THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

ARE WE THERE YET?


You're standing on the sidewalk in front of your house when Tom Cruise pulls up in a black Ferrari, pops open the passenger door and says, "Come on!" You climb inside, Tom puts the car into gear and speeds off. "Where are we going?" Tom gives you one of those million dollar smiles, "It's a surprise." Okay. You like surprises. Hey, you're going someplace with Tom Cruise! Are you dreaming?

Tom starts driving north, and you think about all of the possible destinations that are north of your house. There's a Baskin Robbins - maybe he's going to treat you to as much ice cream as you can eat? There's a bowling alley - does Tom Cruise bowl? There's a really good steak house, maybe he's going to buy you dinner? Hey, there's also a movie theater... maybe he's going to treat you to a private showing of VANILLA SKY.

But Tom turns right... heading east.

Okay, so you aren't going to get to see Tom Cruise bowl. But east of you there's a miniature golf course. Maybe that's where you're going? Hey, there's also a McDonalds... and it's 99 cent hamburger day. Maybe Tom is going to fill the black Ferrari with hamburgers? Wait a minute! There's also a bank branch! Maybe Tom is going to use the ATM and give you a million dollars! Part of that money he made starring in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL that made him the highest paid actor a few years ago? Before the odd flop of AS THE WORLD TURNS... no, EDGE OF NIGHT... no, EDGE OF TOMORROW?

But Tom turns right again... heading south.

Okay, what's south? Motel row. Is Tom Cruise taking you to a motel? (That may be either a good thing or a bad thing - I'm not here to judge.) "Um, Tom... where are we going?" Tom just looks at you and smiles. You pass Motel 6. You pass the Days Inn. You pass the Red Lion. The Best Western is just ahead. You're getting closer. Closer. Closer.

Tom turns right... not into the motel parking lot, but onto a street... heading west.

Heading right back to where you started! Now you're really confused. Just where the hell is he taking you? Are you getting any closer? It's frustrating! Maybe Tom isn't taking you anywhere! Maybe he's just driving around in circles - wasting your time. There comes a point where you want to know if you're making any progress - getting any closer to the surprise.

In VANILLA SKY (the Cruise & Diaz movie before KNIGHT & DAY) that point came after Tom Cruises passes out on the street after spending the night drinking in that night club. After that, the story seemed to double back on itself, and I was afraid the story might not be taking me anywhere. I felt like we weren't making any progress... that the story was directionless.

NO DIRECTION HOME

Nobody wants to see a movie that's predictable, but we all want to feel like the story is taking us on a journey that HAS a destination. We want to feel like we're making progress and getting somewhere. That means the story needs to pick a direction. We need to be able to guess the destination, even if our guess turns out to be wrong. We need road markers that tell us we're getting closer to our destination. The audience needs to feel like we're headed in the right direction... even if that's the result of MISdirection.

Tom might be driving east (miniature golf, McDonalds, ATM) and ask if you're hungry. Now you believe Tom is taking you to the McDonalds. This might be reinforced by billboards that tell you how many blocks to the McDonalds and Tom asking you want you like to eat. You become focused on McDonalds... and when Tom passes the McDonalds and pulls into the bank parking lot, uses the ATM to withdraw enough money for lunch at a fancy restaurant, that's an unexpected destination.

VANILLA SKY could have focused on the murder plot - turning Kurt Russell's character into a police detective. After he accuses Tom of murder, and Tom says he didn't kill anybody, Kurt might reply "We have a body and we have your fingerprints. How do you explain the fingerprints?"

Now we have set a direction - Tom must search his fuzzy memory to see if he really did kill anybody. The first half might be an interrogation by Russell with flashbacks for Tom's answers. Russell seems to have mountains of evidence - Tom's fingerprints, witnesses described him, evidence near the body - things that Sofia gave to him, maybe a sketch from a police artist that looks just like him! Tom has been framed, and Kurt won't even tell him who is dead. Halfway through, Tom escapes. Searching for the person who framed him. Searching for information about who is dead. It's a chase like THE FUGITIVE! We're so focused on the mounting evidence, and who framed Tom, and who is dead... that the end comes as a surprise.

We've been given a direction for the story, even though it's a misdirection. We've been given a goal (who framed Tom for murder) and landmarks along the way (evidence against Tom and clues to the real killer) that allow the audience to feel as if they're getting somewhere. But when we finally reach the destination, and Tom finds out who he killed and why all of the evidence points to him, it's NOT the goal we were expecting.

Does it have to be a murder? No - the misdirection could be anything at all. Kurt is questioning Tom about a murder in the film, and that also fits well as a misdirection - Tom trying to figure out who was killed and who the killer is travels in the same story direction as the REAL destination of the story. Because we want to be driving in the right direction to reach the actual destination, we need to find a false destination that's in the same general direction. That way we'll secretly be heading to that ATM all along, even though the audience will THINK we're going to McDonalds.

If a story is a journey, we need to have the feeling that we're getting somewhere. That we're making progress. That means we need to give the audience a goal. Without a destination, and landmarks that tell us we're getting closer to that destination, we're just going to feel like Tom is taking us for a ride. Cruising around aimlessly and wasting our time.

Checklist for your screenplay:

* Is the reader of your script (and the audience) along for the ride, or some sort of kidnap victim?
* Do we understand the destination, the goal?
* Are you giving the reader/audience landmarks so that we know the story is making progress?
* Are you using misdirection to make your story unpredictable?
* When one goal is revealed as misdirection, do you establish a new potential goal right away?

We always want to feel like we are making progress in the story, getting closer to our destination and not just driving around in circles wasting time. Now that Tom's single again, he might just show up at your house some day, right?



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