Thursday, October 23, 2008

“Clash of the Titans,” Part 1

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.


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?”

She wrote:

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?


Anonymous said...

Isn't it interesting that you bring up two seemingly different areas of screenwriting: economical storytelling and suspense? Thinking about it, they look to be complete opposites. Suspense is about wringing every single bit of emotion from a scene, whereas economical storytelling is about getting in and out as fast as possible.

But they are really two sides of the same coin, arent they?

Mystery Man said...

Yeah, sort of. You gotta read an article I wrote, my final thoughts on Kubrick's Napoleon. I discovered this brilliant quote from a woman by the name of Maya Deren who made a distinction between drama that’s “horizontal” and “vertical,” and by that she means that the narrative is “horizontal” and the lyric is “vertical.” The reason people go see movies are for those verticals moments that are found within every genre. Here, that vertical moment is suspense. Thus, you need to be economical about getting to those vertical moments that everyone paid to see. It's just a brilliant concept, and I live by this principle, truly.

Thanks for the comment.


Anonymous said...

Slightly off-topic, but the man's name is "Ray Harryhausen", not "Harry Hausen." That's like calling the author of this blog "Miss Treeman" -- hey, does this give us a clue as to HER real identity?

Joshua James said...

I love this movie, I've seen it many times.

Compare it to something far lesser (I'm thinking Krull or Beastmaster) and one really appreciates it.

The information is revealed very professionally. A hero has a destiny as a son of a god. He's given an impossible test with a frightful antagnonist and friends help him along the way.

There's much to like, even though looking at it now it seems cheesy, with the acting and the effects. I agree with you, the script is solid.

Re: the statues . . . represents the toys mankind is to the gods . . . we are their toys, and that's how that's communicated. That's always been my take. Thus, a cut from one of their toys to the real thing let's us know whose toy is who, and where they're at. But that's how Greeks viewed man, as toys for the gods.

Cool post, man.

Another well writ and under-appreciated (for it's script) film is CONAN THE BARBARIAN, I think.

Mickey Lee said...


The only one who wrote "Harry Hausen" is you. Go back and look.

Great post, MM. I'm a huge "Clash" fan, very disappointed that they are remaking this...

Mystery Man said...

Anon - Bwaah ha ha! My sincerest apologies. It's been fixed! This is what happens when MM drinks and types. Hehehe... Thanks for the correction!

Josh - Mike Martinez pointed out quite a few mistakes in Clash, and you know, you love the story so much you don't care. But I never noticed the mistake with the scorpions. Three giant scorpions enlarge and attack our Perseus and his men, right? We only see them kill two. What happened to the third? Hehehe... Also - Andromeda was also kind of shallow. She dumped Calibos simply because he was ugly. I laughed.

Mickey - my sincere apologies to you! I must've fixed the article before you read it! I'm okay with a remake so long as they have the courage of their conviction to tell the CLASH story, and they don't. I'm really going to rip Beacham in my article. What rancid shit. It represents everything that's wrong about studios and contemporary thinking about storytelling. It's awful.


David Alan said...

"Very few have an interesting premise AND strong dialogue skills AND a grip on pacing."

The plain truth, ninety percent of the material Studios and prodcos are smothered in shouldn't be written at all in any medium.

Okay, that was a cheap shot.


But you see, man, this is why Studios and prodcos should only accept a logline and a phone number. Here is a basic paradigm:

(Title) is a (genre) about (protagonist) who must (objective) or else (dire thing will happen if protagonist fails).

You can add the antagonist and maybe hint at the character arc.

In short, with a logline giving a situation and not a summary of a story, readers all over town can see what scripts contain a story that would make a decent feature film -- or if they’re derivative, dull, stupid, or weird.

On the Clash...

And, lastly, Clash is an awesome fucking movie. That, also, has everything to do with me not wanting to see a remake. When they become better storytellers, and prove they understand the material -- THEN try to create a remake. Until that time, go to another project and ruin it.

So...maybe, if we’re lucky, they will just re-master it like Lucas did with the "Original Three" and we can get past this remake shit.

That’s it, that’s all.

Oh, if you go through all of this and I find the "re-imagining" is not even original or sucks, I will come to your place and slap you. Well, maybe not, but I'll think about it.

-- David Alan

Also, people weren’t such prudes. That’s why it received a PG rating.

Neil said...

As I am finishing up my current script, I am finding that scenes, errata, and things I generally (previously) liked, are going to get the axe in the name of pacing.

One of my favorite movies to use as an example of perfect pacing, is "Army of Darkness." AOD, to me, is a perfectly paced movie. The entire movie never stops moving forward. When I viewed one of the many "director's cuts" of AOD the first thing that popped up in my head, was "Those were cool scenes, but it would have slowed down the movie."

Lately, I have been watching movies at twice the normal speed, thanks to the volume speed adjuster on my computer, and I am utterly amazed at how many movies have the characters walking, driving, or generally going NOWHERE.

As for wooden dialogue, I think it's because most writers today have absolutely no imagination. NONE. The characters have to find their own voice in the writer's head in order for them to sound real and not wooden, or robotic.

" 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"

I have read a lot of screenplays where the action has no purpose, and I have to say that a lot of those screenplays have been current blockbusters.

The Dark Knight succeeded because all of it's action scenes had purpose. Joker does something bad, and Batman has to try and stop it. There are no superfluous action scenes in TDK.

Indiana Jones' Crystal Skull picture failed as a movie because almost all of it's action scenes had no purpose. The college campus car chase scene, the jungle chase scene, the end of the movie, all lacked purpose.

I think the biggest problem I am seeing in mostly all movies released recently, is the complete absence of story AND characters. Hardly anyone is creating memorable stories or characters anymore.

It seems that every movie now is made as disposable entertainment; here for the here and now, and maybe once more, and then that's it.

If Hollywood is to survive, it's going to have to realize that people watch movies for the characters and story first and the special effects second.

Anonymous said...

I'll buy a vowel and grab the issue of pacing.

I've become increasingly aware of this. It's one of THE big learning curves from prose. You simply don't need a total join-the-dots treatment in SP writing. And dialogue writing is very different also. Hitting the key word at the end of the dialogue has been another learning point for me.

Anonymous said...

purpletrex said:

"I think the biggest problem I am seeing in mostly all movies released recently, is the complete absence of story AND characters. Hardly anyone is creating memorable stories or characters anymore."

I particularly agree about story. I suspect this has arisen from an unfortunate application of TV 'moments' into film and an assumption that multiple quick grabs linked together will, of themselves, convey story.

They don't.

I like to watch a film and leave it for several months and then consider what I recall. Only incredible individual scenes? The nature of the arc? The theme linked to character portrayal?

Sometimes I can only vividly remember one scene. Many films are actually quite forgettable when all is said and done.

Anonymous said...

Regarding that query about 'orgasm', I don't recall the film in adequate detail but I suspect that moment is symbolic of 're-birth'. When the pair are placed into that box, it IS a prison but also has the potential of being seen as a womb, floating on the sea - a seed waiting for rescue or germination - water keeping that fertility sense alive.

There are a number of symbolic connections to floating structures and the potential of new life. Noah's Ark would be THE exemplar.

The birth is the wash up on shore. For Perseus this was his 'coming into manhood' - the right of passage. An interplay also of male/female energies and moving from a soul journey back into a physical one.

I think the 'orgasm' was meant to represent all these issues. An orgasm, after all, is that petit mort through changed state back into life.

Anonymous said...

Yours the most intelligently clinical review of what what frankly, was a mediocre film. That it's being remade using fairly unknown talent is a whole other issue...

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i3lh4m said...

Thanks for good article...I love this movie

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