Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Hangover Part 3 - Elements of the Future

(SPOILERS: The Hangover)

Last time I discussed how the mystery structure and the “ticking clock” of the impending wedding helps pull you through what could be viewed as a rather episodic series of comedy situations in The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore). There are a couple of other techniques I notice that the movie uses to help maintain forward momentum.

The first is advertising. Advertising is a technique we use to keep the audience looking forward in the story and to build up the big set piece scenes. It’s not much more complex than that – let the audience know something important is coming. The wedding is an obvious example of that in The Hangover.

Each time the heroes call the bride or talk about their roles as groomsmen, it’s a reminder that a wedding is planned. It builds anticipation – what will happen when the time for the wedding arrives? Of course we wonder whether the guys will find Doug and get back to L.A. in time. But whether they succeed or fail, we expect some kind of big payoff scene. The only thing that would be disappointing is if we never actually got a scene at the wedding!

Another example is Mr. Chow demanding the return of his purse for Doug, whom the characters (and we) believe he is holding hostage. He gives a deadline and a location for the exchange. Now we have something to look forward to as the characters set about trying to come up with the money that is supposed to be in the purse.

In a way, many of the clues in the room advertise future events. We know that certain ones will need to be explained – the baby and the tiger, obviously, must be dealt with. This again gives us things to look forward to. And as the guys follow the trail, many scenes advertise the next scene. For example, the doctor tells the guys they came from a wedding. We’re interested – who got married? When we learn it’s Stu and see pictures of him with his wife, we wonder what will happen when he meets her - the next scene.

The clues and their eventual explanation are also examples of planting and payoff. This technique helps tie the pieces of the movie together. For example, the ring belonging to Stu’s grandmother is planted in Act One when he tells the guys his proposal plan. It’s paid off when he sees it on the stripper’s finger. And then paid off again when she gives it back to him. This kind of connection running through the movie knits the scenes together so they feel like part of a coherent whole.

Planting and payoff also helps with believability. We see Alan reading a book on card counting in Act One when the guys are driving to Vegas. It’s emphasized because Doug has been warned not to let Alan gamble. Then when the guys decide to count cards to raise the money they need for the ransom, we don’t question their ability to do it. It was planted way back in the beginning.

The mystery structure, ticking clock, and advertising give The Hangover a sense of energy and momentum. The various plants and payoffs knit everything together. Then the writers are free to throw in all kinds of wacky shenanigans without losing story focus.

I’ll continue my analysis of The Hangover next time by discussing set pieces.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Hangover Analysis Part 2 – Structure

(SPOILERS:  The Hangover)

The concept for The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) is pretty straightforward, so it’s interesting that the structure is a bit unusual. 

The Dramatic Question of the movie is “Will the guys get Doug to his wedding on time?”  You might first assume that it’s “Will they find Doug?” but that’s really only the question of the second act.  Finding him is a big goal, certainly, but the key is to get him to the wedding.  This is nice because the wedding provides a strong ticking clock to the story.

From a plot standpoint, the catalyst is when the guys discover Doug is missing.  But this comes late in the movie – about a fourth of the way in.  Normally it would be tough to sustain audience interest for that long without revealing what the crux of the movie is.  However, this plot catalyst isn’t actually where the audience is made aware of the dramatic question.  That comes just a few minutes into the movie during a flash forward when Phil calls the bride and tells her the wedding “ain’t gonna happen.”  We then go back two days for the set up.

Now, in linear form this phone call actually takes place late in the story.  But from an audience perspective it becomes, in effect, the catalyst.  We have some characters – though we don’t really know who they are yet – and a dilemma – the wedding may not happen.  The context of the phone call is vague so we don’t know that it’s from late in the plot.  But we do understand what the movie will be about, and thus this becomes the catalyst.

The next question I would ask is “does this help the movie?”  I think it does.  It allows the filmmakers to then unroll a lengthy status quo period where we get to know the groomsmen.  Then when the true catalyst comes about twenty-five minutes into a movie that only runs ninety-six minutes, we haven’t lost interest.  We know right off the bat what the conflict of the movie will be.

From here the three-act structure is pretty straightforward.  The end of act one is only a few minutes later when the guys go to breakfast and decide they have to assemble the clues of their lost night to find Doug.  The midpoint is when they get the car back – a seeming high point with an added complication in the form of naked Mr. Chow.

The end of act two is when they discover that the hostage they’ve just ransomed back is not the Doug they’re looking for.  All the clues have come to a dead end.  Phil prepares to make the fateful phone call to declare the wedding is off.

The epiphany comes very quickly after that – before the phone call is completed.  It’s when Stu realizes where Doug actually is.  This is a bit unusual.  More often we have a period of extended aftermath after the act two turning point.  But The Hangover doesn’t seem to suffer because we know how devastating this development is.  The whole movie has prepared us for it.  The resolution, of course, comes when they get Doug to the wedding in the nick of time.

There’s another structural construct that the Hangover takes advantage of – a mystery.  Just like any regular detective mystery, the guys follow a series of clues, from one to the next, trying to unravel what happened.  This is a great device because it pulls us forward through the comic set-pieces without a lot of plot manipulation on the part of the writers and without it becoming episodic.

The key to making this work is that one clue really does lead to the next.  They know Phil was in the hospital so they start there.  The doctor is able to point them to the wedding chapel.  From there they learn about Jade and get her address.  And so on.  Each stop along the trail allows an opportunity for a comedic set piece.   The irony is that all these clues end up being red herrings.  The one real clue that solves the mystery is the mattress.

Actually, I don’t really like how Stu comes up with the solution:  he hears the word “roof” and it jars something in his memory.  That seems like one of those movie devices that don’t happen in real life.  But since this is not a movie relying on its mystery, but a raucous comedy using the mystery to pull us forward through comedic set pieces, we don’t really mind that the solution isn’t very satisfying.

Though the structure of The Hangover is not particularly radical, it does demonstrate how you can manipulate standard three act concepts to serve the particular story you’re telling.  As I often repeat, these concepts are not “rules” to fence you in, but tools to help keep your story focused and dramatic.  In other words, structure serves story, not the other way around!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Hangover Analysis Part 1 – Characters

(SPOILERS: The Hangover)

As promised, I’m going to start my in-depth look at The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore).  The first thing I want to talk about are the characters.  Since this is an ensemble piece, it presents an interesting structural question:  who is the main character?

Traditional three act structure dictates that there is only one main character.  In an ensemble, you typically pick one of the group to be the structural main character.  They make the major decisions that drive the story.  Even though the other characters may be involved, everything hangs on that one main character.  But one thing that’s pretty unique about The Hangover is that once the gang heads to Vegas, our three main guys – Phil, Stu and Alan – are always together.  Always.

They also all have the same overall want – to find Doug.  Since they discuss all their decisions and are acting in unison, you could easily argue that they are all the main character in combination.  And if you were the writer you could probably write the story this way without much problem.

If I was determined to identify the single main character, though, I would say it’s Stu.  Phil might seem the obvious choice since he’s more take-charge and since Bradley Cooper is the top billed actor.  However Stu is the only one who has added stakes in unraveling the adventure – he’s gotten married to a stripper and given her his grandmother’s ring.  For him it’s more than just finding Doug, he’s also got to fix a horrible mistake that affects his own life.  And he’s the only character with an arc (Phil pretty much stays the same from beginning to end.)  Finally and perhaps most importantly, Stu’s the one who ultimately figures out where Doug is. 

So Stu’s want is to find Doug.  What he needs is to stand up for himself.  This arc is dramatized in his submissive and humiliating relationship with his girlfriend.  Throughout the story as Stu starts to assert himself more and more, the guys get closer and closer to solving their problem.  Look how he takes over the situation when they’re handing off the money to Mr. Chow.  It’s Stu that insists on seeing Doug before tossing over the money.  At the beginning of the movie he would not have had the guts for something like that.  And at the end Stu dumps his cruel girlfriend.  The story has materially improved his life in a way that isn’t true for the others.

As I’ve said, want drives the external story – here it’s the race to find Doug.  Need drives the internal story.  Occasionally you find a movie where the character wants and needs the same thing, but making these two things different adds depth, as it does in The Hangover.  In this case, the depth it adds is heart.  I don’t know if we really care what happens to Phil or Alan that much, but we definitely care about poor Stu.  The movie could be just as funny without this element, but it would feel much more disposable.

If you think about it, you could almost do the whole story with Stu by himself.  Stu could be taking his best friend to Vegas for one last night of fun.  Obviously Phil and Alan add a lot of humor, but from a story standpoint Stu is the critical one.  (You would have to figure out a different mechanism to get them drugged, though.)

So what does the movie gain with the ensemble?  Well, most obviously, it allows the characters to talk to each other.  We know what they’re thinking and how they feel about the events.  It’s tough to do a story like this with a single character.  And we also get more opportunities for humor by having three very different characters to react to the situations.

Which brings me to a very important point about the characters in this movie.  All three of our guys are different.  Stu is meek and dorky, Phil is confident and full of swagger, and Alan is a socially inept man-child.  And they are all fairly extreme versions of these types.

Consider the simple scene of checking in.  Cool and carefree Phil wants to upgrade to an expensive suite.  Stu is concerned about the cost and that his girlfriend will see his credit card statement.  Alan wants to know if the hotel is pager friendly and if this is where the real Caesar lived.  Three different personalities, three different reactions, three different ways to mine humor from a mundane situation.

I think this is the key tool to creating good character driven comedy.  If you give your characters strong attitudes, and put those attitudes in conflict, then the jokes write themselves.  If you don’t have characters with strong points of view then you are reliant on your ability to craft one-liners.  Few writers are good enough to sustain a feature that way.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Researching Similar Films

I’m embarking on a new spec and as part of my research I’m watching other films of a similar genre and premise. Many writers do this, though I also know some that avoid movies like theirs so they aren’t unduly influenced. I’ve obviously analyzed a lot of films – including a few for this blog – but in the past I haven’t often done the same kind of specific “similar film” research I’m trying now.

I am aware of the danger of becoming derivative. So I did a lot of pre-writing before I started watching. I have a three page treatment of my story and several pages of character notes, not to mention a pile of ideas. But I’m also still at a stage where things are flexible enough that I won’t mind making changes if I learn something from my research.

So what am I looking for? I break down the structure of each story, but that’s not really the main objective. The first thing I note for each film is what I liked and didn’t like about it.  And I'm talking here about my reaction as an audience member who wants to be entertained.  Even the ones I loved usually have something I felt could have been a little stronger, and the ones I hated frequently have one or two redeeming features.

With this information I can be aware of things I want to avoid. Particularly I might notice common pitfalls in the genre. In my case, I’m looking at romantic adventure movies so I’ve noticed some of the weaker ones suffer from unimaginative action set pieces or slow starts. I can also identify what elements are common in the movies I like most in my genre. In this case, I find that I like roguish leads with a strong, external goal; a humorous tone; and exotic locations. So I might want to include those elements in my script!  But I also might look for a way to take them in a different direction - a different kind of exotic location, for example.

Another thing I do is list all the major scene/sequences as I’m watching. Most movies have 25-30. I use different color highlighters and pens to note the big action set pieces, the expository scenes, the romantic scenes, etc. I count how many of each there are and look at where they’re placed in relation to each other.

What I’m really looking for here is the rhythm of the movies. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the musicality of movies and I’m trying to approach this script somewhat like a symphony composition, paying attention to shifts in pace and tone.

Will it help? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just avoiding writing – we writers are great at finding ways to do that! But it feels like I’m coming to understand this type of film at a kind of chemical level. I’ll keep you posted.

With all that in mind, I’m thinking it’s time I did another in-depth analysis on this blog. So for the next few weeks I’m going to focus on The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore). I picked that because I want to study a comedy. The Hangover is fairly recent (2009) and was both a critical and commercial success. Plus, it’s generated a hugely successful sequel this summer, and had a notable impact on the feature comedy landscape – look at how Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) was marketed. And, by all accounts it hewed close to the script – some comedies rely more on improvisation.

So if you’re so inclined, you might want to give it another look (or a first look if you haven’t seen it.) Or you could read the screenplay here.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Selling Script vs. the Shooting Script

I have from time to time commented on the difference between a “selling” script and a “shooting” script. Today I want to go into that topic in more detail. Let’s start with definitions. A selling script is a script that’s designed to sell – to a producer, star, director, financier or studio, for example. A shooting script is what you want when you have a “go” picture. It’s designed to make the best movie possible.

So why are these two different kinds of scripts? Why wouldn’t a good shooting script also be a good selling script? There are two big reasons. The first is the conditions under which scripts are read when they are not yet go pictures. People who buy scripts have to read a lot of them. They’ll take a stack home with them on the weekend. They may read half of your script while watching their kid’s soccer game on Saturday afternoon, and then finish it Sunday after a cocktail. So you have to be a little bit more explicit with a selling script.

The other reason is that a script, obviously, is not a movie. Some things don’t translate as well on the page as they will on screen. Sometimes an actor can give a look that eliminates the need for a paragraph of dialogue. But in the script you don’t have that actor’s look. For a selling script you have to make sure it reads well because you’ll never see that actor’s performance if someone doesn’t first buy the script.

This doesn’t mean you should use on-the-nose dialogue. You still want to write well. But you want to make sure important points don’t get buried. So let’s say you have a scene where a husband makes a joke at his wife’s expense. She gets angry. How do you show that?

On-the-nose dialogue would be, “You’re a real jerk, you know.” Better would be something like, “Do people actually find you funny?” And on screen the actress might be able to deliver a withering look that gets the point across without dialogue at all. (This is another reason to avoid unnecessary description and camera direction. It doesn't read well.)

The challenge is actually not writing the selling script. You’re dealing with stuff on the page and you’re probably showing it to other people to see if they get confused (if you’re not, you should be!) The trick is if you are lucky enough to have a script go into production. Then you have to really consider how the scenes will play on screen and cut the extra exposition and talkiness. If the director, cast and editor are any good, they’ll cut even more during production and post.

When you’re writing a selling script, you may occasionally want to violate the rule that you can only write what we can see and hear. This is particularly true with characters. On screen, subtle clues of costuming, posture, looks and inflection will get across a lot of information that may not be on the page. So you might write something like:

JOE steps up to the bar. Joe’s easy smile, casual charm and good manners make him an expert at seduction. However underlying it all is an angry misogyny born from a horrific upbringing that only surfaces once he’s made his conquests. 

Now technically that’s cheating. We might be able to see his easy smile, but how do we know about the angry misogyny and about his upbringing? This is risky – the reader now has information the viewer won’t. The danger is that the scene will be clear on the page but confusing on screen. But sometimes we need to cheat just a little to make the point clear when we don’t have the benefit of the image. My rule of thumb is you can include things that will color the performance or tone of the scene, but no information that’s required to grasp the plot.

There’s another key difference between selling scripts and shooting scripts that I think many people in the industry forget to the detriment of their films. That is what information the audience knows when they walk into the theater. By the time a moviegoer buys a ticket, they’ve almost certainly seen trailers or commercials for the film and probably read a review of some kind. So at the very least they know the subject and the basic story concept.  But when an executive plucks a script from the weekend read pile, they know nothing about it.

This has several implications. It’s the primary reason that the first ten pages of your script are so important. In a way, you have to do the job in those first ten pages that the trailer and commercials have done for the film ahead of time. You have to explain what the story of this script is about. In the theater the audience might not mind if the catalyst doesn’t come for twenty minutes as long as the build up is reasonably entertaining. They have an idea what's coming, and they've already made a big effort to get to the theater so they don't really want to get up and leave. But a producer will have no problem tossing a script aside after ten pages if they don’t know what it’s about. After all, they’ve got six more to get through.

The reverse of this for the shooting script is you have to realize you can’t surprise your audience with the concept of your movie. I noticed this in the 2003 Hulk (story by James Schamus, screenplay by John Turman and Michael France and James Schamus). For about forty-five minutes we watched as something strange was happening to Bruce Banner. The movie seemed to be trying to build up suspense – what could it be? What’s wrong with him?

I wanted to shout, “I know what’s wrong with him, I’ve seen the poster! He’s the Hulk! Get to it already!”