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In these weeks I got to work on script 14, after taking an extra day on script 13, which didn’t go too fast with its 125 pages. I will tell you the title of script 14, since the subject of this post can’t be explained without it. It is Avatar (2009). You know, the epic, lengthy (2 hours 42 minutes, 152 (!) pages of script) 3D science fiction spectacle, breaking new cinematic ground, all envisioned, written and directed by James Cameron. The budget to make it was estimated between $280 and $310 million plus $150 million for promotion. It grossed a whopping $2.8 billion till today, earning its first billion dollars in only 19 days since its release and crossing the $2 billion mark within 2 months. Also the first movie ever to cross that mark. So, with those numbers it is safe to say, it was and still is pretty successful and popular. I too am a fan of the movie, especially on the big screen, where it can be fully appreciated the way it was intended.
Apart from the many fans it has, there are also numerous people who don’t like it and mainly for one thing. It’s not an original story. We’ve seen this story before and many times even and sometimes almost exactly the same. In Dances With Wolves (1990), Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992) and Pocahontas (1995) to name only a few. And that’s what a lot of people are complaining about these days, the lack of originality in Hollywood and the overload of remakes and reboots recently. Which I tend to agree with, there definitely seems to be a lot of them now. But then I read that Hollywood does that to avoid taking risks, they know there is an audience for certain movies and who knows, it might be because of the less-than-ideal economic situation at the moment. But I don’t want to get into that particular argument right now. Besides, there is a difference between a remake/reboot and telling a similar story again.
People who are saying they want original stories should seriously ask themselves when they have watched an original story, that’s never been told before in some shape or form. I don’t think people realize there isn’t such a thing. Every story that’s ever been told, has already been told before. Every life that’s been lived, has already been lived before. Not in every detail, but pretty much overall. We all like to think we’re unique and our lives are unique and they are. In the detail. But when you start to look at life events and the struggles we go through, the happy times we experience, we are not the only ones who have those experiences. Most of us experience the same things. Have similar lives in that regard. Now, don’t get all defensive here if you disagree, I too still view my life and who I am as unique, there is no one like me. And there really isn’t. We all are a unique person. But we all have similar experiences and stories. They won’t be exactly the same, but when you lay them next to each other, they will look very similar to an audience. Did I already write about Groundhog Day (1993) and Bruce Almighty (2003) being in fact the same story? Think about it: a not too nice guy, only thinking about himself and his needs, getting access to some special powers, then using that for his own good, wanting a girl (back), also trying his powers on her and failing, realizing it ain’t working, then starting to do good for others, not to get her (back), but because he sees it’s the right thing to do, and in the end getting her (back) anyways, now a changed man. Then why haven’t I heard people compare these two movies so much? Because the, although quite similar, story is wrapped into two very different packages. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t the same story, because they are. And how many endless movies are there, about for instance a boy meeting a girl, losing her or having trouble getting the girl and eventually getting her in the end. In other words, about the struggles in relationships, in all shapes or forms. And how many movies about fighting disastrous nature events or crime or going after a treasure, overcoming obstacles along the way. I already wrote about it before, apparently there are only 7 basic plots and about 36 dramatic situations and I believe it (Week 13).
I believe we should stop trying to fight that, to try to write a different, unique, completely original story at all cost, which in the end will have similarities to other stories anyways, but will now fail miserably and won’t work, because of its unfamiliarity with anything else and in the wanting to be different throw overboard all the good things about the art of good storytelling. Because I live in Europe, I see this here more than in any other continent. European films made by independent filmmakers, that are so anti-Hollywood, that they want to make a ‘different’ film at all costs and stupid enough surpass all the good things that Hollywood films do possess. Because believe it or not, there is a reason why so many films produced in and by Hollywood work. And why so many independent films don’t work or don’t get any further than their own country. They are so anti-Hollywood that they refuse to study the art of good storytelling and why it works so well. Learn the rules and then break them if you want. At least then you know what the heck you’re doing and why. But I seem to digress into the direction of story structure now, but it has to do with the kind of stories we look for to tell as well.
I don’t think the same old stories are being told over and over because of financial reasons or a lack of imagination or originality. I think, no, I know we keep telling the same old stories, because we need those stories to be told over and over. Stories are equipment for living. And only hearing a story once, in one form, in one shape, won’t cut it. Stories that are close to our heart, that are important to us, that speak to events happening in our own lives, that are similar to the struggles and feelings we’re dealing with. Important issues we run into over and over in our lives, or are perhaps issues that need to be addressed in our lives and our world. Those stories all need to be told over and over. We cannot hear those enough. And going back to a movie like Avatar, with so many familiar themes in it, about family, love, becoming who we want to be and not to forget the global issue it also addresses, taking better care of our planet, I don’t think we should ever stop telling those kind of stories. And I think it was and still is so successful, because its themes speak to us and some need to speak to us. However uncomfortable to some. Those kind of stories too are equipment for living.
I think our aim, as (future) screenwriters, should not be to find an original story, because remember, there aren’t any, but rather find stories that keep speaking to people, us. Stories that are close to our hearts and what matters (or should matter) to us. And instead we should try to find a different package or a way of telling that story, that doesn’t feel too similar to others out there. When I think about Shakespeare, which I am now diving into as you know, I think ‘why are his stories (written way back in the 16th and 17th century) still read today and stand the test of time’? They stand the test of time, because not only were they current then and have always been, they are still current today. They are stories of power, love, friendship, loyalty, war, revenge. Those themes are still relevant in our lives now and will continue to be. They are universal themes and stories, that we can all relate to. And these stories are told over and over in various shapes and forms, but not many people are aware of that and think they are original stories today. Or do know of their origin, but don’t mind. And those stories back then weren’t original stories either, you know.
So, if we want to be original, by all means, let’s find original ways to tell the same old stories, and stop looking for (or bitching about the lack of) original stories. The old stories stand the test of times for a good reason and serve a good purpose. Equipment for living. And that really isn’t such a bad thing, don’t you agree?
Now, on another note, our feedback about the gruelling tempo has paid off somewhat, since Karel has now introduced the use of a wildcard, under the motto of ‘life throws you curveballs sometimes’. Meaning we can skip one script if we have the need for a breather. So after that, you can ‘jump ahead aka catch up’ 5 days. Well, I already took my days and since Avatar with its 152 pages of immensely but beautiful novelistic writing has set me back even farther, and now is starting to cause stress to fall too far behind, I am going to use that wildcard for an upcoming script which has a very stressful story. No need to add any of that right now. And I am fine with it. I still think that the tempo might be too fast for many, myself included, but if he indeed had that MBA level on his mind, tempo-wise, then it makes sense that he doesn’t change it. It is what it is. And being so close to phase 2, after having done almost 20 scripts now, ok, it will be 19, I will leave it for others to battle with.
I definitely look forward to the end of this extremely intense 100-day phase and I know I’m not the only one. But you know what they say, right? No pain, no gain. And speaking of old stories, we’re all very familiar with those kinds, right? They’re tough, but we do learn through them. Equipment for living.