FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
SHORT ACT THREE?
Act Three is the RESOLUTION of conflict. You've had all of Act Two to create problems and now we're going to focus on solving them. All of those physical conflicts that have been snowballing for the past 45-60 pages need to be resolved. If your Act Three is only ten pages long, the culprit is usually Act Two. You didn't create enough conflicts to resolve, or the conflicts were too simple, or the conflicts did not escalate, or your solution to the conflict was unrealistic. If you have spend 45-60 pages in Act Two creating problems for your protagonist, he probably can't fully resolve all of those problems in ten pages. If the problems were that easy to deal with, the audience is going to wonder why your protagonist spent all of Act Two avoiding them!
About 75 minutes into the classic western RED RIVER, John Wayne says: "You're soft, you should have let 'em kill me, 'cause I'm gonna kill you. I'll catch up with you. I don't know when, but I'll catch up. Every time you turn around, expect to see me, 'cause one time you'll turn around and I'll be there. I'm gonna kill you, Matt"
Hey, it's a John Wayne western and he's gonna kick some ass! Only one problem: he isn't saying this to some scumbag cattle rustler or some twitchy gunslinger... he says it to the young man he raised from childhood as his own son, played by Montgomery Clift! You see, Wayne has become the *villain* in this film.
RED RIVER is basically MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY on a cattle drive, with John Wayne as an obsessed, nasty, mean, and probably out of his mind Dunston and Montgomery Clift playing the protégée turned mutinous Matt. Almost every shot in the film has a thousand steers in the background - if not the foreground with the actors. And there's another great shot from inside Walter Brennan's chuckwagon as they ford a raging river (for real) behind and ahead and surrounded by cattle.
But after a while it becomes apparent that John Wayne has maybe lost his mind. He isn't sleeping. He doesn't ever want to stop and set camp for the night... and there comes a point where Wayne starts to tie a cowboy who steals sugar to a wagon wheel and whip him. He's gone from hero to psycho. When the cowboys - these guys we have come to know and love - talk back to Wayne, he pulls his gun and kills three of them. Not exactly what you expect in a John Wayne movie. Eventually this reaches a breaking point when they are told by a traveling cowboy that there is a railroad in Abilene that heads north to Missouri, and they don't need to drive the cattle through the dangers of Comanche country. The cowboys, including Clift and Brennan, think this is great news. Wayne thinks it's some sort of trick, and still wants to go to Missouri.
He has a plan, and he's gonna stick with it even if it's proven to be the wrong plan again and again and again. There is a mutiny, and Wayne wants to shoot *everybody*... but Clift steps in. Not to be a good son and help Wayne deal with these unruly cowboys, but to disarm Wayne and tie him up and maybe leave him to die in the middle of nowhere while they drive the herd to the railroad in Abilene. This is a full-on mutiny, and this is where Wayne vows he will track them all down and kill them all... including his best friend Brennan and his adopted son Clift. Wayne is the villain in this film and you can't help but hate him.
About 55 minutes of conflict later, Wayne and his posse of scumbags catch up with Clift in Abilene. Wayne wants to settle this mano-a-mano. This may not be the best plan, since Clift is an expert gunslinger - a faster draw than Wayne. About 30 minutes into the flick Clift gets into a shooting contest with the fastest draw in west, played by a young John Ireland... and bests him! Ireland shoots a can on the ground, it goes flying into the air - and Clift blasts it from the sky! Oh, and Wayne is old and the last time Wayne and Clift got into a shooting match, Clift shot him in the gun hand. But Wayne wants to see Clift dead.
John Ireland tries to talk Wayne out of killing Clift... and gets shot dead in the process. Wayne is *crazed*. This thing has been building since they begun this cattle drive an hour and a half of screen time ago. Building and building... and now Wayne is going to face off against Clift. And here's what happens....
Wayne and Clift face off. Wayne says, "Go on - draw! I said DRAW!" Clift doesn't draw, but Wayne does, "So I'll make you!" and fires at Clift! Missing his head on purpose. He keeps firing at Clift, walking towards him, blowing off Clift's hat. But to Clift, this is his father - he can't draw. Wayne fires at Clift's *face*, tearing open his cheek! "You're soft! Won't anything make a man out of you!" Then Wayne pulls Clift's gun from the holster, throws it away, and starts beating him. Beating him until he falls to the ground, bleeding! Then Clift gets up, throws this amazing punch at Wayne and knocks him down... then this chick fires a gun and stops the fight, and Wayne and Clift practically hug, and all is forgiven... and you kind of go WTF? and we get closing credits. Elapsed time, maybe 5 minutes, max!
It's abrupt. It's not realistic. It's way too easy.
And considering that the 75 minutes *before* John Wayne says he's going to hunt down Clift and kill him, it seems completely *impossible* for the story to end this quickly.
The film must have the shortest Act Three of any film from the time period, and it makes you wonder if there was more in the script but they just truncated it to make Wayne come out okay in the end. Whatever the behind the scenes reason for this end, it just plays fake and almost ruins a great film.
The two big problems with short Act Threes are that after building the conflict for the whole movie a quick resolution is unrealistic, and after all of that hell the antagonist has put the protagonist through you want them to have an equal amount of suffering... and you can't get it in a quick end. The hero has gone through all of this pain, and you want him to dish out the pain now. So a quick pulls a gun and kills the villain ending is unsatisfying. We need some payback! A short Act Three isn't just unrealistic, it can be a major let down for the audience.
Act Three in action and thriller scripts are often out of the frying pan, into the fire: one action scene leads to the next and they keep snowballing until you reach the end. The emotional conflict has been resolved, and the hero is left with a string of physical conflicts which must be solved before it's too late. These physical conflicts build-build-build in tempo and importance until we come to the final confrontation between hero and villain.
FACE/OFFs Act Three is wall-to-wall action, starting with a shoot out in a church between the Hero and Villain, turning into a stand off where the Villain kidnaps the Hero's daughter and holds a gun to her head outside the church, which leads to a foot chase on the pier near the church, which snowballs into the Villain stealing a speedboat and the Hero giving chase in a speedboat, which turns into a fist fight (with anchors and chains) onboard the Villain s boat, then the Villain's boat hits the shore and explodes, throwing Hero and Villain onto the beach, where they have a final knife-vs.-speargun fight. One action snowballs into the next in a continuous act-o-action... each action resolving a *piece* of the conflict.
All of those pieces of conflict that need to be resolved are pieces of the story... because there is still story in Act Three. It's not just "Kill the badguy", it's dealing with all of those unresolved story threads which have built up in Act Two. One of the problems with many superhero movies is the story is *over* at the beginning of Act Three, so it's just a bunch of pointless action. We want to make sure that there are all kinds of unresolved conflicts in the story which are part of that wall-to-wall action. That there are still twists and turns and unexpected elements as part of those action scenes.
There's no time for stops and starts in Act Three, it should be a roller coaster ride! This is true regardless of genre - check out the FUNNY roller coaster rides at the end of THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY and BLAZING SADDLES... or the dramatic roller coaster ride at the end of ORDINARY PEOPLE.
Act Three will often have your protagonist trying to solve the problem against a ticking clock: It's the day of the wedding and Julia Roberts has to get this problem SOLVED. In MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING Julia Robert's internal problem is that she is afraid of being alone for the rest of her life... but after breaking up the marriage at the end of Act Two, she realizes SHE IS THE VILLAIN (and that she is selfish - self - she has lived by her self - by herself for her entire life... and she's okay with that) so now she has to beat the clock to get the couple back together and married before the wedding guests notice that anything is wrong. All of the things she screwed up trying to avoid the conflict in Act Two have to be fixed in Act Three. This isn't some quick fix, she's spent half the script screwing everything up, it can't instantly be fixed.
William Goldman uses the end of NORTH BY NORTHWEST as an example of a slam bang movie ending, but Act Three doesn't begin on the face of Mount Rushmore, it starts much earlier when Cary Grant realizes Eva Marie Saint is going to be in danger and escapes his hospital room to rescue her. He becomes the man of action he's been accused of being throughout the film... and spends the rest of the film doing dangerous things to rescue the woman he loves. He has to get to Van Damm's house and rescue her before she's taken away to Russia... and that's the ticking clock that runs through Act Three. Though it only takes a minute for Martin Landau to be shot and fall off Lincoln's nose, the action building up to that is what makes it satisfying.
One of the problems with the RED RIVER Act Three is that it works differently than most - which is probably why it doesn't work very well. Most movies have an emotional conflict and a physical conflict. Usually the emotional conflict is resolved, and this allows the physical conflict to be resolved. You need to solve the emotional problem first... and that gives the protagonist the strength to solve the physical problem. In RED RIVER the physical conflict is the cattle drive - getting 10,000 head of cattle to market. The emotional conflict is between Wayne's character and Clift. Unlike most movies, they resolve the physical conflict first - which puts added pressure on the emotional conflict. It becomes the big end conflict instead of the cattle drive. We could have had the big face off before the end of the cattle drive, and Clift and Wayne admitting they needed each other to get the cattle to market... and we have the end of the cattle drive and the negotiations with the buyer as a way for Wayne to "earn his hug".
The Third Act of your screenplay can't begin until the central conflict CAN be solved. If the problem could be resolved earlier, why wasn't it? My friend Roger Ebert calls these "idiot plots" - a story where the conflict could be resolved... but isn't, just so the protagonist can remain in trouble longer. Most Act Threes begin when your protagonist has solved his emotional conflict and is strong enough or prepared enough to tackle the external conflict. That's the event that usually triggers Act Three.
If you don't like John Wayne movies, RED RIVER is one to try out. He plays completely against type and for most of the movie is the villain. You also get to see 1,000 head of cattle upstaging the stars in many scenes... and you'll find out whether Brennan ever gets his false teeth back.
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