PROCESS: "Why do most SF films suck?" -or- "Why did those stupid mountains in Avatar fly, anyway?"

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

A lot of us wonder why most SF films - and really films in general - are so weak. For those of you not in the know, the way movies usually are born is thusly:

1) someone gets an idea - in the shower, on the can, in a drunken brawl which may or may not involve a public restroom, or, if you're Joss Whedon, in the dorm, with a bong in your hand, watching a Friday The 13th movie, down the hall from a bathroom. The point here is this: Nearly all successful ideas involve bathrooms in some ways. Unless you're George Michael, or my old High School lit teacher, obviously. Yikes!

2) The Pitch - once you've got your idea, you take it to a studio exec or a producer or whatever, and you pitch your idea to them in as compressed a form as possible: "It's Star Wars, but without the magic, and set on earth during Midieval Japan!" or "It's basically Dune, but with K'zin" or "It's Pretty Woman meets Out Of Africa." If "The Player" has taught me anything, it's that if your pitch is at all compelling, Tim Robbins will beat you to death in a parking lot outside a Japanese restaraunt and leave you face down in a puddle of water that you can only hope isn't some bum's urine. This is even more likely today than it was in the early '90s, since Robbins is obviously pretty upset about the whole Susan Sarandon thing.

3) The Treatment - Assuming you survive your encounter with Tim Robbins, you write a Treatment. This is a detailed explanation of the story you want to tell, with characters, explanations, backstory, descriptions of key scenes, pretty much anything you think might be relevant. This is *NOT* a script. It's the thing you show the suits so they can make a decision on whether to cut you a fat check, or just turn the whole thing over to Joe Eszterhas, or simply not make the movie at all.

4) The Script - If the suits like your treatment, they'll give you the go-ahead to write the script, which will be based on your Treatment, plus any notes the suits gave you, based on reading your treatment (Or more likely, having it read to them in between their morning and afternoon callgirls). This will usually be between 90 and 120 pages long, but don't knock yourself out over it, because no matter what you write, they won't like it.

5) The Rewrite - They'll tell you to rewrite your script again and again and again, but you don't actually have to do it becasue they won't read it anyway, they'll just make random comments like "More sex" and "Less Sex or we won't be able to get an actress to do this part!" or "We're uncomfortable with the whole 'Midieval Japan' concept, could you perhaps set it on a big station in space, and make it seem a bit more world-war-two-ish?' or whatever. Ultimately, they're take it away from you and give it to Babaloo Mandell.

6) The Director's Rewrite - The entire "Rewrite" process is fairly immaterial since they're going to ultimately take it away from you and give it to a professional rewriter. But don't get too bent out of shape about it, because you've already been paid, so just save yourself some heartache and cash it and go on to your next project. ("A sexy and erotic history of the Wankle Rotary Engine!") Once a director is assigned, he'll attempt to put his own personal vision all over your now-bastardized story, resulting in further bastardification (Yes, I know that's not a real word, but it's funnier than "Bastardization"). He'll either re-write your script himself, or he'll have one of his cronies do it, so that any resemblance to your original story is only coincidental. But this doesn't matter too much because in

7) Making the movie - the director will feel free to ignore entire swaths of the story and just make up stuff as the spirit moves him, resulting in

8) The ultimate tragic suicide of the writer - generally in a restroom, so as not to make a mess. Writers, being on the bottom of the Hollywood food chain, develop a tendency towards being polite and tidy and not making a fuss. Unless they're Joe Eszterhas. Thus, as you can see, the creative process both begins and ends with indoor plumbing, and that's what separates us from primitive savages like William Shakespear, who crapped in a pot for gosh sakes! It's beautiful in its way, a 'circle of life' thing.

Now, this is what happens if you've got a normal kind of movie - something about cops, or kneejerk opposition to the Iraq war, or a teenage sex comedy, or a World War II Teenage Sex Comedy, or Kevin Smith working out his shame over being from New Jersey, or whatever - this is stuff that everyone has a working knowledge of, just though osmosis. Imagine how difficult this process is when you're dealing with Science Fiction, a genre that most Studio Suits don't know crap about. "Wait, why are they in space again?" "If this planet is just like earth, why not have them just do it on earth?" "I know you say your project is entirely original and not related to any existing franchise, but I'm still confused - is this a Star Wars sequel or a Star Trek sequel?" "You know what would make your loving addaptation of 'The Martian Chronicles' better? If we stuck some Predators and Ridley Scott Aliens in it!" "Can we put a physically demonstrative gay couple in here somewhere? That's trendy now!" "I know you say your story takes place on the moon, Mr. Bowie, but we can't afford to go to the moon to film it" and so on.

What's funny is that this process still happens on some level even if you're an A-list director who's making his own original stories. For instance, has a really good article that explains the substantial differences between James Cameron's original treatment ("Project 880") and the finished film we see now. It is very much well worth taking a look at, and explains a lot about the movie that was neubulous, and points out a few intriguing things that were completely abandoned in the rewriting process.

Give it a look see here