Half-Arsed: Phase IV (1974)

If, like me, you only had a passing knowledge of Saul Bass, and didn’t know he directed a feature film about hyper-intelligent ants, you’re gonna be curious about that film, now it’s on Netflix, so scope it out. If you have no idea who Saul Bass is, and you’re wondering why I’m gonna talk about an obscure seventies film, let me fill you in.

Saul Bass is known for being a Title Designer, a.k.a. he did the opening credits, and his work is phenomenal. Here’s an hour long video of title sequences he created, here’s a nice video essay about his career, and just for the sake of it, here’s my favourite of his title sequences (and here’s my favourite Saul Bass-inspired title sequence). I’m not gonna spend this whole piece fawning over Bass, but these are the reasons I was excited to see the film, also because Edgar Wright recommended the film in this video, so it was almost automatically written down in my “stuff to check out” list.

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Phase IV is a fascinating film, I would personally describe it being a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jaws (which Phase IV predates by a year). Two scientists team up to study a hyper-intelligent ant colony in Arizona, and after telling a local family to evacuate, they blow up the obelisk-like ant hills. After this, things go to shit, the family didn’t evacuate, so the ants descend on them, they try to flee, but get caught up in the scientists spraying poison from their outpost, only the daughter survives. One of the scientists is bitten after the surviving girl tries to kill the ants that the scientists were experimenting on, the other scientist starts to explore communication with the ants. The ants become immune to the poison, and build mirrored ant hill to heat up the scientific outpost.

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From there on out, it descends into a man vs. nature struggle, they try to radio for a helicopter, but ants got in the right circuit board, they fix the air conditioning, and use sound equipment to destroy some of the ant-hills, but the ants destroy the air-conditioning, thus making their equipment overheat and useless during the heat of day. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but it doesn’t end exactly how you’d expect it, and that’s very refreshing in this day and age. This film sells the concept of hyper-intelligent ants that want to destroy humans, by showing you shots that wouldn’t look out of place in a David Attenborough documentary (Ken Middleham who was credited with ‘Insect Sequences’, was a wildlife photographer, who also worked in documentary). Phase IV shows us ants dragging a chunk of poison to the queen, so she can create new poison immune ants, it shows use dead ants lined up, as if the ants had to take inventory of the dead, it’s amazing to look at the visual storytelling of this film being used to humanise wee creepy little ants. There’s a scene in this movie where an ant is chewing a wire in the air conditioning unit, and as the audience we’re like “oh no, he’s gonna break it”, but then a praying mantis appears, and kills the ant, oddly making the audience breath a sigh of relief at the sight of a praying mantis, but another ant comes along and pushes the praying mantis onto the circuit, causing the thing to short-circuit and catch fire. It’s bananas. If you think of this as a fucked-up sequel to A Bug’s Life, it makes both films better, so there’s that.

This film scratched an odd itch for me, as I’m one of those people who find themselves enamoured with Zardoz, it’s hard to find obscure sci fi that I like. It’s a weird rabbit hole to find myself down, I watched Barbarella not that long ago, and I’ve been slowly reading Danny Peary’s writing on cult sci fi films, so if you’ve got any lesser-known sci fi recommendations (films/books/comics/whatever), gimme a shout.

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The Way of the Writer: Part Two – Character and Setting

Welcome back, thanks for continuing to read this series, today I’m gonna talk about my process as it relates to Character and Setting. Now you might wonder why I’m gonna talk about both, and not split this over two weeks, the simple answer is, they both go hand-in-hand, and I’m gonna be explaining that, over the course of this piece.

What is a character?

A character is a person, real or fake, that operates within a narrative. Simple, but what does that mean? Well, let’s start with the basics. This is a bare-bones character sheet, (by the way, stole this from a writing class), now it may look like an ‘Equality Questionnaire’ that you have to fill in when you apply for a job, but it will give you a necessary (but changeable) foundation on which to build your story. If you have an idea, and you’ve been thinking about your main character enough, this form will be easy to fill out, and if you don’t have a solid idea, and haven’t been thinking about the main character, this will hopefully accelerate the process. It took me five minutes to fill out this sheet, although I went very wild with the choices I’ve made, it’s still quite a simple character, someone who can blow shit up, that wants to rob a bank, doesn’t sound too farfetched, perfectly serviceable character for a serviceable heist film.

The above sheet is customisable, if you’re writing a fantasy story, you might add some additional categories, depending on what is important to the characters. As an exercise try filling in the form from the mindset of your characters, especially when it comes to the dream/fear categories. As I’ve been taught, the dreams and fears of a character are what make them a ‘well-written’ character, the dreams give characters drive to overcome their fear, and their fear impedes them fulfilling their dreams, this is the fire that fuels the character. For example, my middle-aged demolitions expert wants to rob a bank, which is obviously a crime, so she fears getting caught and going to prison, so if she gives up wanting to pull a heist her fear won’t be relevant, and it’ll be a different kind of story, not necessarily a bad one though, how many stories are there about a woman trying to give up a life of crime? Try and find something that is different but interesting about your character, yes I basically stole the dream/fear from Danny Ocean from ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ (2001), but it’s a starting point, don’t be precious about how you initially build your character, be flexible, if something doesn’t quite feel right, change it, then re-evaluate.

Setting the scene

Setting is as important to the characters, as the characters are important to the setting. If you think about yourself for a moment, try and think of the context in which you belong, you haven’t come from nothingness, you are who you are because of the world around you. For instance, I live in the scottish countryside, and to my friends who live in towns/cities they can’t believe that I normally have to travel for around three hours everyday that I worked in the city, but for me that’s normal, that’s just my commute. If you want to write about a character that kills people for a living, you have to take into consideration a) how that character deals with killing people and b) what environment has/is causing this character to continue killing people.

People don’t exist in vacuums, but they do exist in bubbles. The world that you surround your character with also informs that character, are they part of that world and breaking free or are they’re a disruptive element, causing that world to crumble, this is something to think about.

Building the setting is a lot more ethereal than creating a character, lazy writers tend to just set their characters in “the real world” and move on, this is a massive mistake. If I’m setting the story in present-day Scotland, what may seem like the real world to me, will be different to another Scottish person, so you’d do well to think of the implications on big and small levels, from political and societal implications, to the views of the world espoused by the immediate human environment around the main character. All characters which appear in your story build the setting alongside the location/time period/dimension, so it’s incredibly useful to build these two in tandem.

In an effort to not get too complicated, I’m gonna start talking about romantic comedies. ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ (1999) is arguably one of the finest high school romantic comedy films ever made, if you disagree, fight me. Now as someone who was never a teen in a late-nineties american high-school, I have no idea if the world shown to me is accurate to how it was at the time, but there’s a scene early in the film where the new guy is shown around the school, and we’re introduced to the cliques that occupy this school’s social environment, from the cowboys and rastafarians, to the wall street dorks and the popular good-looking kids, the movie then uses these groups and the interplay amongst them to drive the story forward. Even if your story is an existentialist drama, with only two characters, you still need to convey their backstory/world, the questions you need to ask yourself when building this world are: “how did the character end up here?”,”what position does the person occupy in this world?”, and “how do they interact with the world and the people occupying it?”.

Casting an obstacle

I’m kind of getting bored with using the terms hero/villain and protagonist/antagonist, as it quite often ends up getting confusing when the main character is morally dubious or ambivalent, and I write so that all my characters believe themselves to be the hero of their own story, so the rhetoric around heroes and villains gets confusing when diving deep into story, so I’ll simply refer to the main character as the main character, and the opposition to the main character as simply ‘the opposition’.

The character I made earlier needs opposition, as you can’t be a bank robber without someone to stand in your way, otherwise we’d all do it. I hear you thinking “make the opposition a cop”, but that’s easy, and the simplicity may serve you well, as even kids know that cops and robbers are by their nature, enemies. On the other hand, I still need someone to try and stop the main character from stealing, maybe a jilted ex-lover who believes the score is rightfully his, maybe the person who owns the bank, and hires a ruthless security team to protect their wealth, or simply just a bank employee, who wants to do the right thing. The role of the main character is to advance towards a certain goal, and the role of the main oppositional character is to prevent them from doing so, it’s simple.

When building characters to occupy the story, ask yourself how they serve the central conflict, Do they ally with or oppose the main character? Why? How is the world affected by them existing in it? How does the world affect the character? Also keep in mind that those on the side of the main character will not always be helpful, have them hinder the progress of the main character, and use that conflict to flesh out both characters, also the opposite can come in handy, have oppositional characters unwittingly (or not) help the main character, it’ll help people empathise with those on the other side, even if it is through fucking up.

Dynamic Setting

Once you have a more solid idea of your cast of characters, and the world which they inhabit, you now have to stress test the world and the characters. Now you will have to use your imagination for this, and some extra writing if required, even if you don’t intend your character to end up in a life or death situation, it’s helpful to know what they would do, would they kill, be killed, sacrifice themselves, run away, try and talk their way out of it, this is all up to you and them. Is your story world a heightened reality? You may have to come up with unwritten rules that you obey, for instance, does your story involve gun violence, is it over-the-top, ‘gritty and real’, are they using magical cinema guns that don’t need reloading, or does every bullet count in the story, these are just a few options that you can think about.

The Moral of the Story

It’s my storytelling belief that every story operates on what I like to call an “spectrum of morality”, in a simple form it can play as, simple farmhand (good) defeats dragon (evil) who terrorised the villagers (victims). Now this is very simplistic, and we now live in a world where Breaking Bad exists, where a well-intentioned main character becomes an almost unstoppable criminal mastermind, so it’s hard to break down the story as good/evil or hero/villain, but morality is still present. There is no black and white, only shades of grey, and if your main character exists closer to the centre of that grey, the oppositional force needs to exist on the opposite side to test the main character, take Robin Hood for example, he steals (bad) but does so to aid starving people (good), the oppositional character being The Sheriff of Nottingham, while legally being in power (good?), he lives a life of luxury, while people around him suffer (really bad).

The morality of a story isn’t confined to good and bad, in a bog standard romantic comedy, we see can see the interplay of one character being optimistic and believing in love, while the other is cynical and thinks love is made-up, you need to figure out what makes the story important, and build the characters and setting in service of your initial idea, and don’t worry if that idea changes as you explore, maybe the character I made would be better off not in a heist film, but a road movie, or a bizarre romantic comedy, the choice is all yours.

See ya next time for words on Theme.