how mysterious

The Secret to a Good Mystery Movie? It Isn’t the Surprise

Ryan Gosling ponders the mysterious in Blade Runner 2049 Photo: Warner Bros

When Michael Green was hired to co-write Blade Runner 2049, the screenwriter had to give himself a crash course in a genre he knew little to nothing about: mystery. Both the 2017 Denis Villeneuve–directed sequel and Ridley Scott’s original 1982 Blade Runner are commonly associated with science fiction, but they’re also standard bearers for neo-noir. So, ahead of penning the 2049 script, Green immersed himself in the hard-boiled crime fiction of James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler, internalizing their dramatic twists and tropes. “I hadn’t written something like that before,” says Green, a DC Comics contributor whose first television writing credit came from Sex and the City, “so I had the unique pleasure of filling in very large holes in my reading by diving into classic noir.”

In delivering a contemporary companion piece to a Philip K. Dick classic, Green — alongside original Bladerunner scribe Hampton Fancher — endeavored to structure his story “one concentric circle wider in terms of complexity” than its predecessor. In broad strokes, his LAPD detective protagonist would still be investigating mysterious occurrences involving artificial humans called “replicants,” and would still be puzzling together sequences of events in which the truth is revealed in dramatic, often violent fits and spurts. But throughout the process of writing, Green was “haunted” by a 2009 Guardian article entitled “Beyond the silver screen” by writer-director Paul Schrader, in which he posits that a 24/7 multimedia universe has rendered audiences immune to, and exhausted by, narrative storytelling. The twists and tropes he’d come to believe were the hallmarks of the mystery genre were seemingly impossible to pull off in such a reality.

“Audiences today are both eager and more capable of processing much more complex stories,” Green says. “Your average viewer — any viewer who approaches a mystery, be it an hour-long TV procedural or a film that’s taken many people many years to concoct — they will look at it and automatically, subconsciously be able to see the decision tree of where the story can go. When viewers have conservatively consumed 20,000 hours of mystery over the course of their lives, there’s a proportion of the audience that will just be able to guess certain outcomes.”

“So the onus falls off of surprise,” he concludes. “I don’t believe there is the possibility of surprise.”

It’s an interesting stance to take, given that Green — the American Gods showrunner whose filmography includes Alien: Covenant, the X-Men spinoff Logan, and Disney’s upcoming Jungle Cruise — has gone on to adapt two more mysteries for the screen since ending Blade Runner 2049 with what many critics have described as a “twist.” Green wrote the screenplay for Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, adapted from British fiction mystery doyenne Agatha Christie’s quintessential 1934 story, and re-teamed with the Irish director to helm Christie’s Death on the Nile (out in 2020). Jumping from noir to whodunit, Green found it best not to try to “out-Christie Christie”; instead, he focused on delivering an entirely different experience based only loosely on the idea of a whodunit plot and more on “pure character work.”

“As a viewer, I enjoy character studies, and as a writer, I enjoy putting three or four entertaining, potentially ingenious characters in one small room and seeing who wins. The mystery just gives them a reason to be there,” Green says. “Plenty of fans will disagree with me, but Christie doesn’t concern herself with deep characterizations. Instead she tended to employ character shorthand. ‘A Scotsman of 50.’ ‘A Spaniard.’ That leaves tremendous opportunity! I get to come in and dimensionalize them as humans and say who these people will be and how we can broaden out their world by broadening out who might show up in her mysteries. I get to have a lot of fun just by making people younger or older or not white or from other countries.”

That being said, Christie’s novels tend to involve hundreds of pages of exposition and, as any scriptwriter will tell you, exposition is the toughest thing to write for the screen. “In [adapting a] mystery, you inherit a certain number of data points that you have to find the ideal places to deploy — to make them interesting, to make them memorable. And you have to find ways of making the audience accept it without making them feel vegetal,” Green says. “In a typical Agatha Christie book, it seems like there are 3,600 data points to support her story. The hardest job I had on Murder on the Orient Express was finding out how to incorporate what I thought were the essential data points. And then finding out in subsequent drafts and in the editing room, how wrong I was about what was actually essential. We didn’t need as much as I thought.”

That revelation made the writing of Death on the Nile much easier: “we could just focus on what film does better: character motivations.” Surprise can still have value, Green attests, but it doesn’t have to be fetishized. “You can’t possibly surprise everyone. The rare story can, but on balance, that’s not what you’re there as a screenwriter to deliver. What you’re there to deliver is an enjoyable experience of watching yourself be right or wrong on your guess.”

By de-emphasizing the element of surprise, Green seems to suggest that, contrary to Schrader’s tolling of the narrative death knell, the tried-and-true mystery genre might actually offer keen possibilities for the future of storytelling. When asked if there are any narrative arcs that have fallen out of fashion — any tropes of suspense so hoary and cliché that they have been effectively banished from screens in 2019, his answer is an emphatic no.

“There’s so many people writing so many stories right now,” the writer says. “The number of procedurals, every one of them a mystery, every one of them turning out eight to 24 episodes a year. I don’t think there’s any part of the mystery buffalo not being digested or turned into boots.”

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The Secret to a Good Mystery Movie? It Isn’t the Surprise