Opinion: Hitting a bum note Ian White March 3, 2013 Features, Opinion 2161 Stay sharp. This rant may include math. You have been warned. In a couple of paragraphs, I might be required to take my shoes and socks off so I can count on my toes. Don’t worry, I’ve washed my feet. But you could have a migraine before this rant is finished. There are some incontrovertible laws to the Universe. Never play Star Wars Monopoly with my wife. Never tell my wife ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ was not the best Star Wars film ever made. Never plot-spoil my wife, even when you’re making the spoilers up just to try and make her head explode. Ignoring those laws means flirting with an immense world of pain. Similarly, there used to be an incontrovertible law of screenwriting. Here comes the math part. The way screenplays are formatted, one page of screenplay equates to one minute of screen time. The incontrovertible law of screenwriting which should never be broken unless you’re sleeping with the person who wants to direct your movie, or holding the Heads of Studio hostage, is that no screenplay should ever exceed one hundred and twenty pages, i.e. two hours of screen time. It is well known that producers and directors, most of whom hate reading scripts anyway and will find any excuse to get out of doing it, will reject a screenplay before they’ve even opened it on the basis that, if it’s more than a hundred and twenty pages, it’s too long and therefore the writer knows nothing about story structure and therefore the producer can frisbee the screenplay into the swimming pool and head back to the bar. Similarly, if a screenplay is less than a hundred and twenty pages it’s probably too short and therefore the writer knows nothing about story structure and therefore the producer can Frisbee the screenplay into the swimming pool and head back to the bar. Which is why a lot of swimming pools contain some of my best work. But the prospect of reading my writing can get producers very drunk very fast. There are many reasons why this magical one hundred and twenty page rule was created. One of them was financial – if you make a two hour movie, you can show it more times throughout the day than a three hour movie, which means you can hypothetically make a lot more money and the producer can buy a lot more swimming pools. But, and most importantly from a storytelling point of view, a two hour (or less) movie doesn’t outstay its welcome if it’s been made well. Two hours is pretty much the perfect length of time for telling us a story with a beginning, middle and an end that we can concentrate happily on without falling asleep half way through or, unless we’ve got bladder control problems, needing to use the toilet. Although IMAX are apparently working on the bladder control thing even as we speak, and have invented a chair to deal with just that kind of problem. And a nice comfy cinema chair is becoming more crucial than ever. Here’s why: Excuse my language, but I’m often accused of talking out of my arse. Sometimes I act offended about that but mostly the person who’s accusing me of talking out of my arse is right. But the times when even I admit I’m talking out of my arse are the times when my arse is being made to sit through a two hours-plus movie and isn’t very happy about it. More and more frequently, my arse gets very concerned when it goes to the cinema. My arse looks at the running times for films and has a panic attack. That’s why you’ll often find me at the concessions stand before the movie begins ordering soda, popcorn and a nice comfy rubber ring for my arse to sit on. Why are so many films more than two hours long when they don’t need to be? Who started this convention? Can we sue the guiltiest directors (hello, Peter Jackson, James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino) under the Human Rights Act and / or take their cameras away and force them sit for a very long time on a very uncomfortable naughty step? And how many times has a potentially good film been ruined by an egotistical director tagging on an unnecessary final forty minutes-to-an-hour? And is it any surprise that most of the two hours-plus films that are made from screenplays that exceed the supposedly incontrovertible one hundred and twenty page rule were written, co-written or ‘revised’ (i.e. stretched out until they screamed for mercy) by those directors? Probably… no. And, with the advent of ‘The Hobbit’ and that whole 48 frames-per-second thing that all the Peter Jackson geeks got so excited about but which ultimately only made the film look like a very long made-for-TV movie, the end of the world is now quite possibly nigh. I’m not kidding here. Strap yourselves in because there’s more math coming, but try to stay up with me because this part is important. The ‘Lord of The Rings’ trilogy proved that Peter Jackson and brevity are not a good mix. In the theatre, each of those films was already at least two and a half hours long… or, as I prefer to describe them, at least half an hour longer than they should be if Peter Jackson knew how to tell a story properly. But Peter Jackson wasn’t content with that. After thousands of sore bottoms had already endured the theatrical release, he scurried back to his cave somewhere in New Zealand and added even more footage to the home video release. How it was possible to make the journey of five little hairy-toed people and a piece of demonic jewellery take nine hours to tell is a feat in itself, and how Peter Jackson managed to convince most of the audience who had already paid to sit through it once pay to sit through it again – but longer – when they watched it at home is a Jedi mind-trick of Biblical proportions. Although now I’m mixing franchise metaphors with religion, so let’s quickly move on. Peter Jackson likes a challenge. He’s also not going to be happy until he makes a film that’s so long we have to endure it while wearing an orange suit feeling like a captive from Guantanamo Bay. But when he decided to adapt ‘The Hobbit’ he realised he had a problem. Not only is JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ a substantially much shorter book than ‘The Lord of The Rings’, but Peter Jackson’s smart enough to know that not even he could convince his audience to sit through a longer-than-two hour movie with a lot of battle scenes wherein practically nothing happens. So here’s what he did. He took the short book and divided it up into three parts, which is a shame because ‘The Hobbit’ could have made a neat and not-backside-terrorising two hour film we’d have all been happy with, but that would have been too easy and wouldn’t have allowed Peter Jackson to screw with the laws of the universe. So, for the first part of ‘The Hobbit’ which was released just before last Christmas, he made a two and a half hour film out of what is effectively, the way JRR Tolkien told it, the first forty pages. But then… and this is where the math and the physics really go crazy and Stephen Hawkings spins in his wheelchair like a psycho-dervish in Weebleworld (remember Weebles? They wobbled but they never fell down)… Peter Jackson invented a way to make a two and a half hour film into a five hour one by doubling the frame rate from twenty four to forty eight frames a second, effectively compressing two minutes of screen time into one minute of screen time, convincing audiences and our already shrieking bottoms that we were watching an already too-long film made out of a just-the-right length story when, in fact, we were watching a film that was actually double the length of the film we believed we were watching but everything was moving twice as fast as it should have been so our eyes were fooled so our bottoms didn’t feel quite so sore and our already-stretched-to-the-limit concentration was prepared to give Peter Jackson the benefit of the doubt while Peter Jackson sat in the back row twirling his moustache maniacally and knowing that we weren’t aware what he was getting away with. And two and a half (actually five hours later, if you saw the 48fps version) ‘The Hobbit’ finished before the story had even started to get going. I’m afraid of what’s coming when ‘The Hobbit 2’ is released. I feel like Woody Allen in that scene from ‘Annie Hall’, when a young Alvy Singer is depressed because the universe is expanding which means one day the universe will expand so far it will break apart and nothing will exist anymore. I think that’s very possibly what Peter Jackson is attempting to do. Forget the Haddron Collider ripping open a big black hole somewhere underneath Switzerland and swallowing up all the chocolate inside an alternative reality, Peter Jackson won’t be happy until he’s made a film about a bunch of annoying little people and a glittery accessory that’s so long that it’s actually longer than it is although it seems shorter because all the frames are spinning inside the movie screen so fast that our eyes are decived that our bums are confused that means time and space will implode and we’re sent stumbling out of the movie theatre to discover that dinosaurs once again rule the earth. And that’s why no screenplay should be longer than a hundred and twenty pages. Personally, I blame Kevin Costner and ‘(Slow) Dances with Wolves’. Okay, so he’s not responsible for creating the ridiculously long movie – DW Griffith, William Wyler, ‘Gone With The Wind’ and practically everything by David Lean dreamed up that instrument of torture long before Kevin Costner did – but ‘Dances with Wolves’ did set the trend for re-editing too-long films into ‘director’s cuts’ when the word ‘cut’ is actually a misnomer because nothing was cut but, instead, an already impossibly tedious and mostly subtitled film was actually added to! And the subtitles were the best part! And then came James Cameron with ‘Titanic’, who should have realised that if the film about a doomed voyage takes longer to sit through than the doomed voyage itself, and makes your arse feel like it’s been waterboarded long before the iceberg’s even appeared on screen, well… something’s wrong. But it made a lot of money. And he made a ‘director’s cut (ha ha!)’ too. And then 3D’d it. So what do I know? My screenplays are at the bottom of swimming pools. I rest my case.