On Story – Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films is a book that talks to the scribes of Hollywood about their experiences. Ashley Miller (X-Men: First Class, Thor) tells Impact that in many ways the job has always been the same: embrace ‘technology’ but remember ‘character’…
On Story – Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films is one of those fascinating reads that is probably the closest you’ll ever get to talking some of the most successful and interesting writers in Hollywood into coming and sitting in your living room to discuss your favourite movies. In its nearly 250 pages a whole host of names relate their experiences – and not just to the reader but in conversations with their peers, so there’s the chance to compare, contrast and exchange the factors that shaped some of the features you’ve seen when those projects finally made it to the screen.
Brought together for the Austin Film Festival by that city’s University of Texas Press and edited by Barbara Morgan and Maya Perez (with a foreword by James Franco), the cinematic tome boasts the like of Shane Black, Davild Milch, Ashley Miller, Brian Hegeland, Oliver Stone, Jonathan Demme with additional material from late greats such as Harold Ramis and Sydney Pollack within its chapters. The book’s collection has a wide range of subject-matter… through the course of its pages we get opinions and behind-the-scenes information on the making of films as diverse as Attica, In the Name of the Father, Groundhog Day, X-Men: First Class, Silence of the Lambs, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor and others and while one might think that was TOO diverse a collection, there’s a nice throughline in the way the stories and anecdotes are collected with the kind of casual conversation you only get when people are so invested in their work.
Ashley Miller’s screenwriting work also encompasses a lot, though he would be the first person to acknowledge his own particularly ‘geek’ credentials as the writer on Thor and X-Men: First Class for Marvel on the big screen and having worked on the likes of Fringe and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles for television. Talking to him this week, I asked him about some of the views he talks about in the book and if the way comics have made an incursion into mainstream action, felt like a natural evolution… as those people brought up in an era where comics were taken seriously were now in positions of power and influence… as creatives and ‘bean-counters’…
“I think that’s true. But I would also argue that it’s always been true. We are all part of our influences as story-tellers. There’s an entire generation of people and writers who were probably greatly influenced by sitting around and listening to… The Shadow on the radio. Our generation had exposure to things because the generation before us did. We read a crap load of comics… we grew up in the 1980s in an era of movies that began with Star Wars and changed how movies were,” he muses. “Through the Nineties and still today we still feel that change. Ten years ago that was less noticeable, I think, but it’s a matter of volume pushing through the channel. There are a lot more geeks now! They’ve pushed through – and into this world – they are creating material and they are being supported by other people who are geeks who are being supported by bean-counters who have looked at how well those beans have done and saying ‘Okay, have some more beans…”
While there’s little doubt that technology has played a massive role in shaping how we see action movies (and their fantastical subset in particular), does Miller think there’s been an evolution in the genre on a basic level or has it stayed largely the same and its merely audiences that are more sophisticated and demanding more ‘realistic’ stunts and set-pieces?
“I think it’s a function of both. There’s people’s expectations but as screenwriters, producers, directors we’re all part of the audience too. Some things work, some thing’s don’t and the cleverest people think hard about why things do or don’t. That being said there’s always been action in cinema – it’s just exponentially easier to realise a big idea on screen in 2016 than it was in 1966. But if you look at say, car-chases… Bullitt… Holy God… that’s probably still the best car-chase ever shot. If you look at the gun-fight in HEAT… still brilliant. The thing that these great action sequences all have in common and which hasn’t changed is that there’s a strong character or idea at the centre of it, someone making decisions in the centre of it all that are interesting. Look at Jason Bourne, not Jason Bourne the latest movie but the one of The Bourne Identity. That was just revelatory with the action. Almost every single move felt character-specific. It feels like you are inside someone’s head and you are part of that decision-making process. You’re seeing things in a way that is genuinely surprising but helps you understand him more. I think the hardest part of writing action IS character. Nowadays there are plenty of unbelievably big explosions but there’s also the ability to have the intimate choreography that wasn’t as possible a decade ago.”
Is there any project he thinks has been out of reach that and to which he’d like to turn his hand (and keyboard) if he got the chance?
“Oh, wow. I could run down a list of my fandoms. I would love to do a Star Trek film, I would love to do a James Bond movie, I would love to do a Batman movie. In terms of the genre stuff, that’s where my head is at. There’s probably a through-line that goes through all of those things. Those excite me and I think I have things to say and would love to explore those worlds. But I fall in love with everything that I work on. I have to. I have to have that relationship with the script and the project to make it my own and have my own definition of it being ‘good’. When it comes to the things that I write, I am a serial monogamist,” Ashley laughs.
His next project will be getting as much scrutiny, if not more, than his Marvel contributions: it’s the controversial remake of Big Trouble in Little China. But Ashley says he’s aware of how much the original film is beloved by fans because he’s one too and intends to treat it with all the respect the cult classic deserves… (he’s joked that he’s seen the original 1986 times (at least we think he’s joking).
“Yeah, we’re working on Big Trouble in Little China which is very exciting and cool. It’s daunting in many ways, but I love that movie. And Casablanca. But I’d never dare remake Casablanca (laughs). But I love Big Trouble in Little China and I’m aware of the pressure. I’m also working on a couple of television projects where I hope I’ve correctly identified the ‘engine’ of the shows. I’m just doing my thing alone with that page!”