I seem to recall having started a series on the Hitman script and having promised to explore 3 more story elements, some talk about characters, and praise for Skip Woods.
So let’s wrap it up.
Okay, the first article covered:
FORMAT & GRAMMAR
The second article dived into two story elements:
1 – FLASHBACK STRUCTURE
2 – A DRAMATIC POINT BEHIND THE HITS
And now, there are three more elements I’d like to explore:
3 – CONSPIRACY PLOTS
4 – BUILDING A MYTHOLOGY
5 – DEFYING THE CRITICS
The last one will include some praise for Skip.
3 – CONSPIRACY PLOTS
Without getting bogged down in more details about the plot of Hitman, let me just summarize. I’m not terribly fond of films in which we have the protagonist getting repeatedly chased by a faceless enemy (as part of some government conspiracy) whose leader will not be revealed until the very end. I’d much rather see and experience the antagonist throughout the film, be entertained and/or intrigued by that character, marvel at how well constructed he/she is, talk about the wonderful performance of the actor, etc, as opposed to waiting until the very end to learn who is the true antagonist. That kind of writing is too easy. It’s a one-time thrill, and more often than not, it’s a waste of acting talent, too, which can leave audiences feeling robbed of a great performance. It’s much more fun (and hard work) to define the antagonist early and scare audiences through character as opposed to revealing in the end that the bad guy is just some high-ranking government official with a face job. Nothing trumps characters. And in great action films, the action is just another way of making a statement about the hero.
4 – BUILDING A MYTHOLOGY
Okay, we know that Agent 47 “is a genetically-engineered, elite assassin,” and the trailer tells us he was “bred from the world’s deadliest criminals” and “raised by an exiled brotherhood of the church.” Uh huh. Well, obviously, the filmmakers are endeavoring to create some kind of mythology behind this character to make him bigger-than-life and hopefully launch a successful franchise. This springs the inevitable question:
What does it mean to build a mythology?
We’re reminded by James Bonnet that the old classic mythologies were never created overnight from the imaginative minds of writers like Homer, Sophocles, or Aesop. Those stories were oral traditions passed down over hundreds of years long before these guys put pen to paper and added their own poetic stamp. Case in point – the Trojan War probably began as a true event and in its endless retelling it evolved into this extraordinary tale involving gods, supernatural wonders, and thrilling heroics. And these stories became so beloved that they live on today as classic myths (or legends).
The word mythology means “an exposition of myths.” It’s defined as “a body of myths, as that of a particular people or that relating to a particular person,” or a “collection of myths.” The Oxford English Dictionary goes even further to make a distinction between stories that include supernatural elements and stories that take on a mythology of their own due to their extreme popularity:
1a. A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces or creatures , which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon, citing the Westminster Review of 1830 as the first English attestation.
1b. As a mass noun: such stories collectively or as a genre. (1840)
2a. A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief. (1849)
2b. A person or thing held in awe or generally referred to with near reverential admiration on the basis of popularly repeated stories (whether real or fictitious). (1853)
2c. A popular conception of a person or thing which exaggerates or idealizes the truth. (1928)
Okay, let’s talk about myth. If you’re total obsessive writer-addict like me and you’ll actually take the time to study the word myth, unfortunately, you’ll probably get just as confused I did because myth is frequently used interchangeably with legend or fairytales. They all seem to be different shades of grey, different sides to the same general literary box. If push comes to shove, you could probably make distinctions this way:
myths - sacred stories concerning the distant past, particularly the creation of the world, and generally focussed on the gods or other supernatural elements.
legends - stories about the (usually more recent) past, which generally include, or are based on, some historical events and a real individual but the story’s exaggerated.
folktales/fairytales - stories whose tellers acknowledge them to be fictitious, and which lack any definite historical setting. They often include animal characters. I don’t know why.
Hitman doesn’t fall into any of those 3 categories, but the key here is that if the franchise (or any story you create) becomes extremely popular in the public mind, it will fall under the OED definition of 2a, 2b, and 2c, that is, “a person or thing held in awe or generally referred to with near reverential admiration on the basis of popularly repeated stories.” Only THEN will people speak of the mythology of your bigger-than-life characters and stories. For example:
A) There was mythology behind The Godfather - The Succession Myth, which “chronicles the passage of power from generation to generation. A typical ancient example is the Theogony of Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer: Ouranos, the Sky God, was castrated by his son Kronos; Kronos, in turn, was overthrown by his youngest son Zeus, who became king of the gods. This story, with its Oedipal associations, describes the basic facts of family descent and competition.”
B) Ebert spoke of mythology in Goodfellas: “What finally got to me after seeing this film - what makes it a great film - is that I understood Henry Hill's feelings. Just as his wife Karen grew so completely absorbed by the Mafia inner life that its values became her own, so did the film weave a seductive spell. It is almost possible to think, sometimes, of the characters as really being good fellows. Their camaraderie is so strong, their loyalty so unquestioned. But the laughter is strained and forced at times, and sometimes it's an effort to enjoy the party, and eventually, the whole mythology comes crashing down, and then the guilt - the real guilt, the guilt a Catholic like Scorsese understands intimately - is not that they did sinful things, but that they want to do them again.”
C) Of James Bond, Ebert wrote in his Diamonds Are Forever review: “The cultists like the early James Bond movies best, but I dunno. They may have been more tightly directed films, but they didn't understand the Bond mythos as fully as Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever. We see different movies for different reasons, and Diamonds Are Forever is great at doing the things we see a James Bond movie for.” Even if your story flops, that does not mean it didn’t have any mythology. It just won’t be generally accepted as mythology unless it becomes extremely popular in the public mind.
So… if you’re trying to create a popular franchise or story, how do you carefully construct the mythology (before the public catches on)?
Here are 3 considerations:
1) Comparative Mythology – take a page from Joseph Campbell whose contention was that the myths of almost every society are fundamentally similar retellings of a few archetypal stories and see what other elements you can add to your story. In fact, Ted Friedman, in an article called Star Wars and the Dialectics of Myth illustrated how Lucas followed point-by-point Campbell’s model from his book, Hero Has a Thousand Faces. This isn’t just comparing other films of the same genre, it’s the incorporation of other elements and structures from literature, history, culture, and religions. Mario Puzo had constructed the script for Superman: The Movie as a mythologic story based on a Greek tragedy, a structure that naturally lends itself to comparisons and deep mythology. While he denied it then (due to death threats), Richard Donner freely admits now that the beginning of Superman wasn’t simply about the birth of Superman. This was God sending His Son to earth and they did it with such class with Brando saying, “You will travel far, my little Kal-El, but I will never leave you. Even in the face of my death the richness of my life shall be yours. All that I have learned, everything I feel, all of this and more I have bequeathed to you my son. You shall carry me inside you all your days. You will make my strength your own, see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father the father becomes the son…” They were willing to make some parallels to Jesus to add to the mystique of his mythology but they weren’t about to go overboard with those analogies either. Finally, I should mention that Thomas Bulfinch's extensive mythology books, Age of Chivalry, Age of Fable, and Legends of Charlemagne, are available online for free thanks to Project Gutenberg.
2) Character Depth – One can’t design popularity. However, I think your characters must have depth to ensure a sustained public interest over the long haul. There has to be different sides to your protagonist, yet definable overall characteristics (even perhaps the archetypes of mythical constructs), while also possessing strengths and weaknesses, inner conflicts, and dare I say – charisma? Consider our Character Development Sheets. When you’re writing a franchise-starter, I think that more important than plot is character. The public has to connect to your character, first and foremost, and be willing to spend time with him/her again and again. And here, I question their attempts at mythology. To take the route that Agent 47 is almost super-human and bred from the world’s deadliest criminals takes a huge risk of putting him at an even greater emotional distance from the audience. How are they going to connect to that? Why not have him an orphan or that he lost his family to the world’s worst criminals? At least this way, we’d feel something about him along the lines of sympathy that might make us care. There’s also something to be said about nurturing a little mystery in your protagonist, too, and not explaining every single thing about that person. I’ll throw in another page from Donner’s Superman playbook - he had a huge sign hung in his production office while filming that said “verisimilitude,” which is the state or quality of something that exhibits the appearance of truth or reality.
3) The Mysterious Third Element – Pamela Jaye Smith wrote about considering the Mythic Themes, Mythic Statements, Mythic Psychology, and Mythic Symbols and Imagery in your stories. And there is, of course, that spiritual element. My friend Jennifer van Sijll, author of Cinematic Storytelling, shared with me an article she wrote called Nature as Mythic Storyteller. It’s great. She shows how the active participation of nature in the plot lends a story to mythic qualities. Here’s one example: “In Jane Campion’s film, The Piano, the protagonist lets the ocean itself decide her fate. Ada (Holly Hunter) steps into a loop of rope she knows will hurl her into the ocean. When the ocean throws her back up, Ada accepts nature’s decision that she must live. Ada simply assumes that nature is active in the world and that it is more knowing than she. She now has its blessing.”
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers
By Christopher Vogler
Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them
By Hans Beidermann
By Jennifer van Sijll
5 – DEFYING THE CRITICS
Now we come full circle back to what we wrote first wrote about the brutal lynching Skip received from the critics over his last produced script, Swordfish. You may recall how the Los Angeles Times said, “Whatever interest the film creates is squandered via the smug, showy amorality that runs through it.” Rolling Stones - “the sleazy script by Skip Woods… slimes the actors.”
Skip, I don’t know if you’ll ever read this, but what are you doing, buddy? How does it help you to delve into even more twisted scenarios with this penthouse party and the naked women hanging from the ceiling by chains and being whipped unconscious? Are you kidding me? Did you think that was really necessary to show us how Udre is a psychopath? Did you think that couldn’t be accomplished through his character? Do you want to be publicly lynched all over again? Do you want the industry to think that you’re just a one-note writer?
The fact is, I really like you, Skip. I think you could be so great, I really do, but you have to truly endeavor to master the craft through so many factors like characters, subtext, exposition, visual storytelling, show don’t tell (cut all the endless talk), and just generally write, study, and review stories - endlessly. Hollywood is so insulated and so full of self-deception, I fear that people steered you the wrong way. You can’t ignore what the critics said. If they’re all saying the same thing, they must right, and that’s okay. You just have to pursue a mastery of craft and pointedly defy the critics and the industry with your next script. Mix up your game and show something different and better and prove to the world that you are more of a writer than they say you are.