THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
SECOND CHAPTER FIRST
The great Shane Black's IRON MAN 3 has made over a *billion* dollars...
The first IRON MAN opens with Tony Stark (Robert Downey jr) listening to loud rock music from a boombox while drinking a cocktail in a Humvee somewhere in the desert - maybe Afghanistan. He's a civilian surrounded by soldiers in uniform. What is he doing here? He jokes with the soldiers, including the woman driver. One of the soldiers asks if he can take a picture with him... Stark agrees - jokes that he doesn't want to see it on the soldier's MySpace page. Just when they get ready to snap the picture, the Humvee on the road in front of them hits a mine and is blown to smithereens. They slam on the brakes... and are blasted by gunfire. The soldier riding shotgun gets cut to ribbons, the driver is killed. The soldier who was posing for a picture only a moment ago tells Stark to stay where he is, then opens the door and is riddled with gunfire. Everyone is dead except Stark. He staggers out of the Humvee, into the war zone. Hides behind a boulder. A bomb lands only a few feet away from him, and he dives for cover as the bomb explodes. Wounded, bloody, he is captured by enemy soldiers... a dozen terrorists aiming automatic weapons at him. From cocktails to prisoner of war in a minute.
Then we get a title card... 36 Hours Earlier.
We're still catching our breath from the opening scene at an awards ceremony in Las Vegas where we get a puff-piece bio movie of Tony Stark along with some words of praise from his friend Colonel Rhodes (Terrence Howard). Stark is getting some sort of Man Of The Year award, very prestigious. But when it's time to hand over the award, Tony is nowhere to be found. His business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) has to accept it for him. You get the feeling Stane has done this a dozen times before - he's the responsible one. We learn a bit about their relationship when Stane gives his acceptance speech for Tony.
Meanwhile, Tony is playing craps - two beautiful women on either side of him, a cocktail in hand. Rhodes shows up, reminds him he's here to get this Man Of The Year Award. Tony says, just a minute, I'm on a streak. Completely blows the dice roll - maybe it was a losing streak? And Rhodes hands him the award, just like that, at the craps table. Later, Tony hands the award to some guy in the casino lobby. He doesn't care.
As they are leaving, a hot female reporter (Leslie Bibb) asks him what he thinks about his nick-name, "The DaVinci Of Death"? Stark quips back - and we discover that he's the owner of Stark Industries - a company that makes weapons. Stark and the reporter trade barbs... then we cut to them in bed trading precious bodily fluids. When she wakes up the next morning, no Tony. His computer "butler" Jarvis (voice of Paul Bettany) and his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) help her find the door. Pepper goes down into Tony's workshop to remind him that he's supposed to be on a plane 2 hours ago... But Tony is busy tearing apart a car engine. It's his private jet, they'll wait for him. And he continues working on the engine. Getting his hands greasy.
This is a great two-way scene, one of a couple in the film. You think the scene is there to show how Tony Stark thinks that he is more important than anyone else in the world - he's keeping a plane full of people waiting, not to mention a bunch of VIPs in Afghanistan who are waiting for him to fly in for this demonstration. And he's playing around with a car engine. Behind him in the work shop, we see all kinds of custom sports cars - this is hobby. He'd rather fool around with his hobby than be responsible. So, this is a character scene, right? Well, actually it is setting up Tony's mechanical abilities - which will come into play when he builds his Iron Man suit a couple of scenes later. The scene secretly sets up Tony's ability to build the Iron Man suit... but at the time, we think it's just showing how selfish and irresponsible he is.
(Another great two-way scene deals with Pepper giving Tony a gift.)
When Tony is done playing around with his engine, he gets in an Audi sports car and drives to the airport at warpdrive. Everyone on the plane, including Colonel Rhodes, have been waiting for him for *hours*. There are several more character building moments, on the plane, and by the time we get to Afghanistan again, we know everything there is to know about Tony Stark...
And we start with a bang (literally). We open with an exciting scene, *then* go back to fill in the less exciting (but required for story) character material. We front load some excitement so that we can take our time introducing our lead character, the supporting characters around him, and all of the emotional and character issues he will have to deal with in the rest of the film.
Lawrence Block explains how to do this neat trick in his book "Writing The Novel: From Plot To Print", calling it Second Chapter First. Basically you take the first chapter that introduces the character and put it AFTER the second chapter that usually introduces the conflict. We can use this in our scripts, by starting with the story in progress and finding ways to introduce our character on the run... then go back and fill in the character information.
Alan Ball's AMERICAN BEAUTY opens with a grainy videotape with Thora Birch talking her boyfriend into killing her dad (Kevin Spacey), "You want me to kill him?" Then Spacey narrates, "This is my life. In less than a year I'll be dead." That's all in the opening minute of the film! We KNOW that this seemingly perfect upper middle class June & Ward Cleaver family is headed to hell... and we get to watch. Knowing that Spacey will be killed by the end of the film makes him fascinating.
We will watch the most boring aspects of his life because the story has already begun... we know where we're going. The greatest side effect of Second Chapter First is that the audience will really pay attention to the character information, because this isn't just any guy... it's the guy who witnessed the murder, or discovered that his wife is a spy, or found out that lotto ticket he gave to a homeless guy is the big winner. Now the ordinary parts of his life are interesting. We can spend some time building character because the audience knows that this is a SPECIAL character.
THE FUGITIVE uses the second chapter first method with flashbacks. The film opens with an ambulance joining a dozen police cars in front of the Kimble house. We see Kimble's wife dead, and forty seconds into the film Kimble is taken away by the police. Now a flashback introduces Kimble, his wife, and his friend at a party. The film alternates between flashbacks showing the events leading up to the murder, and the police interrogation of Kimble. Each flashback is designed not only to tell the backstory, but to expose character. We learn about Kimble, about his wife and their relationship, we even get information about his friend and a handful of clues that we'll need to solve the crime later in the film. And by the ten minute mark Richard Kimble has been found guilty of murdering his wife. Wham!
MICHAEL CLAYTON opens with George Clooney's lawyer pulling his car to the side of the road, and running up a hill... behind him, he car explodes! Someone is trying to kill him! Why? Then we flash back to what brought him to this point. A film like MICHAEL CLAYTON is basically a very slow paced character study - so we need some hook to make the audience interested in this guy. In this case, it's Second To Last Chapter First. We get the big explosion from the end, then zip back to the beginning of the story. Now, we *know* people will eventually be trying to kill this Michael Clayton guy, so we are interested in him... even though his family drama and office politics.
NO FLASHBACKS REQUIRED
IRON MAN and these other films use flashbacks, but you can use the Second Chapter First method and maintain chronology. You just rearrange your story so that your conflict comes first... then you fill in all of the character details and supporting characters and subplot material.
SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD opens with the news that perpetual sad-sack 22 year-old Scott (Michael Cera) has started dating a High School girl. Some of his friends think this is a good sign, he is moving on after being dumped over a year ago by that girl whose name we do not say aloud. Scott's sister (Anna Kendrick) believes the whole High School girl thing is a sign that Scott is still messed up after being dumped.
The story begins in media res - with the story in progress - and fills in the details about the High School girl Knives Chao (Ellen Wong) and Scott's epic broken heart and even who Scott is, and who his roommate (Kieran Culkin) is, and who those strange people in his band are, and why that girl on the drums (Alison Pill) is constantly glaring at him, as the story continues. It opens with a situation - Scott dating a girl way too young for him - and then fills in who Scott is as it relates to his dating the girl who is way too young for him a little bit later. Second chapter first, without flashbacks.
Soon after he begins dating the High School girl, he meets Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) - and is told by every single person at a party that Ramona is trouble. But Scott pursues her anyway - and almost immediately he receives a death threat from one of Ramona's ex's. Huh? And suddenly we get a big fight scene... and *after* the fight scene, Ramona explains that all of her ex's have formed a pact to fight any man who dates Ramona... to the death! The film not only gives us second chapter first in the opening, it keeps using this technique to create an exciting scene first, and give us exposition second. Because we want to know why that happened, we are *hungry for the exposition*. What would have been boring information before the sudden outbreak of disco violence, is now exciting information that may help keep our hero alive the next time this happens.
SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD is a wild, funny, clever comedy that is kind of like a Steven Chao movie or a live action Road Runner cartoon - Scott seems to live inside an old school video game, where you must fight to make it to the next level... of his relationship with Ramona.
NO FLASHBACKS - HOW TO
Let's say your script is about a Businessman who witnesses a murder on his lunch hour and gets
a great look at the killer. He describes the killer to a police sketch artist. The sketch looks
similar to three known criminals. They decide to have a Line Up. The three criminals are brought
in, and a pair of detectives that fit the same general description are added to the line up just
to fill in the spaces. This is a fairly common practice. The witness looks at the five men in the
line up, and identifies the killer... it's one of the cops!
You could start your story with the witness waking up in the morning, and we meet his wife and
kids. His wife thinks he works too much, his kid has problems at school and they need to go to a
parent-teacher conference... but our hero isn't sure he has time for that. Little spat with the
wife over whether he cares about his family or not. Then he drives to the office, and we meet the
people in his car pool - and all of their issues with each other. He works half a day - and we
see all of the office politics he has to deal with. His boss is completely incompetent, and the
company is going to go bankrupt unless they can land this one big account. Our hero is in charge
of the account, but his office rival is trying to sabotage him... and keeps creating rumors and
problems that our hero must quash. After all kinds of office politics, our hero breaks for lunch...
and witnesses the murder at end act one.
But the story doesn't really start until he sees the murder - all of the stuff before that may
be setting up the lead character and even some elements of the story, but it's boring. It's stuff
that happens BEFORE the story starts.
But what if our businessman witnesses the murder on page one? Then we learn some things about
his character as he deals with the police, then he goes back to the office and tries to work - and
has to deal with his incompetent boss and scheming business rival and all of the office politics.
But now these things are bigger problems, because he's a murder witness. He rides home in the
carpool, and tries to live his life at home with his wife and kid... and deal with the
parent-teacher conference and his family issues... but now he's a murder witness.
The same character information, but instead of being a boring businessman, our protagonist is a
murder witness. Same exact character, but now we know WHY we're supposed to be interested in him.
And when we drop in the "killers is a cop" plot twist on page 10, you've hooked the Reader for the
rest of the script.
A good example of the non-flashback form of Second Chapter First is NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Though
we get a little information about Roger Thornhill in the 90 seconds before he is kidnaped by armed
thugs from a hotel bar, most of the character information comes after they try to kill him with
bourbon and a sports car. We don't meet his mother until after the murder attempt. We learn about
his ex-wives after the kidnaping. We don't even know his full name until after the kidnaping.
Though we are given enough basic information to care about Roger - and he's played by Cary Grant,
one of the most charming actors in the history of cinema - most of the information about his
character comes *after* he's been mistaken for a spy named George Kaplan... a much shorter man,
with dandruff. We start by making Roger interesting, *then* fill in the character details.
You want to start as late as possible. If the story can't start until the businessman witnesses
the murder, that's not the end of act one, that's the beginning of your script!
By following the lead of IRON MAN and many other scripts, and *starting* with conflict and then
setting up character and story, you can grab the reader on page one and make your lead character
more interesting. Second Chapter First... try it!
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