Killing Your Darlings: The Screenwriting Madea

My pal Kevin and I went to see Disney’s latest offering JOHN CARTER last weekend.  Okay, fine, I admit that Taylor Kitsch was the main draw for my dark-brown eyeballs. (And, oh, what big-screen eye candy he provided!)  However, it’s always enlightening to experience the cinema that’s currently infiltrating multiplexes across America.

One observation I’ve made about a lot of recent films is that they have a tendency to overstay their welcome.  Now I hate to think that I have the attention span of a gnat.  And let’s keep in mind that I did enjoy TREE OF LIFE, which at 138 minutes of very purposeful visuals was certainly an exercise in…um…measured storytelling.  Many of my all-time favorite films (APOCALYPSE NOW, THE GODFATHER, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) clock in well over two hours.  But these films all possess a narrative undercurrent that continue to keep me thoroughly engaged with each viewing.  Every scene has a clear purpose, whether it’s moving the plot forward in an organic way or revealing something about a character that rounds out their role in the story and makes them more dimensional.

Not a second wasted.

In my humble, completely-unsolicited-and-often-ignored opinion, a film like JOHN CARTER could have used another pacing pass because at 132 minutes it felt about twenty to thirty minutes too long.  I thought the CGI in the film was great.  The Thark aliens in particular had more character and emotion for me than any of those over-sized smurfs in AVATAR.  But perhaps the filmmakers that rely so heavily on computer artistry become that much more reluctant to cut it?  It reminds me of the arguments Steven Spielberg would have with Verna Fields when she was editing JAWS.  He was desperate to show as much of the mechanical shark as possible since getting it to function on set was especially painstaking for him and the special effects team.  Fields very wisely convinced Spielberg that seeing too much of the terrifying creature would undermine it’s ability to…uh…terrify.

You go, Verna Fields!

This pacing problem happens in many of the popular comedies circulating today, too.  I’ve heard that some directors often allow their casts time to improvise and riff on a scene.  I have no doubt that some genuine magic happens when letting funny people let loose with their funniness, and I realize it’s hard to part with all of that comedy gold.  However, what may make for an entertaining set can sometimes go on too long at the expense of the story flow.  Some strategic trimming will probably benefit the overall rhythm of the film.

I only bring this up because I’m revisiting my sci-fi thriller MALFUNCTION now (this is the draft I recently finished after it hibernated in my computer for years) and it’s become quite apparent to me that I need to cut at least ten pages from it.  For something I’m calling a thriller, there’s far too much set-up before we get to any thrills.  And while I enjoyed crafting a lot of early, character-driven scenes, I can see that I’m repeating certain beats and it’s slowing down the storytelling velocity.  As William Faulkner supposedly said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

It’s time for me to get out the red pen and be ruthless in killing my darlings.

A Critical Tool of the Trade

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