summer movies 2011

How to Make a Sequel, From Hollywood Insiders Who’ve Been There

All this week, as Vulture has been covering the summer movie season, we’ve been focusing on the record-setting wave of sequels. Why is Hollywood more addicted than ever to them? What’s the origin of the prequel trend? And what happens to a franchise when it’s run into the ground? And now it’s time for some creative advice: We decided to find out just what it takes to make a successful sequel, and we took the question to some people who would know: Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, who just scripted The Wolverine for Hugh Jackman; Richard Donner, who directed all the Lethal Weapon movies (and part of Superman II before he was replaced); Brett Ratner, who originated one big franchise (Rush Hour) and joined two others (with X-Men: The Last Stand and Red Dragon) that were already in progress; Al Ruddy, who produced the first two Godfathers; and writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, who devised this summer’s looming blockbuster Kung Fu Panda 2. They gave us ten tips for optimum sequel-making, so would-be franchise filmmakers, pay close attention.

McQuarrie remembers that in the early nineties, he was on a panel with Robert Rodriguez and Bryan Singer when the moderator asked them what they would do if they were offered Lethal Weapon 4. “And this was the point at which Lethal Weapon 3 hadn’t even happened yet, and so the audience laughed. Just the idea that there could be a Lethal Weapon 3 was hysterical,” McQuarrie says. “Anyway, everyone gave these very militant, ‘Fuck Hollywood!’ answers. Rodriguez said something like, ‘I’d kill Riggs and Murtaugh in the first five minutes … ’ But when they came to Bryan Singer, he asked: ‘Is it a good script? Because if it’s a good script, I’ll do the movie.’ If I’d gotten the call then to do Lethal Weapon 4, I don’t know what I’d have said then. But now that I’m a 42-year-old guy, I say, ‘Let me go in and hear what they have to say.’”
When McG planned a new trilogy of films beginning with Terminator Salvation, he saved all the good stuff for the sequels — and then the first film underperformed, ensuring that they would never be made. “The sequels that people don’t like are the ones that are sort of open-ended, because the filmmakers know that there’s going to be yet one more after it,” says Aibel. Donner agrees, adding, “That’s should be so far from your mind. Lethal Weapon was made as an interesting film, but only ‘a’ film. That is, one film … I don’t know why [studios] make so many sequels, but if they are making them with that thought in mind, then they’re cutting their own throat before they start. I’m selective when I go to the movies. As far as I know, the filmmakers I keep up with, they’re making [only] one movie.”
“I got tired of making other people’s franchises,” admits Ratner, who was a latecomer both to the X-Men and Hannibal Lecter. “It’s like producing the Oscars. You get no credit when it works, and if it bombs, then it’s ‘You ruined the franchise!’ That’s why I developed [my next movie] Tower Heist from scratch.”
“In Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, each movie gets further into who these characters are,” says Aibel. “I think the sequels that don’t work as well are when there’s just no room for the character to grow anymore.” It’s at that point that franchises ought to end, says Aibel, though he admits that they rarely do. “Almost every franchise makes one sequel too many. They’ll always keep making one more until one of them isn’t good enough.” Berger thinks it’s even worse: “Actually, most make two too many, because they do one sequel that wasn’t that good but still does well on the goodwill of the franchise, and then it’s the one that comes after where the audience has turned on you.”
“A sequel makes them feel secure that they know what they’re gonna get,” says Ruddy. “If a guy is gonna spend 10 bucks for his ticket and his wife’s and $20 for popcorn and soda, he wants some insurance that he’s gonna see something he’s gonna like. No one wants to think, ‘Why the fuck am I sitting here?’ Why do you think they make The Wolfman, Spider-Man 4, Tiger-Man 3, Man-Man 7, whatever, and the schmucks go see it? Because they’re guaranteed a certain amount of comfort. I can understand that. I mean, I wouldn’t go see those movies if they sent a fucking limousine to pick me up. But I can understand it.”
Rebooting franchises is all the rage, but Ratner points out that this is hardly new behavior in Hollywood. “Bond does it best,” he says. “They’ve been able to change out the actor playing Bond and that, in my mind, is the most successful [franchise] in history.” McQuarrie credits that to some careful casting: “When, in Casino Royale, Craig is asked, ‘Shaken or stirred?’ by the bartender, and he answers, ‘Do I look like I give a damn?’ — that’s the moment Daniel Craig said, ‘This is my Bond.’ Roger Moore was the Bond who made quiche. Sean Connery was the Bond who would hit a woman. Tim Dalton was the Bond with ghosts. Pierce Brosnan had the most fun being Bond. But each one of them stepped into that formula and said, ‘Here’s how I’m going to take it.’”
“There are very few sequels that are bigger or better than the first,” admits Ratner. “Whether Rush Hour 2 was better I’ll leave to the viewer, but it was bigger. I think it was because I followed the rules. I changed the environment: L.A. to Vegas, and then to Hong Kong. With The Hangover Part II, I was so excited when I heard they were doing it in Bangkok.” Aibel and Berger say that they had Kung Fu Panda’s Po take his show on the road for the sequel because, “Visually, we wanted to give the audience something they hadn’t seen before in the first movie. When you’re doing an animated film, that’s important, because the artists want to push the bounds of what they’ve done before.”
“One hears the word ‘verisimilitude’ from me again and again, but I remember, when they approached me about making Superman and Superman II together, that was the problem,” says Donner. “The original director was a tax fugitive from England – I seem to remember a lot of people with Costa Rican passports who’d never been to Costa Rica – and he, or someone, anyway, had put them in the wrong direction on both films: They were parodying a parody. You remember Kojak? Well, there’d be these scenes where Superman was looking for Lex Luthor, he’d fly down and tap a bald guy on the shoulder, and it’d be Telly Savalas saying, ‘Who loves ya, baby?!?’” Instead, Donner tried to keep his franchise as sincere as possible. “That reality might be bigger than the reality we live in, but it had to be real; you couldn’t parody it. You could have humor, but you had to be respectful.”
Ratner can already sense a shift away from franchise filmmaking that leans heavily on green-screen and CG budgets. “I think things are going to go in the direction of good old-fashioned great storytelling,” he says. “Here’s what I mean: Gladiator holds up. If you watch Zack Snyder’s 300 ten years from now, it’ll look like Back to the Future looks now: dated. I’m not knocking Zack Snyder, I’m just saying, movies that are driven by visual effects in a world that’s real don’t hold up … Spartacus, for example, holds up.”
Though he’s got plenty of advice for franchise filmmakers, Donner cautions that there’s no magic formula. “If I knew how to make a sequel work every time,” he says, “I’d be talking to you from the yacht on which I just landed my helicopter.”
How to Make a Sequel, From Hollywood Insiders Who’ve Been There