Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Building a Mythology – Hitman (Part 3)


Hey guys,

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.

-MM

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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:

Supernatural:
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)

Popular:
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.”

Books:


The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers
By Christopher Vogler

Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them
By Hans Beidermann

Cinematic Storytelling
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.

-MM

7 comments:

Christian M. Howell said...

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.


Truer words were never spoken. I had two pros read something of mine and the things that changed were the things that both noticed.

I don't know this writer, but I did see SwordFish and some of it was...a little unbelievable.

I too, am a fan of the visual and especially of making the characters drive the story somewhat.

In an action story they should, of course, DO something to reveal, but sometimes dialogue is showing.

A good example is Capone in the Untouchables.

"I want him dead, I want his whole family dead. I want his house burned to the ground. I wanna go there at night and piss on the ashes."

It denotes how violent and egotistical he is without a drop of blood being spilled.

Another great example is in The Devil Wears Prada. Meryl looks coldly over her glasses, not lifting her head.

"And you have no sense of style. That wasn't a question."

This denotes a known level of respect and pride of accomplishment.

With an anti-hero like Agent 47, the first intro should be a "save the cat" kind of thing where he as previously written, feels sympathy for an "unconventional target" like a young woman or a family.

That would actually be a GREAT character to write as you can show the brutality of his work and contrast it with the loneliness of his existence.

The antag would be even better as he can be sadistic, perhaps rewarding failure with a horrible torturous death.

I really hope the part about the women hanging from chains in the ceiling isn't there. Better would be a harem-type scene where he is fed grapes and massaged by nearly naked women while ordering the death of someone.

Now that's not to say I am an authority I have read a lot of good and bad screenplays and the best ones have the most natural dialogue, not too cool, but yet realistic for the situation and character traits.

They also have more clear images, relevant to the topic. A movie like Hitman should be "bright" with dark subject matter. Something like the latest Resident Evil. It mostly happens in the daytime, outdoors.

I think that the word "Myth" does confuse people. It really comes down to "relevant popularity."

That has no time or place, just familiarity. Seeing Agent 47 deal with dramatic emotion as between a man and a woman would go farther than ten shootouts. Throw a clinging kid in and you have a real person, artificially-engineered though he may be.

Joshua said...

Very nice article, spot on.

Laura Deerfield said...

A great example of the creation of a myth is the Rosicrucians - they invented a history, and a man named Christian Rosencrantz.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Rosenkreuz

James said...

Ah, MM, you're always a satisfying read.

As for the topic of creating a mythology ... there are some prime examples of recent original movies that have done just that ...

The Matrix
Pirate of the Carribean

... are two that come immediately to mind.

Granted, I am talking about the singular first installations. The sequels were a mess in both cases, and I'd be willing to bet it had more to do with indulging itself in its own mythos (much like the Star Wars prequels) that lead to the near thoughtless drivel of the sequels.

Sequels aside ...

I think it is very advantageous to look at what both The Matrix and Pirates did in terms of creating a "new" mythology.

A lot of people forget that Luke Skywalker does not start out as a bad ass. In the second film, as far as a protagonist goes, he is merely along for the ride. It isn't until the third movie that the original decisive moment of the first Star Wars (I want to become a Jedi Knight like my father) is paid off when the Emperor tells Luke he can be, by replacing his father.

For me, the line that most sums up Luke Skywalker is the whiny screechy, "Uncle Owen, this R2 unit has a bad motivator." The bad delivery of this line is almost comical. But oh does it tell you what kind of whiny girly-boy Luke is.

A lot of modern "mythology" forgets that you need the screechy whiny lines that make your hero look, well, dan near like a spoiled valley girl.

Mystery Man said...

Christian - "That would actually be a GREAT character to write as you can show the brutality of his work and contrast it with the loneliness of his existence." Truer words were never spoken. I completely. 47 would've been great fun to write.

Josh - Thanks, man.

Laura - Dammit. I should consult with you before posting. That was pretty damn cool. Dammit.

James - That's hilarious. That's probably right to some degree, although there's a part of me that just doesn't want to believe it, but yeah, there's some truth to that.

-MM

Francisco said...

People you must remember that 47 has no life, no family, no friends. He doesn't have emotions, or hides them very well. He kills innocents if he has to. He only cares for money. Just play the games, especially blood money to see this.

The only time i have seen him make some kind of emotion is in that very same game when Diana "kind of" frames him and he just yells "bitch!".

From reviewing your post, i have seen that the script is a typical conspiracy. I would have liked to see it go a different route, because agent 47 and the agency are supposed to never be seen. A plot similar, (but different) like in blood money, when the agency organization is being chased by another organization would have been better.

While Olyphant is actually older than Statham, he looks much younger, i would have liked another actor, like this bald guy from Lost (though he would have had to lose weight a little), but after seeing the full length trailer, i think he *may* do a good job.

I just hope the script incorporates most of the game elements - fiber wires, syringes, silverballers, accidents, disguises and such.

Mystery Man said...

Hey Francisco - Re: "...you must remember that 47 has no life, no family, no friends. He doesn't have emotions, or hides them very well. He kills innocents if he has to. He only cares for money." That may be tru but he sure as hell needs to be unbelievably charismatic/intriguing/entertaining if people are going to pay to watch him. I'm not sure if what you described would be the best approach for a protagonist of a franchise-starter, because that sounds very flat and weak to me. There's got to be something more to him that'll hook people. Otherwise, he'll be viewed as a cold, selfish bastard and who cares what happens to him, ya know? I wanted a reason to care, and I never really found it. I've been proven wrong before. I didn't care much for Jack Sparrow as he was written before Pirates came out and I was completely blown away by what Depp did with that character.

-MM