If There’s a Loving God, Why are there Bad Films?
Filmmaker Jon Gilbert told me the other day that a non-filmmaker friend had asked him, “if the hurdles filmmakers have to jump to get a project off the ground are so high, why do so many dreadful movies get made?” Those of us who aim to make movies are tortured by this question on a regular basis. We marvel at how such awful dialogue escapes the writer’s pen and makes it all the way to the actor’s mouth without anyone catching it.We gasp at how anyone could think there would be a good movie in a dumb idea like Pirates of the Caribbean: at World’s End? Most of all, we wonder why newcomers like us spend years painstakingly honing our projects often to meet with rejection when some established filmmakers can get funding to make films that feel as if they were conceived before the first cup of post-hangover coffee. It just isn’t fair, yet it happens all the time! WHY?!
There are many answers.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first: one of the major reasons for the occurrence of sub-prime movies these days is the industry’s addiction to sequels and adaptations. The sad truth is that of the top ten grossing films currently at the box office, only 2 of them are original stories. [I write this in October 2011, but it will probably still be true next month, and this time next year.] The problem with sequels is clear: if the original was enough of a hit to make a second film a viable prospect, it usually means that the guys who made the first movie got all the best meat off the bones of the idea. No surprise, then, that most sequels feel like reheated leftovers. Of course, there have been many great adaptations in movie history, but the truth is that most stories best suit the medium for which they were originally devised. So why are there so many adaptations? Simple – if a story has been proved to work and raise a following in one format, then the producers will find it easier to raise the funding for that story as a film project: it’s a known quantity. The fact that the story might be much better suited to the page, the stage, or the Play Station is something that’s only discovered once the project has hit the screens.
Needless to say a bad film is not necessarily an unsuccessful film: there are many movies that are critically panned but commercially minted. In many cases confidence in the franchise creates such confidence in the project that marketing money is thrown at it until its commercial success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such films may be an artistic car-crash – but if it is a crash on a sufficiently large scale, featuring name actors and props that are worth their weight in gold then the movie’s excess becomes an event in its own right (if you don’t believe me, ask Mark Kermode). So many people go to see it in the first weekend that the film makes its money back regardless of its unsuitability for the screen or any other shortcomings.
Another major problem that all filmmakers face when making movies is the smell of rotten ego. This affects established filmmakers more than newbies; while you’re a nobody, everyone feels at liberty to offer tough love opinions on your work. While occasionally depressing, this is actually good news – they’re helping you make your project better, or at least identify its audience. If, however, you have the cinematic weight and standing of someone like Terrence Mallick, Woody Allen or Mike Leigh, you’ve been through that period of your career and are probably very glad to have come out the other side. You’ve been at this game for 30 years or more. You’ve won an Oscar for Chrissakes! And then some jumped-up little development executive wants to tell you there’s a problem with your script?! You ignore them, and the movie fails to reach its potential. It’s also entirely possible, common even, that such development executives, script editors, and the like can see the key that would unlock the great movie trapped inside the flawed script, a key that would be gratefully received by the grand old man of cinema (and it is usually a man), but they hold back. Sometimes they fear upsetting a powerful personage who could later bad-mouth them, possibly even because they assume that, what with their Oscar and 30 years’ experience, the aged auteur must know what they’re doing… surely?
Bad movies from filmmakers further down the ladder tend to be flawed for other reasons. Train timetables have been blamed for pushing the European heads of state into war almost a 100 years ago, their fear being that they would sacrifice strategic advantage if they didn’t get their troops moving right then. They let the logistics take over and make decisions for them, or so the argument goes. Many feature film producers and directors have failed to learn from the mistakes of Kaiser Wilhelm and his chums. The number of times I’ve seen producers who are very committed to script development, but then discover that James McAvoy has an interest in the project and a short window of availability in January. At this point, all interest in getting the script to work disappears, and it’s ‘coming , ready or not!’. I can absolutely understand why, and can sympathise with any producer who has made this tough call. Sadly it’s true that many more cinema-goers have paid for tickets because of the presence in the film of Brad Pitt, than because the script was by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, even though Frank’s work is much more important in making the movie memorable. In this respect audiences get the movies they deserve.
Once the producer with the flawed script has signed James McAvoy, a pattern of behaviour tends to follow: you might call it perpetual deferment. The decision to sign a star rather than fix the script is the first step: the team persuade themselves that the talent or star quality of the actor will make up for the shortcomings of the story – “of course we’ll believe she’s in love with him – he’s James McAvoy!” When the star fails to sell the underwritten character or distract from the plot holes, everyone starts muttering “we’ll fix it in the edit”. The editor then sweats away trying to make sense out of a story that doesn’t quite make sense and, as I’ve suggested before, no matter how good the editor is, the chances are he or she won’t succeed. Sometimes the editor is even replaced: everyone starts muttering “the new editor will make all the difference”. Most of the time they don’t. That’s when the director tends to say, either “we’ll fix it in the sound mix” or, more often, “the composer will make it work”. Then they discover that the power of a dubbing mixer only extends so far and that, while a composer can layer on emotion with a trowel, they can’t actually force the story to make any more sense. They usually give up at this point. Unless the director is so blindly determined that they believe that the film will be saved by the grader… Specific lessons may be learned about what was wrong with the script, but the broad lesson is rarely recognised. Gather the right cast, the right crew in the right location with the right budget and, most of all, give them the right script to work on, and the chances of the film being a winner are pretty high. All of the decisions about those factors are made before a single camera is set turning. The truth is: all mistakes are made in pre-production.
Of course there’s a much simpler answer to the question of why so many films are bad, an answer that is apparent to any filmmaker with any talent, and the answer that Jon himself gave to his friend – making a good film is surprisingly difficult!
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011
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