Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wednesday Watch: National Treasure

Usually the Wednesday Watch process is about highlighting romance in movies, but today I'm going to focus on what writers can learn from movie-watching. I learned this technique during the 2008 Silken Sands Conference edition of Dianna Love & Mary Buckham's Break Into Fiction workshop. (If you're unfamiliar with Break Into Fiction, there's a website, tour, even a how-to book, and basically what these awesome ladies do is use templates to plot novels. During the workshop, they used movie examples: Pretty Woman, Finding Nemo, Bourne Identity. It's eye opening and recommended by NYT author maven Sherrilyn Kenyon; check it out!)


One of my favorite action-y movies is National Treasure. It combines my love of American history with suspense, a fast time-clock, treasure-hunting, a pinch of romance, and loveable characters. Even the villain, Ian, is loveable. Not just because he's played by the lovely Sean Bean. The character of Ian proves that a villain doesn't always have to be pure evil as long as he's motivated and believable. Ian wants the treasure, but - unlike our hero, Ben Gates - when comes down to getting their hands on the Declaration of Indepedence, as a man of "questional legality" he doesn't have a problem stealing it and even has the resources to do it. And even when he's chasing Nike Cage and his gang through the streets of D.C. and Philedelphia and wielding a gun, we still get a feeling that he could still be redeemable, which always makes a villain all the more interesting. I know some authors who love taking redeemable anti-heroes like Ian and giving them their own book or at least a heroic sub-plot in another's.


Next thing a writer can learn from watching National Treasure. Another must-have of mine: witty banter. I watch this movie a lot and I still laugh out loud. The dialogue is very well-written and continues with the same tone in the sequel, Book of Secrets. "There's my tax dollars at work coming to arrest me." Which brings me to...


My favorite character: sarcastic geek sidekick, Riley Poole. Gotta love Justin Bartha. If you're crafting a series, note how the characters progress from first installement to second installment. In the first National Treasure, Riley's character is kind of shaggy. In Book of Secrets, he's written a book and owns a Ferrari so he's cleaned up a bit. A closer haircut, preppy clothes but still he maintains all that we loved about the character in the first movie, complete with sarcastic quips and the computer-geek/hacker bent. Also noteable about the character of Riley is that though we enjoy watching him, he's completely secondary. Ever found a secondary character taking over a story? The thing about Riley is that all we really know about him is that Ben found him working in a "windowless cubicle," meaning he was an office drone before he volunteered to hunt the Templar Treasure with Ben and Ian & Co. That's it. That's all we, as the viewer really need to know...until he gets his own movie/book (which I totally would have written by now!).


Now let's talk heros. I'm not the biggest fan of Nicolas Cage (Con Air makes me cringe), but I have a hard time picturing anybody else in the role of Benjamin Gates. Before filming National Treasure, Cage sat down with director and producer and helped further shape Ben's motivation. He didn't think the monetary reward of the Templar Treasure separated Ben's character all that much from the villain's. Nor was the thrill of the hunt. He thought that Ben's respect for history should be the driving force of his character, making him more a hero in the purest of terms. This is my favorite element of Ben's character, which resonates through both movies. It's also a large connection between him and his love interest, museum director Abigail Chase. In their first meeting, the viewer can practically hear Ben's delighted musing, "Now here's a woman who might know as much about history as I do. I can get on board with that!"


Unlike the character of Riley, Ben's our hero and this is his story more than any other's. It starts in backstory when, as a boy, he's first told about the Templar Treasure. From the point where we find Ben searching for the treasure present-day, it's a race to the finish and though we find out everything there is to know about Ben within the first hour of the movie, backstory is implied through dialogue and only in need-to-know snatches. For example, in the first scene Ben and Abigail aren't arguing, their changing into more inconspicuous clothes in a retail store in Philedelphia. When Abigail prods him about a comment from his father, Patrick, from the night before, Ben replies, "My father thinks I've been a little too cavalier in love life." He then asks her if she's ever told someone, not a relative, that she loves them. She replies yes to which he asks, "More than someone?" She says yes. And he replies, "Then my father would think you've been a little too cavalier in your love life, too." In less than ten lines of dialogue, we learn a lot about not just Ben's emotional character Abigail's too - and a little about Ben's father Patrick's as well.


The plot of both National Treasure movies is full of intrigue. It never lets you go. Even while we, as the audience, are being peppered with historical facts left and right, there's still that ticking time-clock, that race to the finish and against Ian and his cronies plus the FBI. In a way, I wish all novel plots could work as fast and escalate the way this movie's does.


Writers, am I right? There's a wealth to be learned from watching National Treasure and its sequel, Book of Secrets, from a creative standpoint. Now...anybody up for National Treasure 3? *raises hand*

(Tomorrow author Kelly A. Harmon visits Cozy as a special guest author! Stay tuned...)

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