It's summertime, and that means I've been slacking off on the blog lately. Summer means a couple things in San Francisco: barbecues, swimming pools, oh wait. Summer means a couple things in San Francisco: fog, the smoke of distant forest fires, and the painful, self-loathing early stages of a new script. We're still looking at an ugly duckling this morning, but no doubt it'll turn into a beautiful swan later this afternoon. Summertime means crappy movies -- big, obvious Hollywood fare that makes you feel used as the multiplex spits you back out onto the street. And my partner has devoted all three Netflix films to the execrable work of French director Catherine Breillat. Sadistic, poorly written, egotistical stuff, if you ask me.
So naturally I was looking for a mindless little kids' movie, preferably in primary colors, to cheer myself up. Wall-E fit the bill. Right? Something simple. Rehashed. Safe. I mean we've all seen this plot a million times: a trash compacting robot still functioning 700 years after humans have abandoned a decimated Earth falls in love with a probe, finds a living plant, and pulls humanity's head out of its collectively obese ass. Not again! Ah, Pixar!
I want you to put your screenwriting cap on for a second and think about that. How easy would it be to make this script a complete and utter disaster? Forget about Wall-E for a moment, and ask yourself how YOU would approach the idea. And remember, it's for kids. Now try it with a main character that can't speak. On a barren landscape that looks like Wall-Mart exploded, with no one to communicate with except a cockroach for the first half of the movie. For the second half of the movie, we'll move the action to a giant space ship that looks like a multiplex, and attack consumerist culture for destroying the earth. And remember your prime directive -- entertain those kids!
Now take your hat off, and bow to the writer-director, Andrew Stanton. He's had his hand in most Pixar successes, from Finding Nemo to Monster's Inc. to Toy Story and Toy Story 2. He's a pretty smart guy.
How does he do it? How does this story not fall apart, drift into unbearable longing for the end of time, leave the kids wailing uncontrollably five minutes into the film?
Very, very careful application of some very clear rules of screenwriting. That's how. There are very few things that are 'proven' about writing. And half of them are in screenwriting. Take advantage of them. And don't tell the novelists!
You can map out the beats of the three-act structure with a remarkable degree of accuracy with this film. Wall-E meets the unachievable girl of his dreams right on time. She's a 42nd generation iPod, and she fires a death ray at him. Take that, Pretty Woman. Wanna lock your characters into the second act: she shuts down and awaits transport when he gives her the living plant. Want a big frying-pan-into-the-fire midpoint? Holding onto the OUTSIDE of a shuttle in outer space, he finds himself on the space cruiser that houses what's left of humanity. Want to see how all is lost at the end of the second act? Want to learn how to speed up the action as you approach the climax? Yep. It's all there.
Think about character. Wall-E can't really say much beyond an approximation fo his own name and his girlfriend's. But his misbehavior is incredibly clear. He's a roving trash collector. He collects. His problem? He's lonely. How does Stanton communicate that? Well, he's alone on a toxic earth. Sounds like a problem to me.
I could go on, but I won't. I usually grimace my way through a couple blockbusters a year, trying to allow myself to be somewhat surprised by the almost mathematically predictable story. Wall-E gave me hope. It fits the algorithm. But it *exploits* the algorithm, rather than playing safe slave to it. And guess what:
The movie actually has deep meaning.
And guess what:
There wasn't one unruly kid in that audience. No questions for mom. Total, rapt attention. The kids knew what was going on. And they listened.