Friday, August 18, 2006
ECONOMY OF STORYTELLING: The Genius of Jerry Bruckheimer!
Note: This article was originally written in 2002 for Comiculture magazine. I present it here today, slightly edited, for fun and posterity…
Top Gun. Bad Boys. Crimson Tide. Con Air. The Rock. Enemy of the State. Armageddon. Pearl Harbor. Coyote Ugly?
That might not be the first word that comes to mind when you look at the list of films above. Exciting, yes. Entertaining, to be sure. But these blockbusters aren’t usually regarded as food for thought. More likely, candy for the eyes. A roller coaster ride. Mindless escapism.
My friends, I beg to differ!
As someone who works in the field of storytelling, I give a lot of thought to the movies that I watch. Probably more than I should. Maybe I need a hobby. Be that as it may, I have, over the years, spotted a trend in these films. An interesting shorthand has been developed, designed to give moviegoers more bang for their buck. A formula that taps into our society’s collective unconscious intertwined with popular culture. I call this formula "Economy of Storytelling." I believe that producer Jerry Bruckheimer may be the genius behind it.
In many cases it's unclear what role the producer plays in the making of a film. I don't know anyone who follows the careers of movie producers. Personally, I'm much more interested in who the Director is, probably because it's easier to spot a directorial "style." Producers seem to dwell way behind the scenes, and mostly involved with the business end of the film making, as opposed to the creative end.
The films of producer Jerry Bruckheimer seem different to me. Regardless of who is directing, each of these films has a signature style. That's not to say that filmmakers Tony Scott and Michael Bay have no style of their own, but I think it's safe to say that the priorities of these two directors (both Bruckheimer staples) are similar. Bruckheimer tends to work with the same directors again and again, so I believe it's also safe to assume that he chooses to partner with directors that are on the same wavelength as he.
ECONOMY OF STORYTELLING: CON AIR
When I watched Con Air in 1997, I first became aware and fascinated by the concept I call "Economy of Storytelling." What I'm referring to in this case is a huge amount of story told in amazing shorthand. The point of this formula is to get all the characterization and plot set up and out of the way as quickly as possible, in order to get on with the 2-hour roller-coaster ride of violence and mayhem that is expected from a Jerry Bruckheimer film.
In Con Air, nearly all of the important information is handed to the viewer before the opening credits are over. The film opens: Nick Cage plays Cameron Poe, a decorated Army Ranger. He comes home to find his beautiful wife Tricia, pregnant and working at a roadhouse bar. Some bar regulars hit on Tricia and Poe nearly gets into a fight with them--but restrains himself. Tricia comments that, "For a second, I thought you were that guy again." Hinting at Poe's troubled past. Unfortunately, the three guys jump Poe and Trish in the parking lot. They fight. One guy pulls a knife; Poe kills him barehanded in self-defense. The other guys run, taking the knife with them. Poe is arrested and makes a deal, pleading guilty to manslaughter--still; he gets 7-10 years in prison because the judge considers Poe to be a deadly weapon due to his Ranger training.
At this point in the film, the opening title appears! Credits roll over a montage of images as Poe does his prison time. A voice-over narrative--letters to his daughter Casey--tell the story of years passing. Photos show Casey growing—Poe has never seen her in person. Poe is a good man; he sits quietly in his cell during a riot, he learns Spanish, he can't wait to see his daughter. Finally, as the credits come to an end, Poe is about to be paroled. He's going to fly home in time for Casey's birthday.
Now, I know that there's a standard Hollywood formula that says that you need to set up the story within X number of pages, but DANG! That's a lot of story before the credits are even done. It gets better though…
Once the credits have passed, we learn that Cameron Poe is about to hitch a ride home on a prison transport plane that just happens to be carting all of the worst criminals in custody to one new super-prison. All the rotten apples in one basket. We meet our other hero; Marshal Vince Larkin (the ever-likable, John Cusack) and a bunch of DEA cops we aren't supposed to like. Colm Meany plays a guy we instantly dislike because of his attitude and the fact that he drives a sports car with a vanity license plate that reads "asskicker" or something like that.
Then we meet the villains and the true genius of this film and subsequent Bruckheimer productions becomes apparent…
CHARACTERIZATION THROUGH CASTING
In previous generations, this would never work. But today, American culture is so intertwined with the film industry. Movie stars are our royalty. Memorable film characters create our own mythology. This isn't a groundbreaking idea, but what's interesting to me is a practical application of this fact. If you have a big enough budget for your film, you can hire any actors you want. You can get actors who not only bring their talents to the roles, but also bring the baggage of all the characters they've played in other people's movies!
The villains in Con Air have pretty much NO time devoted to exploring their characters. Still, we know all about them the moment we see them. John Malkovich plays Cyrus The Virus. We all already know how twisted and brilliant he is--didn't you see In The Line of Fire? Ving Rhames plays the uber-militant black leader, Nathan "Diamond Dog" Jones. All we need to know is that he's black, he's angry and he's dangerous! But anyone who's seen Pulp Fiction already knew that. We also know that Steve Buscemi is just plain weird! Introducing his character, Garland Greene, all trussed up like Hannibal Lecter--well--'nuff said! Most of the other villains are played by actors who may not be household names, but they are ALL familiar from playing similar roles in other films.
Okay, so you may argue, "so what. They're just playing to type." That's true, typecasting isn't a new thing. But there's a difference here. Normally typecasting is about an actor only getting certain types of roles because of past experience or simply because of the way they look. That's it, there's no deeper motive. I believe that in the films of Jerry Bruckheimer, there is a definite motive behind the casting. That is to flesh out the characters, not with dialogue or even interesting scenes, but with the audience's familiarity of the actors as similar characters. In Con Air, this familiarity made the villains much more interesting than if unknowns had played them.
In a way, it's all about the budget. In a major blockbuster film, there's more money to get the actors you want. Instead of casting, say, a "Jimmy Stewart-type" for a role…what the hell, let's hire Jimmy Stewart!!!
Well, he's dead, so we might want to consider Tom Hanks.
This clever casting trend in Bruckheimer 's films reached an even more interesting level in The Rock…
In The Rock, directed by Michael Bay, Nick Cage is again our every-man hero: Stanley Goodspeed. Goodspeed is an expert in chemical warfare who must accompany a S.E.A.L. team to Alcatraz Island. Terrorists have taken hostages at the infamous "Rock" and plan to launch missiles loaded with deadly gas into the heart of San Francisco. Actually, it's more complicated; the terrorists are rogue U.S. Military led by General Hummel (Ed Harris), and they have a fairly sympathetic political statement to make. ANYWAY, in order to penetrate the old prison, they must get the help of the ONLY person to have ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz. No, not Clint Eastwood, but a mysterious character named John Mason, played by none other than Sean Connery.
The film is a virtuoso action film that follows all of the formula noted above on Con Air: A montage opening credits sequence that sets up General Hummel's entire character and motivation. An exciting introduction of Goodspeed almost being killed by a nasty chemical bomb followed by a look at his home life: we meet his beautiful girlfriend, who turns out to be pregnant (natch!). We also learn that Goodspeed is a “Beatlemaniac” who loves old vinyl LPs. I suppose this is important because it recalls the era of the so-called British Invasion. Careful viewers will note that the album he gets excited about is With The Beatles, released in 1963--only a year after Sean Connery invaded America as James Bond in Dr. No. Hmmmmmmm…..
The Rock also has a great cast of top-notch actors with their own histories. Why, Michael Biehn even plays a navy S.E.A.L.; a vocation he'd portrayed at least twice before (Navy S.E.A.L.s and The Abyss come to mind). The rest of the cast is great, Michael Bay put in an expert directing job, but for me, the most amazing thing about The Rock is the character John Mason.
As the film reaches a crucial turning point, it is revealed that John Mason was once an agent for the British Secret Service. After stealing some super-secret microfilm that contain all of America's secrets from the last half-century, Mason was caught and imprisoned without trial in 1972.
Have you caught on yet?
John Mason IS James Bond.
1972 was the year that Diamonds Are Forever was released. That was the last Bond Film that Connery starred in. In a wacky and wonderful way, The Rock is a sequel to Diamonds Are Forever! This explains where our favorite Bond has been all these years--IN PRISON!!!
Pardon my French, but that is FUCKING AWESOME!
The Rock is a cool action film on its own, but the simple fact that Sean Connery is pretty much playing James Bond again makes it all the cooler. It adds a totally new dimension to the character--of course Mason can beat all of the terrorists, practically single-handedly: HE'S JAMES BOND, FOR CHRIST'S SAKE!!! This is a direct evolution from the sort of typecasting in Con Air. It's as if, instead of Steve Buscemi playing a character similar to Hannibal Lecter, they just said, what the hell, we'll get Anthony Hopkins! But the genius of The Rock is that you don't NEED to know that Mason is James Bond to follow the story, but if you DO know, there are all kinds of fun implications.
This is Economy of Storytelling: You don't need to spend screen time demonstrating how cool John Mason is. Or how skilled or ruthless he is. Just watch Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever. There are about 10-12 hours of scenes demonstrating all of that! Now THAT'S a well-developed character!
If this isn't proof of a TREND yet, let me tell you about another Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster called Enemy Of The State.
In Enemy of the State, directed by Tony Scott, Will Smith plays Robert Clayton Dean. Dean is a lawyer who accidentally is targeted by a rogue element in the N.S.A. From early in the film, he is on the run from foes that have Orwellian eyes and ears--a victim of a high-tech surveillance society gone out of control. As in The Rock, the hero must team up with an older, experienced outcast in order to survive. In The Rock, Mason was once an insider in the intelligence community--a spy betrayed by an ally country. In Enemy of the State, the mentor character is Brill. Brill was once a surveillance expert for the N.S.A., who went underground in 1980. Brill is played by Gene Hackman.
Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 film, The Conversation, is not a part of pop culture iconography in the way that James Bond is. However, talk to anyone in the "industry" or even in film school and you'll find that Coppola's bleak masterpiece is regarded as one of the most important films of the 70's. The film centers on a lonely surveillance expert named Harry Caul who becomes obsessed with a conversation he has taped. Epitomizing the times in which the film was made, Caul's obsession leads him to complete paranoia and detachment from the world around him. Caul is marvelously played by Gene Hackman.
I don't have to tell you that Brill IS Harry Caul, do I?
It's really obvious if you know both films. In fact, in Enemy of the State, there's a scene where the N.S.A. chief, played by Jon Voight, is given a video-dossier on Brill. The image displayed of young Brill is actually young Hackman from The Conversation. There's also the obvious homage to Coppola's film where the N.S.A guys wiretap a conversation in a park between Dean and Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet).
Once again, Enemy of the State works as a story without this insider knowledge, but if you are privy to The Conversation, the character of Brill becomes that much more interesting.
ARMAGEDDON AND BEYOND
Since Enemy of the State was released in 1998, Jerry Bruckheimer has had several other blockbuster films. Armageddon was also released in '98 and Pearl Harbor in 2001. Both were directed by Michael Bay. Neither film used characters from older films, but both used familiar actors in their ensemble casts. The same is true of Black Hawk Down and Gone in 60 Seconds. The latter film closely follows the formula of The Rock & Con Air, and also stars Nick Cage--hey, if it ain't broke…
Coyote Ugly stands alone as a recent Jerry Bruckheimer production to break the mold (well, not entirely--the set-up for the story all occurs in the trusty, credits-sequence-montage). But what makes Coyote Ugly different from the other films cited here is that it's a character-driven story, not an action-adventure. Director David McNally has the luxury of being able to take time to develop the character of Violet Sanford (Piper Perabo). In this way, Coyote Ugly is more similar to some of Jerry Bruckheimer's earlier films--like Flashdance. Personally, I love this film. I admit it is one of my guilty pleasures.
I'm still waiting for another Bruckheimer film to use a beloved character from the past. If Lucas and Spielberg can't get it together to do another Indiana Jones film, perhaps Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay can give us a story where a hot young actor (Josh Hartnett?) plays an every-man who needs to team up with an aged archeologist/adventurer played by Harrison Ford. Hey, Jerry--Give me a call, I've got some ideas if you're interested!
End Note: As I stated earlier, this article was originally written in 2002, a few years before the film National Treasure was released. This Bruckheimer-produced film, directed by Jon Turteltaub, is a fairly clever knockoff of The DaVinci Code. It beat DaVinci to the theaters by two years, did almost as well in the box office and has spawned a sequel due in 2007. As I kind-of predicted, Treasure is also an Indiana Jonesish adventure to fill the niche still unfilled by Spielberg & Lucas. Jerry Bruckheimer Productions does nothing if not give the people what they want. God bless ‘em!