Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Set Pieces That Sell Screenplays – Part 1

(SPOILERS: When Harry Met Sally…, The Matrix, Cinderella Man, There’s Something About Mary, Mr. and Mrs. Smith)

Think about the last time you went to a movie you really loved with your friends. When you came out were you talking about how the second act break fell at just the right moment and how neatly the inner and outer conflicts of the main character tied together? Or were you talking about your favorite scenes and quoting the best dialogue? My guess is the latter.

It’s the same for producers and executives. Put yourself in the shoes of a development exec going home with a dozen spec scripts for the weekend. She reads one that is perfectly structured, in a marketable genre, and with a good character arc. She’ll probably jot down some very nice notes about that writer. Next she reads one that has several original, fantastic scenes – scenes she’s still thinking about on her drive into work. Scenes she can’t wait to tell her coworker about as they get their coffee. Which script do you think she’s going to fight passionately for in the Monday morning development meeting?

I’m not suggesting your script doesn’t need solid structure. But competence with structure is just the buy-in to the poker game of screenwriting. Once you’re at the table, success depends a great deal on your ability to deliver things like memorable and compelling set pieces.

There are several ways to define the term “set piece.” For me the most useful is, “the big, audience pleasing scenes that deliver on the genre elements of the movie.” In a successful comedy they’re the scenes that have you clutching your sides with laughter. In a good action movie they’re the scenes that put you on the edge of your seat holding your breath. In a horror movie they’re the scenes that make you cover your eyes in terror. In a romance they’re the scenes that have you reaching for your loved one’s hand.

Of course, a good comedy will never go too long without a joke and a good horror movie will probably be pretty creepy throughout. But set pieces ratchet up the intensity to give your story memorable peaks that will stick with the audience. It’s a cliché that good movies are like good roller coasters – they have peaks and valleys, periods of anticipation and moments of adrenaline rush release. Set pieces are the loops and big drops of the roller coaster.

I don’t know of any rule for how many set pieces a movie should have, but I always try for five to eight. Fewer and the script will seem slow and uneventful. More and either the script will be too long, the set pieces will be underdeveloped or the pace will be too unrelenting. I always put one set piece near the beginning and one at the climax. If the script goes more than twenty pages without one, that could be trouble. Often set pieces will correspond to major turning points in the film such as act breaks or the inciting incident, but they don’t have to.

You should try for a sense of spectacle with your set pieces. This often means big, showy visuals, but spectacle can also be of the emotional kind. The fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally… (written by Nora Ephron) was certainly spectacular, although visually it was just two people sitting at a table in a café. What gave it a sense of spectacle was the heights of audacity and comedy it reached. When conceiving set pieces think about what would be considered spectacular for your genre.

Hopefully, you’ve spent some time thinking about what’s unique and original about your script’s premise. Set pieces are the time to pay this off. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (written by Simon Kinberg) is an action comedy and as such the set pieces contain plenty of action and jokes -- but not just generic action and jokes. The idea that makes the movie fresh is the juxtaposition of spy movie cliché with domestic satire.

Like many spy movies, it has a car chase scene. The structure of the movie would have been served just fine with a typical scene of twisted metal and flying bullets. But that wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting as the chase Kinberg wrote where the husband and wife spies discuss the merits of the mini-van they’re driving and argue about marital lies while they exchange gunfire with their pursuers. This chase could not just be dropped into any other action comedy – it’s completely unique to this concept.

You'll want to use advertising and scenes of preparation to build up to your set pieces. This is like the slow climb of the rollercoaster to the big drop. The anticipation is part of the thrill. Certain kinds of set pieces lend themselves particularly well to these technique: the big game in a sports movie, the big date or a wedding in a romantic comedy, breaking into a heavily guarded location in a caper or spy movie. We’re told repeatedly in advance how important this upcoming scene will be.

For example, in The Matrix (written by Andy and Lana Wachowski) we’re repeatedly told how dangerous the agents are. After demonstrating how kick-ass she is in the first sequence, Trinity is reduced to trembling fear when she learns agents are coming. Later, Cypher warns Neo to do what the rest of them do when encountering an agent: run. All of this is advertising for when Neo has to face off against Agent Smith. We know he’s outmatched.

Scenes of preparation are an even more emphatic way to build anticipation for an upcoming set piece. In sports movies the team or athlete trains for the big game. In heist movies the burglars scout their location and gather their equipment. In romances the bride tries on her wedding dress. There are more subtle scenes of preparation. Remember how in There’s Something About Mary (story by Ed Decter and John J. Strauss, screenplay by Decter & Strauss and Peter & Bobby Farrelly) Ted’s unusual preparation for an upcoming date with Mary leads into the greatest set piece in the movie, the infamous “hair gel” scene?

So now that you’ve built to the set piece, how do you make it memorable? I’ll discuss that next week! (To be certain you don't miss it, make sure you're subscribed to the blog or follow me on Twitter.)


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