Monday, 14 April 2014

Sequels, Cancer, Branding, and Bears!

Sequels and Follow-ups

So I'm intending in the next few weeks, as an exercise in reviewing, to watch and talk about a whole bunch of sequels, mostly from my own DVD collection. 

At their very best, sequels develop characters, themes, and styles we the audience love. By our nature we become attached to repetition and recognition, yet find ourselves bored by too much. Sequels play into our desire for more of the same, but different.

At their worst, they are manipulatively lazy money-spinners, crassly designed to cash-in on human nature.

I'm interested in what makes sequels work, why some fail and why some are the most derided movies in existence. Likened, in some cases of extremity, to the destructive growth of Cancer cells.

I have precedence. Stick with me.

Late last year I decided to write and stage a follow-up to my black comedy “Papa Bear Baby Bear.” I had staged that play in February of the same year with my fledgling drama group, Taming of the Crew.

In talks at the time, and then in promoting the piece itself, I decided to jokingly refer to it as a follow-up, and never a sequel. Part of the joke was that I was too snobby to refer to it as a sequel, a joke I tried to compound by adding it into the text of the play itself.

But of course it was a sequel, a sequel that, like “Weekend at Bernie's 2” was probably entirely unwarranted by anyone other than me. So why did I pursue this idea when I could have done anything else? I refer you to the many sequels, and follow-ups that have occurred before mine.

Not good enough, hah. Fair enough.

An equal measure curiosity, practicality, marketing nous, and genuine desire on my behalf to return to a character I created, and had a fondness for, were the driving forces behind “Baby Bear Papa Bear.”

It had been a joke between the cast members during rehearsals of the first play. The purpose of the original piece had been to gently satirise the odd-couple, bromance type stories that had become a genre unto themselves; place a naive, young but intelligent character with a genuinely obnoxious, unlikeable prick of a man and somehow get them to the point where they had respect for each other. This has always been the crux of the odd-couple and buddy buddy type stories, but the basis as a rule of these films and plays ( through audience-pleasing necessity ) was to make the characters dislikable to each other, but crucially, not to the audience.

I wanted to subvert that, I wanted to place the audience – through the Baby Bear character – in a room with a genuinely unnerving, dislikable character. I wanted the audience to fear for Baby Bear, rather than want to see the two men as friends at the end. And then wind the men up to a point where, despite themselves they ended up caring for each other. Cake. And eating it.

We had joked that these characters were stuck with each other now. For eternity.

As to practicality and marketing – there was a certain amount of goodwill floating around us after we pulled off Papa Bear, from audiences, friends, cast, and the Arts Centre. I figured if we were to capitalise on this, now was the time.

What I did not want to do was lazily re-tread the old paths. A common complaint when it comes to sequels is the bigger, louder, exactly the same formula that ruins everything from Ghostbusters 2 to Godfather 3.

The original piece had been around for five years, had been read by several people, seen by several more, had had it's day in court. I wanted to take these characters and subvert them once again, so that the quieter, younger character was forced into situations that made him loud, made him obnoxious, to show the effect being around someone like this “alpha-male” could have on someone. I wanted to develop them, not just continue in the same vein or make a BIGGER play.

But I couldn't find a hook, something that I could use to start the ball rolling on a new story. I had to have the same characters, show them as having developed somehow, but keep them in the same low-rent circumstances. I came up with an idea – that Baby Bear was excited about organising a surprise birthday party for Papa Bear, who hated surprise parties. Yes, it was trite and sitcommy but it was an idea that wouldn't leave me even as I kept it at arm's length. It just seemed funny to me.

Then my mother was diagnosed with lung Cancer and things took a strange twist. I went through an odd period of observing how I, and people around me, took to the news. It is part of humanity that we tend to try and avoid the diseased. This stretches, often, as far as grief. Survival instincts kick in, and we slowly back away from anything that could affect our own survival. I accept this, and although almost everyone that I told was pretty god damned cool about it, I still sensed their understandable if sometimes subconscious desire to get the fuck away and quick.

And how did I deal with the news? Inhumanly, I think. When I got off the phone, I was definitely shaking. I probably went a little white, probably had a little tremor in the voice. I didn't cry, because what good would that do? In truth, I didn't emote much in one way or the other and still haven't. Am I in shock? Still? Nah. I was making a practical stock-take, who I would have to tell, talk to, and let down. What I had to do. Money and cost. How I could avoid too much responsibility in dealing with it.

I think I exploited the situation to go for a pint that night. It certainly wasn't the last time I exploited the news to my benefit.

When the dust of the first few days and friends told cleared, it became obvious what “Baby Bear, Papa Bear” needed to be about.

Bear with me folks, this may not be of any interest to you, unless you're a writer or a family member. My family member, not just a family member in general. But it is important to the topic I'm about to cover in the next few days and weeks, that is sequels. Who does them? Why? How much thought goes into them? Does it matter to the audience? Why are there so many unsuccessful or disappointing ones out there? And is there a formula, a criteria that works?

See, “Papa Bear, Baby Bear” was quietly about dangerous father figures, and the passing of violence through generations of men. Perhaps a rather obvious title then but I have always been self-reflexive in my writing. So although most people who saw the play have an understandable tendency to remember the word-count of “cunts” that cropped up throughout, what I was quietly exploring was father to son violence and casual misogyny; to that end the over-use of “cunt” made sense to me. It's not important to me if anyone picked up on that. It was just an important theme for me to explore and hang some vile jokes on.

So "Baby Bear, Papa Bear" had to be about mothers. I had already unconsciously set this up with the surprise birthday aspect of the play, but now it was abundantly clear – it had to be about mothers, and Papa Bear's mother had to have Cancer.

I could then explore how a man, a verbally violent and still not entirely likeable man, would deal with something like this. How would he approach it? Would he keep it quiet, would he try to ignore it, would he use the job as a way of pretending it wasn't happening?

The subverting of the title became a cute way of easily sequelising it but it could be more – by emphasising the "Baby" aspect first, right at the very beginning, it would subconsciously hint to the audience what the play was exploring.

And so "Baby Bear, Papa Bear" was written in a two-week flurry. It came quickly because, like most writers, I had already written it in my head and simply needed to pour it onto the page. I added a new character to the fold, a man who could act as antagonist to our main duo, and more interestingly to me, as a new brother to the already existing ones. If I could create him as someone that the audience liked, even as he demonstrated similar traits to his “brother” Papa Bear, I could create a situation where a family-style jealousy could occur. Mummy's favourite, the confident, good-looking, clever one.

The whole piece hinged on a very darkly funny set-piece I had in mind; as much as Baby Bear did not want Papa Bear to know about the surprise birthday party, Papa Bear had no intention of letting on to his work-mate that his mother had been diagnosed with Cancer. 

This had to come out at a point late in the play, that blindsided both Baby Bear and the audience. In his shock – and an anger fuelled by Papa Bear's reaction to the surprise party - he would question Papa Bear, somewhat selfishly, as to why he hadn't told him. This would build into an angry exchange that would result in blows if the rest of the cast – unknowing – didn't come in singing Happy Birthday. Which they did.

That tickled me on so many levels. Because the one thing you tend not to do when it comes to Cancer is laugh. And I needed to do that. To laugh at it, to laugh at my own reactions, and to laugh at others too. There was anger within, I channelled my anger into several aspects of it. But I did not want the Cancer element to overwhelm the balance of the play, I didn't want it to be the antagonist. I didn't want to write a movie of the week.

I wanted it to be a funny, if sometimes black, comedy where one of the characters was dealing with a terminal illness in their family, without making that the point of the piece. Rather, I wanted the point to be how men deal with things beyond their normal daily scope. It seemed right to hang this trope on my pre-existing characters of Papa Bear and Baby Bear.

So I set about and completed writing and ultimately staging a sequel, a follow-up.

I set a criteria for creating the follow-up, basing it on what I understood as a failure in other sequels, pitfalls I didn't want to stumble into :

The audience should not need to see the first one to see this
The characters have to develop, even if that is only apparent to me and the few who had seen the first
If I am to reference the first play, it has to be as a natural part of the play, ie referencing it in the same way the characters reference other events that may have happened to them
There has to be a reason for it to exist, other than as a sequel or follow-up
The story and situations have to be entirely new
I must not follow the formula of the first – in this case opening monologue, slow drift toward violence, friends at the end
No Tiesto
Expand the universe but no Matrixing or Hobbiting
Develop the emotions – the first was black but only on the surface. This has to delve a little deeper, get the emotions flowing.

So did this criteria help make a successful sequel?

Yes and no. I was very careful to write it so that audiences did not have to have seen “Papa Bear...” but I very quickly realised that there was a certain responsibility you have to your existing audience. So I laced in a few in-jokes and references that I was happy would be noticed by some, and ignored by others. It felt right to treat any existing audience in this manner, to reward them for returning – to thank them for returning. I didn't over-egg it. But there was a dance sequence in there, and Pepper Spray was mentioned.

This tied in, too, with the development of the characters. I wanted them to be recognisable as the same people, but a year had passed in the story. Kris, the actor playing Baby Bear, had made the smart decision to quietly work in some of my mannerisms as Papa Bear into his portrayal, indicating that we had been working together for a while now. This built on his character as being a little more bolshy, as written, just a little more confident and less naive. He changed his body language, and the rhythm of his speech accordingly; he developed his character in a way that the writing had barely hinted at.

By adding a new character, I could allow new relationships to develop and more importantly to me, I could show the audience new character-responses that naturally developed them for the audience.

This allowed me to skip over the formula following aspect of a sequel. I had my characters and my setting. All I had to do was put them into a fresh circumstance, stand back and watch them boil. There were elements of the original narrative I tried to work in – the character's spurious and odd monologuing, the gentle drift from small-talk to violence, the dance-sequence. But I think the tone was different, perhaps more adult than “adult” this time around.

As to reasons for its existence, well I think ultimately I am as guilty as any other sequel-maker of trying to capitalise on existing characters, brand-names, and on actor-willingness to return. I recognised that, since people had enjoyed the first one, they may come back for a second. I figured we could, at the very least, get a returning audience as our starting point and build from there.

Artistically it allowed me to explore new themes, to create an arc for existing characters, and to practice an element of subversion – what became apparent to me was, if we were relying on a pre-existing audience then we could subvert their expectations.

This in fact became an obsession for me at the writing and directing stage – to allow our pre-existing audience to believe we were going in one direction, and then to pull the rug completely out from under them. It became tremendously important to lull the audience into a sense of security, an idea that they knew what was coming, and then tear into them.

To this end we tried to apply misdirection with our promotional videos. We tried to appeal to our pre-existing audience while attracting a new one, showing them little snippets of inconsequential dialogue and in particular riffing on our Tiesto Dance sequence.

All the while we were doing this we knew that if they came, they would get something new, something in some ways far darker than they expected, and hopefully, ultimately uplifting.

The gasp when, fifty minutes into a seventy-five minute piece, we introduced Cancer into the mix was palpable, and wonderful. And the wash of relief that came with their laughter as they caught up with us during that sequence, and when the cast came out singing Happy Birthday, made it worth the effort.

So what did I learn, and what do I expect to learn? 

It's easy to call sequel-makers cynical. We are. I wonder though, if that's the whole story. Yes it's easy to rely on branding to make money but it still takes time, thought, and effort to do anything artistic, especially in theatre and in film, sequel or otherwise.

What I discovered though was it's not as easy as you think you try and capitalise on that imagery and it certainly doesn't make drawing an audience in any easier. I had a stake in this one so I wanted to make it work. I thought very hard about how to do it.

It's easy to be cynical as a viewer because we are being manipulated with recognisable imagery to make a return from us. It's true that more and more sequels are lazy cash-ins, relying on familiarity over originality to make their money. This is true of a lot of so-called original movies too, however, so why does it feel so contemptuous when it's applied to a sequel? Have we been conditioned to feel this way?

To comparing the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and their attendant promotions to Cancer?

This is what will be underlying as I go into my own sequel research in the coming weeks. I'll be watching obscure franchise sequels such as Trancers 2, Critters 4, and Tremors 3, as well as bigger budget affairs such as Bad Boys 2, Aliens and Empire Strikes Back.

What I'm interested in, having created my own “franchise” is the difference between the lazy retreads, and the heart-felt knock-offs, and why some pieces work while others fail. Is it always the passion-project sequels that work while the retreads crash and burn?

Most of all, in a time where almost everything has become franchisable, what does it mean to the audience?

I endeavour to start very, very soon.

Keep your eyes peeled!


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