Archive for Dan O’Bannon

New Year, New Podcast

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2019 by dcairns

Happy New Year!

Fiona, myself, and Momo the spacecat venture into the trackless voids of interstellar space in our latest podcast, proving that the space between the stars will MAKE YOU CRAZY. Examples include George Pal’s CONQUEST OF SPACE, Jindrich Polak’s thoughtful Czechoslovakian Stanislaw Lem adaptation IKARIE XB-1, Bernard Knowles’s goofy but ambitious Brit nonstravaganza SPACEFLIGHT IC-1: AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE, and John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s existential comedy DARK STAR.

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.

Dynamic Conflict

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2018 by dcairns

I got Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure for Christmas, and it’s quite good — one of the best of these damn screenwriting books. I can’t bear Syd Field’s books, the man thinks “sets up” is one word, spelled “setsup” like “catsup.” True, he has slightly more screen credits than Robert McKee, but no feature film ones, and his TV writing credits are for a show he produced: in other words, he gave himself the job.

O’Bannon actually wrote movies, and had the debilating health problems to prove it. This is from Michael Wiese Productions, who do good film books by actual filmmakers, and it shares a melancholic quality with editor Sam O’Steen’s Cut to the Chase: it’s been published post-mortem, with much work from other hands to make a book of it. O’Steen had his wife, a fellow editor, to interview him and prompt his memories, O’Bannon has co-author Matt R. Lohr. I’m going to go ahead and blame him for getting the plot of King Lear wrong.

But the selling point here is O’Bannon’s unique take on the three-act structure. I’m with actual writer Ed Solomon on this one — reading screenwriting books before you start writing will just do your head in. If you write something decent, the books can sometimes be useful to help tighten it and make it work better. I’d encountered O’Bannon’s theories before in an interview he gave to a screenwriting magazine. There’s not much new here, certainly not enough to fill a book, but NONE of these manuals have enough in them to fill their page count. All you can hope for is that the good stuff will actually be good.

O’Bannon’s chief innovation is to better define the Act Two Curtain — in his formulation, at this point, “the doors close” — before this approximate three-quarter mark, leading into the climax, the protagonist and antagonist could theoretically have walked away from their conflict (yes, as always, the assumption is that this will be a conflict-based narrative: see Mackendrick’s On Film-Making for a bracing alternative). After this curtain, the characters are locked in to their struggle. Sometimes one has committed an act so awful towards the other than vengeance is now imperative; sometimes, one has been revealed to pose an existential threat to the other. I guess in JAWS, when the boat starts to sink, Sheriff Brody is committed to seeing the thing through.

In that same old screenwriting mag I read another movie hack claim that DIE HARD was all third act from about fifteen minutes in, but O’Bannon’s theory disproves this nicely. It may seem to be all climax, but just where a Second Act Curtain should be, our hero is told he can relax and leave it to the FBI now, and then discovers the terrorists are going to blow everyone up and ONLY HE CAN STOP THEM. Classic O’Bannon, though written by three other guys.

One always finds oneself talking about really commercial, manly stuff when attempting to prove screenwriting theories. One successful guide uses THE KARATE KID as its paragon. This alone should make us skeptical. But if you’re interested in screenwriting, test O’Bannon’s theory against movies you love. I might try this in a follow-up post.

O’Bannon’s other best point is where he blasphemously trounces the idea that Acts One, Two and Three should end or begin on a specific page, or a specific minute of screen time. He points out that the audience doesn’t know what time it is. He’s right. I think we DO get a sense, when we’re watching a film, that This has been going on a long time and we still don’t know what it’s about, when the first act is a long time in reaching its curtain. But we can get that feeling in fifteen minutes, if the first act is really boring, as I just did with a screener I was viewing for Edinburgh Film Festival, a would-be horror movie that began with half an hour of conversations. And sometimes we can get to the end of a film without once having that feeling, and STILL not know what the film was about, as I did with another movie, a thoroughly convincing and beautiful art-house job.

The surest ways to avoid activating the audience’s internal clock is to tell an engaging story or unfold a tapestry of cinematic beauty. And let the curtains fall where they will.

Dan O’Bannon co-wrote DARK STAR, ALIEN and TOTAL RECALL.

 

A DD-Notice Situation

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2017 by dcairns

We watched LIFEFORCE recently, to get me in the mood for my trip to London. With Fiona protesting that she’d rather watch THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or any of the, you know, GOOD Tobe Hooper films. Because the man had just died, and was this really the way he’d want to be remembered? But then, I bet he’d want to be remembered as more than JUST the director of TTCM.

I also read some good defences of the (arguably indefensible) film and that, coupled with the fact that, you know, the man had just died, made me sort of afraid to write about it, because I couldn’t really bring myself to say that the film is “good” — but at the same time, we had a hell of a good time watching it, so there’s that.

How do we parse this distinction between “good” and “a good time”? Are movies like women in ‘forties films? At any rate, much of what is hilarious and delightful in LIFEFORCE *could* be deliberate, which should lift the movie clean out of the “so bad it’s good” category. What makes my head go all Linda Blair is a feeling that even IF the ridiculous choices ARE purely intentional, they still seem crazy and impossible to defend on any normal grounds.What do I mean? Well, the story, adapted from Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby (INVADERS FROM MARS) deals with a naked space lady (Mathilda May) sucking the energy out of London’s masculine population. I think the idea of a monster movie where the monster is a naked girlie is kind of hilarious — as if they asked the question, What are teenage boys REALLY scared of? I think they could even have gotten away with the nude, but not a really busty nude. The film looks glorious — Alan Hume’s lovely lurid colours in anamorphic widescreen — but the shot of the menacing shadow of tits on the wall should arguably have been vetoed. Except no, because it’s perfectly in tune with the film’s demented tone. Hell, it exemplifies it.

(Colin Wilson was England’s top existentialist angry young man for a fortnight in the fifties — I don’t know what led him to write a Quatermass knock-off. I first encountered him during research for a Jack the Ripper project — he was a prominent ripperologist — but, as I discovered in my reading — he really didn’t know very much about the case, and much of what he claimed to know was wrong.)

Hard to explain the odd effect of the dialogue: apart from Steve Railsback, it’s a lovely cast of Brits, speaking in a pastiche of Britishness that seems at least ten years out of date. V FOR VENDETTA has a similarly timewarped quality, highly gigglesome. I don’t imagine it sounds so comical to Americans, because it’s not THAT off. It’s a good pastiche of Hammer horror dialogue, or maybe a tough crime drama with Stanley Baker.That cast — Frank Finlay is playing it quiet, well aware how close to looking ridiculous he is. He only loses it when he has to shout over a radio link, and his Shakespearean enunciation makes the whole thing rather Toast of London. Peter Firth is superb — full-on restrained camp. That thing when restraint becomes in itself a form of ham. And then there’s good old Michael Gothard, yielding sweatily to the temptations of the flesh just as he did in THE FOUR MUSKETEERS and THE DEVILS and…And Patrick Stewart! As if the second question they asked was What else will freak out teenage boys? and their answer was Homosexual Panic. Possessed by the naked space babe, Patrick turns on his sexual magnetism, and Railsback just can’t resist leaning in for a kiss. Hilarious to watch Firth and Aubrey “PR Deltoid” Morris dashing in to manfully prevent this same-sex violation of the norm, and then the room going poltergeistically haywire as the thwarted sex drive runs amok. (“CAN YOU IMAGINE how much fun Patrick Stewart would be having with a scene like that?” asked my host in London when I described it.)There’s more, so much more. The film is much less interested in its male vampires, but one of them does get to say to Firth, “It’ll be much less terrifying if you just come to me.” Whoops and cheers.

There’s lots of impressive animatronic zombie-work, all cut SLIGHTLY too loose, spoiling the illusion, and lots of fun QUATERMASS AND THE PIT panic on the streets, and as I say, the film looks great. In fact, my host in London was taught at the NFTS by Alan Hume. “He called everyone darling, regardless of sex.” He was clearly the man for LIFEFORCE.And Frank Finlay’s finale is terrific — the film’s one genuinely great scene for which you don’t have to make apologies or suspend disbelief or try to wedge yourself into a previously unimagined tone encompassing camp and B-movie thickear, the knowing and the unknowing. A scene that would hold its own in a real Nigel Kneale script. And FFinlay, having held back so long, makes a perfectly judged decision to have fun with it, as he expires in a welter of bladder effects. Stirring stuff.

(This is arguably as inappropriate an homage to the late Mr. Finlay as it is to Hooper, but I watched him in Dennis Potter’s Casanova too so I’m covered on that score.)

So why can’t I give the film total respect? It does seem to know what it’s doing. I feel like a humourless critic at a Ken Russell film, recognising that he’s displaying a comedic attitude but unable to grant him permission because the precise timbre of his wit seems unacceptable. I love Ken Russell, I *can* accept his bizarre tonal combinations and jokes that seem designed not to get laughs but just to buffet the sensibilities. Maybe LIFEFORCE isn’t serious enough to get away with it? Maybe I should just bloody well RELAX? “It’ll be much less terrifying if you just come to me.”