MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
WATERING YOUR PLANTS
Remember when Will Smith was the biggest movie star in the world... what happened?
The first trailer for HANCOCK had me laughing, the second trailer - with the prison scene - had me laughing even more. Add to it that this was a hot spec script - on the Black List. I'd never read the script, but just the idea of a dysfunctional superhero is great - and like all great ideas, my imagination began looking at the possibilities. Being a superhero means you are responsible for other people's lives - and what if you don't want that responsibility? It also means when you make a mistake, people die. What kind of guilt caused him to become this foul mouthed drunk? There was a solid dramatic element underneath the comedy idea. So when the reviews came out and were mixed - and not in a good way, I hoped they were just cranky critics who didn't know what they were talking about.
But I hated the movie. Okay, hate is too strong - basically, I didn't enjoy it. They took a great concept, and screwed it up. The main problem is tone and delivering on the promise of the concept. There's a tip floating around here called The Premise Promise that basically says if you sell the audience a fun comedy about a drunk superhero, you can't deliver a downer drama where people you love are killed in ultra-violent and ultra-realistic scenes. We didn't pay for that. And with HANCOCK, it's not some marketing dude selling apples as oranges, the film itself begins as a fun comedy... then takes a really strange turn around halfway in. It's not the comedy with the dramatic element underneath, it's a whole different movie. And not a movie you ever wanted to see.
But even without the completely wrong turn halfway in, the story *happens*, but didn't involve me - there were things in the story that didn't work as well as they should have. Now, maybe these things were in the script but didn't make it to screen, or maybe they were removed in the rewrites (this script has been around). The big story problem for me was that they didn't "water their plants". There are three big emotional events that happen near the end of the film that had almost no emotions because they were not set up well, or set up and forgotten. Again, like it was two different movies, and the critical information we needed to enjoy and understand the second film was nowhere to be found in the first film.
The film seemed to jump from screen to the $4 bin at Walmart.
THE RULE OF THREE
Usually when we plant and pay off information, we *want* the audience to forget that Ripley is an expert with the loader, so that when she fights the Alien Queen in the loader at the end, we go - "Right! Cool!" instead of "I knew that was going to happen." But when a character is going to do something that changes their nature, we need to establish that nature and continue to show that nature (and the conflict it creates) so that the scene at the end is a *big* scene, an *emotional* scene, not just another ho-hum scene.
Three is a magic number, here. There's the "Rule Of Three" in comedy:
1. - the first time establishes.
2. - the second time confirms.
3. - the third time breaks the pattern.
It takes at least two incidents to establish the pattern, so that the audience *expects* the third time will be the same... and the comedy comes from something unexpected happening.
But even when we are dealing with dramatic elements instead of comedic, the rule of three still applies - we need to not just establish a pattern, we need to confirm it as well. That way, when a character does something outside of their pattern, it is unexpected and interesting. If the man who is afraid of heights, and who is shown to avoid heigh places a couple of times in the script so that we understand his fear, has to go up on a skyscraper building site fifty feet in the air and walk on narrow girders to find the woman he loves and ask her to marry him - that's a big thing. If we don't establish that he is afraid of heights and send him up on that skyscraper to propose to his girlfriend, not that big a thing. For maximum emotional impact, we need to make sure the audience knows that he's afraid of heights - and that requires not just one incident to establish, but a second to confirm. The "plant" can't be allowed to die in the audience's memory because you forget to water it. You have to tend to those plants!
Okay, there are twists in the story that I'm not going to spoil for you, though they ultimately spoil the film by radically changing the genre and even the concept of the story as we know it. But I alm going to talk about things that happen at the end. Hancock the drunken superhero is kind of "adopted" by PR guy Jason Bateman, his wife Charlize Theron and their son. Theron hates him - he's a foul mouthed drunk. But Bateman's career has hit a bump in his career and he sees a way to help Hancock *and* help his career by becoming his PR guy. The "Hancock Makeover" is the basic story for the first half of the film, and his interactions with Bateman and his family are an important part of that... theoretically.
Bateman's son is young enough to see Hancock as a superhero and not really notice the swearing and drinking and bad attitude. By the end of the film, Bateman does something heroic - and his son is in that scene. So that seems to be set up and payoff. But the son doesn't really display any hero-worship for Hancock. He likes Hancock, but the Feral Kid in ROAD WARRIOR worships Max more than this kid worships Hancock. And the kid never likes Hancock *at the expense* of his father. There is no sense that Bateman is losing his son's love to Hancock in the film. There is a scene where the son gives Hancock a present... but Bateman isn't in that scene. And when Bateman does his little act of heroism at the end - we don't see it from the kid's POV... in fact, we don't really see the kid much in that scene at all, even though he's there.
What could have been a *moment* - and seems to have been written as a moment - is just another thing that happens in a big action scene. To make it an emotional scene where Bateman becomes his son's hero, we need to show the progression of Bateman losing his son to Hancock. We need scenes that show Bateman realizing he is losing his son. Scenes where the son chooses Hancock over Bateman. We need to do more than just plant it, we need to keep watering that plant throughout the story, so that the scene at the end has power. And then we need to give that scene power by making it all about the boy, his father and his idol... instead of just another action scene.
THAT BIG END SCENE
Bateman's PR guy is introduced in a scene where he's trying to sell a company on this concept of doing a good deed for the publicity. They turn this down, and later Bateman and Theron are in bed and he says that his PR thing is really trying to save the world. Okay, by the end of the film Hancock helps Bateman with his quest to save the world... but I thought that was just a PR gimmick. I never believed Bateman really wanted to save the world - even though he does the "Save the world PR spiel" twice. The problem is, he's a PR guy - and PR guys are full of crap. That's their job. And Bateman is never shown as a particularly charitable guy, he never does anything himself that shows him really trying to save the world. He says it, but we never *see* it. Since the idea of doing a good deed to get good publicity is pretty basic PR stuff, I never thought it was anything other than him doing his job... and when he tells Theron that he wants to save the world while they're in bed, I thought he was just trying to look like a good guy to his wife so that she won't just roll over and go to sleep.
So when we get to this scene at the end that pays off Bateman trying to save the world, it's just a thing that happens. In fact, it seems a *forced Hollywood crap ending* thing, instead of the big emotional moment - showing Hancock's friendship and appreciation for Bateman - that it was probably intended to be. You need to make sure we know the "save the world" thing isn't just some PR gimmick, but Bateman's dream - his big goal. That means you need to keep watering that plant so that we know this is who Bateman *is* - that his purpose in life is saving the world. His actions in scenes that *aren't* speeches about saving the world need to show him doing little things to save the world. Confirm that this is really what he is all about, so that the ending is a big moment, not just some crappy Hollywood end.
DON'T SACRIFICE EMOTIONS
There is also a big emotional sacrifice a character must make at the end of HANCOCK that is tied to the plot twist - so I am not going to get into specifics, and the film doesn't want to give it away so that the audience jumps the gun. But the problem is that it comes completely out of left field - it's one of those things never set up in the first half of the film that are critical to know about in the second half. There were things they could have done to hint that would have worked within the early scenes that wouldn't have given away the twist at all... and *after* the twist they needed to do some more watering so that the sacrifice at the end *was* a sacrifice. We do get a scene that is *almost* the type of magical scene we need... but you can't just water a plant once and expect it to grow. There is a reference in the film to positive and negative which made me think of magnets. And I think if the magnet idea had been used throughout the story, in several scenes, that sacrifice would have actually been emotional - rather than just a scene. It's like they had all of the elements in that scene to make it work - to make it into a big scene... but they didn't spend enough time setting it up. They established it too late and never did confirm it.
And when I say "spending enough time" that doesn't mean more pages in the script or more running time in the film (though at 92 minutes, they could have spent a couple more minutes if they wanted) - it means *better* using the minutes they had. Again, this may have been all in the poor direction - the script may have used that magnet thing throughout (since it was in the dialogue - and maybe that line of dialogue was a payoff to what happened in scenes... but the director neglected to focus on in previous scenes). But the film squanders the end scene by not spending enough time building up to that end. Not enough watering.
TWISTS NEED WATERING, TOO
Last, there is the twist itself - which comes off as the most insane coincidence imaginable, because it was not set up at all. Again - the fear with a twist is that the set up will give away the twist, but that is where the skill of the writer (and director) comes in. A plot twist doesn't *change* information, it just reveals what has always been there. The skill of the writer is to draw attention away from that information, so that when it is revealed later, we realize that it has been there all along. (There are a couple of tips on this in rotation.) But there were ways the big twist in HANCOCK could have been set up so that it becomes natural and motivated - instead of fake - without giving away the twist. One possibility was to have Hancock explain why he came to Los Angeles. Another has to do with the contents of his little tin of treasures - that was a great place to plant a clue to the twist... instead we get a stick of gum. But even that gum could have been used. I could come up with a dozen ideas to make that twist logical - which makes me wonder why the filmmakers didn't come up with any of them. The real tragedy would be that one or more of these ideas were in the original script - and developed out over the years.
The key to planting information that will be payed off with a change to the status quo or an emotional pay off at the end, is that you have to do more that just set it up and forget it. You need to water it regularly... so that it becomes the normal world. That way, the pay off at the end is what changes the normal world... giving it power and emotions. If you set up a big emotional scene and allow the audience to forget it, the scene will not be very emotional. HANCOCK has all kind of problems, from tone to awful score (they use the SANFORD AND SON theme as background score for a scene - talk about pulling you out of the movie!) to really bad direction (Michael Bay on speed - too much camera movement for that speed of editing, garbage in the shot, wrong angles, wrong point of view, generally no thought going into *why* this shot or this angle) to the whole Premise Promise thing. But we can learn from HANCOCK's mistakes - remember to water your plants! The first time establishes, the second time confirms, the third time breaks the pattern.
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