5 Unwritten Rules Hollywood Needs to Stop Following
Hollywood is notoriously resistant to change. You can blame at least some of that on the fact that every movie written for the last 20 years or so has followed the guidelines set forth in a single book.
The official Bible of every waiter in Los Angeles.
It's called Save the Cat, and if you've never read it, the general premise is that you're stupid if you don't give away the entire ending to your film in the first 10 minutes. This is exactly the kind of thing that makes Hollywood the bland (albeit explosion-riddled), formulaic mess that it mostly is today. If something worked in the past, they'll just keep doing it, no matter how injurious it may be to the overall quality of the project (or your willingness to ever stop shopping exclusively on The Pirate Bay).
It's so cheap, though!
Hollywood is a land of rules and traditions, and most of them -- at present, anyway -- can be traced back to that one book.
You should actually take some comfort in that, though, because if you know where a problem starts, knowing how to fix it becomes significantly easier. Granted, Hollywood is never going to fix anything about anything and you should stop dreaming if you believe otherwise, but still, at least it could happen in theory.
Unfortunately, not every worst practice movie makers employ can be explained so easily. Some just seem to be universal laws that were handed down from some higher cinematic power that people who simply watch movies are not worthy of meeting.
For example, can anyone point to the screenplay writing manual that says ...
The Shrewish, Nagging Wife Must Ruin Everything
She nags. She bitches. She's ruining everything. How horrible are these shrewish housewives who exist only to rain on our anti-hero's parade? Everyone hates Skyler White from Breaking Bad, so much so that Anna Gunn took to the New York Times to defend her character and herself against the insane people who have a hard time separating real life from make believe.
While the vitriol against both the character and Gunn was over-the-top and completely uncalled for, the character was still a prime example of why writers need to step up their game when it comes to creating compelling female leads.
From the get-go, so much about Skyler never makes sense, and it gets worse as the series progresses. She's a doting wife and mother so worried about her husband's cholesterol she insists on rubbery turkey bacon for breakfast, yet she doesn't seem to be concerned about the real stress in her husband's life. In the very first episode we learn he works full-time as a high school teacher in addition to juggling a second job at a car wash to keep the family afloat. What's Skyler's contribution to the family's financial crunch? The pipe dream of publishing her unreadable short stories someday.
This is the only pipe dream that pays well.
What? We hate this person already, and we're not even 30 minutes in. As the purported moral compass of the show, Skyler is a complete failure. When she finds out about Walt's lung cancer she lacks the ability to empathize with what her husband is going through and instead makes it all about her. Even the thought that her secondhand smoke may have caused his lung cancer doesn't stop her from secretly smoking while pregnant with their child. She cheats on Walt with Ted and rubs it in his face. Her sole motivation appears to be, "What can I do today to make my husband's life worse?"
And Skyler's not alone. Rita on Dexter, Lori from The Walking Dead, Abby in Ray Donovan, all seem to be just standing in the wings somewhere, already glaring and ready to pop in and bring the whole damn room down at a moment's notice.
Quick, everyone stop looking like you're having fun.
Their actions often don't even make sense, but since these characters are so poorly drawn from the beginning we're used to them acting only as irrational, bitchy foils to the male protagonist.
Why It Needs to Stop
Television writers seem to think that a strong female character equals self-centered and overbearing, and that's a bad thing. It doesn't have to be this way. Shows like The Americans and House of Cards feature much more nuanced writing for their female leads. That those characters exist for a purpose beyond riding their respective husbands' backs makes them and the shows they're on stand out among their peers, which is actually kind of sad, when you think about it.
As a married couple in The Americans, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) occasionally fight and disagree with one another, but these tensions are much more balanced since both characters are written on equal footing (they're both Russian spies).
Claire (Robin Wright) from House of Cards is such a strong, independent woman, not even Frank's annoying camera asides can faze her. While their relationship creates conflicts for her husband, her actions have some semblance of purpose beyond the "she's always bitching about something" trope lazy writers love to lean on these days.
Actors Who Are Almost 30 Make the Best Teens
Hollywood's version of high school is filled with students so far along in their maturation they appear to have kissed the ravages of puberty goodbye sometime during the Clinton administration. This physically advanced, over-ripened representation of "youth" certainly isn't a new phenomenon. From a well-worn Steve McQueen playing a 17-year-old in The Blob ...
Going on 70.
... to Stockard Channing's high school senior on the wrong side of 30 in Grease ...
This is what your mom has always looked like.
... movies and TV shows have a longstanding tradition of filling roles for teens with much older actors. Fox's Glee, the hourlong iTunes ad for awful karaoke music disguised as a television show, is one of the biggest offenders. Mark Salling was 27 when he started playing 15-year-old high school student Noah "Puck" Puckerman ...
That's his "I need someone to buy alcohol for me" face.
... and he wasn't the only member of the glee club whose voice had already dropped an octave by the ninth grade. His good buddy, 15-year-old Finn Hudson, was played by another 27-year-old, Cory Monteith. Teacher/glee club mentor Mr. Schuester, played by doe-eyed, baby-faced Matthew Morrison, is only four years older than those "students" in real life.
The problem is more apparent with male actors. In real life, girls generally mature earlier, while boys do most of their filling out during the college years. Friday Night Lights, for example, is a show about how we love our small-town high school football heroes so much, we let them keep playing until they're nearly 30. With his fully developed physique and backward creeping hairline, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), a 25-year-old high school sophomore when Friday Night Lights debuted, looked a little long in the tooth to be legally roaming the halls of Dillon High without pushing a mop and bucket.
Meanwhile, co-star Minka Kelly (a year older in real life) makes for a much more believable teen girl.
Why It Needs to Stop
Not only is it distracting when the adults and "kids" look roughly the same age, it also sets up false expectations for teens. Most male high school students aren't broad-shouldered, deep-voiced men sporting a five o'clock shadow by fourth period. Yes, real-life teenage actors come with their own set of unique issues that make casting adults more appealing. Besides occasionally being saddled with nightmare stage parents, younger actors are subject to restrictive laws that limit filming times and require on-set classrooms. But it can be done. The Disney Channel regularly casts age-appropriate young stars, and their shows look much more realistic, even if they're completely unwatchable.
Popular People Must Be Portrayed as Mean-Spirited Evil-Doers
In the movie universe, popular, good-looking people may as well tattoo "sociopath" on their foreheads. More than any other group, they're often to blame for all of the angst and heartache and acoustic indie rock songs in our hero or heroine's world. We've seen it a million times: the high school queen bee struts through the halls leaving a legacy of damaged egos and emotionally scarred classmates in her wake. That is, of course, until she gets her much-deserved comeuppance by movie's end.
In Hollywood's version of the world, these evil, top-of-the-food-chain super-hotties spend all of their waking moments trying to figure out ways to make everyone else's life a living hell, and they show up everywhere.
Take Kick-Ass 2, for example. In the first movie, much of the humor is derived from watching Hit-Girl, an 11-year-old tomboy with a mouth that would make the Deadliest Catch crew blush, wreak havoc on the bad guys.
By the time Kick-Ass 2 rolled around, though, the actress who plays Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace-Moretz) was 15 -- too old to pull off the "potty-mouthed kid" shtick.
Past her prime.
She needed a more age-appropriate storyline that acknowledges her transition into full-fledged teenage girl. According to her, the original Kick-Ass 2 script was deemed too male-centric to carry this off, so new screenwriters were brought in to add some estrogen to an otherwise testosterone-laden film. Tasked with creating "a more female side" for Hit-Girl, the new writers apparently took this as meaning "ratchet up the cattiness factor to level ridiculous" and called it a day. Instead of focusing on what Hit-Girl could accomplish now that she's older, stronger, and presumably wiser, the writers chose to trot out a tired retread of the Mean Girls dynamic as the main sub-plot for Hit-Girl's alter ego, Mindy Macready.
She's the soon-to-be jerk on the right.
For a character that's supposed to be girl-positive, Hit-Girl/Mindy spends most of her free time hating every female in her general vicinity. First, there's a slumber party where Mindy acts as if she's been invited to pick nits out of other girls' hair rather than just hang with them. The requisite falling out between Mindy and the popular kids is as confusing as it is boring. Everyone loves Mindy because her dance routine rocks (it doesn't).
Wait, now the same group of girls hate her and show up to shame her for being "date ditched" in the woods.
Either the writers were doing so much blow they forgot to even give a reason for this about-face, or they really hate teenage girls. Even in the context of the same movie, the popular person's actions are often less obnoxious than the outcast we're supposed to be rooting for. Fresh from the "date ditch" humiliation, Mindy extracts her revenge with the "sick stick," a device that induces spontaneous nausea and diarrhea. After causing a few less-popular minions to projectile vomit, Mindy turns the device on the most popular girl in school, who pukes and shits herself in front of all her classmates.
Why It Needs to Stop
Sorry, there are good reasons why certain people are more popular than others, and it's usually because they are likable and have good personalities. While there's the occasional outlier who gained their position through unearned advantages, for the most part pro-social skills are what build friendships and lead to peer acceptance. In fact, having a good personality may even improve your physical attractiveness. What's less likely to help are revenge fantasies. Sure, a montage of the outcast teen learning empathy and conflict resolution to gain a better social footing in high school would be a snooze-fest, even if it was set to a Giorgio Moroder soundtrack, but there has to be a better way to write teen characters without relying on the tired cliche that popular and attractive equals mean.
An Attractive Mom and Her Equally Attractive Son Should Always Be Roughly the Same Age
When J.J. Abrams brought back '90s "It" girl Winona Ryder for his Star Trek reboot, the biggest shock wasn't that the former shoplifter was still acting. It was that, despite the fact that Ryder looks pretty much the same as she did 15 years ago, she plays mom to an actor (Zachary Quinto) only five years her junior.
You see this in movies constantly, and in case it's never made you as uncomfortable as it should before, just remember that every one of those movie kids can only have been brought into this world by way of an unspeakable crime and/or a complete and total overhaul of the human reproductive system.
Enjoy your day either way.
However, the mother-child pairing in Oliver Stone's Alexander takes it to another level. Fresh-faced Angelina Jolie plays mom ...
Seems fine so far.
... to a weather-beaten Colin Farrell ...
... who in real life was born not even a year after Jolie. Following this trajectory, we can look forward to future movies where mothers are played by women even younger than their onscreen offspring.
Casting females too young for a role doesn't stop with the kinder-mom. Vulture charted the relative ages of male movie stars and their female love interests, and the results are something out of the "World According to Wooderson" playbook. Male actors get older; their female co-stars stay the same age. Matthew McConaughey was supposed to be playing a sleazeball, right?
Why It Needs to Stop
Not only are these casting choices distracting, they also marginalize women. As we've mentioned before, Hollywood is tough on women. There are plenty of talented, attractive actresses of all ages that can fill these roles. Continuing to let the superficial (age) outweigh anything else a female has to offer is detrimental to female actors vying for these roles and to the audiences who consume the final product.
Nearly 25 years ago, Roger Ebert wrote an essay on why a young Julia Roberts was always paired with much older, wealthier men onscreen. What it boiled down to was the stranglehold middle-aged white men have on what gets churned out and fed to the masses. Unfortunately, a quarter of century later, not much has changed.
A Wizened Expert Must Show Up to Explain It All in Horror Movies
Horror movies, by their very nature, involve fantastical happenings that make no sense in the real world. Why is this happening? How can we stop it? The main characters run around doing so many incredibly stupid things that losing them to a demonic force would actually benefit the gene pool.
That is, until the "Wizened Expert" shows up with a monologue as long and as boring as an economics dissertation to set everyone straight.
Shut up and get killed by a ghost already.
The recent spate of completely interchangeable horror films (Sinister, The Conjuring, Dark Skies, Insidious, Insidious 2, The Haunting in Connecticut, and The Haunting in Connecticut 2, which actually takes place in Georgia) where weird shit is going down in the house, yet everyone continues to hang around and do counter-intuitive things like refusing to turn lights on or playing really annoying games that no sane person could find enjoyable even if the house were demon-free, are prime examples.
Sinister stars '90s dreamboat Ethan Hawke as a boozy, down-on-his-luck, true-crime writer. In an awe-inspiring display of shitty parenting, Hawke moves his family into a murder house without them knowing it was the scene of a brutal family massacre. Things start to go south pretty quickly, but the somewhat creepy premise gets more contrived as the film progresses, culminating with "demon expert" Vincent D'Onofrio literally phoning in his warning via Skype.
And I do mean literally.
As Hawke sits in his home office, inexplicably lit only by his MacBook, he listens to D'Onofrio talk about an ancient deity named "Bughuul" (rhymes with Bejewel). Besides sounding like a cheap knockoff game that would definitely give your phone a virus, Bughuul also "eats children." Both the exchange between Hawke and D'Onofrio and the back story are so silly, they drop any pretense of Sinister pulling off its claims of being a scary movie.
Why It Needs to Stop
It's a cheap and easy way to move the plot along by dropping in a know-it-all who can explain the how and why so we can quickly be set up for the inevitable demon showdown. Of course the audience needs to know what's going on, but there should be more showing and less telling. Session 9, which takes place in an abandoned psychiatric ward, does a pretty good job of this. The movie slowly unravels the horror without resorting to the cliche greens keeper showing up out of nowhere with a basket full of exposition.
On the bright side, the fact that this happens so often in horror films means not a single person making movies in that genre has read that stupid cat book.
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