(SPOILERS: Some Like It Hot, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Matrix, Lars and the Real Girl, The Visitor)
Today I want to take an in-depth look into the first part of Act One of the screenplay. As my regular readers know, I don’t like to set up “rules” to follow or any kind of paint-by-numbers approach to screenwriting. However Act One has quite a few things that it must accomplish and several optional things that it’s useful to understand.
It’s important to spend some thought on how you want to open your movie. As the saying goes, “you only get one chance to make a first impression.” In a theater, the audience might give you some leeway - after all, they drove all the way to the theater and paid for tickets. But if you’re trying to sell a script it's a little tougher. Most buyers are looking for a reason to put your script down and if the first page is dull they might not get to the second. Every page is building an impression in the reader’s mind. You want to make your first ten pages great so you get some cushion and can afford a few missteps or slow spots.
One way to juice up your opening is with a prologue. In this context (the structure of your film) a prologue is an opening sequence that is not critical to the plot. The majority of movies don’t have a prologue, but it’s not uncommon either. You use a prologue to grab the audience and/or to establish the tone and world of your story. This is necessary if the story would otherwise start in a way that would seem dull or mislead the audience as to what kind of film this is.
For example, Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) opens with a prologue about Indiana Jones recovering an idol from a trapped jungle cave. This has nothing to do with the plot of recovering the Ark of the Covenant. But if we didn’t have the prologue we’d open with Indie as the college teacher. It would be a while before we got to the good, swashbuckling action. The prologue here grabs the audience and establishes the adventurous tone.
Similarly, the Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) opens with a cool action prologue of Trinity running from the agents. This not only grabs us with kung fu, sci-fi action to help carry through the next relatively action free half hour of the movie, but it lets the audience know that there is something strange about this world. We are open to almost anything in the first minutes of the movie but as we start to grasp the rules of the story world, anything that breaks those rules feels implausible.
In the prologue in the Matrix Trinity and the agents have superhuman abilities and somehow Trinity magically escapes the phone booth at the end of the sequence. If we didn’t have this, the first hint that the world is not the one we’re familiar with would come when the agents erase Neo’s mouth. This would probably be too late in the movie and the audience would find it laughable or confusing. But with the prologue we accept it.
One of the important things that happens in Act One is the introduction of the main character. How you introduce your character deserves some attention. Once again, first impressions matter. Indiana Jones is introduced as a man of action. Imagine how the movie would have played if he’d been introduced first as the college professor.
In Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), Joe and Jerry are introduced playing in a packed speakeasy. Joe, the main character, is ogling the chorus girls. This firmly establishes that he is a virile party guy. We need that to get maximum comedic impact when he dresses up as a woman.
You also usually want to give your major characters a dramatic entrance so the audience will focus their attention on them. Remember how Jack Sparrow is introduced in Pirates of the Caribbean (story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert, screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio), riding into port atop the mast of a sinking ship? That’s an entrance! The exception is if you want to unsettle the audience by misleading them as to the main character as was done in the first Alien movie (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon).
For more on effectively introducing your main character, see this post.
Generally you want to spend a little time showing the character in their status quo before introducing the catalyst of the story. We need to get to know who the character is so we can understand how the story changes them.
In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder suggests showing several problems in the character’s life that will then be resolved at the end of the movie. It’s a good idea! I would focus most, though, on establishing what the character’s Need is. Ideally the various other problems are related to that need.
For example in Some Like it Hot, we see that Joe is a womanizer and a playboy when the secretary gets angry at him for standing her up and he lies about where he was. His need in the movie is to find true love. His successful achievement of this need is illustrated at the end when he risks being seen by the gangsters to tell Sugar that he loves her. If the movie didn’t set up what kind of guy he was we wouldn’t understand what a big change that is for him.
It’s usually best if you show the most interesting part of your character’s status quo, not the most boring. We meet Indiana Jones escaping traps, traitorous assistants and angry tribesmen – not doing his laundry! This is why it’s usually not a good idea to open your movie with your character waking up in the morning – that’s seldom the most interesting part of someone’s day.
Let’s look at a couple of more realistic dramatic movies – ones with characters whose status quo is not obviously interesting.
First we have the wonderful Lars and the Real Girl (written by Nancy Oliver). It opens with Lars looking out the window. He sees his sister-in-law come out of the house next door and approach his house (a converted garage). And he hides! That’s unexpected and interesting. His sister-in-law invites him to breakfast. He finally agrees to come after church, but later we’ll see he doesn’t follow through.
Next we see Lars at church. An older lady expresses concern that he doesn’t have a girlfriend and gives him a flower to give to someone. But when the cute girl from the choir says hi, Lars quickly tosses the flower in the bushes.
Soon we see Lars at work where his coworker looks at porn on the computer and listens to loud music, making Lars uncomfortable. The cute girl is there again, but when she suggests to Lars that they carpool he doesn’t respond.
Finally Lars comes home and his sister-in-law literally has to tackle him to get him to come to dinner. Lars’ brother tells him that she is concerned that he spends so much time alone, but Lars insists he’s okay.
This opening sequence clearly establishes Lars' need: to connect with other people. And it provides a baseline from which to evaluate how Lars’ character arc is progressing. Most importantly, it does so with a series of interesting scenes that use conflict to dramatize that need. Conflict is dramatic. We don’t just see that Lars goes to church, we see him in an awkward situation with the flower and the choirgirl. We don’t just learn what Lars’ job is, we see him in conflict with his coworker.
Now take The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy). It’s about Professor Walter Vale who is coasting through his life without purpose. Not the easiest character to engage our interest. But the movie opens with Walter waiting anxiously for a piano teacher. When she arrives, the lesson does not go well and he fires her…though we learn that she’s the fourth teacher he’s tried so the fault probably lies with him.
This opening scene tells us a lot about Walter but in an interesting way. As the status quo sequence goes on we learn more about Walter’s need – to find purpose – but always in scenes of conflict. First a student comes to his office to turn in a late paper, but Walter refuses it. The student then points out Walter still hasn’t given them the syllabus.
Next Walter is asked to go to New York to deliver an academic paper he’s co-authoring with a woman who just had a baby. Walter doesn’t want to go and admits he hasn’t really done much of the work on the paper. But that doesn’t get him out of the trip. The next scene is Walter arriving at his apartment in New York and is the catalyst of the movie.
We learn that Walter has no purpose or direction, but also that he’s lonely, getting nothing done, and vainly trying to add some music to his life. All of these things are related to his central need and all get resolved by the end of the movie as Walter finds his purpose.
Once we’ve established the character and their need we introduce the catalyst. I’ll discuss that and what you do with the rest of Act One in my next post.