by William C. Martell
Have I ever told you Martell's theory on Dog Energy?
See, I believe that all dogs have the exact same amount of energy regardless of size. So a normal sized dog, say a German Shepherd or a Labrador Retriever, has the perfect amount of energy to operate the dog. They can chase squirrels, run up hills, go for walks... all the typical dog stuff.
But when you take a bigger dog, like a St. Bernard, they use up all that energy just crossing a room. The standard amount of dog energy which is perfect for a Labrador, isn't enough to run a St. Bernard, so they spend a lot of their time resting. Don't ask me to explain the drool, but I got a theory on that, too.
Now take that standard dog energy and put it in a Terrier or a Chihuahua and you've got yourself a problem. You could run a half dozen Chihuahuas on the same amount of energy it takes to run your standard Labrador. So these little guys are always hyper. They've got to burn that excess power! They jump up and down, run around.... Too much energy for a dog this size!
What does this have to do with Indie films? I'll get to that...
You ever seen that bad Saturday Night Live skit called "You Like The Juice"? Whenever customers in a sandwich place ask for au jus on their roast beef, the guy behind the counter leers and says "So, you like the juice?" That's it. Not really funny...
But I think we can learn from the Dog Energy theory and the Saturday Night Live skit: The audience likes the juice. There's gotta be a certain amount of juice in every film, regardless of budget. It's a standard.
Now, this juice can come from a variety of sources: Regardless of what German Tabloids say, Tom Cruise has the juice. So do Mel Gibson, Dinosaurs, Harrison Ford, Tornadoes, Tom Hanks, big explosions, Ah-nuld, killer sharks, big plot twists, and massive flying saucers.
Some films are overflowing with juice. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK has juice to spare! You can take out Harrison Ford and plug in Tom Selleck and STILL have a juicy film. All of that action! All of those twists! The amazing stunts! That great end! Even without Ford, there's enough juice here for two normal action adventure films. Throw in Sean Connery for THE LAST CRUSADE and you've topped one of the juiciest films of all time!
Though juice may be star power, one doesn't have to be a star to have it. Let's compare Jeff Goldblum in THE FLY to Eric Stoltz in THE FLY 2. A major problem with FLY 2 was that Eric Stoltz didn't have the juice. His performance wasn't big enough to show through all of that make up. Stoltz is a great actor, but he BECOMES THE PART instead of letting the PART BECOME HIM like Jeff Goldblum does. Goldblum is that weird, quirky, twitchy guy no matter what part he's playing. Stoltz just disappears into the role. Goldblum has juice, Stoltz doesn't. FLY 2 needed a juicy actor to succeed.
But when most of us write our Indie films, we forget that you need the same amount of juice regardless of budget. When we take out Tom Hanks, we'll be putting in Matthew Modine (if we're lucky). And Modine just don't have the juice!
This is why studio forays into lower budget films usually flop at the box office. First, they don't do FX films on low budgets, so they can't have the tornadoes and sharks and flying saucers. Then, they use the EXACT SAME SCRIPT they would use for a Tom Cruise movie, but don't cast Cruise, so they end up with some juiceless leading man like Steve Guttenberg.
Look, Cruise can sit in a chair for 5 minutes and we'll watch him. Guttenberg better be DOING SOMETHING EXCITING every second, or we'll fall asleep. We gotta have our juice!
Where will our film get that much juice? Not from stars, not from FX, but from THE SCRIPT.
Juice comes from two sources in the script: Concept and execution.CONCEPT
While a studio might do a zany comedy about Steve Guttenberg falling in love with his female boss, or coaching a soccer team; an Indie will do a zany comedy about heroin addiction like TRAINSPOTTING.
People go to the movies for the EXACT SAME REASON they ride roller coasters. Thrilling fun, where you end up safe on the platform at the end. Entertainment. This explains why sex and violence sells. We get a chance to experience things we'd be afraid to try in real life. Experience the emotions we're afraid to in real life.
Is your story interesting? Films are made for audiences. It's a mass media. We aren't making a movie for ourselves, we are making a movie to share with the audience. So it has to be something that interests both of us. We are in a partnership with the audience. Film is COMMUNICATION. If you are telling a story that nobody wants to hear, you are talking to yourself... and we have loony bins for people like that. When we are writing we can't forget about the audience, sitting there in the dark waiting to be entertained.
Yet many of the Indie films I see have absolutely no entertainment value, no juice. I call these movies "Dying Grandmothers" - deeply personal stories which offer no entertainment value at all. Nothing interesting or intriguing for the audience. Completely self indulgent as if the film maker was living in a vacuum. Boring stories about personal loss. Completely juiceless.
There's nothing wrong with telling a personal story that is universal. A story designed to emotionally involve the audience. But we can't forget that the reason we are telling the story is so that the audience can experience it. We are in a partnership with all of those people in the audience, and we have to hold up our end of the deal. We have to tell a JUICY story. Something that engages and intrigues them. If our script is nothing more than an endless boring personal story, they're going to want their money back. Heck, they can hear their friends drone on and on for free. They want the juice!GENRES
Certain genres have the juice, others don't. There are few successful Indie romantic comedies, except for same-sex titles like GO FISH. Traditional Rom-Coms just aren't CONTROVERSIAL enough... and it's hard to add juice to the genre. (Though, I'm toying with a script called TABLE FOR 3, sort of a rom-com version of SUMMER LOVERS... imagine explaining to your parents you're getting married... to TWO women simultaneously!). Horror movies have built in juice, witness BLAIR WITCH PROJECT or STIR OF ECHOES. Thrillers have built in juice, so do crime dramas. The reason why Film Noir is a popular Indie genre is all of that juice - sex and violence, together again! From BLOOD SIMPLE to BOUND, noir has got to be the juiciest genre around.
But no matter the genre, you have to push it to the extreme in the low budget world to extract as much juice as possible. An argument in a big budget movie turns into that scene in RESERVOIR DOGS with two guys aiming guns at each other's heads.
In fact, the reason why DOGS and PULP FICTION work is because both films have juice to spare. What studio would have made a film where a guy gets his head blown off in the back seat of a car, and a third of the film is devoted to finding every chunk of skull and speck of brain matter and cleaning them up? Let alone the Zed/Gimp portion of the Bruce Willis/Ving Rhames story! Or that HUGE needle being rammed into beautiful Uma Thurman's chest. If a major studio had made this film as a 'base hit' they would have cut out all of these stories or toned them WAY down... robbing them of their precious bodily fluids! Being too dumb to realize that when it comes to the audience, WE LIKE THE JUICE!EXECUTION
The studio will pull any punches, afraid that they might offend someone. The Indie will go to the extreme! Anything juicy is fair game. Anything which will get a reaction from the audience becomes part of the film... even if it's offensive! Diving into a toilet full of human waste? Put it in the picture! Advocating the 'Joys Of Heroin' in our 'just say no' society? Put it in the picture! Killing a baby? Put it in the picture! Push the limits, and squeeze every scene for the last drop of juice! It's not coming from Ewan McGregor (who?) or FX! TRAINSPOTTING has enough juice to make up for the fact that it stars people we don't know with heavy Scottish accents. It finds its juice through story, character, dramatic situations, and scenes which push the limits.
Can you imagine a comedy about a woman who has wild sex with a dead guy in a convenience store bathroom? How about a character who enjoys having a woman give him oral sex then spit the semen into his mouth? Yech! Gross! Sick! And two of the things I'll never forget about Kevin Smith's CLERKS.
You've got to push the limits! Have faster pacing, more plot twists, more juicy acting scenes, edgier subject matter, and generally Milk the story for every ounce of juice! An Indie script has to be better and juicier than its big budget counterpart. Story, character, plot, concept, dialogue, and everything else we're responsible for is the main source of juice for the film.THE GEARS OF EMOTION
My friend John Hill (QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER) calls movies EMOTION pictures because people go to the movies to have emotional experiences. They want to feel. In our every day lives we usually have to hold in our emotions - films give us a chance to let all of those emotions out. Our job as writers is to tell a story that gives the audience an emotional experience, whether it's fear from a horror movie, sadness from a tragedy, or romance from a love story. Our job is to CREATE those emotions IN THE AUDIENCE.
Imagine three gears: the first gear moves the second gear which moves the third gear. The screenwriter is the first gear, and we use our scripts (second gear) to move the audience (third gear). We're trying to move the audience emotionally. To make them laugh or cry or sit on the edge of their seat or cover their eyes in fear. Every part of our script should be designed to create an emotional response in the audience. We're in the EMOTION picture business. Emotions are juicy.
In an Indie, no sitting on the job - your characters have to be constantly in conflict, which means a lot more drama. And an Indie that conflict has to come from character rather than from car crashes or people running into the house with guns. Those things are easy ways out. The key to a juicy script is HEIGHTENED DRAMA - really push conflict to the edge. If you've just got two people in a house and you need to keep them in conflict for 45 minutes, you've got to delve into character more, you have to get more into drama to make those conflicts work.100% REAL JUICE
Even though the budget is low, your Indie script has to have the same entertainment value as that $100 million Tom Cruise vs. Space Aliens movie Hollywood is making, because that film is in direct competition for the audience's entertainment TIME. In our hectic, fast paced lives, we have only so much time for entertainment. In order to be competitive, the Indie script has to offer more thrills (at less cost) than the big budget Hollywood film. It's not easy, but it's our job.
You can't take a solid script like PRESUMED INNOCENT, replace Harrison Ford with Matthew Modine and have a successful film! You've got to PUSH EVERYTHING TO THE LIMITS! Every single scene has to have some 'excitement factor', some JUICE!
Most of us don t think much about marketing our films, we re artists. We hope that Artisan or Miramax will pick up our film at Sundance and take care of the business side. But a distributor can only sell what we make. If our film doesn't have enough juice to fill the trailer, the distrib will have trouble finding enough people to fill the theater.
I saw a film at an IFP screening last year called THE BASEMENT AND THE KITCHEN that has a strange juice deficiency. The first half of the film is the typical "Dying Grandmother" - the self-indulgent story of a sensitive, misunderstood, agoraphobic guy who has been living in his basement for the past decade since his father died. He has no friends, trusts no one, and has come to believe that the woman who delivers his meals is not his mother but a clever imposter. I swear, I've seen a dozen IFP screenings with the exact same story. All of them are juiceless.
But a strange thing happens at the halfway point of this film - it suddenly gets REALLY JUICY! It's revealed that the agoraphobic guy's paranoia is NOT unfounded! That isn't his mother! She's from a top secret government organization. So is his psychiatrist (you knew that something had to be up with this guy - he makes house calls... basement calls!). See, the sensitive, misunderstood guy was abducted by aliens ten years ago (that's how his father died) and they are monitoring him around the clock. Oh, yeah, and the film suddenly turns into a prat-fall comedy. These agents are klutzes. As if Scully and Mulder were played by Laurel and Hardy.
Isn't that a good thing? The film may start out juiceless, but at least halfway through it kicks into gear and provide the juice the audience craves.
But if you are the distributor, how do you show any of that juice without ruining the twist? You can't. The only thing you can show is the juiceless stuff. How can you expect to attract an audience with a boring, self indulgent story of a sensitive agoraphobic young man? Even if you got them into the theater, how do you keep them in the seats for the first 45 minutes? I stayed because IFP had a reception with free food and beer. I'm glad I stayed, because the last half of the film was hysterical.
But all of the juice comes AFTER the twist. How the hell do you market that? Something the film makers should have been thinking about... you know the distribs who see the film are thinking about it.
Does your script have enough juice? Is something exciting happening on every page? Have you heightened the drama and action? Squeezed every scene to get the last drops of juice from it? If you've pulled a punch, or worried that you may have taken something too far; you may not have taken it far enough. Every scene, every page, every action, every line of dialogue should be designed for maximum impact. Your script is supposed to be a roller coaster ride, not a merry-go-round. Write every script with enough juice for a whole litter of chihuahuas!FADE OUT
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