WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

PLOT TWISTS ARE THE ANSWER


Writing Screenplays That Sell

Two of my favorite genre films of 2017 were WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES and GET OUT. Both took what could have been popcorn plots and elevated them into something special. GET OUT turned MEET THE PARENTS and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER into THE STEPFORD WIVES... and had a couple of fun plot twists (which I won’t spoil in case you haven’t seen it). Though I guess I’ve spoiled the main plot twist by mentioning STEPFORD WIVES, huh? But the great thing about GET OUT’s plot twists is that once they are revealed, they make complete sense. You don’t need some big exposition scene to explain what the heck just happened. I *hate* the exposition scene in PSYCHO where they explain that Norman and his Mother were the same person, because I think 95% of the audience got that, and the 5% that didn’t need more than Simon Oakland explaining what a transvestite is. Hitchcock has said the audience needed time to calm down after that big shock ending, and the exposition allowed them a moment to calm themselves as well as that lesson in transvestitism for the 5%... and I suspect some studio exec was afraid the audience needed a lesson. The film didn’t need it, though - all of our questions were answered when the wig slips from Norman’s head.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES was the last in the new trilogy - and I hope that in a few years they do three more films. What was fun in these new films is that they contained answers for the *original* 1968 PLANET OF THE APES movie. The film is kind of THREE APES AND A LITTLE LADY and APOCALYPSE NOW, but the fun part are the references to the original 1968 film - like the little mute girl finding the shiny bit of chrome from a car and turning it into a pendant that she wears - the bit of chrome is the name plate from a Chevy Nova. In the 1968 film, the hottie that Heston hooks up with is named “Nova”. All three films have had fun doing this - secretly slipping in exposition for the original film. Answering questions you didn’t even know you had.

They’ve also brought that terrible 2001 remake back from the dead - Amazon keeps trying to trick me into buying it, and when WAR hit BluRay my local Frys Electronics had it on display on the shelf next to WAR. I didn’t fall for it, but I’ll be somebody did... The reason why that remake sucks: they changed the twist end from the 1968 version into something so confusing I still don’t think I understand it almost 20 years later!


PLANET OF CONFUSION

Writing Screenplays That Sell

You know there's something wrong when the producer of a big summer blockbuster had to explain (and attempt to justify) the twist end of his film. Even before the 2001 remake of PLANET OF THE APES was released they leaked to the press that there were clues to the twist end hidden in the film... in an attempt to head off any potential complaints at the pass. Hey, I'm a mystery guy who is always looking for clues, and I didn't spot any of them when I saw the film. The twist end seem to come out of the blue and confused the heck out of me. What did it mean? The producer said that if I paid to see the film again I would have found all of the answers to my questions hidden in the film. Despite the great make up and performances, I didn't stand in line to see the 2001 version of PLANET OF THE APES again.... nor did I buy the BluRay when they stocked it next to the WAR BluRay. Oh, I own the new trilogy on BluRay, and I own all of the 60's & 70's films on BluRay. I may eventually do a Story In Action book about them. But I’ve leaving out that remake.

The reason why the end of the 2001 version was confusing is because the twist end has nothing to do with the story we had seen so far. It's tacked on. A twist needs to change the direction of the story or change our perception of the story we've just been told (like the end of THE SIXTH SENSE). The purpose of a twist is to affect the audience - and if your twist needs Cliff Notes and press releases, it's not affecting the audience as much as it's confusing them. That's the worst thing a twist can do! A good twist REVEALS truths we haven't seen before so that we can understand the story with a clarity that was impossible before this new information was revealed. A twist should REMOVE any confusion the audience might have, not add to it.

The original PLANET OF THE APES' twist end changed our perception of the entire movie. We believed that Chuckles Heston had crash landed on an alien planet that evolved differently than Earth, and the twist reveals that Heston has landed on Earth in the future, and that humans have destroyed themselves and allowed apes to evolve into the dominant species. The twist is ABOUT the story we have just seen - revealing information that adds clarity to the events of the story (the twist in the new version is about life on Earth... and none of the story takes place on Earth - this is the first time we've been there in the entire story!).

In fact, when you look back on the original film, the twist end answers the questions clever audience members may have been asking throughout the movie: Why does this planet have the same atmosphere and gravity as Earth? Why are the horses and other animals the same as on Earth? Why do the apes speak English? The twist end gives us information that answers these questions - adding that final piece of the big puzzle so that we have a new understanding of the story.

A good twist end doesn't raise questions, it answers them.


STAY... AWAY

Writing Screenplays That Sell

A few years after that PLANET OF THE APES remake a screenplay by David Benioff titled STAY sold for $1.8 million... then tanked at the box office. What happened? I read the screenplay before seeing the movie ack in 2005, and this may be one of those few times the movie was better than the original script. They did everything they could to save the film, but as Marty Feldman says in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, it had a bad brain. The script seemed to be all about the twist end... and the twist end didn’t make any sense at all. Wikipedia says: “The film was a massive box office failure, with a domestic gross of $3,626,883 and a foreign gross of $4,715,249, making a total worldwide gross of $8,342,132.” Rotten Tomatoes has it at 27%... and the critics were being generous.

The story is about a psychiatrist Dr. Foster (Ewan McGregor) trying to stop his college student patient Henry (Ryan Gosling) who plans to kill himself in three days - on Saturday at midnight. Hey, there’s a ticking clock, right? Henry tells Dr. Foster that he hears voices, and sometimes can to predict future events. Wow, this is like THE SIXTH SENSE, right? Dr. Foster’s girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts) once attempted suicide, and offers to help him with this new patient. But the more Dr. Foster digs into Henry’s case and races to find the young man before he kills himself, the more he begins losing is grip on reality... After Foster talks to Henry’s mother... he is told by the police that Henry’s mother has been dead for years! One odd and unexplainable thing after another happens. Foster meets Henry’s girlfriend Athena... who vanishes into thin air! In a bookstore where Henry frequents, he finds a painting Henry swapped for books - and the artist who painted it killed himself on the Brooklyn Bridge on his 21st birthday. And Henry’s 21st Birthday? The day he plans to kill himself.

But all around Dr. Foster - reality is crumbling. A thick fog covers everything, and people and buildings and cars and everything else is *vanishing*! What is happening? There’s a red balloon that Dr. Foster chases that means, who knows what. When Dr. Foster finally reaches Henry on the Brooklyn Bridge, he watches as Henry puts a pistol in his mouth and blows his btrains out! Noooo! He has failed! And then that reality changes to a giant car crash on the Brooklyn Bridge! (WTF???) And Henry is in the car crash, dying! (WTF???) And Dr. Foster and Lila and every other character we have met in the story are either witnesses to the wreck or involved in the wreck! (WTF???) And then it gets *weird*... and then it ends. Um, WTF WTF WTF???

When I read the screenplay, I hated it for many reasons (it was terribly written, it had stilted dialogue, it had lots of talk and almost no action) - but the “twist end” with the car crash left me completely confused.

STAY sold for $1.8M, then tanked at the box office. What happened?

Writing Screenplays That Sell

The shrink doesn't have any compelling reason to save this guy - no "or else factor". In SIXTH SENSE we want Bruce Willis to save the kid because he had failed with Danny Wahlberg. We don't want him to fail again. In JACOB'S LADDER we have this great story about the secret drugs his platoon took and the conspiracy to cover it up - by killing anyone who pokes around. Our protagonist might get killed!

And Dr. Foster isn’t an interesting or compelling character. He's kind of bland. In fact, all of the characters are kind of bland - none have individual voices (except for the occasional smart ass line from Lila). They all sounded exactly alike. Again, in SIXTH SENSE Willis has a past failure that makes him an interesting character, and in JACOB'S LADDER the guy sees demons!

Then we have our Saturday Midnight deadline, which is kind of squandered. It's not a race against time thriller until Act Three, and even then it's hardly a page turner - mostly because nothing stops the shrink from following Henry. There's no *conflict* - kind of a basic thing in a story. I thought that Benioff’s previous script, the Ed Norton film THE 25TH HOUR, had the same problem - guy's got 24 hours before he gets locked up and he kind of meanders through the story. No driving force (even though it should be there, given the premise). Again, this script meanders when we have this concrete deadline.

And the script isn't very cinematic - it's mostly people sitting across from each other talking (whether it's in the shrink's office, over a chess set, at Henry’s Mom's house, etc). The story isn't really told through the actions of the characters - they mostly just sit there. And I've seen THE RED BALLOON. Nice little French short. Why steal it for this script?

Writing Screenplays That Sell

A major element with the end is that it's not set up at all. The script doesn't play fair. When you come to the end of THE SIXTH SENSE it's a great twist... but it makes complete sense given the story we've seen. Same with JACOB'S LADDER - the whole story is about what happened in Viet Nam... so when the twist end takes us back to Viet Nam it all makes complete sense. In STAY the writer wasn't clever enough to keep the story *about* the car crash - instead it's a bunch of crap that doesn't have anything to do with the "reality" of the story. It's just bad storytelling.

And the writing itself wasn't all that hot - I mean, repetition of style on page 1 with the word "disheveled". That's a dopey mistake - doesn't this guy own a thesaurus? I make sure I never repeat the same word, let alone words that stand out. Yet the script is riddled with repetition of style mistakes and all kind of Writing 101 issues in addition to the cardboard characters and stale dialogue.

Should we support this guy for making $1.8 million - sure, it helps one of us every time someone gets big money for a spec. But let's kick the system in rear for buying the wrong script, and not seeing the pretty obvious flaws in this script. Getting swept up in the SIXTH SENSE thing is okay, as long as the script you buy actually has the SIXTH SENSE's strong points - which means it plays fair with the audience. Once we've seen the twist, we can see the film again and the twist makes complete sense. And the protagonist is compelling. If they're just buying anything with a half-@ssed crapo twist ending, they're looking for a script with a donkey in it because BACHELOR PARTY had a donkey in it and made a whole lot of money.


SIXTH SENSE ABOUT ENDINGS

Writing Screenplays That Sell

The way a plot twist works: the twist was always the reality, but the writer created a clever diversion so that the audience was “looking elsewhere” and when the twist kicks in it makes complete sense. It was there all along. SIXTH SENSE SPOILERS...

So Bruce Willis’ child psychologist fails a deeply disturbed patient and in the opening 7 minutes that patient shoots Willis. We fade out, and when we fade back in - Willis is back to work and has a new patient, another deeply disturbed kid. This kid says he sees dead people. Willis is estranged (maybe divorced) from his wife, and when they have dinner together she completely ignores everything he says. Man that’s cold! Willis takes the bus everywhere, doesn’t talk much with anyone else, and several other odd things that we never notice because we are so focused on this disturbed boy. So when we come to the end of the story, and Willis realizes that the boy actually does see dead people... and the boy can see Willis... well, that explains *everything*. It’s a twist that leaves no question unanswered. And that’s the key to a twist ending, or any plot twist...

A good twist end doesn't raise questions, it answers them.


Your Story Checklist:
1) Does your plot twist expose the reality that was always there?
2) Have you created a diversion that takes the focus off that reality?
3) Does your plot twist *answer* questions?
4) Does the twist create confusion or remove confusion?
5) Is your end satisfying?

A plot twist *resolves* things. It is not only unexpected, it makes complete sense when we think about it and doesn’t leave us wondering. It answers our questions. “Oh, that’s why his wife was ignoring him! He’s dead!” “Oh, that’s why the Planet Of The Apes has the same atmosphere as Earth and all of the Apes speak English! It *is* Earth!” You want to have the audience leave the cinema satisfied rather than confused. Don’t do what that 2001 remake of PLANET OF THE APES did or what STAY did! By the way, that guy who wrote STAY did okay for himself, as head writer on one of my favorite TV shows, GAME OF THRONES.

A GOOD TWIST ANSWERS QUESTIONS.


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