There is a common type of movie known as a “road movie” or “trip-with-a-destination” film where the main character or characters embark on a trip from one place to another, learning life lessons along the way.
They’re not exactly a genre – road movies can be dramas, thrillers, romantic comedies, broad comedies, adventure movies, etc. The varied examples include Little Miss Sunshine; The Hobbit; Cloverfield; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Apocalypse Now; 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Sure Thing; Elysium; Vacation; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; About Schmidt; Rain Man; and Midnight Run. So the road movie is more of a structural form than a genre.
There are some common pitfalls involved in writing road movies. The first challenge is that they tend to be episodic. The character is moving from point A to point Z, having little adventures along the way. The trip itself gives us somewhat of a through line, but in many cases that’s not enough to keep an audience engaged.
In good road movies, often it’s the internal story that provides the momentum. Each episode will advance the character’s internal development. For example, the story of Rain Man (story by Barry Morrow, screenplay by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow) is really the story of the developing relationship between Charlie and Raymond. The adventures along the way are all built to push that relationship forward. Midnight Run (written by George Gallo) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles (written by John Hughes) work the same way.
A ticking clock can help keep the tension up on the journey. For example, in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) the family has to reach the pageant in California by a specific deadline or Olive will not be allowed to compete. Each setback along the way increases the tension as time grows short. In Elysium (written by Neill Blomkamp), Max has five days before he dies of radiation poisoning. That puts a good ticking clock on his journey to reach Elysium and get a cure.
You’ll also want to use advertising to keep the audience looking forward and to remind them why we’re on the trip in the first place. In Little Miss Sunshine, Olive is often rehearsing her routine with her grandfather. Nobody else is allowed to see it. This gives us something to look forward to: what will Olive’s routine be like?
In Cloverfield (written by Drew Goddard), the journey is to Beth’s apartment to save her. Rob has received a confused phone call where it seemed she has been injured, but the situation is unclear. Like him, we’re anxious to know what he’ll find when he gets there.
Typically the characters embark on their journey at the Catalyst or the Act One Turning Point. In some cases, they’ll arrive at their destination at the Resolution. This seems logical – the story’s about a journey, it should end when they arrive at the destination – but in fact this is often a bad choice. Ending the journey at the resolution only really works if simply getting to the destination solves the character's problem, such as in The Poseidon Adventure (screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes). In these cases the obstacles are all designed to impede the character from reaching their destination.
But most road movies are not really about the journey. Once you start analyzing them, you’ll find that most often the characters arrive at the destination at the end of Act Two. The journey is there to force the character to grow and to build anticipation for what will happen at the destination. Then when the characters get where they’re going, either the destination isn’t what they expected, or it is what they expected but the character’s goal has changed. This allows the movie to spin into a new direction in Act Three.
For example, in Little Miss Sunshine the family arrives at their destination – the pageant – at the end of Act Two. But they discover the pageant is filled with creepy girls and their stage parents. Suddenly the family is worried about what kind of world Olive is getting into. They question whether she should compete. This becomes a new tension for Act Three.
In Apocalypse Now (written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola), Willard arrives at Kurtz’s compound to discover Kurtz has built a bizarre community of fanatical followers. Willard is taken captive. Act Three is the story of how Willard will resolve the conflict with Kurtz.
In Vacation (screenplay by John Hughes), the Griswold’s finally arrive at their destination, Wally World, at the end of Act Two, only to find it is closed for maintenance. This sets Clark off on a crazed plan to force a security guard to take them on all the rides – the new tension of Act Three.
In Elysium, Max is trying to get to Elysium because they can cure his radiation poisoning. There are plenty of action-packed physical challenges for him to overcome. But as his journey unfolds, Max comes to see the bigger issues and injustices in the world. By the time he arrives at Elysium, he is a different person. He started hoping to save his own life, but now his goal has changed. In the end, he sacrifices himself for the greater good.
In Rain Man, Charlie and Raymond arrive back in Los Angeles where Charlie had planned to use Raymond as leverage to get a portion of his father’s inheritance from the institution Raymond was living at. But since Charlie has learned to love his brother over the course of the movie, when he is offered cash to resolve things, he turns it down. His goal has changed – now he wants what’s best for Raymond.
If you’re writing a road movie, you need to ask yourself what the movie is really about and structure accordingly. Then you need to be sure that you use screenwriting tools to maintain the forward momentum.
If you're in Los Angeles, Ken Aguado and I will be discussing pitching at the Scriptwriters Network on October 19th.