What makes good movies good?
As award season approaches its Oscar peak, it seems a fitting time to consider just what makes a movie stand out from the pack? What’s the difference between the popular, and a true creative accomplishment? I’m lucky enough to have worked with Chris Sarandon and he was gracious enough to take my place for the week and share some of his observations.
His breakout Oscar/Golden Globe-nominated performance as Leon, Al Pacino’s gay lover in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), launched him on a career which would include memorable roles on both the big and small screens as well as the stage, including the GQ-styled vampire in the serio-comic Fright Night (1985), the foppish villain king of The Princess Bride (1987), the voice of Jack Skellington in the animated classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), a turn on the New York stage as Signor Naccarelli in the Tony-winning musical The Light in the Piazza in 2006, back on the boards in 2008 for Cyrano de Bergerac with Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner, and myriad guest appearances on TV series such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Psych, and the critically-acclaimed The Good Wife.
Sarandon has also taken a turn behind the camera. In 1997, he partnered with director Rick King to produce my screenplay of Road Ends, a small-scale thriller in which Sarandon starred with Dennis Hopper, Mariel Hemingway, and Peter Coyote. Despite successful screenings at the Breckenridge, Mill Valley, San Jose, and Sacramento Film Festivals, Road Ends could not land a theatrical distributor. The movie did finally debut on Home Box Office’s Cinemax service in 1999, and later crossed over to HBO.
As some of his most notable roles were in one form or another of thriller, and four-five of this year’s Best Picture nominees could qualify for the label, I asked Sarandon to measure today’s thrillers against some of those in his own filmography:
I have always thought– and continue to think – that while a clever director who knows film technique can manipulate an audience, the truly great thriller directors have one major advantage: they recognize the importance of character. It is character that creates empathy and thus allows the audience to become emotionally involved in the story.
Each character in Dog Day Afternoon was delineated with a strikingly clear through-line, thus the audience got caught up not only in the very unusual, largely-true story, but in each character’s journey within that story. Frank Pierson’s screenplay gave each character life – not only Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale), but each bank employee, each cop had a vibrant and opaque motivation for what they were doing, so the bizarre circumstances seemed real, not contrived. The screenplay, director, and actors all are on the same quest: get the audience involved in the characters, and, as the stakes became more intense, the suspense exponentially spikes upward. I find most contemporary thrillers pay lip service to character, giving them perfunctory splashes of color and life to make the audience think there are fully-fleshed people up there on the screen when actually they are two dimensional cardboard cut-outs.
I’m confident that today’s audience would go for Dog Day Afternoon. While its technique is not as splashy and virtuosic as contemporary thrillers, with the right kind of marketing I think a general audience would love it for its suspense and its characters.
While Fright Night (remake due out this year starring Colin Farrell) was in a more full-proof marketable genre, its writer/director — Tom Holland — believed very strongly in character development. Also, the movie was very classical in its plot progression and its refusal to give the audience over-the-top violence or sex. And, it remains a favorite with contemporary audiences; young women and men often approach me to talk about how sexy and cool the movie is.
I think the major studios underestimate what people will respond to. Of course, since the advent of more and more graphic violence and gore, the contemporary audience has become somewhat inured to it. But, I have been the father of one of that horde the studios so slavishly court: the teenage boy. Though now a young man, I know that he has always had much broader tastes than the studios give him credit for. He responded to a movie like Signs (2002) which has very little violence but is still frightening. Much is not seen, but is suggested, thereby leaving a tremendous amount to the audience’s imagination (imagine that!). He has always tended to leave modern action thrillers feeling empty, as if these movies are the entertainment equivalent of junk food; filling while you’re eating, but leaving you craving more afterward.
I think the studios have fallen into the trap of thinking they are serving up filling fare, when all they’ve simply discovered is the marketing prowess of junk food salesmen. They have become drunk with the idea of those huge openings and huge grosses, knowing that audiences generally fall off precipitously after the first week(s). It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: sell for easy consumption, quick returns, and don’t trust that these movies will have any staying power. Because they won’t!
This mentality creates a Catch-22 for the independent producer: how does one put out a movie that takes chances creatively and sets itself apart from the pack of derivative genre product while giving distributors what they expect will sell? We tried with Road Ends, but, unfortunately, the company that put up the money didn’t understand what it had. They tried to sell it as a punchy action picture rather than an idiosyncratic, character-driven movie with action in it…a movie that, we learned at festival screenings, audiences responded to.
Those festival audiences turned out to be a good gauge of Road Ends’ playability; it turned out to be among the top-performing titles on Cinemax the year it debuted on the service. That was, however, too late a confirmation of the movie’s potential.
When the film had earlier been screened for theatrical distributors, their primary concern had been on the film’s marketability, not the response of festival audiences. What was their criteria for marketability?
After a New York screening for one distributor, a glum-faced Sarandon came out of the screening room to report to his Road Ends compatriots, “He liked it but he’s not going to pick it up.”
“He says it’s not ‘nasty’ enough.”