Nobody Sets Out to Make a Bad Movie
There was a silent cheer that went around the collective hearts of all my fellow creators of drama content after the Carrie remake bombed last weekend. We’re an impoverished, underworked segment of the entertainment playground, given to drooling schadenfreude in unseemly ways when the more popular, bullying genres fail. It didn’t matter that this misfortune happened to one of our own, Kimberly Peirce, the writer-director of Boys Don’t Cry, a film we all cried over, the kind of film that reaffirmed our commitment to the thankless task of creating dramas. She had betrayed herself.
We drama queens are basking in reflected warmth this awards season with the release of a minor flood of masterpieces within our niche. The fact we basically own the awards season should be warmth enough, but, like I said, we are a bitter bunch — you try closing a deal on a drama script and you’ll see why.
The trouncing at the box office of a horror classic based on a Stephen King novel by the three-week holdover Gravity seems like nothing less than justice served. Still, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that the sadistic geeks in the playground who specialize in the horror genre aren’t going to enjoy a major comeback at some point with a low-budget fright fest that will make back so much money it will be the cornerstone of a new studio.
A well-written piece in Indiewire by Drew Taylor breaks down what he believes are the five main reasons the Carrie remake doesn’t work. I haven’t seen the movie myself and probably never will, but Taylor is making the shoe fit the ungainly foot of the listicle format — he needed at least five reasons to kick off a list, and most of them are made up, forced. Or at the very least they’re flimsy reasons for failure — i.e., “The Joylessness Is Palpable,” “You Can’t Feel Kimberly Peirce at All.” More germane might be “Chloë Moretz Isn’t Right for the Lead,” and “’Carrie’ Doesn’t Earn Its R.”
It would seem to me from an interview Peirce gave to the New York Times about the project that she was approaching it with too much of a drama person’s perspective. To wit:
I read ‘Carrie’ again and realized, ‘Oh, these are all my issues: I deal with misfits, with what power does to people, with humiliation and anger and violence.’ Like Brandon [Teena], Carrie has gone through life getting beaten up by everyone. She’s got no safe place. And then she finds telekinesis—her talent, her skill—and it becomes her refuge. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is an opportunity to make a superhero-origin story.’ With her period comes the power. With adolescence comes sexuality, and with sexuality comes power.”
The last time we saw a misfire this drastic by a respected indie director was when Gus Van Sant remade Psycho, replicating Hitchcock’s masterpiece shot for shot. While that is intellectually interesting for the sort of diehard cinephile who only watches the most recherché, preferably in uncomfortable, un-remodeled old theaters, it’s actually a noodle-brained idea that should never have been green-lighted. The adjective Nikki Finke of Deadline used for Peirce’s Carrie sums up Van Sant’s Psycho as well: “unnecessary.”
Drew Taylor sort of gets it right, except it isn’t Chloë Moretz who is miscast, but Kimberly Peirce herself. She should never have attempted a horror film because, as we can see clearly from the NYT passage, she doesn’t think like a horror person. Did Brian de Palma, who directed the original version, ever think about girls becoming empowered with their periods? He thought about the terror in being humiliated in public and about revenge in the cleverest, goriest way possible. Just as Stephen King himself would never write an epic social commentary like War and Peace, in which the only supernatural element is that one of the characters is convinced Napoleon is the Antichrist, so Peirce should never have tackled a genre film, or at least not this genre. Like Gus Van Sant, her mind simply doesn’t think that way, so she got lost and ended up with a poor mimicry of De Palma.
And what if we reverse it? How do genre directors fare with straight dramas? I think if you look at both De Palma and Hitchcock’s filmographies you’ll see that they’ve done best when they didn’t stray too far from what they’re best at. De Palma has made only one outright drama, The Bonfire of the Vanities, probably his most notable misfire.
The one time I attempted a horror script, I adapted Guy de Maupassant’s short story Le Horla, about an invisible Brazilian succubus-vampire creature that stalks a sleepy seaside town in England. Just to make sure I was doing the right thing, and acknowledging my limitations, I even co-wrote it with a friend who is so passionate about horror he plays guitar in a death metal band. He really knows his stuff, and he dove into it with gusto.
The result was possibly the worst script I’ve ever written. When I first pitched the idea to a genre production company/distributor in London, the head of the company went all Harvey Weinstein on me in the meeting, thumped his fist on the desk and yelled, “What’s the point of a creature feature IF YOU CAN’T SEE THE CREATURE?” So we severely altered the truly creepy element of the story — is the creature out there, or is it just in your mind? — and had the creature gradually become more incarnate the more she devoured her way along the coast. We ramped up the production to Michael Bay levels of destruction with some of the most expensive setpieces ever imagined, and… as one dear friend/colleague said after she read it, “Perhaps horror really isn’t your thing, James.” The most cutting thing about her comment is this particular colleague never minces words — she’s so forthright she’s almost rude. But the horror of my attempt at horror had reduced her to polite passivity.
It’s not just a lack of true affinity with a particular genre that can mess up a film — De Palma himself has had as many misfires as he’s had hits. He’s just been able to make more films than Peirce both because of the era in which he was most prominent (the more permissive, more risk-taking 70s and 80s), and because he makes thrillers, horror and sci-fi. Yes, perhaps a bit of it is because she’s a woman, but so is Kathryn Bigelow.
Before she made Carrie, Peirce had no doubt been languishing in development hell like the rest of us drama queens. Her last film, Stop-Loss, didn’t do well at the box office. Like me with my misguided invisible creature feature (but based on a 19th-century French classic, you’ll note…sniff!), Peirce gave in to the dark side. I definitely understand what it feels like when you’ll do anything to be back on set. I mean, Kenneth Branagh seems like a kid at a carnival making superhero movies — from Henry V to Thor, who woulda thunk it?
But Sci-fi/fantasy seems to be the one genre where drama folk can succeed as well as others. This might be because it’s so closely related to children’s stories, the point of origin for all storytellers. The ability to tap into the fantastical seems to be ubiquitous. But not all of us can think like criminals and monsters.
Being authentic to what you do best is no guarantee of success, even if you’ve enjoyed remarkable success in the past. There is no more striking example right now of genre experts screwing up what they’re best at than what has happened to American Horror Story. The first two seasons of the gory gothic series were some of the best television out there in terms of cast, directing, production design and script. And this is coming from someone who isn’t a horror fan. We’re now two episodes into the third season and it seems that the show has jumped the rails into a cross between the embarrassingly campy True Blood and the tween-witch Charmed, which I’ve seen maybe fifteen seconds of while flipping channels, but I didn’t need to see more: It’s one of those shows that’s like watching children who aren’t yours having a pretend.
A few directors are able to skip across genres with equal success, easy bees pulling nectar from disparate flowers — Kubrick and Spielberg instantly come to mind. And then there are the true auteurs who can’t help being who they are and fit no genre at all, like Wes Anderson and Terrence Malick. Imagine Malick making a horror film… ‘dot, dot, dot’ is about all you can say.
Poor Kimberly Peirce must be writhing with self-torture right now — the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and unless she’s delusional, she’s in her own private pit of fire and brimstone. Again, she tried to burden a horror film with qualities it didn’t need and, between studio tinkering and all of the other variables that can derail a production, the result lay flat. Whatever excuses she’s making right now, whatever spin she’ll try to put on it (“At least it was number one in Bhutan!”), the fact remains that she was the captain of that particular ship and will go down with it. Drew Taylor might search for his five reasons, but in fact there is only one.
Nobody sets out to make a bad film, unless that’s what the ‘B’ in B movie is meant to mean (it’s not). Very few of us have the versatility of a Kubrick or a Spielberg — to aspire to it is hubris. Our greatest asset after our primary talents as storytellers is self-awareness. So forget all of this Spartan nonsense about stepping out of your comfort zone: knowing your limitations is in fact a strength and an ally.