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?”
- Monkey Boi
HA HA HA HA. Everytime i read something Blake writes it cracks me up. He’s such a dude. nice one Blake, rip into a movie that was far better written and made that either … two? of yours. I know you may have sold 13 feature scripts, and maybe some of them are real good, real good, but i doubt it.
It seems like people seem to believe that you have come up with some formula to writing a screenplay…where really all you have done is taken a well know formula of story, first written by Aristotle and then adopted by the likes of Don Simpson and Syd Field, given the “Beats” some quirky names and passed it off like some magic formula.
I have read both your books and found them deeply disturbing. yes , you understand the formula of story, but any writer worth a damn does too, but you seem deluded into thinking that YOU found out that all films/stories fit into 10 story types – well they don’t, theres actually 11, the last one you missed was STORYS THAT SUCK and i believe that both Blank Cheque and Stop….fit perfectly into that type.
Stop being a Mckey and write something thats worth a damn. Jeez, at least someone like Kevin Smith or John August is worth a damn when they talk about writing – what story type does john’s latest movie The Nines fit in by the way – is that Dude with a problem? Golden fleece?
Also, what by the way is wrong with Memento? is it that is doesn’t follow the BS2? or that it confuses you?
Anyway, please go back to sucking – The Nanny sound amusing by the way – way to rip of Serial Mom.
- Doug Miller
I wonder if Monkey Boi’s attitude goes hand in hand with his punctuation and language skills. Being a reader, I can tell you that these things are the first tip off to a poor writing sample.
Blake, you’re on track. Don’t let illiterate ramblings and defeatist attitudes deter you.
Wow, who knew jealousy could strike with such (illiterate) venom.
I guess Monkey Boi’s tantrum just proves that, when you’re onto something real, those with less talent just turn green with envy.
- Robert Henny
What I find interesting about this Monkey Boi attack is that he goes after Blake for “ripping into” Michael Clayton when, in fact, Blake does nothing of the sort. He was simply admonishing the marketing department for not properly promoting the film, which would have been a much easier task had they discovered what it was. To the rest of the nonsensical ramblings, Blake has never claimed to have discovered story, nor does he take credit away from Aristotle or McKee or Field. He has simply devised another, and I feel more coherent and palatable, way of discussing and breaking down story structure. Oh, and Blake doesn’t try and tell people how to create every kind of movie, just every kind of successful, commercial film. If you want to write movies like “The Nines,” use whatever structure you want. Just take your $63,000 domestic total and 5 screen opening and head over to an indie fest where someone gives a rat’s ass about what you think. Oops, I mean, I disagree with your post.
- Sarah Beach
To the important stuff first: Regarding titles…
Erin Brokovich worked very nicely as a title, even if you didn’t know anything about the real woman, because it’s an unusual sounding name, and thus memorable. It has a certain rhythm, and interesting sounds to it. “Michael Clayton” is too ordinary a name to carry that kind of interest, just on the sound of it. So, it really, really needed to have a name that more closely addressed the theme or plot.
I think that’s something writers (and even marketing folks) may overlook: the mere sound of a title.
As for the poo-flinging Monkey Boi… alas, I think he’s been indulging too much in self-expression without checking effectiveness with an audience (if he has one). Here we have Blake, finding an arena where his communication skills really shine, where he is nurturing and encouraging FAR more enthusiasm for writing than I’ve heard from people who have studied McKee or Syd Field, and Monkey Boi is telling him to stop and … go back to writing things Monkey Boi finds lacking? Gee. Great logic there.
Okay, back to our much more interesting discussions on the marketing (or lack thereof) of Michael Clayton.
- Bill C,
Regarding the title of Michael Clayton: I thought the film was about an Irish historical figure, one who was in some way or another heroic, and who was an actual person. The title mislead me completely and I never went to see it in the theatre. The only upside to this for me was when I did see it, by chance, I had no idea what it was about and my expectations were defied completely. I loved it. I wonder what people think the b story was? The story with Tom Wilkenson?
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Thanks for another great post, Blake.
Can you explain the “lemon seed” concept in a little more detail? Maybe some more examples?