I love movies and as I’ve gotten older I not only enjoy the movies for what they are but have come to appreciate how a movie is constructed in terms of its story and cinematography. So when I see an article about Damon Lindelof describing both the writing process and how a story can morph because of the modern studio system I am hooked. If you don’t know who Lindelof is you have likely seen a tv show or movie influenced by him. He executive produced Lost, and has writing credits on Cowboys & Aliens, Prometheus, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and World War Z. And those are just the big ones, he has been involved in lots of other shows and movies as a writer and producer.
In an article which originally appeared in New York Magazine Lindelof describes how a simple adaptation of the fable of John Henry and how he beat the steam powered drill goes from small stakes but big moral of the story takeaway to huge world saving stakes. All because the modern studio system demands a product which can be easily sold to as many people as possible, and because there are only a few story beats which are easily translatable to a large mass of people there are only so many ways to tell those same stories without having to increase the stakes with each iteration. So in the original Superman films with Christopher Reeve it was enough that Superman saved Louis Lane. Now, it seems like it is not enough unless Superman saves the world.
From the middle (Link to the full article):
“It sounds sort of hacky and defensive to say, [but it’s] almost inescapable,” he continues. “It’s almost impossible to, for example, not have a final set piece where the fate of the free world is at stake. You basically work your way backward and say, ‘Well, the Avengers aren’t going to save Guam, they’ve got to save the world.’ Did Star Trek Into Darkness need to have a gigantic starship crashing into San Francisco? I’ll never know. But it sure felt like it did.”
With that in mind, I’ve given Lindelof—who’s written some hugely embiggened pictures and successfully wrestled others down to human scale—a challenge that only a five-star general in Hollywood’s elite fantasy screenwriting corps would have the chops to attempt: Pitch us a summer blockbuster based on something very, very unblockbustery, a simple American tall tale. Let’s say, the ballad of folk hero John Henry: the nineteenth-century ex-slave who raced a steam-tunneler through a mountain, won, and perished, the first martyr in the great war twixt Man and Machine. Lindelof, not missing a beat, tongue firmly in cheek but mind fully engaged, dives in—no notes, no pauses, barely stopping for breath. Then he goes even further, giving us anticipated revisions as the notes come in, as the blockbuster hormones surge, as Story Gravity takes hold.
“Well, I think the first thing that would happen is you would say the fundamental, most important part of the story is that he dies—[and that] he is victorious, he beats the machine. It’s the triumph of the human spirit over technology. But with that comes a price. And all the studio execs would say, ‘Absolutely. That’s what we love about this story.’ Two drafts later somebody would say, ‘Does he have to die?’ ”
Read the full article if you are at all interested in the construction of the modern blockbuster, you won’t be disappointed.