Monday, December 05, 2016


I was reading the current copy of WRITTEN BY (the WGA’s monthly magazine) and something caught my attention. It was an article about Erin Cressida Wilson, the screenwriter of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN.

One of the film’s producers was discussing the evolution of the book becoming a movie. There was studio interest even before the novel was released. Now I suspect this was the author of the article speaking, not a quote from the producer.  But in talking about Dreamworks snatching up the project this was the explanation:

Like everyone else in Hollywood at the time, the studio was seeking the next GONE GIRL, another female-driven mystery told by an unreliable narrator.

Wow. Talk about reducing art to formula.

And that, friends and neighbors, is how Hollywood thinks. Reducing someone's narrative to a silly logline. Another female-driven mystery told by an unreliable narrator.

Really? THAT’S what you got out of it?

Let’s see a movie tonight. What are you in the mood for, honey?” 
 “I dunno. Something with an unreliable female narrator.” 
 “You’re in luck!”

And as they say, “Imitation is the sincerest form of Hollywood.”

The end result, in the case of THE GIRL ON A TRAIN, was a movie you’ve already seen thirty times. It wants to be BASIC INSTINCT, it wants to be BODY HEAT, it sure wants to be GONE GIRL.  It's none of them. 

I hadn’t read the book but halfway through the movie I completely figured out the mystery. What I didn’t figure was how utterly absurd the climax would be.

Emily Blunt, a wonderful actress, basically plays one-note the entire film. The rest of the cast was... in the movie. The story was disjointed, bouncing around in time, but that was a choice to stay true to the book. Every ten minutes I was questioning another logic point. It was one of those movies where characters did things because the writer needed them to, not because they organically decided to. The pace was slow and the erotic scenes felt programmed.

Hollywood needs to make movies based on original ideas and great stories regardless of whether it’s male or female driven, and whether the narrator is unreliable or not.


Peter said...

I enjoyed the movie regardless of its lapses in plausibility. The most egregious cliche was a character getting into someone's apartment and waiting for them to arrive to interrogate them. Even though the character is asked how he got into the apartment, the question is never answered. This happens way too much in movies. In reality, people would insist on an explanation before any further conversation takes place. And who does that anyway?!

I took in two movies yesterday which I strongly recommend you to see, Ken. The Edge of Seventeen is a delightful comedy drama I think you'd enjoy and Arrival is a beautifully made sci-fi that is clever, moving and at times incredibly emotional.

cleek said...

that's pretty much how i felt about the book.

you're going to do _what_?

DBA said...

I read the book (a while ago) and saw the movie closer to when it came out. My take at the time was that the movie kept the playing with time, but for all the wrong reasons. It somehow sucked all the suspense out of everything. I'm not saying it's some brilliant genius book, but reading it did make me think "good popcorn movie". The movie managed to cut out details (because of course it has to or the film would be 8 hours long) but the stuff it left in vs out were such that rather than leaving in the details you needed in order to be coherent and keep the story going, it left in the details that made whodunnit tremendously obvious. One of the things I appreciated about the book was, even though my first impulse was correct, there were moments throughout the book that genuinely made me think I was wrong and briefly suspect all the major possible suspects at one point or another. The movie did a terrible job with the "it could have been any of them" factor, and frankly, that was the only thing that made it interesting.

Aaron Sheckley said...

Why would they want to make movies with original ideas? They're making all the money there is just by sticking with tried and true formulas like superhero movies. Hollywood is a business, moreso now than ever in it's history. All the studios are owned by mega-corporations whose goal is to sell a product that gives them an acceptable profit. The public seems to line up to throw their money at whatever superhero movie is being churned out, so why would a studio follow a different path? Especially when the potential is there to make a billion dollars with another Avengers movie? Look at every movie made between, say, 1965 and 1977 (when Star Wars came along and changed the whole concept of how movies are made and marketed), and were considered classics; how many do you think could even be made now? Would any corporate owned studio greenlight The Godfather, or Norma Rae, or the China Syndrome, knowing that they could never sell it overseas? Or knowing that a movie that supported unions would never be approved by the board of directors of Sony?

Studios make billions making movies for a consumer than doesn't demand anything better than they're getting. Why on earth would they change that business model?

Jim Grey said...

My wife and I walked out of this movie right about the time the blonde girl stuck her hand in her underwear while she was in her therapist's office.

So many f'd up people in this flick, doing stupefyingly unhealthy things. I couldn't identify with anyone in this flick and I couldn't see sticking around to see them shooting themselves in the feet any longer.

Eric J said...

"Hollywood needs to make movies based on original ideas..."

Not sure this has happened in the last millenium in any venue. Obviously, there must have been some original ideas along the way or there would be nothing to copy. But for the most part writers, including the very best, explore the same ideas over and over again. Writers bring a new perspective on once original ideas. That's not a bad thing at all.

[Enjoyed Gone Girl, the book. I have no plans for The Girl on the Train]

Peter said...

I don't think it's entirely true that Hollywood only make superhero movies and formulaic product. One of the best films in the last decade, Birdman, was original and made no concessions to commercial imperatives. Hollywood has always been a business but sometimes you get a Birdman or an LA Confidential or a Heat that rank among the best of cinema.

blinky said...

Speaking of bad story telling, did you see the last Westworld? The story was so convoluted that Anthony Hopkins had to explain it in a voice over and I still don't know what the hell was going on. Side note: Obviously Hopkins only signed up for one season or maybe an Obi-Wan type return in future seasons.

Johnny Walker said...

I know of another book with a similar bent that was optioned before being published, too. Maestra, if anyone's interested.

It's crazy how Hollywood falls into the same trap again and again. "Hey look at that new surprising and different thing that everyone's raving about because it's so surprising and different! Let's copy it!"

Aaron Sheckley said...

Hi Peter,

The operative word is "sometimes".

When studios commit huge resources to 200 million dollar movies, always looking for the Next Big Franchise, there is very little left over to take any sort of chances on movies that don't fit into those comfortable niches like superhero, or rom-com, or idiot Adam Sandler movies. When even a smaller movie like Birdman costs 18 million dollars to make (and it has to make three times that for it to be considered profitable), studios and their corporate owners don't want the risk of something new. Even when it's a success, like Birdman was, studios have no idea why it was a success, and try to distill its success down to a formula (like "female-driven mystery told by an unreliable narrator"). Then they can't figure out why the next few attempts at making films using that formula bomb spectacularly.

Artists take risks. Businessmen hate risk, unless the risk can be justified by the potential profit. They're two fundamentally opposed forces. Before the studios were corporatized, you'd still find studio mavericks that, while also being businessmen, were willing to take risks on something new. Which is why now you're going to see three new Marvel Superhero movies and three new Star Wars movies every year from now until the heat death of the universe, but finding the really special movies, the ones that stay with you like Birdman or Hell or High Water, are going to be like finding the Higgs Boson.

Covarr said...

"It was one of those movies where characters did things because the writer needed them to, not because they organically decided to."

Friday question: If a plot needs something to happen, but the draft shows it to be inorganic, how would you solve that? Move that action over to a characters that fits it better? Create additional circumstances so the action makes more sense? Abandon the plot entirely?

I've read time and time again that this style of writing is a problem, and I've frankly seen it first-hand far too often to disagree, but I rarely see anyone discuss solutions, only the problem itself. I'm curious about your take on this.

Jon B. said...

Some further context. GONE GIRL (the book) was a literary sensation--both commercially and critically. As a result of its extraordinary runaway success, all publishers were looking for another GONE GIRL (the book). Well before GONE GIRL (the movie) even came out, DreamWorks acquired the movie rights to the yet-to-be published THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (the book). Many months later, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (the book) was published and became an immediate #1 bestseller.

None of the above has anything to do with whether THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (the movie) is any good. But there is nothing unusual or misguided about how publishers or Hollywood pursued this material.

MikeN said...

I read it has a blatant anti-Trump liberal bias, though I don't see anything in the trailers to even hint at anything like that. Is this person wrong, or is it something generic like Tower Heist?

Pat Howard said...

I enjoy your reviews man

Aaron Sheckley said...

You don't have to be a liberal to have an blatant anti-Trump bias. My recollection is that a lot of Republicans had an anti-Trump bias too, during the campaign, until Trump became the front runner and those formerly anti-Trump Republicans performed a reversal that they probably shouldn't have been able to survive without a fighter pilot's g-suit. Ted Cruz should be the subject of a medical study as to how a human spine can be replaced by a slinky.

Anonymous said...

I see time and again directing, cinematography, and even CGI that is first rate.

The massive problem these days, the glaring major lack is... the writing.

Technical folks are evolving and improving. Writers, with some exceptions, are not.

So we get to watch really well produced... shit.

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more with Anonymous about really well-produced garbage due to pathetic writing. Peter recommends 2 movies to Ken, both of which I saw, and I think they are examples of the poor writing Anonymous is talking about.

I am submitting this as Anonymous, also, because I am not in the business, and I always feel a little guilty judging the quality of movies when I don't know as much as I perhaps should. I only know that poor dialog and a silly story can ruin a movie for me, even if Meryl Streep has the lead, and yes, I have seen her in some stupid movies.

flurb said...

I'm in agreement with both Anonymouses above. I would add that one of the other recent big tropes in plays and movies, and quite a lot of television, is the widely imitated clever-clogs idea of telling the story out of order. Something dreadful or ridiculous happens, and then comes a card saying "Three Years Earlier"; and then we jump forward and backward willy-nilly, for no dramatic reason. (The newest wrinkle is that we are kept ignorant of the shifts in time for almost the full run of the story.) This method helps to disguise the fact that the storyline is undernourished, or full of motivational holes. It also robs the audience of involvement - we're so busy trying to make intellectual sense of things we can't become emotionally enmeshed in the story. And actors are forced to play scenes dishonestly, because to tell the truth would give away the writer's twists, which are apparently considered the most important point of each exercise.

It would seem that in these latter days, writers (and directors and producers) are regularly mistaking revelation to the audience for drama. Problem is, humans respond to story. Narrative is a natural impulse. We engage in it every night in our dreams, building story around flashes of images. We experience life here on earth in a linear fashion; so writers should be careful about putting sequential experience in the Osterizer. If a story is being told from the point of view of somebody who doesn't know what's going on, and learns the order of things along with (or, like Miss Marple, ahead of) the audience, fine. But if you engage in conning or otherwise messing around with the audience, you don't get to complain when people are left cold by the game.

I'm going to use an episode of ALL IN THE FAMILY which I watched again recently as an example. It's the one in which we are shocked to learn that Edith has found a lump in her breast. But the actual drama - and the considerable amount of comedy - comes in the subsequent reactions of her family and friends, culminating in a devastating embrace from from Archie, a man who cannot express the love he feels beyond a heartfelt "Oh, Edith."

But I can imagine a writer today fracturing such a story, where the secret is kept from the audience as long as possible. We might see Gloria and Mike being concerned, for reasons we don't understand, until the end, when we flash back to her finding the lump; and Archie, perhaps, never learning the secret at all. That might seem different, even a daring use of form; but there's less drama, no heat, and little interaction in it. Scenes are deliberately missing. The characters are not people you understand, but sticks that the writer has moved about. It's form dictating function, not the other way round. At the end of such a story, instead of feeling something that might lead to thinking about your relationship with your own mother or spouse, or how you might yourself deal with such news, you say, "Huh! Clever." And forget about it as soon as it's over.

That's not why I got into the theater business. Leave the games in the billiard room. Show me people dealing with each other. It's rich stuff.

Anonymous said...

A superb commentary on the subject by Flurb. Thanks!

Anonymous #2 (from above)

DARON72 said...

Picking up on what Aaron Sheckley said:

I believe films like "Norma Rae" and "Hell Or High Water" are like kryponite to major studios today because they don't have that built-in overseas earnings potential on top of not being something that can be franchised.
I've heard that "The Edge Of Seventeen" was great but that one has had a hard time finding an wide audience.....a bit strange that this type of film was mostly financed by a Chinese studio. But also hoping that it isn't considered strange much longer if something like it gets made.

Bill Peschel said...

Adding to what Daron72 said, we've seen at least two Chinese produced films -- "Dragon Blade" with John Cusack and another one whose title I've forgotten -- that are out-and-out Chinese propaganda films.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Hollywood has done its share. But it's interesting to see another country's attempt to glorify its past coming ashore here. And, of course, filmmakers can't afford to make China or Russia the villains, lest it hurt their overseas markets (whereas U.S. thriller writers have no problems doing so).