Everything Everywhere All at Once Could Teach Hollywood a Lesson, but It Won't
our culture is driven by morons
There’s a huge amount to say about Everything Everywhere All at Once, my new favorite movie. I might write a series. But for now, let’s talk about the stupidity of Hollywood.
If you’re a writer in LA, and you’re at least as good as GPT-3, and you have at least one major publishing credit, someone eventually calls you from Hollywood. You go to their office and they blow smoke up your ass, as is the custom. This happened to me: a fancy talent agency called me out to Century City, to a gleaming office building in the middle of the shining blue sky, standing above fuck-all. The person I met was extremely nice, although I will forever loathe him, partially, for offering me Martinelli’s instead of espresso.
Here’s what they tell you: you’re a unique talent and we love your art. We can make your book into a movie, maybe, if we get a celebrity attached. But let’s say you want a career as a screenwriter. You want the cash and the glory, and the chance to like, slide into some mid-level starlet’s DMs one day or go to a party where you can mope in the proximity of someone with Coppola in their name.
Okay my guy, let me give it to you straight: in that case, completely ignore your unique talent and your weird ideas. You have to copy something that did well recently. This meeting was a year or so after Get Out had become unexpectedly popular. So now, the dude told me, we’re looking for Get Out 2. Maybe you could do it with men as the villains, instead of white people. (Maybe that’s what this movie is.) Or it’s Get Out for tech, where, like, something something, bad shit, evil tech overlords.
I was also told that the highest-paying job would be something like Jumanji 2, what they call a four-quadrant movie, which is to say, acceptable to both men and women, under 25 and over.
Note what did not happen here. Specifically, there is a lesson you could draw from the success of Get Out: find really talented people, and give them money for their weird ideas. Get ambitious, eccentric writers to do risky things, especially if they can be pulled off with a fairly modest budget. (At 4.5m USD, Get Out was cheap, as these things go.)
Remember that, at the time, Jordan Peele certainly wasn’t a tested horror director, and a funny horror film explicitly about racial undertones was an arguably risky idea—2017 was, if you’ll remember, somewhat earlier in the Great Awokening, arguably before mainstream culture was totally swallowed whole by that prominent memeplex. (Get Out is obviously much smarter and better than typical woke-bait Hollywood stuff, but it certainly fits into the overall cultural drift.)
Also, there wasn’t any immediate antecedent of Get Out: it wasn’t obviously a copy of anything recent. Tonally, it owed more to The Shining than more recent films. (Jordan Peele has mentioned Kubrick as an influence.) Peele wrote something idiosyncratic, odd, and personal, written from an urgent perspective, and somehow got it made.
Which is exactly what you’re not doing if you’re some guy like, I don’t know, me, who’s tasked with making something Get Out-influenced. You’re taking something that was successful because of its idiosyncrasy and trying to remove the idiosyncrasy by copying its surface structure without the particular motivations that drove the original work.
So back to EEAAO. I think you see where this is going. This is a deeply personal, weird, eccentric movie. Structurally it breaks a bunch of rules, although if you zoom out, it does follow the most essential screenwriting rules (introduce a sympathetic but difficult character, dip into another world with them, struggle, nadir, sudden resolution through character change.) There’s butt plugs and the cosmos, weird animated segments, tonally it’s hard to figure out what’s going on, the nature of the confration with the ‘villain’ changes halfway through, it has a bunch of brainy philosophy, etcetera etcetera.
And it’s fucking up the box office, as it should. I myself plan to see it maybe two more times in the cinema, which I haven’t done with any other movie since Synecdoche NY. It’s doing Batman numbers. So what is Hollywood going to do about this?
I guarantee that they are going to do exactly the wrong thing like they always do. Sure, after this, the Daniels will probably get to make whatever they want to, which is fantastic. I am extremely happy for them. But also, writers like me will be called into Studio City offices, and told, forget the unique talent that got you here, we need something like Everything Everywhere.
But there will be nothing like that movie. No contrived attempt to generate something that riotously bizarre will work out. It’ll just be some hashed-up bullshit, with the kind of profundity/silliness feedback loop that EEAAO relies on, but without the deep structures of individual artistry that made it work in my new favorite movie. It’ll probably be totally awful.
Now this would be more explicable if it was a commercial strategy that actually worked. But Hollywood insider-y types I’ve talked to have told me: this strategy doesn’t even work! Most movies have a lackluster commercial performance anyway, whether or not they’re copied from existing templates, and it’s extremely hard to predict what will pay! It’s all about covering your ass. See, if you’re an exec, and you throw your weight behind a bad clone of, say, Get Out, and it does badly, you can say, “well, hey, I had a good reason for doing this, because it was a clone of a successful movie,” as opposed to having to defend a more eccentric choice. What drives our culture is that kind of petty nonsense.
Eventually Hollywood might learn the right lesson: that good and weird art is commercially viable, that you can trust that audiences don’t need to be spoonfed the same thing over and over again, that talented people if given guidance (but also left alone) will make great work. But until then, we will see few films with the personality-driven vibrancy of EEAAO, and more knockoffs made for a committee of dullards who don’t even understand what’s in their commercial self-interest.