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ACT ONE FAKE OUT

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I thought SKULL ISLAND was all kinds of fun - APOCALYPSE NOW meets KING KONG witha great cast.

Coming back from Hong Kong a few years ago, the Peter Jackson version of KING KONG was playing on the plane. I didn't plug in the headset - I saw the movie when it came out. I thought it was a great 2 hour movie.... that was 3 hours long. There were some amazing moments, but often the film dragged, and the first hour just went on forever! When I do the big 2 day class, I have this thing called the Golfing Goat Rule - if your film is about a goat that learns how to golf, you need to *show that* in the first ten minutes, because the audience will see the goat golfing in the trailer and the title of the movie is GERTIE THE GOLFING GOAT. If you don't get to the golfing goat in the first ten minutes, the audience will become impatient. "Hey! I thought this was a movie about a golfing goat!"

So when a movie is called KING KONG about a giant ape... that doesn't show up until an hour into the movie... a very long, very slow hour... we have a problem. I kept asking myself, "When is that damned ape going to show up? When is this movie going to *start*?"

Everything I disliked about the latest remake of KING KONG happened in that first hour, and I suspect all of these things were padding created to make the beginning of the film and trip to Skull Island even longer - for reasons I can't really imagine.

That stop-motion step-print stuff where the picture slows down at big dramatic moments, like when they notice the place they are going is called Skull Island and when the (fantastic) evil natives capture them and take Naomi Watts as their sacrifice to Kong. This stuff is so artificial it calls attention to itself - and if turns what could be a dramatic moment into MELODRAMATIC moment. It also slows down an already slow first act. What's strange - the moment Kong shows up, the technique is abandoned. Now we have real drama, we don't need to artificially induce it.

Then we get the endless shots of the ship in rough waters on the way to Skull Island and the ship's crew worried, and some subterfuge with the ship's crew... and all kinds of other filler material that would have been on the cutting room floor of any other movie. I felt *I* was taking the long ocean voyage - and not in a good way.

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And I can believe an uncharted island filled with prehistoric creatures, I can believe a giant ape battling T-Rexes... but I can't believe the actress being in love with the screenwriter. That's complete sci-fi. From the moment she's introduced Naomi Watts has a crush on playwright Adrian Brody - she dreams of working with him. And he ends up being the shanghaied screenwriter of Jack Black's new movie that she's the last minute replacement star of (because she's the same dress size as the other actress). They have this "meet cute" onboard the ship where she thinks one of the crew guys is the playwright and tells him how relieved she is that he isn't... well, she describes a typical writer. A cliche writer. A description that might fit me, might fit those of you reading this, and completely fits Adrian Brody's character. Brody hears it, and you just know they'll fall in love... and they do! The biggest problem with that long voyage is there is no conflict - she loves him. Sure, there's vain, pretty boy movie star played by Kyle Chandler who hits on her once... but she only has eyes for the geeky screenwriter.

Okay - the screenwriter being shanghaied by a producer who writes rubber checks, then being forced to write a script and bunking in an animal's cage completely believable. The hot starlet throwing herself at the screenwriter - never happened to me. Of the screenwriters that I know, the only time hot women threw themselves at them was when they just sold a script for seven figures. And that wasn't love. But enough about the mating habits of screenwriters, let's get back to KING KONG....

LET'S BREAK SOME RULES!

I think there are two ways to "fix" act one of KING KONG. You could either cut the sucker down to 20 solid minutes of material that ends with them shipwrecked on Skull Island.... or keep the film at epic length and add conflict by "breaking rules". Instead of artificially inducing conflict with the step-printing and crew subterfuges and rough seas, why not add some real conflict? The usual choice would be to keep Act One at around an hour, but to create a non-Kong conflict that would make the audience *forget* that this was movie about a giant ape - instead of Act One setting up the main conflict for the rest of the film, have it focus on a subplot conflict that is part of the rest of the film. This is more difficult to pull off than just cutting out the padding, but something worth considering. What if we "broke the rules"? What if act one was a fake out? What if it *wasn't* about Kong at all?

What if it was a romantic comedy?

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Once we're on the ship, we have all of the elements necessary. We're still going to Skull Island and we can even have some of the crew subterfuge, but this time it's the background to one hour rom-com that ends with a shipwreck and human sacrifice. Not the usual ending for a rom-com - but this is really something different. We're secretly setting up the whole King Kong part of the movie. So we have our naive hot young actress, we have our geeky screenwriter sleeping in the monkey cage, and we have our vain leading man movie star on a ship together - a love triangle. But this time the actress isn't in love with the screenwriter - she loves his dialogue, but doesn't see him as a romantic lead. Instead, she falls for the vain movie star. And the movie star actually steals dialogue from the screenwriter to woo her. Kind of a Cyrano thing. The screenwriter loves the actress, the actress loves the movie star, and the movie star loves... himself! Now the screenwriter has to work to win her heart, but everything he does backfires. You see, he's just not romantic in real life. He's not dashing, not handsome, and (like me) fumbles with his words when he's nervous. So the first act of the film would be this funny rompish rom-com about an underdog writer trying to win the heart of the actress attracted to the bad boy movie star. I would have made it stand on its own - sort of the first two acts of a rom-com - and try to make the audience *forget* about that giant ape on the poster and in the trailer. Make them forget the movie's golfing goat, because the "fake out plot" is so strong and entertaining. Instead of wondering when King Kong is going to show up (as we do, now) we wonder if Adrian Brody will ever get the girl. And just when it's looking like he may actually win her over? Shipwreck, capture by natives... and the girl he loves is a human sacrifice to Kong.

This actually makes Act Two on Skull Island even better, because we've secretly set up all of the characters in a different situation. Now, will Kyle Chandler act like a hero and lead the team to rescue the woman he's been dating onboard the ship? Nope - Adrian Brody is the guy who steps up to the plate! Now Chandler has to go along to avoid looking like a wimp, and Act Two (as is) plays out much better. You don't have to change a thing, because the *new set up* has improved all of the existing *pay offs*. Because the audience has been wondering if Adrian will even get the girl, ending up at Skull Island with King Kong comes as a surprise. "That's right! This movie is about King Kong! I was so involved in the rom-com I forgot!"

Fake out.

But also setting up the real love story triangle of the story: The Screenwriter, The Hot Actress... and King Kong! When we "break the rules" and turn Act One into a rom-com, we set up the two important characters in Acts Two and Three... so breaking the rules *works* in favor of the story.

OTHER THOUGHTS ON KONG

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Once we got to the T-Rex battle, the film was a roller coaster. One amazing scene after another. And there were some great emotional scenes with Kong before the big ending. I kind of liked the way Watts made friends with Kong by putting on a show (though I'm not sure what entertains a vaudeville audience is what entertains a giant ape). I giggled at Kong On Ice! I cried a bunch of times. I was amazed at the sunset shots with Kong. This is one amazing film. Jack Black is perfect as the charismatic jerk who screws over *everybody* (including himself). Kong is real - I never thought it was a special effect, it was a *person*. That's the amazing thing with CGI, now - you can make a creature look so real that the audience never thinks "That's just a special effect". The 70's remake had a man in a gorilla suit that looked like... a man in a gorilla suit. The stop-motion animation in the first film was more realistic!

One thing that I thought was interesting was the way society has changed since the first film. Funny that of the various scenes cut by the Hayes Office (censorship panel overseeing movies since the early 1930s) or not shot for censorship reasons, the Spider Pit is back in the 2005 version... but the scene where Kong "gets the girl's scent" by stripping Faye Wray naked and sniffing her is missing from this version. So, we can kill people in horrific ways in 2005, but we can't have a big monkey smelling a girl's private parts? The scent scene may have been created just to add nudity to the first version, but it also was an important story point - the scent is the way that Kong finds the girl in New York City and the only way he knows that *this* blonde girl is the same blonde girl on the island (the girl he loves). Take that away and how does Kong know which girl to go after?

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Though this has nothing to do with our job as screenwriters, one of the other problems I had with the film was the CGI... I can believe the big ape is real, but had problems with some of the camera angles. The combination of the CGI character and the CGI camera work rang some bell in my mind. The camera moves that we can *really* do, I'm used to (or maybe some quick logic chip in my subconscious zips through the "how did they do that?" and stops at "Helicopter" so it doesn't alert my conscious that there's anything "wrong") - but camera moves that seem impossible (things you don't normally see in movies) ring that bell. They break the reality of the moment.

I wished the "camera moves" looked more like helicopter shots or crane moves or something from the real world so that I wouldn't keep getting pulled out of a great CGI shot. Several years ago I tried a motion control ride that simulated a rollercoaster. I thought it was great, because it replicated the rollercoaster experience. But I wonder what someone who had never seen or heard of a rollercoaster would think? So much of the ride was bringing back memories of specific feelings and motions of riding a rollercoaster. Without any rollercoaster experience, would that banked curve even be understandable? I think some of the same things are at work, here. I see a camera move that I know is not possible in the real world, and suddenly the whole shot becomes fake. Maybe in 20 years I'll get used to the "digital language" but until then I wish they would limit the shots that can't be replicated in real life. Making the *shots* realistic helps make the giant ape in those shots seem realistic.

Though it seems silly to "Monday morning quarterback" a hit movie like KING KONG, trying to find ways to solve the problems of one movie can give us the tools to solve the problems in our screenplays. Though Act One is *supposed* to set up your conflict, the only "rule" is that your screenplay has to work. Maybe using the "First Act Fake Out" - creating a mini story that sets up the characters and conflicts for the rest of your story that is so involving and exciting that the audience *forgets* the concept of the rest of your story - is a tool that may come in handy on your epic adventure script.

Your Screenplay Checklist:

* Is your Act One exciting and involving?
* Does it set up the characters and conflict for the rest of the film?
* Does your script work better because you broke the "rules"?
* If you use a "fake out" does it work as another genre?
* Don't give the reader a reason to put your script down!

I believe in Tools Not Rules. The "rules" are just methods that work almost all of the time. But sometimes the only way a particular screenplay can work is when you break some "rule". So know the reason for the "rule" - know why that rule exists and what its function is, so that whatever you "remove from the story" you can "replace" with something else that fulfills that "rule"s purpose... and not make the story worse. Blindly breaking "rules" is just as dangerous as blindly following them! But don't be afraid to do whatever it takes to make your screenplay work.



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