Sunday, July 31, 2011

CAST AWAY: a response

(NOTE: the following is in response to a series of exchanges on Brian McDonald's Invisible Ink blog here. I have posted my response in my blog because it FAR exceeds the character-limit on comments. Apologies for the hassle and, especially, to Brian for polluting the comments section of his blog.)

Hi LissBirds,

I want to respond to a few of the points in the comments of yours that Brian refrained from addressing. I don't want to do a point-by-point attack however, so I'm just going to address what I see as a few key points you make. One last note, before I begin: I recently read a draft of the script and re-watched the film, so I am speaking from a place of familiarity, for what it's worth.

With that said:


You say that 90% of people should at least appreciate a well-crafted film, even if they don't "like" it. If you refer to Box Office Mojo, Rotten Tomatoes, and IMDB's aggregate scoring systems, you’ll see that they all rate CAST AWAY fairly highly.

Of about 4,000 votes on Box Office Mojo, 35.9% of users rate it an "A", with 47.7% of users rating it a "B". 83.6% positive is pretty close to your 90% figure. On IMDB, 124,000 users have rated CAST AWAY an average of 7.4/10, with 82% rating it 7 or higher. And on Rotten Tomatoes, 90% of critics rate it "fresh", while 650,000 users rate it an average of 80/100.

Those are pretty consistent figures for a film you say is poorly constructed, and that less than 90% of viewers like or appreciate (80% is close enough, may we all be so fortunate to hit even that).

However, I understand that some of these sites' users may be a thin spread of the movie-going populace at large -- and what the hell do critics know, anyway? -- so let's look at the box office as a sampling of general opinion upon release: CAST AWAY grossed $233 million dollars in the US, with a total global gross of over $400 million. That's a pretty big sum for a movie that has a poorly structured first act and no conflict. This gross was even more significant ten years ago when there was no Imax or 3D to jack up ticket prices.

If we look closer at the B.O., the most important indicator of popular opinion is the week-to-week drop in box office, a.k.a. the "word of mouth effect". If a movie is bad, for example, it should have a steep % drop from one week to the next in terms of gross. The better a movie is, in theory, the lower the drop from week-to-week and the higher the second weekend grosses are. According to IMDB, CAST AWAY's second weekend grosses were actually HIGHER than its first weekend grosses, which were themselves pretty good.

So CAST AWAY not only avoided a sharp drop-off typical of large openings, but it went up in revenue. This indicates a rare kind of word-of-mouth: the "you-gotta-see-this-now" variety that was more common in the 70s and early 80s than in the last 25 years.

For what it’s worth, CAST AWAY was also nominated for two Oscars -- but so was The Phantom Menace, so fuck that as a barometer for quality.

Even more important than all these abstract numbers, however persuasive, is what average movie-goers think of CAST AWAY today, a time when many are liable to forget a movie they disliked 10 years ago.

I'm not about to go do a man-on-the-street, but just in talking with, say, my mother, I can tell you that she remembers CAST AWAY very well. Usually when I ask my mother about a movie she saw a while ago, I only get a response after I’ve given her an extensive breakdown of its plot, and after I've given her a rundown of all its stars and the other movies they've acted in. In short, she is not a cinephile, filmmaker, or storyteller of any kind. But when I ask her about CAST AWAY, she has an emotional reaction to just the mention of the film's title. It is a movie that rides high in her consciousness, a space reserved only for movies like SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, CASABLANCA, and HOUSE BUNNY.

But who cares about some lady's opinion, when we're talking about Art, right?


Being that this is Brian's blog, let's do him the courtesy of at least evaluating the film on his terms. Brian's definition of the three acts is as follows:

"ACT 1 -- Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em";

"ACT 2 -- Tell 'em";

"ACT 3 -- Tell 'em what ya' told 'em".

He simplifies this further to: "Proposal", "Argument", "Conclusion".

Act 1, "The Proposal": CAST AWAY begins by telling us this is a story about a man named Chuck Noland (“C. No land”, if you like) whose personal life suffers because of his intense commitment to a job that demands things always be on time. He does not extend this intensity to his personal life, so his commitments to his loved ones suffer. “A man-obsessed with FedEx making good time, fails to make good on his own time” is one way you could word CAST AWAY’s dramatic proposition. Brian's blog outlines the many ways in which the film's first act dramatizes this idea.

The first act ends with Chuck *choosing* to leave a family dinner and board a doomed plane. He even delays a marriage proposal (one of life’s greatest commitments) so that he can fulfill the commitments of his job. This is not an individual living a balanced life.

Act 2, "The Argument": Chuck must pay the price for his decision, and *the storytellers choose to exact this price* by stranding him on a desert island. No, the setting does not matter, not really. The setting could be a Russian Gulag, it could be the moon. What matters is that the setting fulfill the same circumstances: Is Chuck alone? Is he cut-off completely from the loved ones that he neglected? Does he "have all the time in the world" to reflect on this? And lastly, your question, is there conflict to drive the story forward?

To all of these I answer, yes, yes, yes, and hell yes.

Once on the island, Chuck must fight for every minute he is alive. This fight is humanity’s most primal conflict: "Man vs. Nature". At the same time he is fighting tooth and nail to survive, he is also wrestling with his old way of life, his fears for his loved ones, and what they must be going through on his behalf. While Man vs. Nature is the most primal conflict, this internal conflict is the most elevated: "Man vs. Himself".

It is absurd to say that CAST AWAY has "no conflict". I think what you and Mr. Truby mean to say is that there is no *interpersonal* conflict: "Man vs. Man". This is only one form of conflict, and to limit your definition of conflict to just this one variation is a) depriving you of many great stories and b) a mistake.

Act 3, "Conclusion": Chuck has paid the price for his decisions and his new way of living must be put to the test.

This act comprises Chuck’s attempts to reintegrate with society as he revisits all the people he left behind. It focuses on showing him (and us) the ways in which his disappearance, as a direct result of his decision to board that plane, has damaged the relationships that he has learned to value most. In many cases, these relationships are damaged in ways that are beyond repair. Because of these broken relationships, Chuck suddenly has no incentive to continue practicing the lesson he learned on the island. The climax of the film is a test of Chuck's new way of life: can he hold fast to this balanced way of living, when his reasons for changing are no longer present?

The film answers this question during Chuck's monologue (you know the one), and then gives us a short series of scenes that show us how he sticks to his new way of life for no other reason than that it is the right way to live. Only then do we see that he has truly “learned his lesson”.

CAST AWAY is tightly structured -- but who cares about good craft when our hero has no "flaw"?


In response to one of your comments, Brian raised the question as to whether it's possible for a well-crafted film to be either plot-driven or character-driven. I hope to answer this while discussing Chuck's character.

Chuck is a flawless character -- but I mean that in the complimentary sense because he is flawed to the extent that his "problem" is exactly what it needs to be to tell the story the tellers wanted to tell. Let's use Rod Serling's principle (via Brian) that "THEME determines CHARACTER and then on to PLOT".

If this is a story whose theme is that it is important to slow down and appreciate the life we have and those we share it with, then what better character to embody that than someone who is unable to do so -- a character whose use of his time is weighted so heavily on the side of his professional life, that he has no time for his personal life? If this character is to learn this lesson and be tested by the end of the story, then the plot would dictate that something needs to happen to him to force this change. As I said before, it could be being sent to prison, it could be crash landing on the moon. As long as the character makes the decision that incites the story's primary action, it doesn't really matter whether it's an act of god or act of man.

What is even more important than how the character gets IN to the scenario, is how the character gets OUT of the scenario. And to get off the island, Chuck does everything he humanly can, going far beyond anything we would consider a reasonable course of action in our "everyday" world. He consigns himself to almost certain death on the open ocean, just because the slim hope of escaping back to his loved ones became more important than living another day without them.

I'm sure you can see the chain of construction here, how the theme of CAST AWAY determined its character, which in turn determined its plot.

Brian's question regarding plot-driven vs. character-driven films was a trick question. The answer is that stories must be THEME-DRIVEN. The theme determines everything -- what the character's defining problem is, what events must occur in order to resolve their problem, what the supporting arguments ("subplots") should be in order to construct a well-rounded argument, and how that character’s growth should be tested. Theme goes further, it also helps us determine whether this should be a “guiding light” type of story, one where we’re shown how we can change our lives for the better, regardless of how tough things get. Or whether it should be a “cautionary tale”, where we’re shown the dangers of not changing our harmful ways. CAST AWAY is a "guiding light" story.

Theme is the engine that powers construction. Characters are chassis only.


As for backstory, an audience only needs to know a character's backstory to the extent that they know enough to understand the character's actions. In FINDING NEMO, we're given the opening scene for several reasons, but it's hardly "backstory". Reason 1: so that we don't see Marlin as a character unworthy of our sympathy. For us to sympathize with a character who has such an exaggerated dysfunctional relationship with his son, we have to know how this came about. Likewise, in CASABLANCA, Rick is a bitter, cutthroat character -- until we know that he was once idealistic and happy, before the love of his life broke his heart. From then on, we understand Rick's actions, we sympathize with his pain, and we recognize his attitude not as villainous but as that of a deeply wounded person. Because we recognize this, we want him to heal.

CAST AWAY's hero is a different character. His flaw is essentially being a "workaholic". Workaholism is pervasive in modern culture, and it's not like he's a workaholic gangster or some other profession that is a real stretch for the average viewer to relate to. Instead, Chuck is a normal, hard-working American. All we need to know is that he works excessively hard, and how that lifestyle impacts the rest of his life, that's all.

And for 50 million viewers, that was enough.


The points you offer towards the end of your last comment -- your proposal that the act two material be made into "backstory" -- are the story you think you see, not the one that is there. This is a story about a man too busy to appreciate the life he has, who is suddenly stranded on a desert island and forced to survive with the knowledge that he may never see them again. The "story questions" you raise are fine questions -- but not for this story. If those are questions that drive YOU and YOUR sense of story, then be a storyteller, and TELL IT. It's not for us to tell another storyteller that their story wasn't the "right" story, only that they did or did not succeed in telling the story they wanted to tell (or, as is more often the case, that to succeed they have to want to tell a story in the first place).

Is CAST AWAY as good as the all-time greats? I don't know, maybe not. But if it warrants the comparison in the average viewer’s mind -- HOUSE BUNNYs not withstanding – and the minds of people far more skilled than you or I, then we probably owe it more than a cursory dismissal.

You may disagree entirely with the interpretation of the facts, you may just decide this film simply isn't for you, or you may just ignore me completely. But before you do any of that, I highly recommend you read the script (Google is your friend) and take one last look.

I hope this helps or, short of that, at least kicks the hornet's nest.

Best, Erik LeDrew