Sunday, July 09, 2006

Pirates and Curveballs

The release of the second "Pirates of the Carribean" movie reminds me of a quote I heard on the DVD of the first movie. Jerry Bruckheimer was talking about the making of the movie and he made an offhand comment that went something like:

"Just keep throwin' 'em curveballs, that's all you gotta do".

Which is a really sharp observation. One of the best ways to structure your story is to find a way to constantly surprise your audience by doing the unexpected (which is what Jerry was saying). Hey, if your audience can figure out where the story is going, why do they need to pay you $10 so they can see your movie? They can stay home and imagine their own movie for nothing, so you have to give them something better than that. You have to find a way to surprise them and give them something that they can't see coming. And it has to be doens't count to just reveal that everything was a dream in the end. Or to suddenly have a romantic comedy turn into an action adventure movie for the last five minutes. The surprises have to feel like they come naturally from the story and characters, and yet the audience can't see them coming, or else they lose the element of surprise. Trying to do this well is hard work indeed.

Another thing that both the original and sequel do well is another basic key to making movies work. It's so simple really, that it's probably obvious to everyone already, but basically it's creating an anticipation about where the story is going.

You want the audience to be drawn in and be constantly wondering what is going to happen next. This may sound stunningly obvious but many movies fail to do this well. You want to be constantly creating questions in your audience's head about what will happen next. How will the characters get out of this jam? How will they reach their goal? How will they react when they find out their lover has died? Stuff like that. Your audience will only remained glued to their seat to the extent that they need to know what happens next. You need to create a situation where they care about the characters enough and the situation is compelling enough that they need to know what will happen next. And as you answer one question along the way, another question arises that needs to be answered. So the audience always has a clear question in their mind that they are wondering about, on the edge of their seat because they can't wait to find out the answer.

"Pirates 2" did this well: the constant posing of questions (some big, some small) to help pull you through the movie. It gives you a sense of where the movie is going: the movie won't be over until these questions are resolved. And it gives your audience that eagerness, that anticipation to wonder when they'll get their answers. And it gives them a sense of satisfaction when the questions are resolved in a satisfactory way. Ever leave a theatre feeling "unsatisfied"? Probably because the film didn't answer all the questions that it posed, or answered them in a way that didn't feel quite right.

I don't watch "Lost", but my sense is that they use this technique all the time: plant a question in the audience's mind, then answer it. But the answer leads to another question, which then gets answered, which leads to another question...

Personally, I can't take that kind of thing in TV form, because there's no end in sight. If the show goes on for 15 years, then you're never going to get a definitive answer until 15 years from now. And what if it's an unsatisfying resolution? Then you invested 15 years in a disappointment! At least with a movie, you've only wasted like 4 hours at the most.

I know, the journey is the thing and all.....I just can't get into "Lost". In any case...

On a very basic level, a filmmaker's job is to generate interest in the mind of his audience. Without that you have nothing else to build on. If they're not interested, nothing you throw at them will have any impact.

If you're one of the 3 people left in America who didn't see "Pirates 2" yet, stay through the end credits when you go. There's more after the credits.

Just like there was in the first movie. If you haven't seen what comes after the credits in the first movie, go take a look at it on DVD, because it explains something that's potentially confusing in the new one.


Jason C said...

soo true... I found myself asking questions like "How in the hell will they get out of this one" alot throughout pirates 2.. And I was always entertained by the answers..

and i agree with he post credits bits.. i didn't see the post credits sc from the first one and i was confused.. until someone explained it to me.. that's sad.. cause i own the dvd and have watched it many times.. just not the credits..

shannon said...

I kept asking myself, "What the f*** is going on?"

I just kept looking at my watch and wondering when it would end.

Randall Sly said...

Very interesting thanks for the blog

Gabriel said...

I watched that tv show Alias, from beginning to end. Boy, was I pissed off with the end. They built something so spectacular in the first seasons that there was no way to end it right. I think they couldn't dose the suspense and keep the curve going up. As everything started to suck I kept waiting to be surprised, but it never happened...

OV! said...

ATT (spoilers)

i love your blog, but i have to disagree, i saw P2 today and i thought it was a horrible movie. so many bad things about the film i dont even know where to start. I assume this is because I really loved the first and thought it was a great film so I went in with high expectations. But still, no excuses. There are just way too many fundamental structural problems with this film. Just simple things like, “where the hell are we”? geography? Location? Whos doing what? Where they going? Why? Clarity problems all over the place. Too much spectacle, not enough structure. I can only forgive so much.

"Just keep throwin' 'em curveballs, that's all you gotta do".

well, they sure did plenty of that, that is ALL they did. from the opening sequence i could already tell something was wrong. Plus the film was about 40 mins too long.

I wont go into details or list all my rants (take too long) but some of the problems I had with the film are:

-never in this film did I feel like any of the main character were in real danger.

-why in the world would Elizabeth chain jack to the boat? She just went on and on about being loyal and having dignity and morals and all this other stuff about being a good character and trusting him to making the “right” decision at the right moment (AND HE DOES!) and then totally go out of character, betray him and chain him to the boat when he just saved her life?
AND!, why doesn’t jack just shout over the ship to the escape boat below to his fellow pirates to help him out?!! Wouldn’t that be a natural thing to do?? “HELP”? I wanted to do it for him in the theathre, “SAY SOMETHING YOU IDIOT!” why would the pirates just take her word for it?

-since when did Elizabeth turn into jack sparrow? In the first film she was this great strong interesting character, then all of a sudden now shes acting like jack and not only that, but shes been studying with ninjas. See her slay those pirates “matrix” style? Ugh. I can already here the female producer(s) in the exec meeting “we need to make Elizabeth stronger, shes too girly and helpless”. In other words, lets totally ruin a great character so that girls can have girl power. (no offense or disrespect to females, my wife is reading this as I write). But come on, just keep them in character. If shes gonna fight back, do it in a way that’s believable. When did she turn into a samurai? I missed that scene.

-the witch doctor character is worthless and meaningless. The tribal sequence is a waste of time and does nothing for the film (some funny moments, but doesn’t advance the story).

-this dice game the pirates and will turner play… HUH??? What in the world is going on there?
-So I guess davy jones isn’t that dangerous after all. I mean, it seems pretty easy to steal the “holy grail” KEY from under his hypersensitive octopus tentacle bread while he sleeps sitting up in a chair? Right. THAT’S believable.

Anyway, i hate to be a sour apple. i wanted to love the film, i really did.


floyd norman said...

I haven't seen Pirates2, but I often wonder if people have seen the same movie? Some love it, and some hate it.

Did the film makers succeed or fail? I'm confused.

mark kennedy said...

Ha ha, good question Floyd. Your comment points out how subjective film is and how there's no such thing as "succeeding" or "failing" in the film world, other than making money, I can never please all of the people all of the time, especially when expectations are very high before a film even comes out. Nobody expected the first "Pirates" to be any good. Remember, back then it was another in a series of movies based on theme park rides like "The Country Bears Movie".

mark kennedy said...

Actually, on second thought I would say that the true test for determining if a film is "successful" is whether people are still watching it in 20 years or not.

floyd norman said...

I've got another test for you.

My wife dragged me to see the first "Pirates" three times. But, somehow I think that was more about Johnny Depp than the quality of the story telling.

Marco said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Marco said...

On dvd bonus you can see how they cut all the scenes which were explaining too much, in order to let the audience understand by themself. Particulary the part on the Island when Elizabeth tells Jack how she is fascinated by pirats, or when Jack goes out of prison and says something about "one time oportunities"

Anyway, thanks for the info about the part after the 1st movie's end credit, I've missed it on theatre as well as on dvd.

According to the hollywood producers rule "Don't do pirats movies" I guess they didn't want to be too much involved and let workers work. It was certainly a command to chear up the attraction in the parks ... then, when it turns out to be a success, tadaaa !!! Here they come again with the great ideas you describe:) can't wait to see that.

It will be on theatre August 2nd in France, I 'll go for sure because you know...pirats!

mark kennedy said...

marco - thanks for the tip I will check it out.


Interesting comments from everyone, thanks for taking the time to write. Intersting points, OV!, I agree with you on some and on others I have different interpretaions. almost all films have things that I find confusing but as far as the immediate emotional stakes, I always felt like in "Pirates 2" I knew exactly what each charcater was trying to do and why, and I like the characters so much that I was rooting for them. Why is Davey Jones' heart in a box? I don't know...but I knew why everyone wanted it and how close they were to getting it at each moment.

I really don't want to debate the merits of the movie all that much, though...debates over the internet tend to not be very constructive, in my opinion. Plus I am super busy this week and it's very time-consuming to be articulate while debating these things. Also, all I do at work all day long is debate the attributes of various movies and I get enough of it there...believe me, I am having much debate at work with other people who think I am crazy for liking "Pirates 2". So be it...I have this very unpopular opinion that there are no absolutes in movie-making. I don't like it when other people agree with me on a movie.

I try to seek out people who liked movies that I didn't like and I try to pick their brain to see what I missed. I learn a ton of things that way.

OV! said...

i dont have a problem with anyone liking the film, i just couldnt get my head into it because of certain things. but yes, debating it here is not the right place.


mark kennedy said...

I hear you OV! and I understand waht you were saying. I am glad you wrote what you did. I really wanted to discuss your points with you but I realized that a big part of it was that you just didn't buy into the film, like you say, so it's pretty subjective and you can't argue about taste anyway. Many times you either suspend your disbelief or not. You did a good job of summing up what a lot of people have criticized about the movie to me, and many people also seemed to agree with Shannon's comment that they were confused all the way through it.

warren said...

I'm way late coming into this thread, but I think evryone reading this should listen to this podcast - an interview with the writers of 'Pirates'.

You'll find it here:

creative screenwriting magazine

It's an interesting podcast site in general. Worthy of note, I think.

Marco said...

extrmely cool podcast indeed tx for the link.

I finaly saw Pirate 2
... well I loved it.
The post credit is great:)

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