While reviews for Zoe 2018 are mixed (some are even poor!) I believe this is a film that has been sadly underestimated. Its ratings have been skewed by a small number of cranks on ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ who must have been expecting Terminator, instead of the beautifully nuanced, impossible love story presented in ‘Zoe.’ Most of these online complaints focus on whether singer Christina Aguilera deserved her turn as an actress. To be generous, this is a pretty dumb reason to condemn a movie. Especially one that deals so affectively with profound questions of what constitutes actual consciousness? As well as the love, loss, and inevitable pain of this human experience.
It is no coincidence that Ridley Scott is a producer on this movie, because it is cut from the same rich fabric as Blade Runner (both the original and 2049) and explores many of the same themes and moral complexities evident in Westworld’s superb first season.
Much like the unwitting heroines of both of those stories, Zoe begins her existence without the slightest idea that she is a sophisticated lab experiment, built to gratify the needs of men who have no idea she might evolve needs of her own. It is the awakening of consciousness that is the centerpiece of all these stories. Like Rachel, like Doris, like all the innocent dupes of men bent on profit, these beings are like children coming to understand the cynicism of the world that built them, at a frighteningly accelerated pace.
Whether it is Zoe, or Ash, or any of these other synthetics, the ever-present jeopardy is their childlike vulnerability. Which is made even worse by the terrifying recognition that everything they know, everything they are – is a lie. An implant.
If audiences are engaged by high emotion and real stakes, this film delivers, big time. Imagine recognizing that all of your deepest, most intimate secrets are actually known to the room full of geeks and coders who made them. What could be more naked and vulnerable than that? It’s a recognition akin to the cruelest form of betrayal. It is a recognition felt again and again in Zoe – an absolute tour de force of emotional jeopardy.
I found myself completely swept up in this broken romance, especially Léa Sedoux’s winsome, sad performance. She is both lonely and isolated for reasons she can’t possibly understand, but which soon become apparent: she’s been online for only two months, but inhabits all the longings of the five young women who contributed to her memories and construct. She is by far the more engaging character, and it was a surprising, but brilliant choice by the writer to place her biggest recognition in the first act of the story.
Who are we when everything we know is a lie? In contrast to Westworld’s synthetics, Zoe must wrestle with this huge question almost from the beginning. It allows the filmmakers a lot of runway to explore the big questions: are we human because of the body we inhabit? Or are we human because of the consciousness we share with others?
Are the pleasures of love and connection worth the pain they inevitably bring? Can the pain be cheated by really good pharmacology? Or is there a higher price to be paid for short-circuiting God’s intended balance?
Is this a perfect film? No. But I love the fact that its filmmakers dared to wrestle with some of these profound questions of being. And did so in a way that was deeply felt and never got lost in intellectualism (as lesser sci-fi sometimes does). Every lesson of this young woman’s ‘becoming’ was deeply earned. She paid for it all, a dozen times over. And we, its lucky viewers, reap the benefits.
It is a long held maxim at film and television programs that the only way to teach television is to teach screenwriting. This makes a good deal of sense, since the producers of a series are (for the most part) the writers of that series. So why not start with the basic skill required for success? This was the case at Northwestern University when I earned my MFA, and remains the thinking today, decades later, at almost every major university, including UCLA.
But this thinking is flawed. Or, at the very least, it is an incomplete answer for the demands of a medium that is growing in sophistication and volume with each passing week.
It is no great observation to point out that scripted television is the fastest growing segment of the media universe. Despite proclamations that we have reached ‘peak television,’ scripted shows continue to grow in number each year and ORIGINAL SERIES (i.e., series that remain exclusive) have become the lynchpins of every major streaming service. Just consider the outsized impact that a single ‘must see’ series like THE HANDMAID’S TALE has on subscriber sales. It’s huge. A single hit series like GAME OF THRONES can drive subscriptions for months around its newest season.
Occasionally, I find myself wanting to share people from my life. It’s what I call my Portrait of a Life Well Lived series. Anyone who has taken a class with me or even glanced at my book ‘Quick, Where’s My Cape?’ will know we are ALL constantly benefiting from those who have done things right. This is a eulogy I wrote for a man who taught me more than most.
Big, you ask? Yes, Sarkis. Inshallah, Sarkis. Habibi, Sarkis. Sarkis, my friend was (and always will be) a man of enormous stature. I met Sarkis when I was sixteen. Friends who had been up all night spoke with reverence of the morning meal they’d found in a little corner of Evanston, and the man there who did wonders with eggs and sausage at 5 am. Soon afterwards, I made my own pilgrimage up to this truck-stop cafe. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Like most north shore kids, I suspect, I was unprepared for the great burst of hospitality that greeted me when I crossed that threshold. “Come. Sit. Eat some food, you look hungry. Don’t worry, we feed you here. We feed everybody.” And so he did. For the next several years, all through high school and most of college, I returned to that diner countless times and feasted on so much more than eggs and sausage.
To understand the magic of Sarkis, you have to know what a fish-out-of-water he was in our town. The north shore is place not known for hospitality. In that day, it featured an almost oppressive level of social conservatism. It was a rich, old-money enclave of everything stoic and stultifying. A place where presidents and heads of state would overnight or hold hefty fundraisers. A place where blacks were servants and Mexicans were dishwashers – so the fact that this penniless Armenian immigrant chose this place to set up shop remains, for me, one of God’s great cosmic pranks. (more…)
Beginning in September, I will be teaching a brand new class for UCLA Extension: Television Series Development Workshop (FILM TV X-423).
We’re going to learn how to create an industry-ready tv pitch in just 10 weeks. Here’s a quick look at the course (2 min):
We will be learning to create the same caliber of professional presentation that I use (and hundreds of other WGA writers and producers use) to sell our shows to networks, every season.
This course will take you from raw idea, through world-building, the creation of complex characters, backstories, and ongoing conflicts – to the kinds of visual elements and high quality presentations that buyers want to see.
And we’ll do it all as a workshop, with help at every stage, and no soldier left behind.
I cannot think of a more valuable skill in media than learning how to package and present your vision to the people who can make it happen.
It addition to myself, we will have two major players as guest speakers to help guide us on our path: Lee Aronsohn, creator of ‘Two and Half Men’; and Bad Robot’s Senior VP of Television, Matt King.
This class will rock. This class WILL sell out. Do not pussy-foot around or this ship will sail without you. Registration is open now. Click here to join us.
See you in September!
Not only is Wonder Woman likely to be the best superhero movie of this summer, it may well take its place within the pantheon of truly great mythological sagas, reimagined for the big screen. It’s a coming of age story, it’s a love story, AND a story of female empowerment that goes beyond cliches. Add to all this, its heroine is a kick-ass beauty of rare panache and vulnerability. So this movie has a LOT going for it even before we get to the deeper levels of meaning which get me excited.
First, a little exposition. Our Wonder Woman, the Princess Diana of the Amazons, comes of age on a secluded island of female warriors, Themiscrya. Although they have been training for thousands of year, the island exists in total seclusion from the world, shrouded in a protective fog that has kept them untroubled by the modern world. Although they have been placed there by Zeus (as a kind of reserve army against the re-emergence of evil in the world) the story borrows heavily from Biblical lore – in which the father of all Gods banishes his son Ares, the god of war, over Ares’ jealousy of man (Zeus’ newest creation). If this sounds like Satan cast out of heaven, it is! Which I guess makes the Amazons either demigods or angels, depending upon your mythology. The point is: Ares is out to create evil in the hearts of men and turn them against one another. And the Amazons are charged with stopping this. But apparently, they’re a little too well secluded. They’ve lived without men, they’ve lived without war or trouble of any kind. And young Diana comes of age, schooled to await a great destiny, yet having no idea what it might be. Like many a young prince or princess before her (Siddhartha, to name one) she longs to reach beyond her mother’s protection. She longs to fulfill her life. (more…)
Next month (April and again in June) I am teaching a class in Story Analysis at UCLA Extension. Teaching has given me a chance to revisit some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in 20+ years of screenwriting, and foremost on that list are the principles of CHARACTER.
Although screenwriters and many development executives tend to focus a great deal on concept and plot, every story is about SOMEONE. Even if that someone is a dog (Marley) or a pig (Babe) or a robot (Chappie) it is a story of someone’s transformation. Because transformation is what great stories are all about.
“I started here. I believed such-and-such. Something unexpected took me away from all that. It forced me to do what I had not done before. It forced me to become who I was not before. I am not the same person now, I am new.”
This basic story, what Joseph Campbell called the mono-myth, is the template that underlies every well-composed drama: The going out, the adventure, and the return as someone new, someone changed.
Whether that person’s transformation is one of character, or of circumstance, or fortune, or understanding – (more…)
The wave of remarkable new television continues – unexpectedly – with Nat Geo’s 6 part miniseries “Mars.” The series, which also runs on FX, tells the story of our first manned mission to Mars in 2033.
The fact that the series sidesteps the usual hokeyness of the future sci-fi genre is already impressive, but what really breaks new ground is the WAY these filmmakers did it. Blending fact with fiction is never an easy trick. FORREST GUMP pulled it off (mixing archival footage with live action) and there have been others less successful. But MARS blends present day NASA & Space-X documentary footage with live action sequences so seamless and convincingly – it’s almost like a new form of television.
One minute we are watching Elon Musk lay out the mission and risk factors of his Mars mission (circa 2016) and the next we are watching those risks realized with terrifying consequence, seventeen years later. And it works!
Created by documentary filmmakers Ben Young Mason & Justin Wilkes, with what looks like considerable help from Hollywood uber producers Ron Howard & Brian Grazer (Imagine Entertainment) the series achieves a level of credibility and high emotional stakes that the purely fictional worlds of “The Martian” or “Apollo 13” could never manage.
How you ask? By freely intercutting the two timelines (2016) and (2033), we get very real, very recognizable people from the NASA community building the emotional stakes for the fictional crew. I know. Doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does. There’s a real life sequence between astronaut Michael Kelly (the first man to spend a year in orbit) connecting with his teenage daughter via Skype. And the kid is amazing. The footage is 100% authentic. 100% loaded with emotion and longing and loss. It sets the stage perfectly for the fictional Hanna and Joon Seung, twin sisters of the 2033 mission – one of whom leaves almost certainly to die. Or so it seems.
Thus far, only two of the six episodes have been made available, but if they are able to sustain this mix of old and new, authentic and fictional filmmaking – it will be a real first. And a testament to the ongoing adventure, not just of man chasing stars, but of storytellers chasing a whole new road of exploration.
For the past several months, I’ve been writing a book about how certain myths recur again and again in the lives of men. And how each of us are unconsciously recreating these stories, through the characters and content of our seemingly ordinary lives.
Most times, this underlying architecture is pretty hard to see. But occasionally, it makes itself obvious. As it did last night for the whole country to see, in Game 7 of the World Series. Here’s the story:
Anthony Rizzo was chewing the shirt sleeve of veteran catcher David Ross between innings. Literally chewing the fabric. Ross is thirty-nine. Rizzo is twenty-six. He was looking for any port in the storm sweeping through his young psyche. Game Seven, World Series. Nobody in this ball club had ever felt pressure to win like this. Not in their lifetime. Not in their fathers or grandfather’s lifetimes. If they could pull this off, if Rizzo could just hold it together for six more innings, they’ve be the first Cubs champions in 108 years.
Full disclaimer, I am not a neutral observer in this drama. I am a Cubs fan. I grew up a Cubs fan, which meant that for my entire life, a Cubs’ loss was an inevitable as a sunrise. You hope it won’t happen. You pray the wins keep coming, that your team finally makes it to the dance floor before the music stops, before cold reality snatches the dream away for another year… but it always did.
When a team gets beat so often and so cruelly, entire belief systems develop around them – whole mythologies about why and who caused it. “The curse of the billy goat,” for example, many believed was placed on the club in 1945 by an angry fan who got kicked out of Wrigley Field for bringing his pet goat. The ghost of Steve Bartman, an over-enthusiastic fan who reached over the infield wall in 2003 to snatch a ball away from a Cubs outfielder and blow the playoffs. (Bartman was driven out of the city for that). Superstition around the Cubs is so deep, the fans won’t even sing their own fight song until AFTER a win, because it contains a forward-looking phrase “the Cubs are gonna win to-day.” And that would jinx things for sure.
If we never got to a playoff series, this might have been tolerable. But we did go. Hopes were dangled. Promises made. Please God, just let ‘em win. If you let ‘em finally win, I’ll do anything. We’ll do anything you ask. Erect churches. Build monuments. Love all mankind. And God smiled. Then snatched it away.
To show you how deep this wound lies, only one night ago (Game Six) I was watching with two other Chicago fans. We were up by seven runs at one point. Seven runs is a massive lead, but these men were BOTH still terrified. “Could still lose, could still lose,” Derek kept chanting. And that stress was nothing compared to Game Seven.
One of my favorite headlines for the entire season ran in the Chicago Sun Times the next morning. It read:
Game 7: Because that’s how the story is supposed to go.
Exactly. Because there IS a mandatory narrative to a transformation this big. Any victory this long delayed cannot come easily. An easy win would never fulfill our inner narrative. And make no mistake, the inner narrative of a million Cubs fans was absolutely controlling this game.
And so, it had to be a battle. An epic battle that fans would talk about for the next hundred years. It had to be played in hostile territory (Cleveland). We had to have the lead and lose it. Twice! We had to see our mightiest pitcher choke. Watch routine throws turn into bone-headed errors. And that 39 year old catcher? We would watch him fail to block a wild pitch, allowing not one, but two opponents to score! Then we watched him dust himself off, come back and smack a home run over the centerfield wall his next time at bat. His last time at bat, ever. Redemption.
And finally, if as this were all not enough, as if the gods would never cease toying with us, a rainstorm blew in off Lake Erie to drench the field and send the players running for cover. Into the clubhouse to wait. And sweat. And chew on shirt sleeves.
“Because that’s how the story’s supposed to go.”
What story, you ask? The triumph of the underdog. The triumph over adversity. The greater the adversity, the greater the triumph.
“An Excruciating Final Test” – Bob Nightengale, USA Sports
“Curse Cast Off in the Witching Hour” – Tyler Kepner, NY Times
I love sports writers. They write with such emotion. And they get nearer the truth, sometimes, than they even know. It was the Cubs’ night to win (8 to 7 in 10 innings) but it had to be monumentally difficult, almost insurmountable. It had to push them into a realm of heightened, almost surreal opposition – the witching hour – before access could finally be granted. When a curse is built up for this long, held in the hearts and minds of millions, that’s what it takes to break it – to cross that magic threshold, from losers to champions.
Ric Gibbs’ new book “Quick, Where’s My Cape?” will be published (God-willing) next month. Let me know here, if you’d like an advanced copy.
Smuggler and scoundrel, a man used to hit & run opportunism and flying under the radar – the last thing Wyatt McHenry wanted was to find himself dragged into a lopsided war, by a do-good American female hell bent on saving a nation! But that’s exactly what happens in this rip roaring and calamitous misadventure, set in a tiny Asian kingdom cut off from the world and harboring a mystery as old as the gods.
Part romance, part thumb-in-your-eye rivalry, “McHenry’s Guide to Treasure Hunting” is full-on adventure, both hilarious and deeply felt.
Genre: Adventure, with a strong dose of romance and hilarity.