SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: The Director who Understands Character

Each Saturday, Jason spotlights one person, product, service, or work of art he finds particularly amazing; the kinds of things that make you wonder, “Why doesn’t everyone have this?” (Read more at www. jasonrpeters.com.)

I’m not sure what they teach in film school. Judging by most of the dregs that make it screenward, not much. One wonders how an industry ripe with possibility can yield more garbage than industries which deal directly with garbage.

I suspect they teach a lot about camera angles. And integrating sound effects. And working with visual arts teams. And securing funding.

But not so much about story.

Take Science Fiction, for example. There are pillars of brilliant storytelling in the history of Science Fiction. Frank Herbert. Asimov. Heinlein. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. These individuals have created stories which form almost a canon for future storytellers, but more impressively, offer great insight into human behavior.But if you flip on the SciFi channel (or “Syfy” as it has egregiously re-branded itself), you won’t find these greats.

Instead, you will find Attack of the Giant Bees. Attack of the Mutant Spiders. Invasion of the Hot Babes From Other Planets. Oh, sure, “syfy” plays its share of Quantum Leap, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and a few blockbusters, but an annoying percentage of time is devoted to trashy monster movies with little premise and less plot.

This is not unique to Science Fiction. Turn on Oxygen or WE and you will find ten crappy romance flicks for every decent one.

The reason for this is that most directors copy the TRENDS of other directors without UNDERSTANDING what actually made a particular movie successful. What made a movie really come to life — every time — was the characters. This is why James Cameron’s Aliens was so amazing — you could feel the bond between Ripley and Newt and Hicks, and you wanted them to win. So when Dan O’Bannon and David Fincher decided to kill off everybody but the star even before the opening credits of Alien 3, fans were turned off. And non-fans never built the connection with Alien 3’s cast that they had with the prior two movies. O’Bannon tried to copy the premise of the first two films without understanding why they were so successful.

The most obvious evidence of this copy-catting can be seen in the plethora of epic fantasy titles which immediately followed Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson picked Lord of the Rings because it was a timeless story which already stood on its own. Fantasy fans exulted because of the previous dearth of good fantasy movies — poor writing or low budgets or both plagued almost everything we’ve ever seen in theaters. Lord of the Rings was the holy grail of big screen entertainment for fantasy. At long last, an epic movie we could tell our friends about!

The trilogy debuted with Fellowship to resounding success in 2001, and Return of the King hit theaters in 2003. What followed?

2002 – The Count of Monte Cristo, Reign of Fire

2003 – Pirates of the Carribean, Underworld, The Last Samurai, Timeline

2004 – Troy, King Arthur, Van Helsing, Hellboy

2005 – Kingdom of Heaven, The Brothers Grimm, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

2006 – 300, Apocalypto, Eragon

2007 – Stardust, Beowulf,

Woah…suddenly epic fantasy is cool. How’d that happen?

Hollywood wanted to mimic the success achieved by Lord of the Rings, but flung out blindly for any big budget epic fantasy that might work. Some true artistry (thankfully) shines through, but the bulk of these are as memorable describing a fairy tale to a friend.

It seems surprisingly rare for a director to understand what brings a movie to life. Which is why today’s spotlight falls on Christopher Nolan, whom I first discovered with the movie Memento.

Memento was a film with a gimmick. Gimmicks by themselves do not work. But Nolan put the gimmick to work in a brilliant way. He developed a character for whom you felt sympathy, suffering from severe short term memory loss. To force you to relate more closely to this character, and experience each moment through his eyes, Nolan presented the film backwards. So in each scene (just like the protagonist) you don’t know what just happened. You DO know what will happen in the protagonist’s future, and this allows you to piece together the overall story.

You might know Nolan better as the writer and director of both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, both of which breathed Oscar-worthy new light into a franchise I’d never liked — but under Nolan’s guidance has become one of my favorites. These dealt directly with character motives in a way previous batman films never bothered.

Nolan’s most recent film was Inception, which I sadly have not yet seen, but is getting amazing reviews. That is to say, I have no idea what the so-called “critics” think, but wise individuals who I trust have ranked it very highly.

Thank you, Chris Nolan, for understanding that PLOT and CHARACTER as the necessary ingredients for a successful film; not big budget special effects chasing after the latest “market trends”. When you add cool ideas, now you have a film which broadens the mind long after it is done entertaining the eyes.


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