In an IP-driven Hollywood, original voices feel more urgent than ever
Two new films are a lovely respite from the onslaught of the familiar
It’s Saturday, December 19, and here’s where we are…
One of the hardest realizations of my adult life was when it became clear to me that while I love the film industry, it does not love me back.
Most of the creatives I’ve met in this business got into it because they were passionate about someone else’s work at some point and that inspired them. They are drawn to this business by a desire to give someone else that same moment, to pass along that feeling of awe and wonder and delight. The very first time I sat in a movie theater and had my brain scrambled by something I loved completely, my response was to ask who does that and announce that I wanted to do the same thing. It was like seeing a magic trick and immediately starting to learn how to do it.
That love is dangerous, though, because it means that most of us will put up with truly awful things to be allowed to work at this craft that we love so much. Exploitation is the fuel upon which so many endeavors in this industry are built, and without that deep abiding passion, it would be so much harder to exploit people.
If you haven’t taken the time to read the article Leonard Roberts wrote for Variety this week, you should. He talks about his time working on the show Heroes, and his account is sadly not that outrageous. He does not ascribe motive to anyone else, but does talk about people’s actions and attitudes, and his story has become very familiar to anyone listening. Racism is not always about your conscious behavior, and when you add in the power and wealth disparities that exist between people who are supposed to be collaborators, it’s easy for people to reinforce terrible behaviors and attitudes unconsciously or through a sort of biased ignorance.
At some point, the decision was made that Ali Larter was important to Heroes and Leonard Roberts was not. It was that simple, and once that choice was made, there was really nothing he could have done about it. I get that things evolve once a show’s on the air, but there’s a lot about the way this went down that was out of line, and it really all boils down to professional disrespect. You shouldn’t treat any actor in your production like they’re inconvenient garbage you have to work around, and if there’s bad behavior from one of your actors that you don’t address immediately, that sets a tone. It tells everyone else on your set that they’re allowed to treat people that way, and it lets the person who was on the shit end of that exchange know that they’re not important and their feelings don’t matter.
Variety spoke to a number of people who corroborated his account, and it’s interesting to note that as Warner Bros quietly tries to close the book on their Justice League internal investigation, Gal Gadot made sure to mention that she had her own troubles with Joss Whedon, problems that she took to Warner Bros at the time in order to shut them down. It sounds like that set was fairly toxic during those reshoots, and I’m sure in time, we’ll hear more about that process. It doesn’t sound like anyone in the cast had a good experience with Whedon, and that is one of those things that will definitely follow him professionally. For one brief moment, it looked Warner was going to pivot to him in a major way, but between this and him leaving the HBO Max show he was developing, it seems like that relationship has cooled dramatically.
The big takeaway here isn’t about any specific production, but rather about the way it feels like any genuine efforts to change the way representation works in Hollywood involves actually listening to people when they tell you what they’ve experienced. I don’t think Heroes or Justice League are anomalies. I think this kind of thing is shockingly commonplace in the industry and we’re starting to see people refuse to treat it as normal. The key right now is actually hearing what’s being said and making sure there are ways to address these power disparities on future sets.
I’ve mentioned before that there’s an ongoing dispute between Alan Dean Foster and Disney, and now Polygon has published a piece that goes further into depth about not only Foster’s issues, but the larger issues that are involved, and it’s an essential read for anyone who wants to understand just how immoral the legal arguments are that corporations hide behind on a regular basis. I am several decades past being shocked by how poorly writers are treated by this entire industry, but I will never stop being angry about the ways they coerce work out of people and take advantage of our good faith. Michael Stackpole, talking about a problem he had with Del Rey, talks about about why he didn’t pursue the payments he realized were missing. “You also have to keep in the back of your mind: would raising an issue like that be something that would sour them on using you in the future?”
Holy shit, that hurt me to read. One of my greatest flaws is that I cannot keep my mouth closed when I think something is wrong. I have gone to war over contractual points and obligations that were not met, and it has cost me dearly. One of the things I had the most trouble with during my busiest years as a screenwriter was the way studios and producers would weasel around the language of what constituted a “draft” of something. I would sign a deal for two drafts and a polish, and immediately, the abuse of the meaning of “draft” began. We would write twelve or fifteen passes on something and they would want us to call that a draft. We would be completely open to collaboration but in doing so, we created the impression that we would do endless amounts of free work, and any attempt to reclaim some structure in the turn-in process got me treated like I was a monster. I was told over and over that “everyone” does things this way and that I was unprofessional because I thought a draft actually meant a draft.
And knowing that the fights I chose have cost me work is something that makes me physically sick. Often. I am, for the most part, involuntarily retired from screenwriting. I have burned too many bridges as a critic, stepped on too many feet. It takes someone making a concentrated effort to hire me, and there are too many reasons it is convenient and easy not to do that. I have mixed feelings, though, about the way the overall system works, and I may simply not be suited to success in a world where established IP rules everything and writers are interchangeable and anonymous even though anyone with any perspective would understand that those established IPs all started, at some point, with a writer.
The reasons for the shift to the all-IP all-the-time model on the studio level have been multitudinous, but one of the more important is that it shifts all of the power to the studios. They own these things, and they allow you to temporarily be the writer of them. There is very little real authorship offered to authors who are working for conglomerates, and because of a generation of lobbying efforts by Disney and other companies who wanted to make sure they get to treat these creations, some of them very person, as corporate assets until long after the people who actually created them are dead and gone.
More than ever, I feel like there’s huge value in something original and personal that manages to make it through this system, and there are two films I’d like to talk about today that feel like they splashed up onto the screen direct from their creators’ veins…
UNHOUSED AND UNHINGED
The line between reality and fiction is blurry in Chloe Zhao’s gorgeous new film Nomadland, and I can’t think of a film that feels more absolutely of this moment. It is deceptively simple. Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a woman who lived in a small desert town that went belly-up when their one local industry closed, starting a chain reaction that left her living in a customized van.
The film is very experiential. This is just what Fern’s life feels like, day to day, as she attempts to adapt to a lifestyle that is, to many Americans, unthinkable. The thing is, there is an increasingly large number of Americans for whom this is all-too-real, and we’re about to see a wave of poverty that has been building all year break and wash away a whole new chunk of this country. When you say “homeless” to someone or about someone, there’s a very specific picture that pops into most people’s heads, and it’s not the entire picture. Not by a long shot. Nomadland is a snapshot of an entire lifestyle, a floating community that Fern isn’t quite sure she wants to join, and Zhao’s approach to the making of the film turns this into something so much more affecting and significant than the way Hollywood often condescends to the people on the margins of society. Just look at the difference between the way this film treats the people it is about and the way Hillbilly Elegy does the same. Ron Howard’s movie treats poor people like they’re from outer space, totally unfamiliar with the ways of “normal” folk.
It helps that Zhao started from a piece of first-person journalism that was an act of extraordinary empathy, Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, and then actually cast people who were part of the world of that book. Zhao is the writer, editor, director, and producer here, and it’s an incredibly intimate film. The trust between Zhao and McDormand results in some of the most natural, communicative work in the long and storied career of one of our acting treasures. McDormand was actually attached to the film before her director, and it’s clear that she threw herself into the role, body and soul. It’s so hard to quantify what it is that makes someone compelling onscreen, but for me, it often just comes down to someone’s face. McDormand broadcasts on such a vibrant emotional frequency that it’s like you can hear exactly what she’s thinking. She possesses a rich inner life, and there’s no close-up too close on her.
She’s also a great listener, and much of this film is about listening to the people who no one else listens to, something Zhao clearly did as she prepared to make it. There are characters who define entire chunks of this film who are played by people who are real-life nomads, and when you watch McDormand interact with Linda May or Charlene Swankie or Bob Wells or any of the people in the film, there’s this sense that she’s genuinely curious about them. That’s true of Zhao as well. This isn’t a film about how different these people are, the way Hillbilly Elegy was. That film is all about how you are trapped in who you are and defined by where you are. Nomadland is the opposite. Nomadland is a film that offers genuine dignity to its subjects simply by listening to them and looking at the details of their lives without judgment. Fern lives a seasonal existence, traveling to wherever there’s work, and the film follows her long enough that we start to see faces and places cycle back around. It’s a very straightforward structure for the film. There’s no big mystery to unlock, no narrative tricks. We’re just on the road with Fern and her daily struggles.
If you look at Zhao’s earlier films, Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider, the only real difference here is the addition of McDormand and David Strathairn, and the magic of the movie is the way these familiar character actors absolutely disappear into this very real American landscape. So often, filmmakers introduce an artificiality into the thing they’re trying to capture, and this feels incredibly honest. Fern works at truck stop, campgrounds, a processing plant and even an Amazon fulfillment center, and the scenes where she’s working all feel captured, authentic. There’s an extended sequence from the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, a real gathering of nomads that works precisely because it’s not art directed and production designed. You see that none of these people are the easy stereotypes you might imagine, and the more you listen to their stories, the more you realize how easy it is to slip out of this supposedly secure life that so many of us lead.
My own lifestyle is punishing and, unless some things change in 2021, unsustainable. I have made a choice about working independently because of what I see as some pretty major problems in the way our industry works, but that choice comes with a terrifying insecurity that I struggle with all the time. I have an ex-wife I am responsible to and children I am raising and I can’t just give it all up and hit the road. I don’t have the option of failing, which is a pressure that can be terrifying sometimes. It doesn’t help that I live in a state where legislation has created an increasingly hostile atmosphere for independent gig worker or that the system itself is so abusive that the very definition of “employment” is so liquid. Capitalism is crushing us and consumerism keeps us on the hook, and we treat the people who get squeezed out of the systems like there’s something wrong with them or like they’re the problem that we have to solve, rather than a symptom of a larger problem. I feel like it is disturbingly common for people to feel like every single month is a challenge they either pass or fail, and that takes a huge toll on your central nervous system, enough so that it makes sense that there are people who try to find a new way to live, a new way to navigate this difficult world.
Nomadland isn’t trying to offer up a solution to any of this. That’s not the point. This is a portrait, and it’s really just about empathy. It reminds me of The Florida Project from a few years ago, and visually, Zhao feels like one of the most organic reactions to Terrence Malick’s work I’ve seen. She has his same affinity for open spaces, for the relationship between our bodies and the world around us, and she has a remarkable eye. Nomadland is exquisite, maybe my favorite film of the year, and when I think about it, it feels like a record of real places and real people. There is a scene where Bob Wells talks about the loss of his son that absolutely gutted me, and what makes it remarkable is how unadorned it is. This isn’t a film that feels the need to hammer you with anything it’s saying. It is enough to simply sit by the fire, share some food and some drink, and to listen to each other’s stories. We are all moving through this life in search of these same things, and Chloe Zhao’s essential new work offers real comfort and wisdom at a time when both are in short supply.
By contrast, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is highly artificial and stylized, a jet-black revenge story that features a searing lead performance from Carey Mulligan. There is a film that I would compare this to, but any conversation in which I made those comparisons in any depth would give the entire game away, and audiences deserve a chance to have this film spring its surprises on them unspoiled. We’ll have that conversation in a few weeks, once we can, and until then, I’ll just say that when I realized where the film was going, it won me over completely. It is bold where other filmmakers have been timid, and as a result, this is not an easy film at all.
Fennell has been acting as long as she’s been writing, and she’s demonstrated a real range of interests and voices in her work. The second season of Killing Eve was the real launching point for her in a larger sense, and I’m not surprised Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a supporter of her work. There is a brash and fearless approach to the storytelling, and a keen appreciation of voice. Mulligan’s done plenty of strong work, but this is an iconic performance. She attacks it, and there’s a bristling fury that underlines everything that is just fascinating.
Cassie Thomas was on track to become a doctor before something derailed her, and as the film opens, she seems to be living in a haze of pain. There’s a method to her misery, though, and it quickly becomes clear that Cassie’s hunting for something. She goes out at night and puts herself in harm’s way specifically so she can scare the shit out of shitty men, and she does it with a sort of recklessness. The reasons for what she does are gradually revealed as she struggles with her urge to destroy people who she genuinely loathes versus her desire not to destroy herself.
The last thing I would call Promising Young Woman is subtle, and there are some fairly wild shifts in tone from scene to scene. In the moments the film plays like a wicked winking dark comedy, it’s actually fun. There’s an exhilaration to watching Cassie drop some chaos onto the deserving, and guys like Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Sam Richardson do well in their brief appearances at playing exactly the kinds of guys who love to tell themselves that they’re not part of the problem. The film kicks into a much nastier gear, though, when Bo Burnham arrives…
… as a really nice guy. Like… deep down nice. Cassie isn’t sure what to make of him, and for a time, the film opens up a new path for her, one that’s not just about revenge or survival. It’s a great performance by Burnham, natural and charming. The entire film hinges on us believing in the potential of this relationship, and when Fennell does finally jam in the knife, she makes sure it hurts. The film raises questions of what we can forgive and what we should forgive and whether there is ever really any way to recover from certain things. It is pessimistic in many ways, and for some viewers, the film’s conclusions on human nature will be too ugly to bear.
Benjamin Kačun shoots the film like a high-gloss nightmare and when the film finally kicks into its savage final act, Fennell does a great job of cranking up the rage. There are movies like War of the Roses and Heathers that feel like they flirt with real darkness but that pull back in crucial ways as if afraid to really commit to the nihilism. That is not a problem here. Some audiences will be shaken by the way this unfolds, and that’s the point. Fennell wants to fuck you up a little. She doesn’t want you to shrug this one off.
Much of 2020 has been defined by righteous anger, and considering how things are going out there, anger seems like an entirely appropriate response. Why shouldn’t women be angry at sexual violence, at the way we blame the victims, at the injustice baked into the court system? Why shouldn’t we act out when everything seems designed to keep us from ever truly finding justice? Every attempt to redress the systemic wrongs seem to only lead to more of an orchestrated push back against change, and that should be infuriating. Promising Young Woman feels inevitable, like a film I’m surprised doesn’t already exist. There’s almost an “urban legend” quality to it, like a story you’ve heard before, a cautionary ghost story told to terrify people who should be scared. It makes me very excited to see what Emerald Fennell is going to do next as a storyteller, the same way I’m onboard for whatever Chloe Zhao does at this point. There are times you can simply tell that someone’s voice is worth adding to the conversation, and when those voices are used to tell stories that feel urgent, essential to who we are and how we’re living, it feels like we should definitely celebrate and elevate the in whatever way we can.
We actually made it all the way to the finish line without having it ruined for all of us. I mean… I didn’t, but I managed to keep the kids and my girlfriend from knowing anything about the final episode of The Mandolorian right up until all of those wonderful surprises unfolded onscreen.
I think there’s an easy way to make it a little more fair with this show in particular, and that’s find a way to premiere it at something like a regular hour. Right now, it drops at midnight on Thursdays and that means the people who are determined to see it first and spoil everything vocally are the ones who stay up and do it right at midnight. Most people don’t get a chance to see The Mandolorian until Friday during the day or even more likely, that night. Why not go for a 6PM PST/9PM EST launch on Friday night? It suddenly pins your conversation to an hour where at least people have a chance to be part of things instead of giving all the power the absolute biggest assholes in pop culture, people who have to mark entertainment like a dog with a fire hydrant. “LOOK! I SAW THIS AND I CAN PROVE IT BY BLURTING IT OUT WITH NO CONTEXT OR VALUE ADDED!”
What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever had spoiled for you? Do you remember the story or the circumstances? And, as a follow-up question, did it ultimately change the way you felt about the thing that got spoiled? I know I’ve had some huge things spoiled for me (sometimes by choice, sometimes by accident) and in the end, if I’m going to love the thing, it doesn’t matter. I would love to have as clean an experience as possible most of the time but I also don’t think it changes your overall feelings about a film or a TV show.
It’s the weekend, so let’s open up the comments to whatever you want to talk about. I’d love to hear about terrible spoiler experiences, but I’m also curious what you’re watching and enjoying and how you’re approaching the holidays here (where we should definitely be locked down) and in parts of the world where things are starting to return to something to really does resemble normal (hi, New Zealand!) and what entertainment you’re looking forward to next year, on whatever screen you’re planning to use.
Today’s newsletter is a freebie, so you can share it if you’d like. If you’re reading it for free and you like what you read and you’d like a lot more of it, it’s only $7 a month to get the free issues plus special subscriber-only content delivered straight to your inbox. It’s even less if you buy a full year’s worth at once, and you get full access to my archives, too.
I’ll have a few newsletters for you this week, including more on Rise of Skywalker (as well as this week’s Mandolorian conclusion), and then I’ll have a big year-end issue for you on December 27th. That will be where I publish my final media diary for the year. This week’s includes everything I watched or read or listened to through Friday morning.
As always, any titles in bold were particularly enjoyed.
THIS WEEK’S BOOKS: Song of Spider-Man by Glen Berger; Cold Days by Jim Butcher; Mockingbird by Walter Tevis; The Golden Apple by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson; Elric of Melniboné by Roy Thomas, Michael T. Gilbert and Craig Russell; Essex County: The Complete Collection by Jeff Lemire
THIS WEEK’S COMICS: The Immortal Hulk #1 - #35; Darth Vader #8; Savage Avengers #16; Cyberpunk 2077 #4; Gideon Falls #1 - #40
THIS WEEK’S PODCASTS: Boogie Monster - “KFC Christmas and Israeli Alien Intel”, “It’s A Boogie Christmas”; Screen Drafts - “Westerns Part III”; Blank Check with Griffin & David - “A Christmas Carol with Emily VanDerWerff”; Doughboys - “Steak n’ Shake 5 with Evan Susser”; The Kingcast - “The Running Man and The Stand”
THIS WEEK’S TV: Big Mouth S3 E4; Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults S1 E3; Wayne S1 E3; Bob’s Burgers S11 E5; The Stand S1 E1; Taxi S1 E11, E12; Da Ali G Show S1 E2; Monty Python’s Flying Circus S1 E3
THIS WEEK’S GAMING: Cyberpunk 2077
THIS WEEK’S MOVIES: Wolfwalkers; The Midnight Sky; The Prom; Bullets Over Broadway; News of the World; Interview With The Vampire; Sleeper; Thelma & Louise; I’m Your Woman; Klaus; Santa Claus: The Movie; Archenemy; From Russia With Love; Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life; Elf; The Mosquito Coast