Archive for Dan O’Bannon

Holiday Affray

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2021 by dcairns

Also over Easter we rewatched the original and one true TOTAL RECALL, quite a messianic film if you think about it. True, Arnold Schwarzenegger rides to Mars not on a donkey, but wearing a robotic fat lady costume, and he kills a lot of people, but he also saves the mutants and terraforms the planet, which I’m sure Jesus would have done had he thought of it.

Paul Verhoeven threatened for years to make a Jesus film, which would at least have been interesting. I imagine his Christ would have been more human than most, but maybe I’m wrong. The closest he got was ROBOCOP, where Peter Weller rises from the dead, walks on water (seriously — check out his final confrontation with Ronny Cox), and stabs a guy in the throat. At least two of those things get done by Christ in The New Testament.

Verhoeven, Mel Gibson and John Woo are the unholy trinity of Christian mayhem merchants.

This oxygen volcano has a certain Maria Montez nostalgia value, but feels like something the leads should be dancing around in SHOWGIRLS.

Saint Paul’s other big unmade film also had a Middle East setting, his crusades film, planned in the wake of the Gulf War — Schwarzenegger as Schwarzkopf.

But back to Mars. Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shussett, ALIEN’s originators, adapt a Philip K. Dick story. The project passed from David Cronenberg to Fred Schepisi and back to Cronenberg and then somehow to Verhoeven, changing company in from De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (which folded) to Carolco in the process. Verhoeven, discussing the extreme violence, said that gore in movies meant nothing to him since he grew up in WWII and so bodies blown to pieces in the streets. O’Bannon, responding in another interview, said that was all well and good, Verhoeven was “psychotically desensitized,” but he should remember that he was making films for audiences who are not.

We kind of are, though. But Cronenberg himself said that movie violence desensitizes us to more movie violence, but no amount of fake punch-ups will lessen the impact of a real punch, given, received or witnessed. Which is true. Though I think movies can get us into trouble by creating the impression that certain activities will be fun if we try them. The reality is often disappointing.

Anyway, apart from the graphic and OTT carnage, there’s also Rob Bottin’s spectacular asphyxiation effects, achieved with fake heads, bulging eyes, protruding tongues… I find these repellent but hilarious. While the faux Arnie head which emerges from the fat lady is unconvincing (they hold on it too long in a static medium close-up), the gagging stars would be totally compelling if they weren’t so extreme.

A difference of reaction: Fiona is really freaked out by them, which she puts down to her panic disorder, a condition which gives you the feeling you can’t breathe. Whereas I find them amusing — though the horrific/absurd confusion OUGHT to be disturbing. And I have asthma, which means I periodically really CAN’T breathe.

I’m always struck by how the film, despite the talents involved, the money lavished, and the nasty fun provided, isn’t very good-looking. Mars looks kinda awful, right from the get-go. There’s so much wrong with the very first effects shot…

Firstly, it fails to establish the domed cities, which we need to know about. The sets consequently always seem really small, I think because there’s little to tie the buildings in with the domes. We need wide shots of miniatures that show lots tiny buildings inside domes, and these little buildings would then be seen full-sized with the actors moving about them, and THEN we’d feel a sense of scale.

It’s crazy the way everything is tucked underneath the horizon line. Feels like an attempt to make things easy to matte together.

And the yellow construction cranes are popping too much. The fact that there’s work going on is something we don’t need to know about yet, the domed cities should be the priority.

Verhoeven’s skill with blocking is something only intermittently present in his work, flashing up unexpectedly in scenes that don’t always deserve it. Though the staging of the fights is pretty good, making the slow-moving AS seem like an effective scrapper, it’s only with the first long dialogue scene with Rachel Ticotin that we get a nice lesson in old-school staging:

As a prospective Cronenberg picture, it’s intriguing to see how the layered plot twists or “mind fucks” would connect with his first person films — VIDEODROME, NAKED LUNCH, XISTENZ, SPIDER — where we’re led up a subjective garden path away from consensus reality. Rather than going deeper into delusion, TOTAL RECALL progressively strips away the false scenarios our lunk hero is ensnared within.

Of course, it’s all happening in Rekall, Inc, and Arnie’s dream should end with a big reveal showing him “a drooling vegetable,” as Verhoeven vividly put it (and with relish) in the chair, his memory implant having malfunctioned and fried his brain (the term “schizoid embolism,” a conflation of the psychological and neurological, is a trashy bit of ersatz science Cronenberg would probably have improved upon). But, in a big action picture starring the number-one box-office star, this was unthinkable. So Verhoeven says he ended the picture on a fade to white to give the audience a subtle feeling that something was up…

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.