Writing lessons from Ridley Scott’s A GOOD YEAR

A Good Year was one of the worst movies I’ve ever sat through. Apparently, you can learn a lot about storytelling from others’ storytelling mistakes.

Keep your promises to the audience.

The cover of the movie promised it was a romance. The blurb on the back promised it was a romance. The movie was not. Sure, a short clip of it was part of a romance story, but most of it was not. A romantic setting does not make a romantic movie.

Use the character’s change to fuel the romance–or the other way around.

There was nothing driving the little bit of romance but the main character thinking she was hot–just like he thought every other woman was hot. This is not romantic.

But if he had changed to be good enough for her–or if he’d changed on his own and it was the change that brought them together–that would have strengthened the story.

Utilize the great storylines you already have.

The storyline about the guy who grew the vines creating some secret wine, forging gross wine, lying to the main character about the value of the vines, that was interesting. But they didn’t use that. That storyline was given a quick nod and we were moved on to something else, like the immensely boring scene of the main character fixing up the house.

Make the character’s actions fit the characterizations you gave him.

So this multi-millionaire, this ultra-rich guy goes to his uncle’s somewhat run-down vineyard and, instead of hiring someone to clean it up so he can sell the place, he cleans it up himself? Really? Why?

It could have been intriguing if this multi-millionaire was doing it because he felt attached to the place (in which case he wouldn’t be preparing to sell it) or because he felt he owed it to his uncle, somehow, or any number of reasons. But there is no reason. He is just too cheap, apparently, to hire someone.

There’s a problem with being rich.

So the main character is loaded. Makes more money in the first five minutes of the movie than I’ll ever have in my life. There are problems with this:

How can I identify with him?

They started to get the audience to identify by having the guy’s assistant troll him with the little green car. And when his younger self was caught lying, in the very beginning, by his uncle, but he brazenly acted as if to say, I know you caught me lying, but I’m going to act like you didn’t and not even consider giving you the apology you’re asking for. That was a great piece of character. I think most of us have wished we could do that, even if we never actually have.

There’s no pressure.

If he is so super rich, there is no pressure, no drive. He doesn’t need the vineyard. If he sells it and changes his mind later, he can always offer the new owners a butt-load of money to buy it back. He doesn’t need to be nice to his potential cousin, he can just buy her off. He doesn’t need anything, therefore there’s nothing driving the story. There’s no risk to him at all. Welcome to blahville.

There’s a difference between attraction and love.

I must have missed a scene or two. MUST have. Because the story, the DVD case, everything promised this was a romance. And within the story, there was a romantic element. But it was the main character thinking the girl was hot, then stalking her until she said yes to a date, and then sleeping with her. And then leaving her. And then coming back.

What happened to the romance? Sure, he’s attracted to her. Maybe she’s attracted to him. But attraction and love are two different things. You can’t just put in the obligatory girl-and-guy-hate-each-other scenes to turn attraction into a semblance of the sort of love from Pride and Prejudice. There’s more to it than that.

Write great characters–and use them.

There are some good characters in this story: the assistant who trolls her boss, the lackey at the company trying to go behind his boss’s back, the uncle, the main character as a boy, the guy who takes care of the vines. The cousin and the girl have potential to be good characters, but never fulfill it. And all of them are good actors, I’ll give you that.

But it felt like they created good characters, then tossed them aside. Take, for example, the assistant. She’s in a lot of scenes in the beginning. She mocks her boss with a straight face. She’s interesting. And then she disappears. She doesn’t move the story at all. She’s just there. Why did they ask us, the audience, to care about her, find her interesting, and then abandon her? Why did they do that over and over with all the good characters the story offered?

Start the story as late as possible

I’ve heard this advice before, but it plays out interestingly here. The opening scene showing the main character a complete jerk, but a complete success at the stock market, is fine for an opening scene. So is the pre-opening scene showing the boy with his uncle, even if that’s a bit slow. But it’s the scenes where he gets lost on the way to the vineyard. The scenes where he’s just wandering around the vineyard. The scenes where he’s taking pictures of stuff we’ve already seen in the vineyard. (And why does he take all his pictures in three? Point the camera, click three times. EVERY TIME.) How about skipping all that altogether? It would have been awesome if he fell into the empty pool the first time he stepped on the diving board.

Learn from failures

Funny, that one of the lines in the movie was that you often learn more from your losses than from your successes. Apparently, the director of mind-blowingly awesome movies like Gladiator and Alien did not learn how to make a romance from those successes. Hopefully he learned from this.

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