Monthly Archive: November 2010

The Walking Dead

The Walking DeadAh, zombies. Once the forbidden fruit of horror films I wasn’t allowed to see — I remember when Dawn of the Dead came out and every kid on my block had snuck in to see it except me; it was a difficult time in my adolescence, let me tell you — now crossed over completely into pop-culture saturation along with vampires. Zombies are now about as scary as Gremlins, and I thought we’d passed the No Return sign back when Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland brought them into comedy. However, there seems to still be some gas in that tank, huh?

Like everyone else, I often daydream about the Zombie Apocalypse. I like to imagine how I’d survive: How I’d secure the house against attack, stock up on supplies, find clever ways to go out and grab supplies without being hunted down. The amazing comforts I’d devise, like solar-heated water tanks on the roof, a garden on the deck, bike-powered batteries for a few hours of electricity at night. The people I’d refuse to admit into my pimped-out survival house. The sheer number of cats I’d have to take in and feed out of my well-known weakness for the kitties.

In short, there is something terribly compelling about the zombie apocalypse story. No matter how many times I see it, I’m still intrigued by the next one.

I’ve never read the graphic novel, but when I saw the ads for The Walking Dead on TV, my first thought was this looked like the least original thing I’d ever seen. Every single aspect of it had been done before: The zombie apocalypse itself. The abandoned and creepy hospital. The empty world littered with the last vestiges of panic. The lone survivors banding together. The inevitable conflicts between Type-A personalities struggling for power over their fellow humans.

I mean, if you haven’t seen each one of these details in previous zombie/apocalypse stories, you simply having been reading/watching any.

So, I felt no need to rush to my TV and watch the show. I dawdled. One night I had a free hour so I popped it up on Hulu out of curiosity, and yep, it’s as well-worn and cliche-filled as I expected. It’s also quite good.

The fact that you can take a story told five thousand times before and hit every single expected beat like clockwork and still create something compelling is a tough one for writers. We like to think in terms of amazement and innovation. We like to think we’re going to redefine this, reinvent that. We like to think we have the imagination to avoid the same ruts left in the road by previous writers, and we abhor ripping off previous efforts. But the fact is, you can have a story built entirely from What has Gone Before and still pull it off – the trick is sensible plotting and good characters. There is a reason, after all, that things get done over and over again: Because, in their basic form, they work.

Thus it is with The Walking Dead. There is absolutely nothing (so far) special about the story. A vague virus hits, tuns most everyone into walking dead that want to eat the living, civilization collapses, and a small number of survivors struggle to live day-to-day. I have really enjoyed the first three episodes, though, because the characters are drawn well, even if they are themselves sometimes cliches or caricatures. And the plot, while not innovative, really, beyond anything in previous zombie movies, makes sense, unfolds sturdily and naturally, and so far has avoided any fake twists or sudden jerks in direction.

It’s early, of course; aside from the main character, Sheriff Rick, the other characters haven’t had a lot of screen time, so it may well be that the satisfactory sketches they are now will become unsatisfactory bullshit later. So far though they’ve sold me. I like how the plot is spinning out organically: Rick makes mistakes and doesn’t know everything, but his quest for his wife and son, which in lesser works would have been an endless one designed to  drive the overall arc over years, ends in episode three. I like how the character relationships are being illuminated slowly, with little twists that are completely believable. For example, Rick’s best friend and Rick’s wife have started an affair, because she thinks he’s dead. When Rick returns, she instantly cold towards the best friend, which also makes sense. And then she tells us that the best friend told her Rick was dead — and we’re left to wonder if this was because the best friend believed it himself, or whether he left Rick for dead, possibly for his own reasons.

Small stuff, but combined in a good recipe it works well, and shows how even the most worn premises can still be good storytelling. As a writer you can get a little fixated on the “high concept” or the hook of an idea. Sometimes it’s good to remember that good storytelling wins most battles.


MonstersAs I am wont to do, I trolled my pay-per-view menu the other night for curiosities. I am in love with the odd gem of a movie that you discover sometimes, a film that got no love in wide release but turns out to be really entertaining despite some faults. It’s not always easy to find such gems, but when you do, it’s great.

As we are moving into the Age of Anybody Can Make a Movie, things are getting interesting. More and more you read about movies being made for tiny budgets – budgets you can imagine raising yourself. Like this, or Primer. I mean, if you can make a movie that gets a wide release in theaters and then a run on pay-per-view for the cash you can advance off your credit cards, ala Clerks, we should be entering into a simultaneous nightmare/paradise where anyone who has the mental discipline to concentrate for more than ten minutes should be able to make a movie.

And thus, Monsters, made for a reported budget of some pocket lint, interesting stones, and a live chicken. Supposedly made with off-the-shelf equipment and without the benefit of craft services or, heck, permits. Do I believe that? I dunno. Maybe. (Warning: Spoilers ahoy!)

The movie looks great. Really great. The effects are used sparingly but wisely, and are, in fact, effective. And the premise is interesting: Six years ago a space probe crashes into Mexico and alien life-forms – huge, dangerous creatures – infest the area. Mexico and the USA move the military into place to keep the aliens from spreading, and traveling between the countries is difficult and expensive. Our two main characters end up having to travel the “infected zone” on foot, and hilarity ensues. All well and good, and I salute the filmmakers for crafting something that looks great. The story, on the other hand, was a let down.

I mean, you have this premise, and it’s great. And here’s what they do with it: The two main characters mope about, because they are very sad. The woman is the daughter of a rich man and is engaged to a man she does not love; the man is a bit of churl who has a son who thinks of him as a friend of his mother’s, not his father. The rich girl is trapped in Mexico and her rich father, who employs the churl, orders him to escort her from the country safely. So far so good – it won’t win a Pulitzer, but that’s a perfectly serviceable set up.

The characters then proceed to mope about.

The movie is about 60% set up, which is a problem. Handled differently, holding back the titular monsters until more than halfway through the story would build tension like a motherfucker, but here there is no tension whatsoever. The characters’ situation devolves as they miss the last ferry out of the area and have their papers stolen, leaving Sad Girl to hock her engagement ring to bribe their way into a land crossing. They mope about in the border town as they wait to travel. They mope about on a boat as they are ferried by surprisingly polite and honorable mercenaries hired to get them through the Infected Zone. They see a Monster! Very exciting, except it goes away, and nothing happens. They mope about on land as a new set of mercenaries escort them through the forest. Finally, in a nifty set piece their caravan of trucks is assaulted by Monsters and everyone but Sad Girl and Churl are killed rather gruesomely. Despite the fact that the Monsters display knowledge that the trucks contain tasty human morsels, they completely ignore the truck containing Sad Girl and Churl and simply walk away after killing everyone else. The Monsters walking away is kind of a theme in this movie.

On foot, now, Sad Girl and Churl start walking, and mope more.

They finally reach the humongous wall the USA has built along the border to keep the Monsters out. The fact that some folks read an immigration subtext into the movie begins and ends, I think, with this massive wall – the story is so uncomplicated and lacks so much detail, it’s hard to say there is any subtext here. Deciding that the movie takes place in Mexico and involves the USA building a huge wall to keep Monsters out of itself and therefore this is an allegory for immigration policies is a bit of a stretch, or perhaps a bit of wishful thinking, as in wishing there was actually some depth to the movie.

There isn’t. The characters make it over the wall and discover that the Monsters have broken through and have destroyed the border towns on the other side. They find a gas station with working phones and call for help. They witness two Monsters in a graceful, kind of beautiful mating dance. The army arrives to rescue them, and Sad Girl announces she doesn’t want to go home. The end.


It’s a mistake a lot of writers make when they imagine that their characters are so defined by their back story tragedies that even when being chased through the jungle by frickin’ Monsters they will continue to fixate on their own sadness exclusively. I mean, imagine you’re Sad Girl: Daddy treats you like a piece of china he owns, you despise your life and future hubby. Very sad. Okay, fine. Now imagine you’re Sad Girl being chased by Monsters. I doubt you’d have so much mental energy for moping. And yet, in this film , the characters mope endlessly even as they barely escape with their lives.

The other mistake here is the lack of any informative detail. The characters mope, and by the end have changed. In the beginning she’s a sad, fragile girl and he’s a cad who sleeps with a random skank just as she’s starting to like him. At the end, she says she doesn’t want to go home and they embrace. What the heck? How these character arcs happened is a mystery, because we see none of it. The writer just wanted an emotional punch at the end and put it in, period.

This is not to say the movie is without anything to recommend it; there’s some really nice atmosphere and I’ll admit the mopery, while annoying from a storytelling standpoint, worked well from an atmospheric standpoint, which may have been the intention. I do think the story needs more action, more danger – sure, the Monsters kill a dozen or so people in the set-piece assault on the caravan, but you never get the sense that Sad Girl and Churl are in any danger. They are horrified by what they see, but the next morning they get up, stretch, and start hiking as if the goddamn forest wasn’t filled with, yes, frickin Monsters.

Ah, but then, I didn’t figure out how to make a kick-ass movie for under twenty grand, did I? Sigh. Nope.

Thoughts on “The Hangover”

The HangoverI have no idea why I’ve been thinking about the movie The Hangover recently. I saw it in the theaters last year and watched it again on TV a few weeks ago just for the heck of it. It’s a fun movie, and I enjoy it, but it’s not exactly Citizen Kane, so I’m not sure why I’ve been turning it over in my head so much. I think it’s because comedies are so hard to pull off; more often than not I see an ad for a comedic film and I can just smell the failure. As the old saying goes, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard”, and baby, I believe it. As a writer, I know that whenever I try to be funny I screw it up royally. Any funny bits in my stories come directly from the characters, growing organically. I guess there’s a lesson there.

Anyway, I think the difficulty in making a successful comedy is why The Hangover interests me: It’s one of the few recent comedies I not only enjoyed, but think works as a story, not just a collection of hijinks. That’s the thing: A comedy can be a successful comedy and still fail as a story. If you’re laughing, it’s a success, even if the characters and story are frickin’ terrible. I think The Hangover works as a story for three main reasons:

  1. The character of Alan: I really like Zach Galifianakis in general, and this role was perfect for him – and I hadn’t yet seen him do the same damn character too many times when this came out. But what I think works here is the way his character is handled. He’s obviously the Outsider/Weirdo, a character often trotted out in comedies both because their bizarre behavior can be used to comedic effect, but also because their nonstandard reactions can drive the plot or gloss over defects. It’s a fun trope. What’s good about The Hangover‘s use of it, though, is that Alan is not presented as a Freak for Fun, a guy you’re supposed to laugh at all the time. Yes, he’s strange, but the matter-of-fact way his family treats him and his oddities along with the affection the other characters have for him (at least by the end) makes it work. If he were just there to be mocked and abused throughout the movie, it would have been far too mean-spirited. Yes, there’s some gentle mockery there, and even at the end there are moments of discomfort for the other characters when he does strange things. But you believe these characters actually like Alan, by the end, and that adds a comrades-in-arms charm to what could have been a really mean story.
  2. The scene split between the beginning and end of the film, where Phil (Bradley Cooper) calls the bride-to-be to inform her of the past two days’ events. “We fucked up…” It’s a scene that adds just a dash of real regret and horror to the story. It’s played relatively straight, and Cooper, I think, manages to convey that sense of dismal horror when you realize things have gone so wrong for so long now that there is simply no way to make it right. It’s a brief sequence, immediately broken by the sudden realization that they do, in fact, know where the groom is, but for thirty seconds or so it invites the viewer to imagine the alternate-reality version of this film, where they actually do lose the groom and the wedding is ruined, friendships destroyed, and, fuck, man, charges brought. That sudden spike of terror infuses the rest of the movie with just enough gravitas to make the humor work on a much deeper level.
  3. Finally, the scene in the impound yard where Phil shows actual concern for Alan. It’s after they’ve allowed themselves to be Tasered in order to escape criminal charges and get their car back. Alan tells Phil he is worried about the groom, and Phil shows human feeling towards Alan by telling Stu (Ed Helms) to go easy on him because he’s upset. Again, it’s a moment where a lesser film would have ratcheted up the funny, but this quiet moment where the characters actually behave like human beings grounds the movie. Yes, Alan’s a weirdo, and yes, in a perfect world Phil and Stu might have chosen not to include him in their weekend. But he’s depicted as genuinely upset that his soon-to-be brother-in-law is possibly hurt or in danger, and that makes everything else work.

Maybe I’m thinking too hard about this. I’m not trying to suggest that The Hangover is anything more than it is, which is a decent comedy, but sometimes as a writer you can’t help but analyze someone else’s work, even if it’s a mainstream R-rated comedy, y’know?

Then again, this is why I don’t get out of the house much, or have any friends. And the drinking.

Stephen King Calendar 2011

Stephen King Calendar 2011Wowza, that is one good looking desk calendar. Once again I am honored and tickled to be a part of the Stephen King Desk Calendar, as I was last year. Getting to write a little essay about one of your favorite writers is always a kick-ass way to spend your time, and then getting a gorgeous calendar in the mail (which, of course, contains my name, which always excites me).

The theme of the calendar’s essays is The Stand, and my essay is entitled “The Stand: The Simple Genius
of Killing Off 99% of the World”. It begins:

“WRITING, as everyone knows, is a career fraught with danger and suffering.”

Mood: Excited.