How to Make the Greatest Movie Ever

May 6, 2011

Old_School_JVC_Camcorderby Maggie Kruger

Listen up Hollywood, I’m about to throw you a few home truths.  A lot of your favourite actors need to go back to drama school.  A lot of your hotshot directors couldn’t direct themselves out of a wet paper bag.  A lot of your movies are among the greatest crimes ever committed to celluloid.

Some films are enjoyably terrible: have a look at Jason’s ‘Deep Fried Cheese’ series to get the best of the schlock, and how many times have you told a friend that a movie is ‘so bad it’s good!’?  We all love a good bad flick: it’s no secret how much I love Beastmaster, and as I sit here typing away I’m watching Home Alone 3 and not hating it, even though every fibre of my being tells me I should switch it off and put on something far less ridiculous (although having just done a channel hop and realising that there’s a TV movie about Prince William and Kate Middleton on, I think I’m better off sticking with the mischievous kid).  Heck, I even watched Anaconda 3 the other week because a friend is in it: high art it ain’t but it made me laugh for a good hour after I’d switched it off.

My biggest problem with Hollywood (or indeed, any country’s film industry) is that it is/they are money, not arts-oriented.  Who cares if a film is good or not, so long as it rakes in the cash, right?  Who cares that the leading man or lady is totally miscast, so long as audiences flock to the opening weekend, right? And who cares if the director’s best-known work to date is a Lady Gaga video, so long as they bring it in on time and under budget, right?

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

Yes, I know that there are exceptions to the rule: when David Fincher made the moody, broody and really rather good Alien³ his biggest hit till then had been a Madonna promo.  I thought Avatar, the highest-grossing movie ever, was amazing.  No-one thought that Tom Cruise could play an oppressed Irish emigre in Far and Away, and they were right.  But when he’s not jumping on sofas, Wee Tommy O’Cruise can occasionally turn in a surprisingly good, against-type performance – Magnolia and Interview with the Vampire spring immediately to mind, although I hated his bit in Tropic Thunder with every fibre of my being.

Before I get too comfortable up here on my soapbox, I should probably clarify that despite all appearances to the contrary, I do love mainstream cinema.  It’s big and silly and entertains me.  It just frustrates me that it churns out so much rubbish.  So to move swiftly onto the subject in hand: how can Hollywood make the best movie ever? What would make it the best movie ever? Who should write it?  Direct it? Who should be in it?  Of course, every single person on the planet has a different idea of what makes a great movie: one man’s Citizen Kane is another man’s Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow, after all.

I’m being purely subjective here.

Selecting a Story

7 Basic Plots book.

7 Basic Plots book... just pick one already!

First and foremost, story.  If there are only 7 basic plots in storytelling, then it shouldn’t be so difficult to create a narrative that works… or even one that doesn’t have more holes in it than a piece of Emmenthal Cheese (I’m looking at YOU, The Lake House). Every movie you’ve ever loved can be traced back to one of 7 basic premises: Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches, The Quest, Comedy, Tragedy, Voyage and Return, and Rebirth.  Even movies that take 8 viewings before they make sense, or can be interpreted in a squillion different ways, like Inception, The Matrix or Black Swan, can be boiled down to one of those (magnificent) seven.

Truly original stories seem so few and far between these days: just look at all the sequels,  reboots and comic book adaptations coming out this year (disclaimer: I love comic book movies, so I’m not saying that’s a necessarily terrible thing – it’s only May and I’ve already got Thor down as one of my movies of the year).

Have we run out of stories?  Surely not, as long as the likes of Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky and Terry Gilliam are around – innovative directors who make consistently beautiful work, and coax amazing performances out of their actors (just look at 12 Monkeys – who knew Bruce and Brad could be so good!).  And that’s not to say that remakes can’t be better than the original: the Vincent Price version of The Fly is all well and good but it’s not a patch on the Cronenberg remake.

I have to admit that a lot of the time I don’t like films adapted from books I know well: The Time Traveller’s Wife, The Golden Compass, even Kubrick’s The Shining to a certain extent – all great novels, didn’t translate well to the big screen, as if no one took a minute to think about what elements would be essential to the story and could never fit into a 2 hour movie.  The Time Traveller’s Wife was particularly disappointing – the casting was all wrong (more of this later) and whilst it used the skeleton of the storyline, to me it left out the heart and soul of what made the book such a wonderful love story – those character developing episodes that gave each character any depth.  Plus the kid in it made me properly nauseous.

Of course it would be churlish of me not to admit that there are a shedload of amazing films based on books  that aren’t horrible, or that I don’t know the source material well enough to justifiably pass comment – just look at Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (never read ‘em but loved all 3 films).  So before I get lynched by a group of LOTR fans insisting that there were no elves at Helms Deep, onwards.

You need a decent screenplay to tell your brilliant story – and that can often be the first hurdle a movie falls at.  Again, some movies fall into the so bad it’s funny category (I have a soft spot for some of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s kiss-off lines… ‘What happened to Buzzsaw?’/ ‘He had to split’…brilliant) but some movies contain dialogue so bad it’s beyond painful – ladies and gentlemen I give you Gigli:

J. Lo: ‘It’s turkey time’

Affleck: ‘What?’

J. Lo (nodding towards her crotch): ‘Gobble gobble’.


Is it really that difficult to write credible dialogue?  Do audiences WANT credible dialogue?  After all, everyone has a movie quote that they trot out on all occasions (Bless her, my mum still uses ‘Not!’ from the Wayne’s World films), and more often than not, they’re the cheesiest, crappiest lines in the whole shebang.

Having said that though, there are some brilliant screenwriters running around the world right now –one of my particular favourites is William Goldman (the man’s a fracking GENIUS), but look at the ladies coming up behind him – Jane Goldman, Diablo Cody. With the amount of fresh talent rising up the ranks, there’s really no reason for Joe Eszterhas to ever have one of his screenplays made, ever again.  Really.

Choosing a Director

So we’ve got the words, onto the next important element: the director.  Now, call me old fashioned, but I like a director who can actually tell a story by, y’know, storytelling, not relying on editing so fast it could induce epileptic fits, or on so many crappy effects. Have a look at Frank Darabont and Sam Mendez’ movies – almost theatrical in their cinematography, and confident in slow, unflashy cuts: The Shawshank Redemption and Road to Perdition are superb examples of this.

Other personal favourites are Cameron Crowe, Stanley Kubrick, Peter Weir and, I feel like I should whisper it, James Cameron. I’m aware that after the first viewing Titanic is long and arduous but if you turn it on about 80 minutes in it zips along nicely.  And yes, Elizabethtown is nothing short of horrible, but what do you expect if you cast the spectacularly charisma-less duo of Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst as your leads?

Casting the Movie

Which leads me to my next point: those pesky performers.  For every amazing actor forever doomed to obscurity, or even worse, to play the hero’s best friend, there are at least 3 talentless donkeys who are inexplicably cast in leading roles time after time. I’m fairly convinced that Shia LeBouffant has signed a pact with Lucifer, that’s the only reason I can see that he works as much as he does.

What’s almost worse is when you look at some of the terrible choices great actors can make.  I’ve looked at it from every angle and I still can’t work out what induced Nicolas Cage to star in that remake of The Wicker Man (‘My eyes!! My eyes!! Not the BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!’… I mean come on).

Before I get too carried away with my list of terrible actors (which, believe me, is long, and which I can bang on about for hours at a time) , it’s time to celebrate the ones that we want to be in the Best Movie Ever. We want the Top Gun of actors, those unsung heroes that can turn a sow’s ear of a film into a cinematic silk purse.

We all know those exceptional people who are constantly bothering Best Actor/Actress nomination lists, and also the stars, whose name alone can open a movie.  They may be the main attraction, but in my humble opinion the people you want to be looking at are the Supporting Artistes, as quite often they’re the ones making the leads look good.  The buddy, the boss, the long-suffering girlfriend, the quiet neighbour who turns out to be a raging psychopath – if I’m looking at a cast list and I see any of the following on it, I know it’s got to be worth a watch: Stanley Tucci, David Strathairn, Kathy Bates, Dianne Wiest, Ernie Hudson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Stockard Channing, Peter Stormare, John C Reilly, Helena Bonham Carter… I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

One final word on actors, as touched on earlier.  One of my issues with The Time Traveller’s Wife was the casting – I just don’t understand how anyone thought Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams were right for that movie: whilst they’re both undeniably good actors, they were totally wrong choices for those characters.  How often have you seen that happen- a popular actor in a role they’re totally unsuited to: Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; Ray Winstone in Cold Mountain (actually, most of the cast of Cold Mountain apart from the always-reliable Brendan Gleeson, James Gammon and Ethan Suplee); Keanu Reeves in just about anything?

If I’m not sure about someone’s performance in a movie, I’ll always ask myself, OK, if it wasn’t them playing that part, who would it be?  9 times out of 10 I can come up with a better alternative.  Try it, it’s an excellent game to play over a couple of beers.

So anyway, I have rambled on for a very long time about what should make a good movie and should really come to some form of conclusion.  In my head, the perfect film is one that has an intelligent, comprehensive story.  It should be written by someone who understands how movie dialogue works, and directed by someone who can tell a story without resorting to flashy tricks, although they can use the flashy tricks if it adds to the story.  It should star someone who actually knows how to act, and is the appropriate age and accent for the character.  It should also feature a host of the world’s finest character actors in an assortment of cameos/supporting roles.  It should not, under any circumstances, feature Kirsten Dunst, nor should Michael Bay be allowed anywhere near it.

Now, is that too much to ask, Hollywood?

Maggie Kruger fell asleep on her dad’s lap on her first cinema trip to watch Return of the Jedi in 1983, and has loved the movies ever since, even going so far as to study them at college, where she worked on a number of short films. She lives and works in London, UK, and will tell you that her favourite film is Dr Strangelove, although when pressed will also admit a certain weakness for 1980’s brat pack movies and most of Adam Sandler’s early work. Follow her on Twitter: @emmizzykay .

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