By Vince Ragay
The entire process of filmmaking involves a complex interplay of technical, financial and creative tasks. It begins with a producer who must decide to finance a project and then proceed to select a director who must take charge of the whole creation of a viable venture. Hence, a producer must make the critical task of evaluating whether a story will make money while it entertains, or not at all. The director on the other hand (who may also be the producer) has the difficult task of making sure the story comes out in a manner that will maximize its commercial and artistic potentials.
Take for instance, War of the Worlds. I don’t really know how much it made in the tills but compared to such films as Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List — all Spielberg blockbuster creations, it was a total loser. Not that the story was not gripping enough or that the production failed in appeal and magnitude. The tandem of Cruise and Spielberg may have seen better days but from an objective evaluation of the film (which is hard to do for an H.G. Wells fan), the movie contained all the elements of drama and action most people look for in movies. (When my niece asked me if it was a good movie, I said it was the only movie I can recall where I found myself watching, unconscious that my hand was over my open mouth. I was even embarrassed at myself when I realized it. After more than 40 years of watching movies, that somehow means something.)
Then why the failed excursion? What lessons can producers, directors and actors learn from this example and other similar cases?
First of all, superstars who make and promote films seem to find themselves obligated to create media hype to help sell their movie. As they go about doing that, they invariably resort to old as well as fresh gimmicks which detract from rather than help promote the film. In Tom Cruise’s October-May relationship with Katie Holmes, it became apparent that playing up their budding romance provided a central focus for media mileage. Yes, his adolescent couch-jumping spree on Oprah’s set looked contrived enough to lead many to become suspicious not only of his intentions with Katie but of his entire interview. But that is neither here nor there.
However, considering that the movie had an apocalyptic message, his dalliance with a much younger and plain-looking woman made no big impact on viewer interest on the film. They might have been tickled by Tom “falling in love again” but what did that have to do with the film itself?
Which leads us to the next point.
In his desire to create mystery and suspense, Cruise (perhaps with Spielberg’s blessings) forbade any film reviews during the first week the movie was shown in the US. After watching the show, I could understand why he wanted it that way. It was his way of keeping the plot from being preempted by showing graphic hints of spider-like, giant-machine invaders and life-like ET’s destroying humans mercilessly. In short, all the mystery that shrouded the story ended up keeping most of would-be viewers from being egged on to troop to the theaters. (A tip to producers: Perhaps a second trailer showing more of the movie during its run might bring in the reluctant viewers and the cynics.)
They saw Tom with a pretty girl but they could not imagine what kind of war the world was getting into in his newest film. The two didn’t connect. Good looks and romance (after divorcing a more stunningly beautiful albeit older Nicole Kidman) gave no hint whatsoever of the cruelty of an alien race out to annihilate humanity. You keep under wraps your project and location shootings but not your story from a media-hungry audience. People love to watch beautiful people in love but when they have to pay for a movie, most of them will want a taste of what they are paying for.
People suspected that the reason Cruise decided against reviews was that he wanted to retaliate against that face-squirting incident in London. Lesson: Media are there to torment stars but they alone can make or unmake films. Next time, smile for the water camera! I wonder how people might have reacted to Tom and his movie had he laughed at the joke. We will never know.
Furthermore, watching Spielberg and Cruise talk about their work with clips of how some scenes were made, renewed my disgust for “the-making-of-such-film” TV shows. As a Wells fan, I didn’t need to see Tom and Steven make that pitch. In fact, such “makings” preempt the movie and dissolve its essence. Why? Well, if you knew Tom and his young co-stars were shooting in a swimming pool or a tank instead of a river, that would distort your mind’s gullibility and you become nothing more than a willing fool watching a shooting and not a story. The mental escape is made useless with such knowledge. Why did I watch the two talk about their film? I watched it after I saw the movie more as a docu and not as it were a plug for the movie.
I can understand that many people find thrill in watching film “makings” and that it adds income to the producers. It’s a phenomenon that arose not out of artistic or creative necessity but from pragmatic and fiduciary motives. In short, we don’t need sweet romance and behind-the-scene preludes to promote movies especially those based on classic novels. We only need a sampling of the plot and some scenes to tell us what is happening. After all, anyone can always read the book and find out the story beforehand. For us baby-boomers, we already read the story from comic books ages ago. It would have been better if they had targeted younger viewers by coming out with copies of that old comic book. Then we all can make a comparison between what Wells had in mind and how Spielberg improved upon it.
Finally, Spielberg bragged about the shooting of major scenes in a matter of 60 or 70 days, which is a feat for such big projects. In truth, it was a case of SFX and CGI dominating the movie’s scenes. Cruise and his co-actors basically did running around and outwitting the aliens without appearing to be some kind of super-heroes. His character’s anti-hero aura designed to repulse viewers, backfired and instead made them sympathetic. Of course, that was the final intent. But with his matinee looks and genteel persona, we find it hard to accept the film’s initial premise. It would have been better if Spielberg had cast John Malkovich, Ralph Fienes or anyone we would love to hate. Who said superstars are always sure winners? On the contrary, they should take a five-year vacation and enjoy their big bucks before they make another film. Hibernation does a lot to the body and soul.
And so, the major lesson we learn from this film is not that of failing in spite of all the right ingredients being present but that of failing to present the right ingredients during its promotional stage. The film was dead before it could even start showing. We admire the good working relationship of producer and star but in many cases, stars are better off acting rather than promoting the film. Let the producer or director give comments about how he made the film. But don’t let the star — no matter how good-looking he is — tell us how he acted or reacted to the director. That’s what we want to see in the movie.
Finally, all that effort and expense of going around the world could have been saved in exchange for a media-induced interest on H. G. Wells’ works. It could have made more readers of our youth and not just movie-goers. This should have been very obvious to the producers considering the successes of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings . Traditional marketing wisdom, however, rules out any kind of indirect selling pitch: sell the movie, not the book; sell the star-actor or the star-director, not the movie. Why not sell the story instead? Sell the mind of the author who made the story in the first place. H. G. Wells has remained a mystery to me until today. I don’t even know how he looks, or if he’s English or American. I bet he’s not as good-looking as Tom Cruise. And being dead, how can he sell his story?
And so, as they say, they don’t sell movies the way they used to. Perhaps, it’s time for me to hibernate for a while and read a good book instead of watching movies. At least, writers don’t tell you how they wrote their books.