Monday, September 20, 2004

How's that for a slice of fried gold?

by Suw on September 20, 2004

Warning: ***Spoilers. But only little ones.****
Ok… so we all know I'm obsessing over Shaun of the Dead right now, and obviously it's not everyone's cup of tea, but to give myself a bit of a change I decided tonight to watch About A Boy, which I'd picked up in a three-for-18-quid deal on Saturday. Seen it before, a while ago, and laughed quite a bit at the time, but somehow it really doesn't stand up to even a second viewing, let alone the sort of repeated heavy rotation I've given Shaun lately.
Now, About A Boy is not a bad film, really. I've seen plenty worse, but it doesn't have that… *thing* that makes it rewatchable.
So, what is that *thing*?
I think it's all down to layers. You have the story. That's layer one. But if that's all your film has, then it's a bit of a one card trick. Beneath the story is the subtext which gives the film a bit more oompf, but even then there's not all that much there – it's a two horse race.
For a film to be really rich, really watchable, it needs more than just story and subtext. It needs stuff in the background that you only notice if you look hard – in Shaun of the Dead, for example, it's little things like a still-running lawnmower with an arm attached, or Shaun calling David 'four eyes' at one of the rare moments in the film when he doesn't actually have his glasses on, or the repetition and mirroring of certain bits of dialogue or scenes, or the foreshadowing when Ed outlines their plan for the evening which plots out the whole of the rest of the film (except you can't see that first time round).
The fourth layer is made up of 'in jokes' – references to other films, tv shows, music, etc. that you don't get unless you have some sort of prior knowledge. I think that, done badly, this layer can be very tedious, but I think Shaun of the Dead does it well because it doesn't detract from the other layers. So when you see the character Tyres from Spaced turn up as one of the zombies, it's funny, but only incidentally so. The homoerotic non-subtext between Shaun and Ed similarly echoes word for word a scene in Spaced, but again it doesn't matter if you haven't seen it because the overt joke is still funny.
Furthermore, I think that the way that Shaun of the Dead changes mood in the blink of an eye is a major asset. They go from humour to pathos to horror and back again, yet they never lose the momentum. The ludicrousness of the standoff in the pub, where you have what is a stereotypical gangster/heist movie style Mexican standoff, except instead of guns, they have one rickety old Winchester rifle, broken bottles and a corkscrew.
About A Boy also tries to do the mood change thing, from humour to pathos, e.g. when Marcus, Will and Marcus' mum's friend come home to find that Marcus' mum has overdosed. Yet although that works as a plot point, there's no subtext there. In fact, I found the whole film to be somewhat lacking in depth, which is a shame because I'd like to see Hugh Grant do something with depth if only to prove that pretty boys can have brains. (Vain hope, but I am an optimist at heart.)
Question is, how do you create this depth? Surely some of it happens when you come to designing the sets – all that background stuff, e.g. the posters on the wall, the playstation game that Ed is playing (Timesplitters 2).
But the main element to creating this depth is simply spending enough time developing the script, and that's helped by having the people who wrote the script also directing/acting because the development never has to stop. You can bet your bottom dollar that Pegg and Wright spent ages bouncing ideas off each other, throwing out the stuff that didn't work, refining the stuff that did, right up to the moment they shot it.
Same thing with The Matrix I (let's pretend Matrices II and III never happened, shall we?). The Warchowski Brothers obviously spent ages honing the script, adding in layers of meaning, little details that you could then pick up on when you rewatched the film. Unfortunately, Matrix was such a big hit that suddenly they were thrust into the situation of having to make II and III without having spend enough time in script development. (Note: I'm being generous here. It could just be that they were shit scriptwriters to start with and just got lucky with I.)
So you end up with a nasty case of Second Album Syndrome. Look how long it took the Stone Roses to manage Second Coming (which, for the record, I quite like). Second albums are notoriously difficult because you used the accumulated best bits of years and years of work for your first album, but you only have a year or less to write your second. Suddenly, your nose is against the grindstone, you're still touring and promoting your first album, and yet you're expected to come up with the second one, fucking around on the tour bus with a four-track, a pounding hangover and the biggest case of sleep deprivation since the Stanford Prison Experiment.
If you're lucky, you started writing your second album before you'd finished your first, or you had enough quality material left over that you’re not under too much pressure, but the difficulty in producing that second masterpiece shouldn't be underestimated. Psychologically, success can be as scary as failure, whether you believe that success was deserved or not.
So, two three points. Firstly, I hope Pegg and Wright don't do a Second Coming on our ass. Hm, ok, let me rephrase that in a slightly less wishful manner. I hope they get the opportunity to spend enough time developing their next script so that they can make it as good as, or better than, Shaun. It'd really suck if their next film blows.
Secondly, one reason that the film industry in this country closely resembles Tyres' undead persona is because there are not enough resources for script development, not enough time spent on the story, on the subtext, on the layering. It's as if people are saying 'Hey, let's make a film! Let's cobble a script together and go shoot it!' without ever stopping to ask if the script is actually any cop. Thus the majority of films that get made are, well, shite.
Thirdly, this is all stuff I have to pay attention to. It's all well and good recognising it, but I've gotta work all this theory into my scripts too. I'll be the first to admit that it's easier said than done, easy to criticise other people's work but not so easy to replicate the ideals in your own. What can I say? I'm working on it.

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