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WRITERS ON WRITING: Thunder Levin on the Challenge of the Unintended Sequel

What happens when your film becomes a surprise hit, and the inevitable order for a sequel comes down? Writer Thunder Levin explains.

Thunder Levin has written and directed such films as AE APOCALYPSE EARTH, AMERICAN WARSHIPS, and MUTANT VAMPIRE ZOMBIES FROM THE 'HOOD!, and he wrote a little movie called SHARKNADO. Follow Thunder on Facebook and Twitter @ThunderLevin.

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An important rule (yes, there are no “rules” but you know what I mean) for writing a feature film script is that the events in question should be the most significant of your main character’s life. Otherwise, why are you telling this story instead of that other, more significant story? This rule is by no means absolute (there are no rules, remember?), but it is very helpful in the early stages of designing your story, and then later in determining how your lead character is relating to the events of the film.

WRITERS ON WRITING: Thunder Levin on the Challenge of the Unintended Sequel | Script Magazine

Thunder Levin

But then what happens when your film becomes a surprise hit, and the inevitable order for a sequel comes down? Obviously this is a wonderful “problem” to have, but it is an interesting conundrum. Some of our most beloved movie franchises have had to tackle the issue of continuing their once-in-a-lifetime storylines. How do you top (or even live up to) that which was supposed to be the “most important moment”?

Let me say right up front that my favorite movies of all time are Star Wars (no, there’s no frakkin’ Episode number!), The Empire Strikes Back, and The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy. What do three of these five movies have in common? They were sequels! Except of course, that they really weren’t. The Lord Of The Rings was always one big story told over the course of three movies. So was the Star Wars saga. At least, it was originally conceived that way, but then a smaller part of the story had to be adapted into a stand alone movie, with the rest only being told when the first part became a hit. I point this out simply to justify the fact that I’ll be excluding my favorite movies from this conversation. I also won’t be discussing what is considered by many to be the greatest movie sequel ever made, The Godfather II. For some reason I find gangster films supremely upsetting; no matter how good or bad the execution might be, the subject matter makes them unappealing to me.

There’s also the case of movies based around a character created from the beginning to have multiple life & death adventures. James Bond and Indiana Jones come to mind. But again, these are movies intended from the beginning to be part of ongoing adventures. Superman and other superhero characters probably fall into this category too, once you get past their origin stories. So for the most part, I’ll exclude those from this conversation as well. So assuming you’re not lucky enough to have conceived a hero whose modus operandi is life & death adventure, how do you continue the story after the most significant event.

What we typically see in sequels to surprise hits is “Bigger & Better”, or more often “Bigger & More” but really not better. This shouldn’t be surprising. If a studio (or network) decides they want a sequel to a hit film, it’s probably because they want to make a lot of money, just like the first one. Naturally, in executive-land, this means “make a movie just like the first one” so that it will perform the same. That seems pretty straight-forward and logical.

Unfortunately, more often than not, this approach fails to recapture the magic of the first movie, or is so repetitive of the first movie that the audience is bored. From Jaws 2 to The Hangover Part II we’ve seen this approach bring lackluster results. Often a key cast member from the first film will be missing, denying the filmmakers the same magical mix that made the original a hit. This happened to 2Fast 2Furious. At first glance it would appear that the magic of The Fast & The Furious was the street racing, but remove the interplay between Paul Walker and Vin Diesel and the first sequel fell flat. Remove the interplay between Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider and Jaws 2 falls flat.

This desire for bigger and more can also lead to story concepts being stretched to the point of incredulity. If the original movie was the biggest event of the hero’s life, having to top that can result in events becoming unbelievable. The entire Jaws series is illustrative of this.

So, how to avoid these problems, given a studio or network intent on not straying too far from the original? Obviously if the entire original cast is available, it may be possible to recreate whatever chemistry made the first movie succeed. Fast & Furious, the 4th in that series, reunited the original cast and that was the installment that brought new momentum and helped build the franchise into the juggernaut we see today.

If the entire original cast isn’t available, filmmakers have often thought it wiser to introduce an entirely new cast rather than limp along with only part of the original dynamic. Somehow tying the new characters to the old then becomes the trick. Most commonly they will be offspring of the originals. But taking a different route, and finding a really creative way to tie new characters with the originals can often lead to a better movie. I thought this was done well with the recent Bourne Legacy, though the box office returns were apparently disappointing.

Perhaps the best example of “bigger and better” was 1986's Aliens, the sequel to the scariest film ever made, 1979's Alien. The central character, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley returns, but none of the other original characters did, since they all died in the first film. Writer/Director James Cameron’s true genius in this sequel was to maintain the same hero, the same villain, and the same basic threat, but to completely change genres. The first was a horror film, the sequel was a war movie. But since, to the studio, they were both “science fiction”, he was able to get away with it. The perfect example of “the same but different”! A more recent example of this was Fast & Furious 6. The fifth film was widely regarded as the best of the series and fully revitalized the franchise. But seemingly, the illegal street racer outlaws had gone as far as they could go. In order to keep the series speeding along, they kept the same characters but while appearing to stay in the genre of “car racing” they actually transmuted from outlaws-on-the-run to the secret agent genre.

WRITERS ON WRITING: Thunder Levin on the Challenge of the Unintended Sequel | Script Magazine

Another challenge of continuing sequels is finding some way to create an overriding story arc, while also keeping each film self-contained. This is something that the FF franchise has done to a limited extent. Oddly enough, the 4th, 5th, and 6th installments led up to events in the 3rd film, but only audience members who had seen #3 would be aware of it. Sung Kang’s character, Han, dies in the 3rd film, but then reappears in the 5th, indicating that movies 4 - 6 were actually taking place in the “past”. Not until FF7 did events “catch up” and surpass plot points from the 3rd movie. I don’t know if the studio signed off on this ahead of time. It seems unlikely, since the series’ future was highly doubtful during the 3rd film. But ingenious plotting like that, if kept in the background, can help tie serialized movies together, without the frustrating possibility of leaving audiences on a cliffhanger while the possibility of an additional film is up in the air.

Another example of this is the current incarnation of the James Bond series. The character of “Mr. White” and the shadowy organization he represents has been in the background of each of the three Daniel Craig movies, but only with the upcoming SPECTRE, will it finally come to the forefront of the plot. Keeping a subplot like this on the periphery is an excellent tool when one can’t be certain of the continuation of the story.

A similar tool for tying multiple stand-alone films together is with a continuing character arc. In 2013's surprise TV movie hit Sharknado, the film’s hero Fin Shepard, ably played by Ian Ziering, is basically a broken man; a once-famous surfer who now runs a dive bar and is estranged from his ex-wife and children. While the three Sharknado movies each stand-alone from a story perspective, Fin’s resurrection as a man, husband, and father is a continuous arc over the three films. By the end of the first, he’s acknowledged some of his past misdeeds and has shown the desire to reconnect with his family. A single kiss from his ex-wife April in the final moment provided a happy ending for the first film. When, against all odds, the film became a pop culture phenomenon, that kiss led to the possibility of rekindling their relationship in the second film, and by that installment’s finale, Fin proposes to April and she accepts to the accompaniment of both figurative and literal fireworks. The third film begins with April pregnant and Fin determined to be a better father and husband now that he’s been given a second chance. The finale of the film leaves the family gathered together in a happily-ever-after tableau. A single cliff-hanger shot after this moment leads to endless possibilities for the next installment, but Fin’s character arc has now come full circle and he’s ready for new adventures.

Sharknado had the “advantage” of a truly incredible central plot conceit. The idea of sharks in a tornado attacking land-locked victims was so fun and ridiculous that sequels were never in danger of going over the top (or in the vernacular, “jumping the shark”) because that was the very nature of the franchise. Simply employing the “bigger and better” approach, was thus in keeping with the spirit of the film. It may seem ludicrous to discuss character arc and the fundamental humanity of characters in a franchise so supremely silly, but I believe that without those elements, these films would not have penetrated the zeitgeist the way they have. Can a movie series about sharks falling from the sky somehow reinvent itself the way franchises about street racers or acid-bleeding aliens did? Tune in next July and find out!

©2015 Thunder Levin

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