(MINOR SPOILERS: The Town, The Hangover, Iron Man, Star Trek)
Last week I was in Singapore conducting a screenwriting workshop and I was talking with my co-teacher, Don Hewitt about the fast start in The Town (screenplay by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard). Under traditional structure, movies usually open with about ten minutes of “status quo” showing us who the character is and what their world is like before introducing the catalyst (Don uses the term Inciting Incident…it’s the same thing). But The Town puts the bulk of the character’s status quo after the catalyst. Don pointed out that this is becoming an increasingly common trend in movies.
First, let’s distinguish between an early catalyst and a prologue. Movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) and The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) use an exciting prologue to start off with a bang and draw the audience in. But these sections don’t really have anything to do with the main storyline. In fact, in The Matrix, the prologue doesn’t even include our main character. The catalyst is the point where the character has a dilemma that will take the rest of the movie to resolve.
So let’s look at The Town. We open with an exciting bank robbery. We introduce the main characters: Doug, Jem and Claire. We do get a little status quo information – Doug is the “nice” robber and Jem is the loose cannon. And of course we discover that Doug and Jem are highly skilled at robbery. And we get the Domino – Jem takes Claire, the bank manager, as a hostage until the robbers are sure they’ve escaped. But mostly this is a way to open the movie with an exciting action scene.
The catalyst comes in the following scene where Doug and Jem discover that Claire lives in their neighborhood. They have to find out if she knows anything. Moreover, James is inclined to scare or even kill her, while Doug thinks that’s a bad idea. Doug insists that he be the one to find out how much she knows.
This scene comes on page 11 of the screenplay, which is about where you would expect the catalyst to come in a movie without a prologue. But what’s interesting is that most of the scenes showing Doug in his normal world come after this. So we see Doug in a bar where we learn his father’s in prison and that Doug is sober. He encounters his ex-girlfriend Krista, obvious trouble, who he then sleeps with. All this stuff would more traditionally come before the catalyst. But by doing it here, we’re already engaged in the story.
The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) did its catalyst even sooner. We open with preparations for a wedding. Then a phone call comes in. Cut to our main character, Vick, in the desert. He informs the bride that they’ve lost the groom. This is the catalyst and it happens on page two! Then we flash back forty hours and see the group of guys on the road heading to Vegas. That’s when we get to know who they are and about their lives.
This start-in-the-middle-and-flash-back structure is a time honored literary tradition that seems to be growing more common in film. Another recent example is Iron Man (screenplay by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway). We open with an exciting scene of Tony Stark in a Humvee cracking jokes with soldiers. Then BLAM, they’re hit by an IED. Stark is kidnapped – the catalyst. We’re four minutes in…the title hasn’t even appeared yet.
Then we flashback 36 hours and for the next twelve minutes of screen time we get to know what kind of guy Tony Stark is. The early catalyst is particularly useful because what we learn in the status quo section is that Tony Stark is not actually the nicest guy in the world. However we already like him from his cool, witty entrance and we feel sympathy because he’s been captured by terrorists.
Do you need to move your catalyst up? Does the modern audience demand a faster start? I don’t think so. I always go to Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). The catalyst of that film comes twenty-five minutes in and it holds up very well with modern audiences. The key is that those twenty-five minutes are wildly entertaining.
The most recent version of Star Trek (written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman) also has a late catalyst. We start with a ten minute prologue, which would naturally push the catalyst back, of course. But then we get another fifteen minutes of Kirk’s status quo before Pike dares him to do better than his father. That’s the catalyst and it’s twenty-five minutes in. You could even argue that the real catalyst doesn’t come until they get the distress call from Vulcan – over thirty minutes in! Yet Star Trek was a critical and commercial hit.
On the other hand, I see a lot of bad screenplays that open with talky, expository scenes designed to show us who the characters are but without much entertainment value. Worse, I see scripts where what should be the catalyst is pushed back to the end of Act One and we get twenty-five or thirty pages of the character in scenes without any real conflict or tension.
If your status quo consists of entertaining, engaging scenes, like in Some Like It Hot or Star Trek, then a late catalyst is fine. But if you find your character’s status quo just isn’t that exciting, consider moving your catalyst forward and holding the status quo until the audience is engaged.