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Sunday, September 11, 2011

What I learned about writing from Bad Movie Day

One of my writing/drinking buddies – yes, it's funny how those go together – hosted a Bad Movie Day at his house yesterday. Apparently his wife was out of town on a girls' camping trip, so she couldn't object. Even better, he home brews, so there was plenty of alcohol to help us cope with the visual and logical carnage that ensued.

Although the festivities started at noon-ish, Hubby and I didn't arrive until later, so we only had the pleasure (if you can call it that) of watching the last four selections. Here they are, with the IMDB descriptive blurbs and links should you care to read more about them yourselves:

Chupacabra Terror (2005): When cryptozoologist Dr. Peña traps the legendary Chupacabra on a remote Caribbean island, he smuggles it aboard a cruise ship with disastrous results.

Creepers (1993; original title Contagion .7): People from a small town are attacked by evil radioactive tree roots growing in the forest.

Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 (2000): After enslavement & near extermination by an alien race in the year 3000, humanity begins to fight back.

Birdemic: Shock and Horror (2008): A platoon of eagle & vultures attack the residence of a small town. Many people died. It's not known what caused the flying menace to attack. Two people managed to fight back, but will they survive Birdemic?

Movies start as ideas that are turned into screenplays by writers and made visual by producers, actors, and directors. Not surprisingly, the same things that make for a bad story or novel can also happen to movies, but at many different layers. So what makes a bad movie?

1. A single-dimensional hero with ill-defined motivation:

It's not surprising that many of the films that made it into the bad movie day queue are horror films because they tap into the most basic of human motivations: survival. The problem is that a hero needs internal motivation and conflict beyond that to be interesting to an audience.

Apparently Battlefield Earth got universally panned for many reasons, but the biggest problem I had with the movie was that I didn't care about the hero. Sure, he was gutsy and smart and somewhat good looking, but I just couldn't identify with him because he lacked internal conflict. Even his name, Johnny Goodboy Tyler, warns there's not much to him.

2. A single-dimensional villain with ill-defined motivation:

Okay, when you're dealing with murderous mythical creatures, tree roots, and birds, you can't really ask too much, especially when tree roots with their sassy whipping sounds are the best actors in the film. I actually liked the villains in Battlefield Earth better than the heroes because although John Travolta's acting wasn't great, his character Terl had some dimension to him.

With the other films, I wanted to know why these things were attacking people. In Chupacabra Terror, all we know about the creature is that its name means "goat sucker" because it feeds off the blood of goats. Okay, is it hungry? If so, it should've been sated after about two people because it's not that big. Is it pissed or scared that it's been trapped and taken out of its natural habitat? That would've been something that the cryptozoologist could have enlightened us about. In Birdemic, all we get to know are that the birds, which have somehow become explosive (and angry!), have started attacking people, and it just might have something to do with global warming.

Okay, so it's probably a stretch to think too much about radioactive tree roots, but if an author or screenwriter is going to use a device like that, they need to establish both the why and how. Sure, the roots had turned "carnivorous," but we were left wondering how, aside from asphyxiation, the tree roots were killing people. It's mentioned that they've turned into "predators," but how do they suck the nutrients from their victims? That would have made for some more interesting information and added a dimension of scariness.

3. Bad editing:

The best example of this was just about everything in Birdemic: Shock and Terror. You know something's wrong when the whole room is chanting, "Cut! Cut!" at the screen. The lesson for writers is to know or get feedback on what information is extraneous and cut it out. Stephen King in On Writing recommends cutting ten percent of your word count. Birdemic director James Nguyen should have cut about forty.

Another problem is transitions. After watching the Powerpoint-type curtain fade-ins in Battlefield Earth, not to mention the awkward tilted camera angles, we were all seasick. I once attended a talk by Alan Gratz, author of Samurai Shortstop, at the Harriette Austin Writers Conference. He suggested smoothing out transitions by ending one chapter with an image and bringing it back in a different way at the beginning of the next. Perhaps he should consult on films.

4. The preaching – make it stop!

I'm not going to say much on this one. I edited a translation of a book once that had a long, preachy section at the end that the author would not cut out. You have to trust your viewers – and readers – to know what the moral of the film or story is without beating them over the head with it.

I was told several times yesterday that I was thinking too hard about what I was watching, but as a writer, I just couldn't help it. One of my Twitter friends reminded me at the Decatur Book Festival that we learn as much if not more from reading bad fiction than good. These movies were so bad they were good for some laughs, both at them and the audience comments. Sometimes it's good to be reminded about what not to do and to do so in good company.

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