Making my list of things that make me smile, I had included the three-hour movie as #12, commenting…
You know what makes that happen…is when all the love-triangles and the clue-finding and the traitor-discovering is all done, and the final battle takes place, a bunch of important characters get killed but when the dust is cleared you find it’s just another clue that leads the survivors off to some other “final battle” that takes place half an hour later. It’s an exhausting thing to the audience and it’s really hard to do it right without boring people. But when it is good, it is very very good.
And I picked on Peter Jackson. As I expound on the above point, I’m gonna pick on him some more. He is probably the worst offender in the production of three-hour movies that do not make me smile. He’s definitely the most talented among the offenders. He makes amazingly high-quality three-hour movies, movies that are entertaining when you watch them.
He is a tragedy, because his movies are good, but tiring, and they don’t have to be. Nor is he alone. In the last few years we’ve had an impressive glut of films that, because they aren’t exciting, have to be limited to two hours…when, by implementing the following rules, the audience’s attention could be held for that long. So here’s what I’ve noticed about long, good movies, and what they do right.
1. Good guys do good things.
This is the number one rule. There is no breaking this rule. Not if you want to hold that much of the audience’s interest for that long.
In the past few years a regrettable sub-genre has risen up: The “I must rob this bank because they’re holding my girlfriend hostage” strain of movie, in which a supposedly heroic central figure is given an exotic motive, and therefore a license, to commit acts of personal injury, property damage, or malfeasance. These are parables designed to educate us that “real life” has all kinds of shades of gray to offer between good and evil. Sort of a “One Man’s Terrorist Is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter” type of thing.
Call it the Swordfish Problem.
Other than the fact that I just plain don’t like it, it has another problem: Moral ambiguity is tiring. The audience needs to make an effortless and clear decision about who they want to win. They lose their motivation for making this decision when, whichever way they go, a good argument can be made that they made the wrong choice. What’s the point then?
The social commentary about real life is not entirely without merit. The problem is, it lays down a requirement on the audience that they are to agree with the dubious moral choices made by the character. The problem is, for sufficient irony to be injected into the process of character development, the character has to be causing real damage. The incentive for the audience to dissent from his decisions, therefore, has to be real.
It therefore becomes unavoidable that the role of hero has to be diminished.
Once one inspects this closely, one has to conclude this has very little to do with authentic, original, compelling storytelling. It has to do with the repeal of the Hays Code of 1930, which was abandoned in the late 1960’s. Among other things, the Hays code specified that natural and man-made law “shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.”
If we re-instate this code, which I think is a great idea, we should agree on the caveats.
Heroes can do bad things in the antecedent action, or in sequences that take place well before the film’s climax. As in, before some kind of moral awakening, at which time he realizes the error of his ways.
Once the movie is in full swing, heroes can engage in bad behavior if it includes a consequence that makes them really sorry. And ideally, it should cost them something.
Now those aside, the heroes can be tempted by the prospect of engaging in bad behavior, so long as they don’t act on it.
Audiences can be sympathetic to the conundrum of moral ambiguity the hero must face; but they must never be made to be sympathetic to the choices he makes that harm innocent people.
2. Bad guys do bad things.
If you want the bad guys to have pangs of conscience, that’s just fine. So long as they do their bad things. People who do good things are not to be treated as bad guys.
That means, the cop chasing the convict wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit — he’s just doing his job. Don’t go making him into a jerk just to appeal to pissy disrespect for authority some in the audience may already have.
To appeal to that disrespect is to stoke it. And it’s unnecessary.
3. The struggle should undergo a metamorphosis.
You can’t spend an eighth of a day watching the same damn guy chasing the same damn thing.
Jason reaches Colchis, and only then learns that a prerequisite to acquiring the Golden Fleece, is to plow the field with the flame-breathing oxen. That is what is needed in a three hour movie. Jason was facing the challenge of reaching Colchis; now he faces the challenge of plowing a field with deadly beasts of burden without being immolated.
Michael Corleone wants to solve the Captain McCluskey problem. Then he has to go into hiding. The protagonist then shifts to Sonny. The goal is to find a way to fight the war with the five families without going broke. Sonny is killed and the protagonist becomes Michael again, at which time the objective becomes victory. The victory is won but it changes Michael forever, and this leads off into the themes that will be pursued in the sequel.
That’s just good storytelling.
3. There has to be a Big-Bad and a Dragon.
The Big-Bad is powerful and probably wealthy. He is a force with which to be reckoned, because he has the wherewithal to make things happen.
The Dragon is a subordinate to the Big-Bad. He reports immediately to him and usually outranks all other people who report to the Big-Bad. He possesses godlike skills.
Nobody, but nobody, is depicted as possessing skills in excess of the Dragon’s. Not until the movie is well into the final act, or second-to-final act. The Dragon is The Bomb.
A rival, who competes with the Dragon, may optionally have comparable skills. Which is to say it’s unknown which of the two of them is better. But the Dragon cannot be defeated until the movie is in the final act. Until then, he can’t even be humiliated.
4. The Big-Bad and the Dragon have to have issues of trust with each other.
Otherwise, you can’t build the characters. It’s like trying to light a fire under boards that are stacked tightly on top of each other — doesn’t work. They have to have different motives and they have to enter into conflict.
This defines, in a round-about way, their value to each other. If the Big-Bad distrusts the Dragon, the Dragon must have exceptional skills, because otherwise, why not hire some muscle that can be relied-upon to act in the Big-Bad’s interests? And the Dragon must have reasons for working for the Big-Bad instead of some other employer who he’d trust. This could be a testament to the awesome proportions of the Big-Bad’s personal wealth. Or, it could indicate that nobody else wants to hire the Dragon, because he’s such a rotten evil guy.
Which says some pretty cool things about the Big-Bad, if he isn’t troubled by such questions of scruple.
Also, conflict — be it conflict in method, or conflict in goals — creates an opportunity to have the two bad guys do some arguing. And that’s fun to set up, and fun to see.
If they’re left so simple that their objectives are identical in every way, they’re boring to watch.
5. There must be a meaningful transfer of knowledge among the good guys.
This is a counterpart to the above. This is why there is a “sage.” A transfer of knowledge allows you to flesh out the character of the good guys, without scrambling their motives into different directions that would raise questions about their “goodnesses.”
6. There has to be a pre-climax climax.
And a climax isn’t a climax unless someone is killed. Example: James Malone is killed by Frank Nitti. He’s able to give a clue to Eliott Ness, which leads to Ness’ arrest of Capone’s bookkeeper at the train station which is a cinematic triumph in every possible way.
Based on the arrest of the bookkeeper, the trial is allowed to continue, leading to an altercation between Ness and Nitti…another pre-climax climax, since Nitti is killed. And then the conflict is resolved and the movie ends, making it a quadruple play (and it isn’t even a 3-hour). One of De Palma’s best pieces of work.
7. There has to be a Tessio.
You have to have a traitor, or a backstabber, or a snitch. For the audience to be on the “outs” of this secret, is optional. But it should never be completely settled who’s good and who’s bad.
The mission should have moral clarity (except for mafia movies); the hero should be well-defined insofar as what he or she is trying to do. Each one of his “allies”…not so much.
8. There must be social commentary but it has to be extraordinarily subtle.
Nothing about left-wing right-wing this-is-right that-is-wrong stuff. Way too preachy.
That such-and-such an act of legislation or enforcement was a knuckleheaded move, should be left up to the audience to discern for themselves. It should be established entirely through cause and effect. In other words, there has to be a requirement for the audience to follow the story, in order to reach a decision about whether this was a good idea or not.
Showcasing a bunch of “sensible” characters jabbering away with snotty derision about what a bad rule this was to make, is the ultimate cop-out. And it makes the audience feel like another hour of waiting has been done, in the space of less than five minutes.
9. The bad guys have to do something reprehensible to show what bad guys they are.
Goodness-and-badness is decided by the bad guys, not by the good guys. That’s because everyone already understands Character X may be a wonderfully good guy, good as good can be, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that just because he wants something done it should be done. If Character Y, on the other hand, is revealed to be a Dirty Rotten Creepy Jerk (DRCJ), then it’s implicitly understood that if Character Y wants something to be done, it’s probably a Bad Thing.
The audience is the decider. Of course, the story only works if the audience decides one certain way — that’s expected and therefore permissible. But it is vital that the deciding — “whoah, man, that is messed up right there” be done by the audience. They can’t get invested in the characters and events if they don’t own this decision; if it’s pre-processed, pre-digested and pre-decided for them by the scriptwriter.
“Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” broke this rule because the “Rebel Alliance” is supposed to be “good” and the “Galactic Empire” is supposed to be “bad”…other than the audience’s desire to agree with this for the sake of moving the story along, there really wasn’t any reason to think such a thing. (The situation was made better because in A New Hope, the Empire sought to control star systems by pointing planet-destroying lasers at them, which seems pretty bad.) Had these been three hour movies, this would have been a real problem.
10. The hero’s resolve must be challenged.
There’s nothing more tedious than watching a guy do something, who seems to understand exactly what steps to check off from the very beginning, especially if he looks like he isn’t even coping with uncertainty about what he’s doing.
Why not just watch one of those instructional videos about charcoal sketching or home repair?
11. There must be a story to tell about the hero’s unique skills.
This activates the tendency, already internal to the audience, to love strength. Once this is working, people naturally feel better about themselves. Because people are also inclined to find appeal in weakness, but when they’re working through this, they aren’t as pleased with themselves. The conflict they feel must be confined with what is about to happen next, not with what they want to have happen.
12. There has to be a love triangle.
Because an action thread can’t be followed for all three hours straight. A love story is needed to cleanse the palette, if for no other reason — although it’s needed to make the audience care more deeply about the characters, as well.
And if you’re going to have a love story, it’s a waste of time for the outcome to be pre-determined.
13. Normal, circle-of-life events have to take place.
Someone’s gotta get married. Someone’s gotta get pregnant and give birth. Someone has to die.
Discovering you had a long-lost identical twin is a good idea, too. For a couple to separate, get divorced, pursue their own lives apart from each other, discover that their destinies are intermingled after all and get married again, is best of all.
14. The hero has to deliver an elixir that transforms the world.
If this is a tragedy, it might be for the worse. Might be. Usually, it improves things.
15. The hero is different in the aftermath of his adventures than from what he was going in.
Even James Bond has this. Which, when you think about it, is quite an achievement given the nature of the franchise.
When the movie is this long, the adventures should write on the hero, just as much as the hero makes an impression on the objects in the adventure.
16. The hero should be abducted.
If not the hero, then someone should be abducted and held in captivity. This helps to deliver to the audience the message that there are some thing that are outside the control of the protagonists.
17. You have to have a “hiding from stormtroopers” scene.
Good guys are surrounded by bad guys, who don’t really know the good guys are there. (They may have gotten into this situation by trying to spy on the bad guys.)
The bad guys may or may not suspect the good guys are there. If the bad guys suspect the good guys are there, there needs to be some resource cost involved in trying to expose them. Otherwise, the bad guys could just go ahead and do it, and it would be pretty silly not to.
If the bad guys don’t at first know the good guys are there, there should be a “breaking twig” to make the bad guys suspect. This is a sound involuntarily made by the good guys, or some other tip-off that the good guys might be where they are.
The “breaking twig” should not constitute concrete proof. If it did this, the bad guys would just keep looking until they found something.
There are only two possible conclusions to the “hiding from stormtroopers” scene: The bad guys should fail to detect the good guys, or they should succeed in doing so. If they succeed, the bad guys can be neutralized before alerting other bad guys, or they can succeed in capturing (or killing) the good guys.
The reverse of this is for bad guys to be confronted by the police, or some other authority figure, and try to conceal the skulduggery in which the bad guys are engaged. Example: In Fargo (which is a mere 93 minutes) there’s an excellent scene in which Steve Buscemi and Pete Stormare try to conceal from a state trooper the fact that they have an abducted woman in the back seat of their car.
The “hiding from stormtroopers” trope is named after a scene in which James Caan’s character in A Bridge Too Far — a real three-hour movie — successfully hides himself, his wounded commander, and his army jeep in the bushes while waiting for Nazi stormtroopers to move on. In the climax of the scene, one of the stormtroopers looks directly at him and, for a few seconds, appears to see him.
18. A “Maguffin” is a pretty damn good idea.
…although not completely necessary.
The term Maguffin was used by Alfred Hitchcock to describe an object, usually tangible, whose pursuit helped define the character traits of the characters. The characters so defined could be heroes or villains, and are usually both. This is the advantage of a singular, tangible Maguffin: Only one party can possess it, therefore if the bad guys have it the good guys don’t, and vice-versa.
19. It’s also a good idea for someone to sacrifice his life for the greater good.
…although that isn’t completely necessary either.
20. The hero should be forced to accept help from someone unexpected.
The help should be vital. There should be no alternative to getting it…and if it isn’t gotten, the hero’s quest must be a certain failure.
The source of this help should be someone conventionally thought to be opposed to the hero’s goals.
It’s much better if the source of this help has an ulterior motive for extending this help.
21. There has to be a spoiler.
This is one of the reasons why Peter Jackson shouldn’t be making three-hour movies. Also, books cannot be adapted into three-hour movies unless there is license taken with the story. When Titanic came out, there was a running joke to the effect of “I’m not going to bother, I already know how it ends”…there is a grain of truth to that.
22. The heroes have to get together and act silly.
This is another “cleanse the palette” rule. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy — if all you see these guys doing is working, even toward different goals, you don’t care about what happens to them that much.
23. The sidekick cannot be annoying.
This is non-negotiable. An annoying sidekick can’t be watched for ten minutes, let alone three hours.
24. The photography and visual effects have to be freakin’ amazing, and so does the music.
Movies you can watch for 180 minutes without being bored, have to be made up of pictures you can watch for five minutes without being bored.
And that means if characters are interacting in an interior, without windows, so that they can’t tell what time of day it is — there should be an excellent explanation as to why. The subject of the frame should not be dead-center (unless it’s a close-up shot of someone’s face while they’re speaking, and sometimes not even then.) An afternoon shot should never be used, if a sunset/twilight shot will do just as well.
There should be mist. Rainbows. Rain. Foliage. Icebergs. If it has to take place out in the desert, there should be light and shadow, with the sun barely peeking past things. And not just cacti and cow skulls, either. Interesting things. Like pyramids.
Update 5/26/08: (Inspired after suffering my nominal disappointment with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)
25. Split Up.
Rule 3 is about separating threads of the story in serial. Up to X many minutes, we’re looking for a doohickey; at that point we find the doohickey, and only then do we realize it is useless without the whatchamacallit. Maybe that’s another object. Maybe it’s a person. Maybe it’s the ability to translate some scribblings on the doohickey. Now we embark on a new quest for the whachamacallit. We are not pursuing any storylines, at all, that have to do with finding the doohickey.
In addition to separating threads of of the story in serial, over the three hours there has to be some effort to separate them in parallel. Luke is tasked to complete his training with Yoda on Dagobah. Han and Leia finally escape the Imperial fleet, and find refuge with Lando on Cloud City. This is very important because if it’s done right, by the time we’ve spent ten minutes or so catching up on Luke’s experiences with this weird green creature on Dagobah, we’re already wondering how things are going with Han and Leia before the script takes us there…and, when we watch them for awhile, we already are curious about Luke’s progress before the script takes us back.
Phantom Menace did this more artfully than most, but it was the most monotonous and unintentionally-comical movie because they waited until the very end. It’s remembered today mostly as a big old bucket of waste, and that’s unfair because what it really is is a tragedy of wasted talent.
Magnolia stands as a good example of how to do this — it’s a three-hour movie and yes, if I had it, it would probably gather dust because I have little desire to see it ever again. But the point of Magnolia was to make a movie relying on this technique and on nothing else…and for that purpose, it worked. The audience, to some extent, is intrigued by all these different stories and wants to learn something about each one. It remains plodding and boring, but that’s the technique involved in the storytelling.
To put it more readably, Magnolia bores you somewhat, but no more than an ordinary two-hour movie would’ve. The time warp worked. It was facilitated by this game of “Who’s Got The Token?” that is an important ingredient to all longer-than-normal movies, to keep them fresh and entertaining.