Writing With Movies In Your Head

I wrote this mini-essay ages ago – it was intended for publication elsewhere, but that never happened. To be honest, I’d forgotten about it but then the trailer for the re-make of The Magnificent Seven came out and … well, why it reminded me of this will be obvious once you read on!

It’s timely for another reason, mind you. It’s mostly about The Free, my most recently published novel, and some of the specific influences on that book. As I might have mentioned here, The Free is getting some companion e-novellas now. The first, Corsair, is out now everywhere e-books are sold, ready for your downloading and reading pleasure. So seems like a sensible time to revisit this discussion about what was going on in my head when I wrote The Free in the first place …

I’ve always got little movies playing in my head when I’m writing, especially action scenes. Not the details, but things like movement, its pattern and rhythm, and – bizarrely – lighting. So basically, my little mental movies are kind of blurry but full of movement and very well-lit.

When it came to writing The Free, though, things got a whole lot more specific. Once I had the basic story in my head I realised it had a lot on common with particular movies that I really like, and I decided to dig around in those commonalities and see what popped up. It was a first for me; usually (I think) my influences are a bit more subterranean and a good deal less conscious. This time, for better or worse, I was paying close attention.

The movies in question are Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch and to an extent 13 Assassins. Not enough people have seen the last of those: it’s kind of a modern, streamlined version of Seven Samurai, turned up to a violent eleven. It’s beautiful, brutal and clever stuff.

So, I thought, what do I like about these movies, and what would a novel that tried to achieve a similar effect look like? Not all of the answers I came up with actually made it into The Free, but some did. It wound up being a book that’s deliberately reminiscent of those movies, but not a slavish retread – it has its own story to tell. Some of the similarities are pretty obvious (if you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean), others maybe not so much, and it’s a couple of the latter I wanted to discuss here.

Exhibit One: Endings. All four of the films I’ve name-dropped are to a greater or lesser extent about endings in particular ways and combinations that I reckon are interesting. They share an elegiac tone, and underneath their narrative skin are positively thick with the notion of ending, or passing. The end of the age of gunslingers or samurai, the age of the individual man of violence (women of violence too, in The Free). The ending of specific lives; lives of which we see only the final few days, but they’re days that seem to sum up the years that have preceded them. I like that model. Beginning a story right near its end appeals to me.

The other thing about these movies and endings is that in all of them, from early on, the plot’s end-point is made very, very clear. In three of the four movies, you even know where the climax is going to take place, who the antagonists will be, what the specific numerical odds against the protagonists will be, within the first … I don’t know, twenty minutes maybe?

On some level, all of this is back to front. You might even call it spoilerific. I don’t go quite that far in The Free, because I couldn’t resist putting in one or two twists, but the sustained action of the last 80+ pages of the book is in a sense the obviously intended destination, and I assume – want, even – the reader to recognise that from pretty early on.

The thing about having what you might call a ‘flagged climax’ like this is that it pulls the plot and narrative towards it. It exerts a sort of gravitational tug that by its nature puts a bit of momentum and energy and tension into the tale. The fact that you know the shape, if not the detail, of Seven Samurai’s ending from very near the start imbues the whole movie with a rich cocktail of meaning and foreboding and questioning.

Exhibit Two: Otherness and violence. Much of the distinctive magic and tone of all these movies resides in the otherness of their central characters. They exist in tightly defined ‘bands of brothers’ socially and psychologically isolated from everyone else – but I reckon their otherness is also fundamentally about their relationship to violence. How they in particular use violence, how they view its purpose, and how its application has shaped, bonded and isolated them.

The thing that struck me, though, was that in the case of the movies with seven in the title, many different views (and consequences) of violence are represented both within and without the central band of brothers. Violence is what defines many of these characters, but it does it in radically different ways. I don’t make a big thing of it in The Free – it’s supposed to be entertainment, not meditation – but nevertheless it’s there; everyone in the book, consciously or unconsciously, has their own particular reason for enacting violence, and feels its effects and consequences in different ways. The central characters are mercenaries, but simple greed is not one of the reasons. Because that would be kind of dull, right?

And the other thing about violence, of course, is that it’s exciting. The movies I’m talking about are all, in their different ways, steeped in the horrible beauty of violence on the screen. They’re not celebrating it exactly, but they undeniably embrace its visceral, choreographed appeal when presented as spectacle. It’s an abiding puzzle to me why something that most of us, if confronted with it in real life, would find horrible and traumatizing is so exciting and engaging to watch in a cinema.

To make violence both cruel and exciting, horrible and fascinating, folly and triumph, that’s clever. Embodying mutual contradictions without breaking the narrative vessel they’re contained within can be a challenge, but I think it’s worth trying, particularly in the case of violence. And in that I’ve always thought Seven Samurai is the champion. Its final battle scenes, amidst mud and teeming rain, are so loaded with contradictory beauty and horror, tragedy and triumph, it’s a wonder the thing doesn’t fall apart. But it doesn’t, because it’s a masterpiece.

The Free gave me an excuse to think about it and those other films – not masterpieces perhaps, the other three, but well worth a wee think – and that if nothing else made the writing process fun.

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