Friday, June 1, 2007

Day Watch

Day Watch is not a new feature film starring Pamela Sue Anderson. Day Watch is a phantasmagorical action thriller full of witches, devils, vampires, shapeshifters and god knows what else in present-day Moscow. It's Russia's answer to The Matrix.

Day Watch continues the saga started in Night Watch. Basically, the forces of good and evil have held a truce for the last 1000 years, but now evil is looking for a way to break the truce. When a man tries unsuccessfully to abort his son in the womb through black magic, they think they have their chance.

The father becomes a force for The Light, albeit severely morally compromised. His son is growing up to become the most powerful force of evil.

I can only imagine what the screenplay looks like. It's nearly impossible to follow, even if you've seen Night Watch. But you just don't care, because you've never seen anything like it before. I love this movie. I love it as a screenwriter, gaping plot holes and all.

Why? Because unlike most of the dreck that Hollywood puts out in this genre, it's the whole package. It's breathless action mixed with humor and strong characterization and a convincing hero who is more than capable of screwing things up. He gets drunk/poisoned and does karaoke at his son's birthday party when he's supposed to be saving the world. And somehow that makes me want to see him so much more than Bruce Willis and his mild little character flaws.

Let me point to one very minor plot point as an example. The hero, Anton, has to sneak past a security guard watching a soccer game. When his team scores, he jumps up and kisses the team calendar hanging above his desk. As he returns to his seat, we get the briefest glimpse of the calendar. The player who got the kiss is wiping his face.

It's completely unexpected. It's a high tension moment, and suddenly you're laughing. If this was a Bruce Willis story, the tension would be carried by methodically putting together some dumb ass weapon, a low, ominous tone in the soundtrack, and a couple of karate chops. This is a lot more fun.

The Day Watch approach takes advantage of some basic storytelling that a lot of Hollywood has forgotten about. The more beats -- the more contrasting moments -- you can stuff into a scene, the more excited and attentive an audience will be.

What does this small visual joke accomplish for a filmmaker? It rewards the audience for paying attention to the small details. This gives him another avenue for telling his story. For me, this is a large part of why Day Watch is a much fuller, more satisfying experience than, say, Spiderman or Pirates of the Caribbean.

A side note on Day Watch. Yes, it has subtitles. This is why it'll gross $3M tops at the US box office. But the filmmakers did what any good screenwriter should always do. Look at a challenge or a problem, and see how you can turn it around to your own benefit. The director (Timur Bekmambetov) made sure that the subtitles were unlike anything you'd seen before. They appear in blood on a wall, or get pushed into the snow by a truck, or "knock" when there's a knock on the door.

There was also a conscious choice to frame the plot material for an American audience. Russians have a higher tolerance for dialogue in their movies. They have a higher tolerance for ambiguous or ambivalent characters. American audiences don't want things explained to them, they want to see them. So what does a good filmmaker do?

He'll look at his problems (here: subtitles and ambiguous, talky characters), and rethink them as tools. He makes the subtitles themselves a source of entertainment. And when an American audience has all the info they need, he CHANGES THE SUBTITLES. When the Russian is still talking about the plot material, the English subtitle is on to a quick joke or pun. When the Russian dialogue between the dark overlord and the rising evil son character is all about the hierarchy of good and evil, etc., the English subtitles are more focused on introducing the silver ball thing that will play a huge part in the climax (and would be rejected as too quick a device in an American action movie otherwise). Take two problems, put them together, come up with a solution.

Yes, the problems I'm talking about are driven by money. The filmmakers want to cross over to the American market. But they responded creatively to the question, so I have no problem with it.

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