Monday, June 14, 2010

Day 67: Back from the dead

Saturday Night Fever was a contemporary milestone as both film and for the career trajectories of The Bee Gees & John Travolta.

The Bee Gees hadn’t had a hit since Run To Me in 1972, but when Saturday Night Fever hit cinema screens in 1977, the three-piece, brotherly band were back with a string of top ten hits, all around the world and there they stayed, well into the late 1980’s and beyond.

As well as resurrecting the careers of the Gibb bros., the same movie, famously, brought a young John Travolta, aka Tony Manero, into our collective consciousness and to our attention, even though he’d already made an imprint on the smaller screen in Welcome Back Kotter. Travolta capitalised on the disco-sensation success by starring next in Grease and then all-but vanished from our welkin until two decades later.

John Travolta was reborn, in a Tarantino manger, in the celebrated post-modernist film, the seminal Pulp Fiction in 1994, as Vincent Vega. He’d put on a few pounds since Rydell High and had got himself a hairdo that looked more like a bob, but as the foil to his partner, and fellow hit man, Samuel L. Jackson, we, the audience loved him. I wonder why it was that we loved him? Was this where life and art were blurring (just like it did with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler)? I and many others of my generation loved John Travolta in either of his two huge, box office successes of the 1970’s; indeed, for the half-generation that came after me, “Grease” is the first and the last “word”. I guess we’d missed him and it was nice to have him back and as John Travolta was endearing himself to us a second time around, the creation of Vincent Vega did him no harm at all.

Was it all that talk of “Le Big Mac”, his cruising over to Mia’s in his blissful drug-f**ked haze or was it his crazy dancing in the burger joint, Jackrabbit Slim’s (how good to see John Travolta dancing again?)? Maybe it was his seemingly god-like ability to bring Mia back from the dead and a heroin overdoes or his (and Sam Jackson’s) goofiness when dressed in Hawaiian shirts, shorts and thongs, to clean the blood and bone from the car (“The Bonnie Situation”) under the mentorship and guidance of Harvey Keitel’s Winston Wolf character?

Whatever it was, the audience did fall for him a second time round. Proof positive of this came in audience research screenings of the film. Butch (Bruce Willis) guns Vincent Vega down and kills him in his apartment in the film. In an early cut of the movie, this scene took place a little later on, in the chronological order that it actually comes in the telling of Vincent’s story, but that didn’t go down well with the audiences that saw that cut. So much so had Vincent Vega/John Travolta (it’s really hard to know in this instance where one started and the other finished) charmed his way into the hearts and minds of the audience, that for them, leaving the cinema with that character ( that actor risen from the ashes) dead, put a downer on the whole scheme of things; it tainted their opinion of the film entirely.

What was to be done? Simple: in the splicing and dicing of the various story strands of Pulp Fiction, film moments are moved around and now the final scene is an epilogue where we return to Vincent and Jules in the Denny’s-like diner where this whole story began with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny’s hold-up. Vincent and Jules leave the diner with their briefcase of “gold: in tact and, even though we know that the real story and Vincent’s death actually lie ahead, we leave the cinema, happy, knowing that John Travolta is alive, well and re-born.

Day #67 Tip: Know Your Target Audience
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here: there are some things, as a screenwriter that I must keep in the front of my mind and others that I keep in the back of my mind, when writing. As a very rough, rough, rough rule-of-thumb, I think I keep the commercial and business thoughts way back there and the create ones right up-front.

Here’s some wisdom from the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) on, sort of, this very subject: “Independence allows you to remain true to yourself as an artist. Whatever your spiritual impulses are as an artist - who you are - it’s easier to maintain that with independence. Once you start thinking about financial security, you’re beginning to run the risk of eroding your true self as an artist. Once you start thinking about money, once you start thinking about security, I’m not sure you’re going to be able to take the risks you need to take. You want to steer clear of that; let that part, hopefully, take care of itself.” Easy to say when you’re a gunslinger,

Robert Redford’s words are in my mind somewhere too, but, just like Quentin Tarantino and the producers of Pulp Fiction (which oddly enough included Danny De Vito?!) I’m often asked to consider the target audience I’m writing for. If I’m applying to one of the film funding bodies (here in Australia or in the UK) for development money, they always want to know who my target audience is. Distributors and exhibitors....they definitely want to know who the target audience is, and hope that you’ll say “14-28 year-olds”, for they are the biggest group of people with disposable income who like to rent seats and buy candy.

It’s good for me to know too. When asked who my audience is, no way is it good enough to some up with “ it’s a film for everybody” (I’m not actually sure that there’s many, if any, films that can boast that.....Sound Of Music?). Nor is it really good enough to spruik that it’s “the same people who saw Pulp Fiction”. But put yourself in the shoes of those that are going to invest in you and your script and imagine what they’re thinking if and when you might say that your target audience is “everyone over 60”? Niche market film? Sure, niche markets work. The mini film festivals - Spanish, French, Jewish, German, Gay, Horror - are alive and well here in Sydney. If that’s your audience, then that’s your audience and at least you’ve got it nailed.

It behooves me, the screenwriter, to try and live by the credo of the Sundance Kid but to leaven those thoughts with an appreciation of the business end of the writing business.

Enough words, “I think I’m gonna dance now.”

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