Happy New Year to my seventeen loyal followers, and other more occasional visitors.
Updates, before we get to the matter of the moment: I delivered my Her Royal Spyness rewrite on 23rd December, lunging for the Christmas line; watched a whole heap of films between then and now, in advance of BAFTA round one voting deadline this evening – I’ll give you my thoughts on the long-list nominations when they’re announced; and I’m now into my aforementioned ‘Priority C’ season, a good chunk of time (I’m giving myself three months) to spend at least two or three days a week writing new material – finishing my spec feature romcom, developing another two or three high concept feature treatments, and finally devoting some serious energy to developing some TV series concepts – rather than endlessly chasing my tail of paying bills and responding to short-term opportunities. Not that I won’t be doing a bit of that, and new opportunities crop up all the time, so who knows how it will eventually go? But it’s a plan, at least.
But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about Steven Spielberg. More specifically, to talk to Steven Spielberg. I’m here to give Steven Spielberg a bit of advice.
Steven. War Horse. What’s going on there then? Haven’t read the book, didn’t see the play, but was pretty keen to see your latest mud-soaked war epic. But about five minutes in, with that weird Gone with the Wind house that those Devonshire folk live in, and the comedy geese, and comedy Emily Watson, and bizarre ploughing competition, I have to say I was worried. There followed a further 141 minutes of plodding, unconvincing, structurally saggy and dramatically inept tedium – and I say that with all due respect. By the end I wasn’t just worried, I was bored. No matter how many times you go to a close up, that horse cannot act. No matter how pretty the little French windmill was, I didn’t give a shit because I didn’t know what I was doing there. No matter how much I cried (yes) when (spoiler) poor blinded Aaaahlbert gave his little whistle at the end and the horse came running, you still didn’t make me believe that what I was watching was actually any good. In fact, I resented the film even more because I was being manipulated so obviously and so grotesquely. Then the funny French bloke bought the horse at auction – and then gave him back three minutes later! It was a mess. Honestly, what were you thinking about? It wasn’t about the audience, I can tell you that much.
Now, Steven. Tintin. You gorgeous, special, insightful, intuitive, timeless and audience-thinking-about genius. I liked the Tintin books as a boy – preferred Asterix, but Tintin was pretty good. I wasn’t desperately waiting to see the film but from the first frame – literally, the title sequence was amazing – you had me. You literally cupped my two balls of audience engagement in your computer-generated hand at minute one, and then squeezed them tighter and tighter for the next 100 minutes or so. Sometimes you gave them a big old yank, some times more of a caress, but you never let go, until the very end. (In fact, I’d give the finale itself only an 8/10 – the plane sequence and the chase-from-the-palace sequences were the high points.) So not a perfect film, but pretty bloody enjoyable and demonstrating in abundance the sort of special cinematic powers (as you did in Jaws, Raiders, ET, Goonies, Gremlins, Temple of Doom, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and about half of Saving Private Ryan) so noticeably lacking in War Horse (and 1941, Amistad, Hook, Indys 3&4, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, Munich and the other half of SPR).
Some observations on all of this, in no particular order:
1. Spielberg is a genius, the formative influence in my career, and I am nobody to criticise him, clearly. But he is also prolific, and this has resulted in almost (though not quite) as many stinkers as classics. So even geniuses (genii?) can have off-days, even genii can stretch themselves too thin, even genii can cross their fingers during production and hope that it’ll all come together in the edit when it’s pretty clear that it won’t. Steven, you’re 65 and you’ll be winding things down over the coming years. Please pick your swansong projects with care, and with instinct, and with an eye on the audience rather than posterity.
2. Somehow, War Horse is appearing on people’s top 10 lists, and is in serious awards consideration. This is patently bonkers and a sign that, if you spend enough, you can buy your way into contention. Also that a respected director will be in the frame whenever awards season comes around (viz Clint Eastwood, who also suffers – respectfully – from making a few too many films and not enough great ones).
3. The hero’s journey really works. War Horse is muddled precisely because the writers / director can’t decide if this is a story about a boy finding a horse or a horse finding a boy. Tintin’s first scene established our hero and then the audience accompanied Tintin cheek by jowl as he undertook a heroic adventure, to return home at the end a little older and a little wiser (although in fact the bigger transformation took place in the character of Captain Haddock). More and more I think the best films establish one perspective at the start and then we follow that character’s journey through to the end. Obviously that doesn’t exclude sub-plots, or flash-backs, or even multiple storylines (where a binding theme is probably the central ‘character’). But it’s about clarity, and structure – and, again, an appreciation of AUDIENCE.
4. Between these two projects, five British screenwriters were used (not to mention a British novelist and a Belgian cartoonist). Lee Hall and Richard Curtis on War Horse, and the Moffat / Wright E. / Cornish triumvirate on Tintin. So props for British screenwriters, but I’d be fascinated to hear more about the development journeys of either project. Why was one writer jettisoned and another brought in, at any given stage? Was Curtis responsible for the geese? How did he and Hall not notice the almost total absence of a point of identification in the central section of the film – were we really expected to care about the horse? Is that why one writer exited? On Tintin, who came up with the plot (cobbled together from three separate books, so my brother-in-law tells me)? This was arguably the least successful part of the film, but probably took up most of the screenwriters’ time. Characters and dialogue were all good, if not sensational. But the best ‘writing’ of all was in the detail of the action sequences – some of the chases in the first act, the boat escape / plane ride and the aforementioned palace escape. I’m wondering if these three vaunted writers actually had much to do with the choreographing of these amazing moments, or were they handled by the CG equivalent of the stunt co-ordinators? And if the writers didn’t do these, then what did they do? Answers on a postcard please.
5. I can’t help feeling that the real difference between the two projects lies in Spielberg’s producer on Tintin (I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that he was co-director), Mr Peter Jackson. Now there’s a man who knows how to please an audience (although he too, temporarily, lost that talent down the back of the sofa in The Lovely Bones). Perhaps Steven works best when in partnership – with Jackson here, with Lucas on the Indiana Jones series, with Zemeckis on the Back to the Future series. Even the greats need a guiding hand (as Lucas found out to his cost on Star Wars 1-3) – maybe a lesson in that for all of us.
6. This has become a bigger post than I intended it to be, and in fact I don’t have a massive beef with War Horse. It’s certainly not the worst film I’ve ever seen (I did cry, more fool me), and I feel churlish criticising any of the names involved in the project. Who are they, and who am I? It’s just that I saw the two in quick succession. One felt like an artist on top of his game, riffing confidently around a tight and attractive central theme. The other – to continue the jazz theme – felt like a group of players trying to jam, but out of time, in different keys and with no basic melody or chord progression to hold them all together. They might all have been brilliant musicians, but they weren’t making brilliant music. Tintin isn’t in the running for any major awards (although it should be recognised for its technical achievements, which were considerable). But as a piece of work, judged in terms of what it set out to achieve and how close it came to reaching that goal, it is infinitely the superior piece of work.