Do You Need to Use the Three Act Structure?

by Damien Robb

If you’re a writer you’ve likely heard of the three act structure. If you’ve ever picked up a screenwriting book or attended a screenwriting course, you definitely have. We love that stuff. Yet, there’s an odd controversy around three act structure in the screenwriting world where some people love it, others denounce it completely, and yet others prefer alternative formats like the five or six act structure.

Before we get into all that however let me quickly tell you how three act structure works just in case anyone isn’t familiar with the model. 

The name says a lot, it’s a form of storytelling told in three acts. It’s used primarily for screen, but can be used for prose or playwrights or really any form of storytelling. At its most basic it’s: beginning, middle, and end. Or, as that tells you nothing about how each act is used, another way to look at it is: setup, confrontation, resolution. Or my favourite, put your character up a tree, throw rocks at them, them get them out of the tree. Let’s have a look at each act.

Even bears understand the basics of storytelling

Even bears understand the basics of storytelling


ACT I - SET UP

Act one needs to accomplish a lot while also being fairly quick. We get introduced to our main characters, we get exposition (as little as possible), and we become familiar with the world we’re in and it’s rules. Act one also contains our inciting incident, which is an event that occurs that forces our protagonist into action. Finally act one finishes with the first plot point or the first act turn, which is when - as a result of the inciting incident - things ramp up and our protagonist enters a new world. New world can actually be a new world (think Narnia) or can just be a new world/ new reality for our protagonist. To give that some context let’s look at a couple of examples.

In The Martian the inciting incident happens when the dust storm hits, then the first act turn occurs when Mark Watney’s crew thinks him dead and leave him behind. His new world/new reality is being stuck on Mars by himself.

In Finding Nemo the inciting incident occurs when the barracuda attacks, killing Marlin’s wife and leaving him a single father to his last remaining egg, Nemo. Then when Nemo gets captured it forces Marlin into the first act turn and into his new world - the expansive ocean.


ACT II - CONFRONTATION

Act two is typically the longest of the three - taking up about half of the movie, with the first and third acts filling in the other quarters. In the second act the protagonist attempts to resolve the problem caused by the first act turn, with a result in rising escalation. Our hero repeatedly tries and fails to solve the problem and as a result find himself or herself in ever worsening situations. During the second act we have the midpoint, which is (unsurprisingly) the middle of the film. The way I view the midpoint is that it’s the point when the protagonist achieves their initial goal and now has to deal with the consequences of that achievement. 

In The Martian this is when Mark achieves his initial goal of communicating with Earth, and in Finding Nemo it’s when Marlin and Dory make it to Sydney. 
Act two ends with the second act turn. This is the point of highest escalation that pushes us into act three; or basically when everything goes to shit. 

In The Martian, Mark has gutted the MAV and launched it only to learn it won’t reach the required speed and altitude. In Finding Nemo Marlin makes it into the dentist's office, sees Nemo, and mistakenly believes him to be dead. 


ACT III - RESOLUTION

As the name suggests act three is all about resolution. It’s when the showdown happens, the people get saved, or our hero gets what they need to beat the bad guy. It generally starts with a glimmer of hope, which is the moment just after the second act turn when we realise all is not lost.

For The Martian it’s when Mark pierces his suit to propel him the last few feet towards Lewis and home, and in Finding Nemo it’s when Gill helps Nemo escape into a drain. 

Things should generally wrap up pretty quickly from that point, all loose ends get tied up, and our hero finally solves the problem. This is usually followed with a brief moment showing life after the resolution.

It's five years later and Mark is shown as a survival instructor, and a less overprotective Marlin back home with Nemo and Dory.

Having successfully navigated the tree, our hero goes on to teach others how to do the same.

Having successfully navigated the tree, our hero goes on to teach others how to do the same.


So, now that we know the basics of three act structure, do you need to use it? 

Well, chances are you’re already using it whether you realise it or not. For whatever reason three act structure seems to be intrinsically integrated into the way we tell stories. It’s present in Shakespeare's work, Aesop’s fables, and by five year olds who have never even attended a screenwriting course! Seriously, next time a kid tells a story try to break it up into three act structure and chances are good you’ll find all the elements there. If you look at any of your favourite films you’ll be able to do the same thing. Even your favourite books. Or even in your own past writing. Hell, try to tell a story without using three act structure; it’s tough. E.g.: I didn’t have milk for my cereal so I went to the shops, bought some, and came home. Inciting incident: Decided to have a bowl of cereal. First act turn: Discovered we had ran out, placing me in a new, milk less, world. Midpoint: Purchased milk. Second act turn: Need to battle my increasing hunger and make it home. Resolution: Make it home/eat cereal - one happy Damian.

We prefer it when stories are told in this format. You can find films and stories that don’t follow the three act structure, but chances are they’ll be unsatisfying experimental films that are largely unpopular. I’m not saying a movie has to be popular for it to be good, but likely it’s unpopular and unsatisfying because someone has purposely set out not to follow the three act structure. Have you ever seen a movie without a resolution? Or when a protagonist doesn’t have a clear goal? Or where not all the loose ends are tied up? It’s just about the most frustrating thing imaginable because part of us knows something is missing. 

As for other structure formats, in my opinion, usually they’re just a reworking of the three act structure, a way of looking at the same thing in a different way, simply breaking it up at different points. And that’s fine, because the whole point of understanding three act structure isn’t that you rigidly enforce everything you write into set plot points; it’s that you can use it as a writing aid. For myself I don’t usually think about structure until the rewrite or when I don’t know where a story is going. It’s a way for me to look at the elements of my writing and see what I’m missing or where things have gone wrong.

The question shouldn’t be do I need to use three act structure - because it’s almost impossible not to - instead it should be do I need to be aware of it? My answer to that is no, but knowing the elements of three act structure just might help make you a better writer; and surely that’s something worth knowing.

Posted on November 25, 2016 .

Fantastic Beasts and How to Reboot a Franchise

by Gabriel Bergmoser

This post is spoiler free.

If there is anything the last couple of years of blockbusters have proven, it’s that nostalgia is a licence to print money. The big franchises of yesteryear have pretty much all made a return in one way or another, and almost all of them, from Force Awakens to Jurassic World to Terminator Gynysys and The Hobbit Trilogy were heavily built around harkening back to as many favourite moments from their respective originals as possible. The filmmakers called these moments ‘tributes’ and in some cases they worked. But the prevailing problem with all of the above was that they overloaded on pandering to the extent that they barely managed to tell their own stories. Force Awakens and Jurassic World were essentially remakes. Terminator spent half its running time recreating scenes from the first film and the rest of it being a total mess. The Hobbit went out of its way to reference or recreate so many iconic moments from Lord of the Rings that it retroactively diluted the original. In fact, the only belated sequel that has managed to feel like its own thing was Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that did nothing for me but I can still respect for what it is. 

Something about counting chickens before they hatch.

Something about counting chickens before they hatch.

Basically, Hollywood is currently ruled by two trends; nostalgia and cinematic universes. Star Wars is the prime example of both being capitalised on to the arguable detriment of the story, and all evidence was pointing to Harry Potter doing the same. It didn’t help that The Cursed Child, like all of the above, was more interested in cheap fan service and endless references to favourite moments from Goblet of Fire than doing anything new with the story, and as a result felt like the absolute nadir of the above trends, one that actually did lasting damage to a previously strong brand. It was enough to justify expecting the worst from any future ventures into the Wizarding World.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them did not look promising. The trailers, with their emphasis on referencing Dumbledore and Grindelwald and heavy use of the iconic theme song, seemed about as pandering as could be. And with the recent announcement that we’d be getting five films at two year intervals, everything about this screamed of using lingering warmth for the Potter world to create a whole new Marvel style franchise. Walking into Fantastic Beasts, I was ready for it to be dreadful. 

Everyone don't panic, I'm no Cursed Child.

Everyone don't panic, I'm no Cursed Child.

But here is a very simple fact; JK Rowling is one of the best storytellers working today. While The Cursed Child, on which she had a story credit, may seem to disprove that, look at the way she turned a small town into a fascinating cesspool of spite and intrigue in her underrated The Casual Vacancy, or how she is currently writing an exceptional, clever, warm ongoing crime series with her brilliant Cormoran Strike books. I don’t know what went so wrong with Cursed Child, but currently it’s the only creative failure her name is connected to, and as such it was wrong to assume the worst of her further endeavours based on that. Fantastic Beasts is resounding proof of my mistake. 

It’s not the best film ever. But it is very good. And it’s a lesson in how to create something fresh out of a pre-existing property. Connections to the broader saga are there, but crucially, they are not the film’s primary concern, and when they do come they feel organic and part of the story. Front and centre, as the title suggests, are Newt Scamander and his fantastic beasts and it’s in these that the film shines with a passion and love that sets it above so many other cynical blockbusters. There is a childlike wonder and delight that permeates the whole film every time the beasts come to the forefront, and I spent a lot of it with a big grin on my face and a feeling of warmth towards everything happening on screen. Add an endearing (if slightly underdeveloped) quartet of heroes, an ever present but not overwhelming sense of darkness, and a couple of twists that made me gasp out loud, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is more than just a solid return to a well-loved universe; it’s quite simply a good film in its own right that never once feels pandering, cynical, or like a retread of things we’ve already seen. It even pulls off that seemingly long forgotten trick of making a franchise-starter feel like a complete story that would be fondly remembered even if there weren’t four sequels still to come. And in an era where almost every blockbuster is full of frustrating loose ends designed to ensure people turn up for the next one, seeing a big budget franchise film that feels complete is more than a novelty; it’s almost revolutionary. 

This is the kind of template cinematic universes should try to follow. Don’t hold back on resolution for the sake of a sequel. Don’t treat every film like an episode in a bigger TV series. Give us a satisfying story that makes us feel like we’ve got our money’s worth and we’ll be more than happy to come back for more. In short, respect your audience and don’t assume they’ll turn up purely because they recognise the property (looking at you DC). 

Maybe the main reason for success here is the Rowling factor. The current Star Wars franchise feels decided on by committee, as if people sat around and discussed what fans would most like to see. The Marvel films are the same; entertaining and well-made but disposable and free of any lingering impact. Fantastic Beasts, however, feels like part of somebody’s creative vision. And that is rare in blockbusters nowadays. 

This doesn’t absolve the Potter franchise of cynicism elsewhere. After all, last I heard every copy of Cursed Child has yet to be recalled for pulping. But it’s a big stride in the right direction. Hopefully all the other franchise heavy hitters are watching. 

Posted on November 18, 2016 .

Dr. Strange or How Marvel Started Worrying and Learned To Love The Box Office

by Tom Reed

Marvel’s newest superhero blockbuster Doctor Strange has a strange side effect, possibly fitting for a film that deals with bending reality. However it’s probably not the sort of side effect Marvel would want coming out of be another action-packed instalment in its monolithic franchise. The side effect was that less than an hour after the film I found myself almost forgetting that I had seen it.

And I wasn’t the only one.

Doctor Strange is the cinematic equivalent of 'did I leave the stove on?'

Doctor Strange is the cinematic equivalent of 'did I leave the stove on?'

After watching it with a bunch of the Movie Maintenance crew, we sat down to eat and talk about what we had just seen and we couldn’t really say anything about it. Some of us had forgotten large parts of the plot already, and this was only 20 minutes after seeing it. So why was something that should have been memorable just not? Why did I find myself completely disengaged from a film that should tick so many boxes for me? I mean the source material alone is ripe for some mind-bendingly cool stuff, and admittedly the visual depictions of other dimensions are excellent, and then there’s that cast list. Cumberbatch. Swinton. Mikkelsen. Ejiofor. That’s some serious talent being brought into the MCU here (no disrespect to anyone already in it, but come on look at those names) and yet none of it registers.

And look credit where it’s due, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange is good. But it should be great. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One almost steals the film. But only almost. Meanwhile on the flip side of the coin, Mikkelsen is criminally underused and it’s clear that Chiwetel Ejiofor, while strong, is there with one eye firmly fixed towards the sequel.  Let’s not even go into Rachel McAdams being cast to just kind of exist in Strange’s world, give the girl something to do!

So why, despite the interesting and limitless potential on offer here, do we walk out of the cinema with nothing but kaleidoscopic colours burnt into our retinas? Because Marvel went safe when it should’ve taken a risk. This is weird because it used to, but now that it’s actually in a better a position to make riskier films it’s not. 

Marvel, as a studio and as a film franchise, started out as a gambler. The first film to enter the MCU was Iron Man. A fairly big risk, and something that Marvel has spoken about before. First they decided to tell the story of Iron Man, not really a household superhero and not really a guy with an easy to sell back story. Murdered parents and spider bites are way more accessible for an audience than Tony Stark’s story of an arrogant arms manufacturer who gets tortured and kidnapped by terrorists and learns to use his arrogance for good instead of evil. It’s not a story, or character, that screams crowd-pleasing summer hit. Then they cast Robert Downey Jnr. Now of course these days he’s everywhere, but this is early 2000s Downey Jnr. You know the one who’d had a couple of run ins with the law and had started to make a comeback through darker indie films like A Scanner Darkly and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And finally they give it to Jon Favreau to direct. Again not a name that one would usually associate with blockbusters.

We did it fellas!

We did it fellas!

So for their first film they took a punt on a character that might not work with a lead actor who was on a quest for redemption and a director whose biggest film to date had been Elf. It’s the sort of risk that looks like a masterstroke when successful and would have sent them packing if it had have failed. It didn’t. Well done Marvel for taking a risk with their first venture into a cinematic universe.

And yet...

Fast forward to 2016 and we’ve seen the Marvel film factory churn out box office hit after box office hit, in the process garnering more acclaim than their much maligned counterpart over at DC, and all on the back of a gamble in 2008. But for some reason the attitude that saw them launch themselves into the pop cultural stratosphere is absent in their latest effort. In fact there has been, on the whole, a lot of playing it safe recently when they should have been taking risks in the way they are telling stories. And now is the time to do it! Now it doesn’t matter what sort of film they put out, the Marvel brand is so strong they could put a box of cereal on screen for ninety minutes and it would still make half a billion dollars.

Sure, there are some stories that have to be done a certain way; there are characters within the MCU who need stories told in a more conventional style. Safe stories so to speak. However Marvel has had two left field superheroes that it has failed to use in an interesting or different way. Ant-Man and Doctor Strange. These two characters are not the usual hero. Ant-Man is a slacker thief turned hero while Doctor Strange is on another plane of reality entirely, and yet with both stories instead of going different they took the safe Marvel story route, the story we’ve had a thousand times from them. And neither film was that great. Ant-Man had moments where you could see the good stuff underneath the Marvel paint job and Doctor Strange is disappointing in that it’s so unremarkable. It seems the bigger this franchise has become, the less likely Marvel is to take risks dramatically. Despite there being no better time to do so.

And the result? Their output has weakened. The quality of the stories has dropped dramatically because they’re no longer the studio that takes risks. They’re the studio that used to be the cutting edge of storytelling; they created interconnected films that could stand on their own. How absurd is that as a concept? They made space Vikings seem legitimate. They made audiences fall in love with a tree. But recently what? We’ve had a second Avengers that promised lots and delivered little, a Thor sequel that I forgot happened and now this recent entry into the franchise, which is okay but could and should have been better. And sure there are some flashes of that old school brilliance, Winter Soldier and Civil War were both strong films, but you cut those two out you’re looking pretty far back to find a truly great story from Marvel recently.

Pictured: Genius.

Pictured: Genius.

Now we have New Zealand genius/director Taika Waiti currently working on the third Thor film. A film that seems to hint at teaming Thor and Hulk up to stop the end of days in what Waiti has promised to be a throwback to 80s fantasy films. Based on that description, and the output of Watiti in the past, it sounds like it could be the perfect antidote to the blandness we’ve seen recently. 

Then again an arrogant but brilliant neurosurgeon who is taught to bend reality by a bald Tilda Swinton and has to defeat Hannibal Lector in a film by a horror director sounds like it should have been edgier than what it was.

We need Marvel to start taking risks again.

Posted on November 16, 2016 .

The Singular Tragedy of Game of Thrones

by Gabriel Bergmoser

Just over two years ago, right after the conclusion of Game of Thrones’ fourth season, I wrote an excitable blog post addressing the fact that the TV show would soon overtake the books it was based on. At the time, the television iteration was about to launch into the material of the fourth and fifth book, after which, short of a surprise release of book six, we’d all be in the dark about what to expect, no matter whether we’d read the books or not. And I was so excited about it. After all, Game of Thrones was a high quality, beautifully made and largely faithful adaptation of the book series, bringing everything I loved about the source material to thrilling, visceral, stunning life. So what if we saw the endgame on television before we read it? And sure, purists might complain, but either way we were getting answers, right? 

I don't know what you're talking about, you need the bad pussy is a perfectly acceptable piece of screenwriting on an award-wining television show.

I don't know what you're talking about, you need the bad pussy is a perfectly acceptable piece of screenwriting on an award-wining television show.

Fast forward two years and that excitement has dissipated and then some. The issues began when the TV show started deviating from the source material. This in and of itself isn’t an issue; they are two different mediums after all and a lot of the material that made up books four and five was pretty disposable. It’s easy enough to understand the inclination to replace some of it with more cinematic events. The big problem, however, was the quality of the original plotlines. From Sansa’s marriage to the godawful Sand Snakes, season five made it so, abundantly clear that the real genius of Game of Thrones always lay in George R.R. Martin’s source material, which manages such an intricate balance of unpredictable plotting, fascinating characters, rich lore and some occasionally beautiful writing. Changing the plot lines in such significant ways threw off the balance to terrible effect. 

Finishing season six, a season that was generally much better than the dreary slog of five, left me with some conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it was exciting, explosive, well made television. On the other hand, everything about it felt sort of… empty. So much of this came down to the sudden plethora of victories our heroes got, victories that never felt fully explored or even explained. Arya’s killing of Walder Frey made no sense. Jon Snow’s return from the dead was basically forgotten as soon as it happened, with no lasting consequences. Littlefinger’s eleventh hour rescue at the Battle of the Bastards was rousing in theory except the show barely explained why Sansa would keep such a trump card from Jon and allow him to lead thousands to their deaths before reinforcements arrived. All of these moments were briefly thrilling, until you thought about them for more than five seconds, and then the hollowness of the season started to become clear. It was lots of spectacle without depth, and depth was something Game of Thrones always had in spades. 

In fact, season six made one thing really clear. Everybody complains so much about the time it takes for George R.R. Martin to finish each of his books (at the time of writing we’ve waited almost six years for The Winds of Winter with no release date forthcoming), but let’s stop and think about why that might be. A Song of Ice and Fire may well be one of the greatest storytelling masterpieces of our time, and those don’t come quickly, especially not with the sheer amount of material Martin has to wrangle. Thousands of characters, hundreds of plots and subplots, pages upon pages of history and context informing even the most miniscule actions of the most minor lordling. There is a reason ASOIAF is so brilliant, and Martin’s commitment always should be to ensuring that that brilliance is maintained. There is no way he should feel pressured to finish his masterpiece before it is ready. 

I don't know what you're talking about, pretending to kill off a character only to actually do it a few episodes later is a great storytelling on an award-wining television show.

I don't know what you're talking about, pretending to kill off a character only to actually do it a few episodes later is a great storytelling on an award-wining television show.

However, fictional characters on the page don’t age and don’t have other filming commitments to work around, and so the television show doesn’t have the same luxury. So now the adaptation process has found itself is a very tricky position. It can’t adapt verbatim books that haven’t yet been written, it can’t wait for source material that might take years and chances are Martin won’t want to reveal all his secrets. And so now, from a show that was pretty much a straight depiction of what we saw on the page, we now have something more akin to The Walking Dead, something that roughly hits the same major beats and developments as its source material but otherwise makes up its own story to fill the gaps. And now the writing of the television series is a shadow of its former self. 

But of course, it can’t go totally off the map, and so we’re assured that the big, big moments still to come in the books will make their debuts on the television show. Apparently Stannis burning his daughter, the truth about Hodor’s origin and Jon Snow’s parentage are all moments that come directly from Martin, moments he has planned for years and are now being spoiled by the TV show in a way far clumsier than he probably planned. In a recent interview that aired before season six came out, Martin was asked about where Hodor’s name came from. Before he gives his noncommittal answer, you can see an unmistakable expression of sad despondence cross his face, the knowledge that this huge truth is no longer his to reveal. And damned if your heart doesn’t break watching that.

The fact is, there’s no way around it. The TV show employs hundreds of people and needs to keep being made, not to mention the outcry that would ensue if HBO so much as suggested taking a break. And Martin can only write as fast as he writes. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion now that we will see the ending of his saga play out on our screens before we read it on the page and it’s just as much of a foregone conclusion that however it happens on the show, it won’t be anywhere near as good as how Martin will tell it. And while the books will eventually come and have secrets of their own, the thrill of discovery for so many major moments will be long gone. Ultimately the only way around this issue would have been to wait until the completion of the books before adapting the show, but there’s no point speculating on how that would have gone as it’s not what happened. 

In general, it will work out. The show will continue to be a ratings success bringing fame and fortune to everyone involved. But the victory is a hollow one. Martin’s story is no longer his own. The showrunners can no longer rely on adapting the brilliance already written. And we the viewers, even those of us who have never touched the book series, will get a pale facsimile of the ending we’ve all been waiting for, even if we won’t know what could have been. 

Posted on November 15, 2016 .

The Assassin Is Us: Why Video Game Adaptations Don’t Work

by Tom Reed

I want to preface this by saying that while I play video games, I am reluctant to call myself a Gamer. My approach to playing games falls into two categories: 1. Is it Pokémon? 2. Can I buy one get one free at JB Hi-Fi? I don’t do online stuff, I usually play on the easiest difficulty and I am useless if you need me to do anything for you in a co-operative game (think Leroy Jenkins with less actual skill). I enjoy playing them but by no means would I say I am an expert in the realm of the game. Okay. Now that we’ve got that clarified: Video game film adaptations do not work. And they probably never will.

I wonder if there are any compilation videos of this?

I wonder if there are any compilation videos of this?

A few weeks ago I saw the first trailer for Assassin’s Creed, the hugely popular franchise that sees players invent parkour and jump off buildings during the Renaissance. In it we see the signature shot of the series, the hooded Assassin (weirdly played by Michael Fassbender) leaping off a church spire. It’s the money shot. The trailer bait. And it heralded the arrival of what is definitely going to be another disappointing attempt to bring a much loved video game franchise to life on the big screen. Now before you stab me in the back and then slink off into the crowd, this isn’t just me climbing onto a high horse and riding it around your backyard until you pay attention to me. I’m not being a snob. The failures of video game adaptations aren’t because the stories they are telling aren’t good or that the stars they enlist to tell them aren’t talented. They don’t work because, at this stage anyway, the video game model of storytelling does not translate to a film.

The first aspect of this is the most obvious and perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome: the hero is us.

Can you name the protagonist of Jurassic Park? Of course you can. What about Star Wars? Sure. And The Dark Knight? Absolutely. What about Pokémon Silver? Or Call of Duty? Assassin’s Creed? Crash Bandicoot? Sure there are main characters in most of them, but who is actually the protagonist? In a film the protagonist is the character the audience is empathizing with. The character who’s traits we come to know and understand to the point where you begin internally panicking when they are presented with a bad choice and you just know because of that one aspect of their personality they’re going to do something stupid and no don’t you dare set your daughter on fire you stupid bastard! 

MY Crash Bandicoot was a fiscally conservative cancer survivor trying to keep his current family in the dark about his secret second family.

MY Crash Bandicoot was a fiscally conservative cancer survivor trying to keep his current family in the dark about his secret second family.

In video games, regardless of the form the playable hero takes (purple dragon, battle hardened soldier, astronaut), the protagonist of the video game is the person holding the controller. Not the character on the screen. Crash Bandicoot’s flaws and strengths are actually the player’s. One player’s Crash might be impulsive, which means they might die more often but possibly complete some challenges faster. Another might be a meticulous collector of items. Another a nervous wreck that will always take the easier option in boss fights. Another a cheat. Another could be a duo working in tandem. And so on. In each scenario the ‘story’ would differ slightly.

A good film relies on a good protagonist. As soon as the time comes to try and take the ‘player character’ from a video game and turn them into a movie protagonist the whole thing gets shaky. The intrinsic design of the main player character is deliberately vague so that the player can slip into the world seamlessly, especially in games where the players create the character themselves from scratch. So there’s always going to be a disconnect that makes it fairly hard to generate any sort of empathy or understanding of who this person really is, because they were designed to be all of us. So even if you have an absolutely sensational actor like Michael Fassbender jumping off buildings and stabbing priests, the audience is going to find it very hard to commit and to care about the hero of your adaptation.

The other roadblock standing between video games and successful adaptations is the almost episodic nature of the storytelling. Depending on the genre of the game it’s broken down into levels or quests or stages or rounds that you can play through. Taking Assassin’s Creed as the example, there are clear episodic aspects to the main storyline which sees the player take part in a brain experiment that lets him travel back time and jump off churches as his long dead ancestor (I’m sorry what the fuck is that even?). However buried in these ‘chapters’ are side quests and extra narrative, often the player is required to complete these before you can get to a high enough level to continue the main plot without getting pole axed by CPUs. This story telling mode is even more so for games like Skyrim and Fallout that have far less linear or no main storylines. 

Personally I feel the audience was told enough in the 2 hours of - his name was Doomhammer?! Why wasn't the movie about that champ?!

Personally I feel the audience was told enough in the 2 hours of - his name was Doomhammer?! Why wasn't the movie about that champ?!

Now, sure the main storyline is there for Creed, but it’s still a fairly long storyline. Generally it’s to be completed in large chunks, and that’s without the side quests and extra church steeple jumping thrown in. So let’s say at a fair estimate you’ve got 12-24 hours of gameplay. Now try boiling that down to 90 minutes and still have a story that makes sense and has all of the beats of the original. Imagine trying to cram three seasons of Game of Thrones into a stand-alone film. Sure in adaptation there are changes and alterations along the way, but that’s a lot of trimming down. Video game story structure just doesn’t snap into a reasonable run time for a film.

And at this point I’m sure the solution seems like: Then make it a TV series Tom you fucking ignorant dildobadger. But once again we have the protagonist problem, and this time it’s magnified for the smaller screen. A TV show has to work even harder for you to buy into it’s characters, because you have to want to go back to them episode after episode. I know I’ve started on shows and failed to get past episode four because the characters are just not engaging. The effort to make your blank slate playable character Walter White becomes that much harder.

Now at this point we’ve got no protagonist and a story structure that’s either too long or too loose, but there’s one more nail in the video game coffin (there’s probably more but like I have a limited supply of nails and am not good with a hammer so three will have to do). A video game is an active experience. It’s an immersive experience. It’s a communal experience. You are participating in the story, you’re solving puzzles, you’re using parts of your brain to understand why you can’t make your person go over there and do the thing, why can’t I make the person go over there and do the thing, WHY CAN’T I!? 

I love film but a film is a passive experience. Yes you’re still engaged. Yes you can watch it with other people. But it’s not the same. By its very nature, a video game is active and involved. As soon as you try to shift it across to another medium it loses something fundamental. The story and world of the video game are designed to be interacted with. Assassin’s Creed is successful not because of the main storyline (which is bizarre) but because of the immersive nature of the game. The fact that during the story you can nip off and have adventures in a visually stunning world that you normally wouldn’t be able to wander around in. You can leap from roofs and sneak around in shadows. You could feasibly ‘go off course’ for hours before coming back to the main storyline. And that aspect of the video game just doesn’t exist when it’s sent across to the more passive world of film. 

However having said this, perhaps with the rise of VR we might see more immersive films or a nice blend of the two story telling modes. But until then: video games should stay where they belong. With idiots like me being bad at them.

Posted on October 30, 2016 .

Interview with Charlie Clouser: Composer for the Saw films, Wayward Pines and The Neighbor.

by Gabriel Bergmoser

Recently I was lucky enough to get on the phone with Charlie Clouser, a very busy composer famous for his work on the Saw series and Wayward Pines. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview which I let go way over time due to how interesting it was and the fact that I’m a massive fan of the Saw films and just really dug getting to hear his thoughts on the franchise and what we can expect from the next instalment. Over the course of the interview we discussed heaps, such as his approach to music, his past work with bands like Nine Inch Nails and how what you’re good at creating isn’t necessarily what inspires you. Anyway, take a look for yourself.


I’m a huge, huge fan of the Saw films and your work in them. I distinctly remember being thirteen and secretly watching the first one then spending the whole rest of the night listening to Hello Zepp on repeat. Actually, I’ll start off with a question about that; it’s one of those immediately iconic title tracks. Can you talk us through a little bit of your process for coming up with that one? 

Well it was definitely an attempt to make one chunk of music that was totally different to the rest of the body of the score. Most of the score through the first half of the movie is just this dark and murky bed. In the very beginning of the film when we first enter the dungeon and they’re trying to figure out why they’re chained up and what this tape recorder is for and so forth, the music’s sort of inquisitive and not happy, but not dreadful. Then as things progress forward it gets a little more sombre and threatening and towards the end of the movie just before we get into the Hello Zepp area the score just devolves into crashing pots and pans and industrial metal and it’s playing out of tempo; just a total mess. And the idea was that you spend the whole movie with this murky thing getting darker and darker then at the crucial moment where all will be revealed through the voiceover on the closing montage I wanted just a total abrupt change of tone and spectrum and everything. None of the sounds used in Hello Zepp were used in the rest of the film, so it was just the effort to have this long descent into darkness and then an abrupt change into brightness as though someone turned the lights on in the music. So instead of big washy orchestral strings I used this small little string quartet that were just sawing away at their instruments to have this very bright and strident kind of forceful and tight sound on the strings and that little clinking dulcimer was the sample I had of a child’s toy dulcimer, and that’s the little jingle that starts the thing. So all those sounds don’t appear anywhere else in the movie and that was on purpose to make that cue jump out and change the tone and signal that we’re into a different mode. Once Jigsaw gets up from the floor and you realise what has been going on for the duration of the movie it’s such a revelation in the storyline and I wanted to reflect that in the music and have a gear shift in that moment. 

So that decision to have a break in the music style established for the rest of the film, was that something that came from the writer/directors or was it your own initiative?

Well a little bit of both. In the segment just before the Hello Zepp cue begins, they had all this clattering industrial music, all this really messy stuff. Then they kind of had a moment of silence and this very pretty piece of music. What I wound up with was very different but had a similar gear shift and for James Wan and Leigh Whannell the ending montage was the big payoff. It wasn’t such a difficult thing to plan out and discuss; the only instructions I had there were ‘this is where we need the strong theme; if there’s anywhere where there’s a recognisable theme it should be here.’ But it wasn’t until I started experimenting with the sounds and worked up a bunch of the score for the beginning of the movie that I realised ‘oh, now I can separate this ending segment of the film’. Another thing I wound up doing purely by instinct was putting the Hello Zepp theme in a slightly different key to the rest of the music. That and the difference in all the sounds themselves helped to make it kind of as though you turned a page and turned on the lights. It wasn’t so much of a planned attack as something that just seemed to make sense at the time. Turns out we were right. 

It became such a staple going forward over the sequels. Looking back over all seven films now, what are your overall feelings on the Saw franchise?

Well it’s weird because the very first movie was quite different to many of the sequels. In the first movie there’s not all that much torture and traps and violence. 

Well you barely see anything. 

Yeah, exactly! The actual moment of sawing is very short and it’s all about the anticipation and the dread of ‘is he gonna do it? Oh my god, he’s gonna do it!’ As the movies went on through the sequels they kept having to up the ante each time around and make each one more insane than the last. And to some degree that was probably a response to the type of fans who were really into the franchise and who were like ‘oh man, wouldn’t it be really cool if this machine ripped this guy in half?’ When I’m flicking through them I think the first two are still my favourites because they were more about the suspense and the trickery and the plot than just the brutal torture. Now that they’ve announced a plan for continuing the franchise, I think that we want to return to some of that suspense and anticipation and less of the ‘here’s fifteen incredibly elaborate and brutal trap rooms one after another’. And the directors, the Spierig brothers, who are doing the next Saw movie really seem to have a handle on that kind of approach. I didn’t know much about them when this was first announced, but as I watched some of their previous films I thought that this is a really interesting direction to take the franchise in, because I think they really have a handle on a way to reinvigorate what I think has become kind of familiar material. 

Photo credit Zoe Wiseman.

Photo credit Zoe Wiseman.

So moving away from Saw a bit, a lot of your soundtracks have been for horror films or TV shows. What is it that draws you personally to horror as a genre? 

It’s strange, because growing up I was much more of a science fiction nerd than a horror nerd. I have a deep love for certain classics in the horror genre; I’ve watched films like The Shining dozens of times, but that may be more because of my love for Kubrick and his cinematography and pacing and so forth than for a deep knowledge of the genre. So to some degree I think part of the reason I’m so involved in the horror genre is not so much because I’m an expert on the history or various nooks and crannies of that genre, but because the types of sounds and music that I am good at are a natural fit for that world. I’m often faced with, and this is a truth whether working on records of film scores or whatever, many cases where the music I’m good at is not necessarily the music I like. A lot of my favourite films and film scores are my favourites because they’re not something that I know how to do. One of my favourite films is Michael Clayton, which is this very subdued, sort of grown up thriller and the music is amazing and subtle and not forceful and created the mood of tension through the film. I’m well aware of the fact that that’s not the kind of music I’m already an expert at. Looking back, I realise that that’s probably why I like that movie because it doesn’t sound like something I was just playing on my set up yesterday. And I think that was true also when I was involved in records; some of the stuff I was good at was not the same genre as the stuff I listened to or liked. And I think that’s what kind of helps to push your creativity forward; if you just surround yourself with the kind of music you already know how to do, then you’re never listening to stuff that’ll make you wonder how they did that. Being attracted to things outside of your home genre, I think, is very helpful to drive someone’s creativity forward and I think that works with directors and writers and everyone. Look at someone like Christopher Nolan, who has a background in head trip movies like Memento or Inception, but then when he tackles something like the Batman franchise he’s bringing a different outlook to it and the end result winds up being interesting. That’s what attracts me to a lot of projects, that it’s not just something I already am an expert at. But I think why I’m involved in a lot of horror type scores is partially due to the types of sounds I’m good at manipulating. I’ve always been a fan of dark, foreboding dreadful chord progressions and ominous sounds and of course those are a natural fit for the types of films I’ve been involved in. So it’s kind of two things at work at the same time and to some degree I think that helps my scores stand out just a little bit, because as I’m not an expert in the genre I’m not referring intentionally to a million classic scores in the horror genre because my brain isn’t already saturated with that material. So it’s kind of a happy accident because it’s still kind of fresh and interesting to me. 

You recently worked on the new horror film The Neighbor; can you tell us a bit about that? We haven’t seen much about it over here in Australia. 

That was sort of a passion project for Marcus Dunstan who had directed a few movies that I’ve scored and was involved in the writing of many of the Saw sequels. He came to me and said ‘I’ve got this little movie, if you’ve got a month or two and can knock this out, I’ve had this script under my damn pillow since high school and we’re finally doing it’. And it’s interesting because it wasn’t a situation where the score would call for big epic action. It all takes place in two houses on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere in the south of America and some bad drug dealers live next door to some people who, as it turns out, are even worse. It was a cool opportunity because there was no need to deploy an epic orchestra or screeching strings; I could use a restricted set of sounds to create a claustrophobic, tense environment without needing to go big. Because it takes place in the rural south on dirt roads and such, I made the spurious decision to have all the instruments be local to the place, so all the sounds were made with guitars and there’s a synthesiser here and there but there’s no big orchestral strings that would sound out of place on a dirt road. As the film gets on some of the guitar sounds get more twisted and more mutilated until I’m probably the only ones who knows that they really are from a guitar. But it was a nice philosophical experiment to try to use those instruments as a starting point and foundation for this murky pulsating bed that the score wound up being. And it also has a very cool performance from Bill Engvoll who’s this sort of G-rated comedian here in the States and he plays one of the very worst people in the cast, a very bad man. When I first saw the thing I remember asking Marcus ‘wow, who’s this actor playing the nasty neighbour? He’s awesome!’ People outside of America probably aren’t familiar with him but here he’s a family oriented comedian who’s very popular in the rural south and he’s not known for being a character actor and playing these heavy parts. I was very impressed by his ability to completely change from a family oriented comedian into this very dark character. So that was also very interesting. And of course the main actor Josh Stewart is also from the movies The Collector and The Collection that Marcus directed and I scored one of them, he’s great at appearing under duress (laughs). He spends most of this movie under extreme duress. 

You’re currently working on Wayward Pines as well?

Photo credit Zoe Wiseman.

Photo credit Zoe Wiseman.

Yeah, that was a project where M. Night Shyamalan found this series of books that detailed this story and thought that the material was appropriate to make a series or a miniseries out of as opposed to a one shot movie. So it came out of his camp and one of his lieutenants was kind of behind the wheel of the thing, so I didn’t have much interaction with Night himself. But it was interesting because I kind of came on to the project almost at the last minute when they were doing the first season and as such kind of started scoring the first couple of episodes without knowing the broader story and the destination that it was gonna wind up in. When I first started it seemed like something kind of similar to Twin Peaks, where there’s this creepy little mountain town where everyone is in on something and its gradually revealed what that is. Of course, that’s what happens but what is revealed is epic in scope and crosses thousands of years of human history. I was not instructed that this was going to occur until I was an episode or two in which had an interesting side effect where the first few episodes have a more innocent tone and a different approach. As it turned out, me being in the dark about the overall scope worked to our advantage because the score that I wound up with for the early episodes would not have been appropriate for later but it created an interesting shift as time went by and many of the musical themes are consistent throughout but the intensity level at the start is very different to what it wound up becoming as the stakes get raised across the course of the series. So we’ve done two ten episode seasons and the story might continue. It’s up in the air whether they’re gonna do a third, but in the original book there is enough raw material that has not been used up yet. So we may see another batch of episodes.

I’ve actually not seen Wayward Pines, but you make it sound awesome. 

Well there’s some great casting; Matt Dillon is the primary lead throughout the first season then we have various appearances from people like Terrence Howard and Julliette Lewis. Those are usually my favourite kind of actors, people that just ooze personality and just have a great sort of richness to their portrayals. I’ve always liked Matt Dillon’s work and Juliette Lewis and Terrence Howard are just fantastic, quirky and kind of unsettling to watch at times. The series is anchored by Toby Jones and Melissa Leo who are just fantastic in a different way and add a level of sombreness and gravitas to the storyline across multiple seasons. So it came out pretty good! I was sucked in and was really glad to be involved and I’d be really happy if they figured out a way to do a third season. 

You’ve got a background in work with bands, including Nine Inch Nails. Personally, do you prefer that kind of work or composing?

In my work with bands I was always sort of a lab rat where they’d be like ‘hey man, can you cook up some crazy synth and drums for this half-finished song?’ Then I would scurry off to my little hole full of equipment and spend many long nights by myself putting stuff together. So I was always more suited to that kind of solo approach than sitting around the campfire and jamming out with the boys. So I think that’s why I kind of moved to film composing because that’s very much an appropriate approach. Slide the movie under the door and six weeks later I’ll slide the score back under the door. It kind of suits my personality to work in that mode where I can sit with the picture and try a million different things until I find the right approach. 

You’ve got the new Saw film coming up; what other projects are on the horizon?

There’re a couple of things kicking around that I may see if I can squeeze in before Saw. If Wayward Pines comes back I’ll have to start that in February or March. I’m actually already starting fiddling around with Saw, trying to reboot the music in the same way they’re rebooting the films. I’ll be meeting with the directors soon, who’ve already started shooting. 

Already?

Yeah! And apparently I’ll be meeting up with them to see a rough cut of some of the footage before Christmas. I think they’re on set right now. Of course it won’t be in theatres until next Halloween, so for once I won’t have to do the whole score in five weeks. So I’m probably gonna start on that in the next month or so.

Charlie Clouser, thank you very much.

Posted on October 29, 2016 .

Westworld and Pilots

by Damian Robb

Chances are good you’ve now seen the first episode of Westworld and, most likely, the rest of the episodes that are out so far, thanks to whatever reputable streaming service you use or less reputable torrenting provider. Either way, this post will be focusing just on the pilot episode. If for some reason you haven’t seen the pilot, be it that you’re holding off for the whole series, don’t own any screened devices, or are waiting for the VHS copy (that’s going to be a long wait), then you might want to make a graceful exit as this post will contain spoilers. 

Firstly, that had to be one of the strongest pilot episodes of any television show I’ve ever seen. Bit of a call I know, given the high quality of television we currently get to enjoy - Game of Thrones and Fargo both had exceptionally immersive pilots - but give me a chance to explain myself.

A pilot episode has to do a lot. They can often be the worst episode of a season because they’re not just setting up a world - whether it is a futuristic cowboy themed amusement park/video game, Westeros, or Minnesota - they’re also introducing us to every other element that makes up that show. The cast of characters, the rules of that world, themes, visual motifs, style and tone...oh, and let’s not forget storylines. It’s a ton of information to try to get across in a naturalistic way and the fact that the audience is coming in with no prior knowledge means that by their nature pilots are usually overly explanatory and involve a lot of exposition. 

Show don't tell gang. Show don't tell.

Show don't tell gang. Show don't tell.

Here’s where Westworld excelled, namely in avoiding exposition and trusting its audience. Yes, it did have some exposition, but what it gave was minimal, often in context, and frequently visual. It’s HBO so they’ve got the money to show not tell their world and they did so stunningly; both inside and outside of Westworld. The quick shots down in the labs of them ‘making’ a horse told us a lot more than if they'd had a character try to explain the process. 

Back to the trust. The creators of this show could have started out this pilot in Westworld with us, the audience, none the wiser that the Wild West we were seeing was nothing more than a carnival ride on steroids and saved that reveal as a surprise twist. That would have been fun, but what they did was even better. They went deeper. They threw us head first into this world and into the story and trusted us to fill in the blanks as we went, with only the briefest moments of exposition when necessary. Game of Thrones couldn’t even pull this off as well, although their clever use of sexposition was an excellent workaround. 

Westworld also avoided the need to set up every single world rule. For example you may have also found yourself asking while the credits rolled ‘How do they stop the Guests from hurting each other?’ Again, this comes down to trust. Trust that the audience aren’t children and that they have patience to wait for these answers rather than deliver them up all at once in a hackneyed and telling fashion. 

Trust me, I'm a mutant and led the X-Men for a bit before dying like a dickhead.

Trust me, I'm a mutant and led the X-Men for a bit before dying like a dickhead.

All these clever choices helped make this pilot feel less like a pilot, while still fulfilling the needs of a first episode. What are these needs? Promises. Ultimately, that’s all pilots are. Promises of what audiences can expect for the rest of the series; and Westworld made a lot of promises. It promised twists when they first set up Teddy as a Guest then revealed him to be a Host. It promised compelling themes of moral ambiguity and human nature when they had a Guest speak of spending one week in Westworld with his wife and kids and another week going “full evil” - leaving us to ask ourselves ‘What would I do in Westworld?’ It promised thematic visuals with recurring shots of a player piano, a clear symbol of how the Guests see the Hosts. It promised juxtaposition between the rustic beauty of Westworld and the stark futuristic bleakness of the institute. It promised violence. It promised mystery. And it promised an android revolt with the slapping of a fly.

The question now stands can Westworld fulfil these promises? If the series turns out to be as strong as the pilot then I’m entitled to believe it can. We’ll just have to keep watching to find out.

Posted on October 28, 2016 .

5 Easy Steps to Making a Superhero Blockbuster

by Alyce Adams

Batman Vs Superman. Suicide Squad. X-Men: Apocalypse. 
I know. I can hear the collective groan of readers all the way through their computer screens. No doubt, it’s been a grim year for superhero fans.

However, not for the movie studios. In fact, they’re doing quite well for themselves. I should know, because I paid to see every single one of those films, and my high hopes were crushed each time.
Yet, it wasn’t all a complete loss. From my extensive viewing, I believe I can now describe the five most important elements to a successful financial blockbuster.   

1. Hire more than one writer. In fact, the more the better. You want as many people as possible providing their opinion on the story. It doesn’t matter if they’re writers or not. Too many cooks in the kitchen doesn’t apply to this situation - that’s just a health and safety warning. Remember, having a clear vision is overrated. 

2. Create a kickass female character that is just as accurate with a gun as she is with her lipstick. Loved for her dry wit and black spandex, make her so cool that she is a fan favourite, but (and this is important) never ever give her her own movie. Ever. 

So letal. So sexy. So unmarketable.

So letal. So sexy. So unmarketable.

3. The film should have a minimum 2 ½ hour running time. People paid $20 for a ticket - make sure they get their money’s worth. You know you’ve done your job right when the audience start to regret upgrading to that large popcorn and drink combo. 
Forget quality. The only reason people go to the cinemas is to pass the time, not for entertainment. 

4. CGI everything. Cities, spaceships, fights - that’s a given.  When I say everything though, I mean everything. Thinking of casting Luke Hemsworth to complete the trifecta? Don’t. CGI him. Sure, the real Luke might be able to pull off the more subtle facial movements, but will his biceps really look as good as a computer generated image set? 

Probs fake.

Probs fake.

5. Don’t actually end the story. The superheroes might save their city, but they haven’t defeated the villain (and probably won’t for at least another three films.) Better yet, have the film finish before they even fight and slap on a ‘Part 1’ to the title. It doesn’t look like a cash grab if you explain that you simply couldn’t do justice to the story in one film, which is most likely true, because the story has become so convoluted due to the number of writers. Fans will be happy to support more films with these characters. It’s a win win!

Except the Divergent Series. Part 2 is never happening.

Except the Divergent Series. Part 2 is never happening.

So, there they are. Five easy steps for blockbuster success. Please give me a cut when you’re swimming in your gold filled pool. 

In the meantime, I will be waiting in line with unrealistic hopes for Wonder Woman. 

Posted on October 27, 2016 .

Interview With Kris Dirksen: Composer for Banshee

by Gabriel Bergmoser

Finishing its four season run earlier this year, Banshee was a cult hit that swiftly carved a niche in the heart of genre fans with its combination of colourful characters, intricate storytelling and over the top action. I was recently lucky enough to get the chance to talk with the show’s composer Kris Dirksen, as well as exclusively presenting some previously unreleased tracks from the show.

How did you initially get involved in Banshee?

I started composing in the trailer music world, my partner Dane Short and I have a company called Methodic Doubt Music. Banshee’s showrunner Greg Yaitanes had discovered us through seeing our company’s music in a trailer, and after a couple of months of meetings and a demo/audition we were brought on board. Banshee was Cinemax’s first big push into scripted material so they were a little nervous about hiring on a composer without any prior TV experience but they took a leap of faith and we dove into the first season. 

 How do you approach writing music for a show with such varying tones? 

I wish I could say there was an approach! Television production happens so quickly that there’s not a lot of time for premeditation or experimentation, most of the writing is based on instinct and it’s usually your first idea that ends up being used. The first season is always the toughest because you’re starting from scratch and having to build the musical world of the show as you go. Towards the end of that first season, and in subsequent years, it becomes a bit easier as you’ve established a palette and some general themes as a jump off point. Banshee, despite having developed a general “sound” for the score, kept introducing new characters and situations so it kept things interesting and prevented things from getting too stale. Greg was always very supportive and open to trying new directions, and the show was always pushing its own boundaries so it was a fun project to be involved in. 

 How long on average would it take you to come up with and finalise a track?

Anything from a few hours to a few days. I think episode 106 (Wicks) had the most music in a single episode, but I only had 4-5 days to finish it. Other episodes I had up to 2 weeks. There’s always a lot of coffee and little sleep. By the end of each season I probably looked like the bearded, reclusive Lucas Hood we see at the beginning of season 4. 

 Did you see the scripts in advance or did you wait until the cut of the episode was finalised before coming up with tracks?

Script-wise it was always different, and I’m not given the episode to work on until the cut has been finalized and locked with HBO. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to plan in advance, but I also see the benefit in approaching the episode without any preconceived notions about it. Seeing it with fresh eyes and ears, as the audience does. Ultimately, as a composer you watch the episode hundreds of times, and every additional watch takes you farther away from your initial reactions and reactions. 

Can you tell us a little bit about the two unused tracks? Why did you end up going with what you went with in place of them?

Creating the main title theme was probably the toughest part of the Banshee experience for me. During the first season I was still learning some of the basics of how to score a television show, and the schedule was fast and furious as it always is, once you finish an episode you’re almost immediately jumping into the next one so there wasn’t a lot of time to devote to writing the main theme. I was throwing ideas at the wall and it took a while to hit the mark, this track was one of them. I worked pretty closely with Jason Yaitanes from Tin Punch Media who created the visuals for the title, so it ended up being a collaborative experience and they set a high bar for quality that I was trying to match.

The second track was a concept I came up with for the end of the series finale. Obviously that was a big moment for the show so it took at least a couple of tries to find the right moment for that sequence.

 How closely did you work with Jonathan Tropper or any of the other producers?

Music’s always the last step in the process and once an episode was locked and ready for me, Greg became the main point of contact on that front. We’d meet and talk about his intentions with the score. Once he gave his initial direction I was very much left to do my own thing. There was a level of trust when it came to the music that was refreshing, relative to other projects. 

 Watching Banshee with friends usually resulted in all of us weirdly singing along with the opening theme; it’s one of those immediately iconic and compelling themes. Can you talk us through your process for coming up with tracks like that?

Like I mentioned it wasn’t easy to get there, and I wasn’t entirely sure that the theme was that strong when we locked it in. That said, deadlines aren’t flexible in the TV world so you do your best with the time you’re given and move on to the next song. The theme was slightly tweaked customized for all 38 episodes of the show so I spent a lot of time with it and second guess it over the course of 4 years! In retrospect, now that I have some distance it’s been nice to hear positive reactions from the fans and I’m proud that we were able to create something that was hopefully at least unique and helped set the show apart in some way.   

 Can you tell us a bit about what projects you have coming up?

Quarry, set in early ‘70s Memphis, is airing on Cinemax at the moment. Much of the Banshee team worked on that show and it shares some of the same pulpy, noir-ish sensibilities, so hopefully the Fanshees give it a shot!

You can check out the unreleased tracks here!

Posted on October 18, 2016 .

Tarantino and the Problem With Legacy

by Sean Carney

Gabe Bergmoser loves the theme of legacy. He loves it. Tarantino doesn’t love the theme, he thinks he is the theme. For years now we’ve had to listen to him state that he’ll retire from making movies with his tenth film. Only ten. No more. This eye on the future is crippling his ability to live in the now and concentrate on telling a good story. I take umbrage with a writer who is so consumed with their legacy. A legacy is something that matters at the end. When you’re gone. It might sound harsh, Quentin, but it’s something that’s kind of out of your hands. Your legacy will be the opinions formed by people about your body of work long after you are gone, and right now your films feel so hard like you’re trying to make sure we know you are important.

Feet. Feet everywhere.

Feet. Feet everywhere.

I came to The Hateful Eight party late. Just last week, in fact. I didn’t miss much, did I? I’ve always loved the films of Quentin Tarantino. I was one of those grubs who showed up at film school, dripping with enthusiasm over what an auteur Tarantino was and about how I was going to tell cool stories just like him. Words like badass, ultra-violence, and snappy character banter come to mind. But I’m not alone there, right? Any of us who ever watched a Tarantino film as a teenager inevitably became obsessed with trying to emulate his style. Because that’s how you learn to develop your own style as writer. You copy, paste, steal, riff, and flat out rip off your heroes. Faking it until you make it, or some shit like that. But there comes a time when you - hopefully - evolve from imitation and begin to write in your own style. But after watching The Hateful Eight the thought that entered my head - apart from weariness at the empty tale I just watched - was what exactly has happened to the unique style of the man himself. Has he finally faded in this, his eighth cinematic outing? Or have my own tastes changed to the unimaginable point where I just don’t get a kick out of his work anymore.

I won't pretend to be an absolute Tarantino purest. I recognise Pulp Fiction for the classic film it is, but I don’t have any great attachment to it. I’m far more enamoured with Inglorious Basterds (his best, I believe), Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs, and my personal favourite - however unpopular it may be - Jackie Brown. Jackie Brown was the kind of early-days, free-from-all-responsibility story from a gifted writer which I just don’t think he’s capable of making anymore. And though we’re only a few years removed from the absolute triumph that was Inglorious Basterds, I personally think that Tarantino has become so lost inside the asshole of his own enormous ego and the importance he places on his cinematic legacy that it is to the detriment of telling a good story. 

I think more than anything I’m just frustrated by The Hateful Eight. When the script leaked a couple of years ago I did hear rumblings that it wasn’t the best. I also heard changes were made before the film was made. I watched it, and apart from thinking ‘gee whiz it sure would have sucked to be a black man, or a woman back then’ it felt thematically empty. It felt like Tarantino thinking that a bit of a closed-room whodunnit mystery would be the ideal scenario for his brand of character banter. The only problem was he forgot to litter this story with characters I actually gave a shit about. On top of that, the only two characters worthy of investing in (Sam Jackson and Walton Goggins) had just about all of their characterisation spelled out within the first thirty minutes. 

We'd say invest in Kurt Russell but that might be a bit short lived.

We'd say invest in Kurt Russell but that might be a bit short lived.

Tarantino has always being cool. Just, you know, not when he’s actually talking. And speaking of talking… there’s my biggest gripe in the film - other than lack of meaning - Tarantino drops in twice for a neat voiceover. How cute. No, nope, nup. It’s fucking shit. It’s out of place. It’s extremely distracting , and it reeks of an indulgent director piecing his film together in the cutting room and suddenly doubting the audiences ability to put together what is happening. Either that or he just really wanted to be involved. You’re better than that, Quentin. 

The film is violent. As expected. But whereas in the past I would fist pump at Tarantino’s over the top zeal, this time I just groaned and was even a little disgusted to watch characters vomiting blood in the faces of others. I mean who needs that in their life? It’s hard work to share in the excitement and achievement of Sam Jackson and Goggins’ teaming up to slowly and laboriously hang Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character. And as the film pretty much ends on that moment, it’s really hard to walk away from it feeling great about story, characters, yourself, or life in general… thanks, Tarantino?

As frustrating as the film is, there is a moment right at the end which could have made it all bearable for me, but the opportunity was sadly missed. Goggins reads aloud the fake letter that President Lincoln had written to Jackson. There is a sentence along the lines of the importance of all men working together, hand in hand, for the future. The two characters were right there next to each other, just reach out and take each others hand and this overly sentimental, weak-hearted, son of a bitch would have at least had a small smile while the credits rolled. 

Quentin Tarantino has always said that first and foremost he makes movies for himself, and if he loves them, his loyal audience will love them too. Right now, at this moment, I’m no longer among them.

 

Posted on October 17, 2016 .

The Red Turtle Review

by Damian Robb

All Studio Ghibli fans out there put your hands up. Okay, put them back down, I can’t see you. For those who aren’t familiar with the Japanese film studio let me quickly bring you up to speed. Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 and has been releasing award winning animated feature films ever since. Considered the Disney of the East their animations are known for their visually stunning and whimsically fantastical style. The main face of the Studio is Hayao Miyazaki, who was the director and smiling taskmaster behind most of their productions. He oversaw such films as Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, Howl’s Moving Castle, and my favourite, Spirited Away, or wait, maybe Ponyo! Damn, so many good films. If you’re a fan of animation and haven’t seen these films I really can’t recommend them enough, although I will add prepare yourself for a different style of storytelling than we’re used to in the Western world. One that relies less on three act structure and instead lets the story come out in a more naturalistic way that doesn’t always seem to be serving the plot but that I find deeply engaging none the less, and could in fact be an argument for our films to be less structured.

With Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement two years ago it was announced that the company was temporarily halting production, much to the distress of their fan base, as well as yours truly, but they’re now back, collaborating with France and Belgium, to make their most recent feature, The Red Turtle.

I saw this film last Friday night with my girlfriend, The Lady Holly at the Nova cinema in Melbourne. Prior to purchasing tickets I quickly googled to check if the showing was dubbed in English as I find subtitles inevitably take a bit of fun out of a movie, causing you to be one more step removed. I instead found out that this film didn’t need to be dubbed because it doesn’t in fact have any dialogue. I know. This film is a gamble to be sure, an animated foreign film without any dialogue. I totally get how that sounds. I found it a gamble worth taking.

The style, due to the European collaboration, isn’t in the usual anime style of previous Studio Ghibli films but does maintain the detail and fantasy of their previous work.

The plot centers around a man shipwrecked on a small island and his attempts to escape from it, which are constantly being hindered by a giant red sea turtle. Think Castaway only with even less talking, animated, and Wilson gets replaced with a large reptile. 

The film starts in the middle of the shipwreck. The unknown man, whose history we never learn, is lost at sea in the height of a storm, his small boat capsized next to him. It’s a terrific start to the movie as it immediately puts us right in the action and shows how vulnerable this man is all by himself. He makes it to shore and with him we quickly explore the beautiful, but imprisoning, tropical island. After acclimating himself to his new situation he does what anyone would do, try to escape it. The man builds a number of rafts, attempts a number of escapes, but each time only makes it as far as the breakers before the red turtle shows up and destroys his vessel. Moral of the story: turtles are dicks. From there the story dips into fantasy but I won’t explain any more plot in order to keep this as spoiler free as possible.

Despite its single location and small cast the film manages to give us enough action to keep us interested, while also showing the quiet, beautiful, life of a man alone on an island. One way it did this was to make the basics like food, water, and fire, never an issue. You may think this would take away most of the stakes. Instead it caused the stakes to be pushed further and by doing so found other, more original, sources of peril that still kept you on the edge of your seat; including an especially suspenseful scene where the man becomes trapped in a pool of water, his only escape to swim through a very long and narrow underwater tunnel. The film also kept the tempo up by using the crabs on the island to provide a pixar-esk, slapstick style comedy, which worked well to give a reprieve and make it more child friendly. Cheeky crabs = chuckles.

My main fault with the film was the uncertainty to what the point was. The theme, due to the lack of dialogue, is fairly open to interpretation. I believe it was an exploration of the lifecycle of man. We end up seeing the man’s whole life on the island, and if washing up alone, wet, and afraid after a traumatic event isn’t symbolism for birth I don’t know what is. This theme is explored not just for the man himself, but also for the plants and animals with him, and arguably even for the island itself. My issue then comes from there being little opinion or point of view on the theme. The film provided questions but not always answers, and while it can be fun to opine answers for yourself it doesn’t provide much closure, which can be frustrating. Just look at the end of Birdman.

Beyond that the animation was beautiful, the story compelling enough for the ninety minute run time, and I got to see a giant red turtle. This isn’t a film for everyone but it will provide you with something different, thought provoking, and doesn’t involve any superheroes; which might be just what you’re looking for.

Posted on October 13, 2016 .

How Franchises Have Eradicated the Importance of the Ending

by Gabriel Bergmoser

It’s very easy to be cynical about film franchises, but let’s get the obvious out of the way. Films exist to make money and franchises exist to make astronomical, incomprehensible amounts of money. Big budget sequels are essentially a product for which there is a huge amount of demand, and so it makes sense that beloved properties will keep getting rebooted or continued as long as people still want them. And hey, I’m the first to admit that I’m a sucker for a sequel. We all want more of things we enjoy and the prospect of spending additional time with characters we love is never less than appealing. 

Film is a relatively new medium, and as such many movies that are considered venerable classics were only made in the last forty years, meaning that most of the key creatives involved are still active and so belated sequels to beloved originals are not only possible, but becoming more and more ubiquitous. Jurassic World, Force Awakens, Fury Road, Terminator Genisys, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; it’s not even a trend that’s unique to film. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child might have come less than a decade after the last instalment of its series, but it still represents an unexpected return to a beloved story hinged upon the audience’s nostalgia for the original. 

All of the above are examples of stories that got me more excited than just about anything. And yet, especially in the key examples of Cursed Child and Force Awakens, the overriding feeling I had when they came to an end was one of emptiness. 

Empty like the emotions of 9 out of 10 Stormtroopers

Empty like the emotions of 9 out of 10 Stormtroopers

It’s a hard feeling to quantify. Force Awakens was a beautifully crafted film that brought buckets of heart, wit, fun and passion to a franchise that long since seemed to have lost all of those things. I honestly struggled to articulate what it was about that film that didn’t work for me. But now, almost a year later, in the wake of Cursed Child and in the lead up to Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts I think I’ve figured it out. The big issue with the continuation of a franchise at all costs is that it robs great stories of their endings. And stories need endings. 

At film school we got bludgeoned over and over again with the concept of a ‘controlling idea’, in essence the central theme that powers your story. Basically put, it’s the point of everything we’ve watched. And no part of any film is more important than an ending, because an ending makes your point. An ending is the full stop that gives meaning to the sentence and a good ending can elevate an okay film into a classic. Conversely an otherwise great film can be let down by a weak ending. The endings of Return of the Jedi and Deathly Hallows were both predictable and maybe a little cheesy, but they were effective because they told us what story we’d been watching all along. They made it clear that these were sagas of good triumphing over evil, stories that came to an end when that central purpose was achieved. After everything they had endured Han, Luke and Leia, like Harry, Ron and Hermione, got to live happily ever after. They earned their peace and it made for endings that were satisfying even if they were easy to foresee. By the same token Breaking Bad perhaps weakened the Shakespearean tragedy of its story in an ending that seemed to imply that Walt was more or less a hero all along. See how that muddied everything that went before?

Now let’s consider The Force Awakens. Can you ever again be satisfied by the ending of Return of the Jedi knowing that our heroes failed? Knowing that in merely thirty years’ time the Empire returns more or less exactly the same as they were and not only did Luke Skywalker, the ostensible hero of the saga neglect to stop this but he actually left. After everything, Luke and Han ran away. Were these the heroes we spent three films rooting for?
An argument can be made that they are flawed humans and could not deal with the turn to evil of a family member, but that doesn’t change the fact that it ruins the ending of Jedi. It takes away the point of the original Star Wars trilogy because there no longer is one. Sure, Luke redeemed his father and defeated Palpatine, but the broader victory no longer means anything. Nothing really changed. There’s still an Empire and there’s still a Rebellion, even if the names are different. 

Likewise will you ever be able to read/watch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows again without wondering at what point Voldemort and Bellatrix had sex? Will the tender if cheesy epilogue have any potency knowing that Albus Severus goes off to just be a massive jerk? Is the ending of that play really the ending you want the saga to have? If not, you needn’t worry; The Cursed Child opens up the potential for a whole world of new stories. The problem is that that very potential weakens what came before. You can ignore Cursed Child all you like, but Harry Potter will forever have that unnecessary addendum and you can bet there will be more to come. 

Harry Potter and the Awkward Prostate Exam

Harry Potter and the Awkward Prostate Exam

Now let me clarify something; this is not an attack on the idea of an expanded universe. Films like Rogue One or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them might be symptomatic of the inability to let a certain franchise go, but crucially they are also entirely different stories that are neither essential nor strongly related to the main thrust of the franchise. As far as we know Rogue One will not include the Skywalkers (give or take a Vader cameo) and we won’t learn new damaging things about the central Harry Potter saga in Fantastic Beasts. They’re spin-offs and as such not part of the problem. 

Whatever your thoughts on the film in question, it’s also less of an issue in the case of something like Indiana Jones, as those films don’t form a large ongoing saga, but instead a series of standalone adventures that don’t really have a whole lot to do with each other outside of a couple of recurring characters. You don’t need to know what happened in Temple of Doom to understand Last Crusade. No, this issue of no endings is one unique to big, sprawling sagas in which multiple instalments form chapters in a larger story. A story that, like any story, needs an ending to have any meaning. 

In 2005 I remember saying to my Dad ‘I can’t believe there won’t be any more Star Wars films’. I legitimately and naively believed that Revenge of the Sith was the ending. And I’m far from the only one. All the hype around that film was to do with it being the last chapter, our last visit to that world. And sure, Clone Wars came along a few years later but that very much fell into the realm of a spinoff, an addition to the story that was enriching but not necessary to your understanding of the saga as a whole. To me though, at the time, it seemed obvious that this was the end. There were no huge dangling plot threads or unanswered questions. There was a world to be explored, certainly, but the main story was over. Now it’s not and once again we as an audience will be waiting for a conclusion that will only last until episodes 10, 11 and 12 are announced. 

Look, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the very idea of an ending is old fashioned. Robert Kirkman famously said that his thinking behind the Walking Dead was to tell a story that would never really end. Many soap operas are built on the same central concept. And maybe in a post MCU world we’ve reached a point where franchises can continue indefinitely. Maybe all of that is okay and requires an adjustment in thinking. 

Except in the case of Harry Potter and Star Wars their endings were famously intended as endings by their creators. We were led to believe they would be. But now they’re not. And as every single possible franchise continues to be dug up and resurrected (please let me make Jaws: Legacy) it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic about the simpler days when an ending was just that. An ending.

Posted on October 9, 2016 .