Michael Clayton, Network, The Godfather, and You
I have been kidding the marketers of Michael Clayton in the liner notes of this blog of late. It’s not that they did a poor job getting the word out on George Clooney’s fall release, it just points up the problem we all face of how to sell an idea that doesn’t fit neatly into a box.
We’ll start with that title. I guess they had Julia Roberts’ Erin Brokovich in mind. That was the name of a person, too, and that worked out okay. Except the real Erin Brokovich was part of the pitch, the true-life story that movie was based on was well known, and the real Erin turned out to be a hell of a spokesperson who wound up with an investigative reporting show of her own. So maybe just a name as the title isn’t the best way to “say what it is.”
And let’s not go into “The Truth Can Be Adjusted,” the overlay that accompanied the poster for Michael Clayton. What exactly does THAT mean? And, having now seen the movie, I am even more confused about what that has to do with the story.
If only the marketing department at Warner Brothers had read Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies! This is the sequel to the now legendary (I kill me sometimes) “Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.” Cat! 2 is all about genre, my theory being that most great stories fall into 10 story types — and each follows patterns that audiences love to see.
We frankly can’t get enough of “Monster in the House” flicks, which make up Chapter One of the book. This is any monster movie, usually enhanced by an isolated “house” into which the star is loosed to ply his trade. You can tell this story again and again (as long as yours has a fresh twist) and we will line up to see it. Why? Because if you can recreate the elements of a successful “MITH” you will have audiences eating out of your monster’s thorny little hand.
“Dude with a Problem”? This is the type of movie that pits an “ordinary man” against “extraordinary circumstances” — just take a look at how North by Northwest begat Three Days of the Condor which begat The Bourne Supremacy. See? Even down to core elements, such as the “Eye of the Storm” character in each of those tales (Eva Marie Saint, Faye Dunaway, and Franka Potente, respectively) who appear to assist the “dude on the run,” these repeating patterns are vital to success.
As long as you know what elements are important, the template works every time.
Michael Clayton may have stumped the marketing department at Warner Brothers, but it didn’t stump me — at least once I finally saw it. While they were wrestling (I’m sure) with questions like: Is it a comedy? Is it a thriller? Is it a spiritual drama? To me, the answer is easy. Michael Clayton is a type of movie I call “Institutionalized.”
Tales of the “Institutionalized” kind (discussed in depth in Chapter Nine) are all about “the group.” And we as cavemen GET that dilemma. The “group” takes us Neanderthals on the Woolly Mammoth hunt every year, and every year — thanks to the tradition of how we hunt — half our guys get killed. Only the weenies in the tribe object to this tradition, and those that object too loudly are drummed out of the cave. But YOU know there’s a better way. Can you fight your elders to convince them they’re wrong? Or do you need to burn the cave down and start again?
That’s what Michael Clayton is essentially about. Instead of cavemen, it’s lawyers. As the titular Michael Clayton, George Clooney is the guy who has gone along with the tribe his whole life. He’s been fed, and sheltered, and yes even loved by his tribe. And guess what?
So what is he going to do?
It’s not only a great primal tale… it’s the oldest story in our DNA.
If only we had been told that’s what the story was, we might have gone to see it!
Further proof that Michael Clayton falls into this category comes with more comparison and contrast with other “Institutionalized” stories, and lo! A lot of other interesting coincidences pop up.
Take a look at the “crazy” Tom Wilkenson character in Michael Clayton, then look at that very same character played by Peter Finch in another “I” tale: Network. “Who’s crazier them or me?” is the ongoing question (and one reason I picked the name “Institutionalized” to describe this genre type). In fact, the line “You’re crazy!” appears in many tales of the “I” kind — from MASH to Training Day to American Beauty.
Last night while watching The Godfather on AMC, I noted how it too so nicely falls into this category. Poor Al Pacino is sucked into his family’s business, little knowing until the end of Godfather 2 that he has committed spiritual “suicide” for the cause. Even Al’s line in Godfather 3 that is maybe the only famous moment from that film sums up the “I” dilemma: “Every time I try to get out, they pull me BACK IN!”
Can we have a more appropriate theme song for this story?
Point of all this is, if YOU are writing a movie like this, or trying to sell it to a public who knows nothing except that “George Clooney is in it,” it’s always a good idea to figure out what your movie is most like. It helps us as writers figure out why we’re writing, and it helps marketers tell us “What is it?”