Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
There is no doubt that we are living in the age of the franchise. Star Wars, the Marvel and DC movies, Harry Potter, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, The Lord of the Rings, X-Men, etc. – today’s highest profile, biggest-budgeted, and highest-grossing films are all franchise pictures.
There have been film series since the beginning of cinema. Charles Chaplin created many films chronicling the ongoing adventures of his great character, The Little Tramp. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, the studios produced dozens of ongoing series (mostly on modest budgets): the Thin Man, Andy Hardy, the Universal monsters, Charlie Chan, and so on. Series filmmaking went big budget in the 1960s with the James Bond adventures and went scary in the 70s and 80s with the Halloween and Friday the 13th pictures.
Franchises are also series, but with some important differences. In a series, each new installment usually tells a standalone story, whereas franchises tend to use a number of films to tell a single, ongoing tale. And franchises tend to spread out into formats other than movies – they also generate novels, TV series, games and comics, and tons and tons of merchandise.
Franchises are a big deal for screenwriters because they are the primary type of movie the major studios want to make these days, so if you are able to establish a career as a working screenwriter, the odds are good that you will end up working on a franchise film at some point in time. Which means it behooves all of us to develop the skills necessary to extend a concept far beyond a single film. With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to take a look at the original franchise and see what lessons we might learn from it.
Most people think that Star Wars kicked off the franchise craze, but it didn’t. The first franchise actually began nine years before George Lucas’s seminal space epic with the February 1968 release of Planet of the Apes.
The Apes cinematic saga began when producer Arthur P. Jacobs acquired the rights to French author Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel, La Planéte des Singes, and made a deal with 20th Century Fox to finance and release a screen adaptation. The script was written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling and Michael Wilson (Lawrence of Arabia) and told the Swiftian story of an astronaut named George Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) who crash lands on a planet where apes are the dominant species – they talk, hunt, build cities, study science, develop religions, and so on – and humans are mute beasts. When it is discovered that Taylor can speak and is intelligent, the simians’ religious and scientific leader, an orangutan named Doctor Zaius (Maurice Evans), sees the astronaut as a threat to their society because he is proof that apes may have evolved from men rather than (as their religion decrees) were created in their god’s own image (sound familiar?). He is marked for death, but rescued by a kindly chimpanzee scientist, Zira (Kim Hunter), and her fiancé, Cornelius (Roddy McDowell). Together, the trio defeats Zaius and exposes the truth that man did indeed precede the apes as this world’s master. Taylor then rides off to find his destiny and discovers that the Planet of the Apes is actually Earth, thousands of years in the future after man has destroyed himself in a nuclear war.
Directed with endless invention by Franklin J. Shaffner, featuring innovative make-up designed by John Chambers, and backed by a terrifically experimental score by Jerry Goldsmith, Planet of the Apes is a terrific movie – original, smart, exciting, funny, action-packed, thought-provoking, and wildly entertaining. It’s final shot – of a nuclear-blasted Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand as a vivid symbol of man’s destructive foolishness – is one of cinema’s most memorable and iconic images. The picture received rave reviews and was a massive hit at the box office. Still struggling after the financial debacle of Cleopatra several years before, cash-strapped 20th Century-Fox wanted more.
In the late 60s, sequels were not well thought of. In those days, original concepts were prized and sequels to successful pictures were seen as something of a tacky cash grab. Because of this, the creators and cast of the original film would refuse to return for the follow-up. Such was the case with Apes. Although Jacobs agreed to produce a sequel, Shaffner moved on to Patton and was replaced by veteran TV helmer Ted Post. Although Evans agreed to return, Heston initially refused to appear but was eventually convinced to do a cameo, as was Hunter. McDowell was busy elsewhere.
Serling and Wilson did not return either. Serling had pitched a few general ideas for a follow-up, but they weren’t well received and so he bowed out. Associate producer Mort Abrams ended up writing the story for the sequel himself and it was pretty bad.
Abrams’s story focused primarily on a group of thinking, speaking, and telepathic humans living in the ruins of what was once New York City, who had been given their powers (as well as horribly disfigured) by the nuclear radiation that had devastated the rest of the planet, and were intent on destroying the apes, whom they see as a threat. The apes were reduced to simple antagonists for the mutants – secondary players in what should have been their own movie. The non-mutated humans (primarily Heston and James Franciscus, playing a second astronaut sent out to rescue Taylor) are simply bystanders to the main action.
As problematic as the tale being told was, the production got lucky in its choice of screenwriter – Paul Dehn, a British poet and scripter who had co-written the screenplays for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Goldfinger. A terrifically inventive writer, Dehn created a fascinating culture for the mutants – devising a religion that had them worshipping one of the very nuclear weapons that created them in the first place, complete with whimsically apocalyptic versions of selections from the Book of Common Prayer. But, as clever as he was, Dehn was hamstrung by Abrams’s cheesy story and by a studio-mandated ending in which Taylor destroys the Planet of the Apes by detonating the object of the mutant’s worship and blowing up the world – about as bleak a climax as one could imagine. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, Beneath is a pretty lousy sequel. It has little of the first film’s masterful storytelling, high adventure, sense of wonder, humor, or social commentary and is instead choppy, unfocused, and just not much fun. The ending is miserable – depressing and without hope of any kind. As bad as it is, however, it is this downbeat climax that transformed Apes from a great movie and a dead-end follow-up into a franchise.
Despite its poor quality, Beneath was a sizeable hit – not as big as Planet, but a success nonetheless - and so Fox wanted another sequel. Pleased with Dehn’s work on Beneath, Jacobs challenged Dehn to devise another adventure set on a world that had been thoroughly and utterly destroyed. Left to his own devices and no longer hamstrung by a pre-determined narrative, Dehn met this challenge with a marvelously clever solution. Since it was no longer possible to go forward in time, Dehn decided to go backwards and came up with a tale in which Cornelius and Zira discover the spaceship in which Taylor journeyed to their world, repair it, and take off just before the planet is destroyed. The shock wave from the massive, world-killing explosion knocks them back in time and they land in then (1971) modern-day Los Angeles.
With this premise, Dehn had created a groundwork for an ongoing series of stories that would tell the story of the of the Planet of the Apes – that would depict how the upside-down world we discovered in the first movie and saw destroyed in the second came to be – franchise material to be sure.
Very well directed by veteran actor-turned-journeyman director Don Taylor, Escape from the Planet of the Apes initially chronicles a series of delightfully funny and charming fish-out-of-water hijinks as Cornelius and Zira acclimate themselves to the planet of the men. The fun comes to an end when the humans discover that Zira is pregnant. Worried that the birth of an intelligent ape baby may lead to the dire future for mankind and the world that Cornelius and Zira described, a sinister government official plots to kill the talking chimps and their offspring. He succeeds in doing the former and appears to succeed in doing the latter as well. But at the end of the film, we discover that Cornelius and Zira’s talking child has actually survived and is now in the care of Armando, a kindly circus owner (played by Ricardo Montalban).
Dehn continued the story in his script for the next film in the saga, 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Set twenty years after the events of Escape, Conquest tells us that after a plague wipes out all of the dogs and cats on earth, humans begin adopting apes as household pets. Because the apes – who are rapidly evolving – are capable of performing menial tasks, they are soon transformed into servants and finally into slaves – abused, mistreated, and subjugated slaves. Knowing of the potential dire future of mankind should apes become intelligent and gain the power of speech, the government begins exerting a tighter and tighter rein on the ape population and society in general, causing America to evolve into a totalitarian police state. As the film begins, Armando brings Cornelius’s and Zira’s now grown child – now called Caesar and for whom Armando raised as a surrogate father – to a major US city for a promotional tour. Caesar is horrified by the injustices he sees being perpetrated on his people and when he witnesses police beating a terrified gorilla, he screams out an insult. Always on alert for talking apes, the police try to take Caesar into custody but he runs off. Trying to cover for his ward, Armando turns himself into the authorities and tries to convince them that it was he who yelled out the insult. Meanwhile, Caesar takes refuge among the apes and bears witness to even more atrocities. When Armando is killed, Caesar’s rage boils over and he begins fomenting a revolt. Apes take on humans in a violent and bloody struggle (director J. Lee Thompson based his visual presentation on news footage of the 1960s Watt’s riots) and eventually win. By the end of the film, we have witnessed the birth of what will eventually become the Planet of the Apes.
Dehn had planned to conclude his origin saga in the fifth and final film in the franchise – 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes. His intent had been to craft a story that directly connected the end of Conquest to the beginning of Planet by depicting the creation of an ape society and the devolution of man. Unfortunately, before the screenwriter could even begin work on his first draft he became ill and had to bow out of the project. A combination of new writers and studio mandates took Dehn’s original narrative concept significantly off course and a reduced budget, rushed shooting schedule, and some very choppy editing took it even further afield. The resulting film – again directed by J. Lee Thompson – is something of a muddle that fails to complete the circle. Nevertheless, it does explore a fascinating theme – is the future fixed or can it be changed? Specifically, is Earth’s bleak future as depicted in Beneath inevitable, or can ape and man work together to create a more peaceful and hopeful destiny for the planet? As weak as Battle’s overall story is, ending the film and the series with this potent, plaintive query is philosophically if not narratively perfect.
As all good franchises should, the Planet of the Apes film series spun off in a wide variety of directions – there were two POTA television series (one live action, one animated), a line of books and several lines of comic books, as well as a slew of merchandise (including toys, games, models, trading cards, and even an Apes trash can). And more recently it has spawned an entire new series of films. Only two have been released so far, but both have been quite good, which bodes well for future installments.
I’m a big fan of the Apes series. I think the first film is a bona fide classic – an extremely well written, produced, and directed piece of cinema that is exciting, engaging, and enjoyable on many different levels; that tackles some meaty themes; and that has some very interesting things to say – and that the sequels are very worthy entertainments. I also think the Apes films offer some valuable guidelines and inspiration for the writers of modern day franchises:
The franchise story has to be a logical expansion of the tale told in the original film – Whatever its merits as an individual story, the major failing of Beneath the Planet of the Apes is that it does not extend either the narrative concepts or the themes of Planet of the Apes. Instead it takes a completely unrelated concept (the telepathic humans who worship a nuclear missile) and jammed it into the Apes universe. No matter how good the result (and sadly it wasn’t very), there was no way the film could ever be a satisfying sequel. The genius of Paul Dehn’s concept for the last three films was that it did tell a tale that was a logical extension of the original film – it told us how that world came to be and continued to explore its inherent themes (man’s destructive nature; the similarities between apes and humans; the plasticity of time, the inevitability of destiny, etc.). This is something that successful franchises (Star Wars, Back to the Future, etc.) do and unsuccessful ones (The Matrix, X-Men) do not.
You have to make it up as you go along – Many folks not in the know think that franchises come into existence fully formed – that when a studio decides to start one it already knows where the series is headed and what all of the individual segments will be about. Many aspiring screenwriters certainly believe this (I come to this conclusion based on the many spec trilogy and spec 4, 5, and 6-part sagas that are submitted to me to review). To be fair, many people believe this because filmmakers will often claim that this is the case (George Lucas is still claiming to have conceived Star Wars as a 3, 6, or 9-part [depending on which interview you read] narrative when this was never, ever the case). The truth is that – while filmmakers and studios may dream that their projects will generate sequels and may even have some ideas as to what those sequels might be – franchises are produced one movie at a time. And they are written the same way. There is rarely a master plan (and if there is, it is totally subject to change depending on the response of the audience to the previous films – witness the increasing prominence of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy after his initial appearance was so well received or the wholesale shakeup of the DC franchise after the disastrous reception of Batman v. Superman). So the challenge for any franchise writer is to select the right themes, concepts, and story threads from the previous film and extend them in ways that are logical, dramatic, and entertaining so that the new film continues to feel like part of the same whole. This is something Dehn did masterfully time and time again. The Apes saga does have a number of significant continuity and time span issues, but given the ad hoc way in which it was penned, it is remarkably coherent and consistent.
Sometimes you have to cheat – Ideally, a properly conceived and constructed dramatic tale should be complete in and of itself – it’s story should conclude and there should be no loose or open ends. In other words, there really should be no possibility of a sequel. So, in order to craft one, franchise writers often have to make some changes to the original concept in order to continue the narrative. George Lucas did this in The Empire Strikes Back by changing the Star Wars universe from one ruled by supreme technology that was defeated by the mystical power of a nearly extinct religion into one that was ruled by the dark side of that very same religion. He also took a character conceived as nothing more than a colorful henchman and turned him into the hero’s fallen father. The Matrix ended with the Matrix being exposed and therefore presumably eliminated; the sequels began with it still operational. Back to the Future Part II began with Doc Brown hiding a secret from Marty McFly – something he did not do in the very same scene at the end of the original BTTF. To make his prequel narrative work, Dehn changed the backstory of the Planet of the Apes from one in which the human races destroys his civilization using nuclear weapons (thus clearing the way for the apes to ascend to dominancy) into one in which mankind first enslaves the apes and then is overthrown by them. He also transformed the apes from the villains of the saga into its heroes and the humans from the protagonists into the antagonists.
Each installment must be satisfying in and of itself – Since they are part of an ongoing narrative, each film in a franchise must, by necessity, lay some groundwork for future installments. Unfortunately, some modern franchises spend so much time setting up the next episodes that they neglect the present one – they are so busy laying pipe that they fail to tell complete and satisfying individual stories. This has been a big problem for the DC movies and is a growing one for the Marvel films. This was never an issue in the Apes films – when writing each of the sequels, Dehn took great care to make each story as complete and satisfying as he could. In fact, only once did he even include material in one film that would lead to the next (when, at the end of Escape, he revealed that baby Caesar had survived).
Variety is the spice of life – One of the big dangers of franchise filmmaking is repetition – you run the risk of telling the same basic story over and over again to the point where the audience will get bored (this is a big problem with the current X-Men franchise, which repeats the same basic narrative and tropes in each and every movie). This is not a problem in the Apes series. The first film is sui generis and Dehn labored to make each of the sequels a very different type of film: Beneath is a sci-fi picture; Escape is essentially a comedy; Conquest is at its core a social issue drama, and Battle is a Settlers vs. the Indians Western. This a lesson the Marvel films seem to have learned – under the overall umbrella of a superhero saga, Marvel has generated films in a wide variety of genres: science fiction (the Iron Man films), space opera (Guardians of the Galaxy), comedy (Ant-Man), fantasy (the Thor pictures), epics (The Avengers), war movies (Captain America), and 70s conspiracy thrillers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier).
Be smart – Most franchises are genre material – sci-fi, fantasy, action, and the like. This is the type of stuff that it is easy to do badly – by making it campy or clichéd or just plain dumb -- especially if the creators look down on the subject matter, if they condescend to it, or regard it as being “kids’ stuff” or “just a comic book.” This is something the best franchises avoid. Dehn certainly did – it would have been easy for him to treat a series of movies about talking apes cavalierly, but he never did. Dehn always treated the material with respect – he never condescended to it or to the audience. He used his scripts as vehicles to explore interesting and meaningful themes, he developed his plots with intelligence and logic, and his dialogue was always smart, clever, and witty.
Be inventive – Invention is important in all forms of screenwriting, but it is especially vital in franchise work because of the need to keep reworking the same basic material in ways that keep it fresh and exciting. And Dehn’s amazing and continual inventiveness is the main reason I find his work so inspiring: he came at the same basic premise successfully (mostly) from four completely different angles; his plotting was always unique and surprising – the stories unfolded In unexpected yet satisfying ways and were never obvious or predictable; he was wonderful at world building – he crafted four very well-developed and very believable ape and human societies over four different films (an accomplishment made even more impressive by the fact that he wrote each script in [approximately] only three months); he took the series biggest flaw (the terrible ending of Beneath) and transformed it into a major asset; and he filled his scripts with odd bits of humor, insight, business, and poetry that gave these pictures the extra dimensions that make them so memorable.
If you have seen the Apes movies, I hope this piece will motivate you to revisit them. If you haven’t seen them, I hope this piece will motivate you to seek them out. In either case, I hope you will enjoy them and allow them to inspire you as you pursue your own ongoing storytelling.
Copyright © 2016 by Ray Morton
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