January 5, 2012

THE WRITE STUFF: GHOSTS, OR: HOW TO SUCESSFULLY TEAM UP HARRISON FORD AND PIERCE BROSNAN (AS BOND & RYAN)

Since I am "Cleaning House" (so to speak), I'm going to show you a fragment (in its very first draft) of a movie script that I started in late 2009 when thought that dear god, somebody should write a good role for Harrison Ford and Pierce Brosnan...

... well, mostly Harrison Ford, who I adore and who has been in nothing but shit in so many years that it's hard to remember that there was a time when nobody could top him at the box office and a Ford involvement in a movie was almost a stamp of approval to go and see it (yes, this was before the age of the Internet, and I'm old enough to remember it. Shut up).

A fair warning. What you are about to read is essentially pop fiction. It's based on a simple (and not entirely original) premise. Let's just assume for a moment that you have Pierce Brosnan and Harrison Ford (which I didn't, but that has never stopped me before)...

... and then you do to them what Sean Connery did to his role in The Rock.

In other words, you use your audience's "knowledge" about these stars and their biggest roles to your advantage. Because what made The Rock work wasn't the story (laughable) or Nicholas Cage (sorry, man), but the fact that the moment Connery enters the movie, we know one thing about this very special prisoner...

...he is Bond! James Bond!

It's never said, not out loud, but we all know it. And everything that comes after Connery's first appearance? From a writer's point of view? Easy sailing. You know you're going to be all right. Bond is there. And whatever shit Ed Harris might want to throw at San Francisco, you knew that Connery would prevail, despite the fact that the final big rescue moment belongs to Cage.

I have to admit (and do so gladly) that I have always had a big soft spot for aging heroes. I never cheered for Luke Skywalker with his mall rat attitude of "I wanna fight the Empire, all of my friends at mall are fighting the Empire, why can't I fight the Empire, this is so unfair, Unca Owen!"

Young heroes - you know, the kind that modern Hollywood vomits on you with frightening regularity - are not courageous, they cannot be. They're too young, too dumb to understand the stakes of standing up and fight. Sorry, kids. I know you're out there and standing up and trying to fight the good fight, but in a movie scenario, the idea that a suburban kid is predestined to become the "chosen one"...

... is utterly ridiculous.

My fascination with "old heroes" goes back to two Connery movies, one that shows an aging Robin Hood, coming back from the Crusades to find out that shit back home hasn't changed at all, with him going one final time against the "establishment", against injustice, only to find out that time has passed him by, that his fight is already lost, that nobody cares anymore...

... and to this day, I find this movie to be beautiful and heartbreaking.

The other Connery movie was Outland. Which was essentially the SF version of High Noon, that western that had Gary Cooper being left alone, being left out by the very same people he was supposed to protect as shit begins to fly. And honestly? Both movies are a good indicator of the kind of help you can expect from the "Good People".

You can't expect shit.

These things I had in mind when I sat down in October 2009 and began to write Ghosts.

Ford. Brosnan. Ryan. Bond.

One last time.

There were two other big influences here in the script, which would be "still sane" Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven.

In fact, if there was a pitch line, it would have been. It's Unforgiven for the spy genre.

What I thought was interesting about Jack Ryan and James Bond was how different they were, as archetypes. The Movie Bond (prior to the Daniel Craig reboot) was a loose cannon, a womanizer, a suave personality, somebody who fit easily in the 1960s, was laughable in the 1970s, irrelevant in the 1980s and briefly resurrected by Brosnan in the 1990s to almost his former glory.

Jack Ryan on the other hand, he was meticulous, he was - the way both Alec Baldwin and then Harrison Ford portrayed him - an accidental hero. Think about it. He's an analyst. He's not an agent. When he gets into shit, in all three movies he starred in (prior to the Ben Affleck one), it's not really by choice. He just happens to be the one who did the dossier on that Russian submarine captain. He just happens to be there when the IRA tries to kill the Royals. Him merely trying to help out his friend Admiral Greer that has him wind up in a giant conspiracy.

In fact, if you had to boil down Ryan to one sentence, it's the one said by Alec Baldwin in The Hunt For Red October...

JACK RYAN
A memo, Jack! Next time, you write a memo!

(incidentally, there's a rather clever reference to this in the script I will walk through with you)

These two men (and the way the two actors portrayed them) are like fire and ice.

What a buddy movie that would make!

What a last hurrah I could write with that!

And since both men are essentially relics of the Cold War, it would be even easy to get the ball rolling, simply by saying "these two men have worked together before, years ago, and the shit that gets the plot rolling... ties right back to the end of the Soviet Union".


That's the thing about the past, I have one of my characters say, you can quit. But the past stays right where it is.

So, with that in mind, I'll walk you through this fragment, okay?

(1) WHEN YOU START, START WITH A BOOM!

When opening a movie these days, you don't have much time. Shit must fly. Shit must happen. And that shit must fly in such a way that you have your audience's ass firmly planted in their seats, because, hey, right next door they are playing another movie, and maybe they sneak out and watch that if you bore them in the first 10 minutes, know?

Now, the problem with that is - everything has been done already. The Boom, I mean. There are only so many ways of opening a movie like this, which means that if you go with The Boom, you must twist it, turn it, put it on its head.

At the same time, you must give it a location that would allow for both the British and the American intelligence services to become interested. Now, I am not saying that my way is extraordinarily clever, but it is workable, by introducing both The Boom and the reason for it, but in such a way that it is still a mystery to the viewer...




The first 4 pages serve as a set-up, and like any set-up,  it has to do all of the things that I just explained to you. Now, here's the problem with the Russians and Britain. They kind of own it (I know, tell an Englishman that and they'll be huffing and puffing about it, rah rah rah... Rule Britannia!) and they are no longer publicly perceived as a threat.

But the more influential they have become, the more you can find some feeling of, well, I wouldn't quite call it xenophobia, but what we Germans would call "√úberfremdung" (becoming overly alienated). Such a feeling can slide very quickly into xenophobia, though, and quite quickly into racism.

The problem? You have probably falling asleep already reading these two paragaphs, which sound like the beginning of a lecture.

In a movie, kids... you have to show, not tell (and expositions are a bitch).

In 2009 I chose to show by combining this through.... what else, this is the UK, after all.... Football.

Thankfully, the Chelsea FC is owned by a Russian billionaire, and having the footie fans in a pub (what could be more... English?) shout "Enge-land" "Enge-land" for a team that consist primarily of international players and is owned by a Russian... serves a good way to introduce this notion without sliding into a socio-economic analysis.

We also get to know that there are still Russian dissidents (remember, kids, when the FSB [formerly KGB] killed that Russian dissident by radiation poisoning... by having him drink tea? LOVE IT! Use it! Make it work)... and that this particular guy Lermontov is apparently important enough to have two MI5 agents babysitting him...

... not that it seems to be helping a lot: BOOM!

I'm sorry.... did I break your concentration?

(2) INTRODUCING YOUR HERO, PART ONE

Now, introductions of heroes are a bitch. Always and forever. Tattoo this behind your eyelids, kids, because whatever writers (and directors and producers) tell you, there aren't many iconic introductions that stick with you. The introduction of Riggs in Lethal Weapon is one of them. I'm sure you remember. It's the scene where Mel Gibson takes down a couple of drug dealers and goes full crazy, slapping his face, poking them in the eye and slapping them, Three Stooges style... before going all hardass cop on them, making you know that this is one unhinged motherfucker.

(I seem remember that in the director's cut there's a scene prior to this one, which has Riggs deal with a sniper at a school, but that scene is really bad and shouldn't have been included into the movie, because even back then, it almost plays like a Dirty Harry parody)

But the introduction that I still feel is one of the most powerful, most iconic ever... is the one of Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know, this one...



It takes a full three minutes before Ford makes it onto the screen, and then, when you first see him, he has his back to you... before slowly turning around. And you know, right from this moment, that this is your guy.

Now, in an Unforgiven type of script, we have the problem that ...

(1) all of your heroes will have a past, but you still have to introduce them in such a way that it stands on its own.

(2) that past in this case is the fall of the Soviet Union, which is something your teens and even twenty-somethings have only heard about in a rather boring environment of a school or university lecture, if at all... so this puts you already in a bit of a shitty spot.

... but you have the Jack Ryan archetype that you want and can play here, so don't worry about those two problems, tackle them head on.

In my case, I used a device that - if you have read page 4 - I have quite openly stolen (stealing isn't necessarily bad, kids) from a rather bad movie, all in all, called The Kingdom. I say bad movie, because the actual plot kind of falls apart after a very strong start, but the opening credits I still think belong to the best things that ever made it to the screen...



Now, that was something that would provide the perfect bridge from the opening sequence to the introduction of my first hero... because you can see at the end of the opening credits that the entire history of the Soviet Union until its demise...

... and to then see it was a boring lecture! At West Point! By our hero, retired Harrison Ford. By opening it this way, I could tie it into two things.

(1) The famous Indiana Jones sequences that everybody knows, the ones that have Indy lecture his students and being rather out of place there... remember what I told you at the beginning of this walkthrough. Use your stars' persona, the "public knowledge" about them to your advantage. Always!

(2) The other big archetype... that something happening halfway around the world has repercussions somewhere else. and so, off to the races we go...


These two pages are all about character. Not only do we establish that Ford and his visitor have a shared history, we also include the fact that Ford has a family that he loves... and that there is something off between him and the character of Halloran, making what appears at first glance just a bit of chit-chat between two old friends... somehow into a threat. You're forgiven if you overread it, but a certain bit on page 6 will come back to bite us in the ass later.

We're about eight minutes or so into the movie by now, and you already have a set-up and the introduction of one of your heroes. Remember, kids, these days you just don't have time to go into long, extended character pieces, like actually showing Ford to be a family man. These things are important, they must be included, but make the point... and move on.

(2) ESTABLISHING YOUR HERO

... and moving on means your hero needs to get involved in the set-up. Now, in the pre-24 days, that would mean getting him to another place, more talks, you know, the kind of briefing situations. But nowadays, we can play it a bit faster by including TV FOOTAGE and cut back and forth between what you think happened in the opening of this movie...

... and what really happened.










 ... now you have a lot of exposition that has been dealt with, in a relatively short amount of time, and not only that, we managed to do another thing. We established that Ford's character is indeed the smartest man in the room.

In a room that is packed with all the amenities and high tech gadget bullshit that would give Michael Bay an enternal boner (because he loves that shit)... here's an older guy who pulls all of what they show him apart... just by thinking. 

And when you are dealing with a Jack Ryan archetype, the analyst archetype, that is exactly what you need to do. You need to establish an intellectual dominance over the "new-fangled" stuff.

I used a bit of another movie in this scene, and you may have noticed it, you may not have, but there's a moment in which Ford's character puts on some glasses...

....echoing one of my all-time favorite movie scenes, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which we had (a long time ago) one of the best moments of showing a "hero" who has aged, Captain James T. Kirk (as I seem to recall, William Shatner had a shitload of problems showing that Kirk had aged, but the moment in which Kirk puts on the glasses right before he orders the Enterprise to fire? A moment of sheer brilliance by writer/director Nicholas Meyer).

We also establish two more things in these scenes, one of them being a fun moment which has Ford say to Max (the young female character who you should watch closely) at the end of page 16...
JACK
A memo. I wrote a memo.
... echoing what I up there called the defining character line of the Jack Ryan archetype.

Also, I showed on pages 12 and 13 that - as it is mostly the case with retired CIA people - that Ford's character was tired and more than a bit disillusioned, something that comes straight out of Bob Bear's real life CIA agent who was used as the basis for Clooney's character in Syriana.

Again, it gives the character a back story without actually having to show it.

(3) INTRODUCING YOUR HERO, PART TWO

Now that we have the Ryan archetype and have him established, we are left with the Bond archetype. And that one's a lot harder to do, because Bond is a reactive force, much less proactive. And to be honest, I'd doubt that most of the Bonds (I always saw it as a cover identity you took when you became 007) would actually live to reach retirement.

But as you can see on page 16, not only does Ford's character realize why the CIA came to him, it is also immediately hinted at this other character, or as it is said...
HALLORAN
When you wrote the book on him. You... and that other guy.
With a single line of dialogue, we have established a link between Ford's character, the plot (something that happened ten years ago) and the Brosnan "Bond" that is about to come into the movie.




... and "Bond" has always been a bitch to introduce. And older "Bond"? Hell, slit your wrists right now. But like I said, we are not talking about "Bourne Bond", we are talking about the original one, the suave one, the womanizer, the one who'd be at all the places of glamor in the world you could never get to, like Monaco. And he'd do all the things that suave men (and those pretending or deluding themselves to be) would do, like bedding the most wonderful women.

All of these things belong to the archetype.

All of these things you can see - twisted - in these few pages that
(1) "Bond" is still to be found in Monaco, but now it's essentially a reserve, you know, where old agents go to die after they've been retired. And he's stuck there.

(2) He's still bedding women, but no longer the glamor pussies of old, but rather anybody who he may fancy, so the womanizer is very much alive but at the same reduced to this "aging playboy"

(3) His life style is killing him. I always knew it would. He's been boozing too much, fucking too much, not giving a shit about where this all may lead.

And it's led him here.

By the way, some of those ideas, concocted in 2009, made it into my pulp serial novel RE:TIRED that I am working on, but here you can see those ideas of a "caged, aged tiger" for the first time.




 ... but as you can see from those pages that follow (and we are about 23 minutes into the movie, it's time for the first big set-piece, remember kids, we don't have time, not these days, we need to go Boom! a lot) that even the aged and ill "Brosnan Bond" is intellectually a match for Ford's character by dissecting the scene around him in quite a calm manner...

... again making fun of the type of agents that we are now being treated to, the desk jockeys, the automatons, the kids that Hollywood shits on us when we see an "agent" movie these days, staffed by people who are barely out of their diapers but are supposed to be "experts" at everything.

Or as Mason (yes, I know, I suck at names, his name is Sean Mason, which is absolutely atrocious and a reference to The Rock so obvious that it should induce nausea) says....

MASON
Really. I should be flattered... would be flattered, if I weren't quite certain that somewhere in a bunker, probably underneath Langley, the best Halloran can come up with to analyze my reactions tduring our conversation.... the part of our conversation that won't be about the unpleasentness of my health or the pleasentries of your retirement... is a couple of college children tapping on some keyboards half a world away, living on Mars bars and Happy Meals.
In other words, I have him piss all over Spooks and 24 and Bourne and everything that came after the grand and glorious days of propery spies, you know, the kind of Bond and Smiley that made the genre, the ones who actually did stuff with their minds and their fists...

.. before I segue into the beginning of the first big action sequence with both of our heroes by having Brosnan's character realize, quite calmly, that shit is about to happen.
MASON
Okay. The three chaps coming in right now, however? Closes you've come so far to blending in, give you that.

THOMAS
They're not ours.

MASON
In that case... get down, Jack.
And that's it from me so far. I'll get into how to set up action pieces and how to keep shit running in a movie like this in another post later down the road, because right now... I can feel you all go "Wha?" and "Thomas is crazy"...