10 May, 2008
The reviews of Midnight Man were mostly pretty bad and a common theme was the obvious way the exposition was given. I actually didn't mind that too much but what concerns me is that none of the reviewers mentioned the lack of logic which is much more important.
As a fan of thrillers I worry that logic-free plot-driven thrillers have become the norm in this country. The ending of the first part of Midnight Man had the most overused annoying British thriller cliché of all time: killing someone innocent to frame the hero when killing the hero is the most obvious thing to do.
There is a school of thought which says that thrillers have to be plot-driven but the reason Midnight Man failed for me was due to the lack of authenticity in character behaviour. Even if you think of the plot first you then have to retrofit character motivations to it. Well, you don't have to but you should if you want to make something good.
There have been suggestions that the other recent TV thrillers, The State Within and The Last Enemy, lost half their audience by the second episode because they were too clever when I believe they failed because of the same reason: emotion-free over-complicated plots where under-developed characters did things which made no sense.
The State Within used that most overused annoying thriller cliché of all time. I gave up on The Last Enemy early on due to it using the second most annoying thriller cliché of all time (the hero discovers a dead body and plays with the murder weapon so the police will think he's the killer), but I would be shocked if that series didn't use the number one cliché as well at some point. Enough is enough. I'm begging you, please.
I thought this type of thing was restricted to low-budget movie thrillers by inexperienced writers and I don't understand why I'm seeing it in high-budget television thrillers by A-listers. I'm a little paranoid that's it's me being too picky but Paul Abbott managed the action packed character-driven thriller in State of Play, didn't he? There was nothing too obviously stupid in that, was there? I don't think my man-crush on Paul Abbott blinded me to its faults, he just has a different approach and attitude as a writer.
As a fan of thrillers, I'm not asking for something difficult such as the moon on a stick. These are my actual demands which I must insist writers of thrillers have to comply with. There's no point emailing me asking for concessions, they're non-negotiable. I know script editors, producers, commissioners and a lot of the audience don't care but I do care and that's all that matters and all you should be concerned with:
1) Heroes can be brave but not stupid unless there's a good reason. if the hero is threatened due to their enquiring into stuff then they should at least try and be more discreet - even if the baddies are ultimately better than he thinks and catch him ignoring the warning. As a viewer trying to identify with the hero and care what happens I can imagine me brave but not stupid
2) Baddies should always try to kill the hero early. I admit that would make for a very short thriller so you put obstacles in the way of the baddies doing that. Typical is that the hero has some information or a Macguffin that the baddies need. Working that out may be hard but it has to be done. Alternatively, the hero is just too good at getting away.
An alternative is not the baddie keeping the hero alive and killing someone innocent instead to frame the hero. In one low-budget tax-dodge British film I saw, the baddie kept killing loads of people to frame the hero just because he hated the hero so much. I screamed at the screen, "Just kill the fracking hero then, you stupid bastard!" Baddies can't be thick either. Why let the only person who can foil your dastardly scheme live when you have no qualms about killing innocent people?
The audience of Midnight Man should be on the edge of our seats and chewing our nails anxiously fearing that the hero could be killed next week but that threat has gone - instead we're asked to care that he might go to prison for about five years. (Actually with a good lawyer he might get off completely by thrashing the dead woman's character and taking into account his psychological problems)
3) Minor characters are the star of their own story and also need to have proper recognisable human motivation. In Midnight Man, a bloke knows his cousin was killed in mistake for him, and yet he carries on as normal, as if he wasn't in danger, until he's killed. If it was me I would run away or at least go to the media. And I would have got the evidence proving this was happening immediately and not wait until the hero, some random stranger, asks for it.
Death has to matter to the characters or it won't matter to the audience and a thriller won't thrill.
4) The moon on a stick. OK, I lied, I am asking for this as well as it would be really really cool.
The overall story about a death squad operating in Britain is brilliant, scary and raises loads of issues. Would people just not care, as the hero's hack friend believed? How can an ordinary bloke with serious issues overcome something like that? But I wasn't made emotionally involved enough to care what happens.
Midnight Man had an intriguing premise, OK dialogue and a fast pace with things happening. That will be enough for a lot of people who don't care if it makes sense or not but surely we can aspire to higher.
Genre or Die, pt 3: Thriller
[RTF] Writing the Thriller Film
Thriller Screenplays - 3 Question Checklist
Thrller Writing Techniques
Rules of the Thriller