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Innovate or Die
The modern cinematic landscape has been no stranger to unoriginality. There have been countless occasions where I’ve walked out of a film feeling like I had just watched a copy and paste retread of something else. It is by no means a bad thing to take inspiration from another property, but the line between ‘inspired by’ and becoming derivative is thin. The standard type-A story no longer satisfies audiences without creative enhancement. Filmmakers have to find new and creative ways of telling a story or be subjected to the criticism of not bringing anything new to the table.
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Luckily for us film fans, some filmmakers have answered that challenge. From major studios to indie filmmakers, the past decade has been witness to a push for fresh storytelling. There have been many films that have found creative ways to enhance traditional cinematic stories. Though many avenues have been experimented with, the two that I wanted to dive into were innovations in the medium and innovations in writing.
A Change Of Perspective – Cinematic Innovations
Changing the medium of a film is a popular and intriguing way storytellers are upping the creative ante in their films. Altering the medium is the changing of the framework to which we are told the story. Rather than just being passive observers of the story like in a traditional film, filmmakers have tried to supplant us in a more active role and perspective in the story. The example that most are familiar with is the found footage technique popularized by ‘The Blair Witch Project’. Found footage films take audiences into the perspective of the films’ story itself as audiences feel like they have discovered the footage of the movie themselves.
This technique was used and then overused for the next twenty years in everything from horror hits including ‘Paranormal Activity’, comedies such as ‘Project X’, and family films like ‘Earth to Echo’. Horror films, in particular, took a liking to this change in the medium because it was cheap and efficient to produce. In hindsight, it makes sense that the horror genre would produce one of the next major medium alterations, the screen life film.
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Screen life films are movies in which the entire film takes place on screens, typically laptops, and the audience watches as if they were viewing the laptop themselves. The first film to bring this change in medium to the mainstream was the horror film, ‘Unfriended’. The 2011 horror film had audiences watch as a supernatural entity infiltrated a group of friends’ Skype call through one continuous static shot of the full laptop screen. The film was a good step towards innovation but there was still something missing, still room to grow. That growth came in the form of Aneesh Chaganty’s ‘Searching’, a screen life film about a father trying to find his missing daughter. The reason why ‘Searching’ worked better than ‘Unfriended’ is its utilization of the screen life medium.
Instead of limiting itself to a single laptop screen for the entire runtime, ‘Searching’ utilizes different kinds of screens such as phones, security cameras, etc. The filmmakers pushed their ability as to what they could show audiences — they also found a way to guide the viewer’s eye. To make the screen life film more digestible to viewers, Chaganty opted to utilize artificial zooms and pans on their predominantly digitally created shots. This camera movement cues the viewer as to what the character is focusing on instead of the static shot approach used in ‘Unfriended’. The filmmakers also recreated identifiable old computer operating systems and websites to indicate to the audience time periods. This technique is used expertly in the film’s opening sequence. Through these various tweaks to the screen life medium, ‘Searching’ took the sub-genre from being a gimmick to a tool that improves and aids the story.
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Getting Creative In Production
There have also been different steps taken in the actual production of films that I would consider changes in the medium. A recent push by indie filmmakers is utilizing equipment that is not considered the industry standard, specifically an iPhone. The first notable appearance of a fully iPhone-shot film is Sean Baker’s ‘Tangerine’. Baker, of ‘The Florida Project’ fame, in an effort to save money, decided to shoot on an iPhone using an app to regulate quality and would continue to use iPhones to shoot scenes in films even when the budget was not of concern. This trend continued to establish filmmakers as Steven Soderbergh, director of ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, shot his psychological thriller, ‘Unsane’, completely on an iPhone.
Another short-lived push to innovate came in the film ‘Hardcore Henry’, an action film that was shot in the 1st person POV of the main character for the entire run-time. Quickly drawing comparisons to a 1st person shooter video game, the film got mixed reactions from audiences. This format, while fun and different, led to some queasy stomachs. However, it was undoubtedly one of the more creative attempts at further pushing the envelope of the different ways a story can be told.
Creating New Stories On the Page
Those who rather push the boundaries of storytelling in the script rather than through the visuals have not been on the bench during this push of innovation. Writers have consistently been taking risks to make stories that may seem tired, fresh. A big way to do this is through your script’s structure. The first film that comes to most people’s minds when you bring up structure is Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’, a film that plays out backward chronologically. Unfortunately for a lot of us, ‘Memento’ came out over two decades ago, making it hardly modern. The good news is, Rian Johnson has provided us with a perfect example of getting creative with the structure of your story in 2019 with his murder mystery, ‘Knives Out’. The reason ‘Knives Out’ is a genius film is that it subverts expectations while also delivering the promise of its premise.
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Spoilers for ‘Knives Out’ Ahead
The film opens like a classic Agatha Christie whodunnit but after the first act concludes, Johnson chooses to reveal the killer. We then spend the entirety of the second act with the killer, shifting the film from a whodunnit to another sub-genre of mystery movies, the crime film. The second act proceeds in the vein of a ‘Catch Me if You Can’ where we are with the criminal and instead of solving the crime with the detectives, the audience is now privy to more information than our crime solvers.
Entering the third act, our expectations are already subverted as this is not the film we signed up for — which is when the real surprise occurs. In the third act, the film reverses course and has a reveal that thrusts the film back into the third act of a whodunnit with revelations and speeches galore. While the film begins and ends with what audiences expected, they come out feeling like they have just seen something fresh and new due to the mid-movie subgenre shift and that is to the direct credit of the screenwriter.
End Spoilers for ‘Knives Out’
Keeping Blockbusters Fresh
I have not produced a film franchise with over twenty films in it, but I imagine that keeping each subsequent entry new and exciting is a tall order to fill. Kevin Feige, the crafter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has had this challenge and successfully found a way to keep each new film feeling like something new. While there are many factors and reasons for the MCU’s success, I attribute a lot of it to the writing of these films. While a Marvel movie does always still feel like a Marvel movie, Fiege and the team over at Marvel Studios has done a fantastic job at creating superhero films with subgenres within them.
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Most superhero movies have similar story beats, so differentiating your movie from the pack can prove to be a challenge. The solution: stick those beats in a different genre of movie. A perfect example is Peyton Reed’s ‘Ant-Man’. The Paul Rudd lead superhero flick contains all the beats of a superhero movie while also being a heist movie. The film balances crew assemblies and people standing around blueprints with classic Marvel action set pieces, keeping the movie feeling like something audiences have never seen before.
Marvel has innovated in their writing with more than just the tiniest Avenger, ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is very much a spy movie just as ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ is a John Hughes high school film. Marvel’s creativity in writing isn’t just limited to throwing a genre-curveball at you, they also do it with their villains — specifically the Mad Titan himself. In Joe and Anthony Russo’s ‘Avenger: Infinity War’, we watch as our heroes fight against their greatest foe, Thanos. Without getting into spoilers, ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is not advertised as Thanos’ movie, but it is. Most of our heroes do not get the screen time or character arcs we are accustomed to them having.
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Our heroes are spread thin, but Thanos is ever-present and by the end of the film you understand that it was his arc we were watching all along. Thanos is the character that is highlighted in this film and the writers know it, even signifying that he will return in future films in the post-credits rather than our heroes. What separates Thanos from other villain leads, such as Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Joker’, is that it wasn’t marketed as such. Going into ‘Joker’, audiences knew whose movie they were watching, but in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ their expectations of what story they were about to be told were subverted.
Creative People Breed Creativity
Film is an art form. To survive, an artform requires artists who take risks and push that artform forward. While there is unoriginality in any field, movie fans can rest easy knowing there are filmmakers who are constantly innovating new ways to tell you a story on the big screen. Filmmakers such as Rian Johnson and Aneesh Chaganty will continue to exist and craft modern and imaginative movies.
By Sean Aversa
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Sean Aversa is a writer for Hollywood Insider, writing film reviews and features. Knowing from a very early age his passion for the big screen, Sean quickly gravitated towards film writing. He is excited for the opportunity to write about films and filmmakers that share his passion for cinematic storytelling. His favorite films to watch, discuss, and write about are those that are striving to find creative and innovative ways to tell stories.