I’m in a Clash of the Titans state of mind. And I’d like to write reviews of the new scripts, the one by Travis Beacham, and the revision by Larry Kasdan. (All you studio boys, don’t fret. I won’t give away important plot points. Not that the world isn’t already familiar with the story, but here we’ll focus mainly on the craft of screenwriting.)
Now we cannot leap into remake territory without first discussing the original film. For you Netflix members, Clash can be seen instantly on your PC. (SO much fun!) I’m going to skip the overall plot of the film, as I’m sure most of my readers are already familiar with the story. It’s also available here. Plus, Mike Martinez wrote a blow-by-blow commentary of the film, which was quite a bit of fun. The script was written by Mr. Beverley Cross who was also known for writing Jason and the Argonauts, The Long Ships, Genghis Khan, and some uncredited work on Lawrence of Arabia. I don’t believe the Clash script is available online. But you’ll love this - Beverley was married to the always fabulous Maggie Smith for over 20 years from 1975 until his death in 1998. She’s also in the film, if you recall, playing the role of Thetis, mother of the deformed, devil-looking Calibos.
You remember Calibos, right?
This is what he actually looked like:
He was played by Neil McCarthy from Dr. Who. He died only four years after Clash’s release. Unfortunate, really. He was great.
Of course, the big star of the film was not Lawrence Olivier nor Maggie Smith nor Harry Hamlin, but rather, Ray Harryhausen, the grand-daddy of stop motion technology. Clash ultimately represented the last stand of his glorious, yet dying art form. There’s a new collection of Harryhausen classics on Blu Ray, and Ray himself (who is still very much alive and recently turned 88) was interviewed earlier this month.
They asked him, “Do you feel that even with special effects technology as advanced as it is today that stop motion can have a quality to it that has kept it alive, like your work, and the original Kong as I previously mentioned?” Ray replied, “Nothing has changed in the last 70 years except the sophistication of the technology. The real question one must always ask is: Does the film work as entertainment or not? If it doesn't work, all the expensive technology in the world won't make any difference.” Amen, brother! Preach it! Hehehe…
For those out there who love Clash of the Titans, I have a question for you. What is it that makes that film (and story) work for you?
I’ll offer three of my own:
1) You have the hero’s arc in Perseus, which was, frankly, a cheating shortcut version of a hero’s arc. How could he fail? He had Zeus watching his back! As if Zeus is going to let anything bad happen to his own son! Plus, Zeus gives him a helmet, a sword, and a shield, right? Perseus lost his helmet in the swamp fighting Calibos; he lost his shield in his battle with Medusa; and then he just clumsily left his sword in the carcass of Calibos when he killed him after dealing with those really big scorpions. What kind of irresponsible oaf is this? Hehehe…
2) It’s also a romantic adventure story, which still has its charms even today. You have the hero going to any lengths to fight for his true love. You have a heroine under a curse, wanting to be with her true love; her life is at stake and time is running out. A classic formula. Stakes don’t get much higher for a protagonist. You have obstacles to these goals in the form of cool, yet scary, Greek mythological creatures.
3) This is the kind of story that Ebert would say “has the courage of its convictions.” It can be scary to make a film like this because it can so easily dip into camp and before you know it, you have a bad film on your hands. But, thanks to Beverley Cross’ sure hand with the screenplay, this film knows what it is, has the courage to be true to itself, and to play it straight in order to make the audience really believe in it and go along with the story. The dialogue is smart enough so that audiences can sense that the filmmakers weren't completely thoughtless about the plot just so they could show a bunch of monsters. The words are carefully constructed, payoffs are given their proper setups, and thus, audiences are persuaded to buy into this story. The actors are emotionally committed to even the most preposterous of situations. And it’s not presented with an air of self-importance, either. It’s a perfectly innocent tale presented competently and economically and entertainingly and it’s content to do so and be nothing more. It takes courage to do that with this kind of material.
I watched Clash again last weekend, and I was impressed by the economical way Cross told this story. He doesn’t take 16 steps to get from Point A to Point B when you only need to 2 steps. The opening scene is filled with drama and explains the birth of Perseus. You have soldiers marching a coffin to a beach. A man by the name of Acrisius, who is the King of Argos, angrily denounces his own daughter for giving birth to a son out of wedlock and has her (complete with crying infant) sealed up in a coffin and bitterly thrown out into the crashing waves. Exposition has been fed to us through drama.
A white bird watches the proceedings and flies up to the court of Olympus where we learn that Zeus is the boy’s father and that Acrisius, despite his undying loyalty to Zeus, is going to get his ass kicked for what he’s done. Not only that, all of Argos will go down with him. More exposition through drama. Thus, the Kraken (actually stolen from Norse mythology) is released and wrecks havoc on a large scale to the thrill of audiences, because this is what they paid to see. But it also serves a purpose. The Kraken is unforgettably established, because he will be the big beastie Perseus must face in Act Three. This is screenwriting 101: the setup and payoff. You have to show us the Kraken in action early in the story so that we may fear him when he returns in the Third Act. Plus, this is great economical storytelling. All of this information – the origin of Perseus, the establishment of all the gods and Zeus and his judgment upon Argos, as well as the fearful destructive power of the Kraken, was all accomplished in 10 minutes.
That’s 10 pages of your script, because, generally speaking, one page of your screenplay should equal one minute of screen time.
Compare that to Travis Beacham’s script who began his story with at least 5 pages FILLED WITH VOICE OVER TO EXPLAIN THE BIRTH OF PERSEUS. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? HAVE YOUR LOST BLOODY MIND? FUCKING VOICE OVERS? ARE YOU THAT INEPT A STORYTELLER? IN CLASH, IT TOOK LESS THAN A MINUTE TO ESTABLISH HIS BIRTH.
Sorry, sorry... I’ll talk about Beacham’s script in my next article.
On the subject of economical storytelling, a very dear friend who shall remain anonymous is reading scripts for a notable contest, and I asked her, “what are common mistakes in all these scripts you're reading?”
I have to "read" a minimum 250 scripts. That sounds like a lot, but I'd say 60-70% of what I've looked at it is so far off the mark that I read the first 10 pages, last 5 pages and reject them. Like 20 misspellings on page one, dialogue that lasts 1-2 pages (!!), grammar so poor it hurts to read... Of the other 30-40%, written by writers who actually took the time to learn screenplay format somewhat and have control of basic English, I'm seeing a lot of the following:
-- Good dialogue, good pacing in the action description, but no story or uninteresting story
-- Great story/premise, but dialogue so wooden it hurts
-- Just plain bizarre
Very few have an interesting premise AND strong dialogue skills AND a grip on pacing. If the writer has a coherent story and can write dialogue, then it's pacing that makes or breaks the script. I've never been so conscious of the rate at which information is revealed before. I think it's an area I'm weak in, so it's a good lesson for me. I watched Tootsie again last week and am amazed how the first act works so economically. In one frame, Michael Dorsey is saying to his agent, "You're saying no one will work with me?" And then in the next frame, he's dressed as Tootsie on a NYC street. The audience didn't need to see him shop for clothes, find a wig, get dressed, etc. We see him walking down the street dressed as a matronly woman and do the math. (We know from the opening scenes that he's good with props and costumes, we know there's an opening on a soap opera for a woman, etc.) My tendency as a writer would be to show all of the in between steps. So now I'm thinking about my own scripts in this light.
See what I mean? Economical storytelling. Pacing. Great dialogue. Plus, a writer ought to know how to write, and a screenplay ought to look like a damn screenplay. Okay-okay, back to Clash.
All right, I have to point this out. Once Argos is wiped off the fictional planet, we return to Olympus where Poseidon explains to Zeus that the woman’s coffin washed ashore in Seriphos, and the woman, Danae and Perseus, have been greeted by the Seriphosian locals and assimilated into their culture. Zeus is pleased. He looks over to his cabinet, and thus begins the most bizarre transition in cinema history.
Can someone explain this to me? We’re first shown the little statuette of Danae breast-feeding her infant:
Then we’re given the real woman:
Then we see them walking together naked on a beach:
And then we cut to a grown Perseus falling back onto a boulder as if he just had an orgasm. What the hell is that about? Was there some kind of incestuous thing going on that I don’t know?
According to Wikipedia, “Mother and child washed ashore on the island of Seriphos, where they were taken in by the fisherman Dictys, who raised the boy to manhood. The brother of Dictys was Polydectes, the king of the island. After some time, Polydectes fell in love with Danaë and desired to remove Perseus from the island…”
I’m still surprised this was handed a PG rating. Because we’re also shown a nude Andromeda before she’s sacrificed to the Kraken:
Can you believe that?
So let’s get down to business with Medusa. Let’s watch the sequence in which he kills her and consider if or how this scene works:
Everything is on the line with this scene. He must get her head or his true love will become fishbait for the Kraken. Tension is heightened by handicapping Perseus in a way that makes the audience wonder how he will make it through this scene and that is, they can't look at Medusa. Tension is also heightened by all the talk about her before we get into this room. We’re told repeatedly how dangerous she is, about the head of snakes, about the eyes that turn men to stone, and about the acid for blood. (I think it was a surprise to learn that she’s also damn good with a bow and arrow, which is great.) Remember what George Bernard Shaw said about great characters? “You must be very careful how you introduce your characters. The star plan is to talk about them before they appear so as to make the audience curious to see them, and sufficiently informed about them to save them the trouble of explaining their circumstance.” Exactly!
When the men enter and we’re given a view of the room, it seems that there’s only one way out, so you get the feeling that they’re kind of trapped. That claustrophobia adds to the tension. If we can see an easy out from this room, you won’t feel much tension, right? Tension is heightened again by showing the stone men who have tried and failed to conquer Medusa in this room. Of course, you have to also cut to the looks of fear on the faces of Perseus and his soldiers.
And then you bring on Medusa.
But you don’t simply reveal her. You make us hear her first and give us her shadow first and show us the tail first and you kill off a soldier first before revealing the whole monster. You have to savor the opportunity for a great introduction. It’s simply good foreplay.
Then you kill off the last soldier and bring on the action.
And you heighten the tension as much as you can and drag out this moment of suspense for as long as possible before the climax. (Then, relax and have a cigarette afterwards. Hehehe…)
Consider that this scene is not really about showing Medusa. This one little sequence, which took 8 minutes and would translate into roughly 8 pages of your script, was devoted entirely to the art of tension and suspense. That’s what this scene’s all about. Since the filmmakers treated the suspense competently here, Ray’s creation is that much more exciting and bigger than life and beloved. This is what’s really missing today, the careful loving devotion to suspense.
What are your thoughts?