#3- “It’s like Die Hard in a Petting Zoo”- Premises, Housing, and why Movie 43 Won’t Be Worth Your Money
Welcome to Chekhov’s Gunman, a film and television blog from Kevin Lanigan, a past, present, and future writer of scripts, books, and angry letters to the editor about how The Dark Knight Rises totally deserved 10 stars and how they should just totally go watch Atonement or something.
You cannot build without a solid foundation. Without concrete, you may have no house. Without a crust, there is no pizza. Without Captain America, all the Avengers would do is sit around having radioactive pissing contests. If you are writing, creating, examining, saying, expressing, or doing anything you need a firm rock to anchor yourself to, or you’re just going to be standing on top of a soap box and waving your megaphone impotently in the wind.
A solid premise is like an adequate preschool. It creates a wonderful sandbox for the characters and plot to unfold naturally. Because of Die Hard’s solid premise, John McClane swinging on a fire hose through a window was far, far superior to your typical, shallow, empty fire hose swinging.
Everything should come from character. Aristotle may beg to differ but Aristotle is known primarily for being fundamentally wrong about most things. The characters move the story and make the choices that dictate the narrative. But they need something to play with. If there is not a great one sentence description setting up the situation, characters moving the plot just seem like a bunch of wacky people making out on the Titanic: fun, may win a few Oscars, but ultimately futile, pointless, cold, and dead.
Executives, writers, and directors know this and that’s why when you see a premise for a scene or a really strong concept, you see it replicated about 4000 times by varying degrees of actor cashing varying degrees of paycheck. I’m very honestly surprised that we haven’t seen more zero gravity fight scenes after Inception blew the world’s collective minds. I thought it was coming when the third Transformers movie had “moon” in the title. It actually might have. I never saw the movie, due to rumors that the robots still played fifth string to boring people.
Premise-whoring is why we have the affectionately-named “Die Hard on a…” series, where all sorts of working men are trapped in all kinds of single locations by classically trained actors paying their mortgage. Speed is “Die Hard on a bus.” Speed 2 is “Die Hard on a boat.” And Live Free or Die Hard is “Die Hard on a cocaine binge for the ages.”
Premise-whoring is fine, so long as it doesn’t get out of hand. A few shows stealing The Office’s format is fine. Parks and Recreation exceeds The Office in many ways. But if another one of these shows with mysterious, ethereal cameramen pops up on the airwaves, I fear the entire television community may rear back and rebel, much like they did while trying to remake Friends for the last ten some-odd years.
These age lines most obviously show in romantic comedies. After the 400th reiteration of When Harry Met Sally, but This Time She’s Super Quirky and He’s Totally Deep and Stuff, we get absolutely sick of it. There are absolutely great romantic comedies, and we are ripping them off like ticks after a sexy camping trip.
Remember, kids, sexy camping leads to ticks and bad romantic comedies.
Some people decide to take premise-whoring in a totally different, polyamorous direction. Sometimes you can tell that a project is trying to multitask and be two different things at once. At first, it seemed like Homeland was going to be the TV version of a psychological thriller and then we realized that it was going to be a combination of that and a teenage driving instructional video (my Homeland fans know what I’m talking about). And here’s the thing… everyone hates the driving half. It would more accurately be called the 90210 half, but that just seems equally as bad and also off the topic. We need that half to keep everything grounded and to make us truly care about a man who is essentially a terrorist, but when those storylines become anything other than character depth building for Brody they suck. They suck because terrorism is going to happen and Americans are going to die and everything is on the line and instead we’re watching scenes of mother-daughter fights and crippled army veterans solving mysteries…. Yep. That happened.
When it comes to concepts, you need to pick a direction and stick to it. No division. Abe Lincoln said, “A house divided cannot stand.” He was talking about something totally different, but I think it works here, too. Genre-bending can be fun, like combining sci-fi and horror to make Alien or combining sci-fi and bad old-age make-up to make Prometheus. But the best advice I can give you on premises, especially in TV, is to keep it simple. Most great TV shows have a simple one line description you can go back to. Mad Men is “The inner workings of an ad agency in the 1960s.” Done. Breaking Bad. “High school science teacher gets diagnosed with cancer and starts making meth to care for his family.” Boom. Last Resort. “Lost but boring and also really boring.” And that last one brings me to paragraph eleven.
If I can hear the pitch of your show while I’m watching it, that’s probably not a good thing. Like the last few fall seasons where half the shows were “Mad Men but on an airplane.” It’s the Die Hard problem all over again. Hide your concept, so that I’m not watching “Spaced meets Friends,” I’m watching Community. The best way to hide your concept is to either do something totally new with those Mad Men on that aeroplane, or make me so entertained that I’m not thinking about it. I harp on this a lot, but that’s because it’s so damn true. Whatever your concept, focus on your characters and just tell great stories. Die Hard did it. Mad Men does it. Since those are the things we’re ripping off, we might as well learn from them something more than “Machine guns are cool” and “Sexism!” respectively.
The biggest mistake we can make in picking a concept is the “Pick a theme” method. You should not sit down and say “I want to write something about how slavery is bad” or “I shall tell the story of the downfall of capitalism in society and the abject failure of we as human beings” because your writing is going to fall flat. I’m going to say this once, and hopefully have to say it exactly zero times more: “Character, character, character, character, character, character, character, character, character.” The setting, the theme, the plot… All are in service of character. If your piece becomes about how slavery is bad, then great, but you better have the characters there to back it up, yo. If your characters are offensive, then your movie can be offensive and it can still work (You go, Judd Apatow), but the reason every subsequent American Pie movie smells of sun-dried butt is because they said, “We need to be offensivier with this one!”
And that is exactly why Movie 43 is going to smell of sun-dried butt. From the very first trailer, I have heard the Farrellys’ exact pitch in my head: “It’s a bunch of sketches and they’re all super-offensive.” And then they hired a ton of people and told them to write the most offensive thing that they could think of, and that is absolutely going to get old after the first sketch. If you write something and it happens to be offensive because that’s what you think is funny, then that’s what it is, but don’t try and be offensive.
That’s the difference between David Wain and Adventuretime. David Wain, the person behind Children’s Hospital, Wet Hot American Summer, and Wanderlust– the best straight-up comedy in all of 2012, always ends up writing something weird and bizarre, but you can tell that that is just his sense of humor and he’s not placating to the “weird niche.” If the project didn’t require wacky humor, he wouldn’t have it in there. The opposite of that is why Adventuretime has never truly grabbed me. I think it’s fine, and can be hilarious from time to time, but half the time I can tell they’re just being weird because they know “We’re the weird show, so we have to be super weird this week.”
I suppose Kevin’s lesson this week is, when it comes to premise, travel lightly and travel well. Build yourself a sandbox to play in, and fill it with interesting children who love messing with each other. Build yourself a platform to stand on and run free, kiddies, run free.
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