FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
HERE: A KEY
Movies are about people with problems. Car chases don't pay to see movies, people do. So the most important element in *any* screenplay, even a dopey action movie, are the characters. Though we may like watching things blowing up real good, that isn't as satisfying as a story where characters learn about themselves, go through changes, and stories where the relationship between characters change. These things are emotional, and appeal to the human side. A good screenplay not only has the genre juice (explosions, fights, chases, horror scenes, comedy - whatever the genre) it also explores characters and their relationships. Movies are about people.
Now, I'm not talking about art house films where guys wear frilly shirts or indie dramas about families torn apart by social injustice - I write movies with wall-to-wall action filled with explosions, cars flying off cliffs, martial arts fight scenes, buildings exploding, snapped arms, shoot outs, machinegun fire, aerial dog fights, hand grenades, guys firing two guns at once, missile launchers, fiendish plans to bomb world leaders, scrambled air force squadrons, more explosions, and dudes in uniform yelling "Get me the President!" You know, guy flicks.
And the dirty little secret about guys - we're emotional. We cry at dog movies. We cry at father and son stories. When we are sitting in the darkness of a cinema - we can tear up without anyone seeing it.
When I wrote BLACK THUNDER about a decade ago, it was a different world. Silly little action movies were *disposable* - they would play cable (Showtime) then get dumped onto VHS as a rental title. Back then, a VHS movie was priced in the $100 range, and consumers just didn't buy them. Blockbuster and video stores would spend the $100 because they could rent them enough to make a profit. If a film managed to get good reviews - say, The Washington Post gave it a good write up in their Home Entertainment section, it might have a shelf life and become a video hit. On HARD EVIDENCE, when the film hit VHS there were good reviews in the video store trade magazines, which lead to stores ordering more copies and recommending it to their customers. That lead to the film skyrocketing to the Top Ten Rentals Charts, which caused a ripple effect - once the film was a VHS hit, Blockbuster ordered additional copies and featuring it in their *national* newsletter... leading to another huge spike in rentals. The video distrib sold more copies than expected... and probably bought other films from the production company.
After the DVD revolution, everything changed. Customers don't rent movies as much, they mostly *buy them*. So the decision isn't about spending $2 on a rental, it's about spending $20 on a DVD. Without the cushion of the rental market, a movie has to be something that people will spend the extra money to *own* - and that means it has to be something that they will watch again and again. A decade ago, having a good movie just meant a bump in rentals. Today, without a good movie that can get some good reviews and good word of mouth from the target audience your DVD won't sell well. Maybe you sell one title or two titles, but unless the quality is there stores will begin ordering fewer and fewer copies of your new titles. This is something that low budget producers don't seem to understand... yet. Eventually they will go out of business unless they can either produce a better quality of product or reduce production costs so that they can afford to sell fewer units (or the film to distribs for less money). What's strange about all of this - the qualities that result in someone like The Washington Post giving your Don "The Dragon" Wilson kung fu vampire movie 3 stars are right there in the screenplay - the part of the movie they probably pay the least attention to and pay the least money for! A good script - even on a low budget action flick - will result in higher profits for everyone. Even on a crappy low budget film, you need a script that explores characters and their relationships if you want a shelf life for your movie.
But what happens when a producer hands you a B movie star, a bunch of stock footage of Stealth Fighter planes and a list of other films I can "harvest" stock footage from, and three weeks to turn in a first draft? Once you find the theme (Concealment for purposes of betrayal) how do you add the human factor? Sometimes, to unlock the story... you need a key.
When you're playing beat the clock - reading research books and watching stock footage every night and turning out 5 "good" pages every day - you may not have time to look out the window and think about characters. Most of my characters and their relationships come from *me* - I am my best resource. But sometimes I have trouble figuring out the relationships or getting into the skin of a character very different than myself, and that's when Creation Keys come in handy.
On my DARK SALVAGE script (unsold - but got me 48 studio meetings) I had trouble getting into the head of my antagonist and understanding his relationship with the protagonist. Though I wasn't on an insane deadline with this script, I needed a nudge in the right direction. I searched for a story with a similar relationship to use as a model... and eventually figured out that the antagonist was Art Garfunkle trying to re-invent himself after splitting with Paul Simon. That became the key to the relationships, and my key to figuring out what the antagonist was thinking and feeling and how he related to the protagonist. The antagonist/protagonist relationship was Garfunkle and Simon after the split. That helped me figure out how they would relate to each other, and gave me a handle on my antagonist I didn't have before. That was the key that opened up the whole story to me... and made it easier to write.
On BLACK THUNDER I had my action story and all of my explosions and snapped arms and aerial dog fights, what I needed was the human side of the story. Yesterday I talked about theme - and Concealment For Purposes Of Betrayal, so today we will look at the character side of that: the protagonist concealing relationships and their own emotions. But what were those relationships?
My key ended up John Steinbeck's EAST OF EDEN - about sibling rivalry between two sons - Aaron and Caleb Trask - on a farm in the Salinas Valley in the 1920s. Two brothers fighting for the affection of their father (Adam Trask) - one is a favorite son who can do no wrong, and the other son trying so hard that he keeps blowing it. The harder Caleb tries to win his father's love, the more he completely screws up - and his father pushes him aside. You may have seen the film version with James Dean as Caleb the screw up brother, Richard Davalos as Aaron the brother that can do no wrong, and Raymond Massey as the stern father. It's an emotionally charged story... I just added Stealth Fighter planes.
Once I had this key, I knew all of the relationships and how they would evolve in the story. My protagonist was Vince Conners - a top test pilot. He was my Aaron character. A guy who could seemingly do no wrong. The stern father was his mentor - the best test pilot in the world Col. Tom Ratcher. The screw up brother - Ratcher's other student Rick Jannick. Just like Caleb in EAST OF EDEN, no matter what Jannick does he manages to screw up. Conners hates him, because he's a "skydiver" - he crashes planes. The sibling rivalry between these two is the emotional core of the story. The key to how they relate to each other, and what they *do* and *feel* while things are blowing up.
Once I had this key, I knew that Conners would begin the story hating Jannick and loving Ratcher. This would create drama and tension in the cockpit of the plane as the two search for the missing Nova Stealth Fighter prototype. I had the fuel to create the scenes while they were together - those scenes would be about sibling rivalry. Jannick would keep trying to show off - and screw up. This would drive them farther apart (when they are supposed to be working together) and add another level of danger - will Jannick screw up and get Conners killed? We had danger from the outside and danger from within... twice the excitement!
And I knew how the relationships would change: Conners would end up understanding (and loving) Jannick and coming to hate his mentor Col. Ratcher... who ends up being the villain. Once I had that start and end point for the relationships, every scene became part of that emotional journey. I knew I would have a scene where Jannick - whose whole life is about impressing Ratcher - discovers that Ratcher is the villain. I knew there would be a scene where Ratcher is a complete jerk and tells Jannick that he loves Conners and doesn't love Jannick - since Jannick lives for his father's love, I want his father to completely withhold it. That's good, meaty drama.. I knew there would be a scene where Jannick finally admits to himself that he's a screw up - the scene where he calls himself a "skydiver". I knew I would have a scene where Conners discovers that Ratcher is the villain - and the two will end up facing off like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Fighting your father to the death - a messy emotional situation. I knew that I'd have a scene with Conners makes peace with Jannick - realizes that Jannick was always trying to do the right thing... just trying too hard and blowing it. These two guys are brothers. And I knew that Conners would trust Jannick to save the day. Just as knowing the theme helped me to write this in 3 weeks, having this key to the characters helped me turn in a script that was more than just explosions on a tight deadline.
Steinbeck's EAST OF EDEN.... with aerial dogfights.
Once you have that key and those relationships, your job is to create those meaty scenes and make sure those character issues are even part of scenes where things explode. That becomes the focus on the story - it *is* the story... and the explosions are the logical dramatic side effect of those relationships. Just knowing the relationships isn't enough, our job is *showing* the relationships. Using that key to emotionally involve the audience (and reader) in the action. Having the key isn't enough - you have to *use it* to unlock the audience's emotions. We are finding ways for the audience to relate to out characters and make their problems into our problems. To feel their pain.
And feeling their pain becomes much easier for the writer once you understand their emotional situation. Here's a secret: because *I* am the creator of this story, I naturally gravitate to a story that resonantes with *me*. A personal story. A story that I can relate to, because it is secretly *my* story. I have a brother, I have a father... there are personal reasons why I selected EAST OF EDEN as kind of a model for the characters. I also have had friends who became rivals, and I concealed the friiendship in our past from myself (making it easier to dislike them). This story of Stealth Fighter Planes and explosions is secretly *my personal story*. Would not have been if I had not found that character key.
Since the theme of the script was Concealment For Purposes Of Betrayal, I decided to conceal information from the audience. To betray them with some parts of the story. Revealing information is critical to *any* script, no matter what the theme - you want to keep the story alive by giving the audience information that changes the story. Basic reveals change the direction of the story, but some reveals may change the story we have already seen - think about how the end reveal in THE SIXTH SENSE changes the entire film *after* we have seen it. We thought it was one thing while we were watching it, ends up it was something else entirely.
So, after coming up with that EAST OF EDEN key - I decided to conceal it from the audience and parcel out the information - we would learn about the relationships as the story progressed. I "stole" this idea from Atom Egoyan's EXOTICA, where a critical piece of information is withheld from the audience until the very end of the film. EXOTICA contains several characters who know each other - but we don't know HOW they know each other. We have no idea what their relationship really is. This becomes a mystery - we want to know what happened to bring all of these people together in such a strange way. We keep getting little clues, but that main piece of the puzzle that lets us see the whole picture is withheld until the VERY LAST SCENE - a flashback to the incident that set off the story. This makes the relationships between the characters seem to always be evolving and changing - until we get that last scene that acts as a key for the audience. Once they have that key, they understand the relationships.
My key was a photograph... or maybe three photographs.
My protagonist, Vince Conners, always carries a photo of himself and his mentor Tom Ratcher - it's his good luck charm. Whenever he gets into a plane, he tapes it to the dashboard. The great thing about this device is that it introduces the relationship between Conners and Ratcher... even though they won't have a scene together until later in the movie (when that relationship has changed significantly). When we first meet Conners, he's flying a Cessna with the photo taped on the control panel. When he climbs into the SR-71 later in the film, he tapes the photo to the control panel.
We know that Conners hates "skydiver" Jannick - refusing to work with him at first. He'd rather work with Ratcher - but Ratcher is retired and they can't find him and get him suited up in time... so he has no choice but to work with Jannick. We know these two have a backstory - but don't know exactly what their relationship was.
After Jannick is captured by the terrorists, they find a photo in his pocket... showing Jannick with Col. Tom Ratcher! Arms around each other - they were friends. So now we know that Conners and Ratcher were student and mentor... and so were Jannick and Ratcher. New information about the characters that changes our understanding of the characters. Conners and Jannick were rivals for Ratcher's affection and approval. But wait - there's more!
I saved the final reveal for the very end of the film. The key to the relationships between all three men. We know that Conners is connected to Ratcher, and Jannick is connected to Ratcher... but the two have not been connected together. Yet....
At the END of the film, the LAST SHOT shows a photo with Conners, Ratcher, and Jannick - arms around each other. Now we know that it is not just two guys who once had the same mentor - these are brothers with the same father. And it's not just *any* photo of the three of them together - Conner's photo and Jannick's photo are two halves of the SAME PHOTO. It's like a family photo of father and sons. Once the audience has this key, once they've seen the entire photo, they understand *all* of the relationships. It's a last shot revelation.
I used withheld information in BLACK THUNDER to make the characters mysterious and interesting. Because we don't know
their backstory, we keep guessing what it might be. This is a great technique to give depth to characters who may be played by actors more comfortable in the action scenes than the dramatic scenes.
You can use Keys to help you understand the relationship between characters in your script, and also use keys to help the audience understand the relationships between characters. If your want your film to have a shelf life, to be a DVD that people actually buy, you want to make sure that your characters *have* relationships... and that those relationships are explored in your film... even if it's wall-to-wall action and stars an unemotional martial arts guy who likes to control every freakin' aspect of the film. In the end, the film isn't for the star, it's for the audience.
BLACK THUNDER - CAR CHASE SCENE!
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I WRITE PICTURES!
*** VISUAL STORYTELLING *** - For Kindle! (exclusive)
Show Don't Tell - but *how* do you do that? Here are techniques to tell stories visually! Using Oscar Winning Films and Oscar Nominated Films as our primary examples: from the first Best Picture Winner "Sunrise" (1927) to the Oscar Nominated "The Artist" (which takes place in 1927) with stops along the way Pixar's "Up" and Best Original Screenplay Winner "Breaking Away" (a small indie style drama - told visually) as well as "Witness" and other Oscar Winners as examples... plus RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 200 pages!
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*** YOUR IDEA MACHINE *** - For Kindle!
*** YOUR IDEA MACHINE *** - For Nook!
Expanded version with more ways to find great ideas! Your screenplay is going to begin with an idea. There are good ideas and bad ideas and commercial ideas and personal ideas. But where do you find ideas in the first place? This handbook explores different methods for finding or generating ideas, and combining those ideas into concepts that sell. The Idea Bank, Fifteen Places To Find Ideas, Good Ideas And Bad Ideas, Ideas From Locations And Elements, Keeping Track Of Your Ideas, Idea Theft - What Can You Do? Weird Ways To Connect Ideas, Combing Ideas To Create Concepts, High Concepts - What Are They? Creating The Killer Concept, Substitution - Lion Tamers & Hitmen, Creating Blockbuster Concepts, Magnification And The Matrix, Conflict Within Concept, Concepts With Visual Conflict, Avoiding Episodic Concepts, much more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 175 pages!
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*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Kindle!
*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Nook!
Expanded version with more ways to create interesting dialogue! How to remove bad dialogue (and what *is* bad dialogue), First Hand Dialogue, Awful Exposition, Realism, 50 Professional Dialogue Techniques you can use *today*, Subtext, Subtitles, Humor, Sizzling Banter, *Anti-Dialogue*, Speeches, and more. Tools you can use to make your dialogue sizzle! Special sections that use dialogue examples from movies as diverse as "Bringing Up Baby", "Psycho", "Double Indemnity", "Notorious", the Oscar nominated "You Can Count On Me", "His Girl Friday", and many more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 175 pages!
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