Gold (2016) [Screenwriter At The Movies]

screenwriter Phil Parker Matthew McConaughey Gold

Before I left for the cinema, I checked Rotten Tomatoes. They had this movie rated at 41% critics/ 51% fans. Normally, that’s a pretty good sign to avoid a film, but I’m a fan of some of those reality TV shows about gold mining, and of Matthew McConaughey, so I ignored them all and went anyway.

Despite McConaughey’s fantastic performance, the ratings turned out to be mostly right. As a screenwriter, I’m glad I still went, though. I always say we can learn as much, if not more, from films that aren’t perfect than from those that are. ‘Gold’ reinforced for me a very important lesson: heroes that don’t learn anything leave an audience unfulfilled.

First, a quick summary of the movie (skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid these spoilers):

The hero in Gold, Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) has inherited his family’s mining company, only to run it into the ground (pun intended). In a last ditch effort to save it, he teams up with a discredited gold prospector, Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) to hunt for gold in the jungles of Indonesia. When they strike it rich, the company goes public and they all make a fortune. It’s peaches and cream for Kenny and his loving wife Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) until the inevitable lure of women and money creates a rift between the money hungry husband and the salt-of-the-earth wife. But Kenny seems to get on just fine without her, until his biggest competitor convinces Indonesia’s president to nationalise Kenny’s company. Penniless, Kenny returns to his ex-wife only to discover she’s dating someone else. Bummer. In another screenwriter Phil Parkerdesperate effort to save his company, Kenny and Michael agree to give Indonesia’s president’s son 85%. Everyone’s happy! That is until it’s discovered Acosta faked the gold results. There is no gold! The company fails, Acosta goes missing and Kenny is left with nothing again. Poor Kenny goes back to his ex-wife, AGAIN, tail between his legs, hoping for consolation. What he gets is a check in the mail from the AWOL Acosta for $84 million. Role credits.

First of all, kudos to Patrick Massett, John Zinman for even getting the story on the screen. Writing a screenplay is a heck of a lot of work, and out of the thousands that are written every year, very few get made. Forgive me for a little Monday-morning quarterbacking. My goal is to learn and improve as a screenwriter.

Ok, disclaimer out of the way.

screenwriter Phil Parker Matthew McConaughey GoldOn the surface, this ‘inspired by true events’ story is fascinating. I can see why the producers were sold on the idea. It embodies the American dream of the scrappy underdog who works his ass off, and builds a fortune from nothing. He gets knocked down, not once, but twice, and still ends up on his feet. The problem is, Kenny doesn’t come out of the storm having learned a valuable lesson that the audience can take away with them. He doesn’t change; he doesn’t arc — so I don’t care.

Now, not all heroes have to change. Matt Damon in The Martian didn’t change and people loved that. James Bond (traditionally) and most superheroes don’t change during a film and we know how much money those movies make. But this isn’t that kind of a movie.

This guy was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking man who was loved by a sweet wife and just wanted to save his daddy’s company. He gave his loyalty to a man he hardly knew and was betrayed. When he was rich, it was fun and he deserved it, but he went too far and lost the love of his life. These are all the ingredients you need to deliver an emotionally satisfying film – if only they’re properly arced – but they never are.

Had he confessed to the woman he loved that money wasn’t everything (hopefully in a non-cliché way), maybe then he would have deserved his reward. Had he unwaveringly believed in the partner they say betrayed him and NOT given him up to the feds, then maybe he would have screenwriter Phil Parker Matthew McConaughey goldearned that money.

Instead, we have a hero in the beginning of the film that believed in not giving up, but in the end does give up, and yet he gets rewarded anyway.  The money just falls in his lap.

And we’re kinda led to believe that his boomerang relationship with his wife will kick off again into happily ever after.

That’s not the kind of arc audiences want to see.

So my screenwriting lesson from watching ‘Gold’ was this: make sure your hero learns their lesson (unless they’re a tragic hero).

When they do, their reward will feel well deserved.

-Phil Parker


What Assassin’s Creed’s failure teaches us about dramatic tension

Image of Michael Fassbender from Assassin's Creed film

Assassin’s Creed was produced on a budget of US $125 million and released around the world at the end of 2016. Over the last month, the film has only pulled in a meagre U.S. $203 million. As of this posting, the film has scored a critical rating of 17%.

Assassin’s Creed seemed to have everything going for it. Big name producers Frank Marshall and Arnon Milchan. A serious director, Justin Kurzel, at the helm (2015’s Macbeth). Outstanding actors in the lead roles. Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons.

In the trailers, we saw mysterious, hooded figures leaping off 50 storey buildings only to land on their feet. Super cool looking ninja-style fights. The cinematography was flashy, the CGI effects state of the art, the parkour stunts exciting.

Image of fighting from Assassin's Creed

On top of all the heavyweights in front of and behind the camera, the movie was based on a computer game series which already has a legion of fans.

Assassin’s Creed should have been a slam dunk. Instead, it’s been a total flop. If you add up the marketing and distribution costs, Assassin’s Creed is set to lose over U.S. $100 million.

The video game curse

Many have put Assassin’s Creed’s failure on the very fact it was based on a computer game. When you look at the history of computer game movie adaptations, it’s not hard to see why so many speculators have come to this conclusion.

Every game adaptation from Super Mario Bros. through to Street Fighter have been outright box office bombs. Where computer game adaptations have succeeded, the success has been mild (except for the Resident Evil series which has made close to U.S. $1 billion on a total budget of U.S. $250 million for five films).

Image of Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil

Personally, I think video game adaptations could be great — if they were adapted properly. Though I’ve never played the games, I don’t think Assassin’s Creed’s failure has anything to do with a “video game curse.”

Observe the first half-hour of Assassin’s Creed and you’ll see it’s loaded with screenwriting sins. Poor structure, shallow characters, dialogue with zero subtext. Characters without goals or with goals that are unclear to the audience. Scenes that don’t build, scenes that don’t climax.

Yes, it’s terrible screenwriting…but still, this isn’t the core reason why this behemoth tanked.

Assassin’s Creed’s crazy plot

The film’s plot is packed with details that (I assume) only the gaming fans would fully understand.

In the present day, the Abstergo Foundation rescues Callum (Michael Fassbender) from death row. Abstergo wants to find a special device called the “Apple of Eden” which controls all human free will. You know, that old world domination chestnut.

Image of Apple of Eden from Assassin's Creed

The reason they need Callum is because he’s the descendant of a 15th-century warrior, Aguilar. By plugging him into a machine called the Animus, Callum will be able to relive Aguilar’s memories back in the 15th century and help Abstergo find the coveted Apple of Eden.

Convoluted in a science-fictiony way? Yes. Messy? Definitely.

A story concept that folds in…on itself

At first glance, it looks a little like a time travel plot. It looks like Abstergo wants to send Callum back in time to find the Apple of Eden. But put a microscope on the story and you’ll see this isn’t the case.

The story mechanic of the Animus is this — when Callum is plugged in, he experiences the memories of his 15th-century ancestor. He relives the memories of his ancestor Aguilar.

Image of Animus from Assassin's Creed

Callum has no control over events. Actions and outcomes have been decided by “history” because they’re memories! The moment Callum is plugged into the Animus machine, he’s rendered a passenger.  

Callum won’t find the Apple of Eden. He’s just going to relive/watch/experience Aguilar finding it.

Marion Cotillard’s dialogue explains the mechanic openly — 

What you’re about to see, hear and feel are the memories of someone who’s been dead for more than 500 years — you can not change what happens.”

The story mechanic has rendered the protagonist passive

Dramatic tension

In case you’re not sure what “dramatic tension” is, it’s a writers term.

As defined by filmmaker Frank Daniel, dramatic tension is —

“Somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it.”

Audiences pay top dollar to see action adventures on a big screen with surround sound so powerful the floor shakes. They want to feel dramatic tension screwing into them when the hero is losing against the baddies. They want to feel elation when the hero achieves their final goal (usually saving the world).

The thing is, dramatic tension only works when the audience KNOWS the characters on screen have some control over the outcome.

Whether or not it’s Luke flying down the trench and blowing up the Death Star, Michael Corleone wiping out his family’s enemies or Harry winning Sally Albright’s heart, the audience must know that the protagonist has the potential to succeed or fail.

Image of Harry from When Harry Met Sally

Assassin’s Creed’s story concept cancels out its own dramatic tension and renders its hero, Callum, passive.  

This is the primary reason why the film has failed.

In fact, it was never going to succeed. However flashy or cool a movie looks — 

No one in their right mind pays to see a movie where the protagonist is a spectator in their own story!

Final thoughts

I’ve been informed by gamer friends that in the Assassin’s Creed games, the protagonist lays down on a bed to “experience” their ancestors’ memories.

The movie has changed this. Instead of laying down on a bed — 

Image of Animus from Assassin's Creed video game

— Michael Fassbender’s Callum, is picked up by the Animus’ special harness. In the harness, he physically mimes Aguilar’s actions from the past.

Image of Animus from Assassin's Creed

I have a sneaking suspicion the lead creatives knew the Animus may be an issue for the film and changed it, not only to create visual excitement for the big screen but as a strategy to distract the audience from the fact the concept renders the hero passive and the story dramatically tensionless.

The contrivance of the game and the film are the same, but when gamers play, the concept of “reliving” the past is thrown to the wind as they mash their Xbox and Playstation joysticks — to control the outcome of their adventures directly.

Now, if you want to get your mind in a twist, think about how Avatar and X-Men: Days of Future Past worked…and how The Lego Movie almost didn’t work.

Does your story’s concept lend itself to dramatic tension? 

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.


Shaun Of The Dead [So, What’s The Plan?]

I totally love Shaun Of The Dead (2004). It’s not just a great horror spoof; it’s a bloody great movie. And its clarity has much to do with it.

Zombies have long formed their own, important sub-genre in movies. The genre started with White Zombie back in 1932, and it keeps going strong.

Today, it seems that the undead have a higher survival rate at the box office than many other genres. One of my recent favourites was the Korean master piece Train To Busan (2016).

Remove The Head, Destroy The Brain

Zombie pictures rarely cross over into mainstream territory, and this is what made Shaun Of The Dead special. It was produced in the year my son was born, and 12 years later we watched it together. We had a ball. The ultimate father/son bonding movie.

Shaun Of The Dead - Ed an ShaunShaun is a classic that defies pigeonholing, and it transcends style. It satisfies the staunchest fan of the genre, as well as those who have never seen any of Shaun’s zombie predecessors.

Among others, it pays homage to the movies of George A. Romero, easily the most revered zombie writer/director in cinema history.

Apparently Romero was so impressed with Shaun that he asked filmmakers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright to appear for zombie cameos in Land of the Dead (2005), the fourth part in Romero’s Dead series.

How To Make Zombies Go Viral

For reasons other than a recent zombie outbreak, super slacker Shaun is pushed out of his comfort zone. He has to get his girlfriend back, kill his mum’s boyfriend, and make it to the pub alive. Or, as the IMDB logline states in a rare example of clarity:

A man decides to turn his moribund life around by winning back his ex-girlfriend, reconciling his relationship with his mother, and dealing with an entire community that has returned from the dead to eat the living.

It gives us the goals, the circumstances/stakes, and the theme.

When a logline works, it often promises a well-structured, easily-remembered story, and this is exactly what Shaun Of The Dead delivers.

Filmmakers tend to underestimate the value of a simple logline, reflecting a clear structure. They think it makes the film feel predictable, or it dumbs things down. You know why a short, crystal-clear logline is so important?

It makes word of mouth a piece of cake.

After seeing the movie, my 12-year old could summarise the essence of the story in once sentence. That’s how successful movie marketing works.

Don’t get me wrong: you still need to deliver a brilliant movie. But the masses will do the viral campaigning for you.

shaun of the dead - liz and friends

Avoiding Death By Slackers

Shaun impersonates the perfect transformational character, forced to go on a mission that would be impossible for his normal self.

Early in the story, his girlfriend Liz paints the picture of where he is going with his life: “Look, if I don’t do something, I’m gonna end up in that pub every night for the rest of my life like those other sad old fuckers, drinking myself to death wondering what the hell happened.”

Shaun needs to grow up, let go of the friend who enables his immaturity, and settle with Liz… if he doesn’t want to lose her.

In a mythological sense, he will also need to kill his father, so he can enter the realm of masculine adulthood. And all the while, he is metaphorically surrounded by the threat of death by slackers.

The first act runs for about 35 minutes, yet it doesn’t drag. The zombie outbreak gives it tension, and the Wright/Pegg dialogue and editing gives it pace. As a result, the shortish second act feels nice and tight, too.

shaun of the dead - the gang

Shaun Of The Dead – Break Into 2

In the scene/sequence that concludes Act One, Shaun gives us an exact rundown of what he needs to achieve in the movie. It could be a rehearsal for the movie’s pitch, edited in the signature snappy Edgar Wright style.

But before we get to this sequence, Ed calls into the phone: “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!”

The irony is that George A. Romero, who was given a private viewing of the film, was oblivious to the fact that this line was copied literally from his own film Night of the Living Dead (1968). He only found out later after a phone conversation with Wright.

What follows is fabulous storytelling. We first see the events as they should happen, but with each next version, Shaun shows an increasingly flawed response to the various calls to adventure.

On the last shot of the sequence, we know where the story really should not, but might well end: the Winchester.

-Karel Segers