FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

ECHO SCENES


Echo Scenes are a technique I learned from Michael Hauge's book Writing Screenplays That Sell. You've seen this used hundreds of times in movies... because it works. Echo Scenes can be used either of two ways - using the same location for a series of scenes to highlight the change in character or relationship, or having the same sort of event happen to the character in a different location and time. Either way, the scene echoes - replays something from the past in order to give us a better understanding of character and emotion. Two recent movies use echo scenes where similar events happen in different locations and times in the story, creating kind of an emotional flashback.

DIFFERENT BACKGROUND - SAME EMOTIONS

SHOOTER opens with Mark Whalberg's sniper character Bobby Lee Swaggar and his spotter hidden on a hilltop overlooking a rural road in Africa. Their job is to protect a convoy of military vehicles from rebels. When they spot a patrol, they work as a team - the spotter quickly giving target data to Bobby Lee who uses it to perfectly pick off the enemy drivers and soldiers. Just when they think their mission is completed a huge convoy of enemy military vehicles unexpectedly turns the corner on a collision course with the vehicles they're protecting. The spotter quickly takes readings and Bobby Lee uses the information to aim and fire at the enemy convoy. But there are so many of them that it soon becomes a battle situation...

Then it gets worse. The enemy soldiers radio for a helicopter. The chopper pinpoints Bobby Lee and the spotter's position on the hill and attacks them. Bobby Lee returns fire and blasts the helicopter from the sky, but his spotter is killed. It's a big, emotional moment - Bobby Lee and his spotter were a team. They spent their careers working together - hidden in the brush behind enemy lines somewhere. More than that - they were friends.

Later in the film, Bobby Lee is on the run from just about everybody, accused of attempting to assassinate the President of the United States, and the only one who believes he's innocent is a disgraced FBI Agent played by Michael Pena. The FBI guy becomes his new spotter - his new partner. In a huge action set pieces about 2/3rds of the way through the film, Bobby Lee and the FBI Agent are hidden in the brush overlooking a cabin where the real assassin is hiding out. They know it's a trap, but they hope to turn the tables on the assassin and trap the trappers.

Then the helicopter shows up. Coming right at them. The same exact situation from the beginning of the film, but this time Bobby Lee has a new spotter. A new person to be responsible for.

Because it's the same situation in a different location, we worry that the FBI Agent will be killed in the helicopter attack.. That's what happened before, right?

We also know that Bobby Lee is worried that the same thing will happen again, even though he's a man of few words and would never say what he's feeling. The situation does the talking for him.

Will the FBI Agent be killed in te helicopter attack? Will Bobby Lee have to live with getting *two* partners killed?

The Same-Situation Method is also used in the great little thriller THE LOOKOUT written and directed by the great Scott Frank. When the film opens, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is high school hockey hero Chris Pratt who has it all - beautiful girlfriend, new car, the perfect life. He and a carload of friends are speeding down a country road, when he turns off his car's headlights so that they can better see a swarm of lightning bugs... like stars fluttering around them. It's beautiful. Amazing. His girlfriend holds him close...

Then the car his a stalled wheat combine in the middle of the road, and his life changes forever.

He's living with permanent brain damage. His girlfriend survives - the others aren't so lucky. Chris Pratt has gone from hero to pariah. He can no longer remember the simplest things. He must write everything down. He has a job as a janitor in a bank, lives with a blind room mate who takes care of him. Though he can't form new memories... he has no trouble remember the horrible accident that changed his life.

One day he meets a girl who doesn't seem to care that he's brain damaged.

She introduces him to a guy who wants to help him escape his crappy life... by helping them rob the bank where Pratt works. All he has to do is open the door and act as look out.

Of course, they've set him up to be the fall guy... From hero to pariah to convict... if he doesn't do something.

Which brings us to a scene later in the film where he's trying to escape from the bad guys and avoid the police... and ends up behind the wheel of a speeding car on the very same country road. To evade a police car, he has no choice but to turn off his headlights. Speeding in the dark down the very same road where he hit that combine and forever altered his life....

Do you think there's another stalled combine parked on the road?

SAME BACKGROUND - DIFFERENT EMOTIONS

The other way to use an Echo Scene is to keep the background the same as a way to highlight a change in emotions or character.

You know that kid's puzzle in the funny pages where they have two seemingly identical pictures next to each other, and you have to find the differences? At first, they look identical - they show the exact same scene - but soon you begin to notice how the second drawing is slightly different. Even though they've carefully hidden the differences, you have that first drawing as a guide. Hey - that guy using a big spoon to eat soup in the first picture is using a fork in the second picture! Hey - the dog the kid is petting in the first picture is a cat in the second picture! Hey - the waiter in the first picture is wearing swim fins in the second picture! Without the first drawing, you can't know what's wrong with the second picture - maybe every waiter in this restaurant wears swim fins? The first picture tells us what the "normal state" of that scene - it establishes the situation. This helps us spot the differences in the second scene - a point of comparison. We can use this same technique in our screenplays with a technique called an Echo Scene.

An Echo Scene places the character in the same situation several different times, but their reactions to the situation change. They make different decisions each time - which shows us what's going on inside the character. Because most of the scene is the same (or similar) as the scene that establishes the "normal state", the differences are easy to spot... we have that first scene as a point of comparison. By using several similar scenes you can show the gradual change in a character. In scene one you establish the character in their normal state, in scene two you have them faced with the same situation and react slightly differently, in scene three you have the situation happen again, and their reaction is entitrely different than the normal state you originally established.

In Alec Coppel and Sam Taylor's VERTIGO Jimmy Stewart is a retired San Francisco detective who is hired to follow a college buddy's troubled wife.

1) The first time he sees the wife, played by Kim Novak, is in elegant Ernie's Restaurant. She's beautiful. It's love at first sight (DVD chapter 5 - Elster's Wife).

2) He follows her, develops a relationship with her... then she commits suicide. Stewart is a broken man. He hangs around outside Ernie's Restaurant... finally going inside and sitting at the bar in the same place he sat the night he first saw her. He looks through the restaurant for some sign of her... spotting a woman who looks similar (DVD chapter 24 - Ghosts).

3) Later in the film he meets a department store clerk who looks similar to Novak and takes her to Ernie's Restaurant. They dance together, but she has none of the elegance of Novak's character. She's out of place in Ernie's. The date is a flop (DVD chapter 27 - Because I Remind You Of Her).

Three scenes in Ernie's Restaurant. The first scene sets up Stewart's love for Novak. The second scene shows us Stewart missing Novak. The third scene shows us Stewart trying to replace Novak with another woman... and failing. By returning to the location and keeping the type of scene a constant, the audience focuses on the DIFFERENCES between the scenes - Stewart's emotional state. None of these three scenes have any dialogue, yet all are deeply emotional. They SHOW us what Stewart's character is feeling. When he hangs around outside Ernie's, we know he's heart broken. He doesn't have to say a word.

Ben Hecht does something similar with the park bench scenes in NOTORIOUS - by using the same location in a series of scenes between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman we can easily spot the changes in their relationship... everything else in the scene is the same. Echo scenes are a great way to call attention to subtle changes in character or relationships. A way to show the audience what a character might be feeling or thinking. Give the audience a point of comparison, then give them something to compare... Just like in the funny pages.

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