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Starting At The Beginning: The Promise Of Prequels


Like a lot of new movies, "Oz: The Great and Powerful" skips down some familiar pathways. Twenty years before Dorothy, Toto and friends followed the yellow brick road and a couple of witches consider the arrival of one Oscar Diggs who fancies himself a wizard.


MILA KUNIS: (as Theodora) I simply want peace. That's all I ever wanted and the wizard can do that. He's a good man.

RACHEL WEISZ: (as Evanora) What do you know about goodness? Deep down you are wicked.

KUNIS: (as Theodora) I am not wicked.

CONAN: Well, prequels can provide context on setting and characters. They can poke fun at their better-known originals, and some even go boffo at the box office. We'd like to hear from you, what's your favorite prequel? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. We turn to our favorite film buff, Murray Horwitz, who's with us here in studio 3A, Murray, always good to see you.

MURRAY HORWITZ, BYLINE: Always good to see you, Neal. Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: And let's start with a - as usual, a definition of terms. Prequel, well something that went before.

HORWITZ: Right. Prequel is something for which the narrative precedes another story, the part of the story with which we're more familiar. So something were to take place in, let's say 1906 as I think roughly "The Wizard of Oz" - that's the year of publication. So this takes place a couple of years before that. So there is a prequel. I mean, it's a completely made-up word but Hollywood's in the business of making up things.


CONAN: Making up lots of things. So why not a prequel? And does this have a history?

HORWITZ: Yeah. Interestingly, well, of course it has a history and origins have always been, you know...

CONAN: Favorite of the comic books...

HORWITZ: Yeah. absolutely.

CONAN: ...but that's not the medium we're talking about.

HORWITZ: And but what's interesting is - so it's, you know, prequels sort of happen or back stories that happen in other art forms. But almost every film that our listeners are going to call in and bring up today, I'll bet you, have been made in the last couple of decades. And what happened is - speaking of definition of terms - a new term, reboot, came up with regard to franchise pictures. So, you know, you got franchises like "Star Wars," now apparently "The Wizard of Oz." You've got - and so what a prequel does is to fill in the earlier part of the same narrative, the narrative that you know. It connects to the narrative.

We have the "Star Wars" films, "Star Wars episodes I, II and III" are a good example of that. George Lucas knew when he started "Star Wars" in 1977 that eventually he was going to get to the earlier parts of the story - or at least, he intended to. A reboot is when - oh, I guess "Batman Begins" is the clearest example. It's a prequel but it's intended to reconceive the whole franchise. So you can change the character. You can reintroduce characters who you thought had died or whom you knew in a whole different way like the Joker, and you put this in a completely different fictitious universe. So...

CONAN: Not to say, you also get a new Batman, Bruce Wayne, played by Christian Bale this time around, has a tough time adjusting to life at home with Alfred, of course, the great Michael Caine.

HORWITZ: The great Michael Caine.


CHRISTIAN BALE: (as Bruce Wayne) We need to send these people away now.

MICHAEL CAINE: Those are Bruce Wayne's guests out there, sir. You have a name to maintain.

BALE: (as Bruce Wayne) I don't care about my name.

CAINE: (as Alfred Pennyworth) It's not just your name, sir. It's your father's name. And it's all that's left of him. Don't destroy it.

CONAN: Well, there's much more to find.

HORWITZ: There is much more. To me, it's a real successful reboot but we have to specify. Even though we love talking about Hollywood and we...

CONAN: Would that include, for example, the new "Spider-Man," the most recent "Spider-Man?" And they did a sequence of, what, three movies and then they went back to the beginning and essentially made that first film again.

HORWITZ: That's exactly right. And they retell the origin story, and again, put us in a kind of different universe where the narrative doesn't really hook up with the other stories that we know from the franchise. So when you say - use a word like franchise, it's a commercial term. It's a term from the world of business. And so even more than most of the Hollywood films we talk about, prequels really deal with the intersection of art and commerce. The main reason I think for doing some of these reboots is to make more money, you know, plain and simple. But that doesn't necessarily mean they can't be successful and they can't be artistically interesting products. The Batman reboots, the Christopher Nolan Batmans, I think, are a really good example of it.

CONAN: Well, let's get some callers in on the conversation. What's your favorite prequel? 800-9098255. Email us: talk@ npr.org. We'll start with Anna. Anna on the line with us from San Antonio.

ANNA: "Star Trek" - no doubt about it.

CONAN: So the new version of "Star Trek," this is the 2009 version where Spock, played by Zachary Quinto, well, here, he volunteers himself for a job aboard the USS Enterprise.


ZACHARY QUINTO: (as Spock) As you have yet to select a first officer, respectfully, I would like to submit my candidacy. Should you desire, I can provide character references.

CHRIS PINE: (as Captain James Kirk) It would be my honor, Commander.

CONAN: And that, I think, Murray, is a smashing prequel.

HORWITZ: It is a smashing prequel, and it's really the best example of sort of the commercial and the artistic rationales coming together. Without ruining anything for anybody, J. J. Abrams's "Star Trek," this 2009 film, uses a very clever time travel plot device. So they...

CONAN: You mean they don't race around the world really fast like Superman?


HORWITZ: No. Although there is one coming up, "Man of Steel." There's a reboot of "Superman" in the works right now. But no, they - it really is a true prequel, but we even see Leonard Nimoy playing Spock as well. So it also frees J.J. Abrams to wipe the slate clean and reboot the franchise. It takes place in an alternate timeline of the same fictitious universe. And if you understand what I just said, then you don't me. You're a fanboy enough.

CONAN: Anna, it also requires us to invest in new actors playing beloved characters, and I think the got it right.

ANNA: Oh, they got it absolutely right. In fact, the captain was much more likeable in the prequel.


CONAN: I was also very fond of the new Scotty. I liked...

ANNA: Oh., he was - they were all wonderful, they really were. They got the mannerisms down to the last detail.

HORWITZ: And this - I think, Anna, I think you're right. And I think is what really a test of - maybe that is the ideal that we're searching for because it satisfies all the trekkies. It satisfies the people who are really among the initiates. And then I think the people who come to it freshly, it works as a fresh reboot as well.

ANNA: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

ANNA: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email - and I have to hang up on her. Here's an email, this is from Erin in Des Moines: I really enjoyed the fifth Final Destination movie which turned out to be a prequel. As a cheesy horror movie fanatic, I've always been highly entertained by these movies. I was disappointed when the fourth movie was suppose to be the "Final Destination." "Final Destination 5" spends most of the movie like any one its predecessors and only reveals it's a prequel in the last five minutes or so when the end of this story ends up where the beginning of "Final Destination 1" begins. My mind was totally blown.


HORWITZ: I'm sorry. For this, more than almost any topic we've ever done, Neal, I knew, thank goodness, we were going to get a lot of terrific, you know, I don't mean this in any way disparagingly, fanboys, fangirls, nerds, I'm one. And you know, come on in. It's great to hear.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Jeff: "The Hobbit" is the best movie prequel currently running and will be for some time as the other two installments are revealed. Of course "The Hobbit," Tolkien, fans of "The Lord of the Rings" get another trilogy, they're kind of stretching a little story a long way. But nevertheless, it's the release of the first "Hobbit" film, "An Unexpected Journey." Here Bilbo Baggins reviews a contract for the trip.


MARTIN FREEMAN: (as Bilbo Baggins) Up to but not exceeding one fourteenth the total profit if any. Seems fair. Present company shall not be liable for injuries inflicted by or sustained as a consequence thereof, including but not limited to lacerations, evisceration, incineration?

JAMES NESBITT: (as Bofur) Oh, aye. He'll melt the flesh off your bones in the blink of an eye.

CONAN: Well, Murray, my precious.

HORWITZ: I had to - yes, I had to think that more than a couple of Hollywood lawyers were involved in the production of that movie for that scene. But you're exactly right, Neal. As you hinted, I'll be less of a gentleman. I mean here they - you know, Peter Jackson took a trilogy, right, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and he made a film trilogy. Now they're taking "The Hobbit," which is a modest enough small single book, and they're going to make a trilogy out of that. So again, art meets commerce.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Stephanie. Stephanie on the line with us from Salt Lake City.

STEPHANIE: Hello. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. Which is your favorite prequel?

STEPHANIE: I'm probably going to get a lot of flak from my friends for this,, but I absolutely loved "Prometheus."

CONAN: "Prometheus," sort of a prequel, though Ridley Scott would never admit it, to the movie "Alien." It follows a crew of space explorers looking for the origins of humanity. Here Idris Elba's character talks to an android named David, played by Michael Fassbender.


IDRIS ELBA: (as Charlie Holloway) You think we wasted our time coming here, don't you?

MICHAEL FASSBENDER: (as David) You're question depends on me understanding what you hoped to achieve by coming here.

ELBA: (as Charlie Holloway) What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made us in the first place.

CONAN: Well, that's no small ambition there, Murray.


HORWITZ: Isn't that - Stephanie, you won't get a lot, well, you may get a lot of flak from your friends about this. But I don't think you should. You should get a lot flak from me. I really did not care for this movie. And my son, who's a great "Aliens" fan and loves the whole franchise, pointed out to me that - he said, you know, very few people had as negative a view of it as I did, but he points out it's kind of a prequel to a prequel because it doesn't fit exactly with "Alien." And he said if there is a sequel to "Prometheus," it'll probably hook up with the story of - the same universe but probably a different planet. But it will probably hook with "Alien." So they've left themselves a little gap that they can jump into so that you can go see the sequel to the prequel which will itself be prequel.


STEPHANIE: Exactly, exactly. You know, I'm a huge sci-fi nerd, and I grew up watching the "Alien" films, so when that came out, I pretty much threw a fit. Plus, you know, Michael Fassbender is in it, so...

HORWITZ: Let me ask you one question. A lot of these - the prequels are science fiction films and they set up alternate realities, alternate universes. Do you think that's a reason why prequels infect the genre so much?

STEPHANIE: Yeah. I think - I don't know, actually.

HORWITZ: It's a loaded question because I (unintelligible)...

STEPHANIE: It is kind of a loaded question. I could actually go on for quite a long time.


CONAN: Well, we don't have quite a long time.


CONAN: But thank you very much, Stephanie, for the phone call.

STEPHANIE: Thank you so much.

CONAN: We're talking with our favorite film buff, Murray Horwitz, about prequels. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Murray, you mentioned resets, the 2006 film "Casino Royale." We have a brand new Bond, Daniel Craig. And here, of course, he encounters, well, M, the inimitable Judi Dench.


JUDI DENCH: (as M) We're trying to find out how an entire network of terrorist groups is financed and you give us one bomb maker. Hardly the big picture, wouldn't you say? The man isn't even a true believer. He's a gun for hire. And thanks to your overdeveloped trigger finger, we have no idea who hired him or why. And how the hell did you find out where I lived?

DANIEL CRAIG: (as James Bond) Same way I found out your name. I though M was a randomly assigned letter. I had no idea it stood for...

DENCH: (as M) Utter one more syllable and I'll have you killed.

HORWITZ: I have to tell you, I mean I loved - I think Judi Dench is the best M ever. But, you know, this is another film of - let me mention something that I think afflicts many prequels because they are so commercial. A lot of times they try to be real contemporaneous. And there is a scene in "Casino Royale" that drove me crazy where James Bond is playing a high-low hold 'em. He's playing poker. It looks like something, a poker match on ESPN with Giancarlo Giannini as the color man. And it was just so - but in a way every Bond - every new Bond is a reboot. It's, you know...

CONAN: Yeah. Every new Bond - even George Lazenby.

HORWITZ: Even George - especially George Lazenby.

CONAN: All right. Here's an email, it's from John: I think my favorite prequel of all time has to be the - I'm sorry - this is the wrong one. I wanted to get to one - here it is.

The — this is - excuse me - from Gloria: The best prequel ever has to be "Godfather II." Nothing else comes close, the richness of the colors, the actors, the scenes of vintage New York. We don't see the likes of that again.

HORWITZ: You know, I think that's right. And I think that really - there is something about us. It tells something - prequels tell us something about ourselves, something about us that wants to know origins. You know, it craves knowing how we got to where we are. And there's something satisfying in a good prequel. "Godfather Part II," of course, is both prequel and sequel, you know.

CONAN: And sequel. It's all wrapped up in one. And this, of course, is when Vito Corleone as a young boy comes to Ellis Island.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Come on, son. What is your name?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken) Vito Andoline from Corleone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Corleone, Vito Corleone. OK. Over there. Next.

CONAN: And, boy, that would get my vote.

HORWITZ: I love it. And who didn't thrill the first time he said in English, I make him an offer he can't refuse. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.