Friday, May 9, 2008

7 Screenwriters Reasons Why DIE HARD 4 Failed

(Related Article: What Went Wrong With A Good Day to Die Hard)

I know what you're thinking. I'm a little late seeing how Live Free or Die Hard, the unasked for fourth installment of the Die Hard series, was released nearly an entire year ago. I never bothered to see the film when it was in theaters (due to a complete lack of interest), but my sister bought me a copy on DVD for Christmas in, bless her heart, an attempt to try to guess my cinematic tastes. Here it is in May. I finally decided to spend the time to watch it. And I turned it off at about the 30 minute mark. It bored the hell out of me. Then, I decided to give the rest a shot. Now, the DVD is in my player stopped at around the 1 hour 17 minute mark. Yeah. There's a cinematic red flag. When an action movie can't even mount up the audience interest or momentum to encourage the you to watch it all in one sitting, you know there are some story problems.

I've watched hundreds of bad films, boring movies, movies that made me stop playback and put them back on the shelf for a week, but this is a case where we have a much anticipated film, a film entrenched as the key example of its genre, a film with unlimited resources, with script flaws so clear and pronounced that I feel compelled to take the time to point them out.
It's one thing to have the ability to tell when something sucks. Every single moviegoer has that ability. When an audience exits a theater only one black and white decision rests in their mind: either it was good or it sucked. That's the basis of Siskel & Ebert's cut and dry “Thumbs up/Thumbs down” system. But its another ability altogether to identify WHY something sucked, and a much rarer ability to understand how to make it better. Not many people in the movie theater has this ability, but this is no problem. It's not necessary for them to need it. But the sad thing is that it seems that the people in charge of developing these movies and those who decide what gets made when not only lack an ability to tell WHY a script sucks, but they also lack the basic ability to tell IF something sucks at all. It seems that development executives are consistently inferior in their reasoning to the audiences they dumb their films down towards.

Live Free or Die Hard has been under development at 20th Century Fox for a LONG time. How long? I remember reading about it being under development back home in Nebraska in a 1999 issue of Cinescape magazine back when they were calling it Die Hard 4.0 (because of all the computer hacking, get it?) I don't have any inside information in the script's development, but in those eight or nine years, it undoubtedly went through several writers. And knowing that it should be a sure thing at the box office, these were probably some of the best writers money can be thrown at. There probably was one or two really good scripts created in that massive span of time. Unfortunately, from watching the finished project, it is clear that what success these writers did have ended up being crushed under a tidal wave of years of conflictory and confusing studio notes, new drafts done with each writer change, new drafts with each director change, new drafts with each development executive hired or fired at 20th Century Fox, and the result was an incoherent mess. The shocker in all this (and my point, I do have a point) is that with all this time, with all this available talent, with all this money, the studio ends up shooting a script that not only has the foolishness to neglect the basic rules of competent dramatic screenwriting, but ignores the very story elements that made the Die Hard franchise successful in the first place.

What follows are seven, clear, obvious script mistakes that should have been obvious to even the novice screenwriter, but somehow got completely ignored, turning the action genre's archetype series into an incoherent, uninteresting mess:

1. The lack of a protagonist-centered premise.
If you are a writer, you should know that your main character should be at the center of your story, right? Every onscreen element should revolve around the main character and the character's goal, correct? And, every thing the character does should effect the central situation. In a good premise, the main character is put into a situation where they MUST act, the conflict is pointed directly at them and they MUST overcome the conflict head on, or they will face dire consequences. In Live Free, the premise is as follows: Super cyber-terrorists have taken over the nation's entire computer grid, threatening the whole country, and the feds need to do something about it. (Notice I said “do something” rather than “stop them.” The feds never really do anything other than stand around and look stupid.)

Now, where is John McClane in this premise? Is he one of the feds in charge of stopping the terrorists? Does he have a personal relationship with one of the terrorists, giving him a motive to stop them? Is he in an immediate life or death situation because of this premise? NO! What is John doing? He's doing a little side errand, a “favor” for the FBI. He is given a simple task of escorting a hacker who has a very minor connection to the villains to Washington DC. Once McClane gets to Washington and makes contact with the FBI he can go home. Mission accomplished. McClane has no real reason for him to stick around and risk his life. (Other than the fact that the audience has come to expect McClane to do stupid life risking things. But, in those cases he had a life or death reason.) McClane is not at the center of the conflict, he is off in the outskirts taking care of a minor detail. No one is asking him to stick around. In a great film, the main character is put in a situation where there is no escape, he/she has no other option than to progress towards the goal or be destroyed.

Let's look at the previous trilogy see where these films succeeded where #4 failed. DH1: John McClane is trapped in a skyscraper that has been taken over by terrorists. He is the only one who has not been captured. No one outside the building knows what's going on. If he wants to see his wife alive again, he has no choice but to defeat them single-handedly.

DH2: John McClane is at an airport which has been secretly taken over by terrorists who will not let the planes land. McClane's wife is in one of the planes. McClane finds that the villains are fooling the authorities into playing right into their hands. Once again, if he wants to see his wife again, McClane must single-handedly figure out the villain's real plans and stop them himself.

DH3: An anonymous terrorist has planted bombs around New York City. He demands that John McClane perform various deadly games or else he will blow them up. McClane has no choice but to cooperate or innocent people will die.

Notice that in all three cases, McClane is in some way trapped. He has only one choice. In Live Free, McClane seems to decide to stick around and defeat the bad guys for nothing more than shits & giggles. He has no real motive to get involved.

2. Low stakes for the protagonist.

In the first half of the film, McClane's primary goal is to protect the hacker. Well, what's in it for him? Why should McClane continue to risk his life to save the life of the hipster doofus Mac guy? McClane doesn't know him. He has no relation to him. He doesn't even like him. On top of all of this, the hacker is a criminal. Why would McClane, a guy who wastes criminals like bodily function, care about saving this one dorky criminal? Would it really be that big of a loss if he died? He does not even hold major importance when it comes to defeating the villain because he knows very little information about them.

The only thing forcing McClane on is the abstract notion of duty, but McClane has nothing to LOSE here. In a great film, the protagonist faces a situation where they must win because the cost of losing is far too high.

What is at risk for McClane in his other films? DH1: McClane's life, the life of McClane's wife and dozens of innocent people, AND he's trying to save his marriage. DH2: The life of McClane's wife and hundreds of innocent people. DH3: The lives of hundreds of innocent people. DH4: The life of a supporting character who McClane has never met before. (Notice that as the strength of the stakes decreased, the less successful the movie was with audiences.)

The writers seem to have eventually realized this problem. Unfortunately, they attempt to take care of it FAR too late in the story. They tack on an unrealistic kidnapping of McClane's daughter (who has been missing from the story up to this point) in the third act. Weak and obvious, and probably the most cliché move in action movies. The stakes need to be there from the start.

Sure, you could say the fact that the villains have taken over the nation's entire infrastructure does threaten McClane in an indirect way, but it threatens him no more than every other person in the United States. John McClane has no more reason to defeat the bad guys than any extra running around in the background. Maybe if McClane was the only person on earth who knew this was happening, he would feel forced to act. But, its made very clear that the government has every one of their crack staff already on the job. McClane really has no need but to kick back and wait for the smoke to clear.

3. The story's scope is far too large.

The strange thing about dramatic tension, the more intimate and limited the setting, the more satisfying the tension. DH1 took place within a single office building. DH2 took place in the area surrounding a single airport. DH3 at least limited itself to the city of New York. (Notice again how the size of the setting directly parallels the success with audiences.) However, in DH4, the terrorists attack the entire eastern United States! They're all over the place, from New Jersey to DC to West Virginia.

The original Die Hard created its high level of dramatic tension from its limited setting. McClane is trapped in a single building with a bunch of armed men who want to kill him. He can't even call for help without doing something drastic. This limited setting forces McClane to do something as visually dramatic as throw a body out of a skyscraper window just to get a policeman's attention.

DH4 on the other hand has people wandering around the streets in some idiot panic like in a cheesy B-movie alien invasion. McClane is under no immediate threat from his surroundings. He is in the wide open. Should he be attacked, he has hundreds of ways to escape. Large scope means less tension.

A larger scope also decreases plausibility. Could one man defeat a bunch of villains in a single office building? Sure. Could one man defeat a bunch of villains spread across an entire airport? If he really busted his ass he could. Could one man defeat hundreds of villains spread all across the eastern seaboard? No. That would be ridiculous.

4. The MacGuffin is too weak.
“MacGuffin” is a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock for the story element that everyone is chasing after. Such as, the microfilm in North by Northwest, the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the little Amish boy in Witness. The desire to capture or hold on to the MacGuffin provides the action that moves the story forward. The MacGuffin in Live Free is the hacker. The bad guys want him dead, McClane's mission is to keep him alive until the feds can get information out of him. But to think about it, there is no real reason that either side should care. This hacker is merely some geeky computer expert, one of several used by the villains in the early stages of their evil plan. He never met the villains, he doesn't know their names, he didn't even know the purpose of the freelance work he did for them. He is not even THE hacker. There were a dozen other computer experts that were casually wiped off the map in the opening credits. He poses little threat to them. Still, the villain takes time away from his massive master takeover plan to attempt to kill him in unrealistically elaborate (and thus extremely prone to fail) ways. At this point in their plans, is it really all that important to get rid of this guy? Don't they have bigger fish to fry? Their national takeover is already well underway. Anything that the hacker could have done to stop them doesn't matter a tinker's damn now.

McClane has no reason to care about him either. As I said before, he doesn't know him and has no emotional connection to him. It really wouldn't matter that much to McClane if the hacker was killed.

Therefore, a weak MacGuffin leads to weak character motivation, which leads to implausible character action, which in turn makes the audience feel the story is arbitrary and unfocused.

To make things worse, the pursuit of the MacGuffin is abandoned halfway through the script. The hacker no longer has a dramatic purpose other than to tag along on the adventure because he is needed to conveniently solve some problems in the third act.

5. We never know the villain's goal.

To create a coherent script, the protagonist must have a clear goal and the audience must understand the protagonist's plan to get to that goal. The same is true for the antagonist. It is necessary for the audience to know who is after what and why one stands in the other's way in order to become orientated to the story. It is not necessary to to understand the antagonist's entire plan at first, but the screenwriter must make is clear what the antagonist is basically after. This creates clear conflict, motivates the protagonist to act, and creates suspense (the audience is left to wonder what will happen if the protagonist fails to thwart the plan.)

For example, in the original Die Hard, the villain's basic goal was made clear from the start. He plans to hold all the office workers hostage for as long as it takes his computer expert to unlock the vault and steal the money. Mind you, we are not told his entire plan up front, but we are given a clear idea of his goal which gives McClane a clear idea of what needs to be done to stop him. The fact that the audience thinks they know Hans's entire plan allows for the shock and surprise when the audience sees the C4 charges in the building and learns that Hans also plans to blow up the building after robbing it.

One might think that Die Hard With a Vengeance breaks this rule. This is untrue. In Vengeance, the villain is deliberately trying to confuse and mislead the police by sending McClane on a series of senseless missions. But, the film still orientates the audience to his real plan with a series of cutaway scenes throughout the second act that show his men working to dig into an underground vault.

In Live Free, we never have a CLUE what the villain is trying to ultimately accomplish until the very end. He doesn't tell anyone, he doesn't make demands to the feds, the script doesn't even give the audience any hints. The super cyber-terrorists just commit random havoc. There is mention of a “fire sale” but what really does that mean? To what ultimate end are they doing this for? Because McClane (and the audience) does not know the villain's goal, he does not know what actions he must take to stop them. So, McClane is forced to spend most of the movie wandering aimlessly, wondering what to do next.

6. The premise is a poor choice for the action genre

Let's face it, there is nothing less interesting to watch than someone typing on a keyboard for two hours. Since the invention of the Internet there have been several “cyber-crime” movies made and they all have sucked. Why? Because cinema is a visual action-oriented medium, and these films revolve around someone sitting in an office chair and staring at a flat-screen monitor. You might as well make a film about me writing this article. And this is and ACTION movie. An ACTION movie requires ACTION. And it stars one of the most physically active heroes in the history of the genre! And now, forced to face off with something as intangible as the Internet, poor John McClane has to spend half the film with no one to fight face-to-face. How does one physically fight an enemy that fights over the phone lines?

Another flaw created by a villain that can do anything instantly with a few keystrokes this is that it creates an omnipotent villain. There is no way for the good guys to stop his dastardly deeds because he does everything in the blink of an eye without difficulty. Instead of intense conflict and head-to-head action between the two sides, we end up with dozens of pointless scenes involving clueless impotent federal agents staring at monitors with their jaws hanging open as their country goes down the crapper. (By the way, did those characters ever accomplish ANYTHING in the course of the film? Was there any reason for them to even be in the story?)
You might think that an omnipotent villain is a stronger villain, but the opposite is true. Omnipotence is boring. Here is how a usual villain sequence would happen in your average action film: The villain sets out to accomplish some sort of goal. The audience does not want him to succeed. Tension develops as the villains gets closer to his goal. Finally, a climax where the villain either succeeds or is thwarted. As long as there is a question over whether the villain will succeed, there will be tension. In contrast, this cyber-crap is over before it even begins.

And lastly, by far the worst sin any script could commit:

7. The meandering, goalless storyline

Here is how a good storyline works: Imagine you are going to take a road trip. You have Point A, where you start out at, and Point B, the place you want to go (the GOAL). And between Point A and Point B is a straight, clear highway connecting the two. Only, right after you begin your trip, you find there is a roadblock on the highway (an OBSTACLE). You still want to get to your goal, so you must find a detour to get around the roadblock. Only, when you take your detour, you find there is another roadblock blocking your way back onto the highway. So, now you must find a way around that. What started out as a simple trip has now become an ADVENTURE. You are now fighting your way through back roads and unfamiliar territory, possibly picking up help from strangers who can point you in the right direction, desperately trying to get to the destination you set out for. The goal has not changed. Through your considerable effort, you fight to get closer and closer to your original destination and will eventually get there.

Live Free, like most poorly plotted scripts (usually ending up that way after years of confused studio notes) just jumps in the car with no destination in mind and just drives randomly. It takes a left turn here (nothing's going on in Washington, let's make them decide to go to West Virginia), a right turn there (hey, let's go meet Kevin Smith in his basement), then another random turn (lets make up some information about a facility outside Baltimore and send them there). As you might expect, when you take a trip without a goal, you get lost. And probably run out of gas.

The audience is the storyteller's passengers. They want to know exactly where the trip's final goal is, and feel secure knowing that the driver is doing all he/she can to keep getting them closer to it.

These are just notes on the first hour and twenty minutes. The rest of the film becomes so incoherent and confused it is not worth the effort to critique. Here is lesson for young screenwriters: script mistakes are CUMULATIVE. They build up through the course of the film like a snowball going downhill. If you screw up enough in the first 45 pages, the latter half will be a mess beyond repair.

How could this script have been fixed? Well, you could take the usual studio route of throwing it in the crapper and hire a new writer, but that's not altogether necessary. Besides simply narrowing the scope and changing the cyber-crime to something more active, there is one script change that could have damn near salvaged everything. With this one simple change, half of the problems listed above would disappear. And it is so simple, it shakes any remaining confidence a moviegoer could have that the powers that be in the Hollywood studios understand how to create a story.

Make the hacker McClane's son.

BAM! McClane is now personally involved in the outcome of the story. BOOM! The personal stakes are huge! The bad guys are trying to kill McClane's only son. Another small change: instead of making the son one of several hackers used by the bad guys, make him THE hacker, the single man who knows enough to take them down. BANG! Huge MacGuffin. They must kill him or else. Not only does this solve story problems, it deepens and strengthens character development. We now have a family drama subplot. McClane is mad at his son for getting involved with criminals, the son is mad at McClane for the shoddy job he did as a father. We now have a new layer of conflict and opportunities for emotional growth.

Die Hard with a Vengeance was released in 1995. That is a twelve year span between it and Live Free or Die Hard. Anyone could have seen that this film could do nothing but fail. Why? It is hackwork. Before wrapping this up, I feel I need to take some time to comment on the trend that has been going on in Hollywood over the last couple years of resurrecting an old, completed franchise trilogy for an unneeded, unnecessary fourth film. Whether you're a writer, a filmmaker, or a general film lover, everyone seems to have come to a consensus of opinion in the last decade that Hollywood has become bankrupted of original ideas. Not so. It has merely become solely focused on proven commodities that will be a guaranteed blockbuster in order to report a profit to their conglomerate parent company. The unfortunate thing about trying to stick only to guaranteed commodities is that there are a finite amount of them. Over the course of eight years, the studio has already burnt through almost all of them. So, the studio is forced to go graverobbing and resurrect the corpses they laid to rest fifteen years ago. The end result of course is a guaranteed box office success, but unfortunately from a story perspective (and the perspective of the audience who has to sit through the film) they are doomed to fail before they begin. Why? Because they are hackwork.

What is a hack? Well, if you're a writer, if you are creating a story for a reason that is not the desire for that story to be told, you are a hack. In my opinion, adding on to a trilogy is never necessary or called for. There is no such thing as a quadrogy. Quadrogy isn't even a word! The concept didn't even exist until one or two years ago. It just seems weird to people. Hell, even the ancient Greeks back in the dawn of drama itself understood the idea of the trilogy. Aristotle wrote about three being the perfect dramatic number. So why make a fourth film if it breaks all common sense? Because everybody knows that no matter how bad it is, it will make gobs of money. That is the definition of hackery.

Just remember, Indiana Jones 4 comes out Memorial Day. I think I'll let my sister buy me the DVD.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

I think INDY 4 would require a list at least twice this long, no? Nice work.