FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
LIES TO TELL THE TRUTH
Let's say you want to write a personal script about when your pregnant wife asked for a trial separation, and you moved into that studio apartment and had a broken heart and failed relationship and discovered what it means to really be lonely and how she eventually divorced you and everyone seemed to think it was your fault but that's not fair because they don't know everything that happened, I mean, there is stuff that you just don't want to share because...
Okay, the big question about a story that personal is - *can* you write it? Can you deal with all of the pain or reliving the experience again? Can you be honest about the experience... or will you just tell your side of the story? Will you be able to share all of those messy details you have never told your closest friends about... with 600 million strangers worldwide? And, um, even if you change the names, what if the people involved figure out your story is about them and get angry?
Fiction is the lie we use to tell the truth.
Aaron Sorkin was right - we can't handle the truth. It's too personal, to messy, has too many painful elements that we'd rather not even think about. So we create a fiction - different people and different situations and elements of fantasy that act as a "disguise" so that what we are writing is obviously *not* that big broken heart incident that we have never gotten over. Fiction is like an "Ov-Glove" that allows us to handle the painful and dangerous personal stories without getting burned or dropping them on the kitchen floor.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO...
JCVD is a *dramatic* movie about Jean-Claude Van Damme's life. His divorce, losing his daughter in a custody battle, his career that has gone to hell, his fame and failure. The film deals with his life in Belgium, has his mother and father as characters, and talks about his drug addiction and many wives - some he married more than once, his painful divorces and personal failures... and that child custody battle over his daughter where he breaks down. It's the biography of a B movie action star...
But wait... art house, acting, monologues, Jean-Claude Van Damme... you may be thinking this is a boring movie. The great thing about JCVD is that it is both a dramatic movie *and* a Jean Claude Van Damme flick. Because the screenplay uses fiction to find the truth - it's a tense bank robbery flick where the real Jean-Claude Van Damme is one of the hostages who will be killed if the robbers don't get what they want. That coating of fiction allows the film to be more honest, because it's just make believe, right? Right?
The movie opens with an amazing sustained single shot as Van Damme shoots, kicks, and punches about a hundred bad guys while protecting this woman. No cuts. It's like the opening of TOUCH OF EVIL, except Van Damme *fights* through the whole shot. The fight scene ends as Van Damme enters a building, and the guy behind him opens the door and knocks down the set - this lengthy shot (which is still going on) has all been part of a movie, and the director is some punk Chinese kid playing games instead of watching the monitor. Due to the set falling down, they'll have to do it again. Van Damme is exhausted, sweating like crazy. We've just seen him do this massive extended fight scene - obviously doing all of his own stunts - and now they want him to do it again? He tells the kid director that he's 47 years old, and this epic length shot is not easy to get right every time. The kid director doesn't care.
Now, we are treated to this amazing fight scene that shows off Van Damme's actual skills (no stunt men, no cuts, no fakery - this is the truth), but it is *also* a scene about aging. Hey, Van Damme has been around for a while... and he's almost 50, and how many other athletes are still performing at his age? If Van Damme had just been in an office somewhere and talk about how he is getting old and his body isn't up to the level of stunts and action that it once was, we'd get the same information in a boring scene.
REALITY - WITH A TWIST!
After the film wraps, Van Damme hops a plane to Belgium, grabs a cab at the airport, and then goes into a bank (actually a post office) to pick up some money that has been wired to him... and the bank is being robbed. Jean-Claude Van Damme is held hostage in an action situation right out of one of his movies (and that plot helps explore character more than if it had been a straight bio - we can contrast his screen persona and his real life persona). The robbers have Van Damme talk to the police when the SWAT Team surrounds the bank and the Hostage Negotiator calls... and the police and press believe Van Damme has flipped out, robbed the bank and taken the hostages! Again, this ends up giving us more story than a standard bio, because we can explore the way fame is a blessing and a curse... and how the fans and the press reacts. By creating this larger than life situation, we can go much deeper into character than if it was just a standard bio.
The movie is much closer to DOG DAY AFTERNOON or RESERVOIR DOGS than a biopic... and that allows the story to dig deeper into character and emotion than a biopic. When someone has a gun to your head and you expect to die any moment, you tend to reflect on your life more than when someone just asks you about it. And you tend to be more honest about your screw ups. And when people get shot in the head and die, or when a child is used as a hostage and you have to watch... thinking about your child who may also be sort of a hostage in your divorce... you can really get into the character and emotions in ways that re impossible if this were *not* a fiction film where an army of SWAT guys are surrounding a bank.
STRANGE STORY FORMS
The way the story is told is also interesting, and does an ATONEMENT thing where we start off seeing the story from the point of view of the two guys who work in the video store across the street from the bank. When one of them sees Van Damme get out of the cab, he grabs his camera and asks the star if he will pose with them. Van Damme is obviously in a rush (the meter is still ticking on the cab - it does for the entire story) but he makes the time to pose with his fans and is good natured about it... until they ask for one photo too many, and he's got to go. Instead of going into the bank with Van Damme, we hang with these two, as shots are fired, a policeman is shot, and every policeman in Belgium ends up surrounding the bank.
The video store ends up the command center - which is another interesting contrast between reality and movies. The Hostage Negotiator is actually the Chief Of Police, who is suddenly in the middle of an international media event... in his underpants. One of the hostages has been injured and Van Damme says on the phone that the only way he will let a paramedic treat the injured man is if he comes in naked. Being a crack negotiator, the Chief gets that demand changed to underpants. The Chief and a paramedic go into the bank, where Van Damme is holding a gun to a hostage's head... and acting crazy. Van Damme ends up fighting the two, and getting them to leave - and leave the medical kit behind. Nothing funnier than a Chief Of Police trying to maintain control and dignity in his underpants. This is an amusing situation, a fiction that shows how powerless the police are in this situation.
Just when we think Van Damme may really have lost it and taken over the bank, the screenplay does that ATONEMENT thing and zips back to Van Damme before he hopped the plane for Belgium - at the custody hearing for his daughter where he loses her. A big, painful, dramatic moment. Then a scene at his agent's office, being offered a terrible film role - a very funny scene - which he must take because he's just blown all of his money on the lawyers who lost the custody case. Then the long plane flight, no sleep, grabbing the cab in Belgium, where the driver complains about Van Damme's attitude - when he hasn't said or done anything. This time we see the video store guys from Van Damme's POV, and then we follow Van Damme into the bank (post office).... which is being robbed. Van Damme is taken hostage, and when the Chief of Police calls to do his Hostage Negotiation, they put Van Damme on the phone in case the police are recording the call - they won't get the robber's voices.
And from Van Damme's point of view, we see all of the things we have seen before, only everything is entirely different. Van Damme has an empty gun held to the head of a robber pretending to be a hostage, who has a loaded gun aimed at Van Damme. More elements exploring reality and fiction in this complete fiction story about a real person.
IN OUTER SPACE
But you aren't an international action star with a divorce and custody battle, you're just some guy whose trial separation became a divorce where your wife, make that ex-wife, got custody and now you live in this little studio apartment missing your ex-wife and that child you never really had a chance to know and feeling all alone in the world... how can you tell your personal story in a screenplay? Aside from all of the personal issues, who would want to watch a movie about the intense loneliness you feel every day?
Duncan Jones' film MOON is about loneliness, isolation, loss, and identity. It could have easily been our story about the recently divorced guy living in a studio apartment somewhere in the suburbs... but what makes it interesting is that it takes place in a studio apartment on the moon. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) has taken a three year contract to work as the only human on a fully automated mining operation on the moon... leaving his pregnant wife behind. Three years later he is intensely lonely, and worried that his wife has found someone else and his daughter has never known him.
That guy in his studio apartment in the suburbs, living alone for so long, probably no longer makes his bed or cleans up his apartment much, and may not shave every day (I don't) and there are probably days when he picks what he'll wear from the clothes hamper, sniffing them to make sure they don't smell too bad. Some version of all of those things are in MOON - just in outer space.
But the great thing about transporting this story to the moon? Though that divorced guy in the studio apartment may feel isolated and alone, there are actual people around him. In MOON there is no one around him at all - he is actually alone. This allows us to see the intense loneliness he is feeling, the loss of identity when you are the only human on the planet. In order to give Sam Bell someone to talk to, he has a robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey)... but the robot does not look human and Sam Bell uses it as a coffee table sometimes. It is an *object* with a voice. It's replies are programmed. When Sam Bell is in one of the rovers, going out to fix some machinery malfunction, he is completely alone. And the loneliness is driving him crazy.
Taking this simple personal story of loneliness and isolation and loss of identity and dropping it onto the moon not only helps to amplify the emotions in the story, it adds some amazing visuals and fascinating special effects (using some great old-school miniatures that look more realistic than most big budget CGI). The story of loneliness is universal, but the location makes it unique and unusual... something that will attract an audience that may not be interested in a non-sci-fi version of this story. You want to find that unique element that *amplifies* the personal story aspects, so that you can write *your story* with the safety of it taking place on the moon or dealing with that alien invasion or those bad boy vampires at your high school. You can dig deeper into the truth and be more honest with yourself if it is not obviously your story - if you are wearing the mask of some wild fictional world... if you're wearing that Ov-Glove as protection so that you won't be burned by the truth.
If you strip away the fiction elements of JCVD - the life or death bank robber and hostage situation - and just focus on the real life story of Van Damme (an international movie star, so he's had a special life) - it's probably too boring for the big screen. The guy may be famous, but he's got kind of a normal life: Divorce, custody battles, idiot bosses, money problems, aging parents... hell, all of this stuff could be me! The key to a great story is something that is both unique and universal, and the personal problems - the truths - are the universal part... but that means we *need* the bank robbery and hostage situation to add that unique element. Because this is a art house Jean Claude Van Damme movie, the unique element is more realistic - not time traveling crooks or genetically enhanced soldiers gone wrong or any of the other typical high concept action scenarios. But we still need something to make this more than just a guy with some personal problems, *and* a way to make it possible to deal with those personal problems honestly in the story. Some *lie* that we can mix with the truth to make it palatable to both audience and creator.
And there's the key to a great script - the *emotional* experience and the emotional truth of the characters. By using a fiction story, we can dig much deeper into the character of Van Damme than if we stuck with a straight bio. Because of the way the movie ends, I don't think any of this ever really happened to Van Damme. All of the emotional stuff probably happened, but not the story we see on screen. That was the lie they used in order to tell the truth.
The film has some great fantasy scenes where Van Damme imagines what he would do if this were a movie he was starring in - how he would kick the robbers' asses big time. But in real life? He's afraid they will shoot him, or kill one of the other hostages. Being a hero in a movie is completely different than risking your life and the lives of those around you in real life. But the story leads to that point where he must decide to do something (or not) and the added pressure of his on screen persona weighs heavily on his decision. The story finds a deeper truth by using the fictional robbery than they could ever have found using Van Damme's real life.
The film also features a clever monologue where Van Damme is sitting in a chair - a hostage - completely at the end of his rope, and he turns to the camera and lets loose... as the chair begins rising toward the ceiling... passing the false ceiling to the movie lights above. All the world really is a stage. Knowing that he's going to be killed by the robbers, he talks about all of his life's failings. It's raw stuff. This monologue works because we are in a fictional situation, and the clever screenplay is showing the fiction of the fiction... and allowing the character to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience in a way that would not work in a straight bio flick. Then the chair begins to descend, and when it reaches the floor again, Van Damme turns to face the Robbers - and we are back in the scene. Back in the fiction.
If you have a story that you are struggling with because it may be *too personal*, or too soon after the real incidents have happened, consider using the mask of fiction to disguise the painful realities from yourself, the others involved, and those hundreds of millions of people in the paying audience. The same fiction that can make your story more exciting and interesting can also allow you to be more honest. A journalist deals in the facts, we deal in emotional truths... often heavily disguised by fiction.
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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!
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Use your creative energy to focus on the content; let Final Draft take care of the style. Final Draft is the number-one selling application specifically designed for writing movie scripts, television episodics and stage plays. Its ease-of-use and time-saving features have attracted writers for almost two decades positioning Final Draft as the Professional Screenwriters Choice. Final Draft power users include Academy, Emmy and BAFTA award winning writers like Oliver Stone, Tom Hanks, Alan Ball, J.J. Abrams, James Cameron and more.
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