Over at her Risky Biz Blog, the ever-on-top-of-things Anne Thompson has a great write-up on the indulgent spending of Hollywood studios on films like Superman Returns, X Men: 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. Thompson loves the FX, but hates the over-spending on cool effects extravaganzas at the expense of solid execution. If you're really into reading lots of detail on the FX, stuff, though, Thompson also has a really good piece on all the digital effects that went into making Bryan Singer's vision of Superman come to life. Bottom line, though: Thompson bemoans the huge box office returns on these flicks, because they just encourage studios to keep cranking out more of the same-old, same-old.
I have to say, I pretty much agree with Thompson's take. Studio execs and directors, like ersatz chefs who don't understand the way ingredients work together, seem to think that if you add a heaping helping of glitzy effects, you can leave out little things like character development and a compelling plot and still end up with a cohesive result. It's depressing as hell to me that people will flock to the theaters to see the latest $100 million-plus cool-ass FX-buffet, while smaller films with great storylines, interesting characters, and solid direction (The Proposition, for instance) languish in the nether-regions of Indie Hell, barely able to crack into the double-digit millions range, even if they are lucky enough to score distribution. Yeah, yeah, there are crappy indie films out there too -- a lot of them. I hear you. But the good ones -- even the great ones -- have to fight against the incessant noise of the big-studio marketing machines just to have their voices be heard above a raspy whisper.
I wrote yesterday about the pitches novelist Michael Chabon made for Fantastic Four and X-Men. Reading his proposals, the thing that most leaps out is that Chabon's takes would have put a lot more focus on character development and motivation than the final films ended up with. Character development in a multi-million dollar action extravaganza? One can almost picture the studio execs puzzling over Chabon's take on X-Men:
Studio guy #1: So, next we have this pitch by this Chabon guy ... who is he again?
Studio guy #2: I dunno. I think he wrote a book or something. Probably something boring. What's his take on X-Men?
Studio guy #1: Well, he seems pretty obsessive about the X-Men characters being "developed" -- not really sure what he means by that.
Studio guy #2: Uh ... that's what we've got makeup and special effects guys for. All you need to create a character is lots of makeup and fake fur, and some cool-ass CGI FX. This is a comic-book adaptation, we don't need character development. This isn't some shoe-gazer indie flick, for gosh sakes!
Studio guy #1: What a sec ... what's this? He doesn't want to have any villains in the first film?!? WTF? If there aren't villains, how the hell are we supposed to blow stuff up? We can't make a comic book film without blowing lots of stuff up! We have $100 million in the "blowing stuff up" budget!
Studio #2: Yeah. We wanna blow stuff up! Explosions are cool. Heh-heh-heh-heh. This is crap. Pass.
Thankfully, down the road a piece, Chabon did get his hands on Spider-Man 2, enough to get screen story credit, and I can't help but think that the focus on character in that film was largely due to Chabon. My favorite scene in that film is when Spidey has to save that train, and he nearly kills himself doing it and comes unmasked in the process. The realization of the people on the train that this superhero who just saved their lives is just a kid is priceless. It's a pivotal moment when Peter Parker as Spidey grows up and accepts responsibility for who he is. See, you actually can have character development while still making a cool movie with fun action and special effects. It's not that hard.
The thing is, I'm not opposed to the occasional popcorn flick, if it's well-executed. Honest, I'm not. I loved, loved, LOVED Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and not just because it had Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, either. Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio are two of my favorite screenwriters ( I even used to have two Beta fish named after Ted and Terry, who sat on my computer desk and served as my writing muses, when they weren't busy giving each other the stink-eye from their respective bowls), and it pains me right around the pancreas when critics like our own James Rocchi pan their writing, because I know they're capable of doing really fantastic work. (Scott Weinberg had much nicer things to say about the flick; consequently I like him better than James this week, even if James proves to be right.)
With the first Pirates film, Elliot and Rossio took an assignment to write a script based on an amusement park ride, and crafted a movie that was actually fun and engaging. Granted, they lucked out big-time when Johnny Depp took the role of Captain Jack and made it his own, but it was their script that provided the frame on which that character was built.
The second Pirates flick had $60 million more to work with than the first, but overall it's getting smacked around by critics at the moment (not quite as hard as poor Ron Howard for Da Vinci, but still); at the moment it's sitting at a measly 53% on Rotten Tomatoes. The first Pirates flick, by contrast, has a hefty 79% RT rating. Clearly, $60 mill more in cash does not a better film make. And yet, I will still go to see it, because I loved the first film and I just cannot stay away from anything with Johnny Depp in it, no matter how hard I try. But I promise, I'll go see a nice, obscure French flick later to atone, so don't tell Thompson I'm supporting the studios in their never-ending quest to produce crap by giving them my cash to see Pirates. It'll be our little secret, 'kay?