Burning Money: Star Wars and Game of Thrones
Happy May the Fourth to all who love Star Wars. If I offered you about $500 million to make 70ish episodes of a television series, what would you do first? If I offered you about $900 million to make a movie trilogy, what would you do first?
What Would You Do First?
Hopefully, your response was “I would start writing.” That’s the right (pun intended) answer. Every reasonable person when offered a huge sum of money to create fiction would sit down and start writing. They would come up with some ideas, scratch out the bad ones, and narrow it down to maybe three. They would then workshop those ideas with some other writers, producers, and trusted thinkers.
They would then come up with a world in which the fiction would operate. TV series often call this the series “bible.” It’s a collection of all of the rules of the property. How big is the Battlestar Galactica? Where are the phones? How can you kill the evil robots? How fast are the fighter jets? And so on. A writer, director, or actor should be able to consult the bible to answer any question.
Then, once you’ve got the bible underway, you would start outlining. You would outline the entire series, break it into its relevant sections (episodes or films), and start writing the full screenplays.
That would be reasonable, right? Well, not if you’re HBO or Disney. They just throw money at randos who show up with thin resumes and swollen egos.
Benioff and Weiss (Game of Thrones)
Reading Benioff’s wikipedia page as a writer is an exercise in barely-contained rage. His career basically consists of “Benioff was paid an absurd amount of money to write a screenplay that wasn’t used or was heavily rewritten.” Then, for reasons I don’t understand, he was given a green light to create Game of Thrones.
Weiss’ history reads about the same. He was paid over and over again to write screenplays that weren’t used.
There’s no reason to believe Benioff and Weiss read A Song of Ice and Fire before pitching their idea for the series. They’ve admitted they didn’t understand the characters even while they were filming. Lastly, they decided to strip the fantasy elements from the show so that they could appeal to a wider audience.
In summation, they were inexperienced, unproven, not particularly talented and, most importantly, not fans of the source material. Disney made the same mistakes.
Rian Johnson (Star Wars)
Knowing they were going to produce a trilogy, Disney should have hired one creative team to create all three films. They should have produced a 6-hour screenplay and cut it into thirds. Instead, they chose to wing it. They flew blind into arguably the largest film property in the world. That’s how you end up with Rian Johnson.
Johnson is probably more talented than JJ Abrams, based on the Star Wars film he produced. However, he is clearly not a fan of Star Wars. The movie he created, The Last Jedi, makes departures from the previous seven films that indicate he was either unfamiliar with them, completely misunderstood them, or actively disliked them.
Let me pick two examples in reverse order: Firstly, Kylo Ren gives Rey an impassioned speech about her parents being “nobodies.” The philosophical argument is accentuated when “Broom Boy” uses the Force to call a broom to his hand at the end of The Last Jedi. To the uninitiated, this is a stunning revelation that the Force can manifest in any random person in the galaxy; it’s not the proprietary power of Skywalkers, Palpatines, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Wow. How revelatory.
However, Obi-Wan clearly states in A New Hope that the Jedi protected the galaxy for “a thousand generations.” If he’s the only Kenobi, Palpatine the only Palpatine, and Anakin the first Skywalker, where could these thousand generations have come from? Huh, Rian? Maybe the rest of the Force-forsaken galaxy. Furthermore, the prequel trilogy shows the late Jedi Order at full strength. There are hundreds of Jedi on screen in Attack of the Clones and not a single one of them is related to a Skywalker or a Kenobi. Clearly, there are just thousands of Jedi and have been for thousands of years. So, yeah, some random poor kid has Force powers. That’s where Jedi come from.
Secondly, Rian Johnson imagined a Luke Skywalker who might kill his nephew. In The Last Jedi, Luke fears Kylo Ren’s growing darkness and contemplates murdering him in his sleep. Luke Skywalker considers murdering his nephew in his sleep. Luke Skywalker considers murdering Princess Leia’s son in his sleep. I want you to go back to every previous scene involving Luke Skywalker and find the moment where you think “Oh yeah, right there. That’s a guy who murders nephews.”
Luke Skywalker is the guy who refuses to kill Darth Vader, the second-evillest man in the galaxy. Luke doesn’t fear the dark side. Luke doesn’t kill darksiders. He saves them. Maybe in some gritty realist world, Luke becomes disillusioned. But this isn’t that world. This is the galaxy far, far away. There, they do mythic things.
Talking That Talk
The only thing I can conclude is that Disney and HBO were both seduced by creators who could talk a good game. That’s often the inherent paradox in the creative world. Creatives have to woo business types to get money to make their art. However, artists and business types don’t really speak the same language. Far too often, someone who can speak business gets more money than he knows what to do with when it should have gone to some nerd.
They also fell prey to the idea that the property sells itself. Put “Star Wars” on a steaming pile of bantha dung and it will sell. This is pretty true but Solo proves it’s not always true. (I actually thought Solo was pretty good).
Ironically, you can freewheel and improvise in business in ways that you simply can’t in long-form storytelling. The people with billions of dollars to burn should maybe think more like artists. Also, hire people who actually like the shit they’re making.