THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

WHY WRITE A FIGHT SCENE?


Saturday Night Live did a skit about Ninja scenes in movies - how silly it is that if ten Ninjas surround the hero, they fight him one at a time instead of gang up on him. By fighting him one at a time the hero has a chance - and always wins. The skit was funny because it's true - cheesy martial arts movies always have the Ninjas fight the hero one at a time.

Grid

So when I wrote my first Don "The Dragon" Wilson movie, GRID RUNNERS, and I came to a scene where the hero was surrounded by badguys, I decided they wouldn't fight him one at a time... in fact, the hero would make the first move and fight all of them at once. I carefully figured out how the fight scene would work - actually drew a little diagram - and wrote out the scene. It was a cool scene, and made it through every single draft of that script. But just as HBO would change my title from GRID RUNNERS to VIRTUAL COMBAT, the fight choreographer changed the fight scene... Now the badguys would attack the hero one at a time. There was a practical reason for the change - it would require fewer set ups and take less time to shoot - but I still hated that scene. The fight choreographer ruined that film - not just for me, but for all of action film fans who watched it on HBO. One of the reasons why I love Jackie Chan movies is the amazing fight scenes, and my film was going to have silly, boring fight scenes.

If the fight choreographer or the director or even the star is going to throw out the fight scene in the script and come up with their own fight scene, what's the point in writing out the fight scene in the first place? Why not just write "They fight. The Hero wins."?

Here are three reasons:

1) If you go to Drew's and read a stack of action scripts you'll notice that they don't say "they fight" - they tell you what happens in the fight in the most exciting way possible. The car chase in the script for BULLITT runs 7.5 pages... the actual scene runs almost ten minutes on screen. The Page-A-Minute thing is only a guideline, but when they schedule a film they schedule BY THE PAGE (and 1/8th of a page). On a big film they may shoot one or two pages a day, on a cable film they may shoot 5 pages a day.

When they break down a script to schedule the number of shooting days at each location "They fight" takes up less than 1/8th of a page, and they might only schedule a half hour to shoot that scene. Unfortunately, that fight scene may take a couple of days to shoot! Guess what? They just cut your fight scene because they didn't schedule enough time to shoot it. If all of your action scenes are only a sentence or two, they won't end up with time to shoot any of them and you'll end up with an action film without a single action scene!

Which is one reason why you'll want to write out the scene - for scheduling.

2) Another reason is STORY, because any good action scene is telling the story and REQUIRES enough information to get that story to the audience/reader. An action scene is just like any other scene - if it isn't telling us the story and exploring character, it's outta there.

Matrix DVD - Buy it!

Look at any of the action scenes in THE MATRIX (the good one) - they are all CRITICAL to the story. You could not remove them from the script and still have a story. They also explore character (because story IS character). Let's take the scene where Neo is at his office and Agent Smith and a dozen cops show up to arrest him. Neo races to the empty office, goes out the window to that ledge, starts climbing around the building... but reaches a point where it becomes difficult and just quits. Folks - that's CHARACTER!

We learn from that action scene that Neo doesn't believe in himself and when the going gets rough he quits. That is Neo's character arc in THE MATRIX, he must learn to believe in himself. This action scene is critical to the character, to the story, to the character arc and emotional conflict, and it shows the theme. Without that action scene we don't get any of that information! Cut out the action scene and the story makes no sense.

Later there's a scene where Morpheus fights an army of cops while Neo and the others crawl through the inside of the walls to escape. It's a long fight scene - and every minute is critical. Because this is the scene where we SEE how much Morpheus believes in Neo - he sacrifices himself. He must keep getting back on his feet and getting knocked down until Neo is safely away...

But Neo hesitates. Neo knows he's not the Chosen One - he knows that Morpheus is going to be killed for no reason - because Neo is a fraud and wasn't strong enough to tell Morpheus what the Oracle said. But when Neo hesitates inside the wall... Morpheus has to get back on his feet and get pummeled even more! So Morpheus believes in Neo, but Neo's lack of belief in himself is getting his friend hurt. The more Neo hesitates, the more Morpheus gets beaten up. That's all story! You can't remove that without losing critical information that the audience needs. And it's also critical character information. It shows us how much Morpheus believes in Neo.

Good action scenes show character, move the story forward, explore theme in an exciting a dramatic way, and are an integral part of the story itself.

3) The third reason why you'll want to write out your fight scenes - You want the script to give the reader the same experience as watching the movie. If you're looking to sell the script - that's critical. If you're giving the script to a distrib for funding, it's critical. If you're looking for funding, that's critical. At this stage, the script IS the movie - so you want it to represent the movie - be as exciting to read as the film will be to see. Even if you're making the film yourself, if you're looking for crew or actors to work for free you'll want the script to read the same way the movie will look so that these people get an idea of what you're doing (and give up their free time to help you). Before the film is made the script IS the movie.

Matrix Reloaded DVD

Would you cut all of the funny lines out of your comedy script because Will Ferrell may decide to improvise funny stuff? The problem is - they won't hire Will Ferrell until AFTER they buy your comedy script. If the comedy script has no funny lines, it's not going to be funny and they aren't going to buy it in the first place! Your script IS the movie, and needs to provide the same emotional experience to the reader that the finished film will give to the audience. When people read a comedy script, they expect to laugh. When people read an action script, they expect there will be some really exciting and inventive action in it. The reason why Shane Black scripts sell for a huge chunk of change is that he writes amazing action scenes.

When I was on a panel with Shane Black and a bunch of other action writers at the Las Vegas Screenwriting Conference a few years ago, everyone on the panel said they learned how to write action from reading Walter Hill scripts - man that guy can write an exciting action scene! You feel like you're right there in the middle of the shoot out!

The awesome fight scene from JOHN WICK...



Will the fight scenes be exactly as you've written them when this thing goes to screen? Probably not. Just like any other scene - things change. The location and cast and direction changes things when you get out into the real world. But if you don't have a good idea of what the scene is supposed to be, you'll definitely end up with some generic fight scene that has nothing to do with the story or exploring character.

Here is a post from my blog that compares the car chase from BLACK THUNDER from page to screen: BLACK THUNDER - Script To Screen. - you can see how action scenes change, but also how important it is to have the action scene on paper.

Remember - film is a VISUAL medium... stories are told through the actions of the characters. Action scenes are part of the actions of the characters. The visual information is usually more important than the dialogue - so make sure you have it on the page!

If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage.



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