hudson Hawk was terrible. Twenty years later, the film is still being judged by people who have not seen it. I was fortunate to see the film when it was released twenty years ago in the summer of 1991. I liked it. I don’t remember reading much if anything as far as reviews go and went to see it solely because it was directed by Michael Lehmann, who I knew as the guy who had made Beaver Gets a Boner. However, if what Lehmann and Waters said last night about the reviews is true, then I wish that I could go back in time to tell those film critics that they should be ashamed for not encouraging the people who made and financed a film such as Hudson Hawk. Even if it didn’t work at all, which is not the case, the courage of filmmakers who attempt something different such as Hudson Hawk should have been encouraged rather than attacked. Even Bruce Willis appears to have been affected and never attempted another film like this, despite having been such a success in Moonlighting, a series with a sensibility somewhat similar to Hudson Hawk.

Back to Lehmann, Beaver and USC. When it came to my turn to direct a 480 I chose to do something “different.” I’m sure I was influenced by what Lehmann had done with Beaver Gets a Boner. However, instead of making another Beaver Gets a Boner, I ended up making another Hudson Hawk. See my film here.

Postscript

1. What about a rewrite? Is there anything to rewrite in Hudson Hawk? Daniel Waters says it’s a film in which anything can be cut. (He told us about something that was cut. Bruce Willis had a monkey who helped him with his capers. The monkey was killed by James Coburn in the film’s backstory. There were lines throughout the film in which Willis refers to his monkey and the fact that Coburn killed it. At the end of the film,  just before James Coburn falls to his death, Willis sticks a picture of the monkey on Coburn’s  forehead.  All of this was cut from the film, but the photo on Coburn’s forehead can still be seen in a few shots of the finished film.) I never liked the opening 20 or so minutes. Waters kept complaining that the film has no straight lines, but I think the first part of the film is too straight in comparison with the rest of the film. The film doesn’t really take off until Willis and Aiello start singing, “Would you like to swing on a star?” Perhaps something can be cut during this part. But what the opening really needs is the same attitude that is present during the rest of the film. Maybe the opening sequence with DaVinci can be cut or moved to another place in the film. It’s too long and only delays the true start of the film. The main problem is that the virtues of the film have little or nothing to do with plotting, but the opening 20 or so minutes are mostly about plotting, and introducing characters and situations. William Conrad as narrator gives the DaVinci sequences a big boost. I would have loved it if  he had done narration throughout the film.

2. Years ago, I heard Daniel Waters in the commentary for the Heathers LD tell how he kept a notebook of things he wanted to see in a film. It sounded like he built films from a shopping list of things he liked. Last night he said that Hudson Hawk was more or less made the same way. They took scenes from other films that they liked. I only spotted elements from North By Northwest, and that was the only specific film he mentioned.This is not something that I was taught in scriptwriting class in film school, but it may in fact be the best way to make a film. It means the filmmaker is something of a variety show host like Ed Sullivan. The filmmaker begins with the list of things that he or she likes, and finds a framing device, a way of linking them together. This approach can even work at the level of a single scene. (I wrote a bit about this writing method previously in my post about Super 8.)

Written by David Kilmer

July 15, 2011 at 11:11 am