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The Dos and Don'ts of Creating a Great Clone Story

Orphan Black: Doing the whole clone thing right

Orphan Black: Doing the whole clone thing right

If you're the kind of person who watches a lot of obscure movies, you might have noticed that there's been a surge in clone/doppelgänger stories recently (The Atlantic wrote about the trend last month). March saw the release of two art house flicks that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Face of Love and Enemy. The second season of the critically-acclaimed BBC America show Orphan Black is underway. And starting this Friday, Jesse Eisenberg will be contending with himself in The Double.

But unlike their subjects, not all stories about clones are created equal. Below we've outlined some of the best and worst ways to tell a story about clones.

DON'T: Ignore the clone's backstory
Sure, it's tempting to avoid explaining why there's a doppelgänger in your story - after all, there are so many stories about clones now, it must be edgier to just skip over why there are multiple identical people, right? Wrong. Learn from Enemy, a movie that raises way more questions than it ever considers answering. The audience never finds out why there are two Jake Gyllenhaals in the world (not like that's a bad thing, but still), so it's hard to follow the narrative when it moves from point B to point C without ever explaining how it got from point A to point B. Help your audience out, and they'll be willing to join you on this crazy clone trip.

DO: Hire an actor who can play all the identical-looking characters with ease
This seems obvious, but it's important. The actor who's playing multiple parts has to make the audience believe that they're not all the same person. While Ed Harris is respected as an actor, he fared less well playing two characters in The Face of Love. The difference in mannerisms between his two characters was so small that it seemed plausible that the movie would take a twist and reveal that they're secretly the same person! Alas, they were different people, not that the audience could really tell, and it would have been much more interesting if they were one person, and the movie trudged along toward its hackneyed ending. 

DO: Visually differentiate the clones
Once you've got an actor who's good enough to play the different roles, it's important that the audience is able to quickly tell which clone they're dealing with. This is a lot easier with female characters than male characters - little changes in hair and make-up can be very helpful. Orphan Black is an example of doing this very right: The audience will never confuse bleached-blond Helena with Allison's banged preppy presence or Cosima's alternative-chic braids and thick-rimmed glasses. Less adept at this one? The Double, where both of Jesse Eisenberg's character wear the same suit. Eisenberg does a good job at differentiating them through his physicalization, but it's still confusing at times. 

WHY IS IT YELLOW. WHY?

WHY IS IT YELLOW. WHY?

DON'T: Shoot the movie through a yellow filter
This one is confounding, but it's an unfortunate trend that seems to be catching on. Enemy has a very jaundiced feel to it, as every frame is tinged with yellow. For some reason, The Double has a similar yellow feel, though it's less obnoxious. According to a few highly-reliable websites about the meanings of different colors, yellow indicates intellect, so maybe the filmmakers are reinforcing the connection between the science required for cloning and the intelligence of the characters. But it would be helpful if the color they chose was one whose meaning is more easily inferred. At this point, it's starting to feel Pavlovian: see yellow, think clone.

DO: Have the clones interact with themselves
One of the most interesting ways for your protagonist to undergo character development is through getting to know themselves better. And what better way to get to know yourself than by talking to.... yourself? The 1996 movie Multiplicity is a great example of this: Michael Keaton's character learns to become a better man as a whole by learning from the successes and failures of various aspects of his personality. Even in otherwise dull movies, like Enemy and The Double, the most entertaining and engaging moments come from the interactions between the clones. 

DO: Ignore the other clones if they're not relevant
The 2010 movie Never Let Me Go (based on Kazuo Ishiguro's book) is an exception to our previous item, and actually handles the idea of cloning in an interesting way: It tells the audience that the characters we're seeing (played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley) are clones, but it never actually shows us the "originals." It's gutsy, but it works in the movie's favor. The story is able to move forward, unfettered by characters who don't end up being relevant to the narrative.

Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson figured out the best way to get around downtown LA in The Island: on a jet bike.

Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson figured out the best way to get around downtown LA in The Island: on a jet bike.

DO: Make the future look really cool
The Island, a movie about clones who exist as organ-farming "insurance policies" for their wealthy investor counterparts, has elicited mixed reactions since its 2005 release. True to director Michael Bay's tendencies, there are plenty of crash-bang-boom explosions and not-so-great acting (Scarlett Johansson has come so far in the decade since it was released), but one thing it really nails is making the future look freaking amazing. Though it doesn't seem likely that there will be MSN Search kiosks on most street corners by 2019.

DO: Keep it human
Probably the most important thing to keep in mind when telling a clone story is to keep the focus on the humanity of the situation. Granted, this is an applicable concept for pretty much every story (and it's why the Marvel superhero movies have been so successful, but that's a whole other article), but it's especially important in clone stories. There's obviously some sort of crazy science going on that leads to the clones' existence in the first place, but by keeping them human, and flawed, and complex, it keeps the audience empathizing with the clones, and rooting for a happy ending.


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