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Writing for Visual Effects: It's the Story

The worlds of live-action and animation are meeting in today's effects-driven blockbusters. Christopher Zack investigates how this is influencing the craft of screenwriting.

Editor's Note: Even though Animation World Magazine is located in Hollywood, California we don't often turn to the world of big, live-action blockbuster films. However, with visual effects becoming a larger and larger source of employment, we sent Christopher Zack on "retreat" to investigate how live-action writers are taking on a typically animated goal: writing the unreal. How is this changing their craft?

After quite a journey...Christopher spoke with Ron Shusset (Alien, Total Recall) about this question as well as the "state of the blockbuster" in U.S. cinema.

Alien: Resurrection is the fourth installment in the effects-heavy Alien series of films, the first of which began as a story by Ron Shusett, in a screenplay written by Dan O'Bannon. © Twentieth Century Fox.

The ad read, "Writing is more than a one night stand." Living in Los Angeles, you see this type of thing listed in the weekend section of the paper all the time. To attend this particular "Retreat," people paid anywhere from $250 to $500 apiece (depending on lodging) to spend the weekend in an isolated, scenic location, talking shop with the pros of the trade. I just had to take the trip to discover the place where a piece of literary wisdom had a $500 price tag attached. Although I had to wake my weary bones unusually early for a Saturday morning to take the trek west, and up the coast from my home in Hollywood, the breath of perfect sunshine through the window can sometimes be enough to rip one from the once-clutched sheets. It was a perfect day and I jumped in the Jeep with the top down.

The Adventure Begins

The three-day retreat was held at the Steve Brewer Conference Center. The directions gave an address in Malibu, and said the location of the conference center was near Zuma Beach, an oceanside community just northwest of Los Angeles. The conference center, in fact, ended up not being near Zuma at all, and definitely not in Malibu. The second group of firemen I talked to after driving around for an hour and a half deliberated, went over some road maps, and then explained to me that the Steve Brewer Conference Center was actually located in Ventura County, approximately 30 miles north of Zuma Beach.

I reached the location almost two hours late. This place was just outside of nowhere. Across from the tucked-away compound, groups of people in matching, white t-shirts and red, running shorts jumped out of a series of school buses and ran to the shore wildly yelling, disappearing into the ocean. Were these "the writers?" Was I about to have my first encounter with a troop of laptop wielding Branch-Davidians? I was soon happy to find out that my brief blast of paranoia was completely unjustified.

On "Retreat"

Gary Shusett, who was responsible for organizing the writer's retreat, set me up with a Mexican feast as soon as I arrived, making sure to let the rest of the seated lunchers know I was, "The writer from the magazine!" As the twenty or so heads turned, I recognized a couple of the faces attached to them: Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, Long Kiss Goodnight ), Daniel Yost (Drugstore Cowboy), and Gary's brother Ron Shusset (Alien, Freejack, Total Recall ). I was the writer? I began to blush and momentarily lost all my cool. This is when I realized that there are three types of people that go to these conferences. The first is the serious writer or academic who doesn't necessarily have a hand in the film business, but would like to get in or learn more about it. Second are the desperate writers, truly in search of a twelve step program, not a writer's conference. And finally, the subtly-crazed fan. Not the kind that will stalk and kill Shane Black, but the kind that will see him, stare at him all day long, and then occasionally lean to the nearest person to spend ten minutes telling them what a genius he is, and how they spent the entire summer of 1987 rehearsing every Mel Gibson line in the first Lethal Weapon. Over the course of the day, I realized that I am a hybrid of all three.

As Shane Black spoke about the struggle of the process and the perils of becoming "a writer," I noticed a group of military-types struggling to climb a giant, fake rock wall just across the field from where we were sitting. Let me tell you, I had a moment. If you're not as familiar as you'd like to be with the process involved with being a professional screenwriter and thinking about checking out one of these retreats, the industry knowledge you will gain is well worth the money. If you're already wading you're way through the industry, but have yet to make that sale or get your first credit, a weekend like this will rejuvenate your belief in the craft of writing and yourself as having a purpose in life. I was enjoying my stay so much that I almost forgot what I had come to do.

In Ron Shusett's Words

So, after my "moment," and before the BBQ, it was time to corner Ron Shusett to discuss the fate of the screenwriter in an era of visual-effects driven films. Ron is a pleasant, lightning-tongued speaker with an immeasurable amount of passion and knowledge. He also doesn't seem nearly as insane as someone should who wrote a famous story about murderous aliens bursting out of the chests of innocent human beings.

Christopher Zack: Most of the blockbuster films of the past two years have been effects-driven movies. Do you think that the industry's obsession with these films is inhibiting the screenwriter or the screenwriting medium by altering the way a writer approaches the craft?

Starship Troopers was written by Ed Neumeier, based on a book by Robert A. Heinlein published in the 1950s. Neumeier worked closely with Phil Tippett (whose studio completed the bug effects), director Paul Verhoeven and produce

Ron Shusett: I think it already has, because they (the writers) don't care about getting the story right. They don't care if the story works, or if the characters are good or developed, just if it has a good concept like Air Force One. It might not even be an inventive one, but it's a suspenseful one. In Con Air, there were three different endings. They were all with lavish effects that had nothing to do with the story. That's why I think there were no Oscar nominations for any of the studios other than those for Jerry Maguire. They (the studios) encourage you to forget the craft of screenwriting and just do something that has a provocative or interesting premise. And not even so much as that, but a premise that lends itself to suspense and special effects with action scenes stuck in. They (the studios) are encouraging people (writer's) and even say, "We don't care because it's too hard to make an excellent movie, but we can make a mediocre movie if there's enough special effects in it and action." Batman is another example. Surely they could have worked harder on getting a good script to Batman, but they spent $150 million dollars on it, and that just went for effects.

CZ: Do you think that this phenomena of lazy scriptwriting will continue, due to the increasingly wide use of digital imaging workstations such as The Flame that have completely revolutionized and simplified digital effects in film?

RS: I think there is going to be a slight cut back (on the use of effects), because Batman did $150 million less than the last Batman. They spent so much more on it. And Con Air, they expected to do $150 million (US box office) or $180 million, and it did $100 million. Plus, everyone was saying the story didn't work well enough.

CZ: But then you have your effects-driven successes of this summer like Men In Black and the Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World. I'd say those are two reasons to say, "Hey, the special effects are working."

RS: Right...right, once in a while...but Jurassic Park: The Lost World was the sequel to Jurassic Park and Men In Black did have Speilberg's name attached. So they go, "Oh well, Spielberg maybe could do it. He's genius for what audiences like." But other effects-driven movies are not holding up as well, this whole summer, last summer even, where they did the same thing. I've read things, and I hope to God it's true, what they've (the studios) decided, it seems they're still going to do all these effects driven movies, because even the one's where the story didn't work, they made $100 million domestically and $200 million worldwide. Last year, the last Batman did $350 million worldwide. So I think they're not going to stop making those (effects-driven movies), because they didn't lose any money. There were twelve movies made last year that cost $100 million or more, including Starship Troopers and a couple other big ones. So, they're not going to stop making them, but they realize now you have to make them better. You have to have a better story.

CZ: Do you think that the surge in popularity of low-budget, indy films this past year (1997) has something to do with an attempt by the studios to find scripts with a combination of elaborate special effects and a good story?

RS: Yeah, because they (the studios) see the independents. They are jealous of them, all these excellent movies, lower cost and still making money.

CZ: When you wrote Alien, did you write it knowing that those special effects could be done?

RS: I knew exactly, because my partner Dan O'Bannon was specialized in special effects. He's an expert in it. He had done a small amount of work on Star Wars, which came out two years before Alien... He also did this low budget film, in which he designed all the effects, which were his, created for his master's thesis in film at USC called Dark Star. It was so good that they (Roger Corman) gave him $60,000 dollars. That's all it took. I mean it cost him maybe $10,000 to make. Roger Corman expanded it and released it, but then that was 1977. I saw this movie and I thought, "Wow this guy designed the special effects?" I particularly went with somebody that would help me know (the special effects).

CZ: Are you going to consult a special effects technician on your next project?

RS: No. I wrote a script called Rush To Atlantis , but it took me three years to get it right because I couldn't get the story to work. Some other writer brought it to me, a friend of my wife's who I've worked on and off with for years. She brought me the concept, but it was so expensive. I said, "Let's just write it as best as we can, forgetting cost, and we'll see what we have to cut out."

The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park, featured a significantly larger slate of visual effects than the first film. © Universal

CZ: When Alien was released, studios were catching up to create effects that would accommodate the writer's vision. Do you think today writers are struggling to catch up to the visual possibilities that the latest in special-effects have made possible?

RZ: Independence Day, some of it was very weak. Few of the special effects were good, because they limited their budget. They brought it in for $70 million because that guy (Roland Emmerich) wasn't that hot of a star and only gave `em a medium size hit. He (Roland Emmerich) did some of it with outmoded effects too. A few of them (special effects) were excellent, maybe the size of the ship and so forth. They didn't have the budget to do what Spielberg or Lucas could and the story was so cliché. I heard everybody in the industry knock it, they said, "Oh, what a dumb movie," but if it made $700 million dollars it's hard to knock. But you could do an excellent movie for that and that's what bugs me. But alien movies, anything about UFOs, they (the studios) are in such excitement about them, especially getting near the millennium. CZ: Do you think that some of the writers and directors out there are so intrigued by the use of visual effects technology that they lose their edge to curiosity? RS: I think it's two things. The studios and the producers like Jerry Bruckheimer who say, "Just lay on the special effects and pray." I think that affects not directors so much as writers, because the writers are at their mercy. They're not a financeable element, a writer. They might hire you because you're a better writer, but they won't make a movie strictly because you're the writer. The writer is forced to write what will sell, so now they have become slavish. "Oh yeah, now I'll just throw on some special effects," and it gets sloppier in story. I don't think it affects the director. Directors do what they want artistically. CZ: Do you think the use of digital effects like morphing are effective in comedy? RS: The Mask was terrific but that was comedy and silliness. Yeah, I thought it was great but one of the few times I've ever liked it. I usually don't like Jim Carrey, and that was the only time I liked him, because it was so silly they were making fun of the effects. It was almost like Roger Rabbit. It was cartoon-like instead of effects that were believably done. Christopher Zack is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who has written for publications such as FilmZone and Crash Site.

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