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A Question of Scale

When a man who has saved the world — hell, the universe — more than once says that you’re laying it on a little thick, you are obliged to listen. I give you the words of Harrison Ford:

I think what a lot of action movies lose these days, especially the ones that deal with fantasy, is you stop caring at some point because you’ve lost human scale. With the CGI, suddenly there’s a thousand enemies instead of six – the army goes off into the horizon. You don’t need that. The audience loses its relationship with the threat on the screen. That’s something that’s consistently happening and it makes these movies like video games and that’s a soulless enterprise. It’s all kinetics without emotion. I don’t have time for that.

Ford isn’t alone. Designer Jonathan Blow decried “importance gigantism” in games. But it’s worth remembering that the phenomenon began in movies, and has only gotten worse.

The question is asked about every script in development — “Is the story big enough?” — and the answer almost always comes back no. Chart the Die Hard movies. In #1 (1988) it was a nice twist that the heavies weren’t terrorists but common thieves after a huge target: $640 million dollars. In #3, a mere seven years later, the heisters had set their sights on $140 billion-with-a-b bucks. Even adjusting for inflation, that’s quite a jump. I remember a review of The Bourne Identity complaining that the worst thing that would happen if Jason Bourne failed is … he would die. Maybe small potatoes for the critic, but I imagine JB would be peeved about it. When Salt was in theaters last year, another review said the movie’s supercharged plot made him long for the relatively modest scale of the Bourne films. From a liability to an asset in only eight years.

The noir films of the 1940s and ‘50s that inspire me are sweaty, desperate tales that keep close to their protagonists, never cutting the poor chumps a break. The fate of mankind doesn’t hang in the balance, even in Kiss Me Deadly where the briefcase everyone is after (“the great whatsit”) contains nuclear material. Maybe because the world had so recently been in genuine peril, it seldom is in these movies. The danger is always human-scaled. That shouldn’t reduce our interest in the story. If anything, it should intensify it.

One of the things I admire about Heavy Rain is its willingness to make small moments matter as much as large ones, to marry spectacle with intimacy. We’re trying to do something similar with March 32nd. Reality itself is collapsing. But that won’t matter if the player doesn’t care about the figure at the center of the story, private eye Jake Deschler, and about the collapse of his reality.

Recently I interviewed two playwrights who are bringing James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity to the stage later this year. It provided me with a perfect excuse to revisit Cain’s nasty, brutish and short novel as well as the peerless 1944 screen adaptation that made film noir palatable for a mass audience. Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder scripted a line for Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) that I’ve always loved. (No spoilers here. It’s right at the start of the movie.) “Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”

Motivations don’t come any simpler. And for Neff, the stakes can’t get any higher.

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