Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pitching – Less Complicated Than You Think?

There was a point in the pitch event I hosted a couple weeks ago that I had a kind of epiphany watching a panel of producers trying to understand a fumbling writer’s pitch. I thought, “Maybe pitching isn’t as complicated as we writers make it.”

Pitching is very hard and few writers do it well… but I think that’s mainly because we lose sight of what the purpose of a pitch really is (and I definitely include myself in this). Most often it seems writers are using a pitch to test or prove their plot construction. But that’s not really what a pitch is for.

A pitch is, quite simply, a writer describing the movie they want to write to someone who is considering whether they want to get involved in that project.

And because of that, your first goal should be simplicity and clarity. Yes, at some point you will most likely have to do a fairly long pitch that includes detailed plotting. But whenever you’re pitching the listener should have a good idea of what your concept is and what kind of movie you want to do right off the bat.

Remember the job of the person you’re pitching to. Put yourself in their shoes. First of all, they’re hearing a lot of pitches during the course of a month. Their goal is to find the one or two that will be right for their company. They also have to convince their boss and maybe a studio exec that this pitch is a winner. They are going to have to pitch your idea without you there. And their job depends on a fair level of success when they do this. Also, if they do buy the pitch they are probably going to spend years of their life working on the project so they better like it an awful lot. And ultimately if this movie gets made they will have to convince an audience to come see it.

So while you’re rambling on about the details of this or that scene, in their head they are revising the pitch in a way they can re-pitch it – assuming of course that they haven’t already rejected it and are just pretending to listen to be polite.

So do them a favor and present your idea clearly and simply, emphasizing the elements that are cool and emotionally involving. As my friend Paul Guay is wont to say, “Don’t make them mine for the gold, serve it up to them on a platter.”

I have distilled this down to my first one-word rule of pitching: Clarity.

When you think about your job in a pitch as conveying your idea for a movie in a clear and compelling manner, it doesn’t seem quite so complicated, does it?

One other thing I’ve seen writers do that confuses clarity is include a bunch of razzle dazzle. A pitch is a sales tool, but it’s not a con job. Remember, if you’re in this for the long haul, the goal is to find the right home for your story, not trick someone who ultimately won’t want to make the movie into writing you a check. So let your story be what it is and if this is the right buyer for it then they’ll see that.

But there is more to the pitch than just conveying the idea clearly. You also have to sell yourself as the person who can deliver this idea.

Which brings me to my second one-word rule of pitching: Confidence.

Again, put yourself in their shoes. You are asking them to risk their company’s money – and therefore their job – on you and your idea. And if you don’t seem confident in your abilities and your project then they will not want to take that risk. Think of it this way: let’s say you are interviewing two contractors to remodel your kitchen.

The first has an easygoing manner as he clearly lays out his ideas for the remodel, casually dropping the occasional technical term into his presentation. When you ask him questions, he’s able to answer them and explain why he thinks his approach is the best. You get the impression he’s done this a thousand times before.

The second seems nervous and is constantly referring to notes as he lays out his ideas. At one point he gets confused and when you ask him about a suggestion he’s made he can’t really explain the reasons behind it. He apologizes for his anxiety saying this is only the third kitchen remodel he’s bid on.

Which do you hire?

It’s hard to just “be confident” but two things can help. First, don’t think about the pitch as a job interview, think about it as an opportunity to present your movie idea to see if this person would like to get involved. You should have the attitude that someone will buy this pitch – maybe it will be this person, but if not it’ll probably be the next. Consider it to be as much their opportunity as yours. (But remember, arrogance and confidence are NOT the same thing.)

Second, don’t pitch an idea you’re not confident about. Seriously, you must have an idea that you think would make a great movie, right? If not why do you want to be a screenwriter? If you pitch an idea you genuinely think is great then you have a much better chance of pitching it with confidence. Similarly, work out all the beats of the idea. If it’s half-baked it will show.

Two words: Clarity and Confidence. Not so complicated, is it?


P.S. - This is obviously geared toward pitching your original ideas or ideas based on material you've found. Pitching for assignments is a topic for another post!

P.S.S. - You might want to check out my interview on the You've Got Red On You website.

P.S.S.S. - If you own a Kindle Fire, you might want to check out Nightmare Cove, an interactive horror story game I wrote.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fifteen Observations from a Pitch Fest

Last week my guest blogger Phillip Mottaz wrote about his experiences attending a pitch fest. Coincidentally last week I hosted a much smaller pitch event for the Singapore Media Academy (This is my second year doing it – my lessons from last year are posted here, here and here) Like last year, it was a great opportunity for me to watch other writers pitch and hear the feedback of industry professionals, without my being caught up in my own pitch anxiety. Here’s are some things I observed or heard:
  • Don’t look for approval, just tell your story. One of the development execs complimented a writer on his presentation and noted that it’s disconcerting to listen to a pitch when the writer’s watching you with an expression of, “do you like it?” I would say this goes to one of the key elements of successful pitching: confidence. 
  • Don’t lock in your casting too much unnecessarily. Particularly with ages, allow a range. If you say the character is 37, you may eliminate, in the mind of the producer, an actor who is 30 who they want to work with. Sometimes a character must be a specific age for the story to work, but otherwise say things like “mid-20’s” or “in her 30’s” or “around 40.” 
  • Tell the ending or be prepared to. These pitching events are usually designed to convince someone to read your script, so some writers pitch the set-up but don’t tell the conclusion. In a pitch fest context that’s fine (however if you’re trying to sell a story in a meeting you must tell the ending). Last week one of the writers tried the “no ending” pitch and was immediately asked how it ends by a group of execs that were clearly into the story. She seemed surprised by the question, though she handled it well. You need to be prepared to answer that question. Again, this goes to a bigger issue: anticipate likely questions based on your pitch and be prepared with answers. 
  • And when it comes to answering questions, answer but don’t defend. When asked about their story, some of the writers’ responses had an undercurrent that suggested it was the panel’s fault they didn’t understand something. During a break in the pitching, writer Matt Federman did a Q&A where he pointed out that if a producer doesn’t respond to something, replying, “But you should respond to this” won’t change their mind. 
  • Write a book. I found it interesting that one particular writer pitching a good story that was a tough sell commercially was told by more than one panel to consider writing a book first then selling the movie rights. This was assumed to be a way to make difficult material more marketable. 
  • Tell it through the characters eyes. The character will pull us through the story. Tell the story from the characters perspective. I don’t mean act out the character, but frame the story from their point of view and how they feel. This is particularly important when pitching the kind of things that we sometimes don’t think of as character based. If you’re pitching sci-fi, fantasy, historic, or other stories that take place in an unfamiliar world, the character is our entry point. Don’t just describe the world, take us through it with the character. Also, the shorter the pitch the more important character becomes. 
  • Know how you will end your pitch. This avoids the trailing off ending, or the last minute adding of extraneous information. Like a gymnast, you need to stick your landing. Then shut up and let the buyer talk. 
  • Dramatize the important beats. The story should work emotionally, not intellectually. Don’t just tell us what happens, tell us how it happens and how the character feels about it. 
  • Get to the point. One writer got interrupted after going into elaborate detail for several minutes on the “status quo” opening of the script. Finally the panelists stopped her because five minutes in they still had no idea what the movie was about. Other times there was a long elaborate set up about the world and themes of the story without a clear conveyance of what the core idea was. If they don’t know what the logline of your story is and the primary source of conflict within two minutes, they’ll tune out. Front load your pitch. 
  • Related, one of the producers said that although they are looking to be emotionally moved by a story, in the back of their mind they’re asking, “How can I sell this?” How will they sell it to their boss? How will they sell it to the audience? That’s why it’s important to lead with the concept. The plot detail is less important. 
  • Also, they’re not dumb. They hear hundreds of pitches and read hundreds of scripts a year so they know story. If you are explaining things clearly, they’ll get it. In fact, they’ll probably be ahead of you. Don’t belabor simple stuff. And if you have to give multiple examples to illustrate a character trait, you’re using the wrong examples. 
  • Much of this leads to one of my big overall observations: Pitching is largely about managing detail. Too much and they lose the big idea of the story. Too little and it feels mechanical and un-dramatic. How do you achieve balance? Talent and practice. 
  • Pitching without notes is great – it allows eye contact and engagement – but it’s risky. Losing your place and getting flustered is not a plus. So you should probably have some notes, but try to be prepared enough that you don’t really need to refer to them. 
  • Get everyone in the room comfortable. This is another place where confidence comes in. If you’re anxious and desperate it will make the buyer uncomfortable. It’s also why telling how you got the inspiration for the story is a great way to open. It feels more natural and less like you’re “selling.” 
  • Don’t apologize or make excuses. (Unless you spill something on them or something!) What this means is, don’t tell them that you’re a bad pitcher or that you didn’t get enough sleep last night. Again, project confidence in yourself and your story. 
Those were the notes I jotted down while listening to the pitches and responses. Overall I would say my big takeaway is that good pitching consists of two things: clarity and confidence.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Going to a Pitch Summit with Phillip Mottaz

I'm bringing in a guest blogger today. My friend Phillip Mottaz recently attended a pitch summit and wrote about his experiences on his blog. I thought it was very informative and quite on-topic to what I cover here, so with his permission I'm reprinting it. In addition to checking out Phillip's blog, I recommend you follow him on Twitter.

Going to a Pitch Summit
by Phillip Mottaz

I recently participated in the Fall 2012 InkTip Pitch Summit, wherein I met with over 50 industry insiders to pitch my screenplay. It was a long day, and I don’t know many people who have gone through such a thing, so I’m sharing my thoughts, as is the point of a blog.

I arrived at 7:45AM, as I had paid for the “executive” level of attendance, meaning I paid a little more for the privilege of eating breakfast and lunch onsite, allowing for more one-on-one schmoozing time. So I arrived at the Burbank Marriot convention center, checked in and wandered around the gigantic room.

It was filled with numbered tables and model-type girls in short black dresses. No food yet. And nobody really explaining what was going on. When the food arrived, I helped myself, but realized there wasn’t a clear plan laid out of where to eat. I gathered that I was supposed to sit anywhere and engage whoever I wanted or could. Except for the model-type girls, who were as uninterested in everything as you could possibly imagine.

I sat at Table 36 and talked with one of the few people in the entire room sitting on the producer side — so a quick word about that. Each of these numbered tables would represent where a respective producer/agent/talent/script-seeker would sit. You, the writer/pitcher, would sit on the opposite side of the table. The tables were organized by genre, which would make more sense later when the writers assembled outside the convention room, but inside it kind of didn’t matter.

ANYWAY, I sat and had a nice schmoozy chat with a producer who was looking for comedies as well as a guy to do punch-ups. We also talked about web videos, which it seemed like everyone wanted to talk about. The line was basically “The old way is gone. Computers are the future, man!” I didn’t argue.

9:00AM and the InkTip stage managers call all the writers out of the convention room and into the hallway. There, we found a series of numbers and names hanging from a clothesline. These were related to the tables inside. Organized by genre, each table could have as many as four different companies sitting at it at any time (I stress “at any time,” because these producers were real people existing in the real world, so some were late, some left early, some never showed, and many had to get up to pee a few times, so it was entirely possible that when you entered the room to pitch, the table wasn’t filled). Writers picked the line they wanted and stood under that number.

The stage manager would call “Writers on deck,” and all the writers at the head of their respective lines would step into the pre-boarding area, waiting to hear “Open doors.” When the doors opened, those writers entered the room and their time began. Five minutes. Five minutes to make your introduction, pitch your movie, get some sort of “Yes” and get their contact information. Sounds like speed dating, and I’m sure it is very much like it.

Personally, I had a lot of fun doing this. I was rehearsed, but nervous. I’ve pitched at formal meetings, but never done this sort of thing, which sometimes went like a personal one-on-one and other times verged into “American Idol” territory. I met a ton of people and — most importantly — I did my reps at pitching. I thought on my feet constantly, not to feed them what they wanted, but to adapt to the particular situation at that moment. If a decade of improv experience has taught me anything, it’s that recognizing the weird things everyone sees is a good thing. Ignoring it makes you seem out of touch. So I did that. I made jokes about how well these guys memorized each face, and told the last guys before lunch that “We’re half way there!” I figured it’s better to behave like a reasonable human being than try to wow people with a lot of flashy crap…

Which leads me to the advice portion of this entry. There were probably 200+ writers there, ranging from one end of the professional spectrum to the next. Many people flew in for this event; I met people from West Virginia, Iowa and even Alaska and Scottland. So my first piece of advice to anyone considering doing one of these pitch fests is: Don’t hang your career on it. Professional buzzkill Craig Mazin has made it a point in the Script Notes podcast of saying that these types of events are not after making movies, they are after your money. Make no mistake: there were no A-list super-power agents or producers at this thing. Nobody with tremendous clout was going to sit for 8 hours listening to mini-pitches on a Saturday in Burbank. They do that during their work week, with established writers who don’t pay hundreds of dollars for the slim chance of getting a nod from a production assistant. I’m not calling out InkTip in any way — I think it’s awesome that they do this and I like their site. I’m just saying that if you live in Rhode Island and you’ve saved up all year to pay for this trip and come to this pitch summit, you are wasting your money. Overnight success rarely happens, and it’s even more rare that it happens over night. If you truly believe in your project and you live outside of the Southern California area, then you’d be better served to make the movie yourself.

This leads me to my other bit of advice: Flashy is not professional. As I said, there were a lot of people at this summit, but I felt I could pick out the pros (or semi-pros) without thinking twice. They were the guys who dressed comfortably. They were probably not wearing really nice suits. They were probably not the ones carrying art work for their as-yet unproduced screenplay. They were probably not the ones with a trailer for their as-yet unproduced screenplay on their laptop*. Guys, I get it. I’ve been there, too. You think, “I’ll impress them with how passionate I am.” But it looks ridiculous.

When you think about it, if you went to the trouble of creating a poster or character concept art or a trailer for your UNPRODUCED screenplay, why don’t you just make the movie? Why are you at this summit? You think you’re giving off a message of professionalism, but I’d argue you’re coming off as lazy. You obviously have a vision and you have some time on your hands. You may even have some money. Why are you asking these guys for more?

Like I said, I’ve been there. My sketch group sent out “hilarious” press packets and we made “ingenious” posters for pitch meetings we had. But even at this level, you’re dealing with pros. And even if they’re not pros, they’ve seen a poster before. They’ve seen a trailer before. They’ve seen a suit before. All you end up doing is making things complicated and distracting from your actual script. You end up being memorable for the wrong reasons.

BACK TO THE SUMMIT: My main focus was the Comedy Genre tables (29-39). Some fit my logline, some did not. There were some tables looking for “spiritual elements,” others asking for “Horror comedies.” I initially skipped those. But by 11:30 or so, I was done. I had pitched my feature to every one of those tables. I moved on to the “All Genre” tables and started cruising through them, too. I watched the clock thinking, “It would be a waste of money to finish by lunch. I paid for the whole day.” So I expanded my push in two ways: I justified my story to fit more genres (“It’s about a community coming together, spiritual table. What could be more uplifting than that?”) and I actually pitched another movie all together to tables I’d already visited.

See, my plan was to focus on ACTING COACH, the script I’d just finished and was most proud of. But I had other stuff — particularly VAMPIRE SURF BAND, a horror comedy. The problem (and I use that term loosely) was that I had only printed out one sheets for ACTING COACH. But when I stared at the Horror Comedy table, and saw their line was unfilled, I improvised. I took out some business cards, wrote “Vampire Surf Band” on the back, and quickly ran through an impromptu pitch in my head.

And it worked (in as much as they liked what they heard). One table actually started writing down the names of directors they knew who might be interested in such a project. All that off of an opportunity seized, and without a full-sized poster!

In hindsight, my advice would be: roll with it, adapt and bring more ideas than you need. Had I a great action script, I would have been really busy.

Like I said, the main thing I took from this was getting in my real-world** reps of pitching. I had my speech all rehearsed, timed and prepped, but I would always have to adapt to their questions. “Who do you see as the lead?” “How’s it end?” “What type of budget are you looking at” “Will this make a lot of money?” (that was an easy one to answer) “Not interested. Got anything else?” etc. Writing them out now, they seem like obvious questions anyone in a pitch meeting would field. But in the live setting, it’s easy to get flustered.

No lie, I stumbled a couple times. Especially when I added the second pitch to my repertoire, I would sometimes forget which one I was leading with by the end of the night. But the point is, I did it. Next time I have a pitch meeting, it’ll probably feel more comfortable. I got through it, I know my line, I know my story, and I can handle myself without looking like a crazy person.

I think.

*Getting really snarky, the pros were probably also not the people who had to ask me “What’s a ‘dark comedy?’” As in “Give me some examples.” Look… if you don’t know your own genre, and you don’t know what the other genres are — and you’ve been paying attention for the last 20 years — and you can’t think of at least ONE dark comedy, y’might be a redneck.

**Y’know, for me.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Set Pieces that Sell Screenplays – Part 2

(SPOILERS: The Devil Wears Prada, Moulin Rouge!, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Meet the Parents)

Last post I discussed the importance of creating memorable set pieces in your screenplay and gave you some techniques for building anticipation for the set pieces. Today I’m going to discuss some techniques you can use to develop unique and satisfying set pieces.

The world of your story is a major potential source of fresh set piece ideas. At its core, The Devil Wears Prada (screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna) is a story about a woman dealing with a mean boss, but it’s made unique by setting that story in the world of high fashion. We get the obligatory bits about coffee and phone messages, but look at the scene where Miranda Priestly is going over wardrobe for a photo shoot. There are several jokes about how demanding Miranda is and then when Andy laughs at a debate over two nearly identical belts, Miranda delivers a withering monologue breaking down how Andy ended up with the bargain bin sweater she’s wearing. That scene draws its humor completely from the world of the movie, which is why it’s so memorable.

Also, be sure to exploit your setting. The same basic set piece from a movie located in New York can be very different than one set in San Antonio, Texas or Venice, Italy. Think about how you might use those three locations to give a unique spin to a big emotional scene about a couple breaking up. (The world of the Deep South was a particularly rich setting for C. Jay Cox and I to mine in the development of Sweet Home Alabama!)

Set pieces can be thought of as little movies unto themselves. They should have the same roller coaster ups and downs as the overall story. We can accomplish this in two ways: reversals of fortune for the main character and reversals of tone and pace.

It’s important that your character not progress toward their goal in too linear a fashion or your scenes will feel dull and predictable. In a set piece your character should face multiple obstacles, overcoming some, failing to overcome others and then finding new ways to pursue their goal. The character should get closer to their goal one minute, farther away the next. These reversals of fortune create suspense for the audience and that leads to emotional reactions.

Reversing tone and pace is trickier. To see how this works, let’s look at a musical. Musicals have very obvious set pieces – they’re accompanied by song! Studying music can teach a screenwriter a lot about pace and rhythm. The set up to the elephant scene in Moulin Rouge! (written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce) is that the singer Satine has mistaken penniless writer Christian for a wealthy Duke. Christian hopes to convince Satine to star in his play while Satine hopes to seduce the Duke so he’ll finance a play for her.

The scene starts with comically awkward misunderstanding as Satine tries to bed Christian while he tries to read her his poetry. Dialogue overlaps, Satine throws herself around on the bed. Things grow steadily more chaotic until suddenly, completely flustered, Christian belts out the first line of his poem in song. Satine freezes, thunderstruck by his passion.

This reversal of pace from chaos to stillness and humor to seriousness heightens the emotional power of the moment. Christian sings slowly and intimately and then gradually the music builds, rising to a crescendo as the couple dances ecstatically. The topper is when Satine sincerely professes that she’s fallen in love with Christian only to learn he is not the Duke she thought he was.

Now lets see how this can work without music. The set piece in Marion’s bar in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) begins with the Nazis coming to get the medallion from Marion. At first she talks tough, trying to cut a deal. But then things turn serious as Toht grabs the hot poker from the fire. Suddenly Marion’s bluster is gone. Toht approaches slowly until – CRACK – Indy whips the poker out of Toht’s hand. This moment is a great change of pace from slow, deliberate suspense to the rousing gunfight that follows.

Why is changing pace and tone so effective? It’s a matter of juxtaposition. The moment in Moulin Rouge! when Satine freezes at Christian’s song has much more emotional power coming after frenetic comedy than it would if he delivered it in the midst of a bunch of romantic sweet talk. Likewise, the action in the gunfight in Marion’s bar seems even more exciting after the tension of the hot poker beat. Note that to achieve these variations of pace and tone on the page you will need to use such stylistic tools as changing your vocabulary and the length of your sentences.

One of my favorite set piece techniques is out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire. The great opening sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark illustrates this beautifully. Just as Indy escapes one trap, he finds himself in even greater peril. He leaps the pit and rolls under the descending door. Just as he recovers the idol and breathes a sigh of relief, the huge boulder begins rolling toward him. He makes a mad dash and leaps outside just in the nick of time – only to find himself facing the drawn bows of a hundred angry tribesmen.

The frying pan and fire don’t have to be physical danger. In the classic dinner table scene from Meet the Parents (story by Greg Glienna & Mary Ruth Clarke, screenplay by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg), the more Greg tries to fit in with his girlfriend’s family, the worse he makes it for himself. Forced to elaborate on a lie he’s told, he makes up a story about milking a cat. When future father-in-law Jack starts to deconstruct the lie, Greg quickly changes the subject by producing champagne. But when popping the cork he knocks over the urn with Jack’s mother’s ashes, making things hilariously worse. Remember, this technique is most effective when it’s the specific action of the character to escape one problem that lands them in the next one.

The hard reality of this business is that there are probably a thousand well structured but unsold scripts out there for every movie that gets made. If you want to sell your script, you need to make people passionate about it. Creating set pieces that are funny, scary, exciting, or moving is a great way to inspire that kind of passion.


In other news, a video game I wrote was just released for the Kindle Tablet. It's called Nightmare Cove, and it's an interactive horror story game. If you have a Kindle Tablet, you can buy it here, or if you want to see some screenshots and read about the characters and stories, check out the Nightmare Cove website (whether you have a Kindle or not).

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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