MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
Even though that soap opera movie EDGE OF TOMORROW flopped, it looks like Tom Cruise has a second franchise at Paramount with JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK,
after the success of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL, which became the best reviewed film
in the series - an amazing 100% among Top Critics on the Rotten Tomatoes website. Finally! And the next M:I intsallment comes out later this year.
A few summers ago, just before MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3
opened, there was a great deal of press
from the film makers about how they had made the bold move to focus this film not on the explosions
and stunts, but on the emotional story. "This time it's personal". The odd thing is, everyone seems to
forget that it's always been personal. The first film had some genuine emotion at the end when Ethan
Hunt (Tom Cruise) realizes that his father-figure mentor Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) was behind the evil plan...
and tried to kill him! In he second film, the woman that Hunt loves (Thandie Newton) is infected with a
deadly virus and sent out into the world to infect others as a human bomb. It wasn't that the films didn't
have an emotional component, more that the writers and directors frequently fumbled the emotions so that
we ended up with *not* a NOTORIOUS clone, as M:I:2 was clearly supposed to be, but a typical
out-race-the-fireball summer action flick.
So third time around, they wanted to make sure the film was personal... and ended up with the lowest
opening for a MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie... and only 63% rating from Top Critis on Rotten Tomatoes - which
was *exactly* what the second film got. Why didn't the audience and the critics like the third film?
Was it due to Tom Cruise's sofa jumping? His weird religious
beliefs? Were we just over him? Were action movies dead? Did a box office slump
return after a couple of record months? (But how does that explain the critics?) Was it *because* that time it was personal? Why did M:i:III
fail to ignite at the box office? ... and with the critics?
I think the reason for M:i:IIIs poor box office and mediocre reviews was because this time it *wasn't* personal. We just didn't
care about the characters. The film was all surface with nothing underneath. They gave Tom a girlfriend,
but they forgot to make us care. She was a prop, rather than a person. Never filled in, never made human.
The characterization in this flick was so shallow that a friend of mine complained that the girlfriend
(Michelle Monaghan) was way too young for Tom Cruise... even though the same actress played a sassy over-the-hill
starlet in Shane Black's KISS KISS BANG BANG. In fact, compare the characters she played in each film -
one was a fully realized character and the other was a prop girlfriend. They didn't have to use old age
make up in KISS KISS BANG BANG to make Monaghan into a starlet only a year away from being old and washed
up, they just used *character*. Good writing. They gave her a personality and put her in situations where
she reacted to conflict or was forced to make difficult decisions. They also put her in a ridiculous
short-skirt elf costume and gave her a gun. Though she gets to wear more serious clothes in M:i:III,
her character isn't taken as seriously.
The tool we use to mine character is conflict. Character is gold. If we look for gold on the surface,
we may find a little, but to really strke the mother lode we have to dig. The deeper we dig into character
the better the chance of striking gold. If our characters are just sitting around watching TV,
we can't learn much about them... but if we give them a problem we can see how they attempt to solve it,
plus their reaction to the problem, plus what how they deal with the other people involved with the problem.
Without conflict, our characters have no reason to react or act or speak or do anything. I always say that
story is conflict, but *character* is conflict, too. We reveal character through conflict.
When we make it easy on our characters, they become shallow.
WHAT THE PLOT REQUIES...
So Ethan Hunt is at one of those big family gatherings when he gets that call from the office.
His wife believes he does Traffic Control work for the government - not standing in an intersection
flagging cars, but studying patterns in traffic to make my drive on the 405 smoother... in which case,
he's failing. So when he's called away unexpectedly for some traffic thing, it's a little suspicious.
When a meeting with another IMF Agent results in an emergency mission to save his hot protege
(Keri Russell - would have been better if it had been Jennifer Garner), he tells Monaghan that he has
an emergency traffic seminar in Texas and will be gone for a few days. Right.
When he returns a few days later (she never asks about his bruises and cuts), she suspects he may be
having an affair. When she asks him, he continues with the outrageous story about the traffic seminar and
acts secretive and guilty as hell and is obviously lying and hiding a huge secret life from her.
We've hot a vein of gold! Then he
asks her to just trust him....
And she says "Okay."
Huh? She just lets him off the hook!
She *avoids* the conflict... and the *script* avoids the conflict.
Imagine how much we could learn about the relationship if she continued to press him? Continued to *dig*?
interesting it might be for her to follow him.... In my HARD EVIDENCE film for USA Net, Gregory Harrison has
killed a DEA Agent and covered it up, and when his wife (Joan Severance) presses him about what he was
doing for the past week, he seems to be lying to her - so she follows him... and discovers things she
didn't want to know about her husband... and gets into big trouble with the bad guys, and all of this
prompts some pretty dramatic conversations between the two and we learn a lot about their characters and
relationships and how far they would go to keep their marriage. The conflict brings out the characters.
But in M:i:III we avoid the conflict, and Monaghan is just a two dimensional girlfriend.
And when Monaghan catches Ethan in more lies, he says: "Marry me! Right now!" Kind of a sofa jumping
moment. She says "Sure" and they get married. This seems to stop her curiosity about his string of lies
and emergency traffic meetings in Texas. Would a real person get married to someone they keep catching
in lies? The movie wants us to believe that marrying her proves she can trust him... but it just makes
her look stupid and silly and submissive and unrealistic.
This makes both Ethan and Monaghan's character shallow and false.
SO, EVERYONE AGREES?
Everyone else on the IMF team (Ving Rhames, Jon Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q, Billy Cudrup) tell Ethan
that permanent relationships and IMF work doesn't mix - don't marry her! Dump her! She's just going
to get in the way! This is a business where a relationship is a liability - and maybe even something
that can be used against you in battle. This is an interesting idea that really isn't explored -
instead of Ethan arguing with them about the importance of relationships and being grounded, he just
Avoiding conflict again. Rookie mistake!
So when Monaghan is kidnaped by international arms dealer Philip Seymour Hoffman (for reasons that
really don't make any sense) and Ethan goes to the IMF for help, even though it means risking their
careers and probably getting killed for a woman they don't know who they advised Hunt *not* to marry...
They say... "Okay".
Huh? They just go along with him!
Again - no conflict!
Imagine the dramatic scenes if every member of the group had refused to risk their lives and
careers for Ethan's girl. Now Ethan would have to convince them that she was worth it - plead with
them that love, and this particular love, was so important to him that life without her would be
impossible. They'd lose him as a team member... and he would lose everything good about himself.
He would have to dig into his own character - expose his fragile inner self to the team.
We would be able to understand just how deep this love cuts, how much he needs Monaghan and how much
he loves her. Winning over the team would have been some great dramatic scenes - some great character
scenes. We might actually learn something about the team members that wasn't surface. This might prompt
a big moment for each of them. Maybe some would refuse - and explain why. You can't bring the team
together until you pull them apart. You can't create character-based dramatic scenes unless something
dramatic is happening. When everyone blindly agrees to help, we stay on the surface and end up with
Later in the film Ethan refuses to obey orders because his wife's life is at stake. In MINORITY REPORT
when Tom Cruise's character is accused of murder, his own team is sent to capture him. This creates a
juicy scene where his second-in-command orders him to give up, and Cruise says he's going to run -
"Everybody runs". Here you have the protagonist and his best friend on opposite sides - how far will each go?
We not only get some juicy characterization-filled conversation, we get an action scene that explores
the relationship between Cruise and his team - he's now fighting against his *friends*!
Compare that scene to the exact same situation in M:i:III where the team is supposed to come after
Cruise - but refuses. And nothing happens to the team guys when they refuse! No real conflict, no real
stakes, nothing is real in this movie! The characters are so cardboard they bend to fit the story.
Again, let's compare a scene from M:i:III with a scene from another movie: the Key Largo bridge attack
scene from TRUE LIES. In fact, both films share *the exact same story* so they are fairly easy to compare.
We have the same bridge in both films, we have cars crashing, we have explosions, we have helicopters with
missiles... all of the same things in each film... yet, this is an emotionally powerful action scene in TRUE
LIES and just another outrun-the-fireball scene in M:i:III. The reason? No *emotional conflict*. What makes
an action scene work is the emotional stakes, and there aren't any in M:i:III. Maybe they thought "Tom Cruise
might die" is the emotional stakes - but the's the hero - we all know he can outrun fireballs!
In TRUE LIES the theme is trust, and the emotional conflict revolves around Ah-nuld lying to his wife
Jamie Lee Curtis about almost everything: his job, his identity, his true self. The only thing that ISN'T a
lie is his love for her... But when you spend your entire marriage thinking your husband Harry is one guy,
and find out he's the total opposite guy, it's difficult to trust him ever again. This is the same scenario
as M:i:III - except James Cameron actually went all the way with the conflict. Tom Cruise is a better actor
than Ah-nuld (more emotionally expressive), yet we really care about Ah-nuld and Jamie Lee Curtis in TRUE LIES
- they are real people and Cruise and Monaghan are sketches of real people... not fleshed out.
On to the Key Largo Bridge scene - Jamie Lee Curtis is in an out of control limousine on the bridge, an
explosion in front of her has created with a premature end... the limo will soon go over the edge and she
will die. Her husband Ah-nuld is in a helicopter zooming overhead. For Jamie Lee to survive, she must trust
her lying husband Ah-nuld by climbing out of the sun roof of the limo and grabbing hold of his hand as he zooms
past in the helicopter. She has to put her life entirely in his hands. These are emotional stakes! This is
how you use action to bring character to the surface, and make us care about the characters.
An action scene is a character scene.
Ah-nuld must dangle out of a zooming helicopter, risking HIS life to save his wife. He is SHOWING that
he will risk his life for her love. This creates a strong emotional component at the center of the action
scene: This is the woman he loves - the most important person in his life. What if Ah-nuld can't reach her?
Or can't grab tight enough to her arm? Or drops her? What if Jamie Lee can't reach his hand? Or can't hold on?
There are EMOTIONAL consequences for failure. This is a scene that explores the theme of the script, is
filled with emotions, and is also pretty darned exciting. This is not some hollow action scene like that
car chase in THE ISLAND or the bridge scene in M:i:III - it is a scene designed to expose character.
Action *is* character.
NO ROMANTIC CONSEQUENCES
Another scene comparison - in both M:i:III and THE ABYSS (also written by James Cameron) there are scenes
where one character allows themselves to die, and trusts the one they love to bring them back to life.
In M:i:III this is a dumb scene that isn't very emotional - a big shoot out diverts our attention away
from the emotional aspect. The shoot out has no real emotional component and isn't about the husband and
wife relationship. In THE ABYSS, the same scene is a huge, emotional scene *about* the husband and wife
relationship. It's all about the emotional component - all about the possibility that the person they love
will die if they fail. Their spouse's life is in their hands... and they may fail. If they fail - they have
killed the one they love. Okay, folks, those are some pretty emotional stakes in an action scene.
has swiped the scene - but not the emotional stakes at the very core of the scene. They've only mimicked
the *surface* of the scene! Like everything else in this film, it's all surface. A quick fix would have
been to add a ticking clock - if the spouse isn't brought back to life in X minutes brain cells will begin
dying and they will become a drooling idiot. This is actually part of THE ABYSS scenario, but not used
in M:i:III. Now we can make that shootout directly affect the relationship - they have to kill the badguys
against the clock and every shot that misses could make the one they love into a vegetable. Then play
the same scene with the spouse looking at the clock during the shoot out. Personally, I would have loved
had they been late and the character comes back with serious mental damage. Stakes aren't really stakes
unless there are *consequences*.
Speaking of consequences - the surest way to turn character into cartoon is to remove consequences.
If the actions of the characters don't matter - if what the characters say or do has no meaning - why should
we care about these people? So in another scene where another character is supposed to be killed but - fake out
- isn't! This scene tells the audience that nothing that happens to the characters really matters. It's all fake.
No reason to care, no reason to worry, no reason to feel for these characters. The conflict is false - dead
characters are miraculously still alive and completely unharmed. Not like in THE ABYSS where the spouse will
die or suffer brain damage, not like in TRUE LIES where the spouse will actually die if the limo goes off
that bridge - this is a film where *even when characters are killed* they can come back to life without a scratch.
No consequences. No stakes. No real conflict....
And conflict is the tool we use to mine character, to expose character. You can just walk around looking on the surface for gold, and maye you'll find a little here and there. But to find a rich vein of gold you need to dig...
and dig deep. You need to press your characters right up against the wall with conflict and force their
"character gold" to the surface. You need to dig deeper and deeper with every scene.
Pulling your punches, using false conflicts, or just avoiding any real conflict in your script and
staying on the surface are all ways to rob your story of emotions.
Does the audience notice when a film is less emotional, less personal? M:i:III sold fewer tickets that the
previous two films in the series and had a lower sudience rating on Cinemascore (which usually leads to poor word of mouth). When a script avoids conflict it becomes less exciting.
We'll see what happens with the JACK REACHER 2 and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 5.
GHOST PROTOCOL *opened*
with a great emotional scene as Agent Hanaway is assassinated moments before Agent Jane Carter can get there - and he dies in her arms. They were in love with each other, but their job came between them ever acting on it.
For the rest of the film Agent Carter is a mess - and wants to kill the assassin who murdered the man she loved... But
the assassin is a clue to the villain Cobalt - so she must make sure the assassin is kept alive. Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt is introduced
in a Russian jail for murdering the men who killed his wife - and *he's* a mess as well. In one scene, Benji asks about his wife - no knowing that she is dead. Ouch!
And Brandt is a man with a secret - he caused the death of an innocent person. All of the characters carry "ghosts" and guilt - and much of this is revealed early in the film and informs the scenes that follow.
Yeah - it's wall-to-wall action, but each character has a big dramatic moment in the film that is *real* emotions, not just surface. We'll see if the audience likes it as much as the critics.
Your mission should you decide to accept it: Make it personal - use real conflict. There's gold in every character - our job is to dig it out.
THE MISSION IMPOSSIBLE MOVIES
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*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Kindle!
*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Nook!
Expanded version with more ways to create interesting dialogue! How to remove bad dialogue (and what *is* bad dialogue), First Hand Dialogue, Awful Exposition, Realism, 50 Professional Dialogue Techniques you can use *today*, Subtext, Subtitles, Humor, Sizzling Banter, *Anti-Dialogue*, Speeches, and more. Tools you can use to make your dialogue sizzle! Special sections that use dialogue examples from movies as diverse as "Bringing Up Baby", "Psycho", "Double Indemnity", "Notorious", the Oscar nominated "You Can Count On Me", "His Girl Friday", and many more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 175 pages!
Only $4.99 - and no postage!
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