Monday, October 31, 2011

Horror Scenes – Night of the Living Dead

(Spoilers: Night of the Living Dead)

I’m going to conclude my horror scene series by looking at a scene from the classic 1968 Night of the Living Dead (screenplay by John A. Russo and George A. Romero). This is the movie that started the zombie movie craze – though they actually call the undead “ghouls” in the film.  It established a lot of what we think of when we think of classic zombies.

There are several great scary scenes – particularly the opening where Barbra and her brother are first attacked and she flees to the house, and the ending when the zombies overrun the house. These use many of the techniques I’ve discussed over the last few posts. But the scene I want to look at is the one where the group in the house attempts to fuel the truck.

In the scene, Ben and Tom plan to take the truck to the pump to refuel it. Harry throws Molotov cocktails from the upper floor to clear an initial path. But Tom’s girlfriend Judy decides she wants to go with him at the last second. The three hop in the truck and drive to the pump only to find the key doesn’t work. They shoot the lock off. With zombies closing in Tom pulls the pump handle too quickly and splashes gas on the truck, which is ignited by the torch Ben set down to shoot the lock.

Tom drives the truck away from the pump, but it’s engulfed in flames. He tries to jump out, but Judy’s stuck. He turns back to help her and BOOM! The truck blows up, killing them both. Ben has to fight his way on foot through the zombies to get back to the house. He reaches a blocked door, but Harry is too frightened to let him in. Ben finally manages to kick the door down, and once Harry and he get it sealed again, he punches Harry out.

This is one of the biggest set pieces in the film, and the thing I think is noteworthy is how much effort is given to setting it up. Throughout the movie we’ve had plants for this scene – that the zombies are afraid of fire, where the truck came from and that it is low on gas, that the pump is locked, and, perhaps most important, the character conflicts within the band of survivors.

Most of these plants were slipped into other scenes where we didn’t realize how they were setting us up. For example, Ben’s story about getting away in the truck early on where he’s explaining how he got to the house. But all of this was done by the filmmakers to build to this big set piece.

There’s a great scene of preparation where the band of survivors in the house make their plan. This scene lays out everything that is supposed to happen for the audience so once the set piece is underway, we know when things go right and wrong – for example when the key doesn’t work on the fuel pump lock. There’s no need to bog down the action with a lot of explanation.

The preparation also allows Tom and Judy to have an emotional heart-to-heart where we see their relationship and particularly their love for each other. There are some nice specifics, such as how he loves that she always has a smile for him. Specifics make the characters seem real, which makes us care about them. Because of this scene, their deaths have a powerful emotional impact. Scenes of preparation are a good way to establish the audience’s sympathy for the characters.

Once the scene is under way, it’s full of twists – the key not working, the truck catching fire, Tom and Judy’s death, Harry’s betrayal. One of the flaws I often see in poor scripts are set pieces with only one major twist (or none!) If you want to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, you have to constantly shift the ground under the characters.

The scene also uses many of the other horror techniques I’ve been discussing -- suspense, a ticking clock in the approaching zombies, and very disturbing gore when the zombies feast on the roasted bodies of Tom and Judy. All of this is great, but it’s the preparation that allows this scene to be truly harrowing.

Happy Halloween!

(And if you want to play some scary interactive stories, try Nightmare Cove, the free Facebook horror game I've been writing on.)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Horror Scenes - The Thing

(SPOILERS: The Thing)

I’ll continue my series analyzing scary scenes with one of the best scenes from the 1982 version of The Thing (screenplay by Bill Lancaster) – the blood test scene. Someone’s posted a clip of it on You Tube. Note that The Thing is a remake of a 1951 movie. And you probably know that a prequel, written by my friend Eric Heisserer, is now in theaters!

In this scene, MacReady and another man have tied up most of the surviving members of the Antarctic base crew. MacReady has a theory about a way to determine who’s the alien by testing the reaction of blood to a hot wire.

The situation is naturally tense. We feel for the people tied up. Those that are human are helpless to defend themselves. And even though MacReady and another man are free, they will not have any help once the creature is revealed. The monster in The Thing plays into a common horror movie theme: not knowing who is trustworthy. If you can’t trust anyone, you are alone.

Like the previous scenes I’ve looked at, we once again have a slow build up of tension. The test itself is brilliantly slow. Someone has to get close to each person to collect a blood sample. Then the wire has to be slowly heated. They test each person in order, needing to reheat the wire each time, building suspense over who might be the monster. By the time it reveals itself, we’re wound so tight we jump.

There’s also a moral subtext here – two members of the crew have been killed. MacReady tests their blood, and we discover they were human. MacReady has unintentionally killed an innocent man. Again, trust is called into question. Can MacReady even trust his own decisions?

Then the Thing is revealed. There’s a great, subtle moment here – MacReady is in the process of accusing Garry when he tests the blood that first reacts. The accusation distracts us from the test, pointing us forward (MacReady has just told Garry, “We’ll do you last.”). So when Palmer’s blood jumps out of the Petri dish, we’re caught off guard, even though we’ve been expecting it. The writer is masterfully directing our attention for maximum impact.

Then we get some gore. It’s a bit cheesy by today’s standards, but it also demonstrates another horror technique: it’s always unsettling to see the human body move or distort in ways we know it shouldn’t.

Now we have the chaos after the build of tension. Our poor, defenseless human men are now tied to a monster. MacReady’s flamethrower malfunctions – a convenient coincidence, but we accept coincidences that work against our hero. His one ally is so frozen in fear, the Thing gets him before he can burn it.

What makes this scene so memorable is the tension of the slow testing of the bound men one by one to see who is really an alien. It’s almost an obligatory scene based on the concept of a monster that looks human. Some of the most enduring monsters – vampires, werewolves, zombies and the Thing – are monsters that were once human. It tells us we could all become a monster.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Horror Scenes from The Sixth Sense

(SPOILERS: The Sixth Sense)

Continuing my Halloween inspired analysis of scary scenes, today I’m going to look at a pair of scenes in Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan). We sometimes forget that this movie is actually a horror movie. And there are some terrifying moments in it.

The first scene I’m going to talk about is the scene with the ghost in the kitchen. It opens with Cole needing to go to the bathroom. This is a great premise for a scary scene – we can probably all remember when we were kids and needing to urinate, but being afraid to leave the safety of our beds. It’s a universal fear and we immediately identify with Cole.

We first know something’s up when we see the temperature on the thermostat drop. Then a figure passes behind Cole as he’s peeing, crossing like a blur in front of the camera. It’s a great moment of surprise – or maybe more accurately a startle. But it gets us not just because of the sudden movement and music sting, but because we’ve seen the thermostat drop and are anticipating something scary.

Cole realizes it, too. He walks slowly out of the bathroom, his breath misting in the supernatural cold. Someone is making noise in the kitchen. His mother? There is a long tracking shot as he approaches – building tension. He sees a female figure in a bathrobe. “Mama?” But when she turns it’s a ghost woman with bruises on her face who has slit her wrists. The woman is angry, yells at Cole (who she thinks is her husband). He flees to his little makeshift tent where he has religious figures and a flashlight.

A couple of particularly good things here: first, his hope that maybe it’s just his mother, which makes the revelation even more impactful. Then the brutality of the woman’s injuries has a strong visceral impact. Plus, her anger gets directed at Cole, making us fear what she might do to him.

A bit later in the movie Cole has another nighttime encounter with a ghost. He’s sleeping in his tent when he hears his mom call out for him. He runs to her, but it turns out she’s just having a nightmare. After comforting her, he returns to his tent… but something is wrong. Some of the clothespins holding it together have come off. And his breath mists from cold.

Notice this use of cold in both these scenes as a signal to indicate to the audience something scary is coming. The movie trains us as to the meaning of this. It’s a common horror movie technique. Jaws (screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) does it with the duh-dum music. In Paranormal Activity (written by Oren Peli), I noticed how, by the middle off the movie, the audience got jittery every time the film cut to the shot of the camera that was recording the couple sleeping. The film had actually conditioned them like Pavlov’s dog to expect scary stuff when they saw that camera angle.

The Sixth Sense makes this explicit – at some point between these scenes Cole tells Malcolm that it gets cold when the ghosts are angry. (The movie also happens to use a more subtle directorial technique to condition us – the color red is only used on things touched by the supernatural. But that is probably not in the script.) If you’re writing a horror movie, you might consider what signals you can teach the audience to prime them for scares.

Back to the scene. Fearfully Cole reassembles the tent and crawls inside. But then the clips start popping off on their own and he realizes the ghost of a young girl is in the tent with him. The scary stuff has violated his secure space now. Putting danger in a place you normally feel safe is another way to really unsettle an audience. The girl throws up – as elegant as The Sixth Sense is, it does resort to gore and gross in strategic ways to frighten us.

Cole runs out of the tent, pulling it down after him. But since the kitchen scene, Malcolm has suggested Cole try talking to the ghosts. Malcolm believes they want Cole’s help. But when Cole asks, “How do you know for sure,” Malcolm’s response is, “I don’t.” It’s a plan fraught with danger.

But Cole works up the courage. He can see the cloth of his makeshift tent draped over the ghost’s head. He approaches slowly – again building tension – reaches out, and removes the cloth (requiring him to get very close). We’re on the edge of our seat – what will happen? The girl vomits again, but then says, “I’m feeling much better now.” Cole asks if she wants to tell him something, and the solution to Cole’s problem is found.

The Sixth Sense uses a masterful mix of slow tension building, startling surprises, and carefully chosen gore to freak out the audience in a very sophisticated manner. But probably even more important, it has great character work. We care about Cole and that gets us invested in the outcome of these scenes.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Horror Scenes - Alien

(SPOILERS: Alien, Resident Evil: Apocalypse)

In honor of Halloween I thought I’d do a few posts analyzing scary scenes. First I’m going to take a look at a scene in one of my all time favorite scary movies, Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon). The scene in question is when Dallas goes into the airlock to flush out the alien. Someone’s posted it on You Tube here.

I hate in horror movies when characters do stupid things that they would never do in real life. For example, I thought the first Resident Evil (written by Paul W.S. Anderson) was pretty good because the characters try to avoid situations where they are in unnecessary danger, yet they still get in trouble. One of the things they do is try to stay together so they can watch each other’s backs.

On the other hand, the sequel, Resident Evil / Resident Evil: Apocalypse (also written by Paul W.S. Anderson), is awful. In one scene, the characters go to a school they know is infested with zombies. What do they do? They split up. Incredibly dangerous and there’s no good reason for it.

In this scene from Alien, the characters are also trying to avoid unnecessary danger. They know a deadly alien life form is in their airshafts. Someone has to go in and goad it to the airlock so they can blow it into space. Dallas, the captain, volunteers. But he goes in armed with a flamethrower. Moreover, the rest of the crew monitors his progress and the alien’s progress on a motion detector, relaying information and making sure the creature doesn’t escape the shafts. It’s dangerous, but it’s a smart plan.

One of the great things in this scene is the use of the setting. The tunnels are narrow and dark. Some go vertically as well as horizontally. Dallas has to crouch – his movement is restricted. And between the flashlight and the flamethrower and a radio headset that won’t stay in place, his hands are full. It makes sense that Dallas is in there alone given how cramped the tunnels are. And at one point Dallas orders all the hatches behind him closed – a smart idea so the alien can’t get behind him, but also a move that isolates him.

The writer has placed the character into an environment that is scary on its own. If you’re writing a scary movie, you should consider what areas of your setting will be the most creepy then come up with logical, intelligent reasons why your character(s) has to go there.

The scene makes great use of suspense. In order to create suspense, you need to take your time. The alien isn’t even detected on the motion sensor until almost halfway through the scene. And notice how much time is taken up with reaction shots of the other characters anxiously monitoring the situation. This slowing down of time, the opposite of what we usually try to do in film, gives time for the tension, dread and anxiety to build up.

You can create this effect on the page. Here is a piece of this scene from the shooting script. It doesn’t match the final scene shot for shot, but you can see how the reactions are put in to draw out the action.



Ripley waiting.


Dallas still crawling on hands and knees.
Ahead the shaft takes an abrupt downward turn.
He moves toward the corner.
Fires another blast from the flamethrower.
Then starts crawling down, head first.


Lambert sees something on the tracker.

     Beginning to get a reading on you.


The shaft makes yet another turn.
Puts Dallas into an almost immobilized position.


Ash staring at the ventilator opening.


Intercutting is a great way to extend time and build tension.

Another brilliant touch is the motion detector. It allows us to see the alien approaching, advertising impending danger. Then it stops working. We know the alien is near, but no longer know where. That’s scary!

Dallas does what most of us would do at this point – he decides he wants to get out. And that’s when suddenly things speed up. The alien reappears – Lambert panics – chaos. And then Dallas turns to discover he’s climbed right into the alien’s grasp. This shock is magnified because of the time the scene took building up tension and anticipation. I also like how the actual attack happens off screen. We’re put in the perspective of the surviving crew – we don’t know what happened.

And the unknown, of course, is frightening!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Writing What You Know

(SPOILERS: Lord of the Rings, Shaun of the Dead, Sucker Punch)

Write what you know. It’s a cliché, but one that persists because writing from experience tends to produce the most powerful, original stories. I don’t think that means everything you do has to be semi-autobiographical. Whole genres would vanish if that were true – westerns, historical drama, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. The key, I believe, is finding the emotional reality of the story.

Last Post I talked about the difficulty inherent in making true stories dramatic. The challenge with fantastic stories is making them relatable. It turns out the key is writing what you know. Not the reality of your world, but the reality of your emotional experience.

Think about it – why do we care about Frodo in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy (screenplays by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair & Peter Jackson)? We’re not hobbits, we don’t live in Middle Earth, and we don’t have to deal with orcs or rings of power. And presumably the filmmakers don’t either.

The reason we care can be found in the Prancing Pony scene. Frodo and his buddies have just left home and travelled to a strange town. The person they’re supposed to meet isn’t there. The people in the tavern are all bigger than them – rough, scary men. Frodo is anxious.

And we can relate to that anxiousness. We’ve all been in a place we didn’t know well among people we weren’t sure we can trust. We’ve all had plans go awry and not know what we should do about it. In fact, Frodo’s experience is not so different from a child getting separated from his or her parents in a mall. Just about everyone knows what that feels like.

We relate to Frodo on an emotional level.

I also relate to Shaun in Shaun of the Dead (Written by Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright). Not to his battles with zombies, but to his struggle to balance the demands of his girlfriend, his best buddy and his mother. Those relationships feel real. Let’s face it, I watch Shaun of the Dead because of the zombie action and humor. But without that emotional core of a character I can relate to, I wouldn’t care nearly as much about the outcome.

For example, I loved all the visual stuff in Sucker Punch (story by Zach Snyder, screenplay by Zach Snyder & Steve Shibuya). But I was bored after about twenty minutes. Most of the movie is made up of Baby Doll’s fantasies as she dances – essentially short films. But those fantasies play out like video games. It’s all visually stunning women in visually stunning environments blowing stuff up. Within the fantasy sequence, we don’t know who these women are or why they want the object or why the monsters don’t want them to have it. The impact of Baby Doll's dreams on the “real world” is never made clear.

As a result I don’t really care about the characters or their adventures. The eye candy is interesting for a while but the impact quickly wears off. You can’t sustain a feature film with eye candy. The framing story fares better because there are recognizable human emotions going on, but it’s just the framing story. Again, it can’t sustain the movie.

We are involved in the fantasy world of Lord of the Rings and not in the fantasy worlds of Sucker Punch because the hobbits are more recognizably human than the nubile dolls of the latter movie. In a way, the more fantastic the world, the more important it is that the characters are complex and relatable.

I would even venture to say one of the more important reasons that the first Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV – VI, written by George Lucas, Leigh Bracket and Lawrence Kasdan) is so superior to the second (Episodes I – III, written by George Lucas and Jonathan Hales) is that Luke Skywalker feels more like a real person than Anakin. Luke embodies that universal feeling of wanting to leave a boring home life and do something great. We can relate to his quest, to the loss of his mentor, to his growing maturity. Anakin is a brooding brat who often behaves inexplicably. (This is far from the only flaw in the newer movies – I could probably fill a year’s worth of blog posts on why the first trilogy is superior to the second.)

When you’re writing something that is not based on your personal experience, you have to find the emotional reality in the characters. How are they like you? How would you react in that situation? If you find that, your story can be just as powerful and original as if you were writing about your own experiences.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Trouble with True Stories

(SPOILERS: Changeling)

Writing a movie based on a true story sounds easier than making something up from scratch. After all, you have the actual drama, characters, conflicts and events to draw from. But in practice true stories can be a stubborn challenge. One of the most difficult scripts I’ve ever written was a historical biopic.  And I've often seen students struggle to find structure in a story inspired by their own experiences.

First of all, reality doesn’t always organize itself nicely. Sometimes things don’t happen in the most dramatic order, or a significant event happens to a minor character instead of the key player. I thought Changling (written by J. Michael Straczynski) had that problem with the ending. The most dramatic climax was the trial, but after that there were two other endings – the meeting between the main character and the killer on the eve of the execution, and the other victim showing up alive. That may be how it happened in real life, but it made the ending of the movie muddy.

The key, of course, is to be able to change reality to fit drama. But this can be difficult for several reasons. In an important historical or newsworthy event, you may open yourself up to charges of bias or misrepresentation. You have to walk a fine line between good drama and accuracy. And if the people involved are still alive, you have the added concern of lawsuits.

You also may have a hard time letting go of the facts you know. This is particularly true if your story is based on your personal experiences. If you’re fictionalizing something that happened to you as a child or a story about your grandparents’ romance, you probably don’t have to worry about accusations of dishonesty. But you may become slave to the idea of, “that’s the way it really happened.” Letting facts dictate your story choices can doom your script.

Things may also not occur in the most naturally dramatic fashion. In the historical piece I was working on, some of the biggest conflicts were resolved via letters. But who wants to watch people writing and reading on screen? The solution was easy – I put the characters in rooms together and had them make their arguments with dialogue. But I had to be willing to ignore the facts.

The other problem with reality is there’s just so dang much of it. Often, with historical pieces in particular, you can research and research and find so much interesting stuff that it would take a ten hour movie to show it all. You’re going to have to figure out what the most important elements are and discard the rest – no matter how cool. Have you heard the phrase “you need to kill your babies”? This is what it means – your favorite stuff may need to go to serve the bigger story.

Then there’s the challenge of finding the truth in the facts. In my historical drama, I struggled with why a significant character behaved the way he did. It defied logic. It wasn’t until I stumbled across an article about an obscure psychological condition that I found my answer. This can happen even in real life – do you always understand why your parents or significant other do things? Of course not.

A few years ago I read an excellent screenplay about a true event. The writer’s father was a crucial player in the event. Ironically that character, the one she presumably knew best, was the most ill defined and cryptic. Sometimes being too close to someone prevents you from really seeing them clearly. And there’s nobody you’re closer to than yourself.

So how do you tease out the underlying story in true events? You have to go big picture and simplify. Start by really delving into what interests you about the story. Why does this incident mean so much to you? Try to summarize it in one sentence. Then summarize the most important parts of the story in one paragraph. Then one page. (It may be easiest to start with the one page version and reduce.)

Now look at what you have. That’s the core of the story you want to tell. Build your outline around that core. Use your one sentence to determine the dramatic question. Figure out your catalyst, resolution and act breaks from the one paragraph. Fit the true events into this structure in a way that supports it – even if it means reordering the chronology or combining characters and events. And leave out the stuff that doesn’t support that core.

Next, look at your characters. If you’re writing about real people, you will have lots of surface detail at your fingertips. Now dig into their psychology. What do they want? What do they unknowingly need? Once you can answer those questions you’ll be a good way toward writing a dramatic version of the real events.  It’s almost the opposite approach to developing a fictional character.  Keep in mind, you don't actually have to guess their motivation correctly - it just has to plausibly explain their behavior for the purpose of the fictionalized story you're telling.

Sometimes when writing about a personal experience, you have a single incident that had a huge impact on you. But one event does not make a story. I see this problem in student writing a lot. You have to place the event in a larger context. Again, go to your main character. What do they want? What do they need? What’s the internal and external journey that demonstrates how they were changed? If the journey was mostly internal, can you create an external story that reveals it? (See my last post)

As you can see, having a true story doesn’t simplify your job. But if you figure out what moved you about the true events in the first place and then get brutal about cutting what doesn’t support that, you’ll be well on your way to creating a good fictional version of the story.


Not much time left to sign up for my seminar on writing killer screenplay openings at the Writers Store on October 15th.  If you're interested, find out all the details here.