Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write Stories about the Supernatural

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Hereafter (2010)

While it’s nowhere near his very best, Hereafter is one of Clint Eastwood’s most ambitious directorial projects of his entire career. Starting with the slick thriller Play Misty for Me in 1971, Eastwood has been pumping out film after film.

While his movies were hit-or-miss for the good part of three decades, Eastwood has been coasting on one strong project after another for the last fifteen years. After his forgettable thriller Blood Work, Eastwood directed the chilling ensemble piece Mystic River. A year later he released Million Dollar Baby, one of his most emotionally complex films ever. He released two films in 2006, then two more in 2008, and another eight in the last decade. And the man is nearing ninety years old!

It seemed appropriate for the master to eventually turn his attention toward the subject matter of Hereafter, an engaging drama that features three storylines and multiple surprises throughout its running time. The original screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Queen) never resorts to schmaltz. This is an intelligent film that opens with one of the most vivid special effects scenes in recent memory and continues into multiple scenes of great, lasting power.

Matt Damon gets the poster billing, but he’s only in a third of the movie, playing a factory worker named George who happens to be stricken with a life-long curse, the ability to speak to people’s deceased loved ones. He works a job that pays him two thousand dollars a week and claims, to his brother at least, that he’s “happy.” All he wants is to lead a normal life, but he knows, even when denying his gift, that will never be the case.

Cecile De France is Marie, a French journalist who has never put much thought into spirituality until she’s almost killed in a tsunami but lives to tell the tale. She re-focuses her attention on writing a novel detailing the research conducted about death and the afterlife. Meanwhile a young British boy has lost his twin brother in a devastating car accident and is desperately in need of finding someone who can give him closure by allowing him to speak with his dead other half.

This is a thought-provoking film, one that moves at a fairly leisurely pace after the opening heartstopper. Eastwood allows the three storylines to play out in long sequences. Instead of bouncing around from one scene to the next, he’ll let the French woman’s storyline play for ten to fifteen minutes, then switch over to George in San Francisco for that similar length, and so on. These long passages allow the audience to really come to understand each character’s motivations, as well as their inner demons.

There are many extraordinary scenes in the film, but outside of the dynamic opening, there’s specifically one in George’s apartment, where he has lucked out in getting a pretty girl to cook and eat dinner with him. Everything about this scenario is a Meet-Cute, with introductions to each other in a cooking class and clear attraction to one another. It’s assumed this storyline will blossom into romance, until the girl discovers George’s ability and asks him to try it on her. What happens next is alternately honest and devastating, leaving a girl broken inside and George alone for the umpteenth night, eating dinner by himself, never knowing if he’ll ever find love.

The performances are fantastic, not the least bit unexpected from a film directed by Clint Eastwood. It’s refreshing in this film to not be watching major American stars for the entire duration. The only big name in this is Damon, and he plays against type as a quiet, internal man unable to make lasting connections in the outside world. Not since his beaten-down character in Good Will Hunting has Damon played a character this human and vulnerable. His work here is some of his most nuanced and very best. De France plays a bright, sexy, fascinating woman who goes through a major arc throughout the film, and she’s a commanding screen presence. Eastwood doesn’t have a whole lot of experience directing children, but the performances he gets out of Frankie and George McLaren are natural and terrific.

Clint Eastwood will die someday — a sad but real truth — and the state of movies will never be the same. Kudos to him for taking on a film with tough subject matter and unusual storytelling, and allowing the events to play out on his time. These are the greatest creative years of his life, and here’s hoping he’s got another five movies or more inside of him.

Watching Like a Writer

Hereafter makes me think about writing a story about a character who can speak to the dead. In fact, I’ve been actively thinking about writing a novel-length ghost story for more than a year, and a lot of ideas are still bouncing around my head. How do I make a ghost story super creepy? How do I tackle a ghost story that hasn’t been done a thousand times before? Hereafter is an original film that has a supernatural element to it, but it’s never that scary. I want to do something really, really, really scary, and I think looking at films about the supernatural that are both in line with the horror genre and in line with drama and romance will help me gather great ideas.

Exercise!

What’s something you’ve never seen before in a ghost story? How might it make the story scarier?

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