Writing the Science Fiction Film

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IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE! IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA! IT CAME FROM THE PRIMEVAL WORLD! IT CAME FROM THE LABORATORY OF A MAD SCIENTIST!

Whatever its origins, there’s nothing quite like a good Sci-Fi flick to get us wondering, “Could this really happen?” In his new book, Writing the Science Fiction Film, Robert Grant not only dissects what makes this genre so popular with audiences of all ages but also provides aspiring screenwriters with the tools, insights and allegorical viewpoints they need to create their own plots that are out-of-this-world.

In addition to his accomplished background as a filmmaker, screenwriter, critic and script consultant, Grant is Literary Editor for SCI-FI-LONDON and serves on the jury for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature, the UK’s most prestigious award. If you’re going to be warding off alien invasions, disabling evil robots, battling mutant crab monsters or tweaking around with time-travel, this is the go-to guy you’re going to want in your corner.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Were you a fan of science fiction flicks when you were growing up? If so, what are some of the movies that have stuck with you to this day?

A: Absolutely, I watched lots of Sci-Fi, some early favourites being Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Time Machine, Day of the Triffids, Sleeper, Dark Star, Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run… I could go on forever! And it wasn’t just films because, of course, there was lots of Sci-Fi on TV – Land of the Giants, Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, Space 1999, Thunderbirds, Star Trek and even The Jetsons!

I do think that I started to take it more seriously as I reached my mid-teens. Films like Fahrenheit 451, It Happened Here and A Clockwork Orange started to resonate more as I understood the subtext and what the stories were actually trying to tell me.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the influence that the Cold War had on Sci-Fi movies during the 1950s; specifically, using aliens from other planets as a metaphor for Communist invasion.

A: Well the influence of the Cold War on science fiction is undeniably huge. It was the time when the military-industrial complex came of age. Rockets and rocket power became more and more important on the battlefield and at the same time the proliferation of nuclear weapons brought the possibility of horrors like Hiroshima and Nagasaki to everyone’s doorstep along with the dangers of exposure to nuclear fallout. Science fiction used all kinds of horrors from shape-shifting aliens to giant ants to represent foreign invaders taking over the US and destroying everything that Americans hold dear and audiences were happy to take it all in.

Q: Flash forward to the 21st century. Who’s the enemy that the themes of current Sci-Fi films want to keep us paranoid about?

A: I think right now we are our own worst enemy. If you look at the current crop of science fiction films there’s a huge tendency to depict apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios, usually triggered by our own wanton hubris. Films like Children of Men, Splice, Contagion, 28 Days Later, The Road, I Am Legend and so on explore what happens when technological advance goes on unchecked and unmonitored, and how much of a knife edge we’re on when it comes to the difference between success and disaster.

Q: Sci-Fi and Fantasy are two genres in which plots unfold in alternative universes/realms and with characters that possess non-mortal looks/abilities. What elements and distinctions should a writer consider in deciding which category his plot best fits?

A: Well science fiction and fantasy are two entirely different and separate genres and the clue is in the name. A good science fiction story will rely on the ‘science’ part of that moniker in order to work, and the closer to present day your Sci-Fi is set, the more your science has to make sense. Ultimately if the science isn’t coherent, cohesive, and at the very least feasible then your story will very quickly fall apart. Very crudely – and there are exceptions to the rule on both sides – fantasy doesn’t need an explanation for why something is the way it is or how something happens, it’s just ‘magic’, but science fiction demands explanation.

Q: What do you feel Sci-Fi offers to both writers and audiences that other genres do not?

A: Science fiction is known as “the genre of ideas” and that really does sum it up. Sci-Fi lets us examine big issues and pose difficult questions, putting a spotlight on them and saying “Look at this! Look what’s going on!” in order to get people to start talking about it, but importantly, it can do this without pointing fingers directly at any individual or group.

Think about what currently keeps people up at night. Global warming? Environmental damage? Terrorist threat? Erosion of civil liberties? CCTV and the lack of privacy? Rampant corporatisation? The poverty gap? GM crops? More than any other genre, science fiction deals directly with these kinds of changes and the effects they have on society. It flips us out of our own cosy existence and forces us to think about society in different ways, showing us that the usual way of doing things might not be the only way, that there may be a better way, but – and it’s a very important but – science fiction rarely gives us the answers or preaches any kind of solution, it just gets the conversation started. Solutions are up to all of us to work out.

In the end it comes down to this; if you want to write about the nature of humanity and its relationship to the world around it, you pretty much have to write science fiction.

Q: What are some of the most common mistakes that beginning Sci-Fi writers make (and how can they fix them)?

A: Unlike any other, science fiction is both a genre and a setting and unlike other genres it comes in all shapes and sizes. Romantic Comedies are romantic and funny, horror films are horrifying, dramas are dramatic and thrillers are thrilling. But science fiction can be all of those things and be science-fictional. For example:

Star Man (1984) is a romance and a science fiction film
Alien (1979) is a horror movie and a science fiction film
ET (1982) is a family movie and a science fiction film
The Terminator (1984) is an action movie and a science fiction film
Never Let Me Go (2010) is a drama and a science fiction film
Logan’s Run (1976) is a thriller and a science fiction film
Sleeper (1973) is a comedy and a science fiction film

You can see the dilemma straight away. What exactly are you writing? Are you writing a western set in space (Firefly) or a noir detective story set in the far future (Blade Runner) and, as you might suspect, the truth actually lies somewhere between the two.

All genres have their particular story beats, a romantic comedy has to have the “cute meet”, action movies have their “hamlet moment”, thrillers generally have a compressed time frame and those things must be observed. When figuring out your story, you will save yourself a whole lot of time and trouble if you figure out your primary genre and then write to the beats of that genre to start with. If you’re writing a science fiction revenge thriller then I would suggest that you actually plot a decent revenge thriller first and then as you re-write – and assuming the science is crucial to the story – build up the science fiction elements slowly, revealing your world through action and character rather than trying to build a Sci-Fi world and shoehorning a revenge thriller plot into it. You’ll be rewarded with a far better screenplay if you do it that way, believe me.

Q: Give us some examples of Sci-Fi movies that embrace similar themes but are totally different from each other.

A: Good question! The easiest examples of this are how we typically represent ‘the alien’ in Sci-Fi and the two polar opposite approaches here. One way is the simple alien people, living their lives in peace and of no threat to anyone until we show up – usually to colonise their lands and exploit their resources – in films like Avatar (2009), Planet 51 (2009) or Terra (2007). The flip side of that are the films where we are attacked or invaded by aliens that are bent on wiping out humankind, which we see in everything from The Blob (1958) to Independence Day (1996) to Mars Attacks (1996). The themes are the same in both versions, the taking away of liberty and of freedom, loss of identity, the destruction of a way of life in pursuit of advancement, the loss of control to a dominant power, the ‘win at all costs’ mentality. These kinds of films rose to prominence during the paranoia of the Cold War but they crop up time again, regardless of whether we are being invaded or doing the invading, with the same warnings. They point to suspect foreign policies, global corporatisation, erosion of civil liberties and just basic greed whether the method is stealthy and insidious (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or brash and uncaring (War of the Worlds).

Q: There’s no question that technology (and especially 3D) has given Sci-Fi movies a completely different look and sense of realism that didn’t exist decades ago. Has all of this high-tech eye-candy, though, come at the expense of weaker stories, poor dialogue, and characters that aren’t fully developed?

A: That’s a complex question and a difficult one to answer, in some ways yes and in some ways no. Around the world a lot of smart, challenging well-written, engaging, science fiction films come out every year but don’t make it to the local multiplex and that’s where festivals like SCI-FI-LONDON do a lot to showcase Sci-Fi you won’t see anywhere else on the big screen. In a number of cases the money to make those smaller films has come from studio funds raised on the success of some blockbuster hit – the one paying for the other – and so we need those big films to help prop-up the industry at all levels. A director of photography, gaffer or post house will often look more favourably at working for basic fees on small projects coming off the back of a big project that was a success.

I think people forget that this is the film ‘business’ – with ‘business’ being the operative word. Box office earnings are up – mostly due to the escalating cost of seeing a film, especially one in 3D – but audience numbers aren’t growing as much so the big studios have to find different ways to maximise the revenue streams they can get from a property in order to make the most profit they can. This is why adaptations these days come from everywhere, not just novels but toys, comic books, video games and even theme park rides, because any way of leveraging profit from a film has to be explored. The downside of this is that if the decision makers don’t understand the audience properly, their ‘films for teenage boys’ get dumbed-down by sacrificing character, plot, dialogue and so on in favour of pretty girls and explosions, films that are expensive to make but are filled with eye-candy. Great if they’re a hit, very costly if they are not. But it doesn’t have to be that way, love him or loathe him Christopher Nolan has shown that if you treat the property with respect and credit the audience with some intelligence then science fiction films can be well written, complex, nuanced and challenging while still being filled with eye-candy and turning a big profit.

Q: A common cliché in movies of this genre is that as soon as the supreme bad guy is killed off, his minions always scatter. A wounded – or even dead – good guy, however, has loyal followers who will continue to fight. Is it that evil minions aren’t all that vested in the cause/outcome or that they just can’t function without a leader?

A: I’m not sure that it’s a common cliché of Sci-Fi movies or just a common cliché of movies in general, you could equally be talking about a James Bond film or Lord of the Rings. The practicality of writing is that minions don’t get any more screen time than they need and films are generally about the good guy vs. the bad guy so they stop once that story has been told. There are probably exceptions to the rule but….

Q: How much do you have to know about science, math and physics to write a plausible Sci-Fi plot?

A: In reality, nothing, but if you want your film to stand up to scrutiny then it at least has to be plausible and that’s where research comes in. Start online and Google the relevant science that relates to your story, then find a scientist and ask them if they’ll answer questions for you. Use Twitter or Facebook to track them down – they’re out there, they’re usually nice as pie and love to chat about their work. The trick for the writer is to figure out how much of the science the audience needs to know or understand for the story to work. If the answer is ‘absolutely nothing’ then great, don’t get bogged down in it, but if the story depends on the science to work – which is true for a lot of things that centre around contagion, genetics, environmental change, space flight and so on, things close to home – then you owe it to your audience to make sure you understand the basic mechanics and get it right. The mantra though is “only as much as is necessary”, you don’t want to be boring, but it’s worth pointing out that quite often you’ll find that the research conveniently helps with plotting, turning up things you might not otherwise have thought about.

Q: Aren’t Sci-Fi movies awfully expensive to make these days? What if someone is passionate about making an indie Sci-Fi film but has a really small budget?

A: Go ahead and make it! The world has changed and it’s never been easier or cheaper to get the technology at your fingertips to make any film, not just a science fiction film. But the best Sci-Fi is not always the big budget extravaganza. Primer famously cost just $7000 to make but other notable low-budget Sci-Fi films include Mad Max, Cypher, Pi and more recently, Moon, Attack the Block and Monsters. If you have a great story and a great script, then good costumes, interesting locations and great acting will take you a long way before you have to think about special effects, and these days there are a plethora of crowd-funding/crowd-sourcing sites to showcase your project and get help or raise extra funds. Be brave, be bold and go for it.

Q: In a Sci-Fi tableau, which villain would you personally rather do battle with – a mortal without any conscience or a computer that is sentient?

A: I think that a mortal villain would be easier and more predictable. We are creatures of habit and if your villain has no conscience they can always be relied on to do the wrong thing. This makes them emotional, vulnerable to manipulation and thus defeat. Additionally physical strength and mental agility would play a part and I would take my chances on both counts. An AI on the other hand would not be susceptible to tricks or manipulation and physical strength doesn’t apply. An AI would only ever examine the data and take the most advantageous course of action regardless, making it almost impossible to beat in terms of mental agility. All in all I think I’d rather take on the mortal.

Q: How do you find ideas for out-of-this-world Sci-Fi plots? Hasn’t everything already been done?

A: We will never be all done with telling stories! Whatever idea you can think of can always be told in more than one way with more than one outcome. As most writers will tell you, ideas are all around us; you just have to start looking for them and you’ll be amazed at how often you’re turning them away rather than struggling to find them. I use news channels online or RSS feeds to track the types of stories that I’m interested in and then file them away with a clipping tool to re-use later. I also read a lot, watch documentaries and find new people to chat with – all of these are fuel for story ideas. Once I have my basic ideas I use several of the techniques that I outline in the book to flesh those out into outlines and eventually complete stories. I’m never short of ideas!

Q: In your view, would it be harder for a Sci-Fi time-traveler to go back in time or to go forward?

A: I think forward. Projecting yourself back in time means you are placing yourself into a physical space that did exist so you know the size, shape, conditions etc. and your biggest issue would be not displacing any of that and changing anything. Going forward in time means trying to predict the shape, size, condition and location of the physical space and hoping you get it right. Like trying to fire a bullet at a moving target while blindfolded and with no idea what direction the target is, how far away it is or how big.

Q: What’s the best Sci-Fi film you’ve ever seen?

A: Couldn’t possibly say, I like so many. There are perennial favourites, films I’ll watch whenever they’re on but even then it depends on my mood and whether or not I want action, adventure and derring-do or quiet, introspective contemplation. I’m probably far more likely to reach for something new to watch though than go back to something I’ve seen.

Q: And the absolute worst?

A: There are many, many candidates, and I’m not that cruel…

Q: What films do you recommend aspiring Sci-Fi filmmakers watch in order to understand the craft?

A: I would start by watching the AFI’s top 50 science-fiction films, first to see what you’re up against and to learn the themes and tropes that crop up time and again. But I’d also watch the top films of the type you want to write be it thriller, action, drama, comedy, romance etc. because as I said before, if you start by writing a terrific thriller and then work on the SF aspects, you’ll get a better thriller than if you build a Sci-Fi world and then try to shoehorn a thriller into it.

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A: I have two feature scripts I’m working on currently and I’m just about to start on a very exciting web series with a Director/Producer team here in the UK.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about you?

A: I’m a big fan of cake.

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