MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

WHAT'S YOUR POINT?


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A few years ago at this time I had 2 news films come out on DVD one with Steven Seagal and one without. The one without was CROOKED - a film that began as a spec script of mine called SOFT TARGET that was almost set up at a studio once... oddly enough, the same studio where they screened the film. The script went through *many* changes on the way to the screen - and went from what have been a good example to a bad example.

Every story worth telling has a point. Recently I was telling a friend about a frustrating experience at the Post Office. I had my scripts sealed in a mailer with an address label, and had the money in my hand to pay for the postage. I was waiting behind a woman who had the items she was going to mail, but no envelope, no address label, and no pen to write with. She was completely disorganized, and it brought the line to a stand-still. It was very frustrating... but the story was more than just an incident from my day, it had a pretty obvious point: Plan ahead and you won't waste time. Next time you're telling someone a story about your day, look for the point. The reason WHY you wanted to tell this story. There will be one!

I think what makes a film stick to the brain is the theme. I also think that every story has a theme in there somewhere. But will you EXPLORE that theme or IGNORE it? Lately Hollywood films have been ignoring theme and making junk food movies... I thought Hollywood might change in this post World Trade Center world - I'm looking at my priorities differently today than before September 11th. Will producers wake up and realize that it's not all about money, it's about telling stories that touch people's lives? Those stories can still be entertaining (we need entertainment) but they must also have substance. They must also have a THEME.

What is a theme? It's what your film is really about - the POINT rather than the plot. The moral of the story. I think theme is the most important part of a script. I think that the whole darned script comes from theme.

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In my book Secrets Of Action Screenwriting I used DIE HARD as an example of theme. I used REAR WINDOW as an example of theme when I spoke at Santa Fe Screenwriters Conference, NORTH BY NORTHWEST when I spoke at Las Vegas Screenwriters Conference, THE MATRIX when I spoke in London a few years ago, I used LIAR LIAR as my main example in an article in Script Magazine a couple of years ago, and I've used ALIENS and AMERICAN PIE 2 and SHREK and FACE/OFF and many other films in previous Script Tips. None of those are the kind of deeply symbolic art films discussed by the black beret crowd in Berkeley coffee shops and largely ignored by 95% of American movie goers. Fairy tales have themes, nursery rhymes have themes, so why shouldn't movies? Why can't an ENTERTAINMENT film also be a GOOD film? Movies in the "golden age of Hollywood" always had a point... plus sword fighting and pirate ship battles. Why can't the films of today be meaningful as well as entertaining?

Theme also is the key to character. It's the doorway to exploring character in your story because each character now contains an element of your story's theme - like a subtext. One of the things I do in the big 2 day class is start with an idea, find the theme in that idea, then find the characters which illustrate aspects of that theme, so that we can get deeper into character... and explore the theme just by having the character show up.

THEME TO BREAK STORY

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My 18th film came out a couple of years ago... I'm sorry if you've seen it. The original script for CROOKED was about a top secret hitman who can get past police protection to assassinate witnesses against the mob. One person has seen the hitman's face and lived - a woman. The reason why this hitman can bypass police? He's a detective. So the police department grabs their two most trustworthy detectives to find the woman and take her *somewhere* (don't tell us where) and when the beeper goes off, take her to the grand jury to identify the hitman. They pick a random motel and WHAM! they are attacked. So the big question becomes - who can you trust? And that's where my theme came from. Every character has a *story purpose* (like the chief of detectives or a minor assassin disguised as a hotel maid) but they also have a *theme purpose*, too - and that provides character and subtext.

So here's how I came up with my characters... What traits make you *not* trust someone?

Can you trust someone who never shows their emotions? (Latimer)
Can you trust someone who turns everything into a joke? (Yordan>
Can you trust someone who is more intelligent than you are? (Lynn)
Can you trust someone who is really moody? (Buzz)
Can you trust someone who has serious substance abuse problems? (Dratler)
Can you trust someone who is too slick?
Can you trust someone who always agrees with you?
Can you trust someone who is...

Each of these theme traits are great doorways into character. And they are ways to show the differences in character, ways that will pop up again and again in the script (because the story keeps putting characters in situations where they must trust each other to survive... and situations where they can't trust each other).

The hit teams all came from the theme, too - who can you trust? What traits make you trust someone? If a Maid knocked on your motel room door, would you let her in? In Los Angeles, would you find tourists milling around your motel lobby unusual? I tried to make every hit team a *surprise* to the audience (and the characters). You would never expect these people to be killers! Unexpected not only makes the story more exciting and unpredictable, it's theme in action! I had a lot of fun creating "invisible" hit teams - like the bad actor and the heavily armed toursist couple. It all comes back to the theme! Trust - who would you trust, who wouldn't you trust?

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Once you have the theme traits, you need to think about what kind of person has these traits and how they came to have them. You're creating a backstory for the characters and that backstory will have other character elements - say, some guy who was in the military where he learned how to go along to get along or some guy who was in an abusive home and learned to hide his emotions or some guy who... well, you get the idea. We're coming up with backstory that fits the theme trait and gives us other traits that define the character.

Now you want to look at how characters talk - everyone has a different vocabulary. Different pet phrases. Hey, some of these pet phrases may have something to do with theme! Again, we're using theme to explore character *and* explore story *and* take a look at society (in a world where it's hard to find someone to trust, post 9/11).

Now you want to look at actions and reactions - everyone has a different method for solving problems or dealing with problems. Again, these are thematic, and also *show* character through actions.

Now you want to look at their world view - everyone sees the world through their past experiences.

Now you want to look at the way they process information - everyone has a different type of "mental filing cabinet".

Once you know your characters, they start talking to you in their own voices and you can see the world as they see it (rather than as you see it), and they all become individuals - their own persons.

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Now we have three dimensional characters who are helping us explore the theme - we're going to look at trust in our modern times and why we need to trust others instead of lock the doors to our lives and trust no one. Because the story for CROOKED places our characters in a world where they really can't trust others... and they maybe can't even trust themselves (what if they *accidentally* gave information to a friend who ends up being the bad detective?) we can look at how hard it is to trust someone these days but how important it is to trust people... because we can't go it alone. We can't just isolate ourselves from the world and still have a life. If we're going to survive as a society we have to work together... and that means we have to trust people. Sometimes we have to trust strangers... and that's my point.

Even dopey action movies have a point.

All of this starts with us - the screenwriters. If we're just writing a script for money, no one will care about it. If we're just writing a script to preach a sermon, no one will see it. We need to write entertaining scripts which are meaningful, too. We need to *explore* our theme through the story and characters, not through speeches and heavy handed scenes.

Look at your current script and ask yourself: What's the point? How will this script make a positive impact on the world?

We can make the world a better place. Write scripts that *mean something*.

Of course, the script went through some changes on the way to the screen...

More on this in the Story Blue Book.


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