Friday, August 19, 2011

Fireworks Endings

(SPOILERS: The Matrix, Little Miss Sunshine, Casablanca, The Sixth Sense, Amelie)

The Fireworks Ending is a screenwriting term that I’ve been hearing a lot lately. I don’t know if it’s new, but I first heard it only a couple months ago. I don’t know where it came from, but I do think it’s a great concept.

You know how in a typical fireworks display there will be some rockets that burst into colorful circles, others that will send a sparkly streak skyward, and others that will make a loud BANG? And then at the end of the show there will be a big finale where every kind of firework is thrown into the sky all at once?

That’s the idea behind the Fireworks Ending in film. It means you throw all the elements of your movie on screen at the big climax. You’re hitting the peak of the action, emotion, and visuals all at once. The result is an incredibly satisfying, moving ending that sends the audience out of the theater buzzing.

Not every successful movie has such an ending, but there are some pretty memorable ones. Here’s a few I’ve noticed:

The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski): In the final sequence the two parallel action storylines reach a climax with Neo running from the agents in the matrix and the sentinels attacking the Nebuchadnezzar in the real world. We have the climax of the character arc with Neo finally becoming The One. We have the climax of the emotional story with Trinity finally confessing her love and kissing Neo, which in essence awakens his “oneness.” And then we see the ultimate Matrix-y powers as Neo stops bullets, easily bests Smith in kung fu, and then destroys him by infiltrating him. All of this comes together at the same time to create an epic, emotional, action packed climax.

Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt): The failed end of Olive’s quest to become Little Miss Sunshine and the successful arc of the family coming together dovetail in the final dance number, which also happens to be the biggest visual set piece. And isn’t Olive’s dirty dance also one of the funniest parts of the film? Character, plot, visuals and humor all hit their peak in this single scene. Is it any wonder this ending is the most memorable scene in the movie?

Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch): Oh that ending! Perhaps the most talked about of all time, and a classic Fireworks Ending. We get the tragic climax of Rick and Ilsa’s romance and the inspiring climax of Rick’s character arc in one of the tensest scenes in the movie – will the plane take off before the Nazis get there to stop it? Finally, add in some of the most classic lines in film history for good measure (“If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life,” “We’ll always have Paris,” “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” “Round up the usual suspects,” “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”)

Are there equally great movies with equally great endings that are not Fireworks Endings? Sure. How about The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan). First, it wraps up the horror elements in the scene when Cole helps the ghost who’s been poisoned. The next scene we get the conclusion of Cole and Malcolm’s relationship.   Then Cole finally confides in his Mom (concluding his and her arcs). And last but certainly not least, we get a scene that wraps up Malcolm’s arc – and gives us the legendary twist that redefines everything else. Spectacular, yes, but not a Fireworks Ending. Each element gets its own climactic scene, not one big finale.

Or how about Amelie (scenario by Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, dialogue by Guillaume Laurant), where the final scene strips away all the wild visuals, the quirky games, and most of the magical realism and becomes simply about whether Amelie will open her door to love. In fact, it’s only when the other stuff is stripped away that Amelie is forced to make this important climactic decision.

So you don’t need a Fireworks Ending. But when you think of all the great movies that have them, it may be worth considering how you can bring all the elements of your story together for one epic, climactic explosion of goodness.

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