WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

WEIRD DECISIONS

A friend gave me his new comedy script to read. Our hero is this everyday guy with girlfriend problems who is driving home from work one day and runs a red light at a deserted intersection. Except a policeman saw him, turns on the flashers and pulls him over. He asks our hero for his license and registration... but our hero starts the car and speeds off! There's an exciting high-speed car chase followed by all of the TV stations live. The police put down tack strips, they try to crash his car off the road, they fire shotguns at him! The police almost catch him a few times, but our hero does some amazing stunt driving and ends up escaping! But now he's a wanted man - a notorious criminal who evaded the police in a high-speed chase that everyone in America has now seen - and hijinks ensue.

The script lost me on page 10 when our hero decides to evade the police instead of getting a traffic ticket. I didn't understand that. Nothing about the character up to that point prepared me for his sudden criminal behavior. The bigger problem was that the rest of the script depends on that unbelievable moment. When I told my friend that I didn't understand why he ran from the police instead of getting a ticket, he admitted that other readers have had a problem with that moment... lots of other readers. I said if you round up a hundred people like your lead character and put them in the same situation, I didn't think you'd find one person who would rather be the subject of a nation-wide manhunt than get a traffic ticket. My friend said - his character would. Why did everyone want to make his character do things he wouldn't do?

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Roland Emmerich has a new movie about Shakespeare in cinemas, but his disaster movie THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW has a couple of similar logic problems as my friend's script. The film works as spectacle - if you look closely when that tsunami hits New York you can see the little cars and the streets get washed away and smashed around in the water. That attention to detail was kind of amazing. The storms from space, the Statue Of Liberty, the destruction of LA, all of that stuff was amazing to see...

But I think the script needed a rewrite - the dialogue was awful. Ham fisted, OTN, sledge-o-matic writing. Just one dialogue pass and the movie would have instantly been better...

But still would have been dopey because of some plot elements. I'm not talking about the rapid climate change stuff - like when Jake Gyllenhaal and his pals are being chased down a hallway by freezing weather (that can be kept out by slamming a door behind them?) - I'm talking about the idea of Dennis Quaid going to rescue his son. I'm not sure it's something the average audience member would do.

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Sure, we'd all want to rescue a loved one - that's a good story idea for a disaster movie. It takes this bunch of FX tied together and puts some humans in the story. Humans pay to see movies, so it's a good idea to have some humans in the film. Also a good idea to have some human emotions. And the workaholic dad who now has to rescue the son he's shoved aside all his life is a great (though cliche) idea for a protagonist with some depth (in a film like this). But the problem is - Save him from *what*?

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a genius kid who just has trouble applying himself who has joined the academic decathlon team because he has the hots for a girl on the team. The big game is in New York City, and when the big killer tsumanis come, Jake collects his team and gets them to safety in the New York Public Library. The top floors are above the tsunami, so they survive that. Then we get that rapid climate change that freezes New York City. Jake finds a fireplace and they begin burning books to stay warm - they have so many books they can be picky about what they burn (New York City Tax Code - yes, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche - no). Jake and his group are safe and don't really need to be rescued...

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But Quaid feels compelled to risk his life (and the lives of his two friends) in order to rescue his son. He and his pals set out to *walk* from Washington, DC to New York City in the middle of a freezing storm to reach his son (who is safe and warm). Quaid ends up in one life threatening situation after another on his trek, and his pals don't fare so well. Heck, the reason you take pals along on a trek like this in the movies is so that they can die and your hero can live.

There's no driving force in the story. Nothing that *forces* Quaid to rescue his son. No "or else" factor. You've got to have an "or else" factor. Doesn't matter what the genre is, if the conflict has no consequences, it's not really a conflict. It's a straw conflict. Sure, maybe they'll run out of books to burn *eventually*, but it's a huge library - that might take years! And there were a hundred desks and chairs that would also burn pretty well. They could probably sit out the worst of the ice age, and eventually regroup and find a way to warmer climates. Somewhere in New York there's a source for warm clothes and a source of food (other than the candy bars in the vending machines). They ventured out of the library to find medicine, why would they have any trouble going after food and winter clothes?

Which brings us to the big problem with Quaid's plan to rescue his son - once he gets to New York, what's he going to do? The rescue plan *requires* Jake to be in a safe, warm place (or else there's no one alive to rescue). Once Quaid gets there, he's going to take Jake *away* from safety and *walk* to Mexico? And how will Jake stay warm on that walk? Basically, Quaid's plan is to risk his own life and the lives of his pals in order to get to his son... so that he can remove his son from safety and subject him to the same exact risk Quaid and his pals just endured!

The solution to this plot problem might have been an "or else" factor - something *worse* than the new ice age that was coming towards Jake. A larger threat than the current one. Something to rescue him *from*. It's kind of a punishment fits the crime thing. You want the person you are rescuing to be in more danger than the act of rescuing them entails - or the average person would never do it (and the story makes no sense).

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A similar logic problem was created for Sela Ward's character. This was mentioned in every review I read, and by both Ebert and Meathead on that thumbs show. Ward is a nurse caring for a boy dying of cancer. They're ordered to evacuate the hospital - a killer storm is coming. Anyone left behind will die. So when there isn't an ambulance to transport that dying kid, Ward does just what you or me or anyone else would do...

Okay - what would *you* do in that situation?

Ward stays behind (a certain death) with the terminally ill kid. Um, that's dopey! It's also suicide. Would any normal person do that? Logic tells us to leave the terminally ill kid behind. Not an easy decision - but that's what makes for good drama. When she tells the other nurse she's going to stay behind, the audience in my theater laughed. It was the type of soap opera silliness that defies logic. Creating danger for yourself. No normal person would ever do that!

If your protagonist does anything weird, we're going to need an explanation. Even if that weird thing is something YOU would do, if that action isn't something THE AUDIENCE would naturally do; they want to know why the protagonist did it. For two hours, you want the audience to take a walk in your hero's shoes... that means those shoes have to fit the audience. Mothers do give birth, then leave their babies in trash dumpsters... but if you want the audience to identify with that mother they're going to have to know WHY she abandoned her baby... and it needs to make sense. You have to give us enough information about that mother that we understand why she had no other choice but to abandon her child. The average person, given the *same situation*, would do exactly what your character does (or consider it). None of us would do half the things Indiana Jones does in the movies... unless we were in that same situation. If you're being chased by a giant rock that's about to crush you, you'd jump over pits and swing on vines and do *everything* that Indiana Jones does. The big rock is the "or else" factor. Jumping over that pit is risking your life, but *not* jumping over it is certain death. In DAY AFTER TOMORROW both Dennis Quaid's plan to rescue his son and Sela Ward's plan to stick with the terminal ill kid are picking certain death when there's a less risky alternative. A weird decision! Unusual behavior has to be explained or established if you want to maintain audience identification with your hero. Weird characters are okay - but weird behavior needs motivation.



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