Friday, March 27, 2015

Three Techniques for Building Great Set Pieces

(Spoilers: Whiplash, There’s Something About Mary, Gravity, The Devil Wears Prada, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Meet the Parents)

The big, spectacular scenes in movies are called “set pieces.” Set pieces ratchet up the intensity to give your story memorable peaks that will stick with the audience. We often say 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.

Typically, the term refers to action scenes or broadly comedic scenes, but I like to take a broader definition:

Set Piece: The big, audience pleasing scenes that deliver on the genre elements of the movie.

That means the action scenes in an action movie and the funny scenes in a comedy, of course, but also the romantic scenes in a romance, the emotional scenes in a drama, the scary scenes in a horror movie, and the tense scenes in a thriller.

Here are three techniques for getting the most out of your set pieces:

1. Build anticipation. You can 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 techniques: 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, recent best picture and best screenplay Oscar nominee Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle) contains several critical performances. Before the final concert, sadistic conductor Fletcher informs the players that there will be people in the audience who can make their career – or destroy it. This is not just any concert; it will be the biggest performance of our hero’s life.

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?

2. Exploit the unique world of your story. The world of your story is a major potential source of fresh set piece ideas. The suspense scenes in Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron) were unique because they used elements of their unusual setting. And the writers explored all the possible dangers in that setting, from space suits running out of air to a fire on a space station to space debris moving at the speed of a bullet.

The world is more than just the location. 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 arena of high fashion. We get the obligatory bits about coffee and phone messages. But one of the best scenes involves Miranda Priestly going over wardrobe for a photo shoot. There are several humorous bits about how demanding Miranda is. Then when Andy laughs at a debate over two nearly identical belts, Miranda delivers a hilariously 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.

3. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. This is one of my favorite set piece techniques. The great opening sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) 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.

Friday, March 20, 2015

My Writing Day

During Q&A’s, writers are often asked about their writing habits – How long do they write each day? Morning or Night? In a coffee shop or in an office or by the pool? I have found that the answers vary tremendously. If you ask a lot of successful writers this question, you will probably discover that there is no common element in their answers. This is either depressing – “There’s no secret to lead me to success!” – or encouraging – “The way I’m doing it is okay.”

Despite this, over the years I’ve discovered a few tips that I find are helpful to writers struggling to be productive. One of the best is: write every day. It doesn’t have to be every day – maybe you take Sundays and holidays off. But the most important factor in writing success is the application of butt to chair, and making this a daily habit makes it easier.

It also helps keep the ideas flowing. If you write every day, your screenplay will never be far from your mind. When you sit down, you will be able to get back into the writing groove quickly. Take a week off and it will take time to get back into the flow of your story, to remember what you were doing and thinking in the last writing session.

When I first graduated from college, I had to get a day job – just like most film school grads who are not independently wealthy. This meant finding daily writing time was difficult. (But this was an especially important time for me to establish the daily writing habit as I no longer had class deadlines to keep me on schedule.)

One piece of advice served me well at this point: set a specific amount of writing time and shut out everything else. I did an hour a day, first thing when I got home from work. An hour may not seem like much, but it keeps you mentally in your screenplay and you’d be surprised at how productive you can be – how those individual hours add up over a month. I wrote three spec screenplays in that first year. Some writers set page goals, but that can be intimidating. As long as I put in my hour I didn’t criticize how much I produced. That took the pressure off and I believe it actually allowed me to produce more.

When I sold the Sweet Home Alabama spec script, I was able to quit my day job. That meant, in theory, I had all day to write. I have tried writing eight hours a day. I find that I’m only really productive in the first few hours, and that after a few days I burn out creatively. I think I trained myself to write in short, intense bursts in my hour-a-day period.

So I got in the habit of writing a couple of hours in the morning and a couple more hours in the late afternoon. There was plenty of other things to do anyway – reading the trades, research, meetings with producers, phone calls with my agent, reading scripts of successful films, etc.

Occasionally I would have to put in more time writing, usually when I was on an assignment with a tight deadline. And I can do that for short periods of time.

What inspired me to address this topic today is that I am revamping my daily writing process. I’ve realized that lately I haven’t been giving my writing work the priority level I want it to be. I’ll save it until after other tasks are done – grading student work for the classes I teach at Art Center, writing this blog, etc. I once heard a theory that people tend to prioritize by urgency when they really should prioritize by importance. I’ve definitely been guilty of that lately.

So I’m trying a new technique (it’s not original with me, though I’m not sure who came up with it). I wake up about 7 am every day. I’m going to devote 7-10 am to writing. No answering emails, the phone turned off, no surfing of the internet – though I will make coffee and have a bite to eat.

I think this will work well for me as I find that I write best when I’m most rested. I’ll have three hours with no mental distractions just to write. It will also allow me to turn to other tasks after 10 am without that weight of “I need to get my writing in” hanging over my head. I expect I’ll usually also do an afternoon writing session as well, but I know from experience that I can accomplish a lot in three focused hours a day.

I’m not suggesting this approach would work for you. As I said at the outset, I think the right process depends on the writer. Whatever process you find makes you productive is the one for you. However, if you are having trouble being productive, I would suggest at least trying the one-hour-a-day approach.

And don’t expect to reach me from 7-10am!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Increase Tension in Your Screenplay with a Ticking Clock

(Spoilers: High Noon, Silence of the Lambs, Gravity, Alien, Aliens, Almost Famous, Speed, Inception, The Abyss)

“Ticking Clock” is a screenwriting term that refers to some kind of time limit on a story arc. It can be used for a scene, a sequence or the whole movie. The most obvious (and fairly cliché) example is a bomb with a countdown timer on it. The hero has to defuse the bomb before that timer gets to zero!

We can see plenty of similar examples in a wide variety of movies:

In High Noon (screenplay by Carl Foreman) the ticking clock is in the title. The bad guys are coming to town at noon. As the sheriff tries to gather allies to help him face down the villains, we constantly cut to shots of the clock getting closer and closer to noon.

In The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) we know that the serial killer keeps his victims alive for several days – thus when a new victim is kidnapped, Clarice suddenly has a time limit to solve the case.

In Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron) there is the ticking clock of the debris, which comes back around every 90 minutes. Ryan sets her watch to track its approach. There’s also the diminishing oxygen in her suit that provides the tension in the first half of Act Two.

Throughout the third act in both Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) and Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) we hear a computerized voice reading a countdown to imminent destruction – in the first movie the self-destruct sequence of the ship, and in the second movie that nuclear detonation of the facility’s failing power plant.

Ticking clocks can provide momentum in stories that are in danger of becoming episodic. Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe) is a coming of age story about young William going on tour with a rock band to write an article for Rolling Stone. But as the deadline for delivering the article approaches and William repeatedly fails to convince the lead guitarist to give him a crucial interview, the tension ratchets up. William can’t just go along enjoying the adventure – he has to get his article done!

A ticking clock needn’t be a literal clock, of course. The deadline doesn’t even have to be at a specific time. We just need to know that at some point the opportunity for the hero to succeed will come to an end, and we need some way to measure how close we are to that point. For example in Speed (written by Graham Yost) the ticking clock is the gas gauge on the bus running down toward empty. There’s a scene in The Abyss written by James Cameron, where our heroes, Bud and Lindsey, are trapped in a disabled submarine with a leak. The rising water provides a ticking clock, a way to measure how long they have to survive.

You can use intercutting to show approaching danger to illustrate a ticking clock, like the old silent movies with the girl tied to the train track. They cut from the girl, to the hero on horseback, to the train, back to the girl, etc.… will the hero arrive before the train (the ticking clock)?

Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) creates an overall ticking clock for the primary mission with the “kick” that wakes them all simultaneously. The team gets spread out across three dream levels and have to complete their various tasks before the kick pulls them out. The tension is increased when the time gets truncated – Yusuf can’t wait as long as he should to activate the kick, and Saito has been shot, providing another ticking clock: they must finish the mission before he dies.

The team uses a song as a countdown to the kick, allowing them (and us) to track its approach. Any time limit serves as a ticking clock, but you have to find a way to show the audience how much time is left. In the case of Saito, we track his deteriorating health.

Once you’ve established the ticking clock, you can ratchet up tension by throwing increasing obstacles in the characters path. For example, in Inception Yusuf is being pursued by gunmen. The team needs to improvise in the second dream level with the Mr. Charles gambit. And after the others head to the third dream level, Arthur has to keep some security guys from getting to a hotel room. And the biggest obstacle comes when Mal shows up at the medical complex and Cobb can’t bring himself to shoot her.

Does your story suffer from a lack of urgency? Try adding a ticking clock. Got a scene that lacks intensity? Ticking clock. It’s a powerful screenwriting tool.

Friday, March 6, 2015

How to Use Subplots

(Spoilers: Little Miss Sunshine, Almost Famous, Whiplash, Guardians of the Galaxy)

When we discuss story structure, most of our attention naturally focuses on the main plot line. And this is good – it’s the main plot line that forms the skeleton of the story. But often writers don’t put much thought into their subplots and the way those subplots can support the themes of the story.

Supporting the theme of the movie is one of the primary uses of a subplot. Often subplots will illustrate alternate paths or approaches to the central theme. One way of doing this is to create characters with a different point of view on the key thematic issue of the movie.

Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) provides a great example of this. Thematically, the story is about what it means to be a “winner.” The main character, Richard, establishes his point of view in one of his very first lines when he says: “There are two kinds of people in the world, winners and losers.” Before he’s willing to pack the family off to California, he tells Olive there’s no point in entering a contest unless she thinks she can win. And Richard firmly believes anyone can be a winner if they have the right mindset and commitment – in fact he’s planning a business based on telling people how to become winners.

The other characters in the story provide alternate perspectives. Olive mimics the poses of beauty pageant winners in her introduction, indicating her desire to be a beauty queen. However, at the end we discover she’s actually more interested in the joy of the competition than victory.

Dwayne is committed to his goal of being a pilot with single-minded purpose. However his dream is destroyed by something completely out of his control, exposing the flaw in Richard’s belief that the key to winning comes from attitude.

Uncle Frank represents a loser, someone who has given up on life. Grandpa’s point of view is that you should enjoy life and not worry about winning and losing. And Sheryl is the counterpoint, the practical one trying to hold the family together day by day. She isn’t concerned with being a winner, she’s just trying to get by.

Each of these characters provides a subplot that illuminates the thematic elements of the film.

Oscar nominated Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle) explores the commitment and sacrifice required to be great, and the fine line between abuse and mentorship. The main plot line involves Andrew and his teacher, Fletcher, a cruel mentor who believes abuse is necessary to craft great musicians.

One of the main subplots involves Andrew’s family, particularly his father, who represents another perspective. Andrew’s father is loving and supportive, and is horrified at Fletcher’s treatment of Andrew. We definitely like the father better than Fletcher. However, the father is also a failed writer. And there’s a telling family dinner scene where another young man is being lauded for football accomplishments that Andrew calls out as mediocre. So the family subplot serves as a warning of what can happen if one lauds mediocrity. Because it provides a glimpse of a warm and supportive world, but also a trap that could undermine Andrew’s goals, it creates complexity in the theme.

There’s another subplot involving Andrew’s girlfriend. Ultimately Andrew breaks up with her because he feels she will become a distraction. This narrative thread shows us a potential alternative to Andrew’s choices. He could be in a happy relationship if he chose. The girlfriend subplot also illustrates an aspect of Andrew’s character – how much he’s willing to sacrifice for his goal. This is another use of subplots. They can add dimension to the character.

In Guardians of the Galaxy (screenplay by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) Quill’s character has a subplot about his mother’s death and a cassette tape she left him. This gives us character insight that humanizes the character and adds vulnerability. Though Quill is a charming, wisecracking thief we enjoy spending time with, it’s the subplot about his mother that really engages our emotion. (In fact, all of the characters that comprise our team of heroes have similar back-stories that create vulnerability and sympathy.)

One other common use of subplots is as a catalyst for the character arc. For example, the main plot of Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe) is about William wanting to be a rock journalist. His problem is that he’s too worshipful of the rock stars to be objective. He isn’t heeding his mentor’s advice to be “truthful and merciless.”

There’s a romantic subplot in the movie between William and Penny Lane. Penny Lane’s character serves many purposes – to explain the world of rock and roll to William, to add vulnerability and heart – but it’s the treatment of Penny by the rock stars that finally disillusions William enough to be truthful and merciless. Penny is the catalyst for William’s growth.

Subplots will have their own three-act structure, though it won’t usually run at the same pace as the main storyline. Some subplots won’t start until after Act One. Many will wrap up before the end of Act Two so that Act Three can focus on the main storyline.

Once you’ve outlined the main structure of the movie, it can be useful to examine your subplots and figure out what purpose they can serve. Perhaps you’ll need to adjust a subplot to more fully explore your thematic ground. Perhaps a minor character with no purpose can be given a purpose.

And then you should outline the subplots, making sure you have a clear beginning, middle and end, and identifying where those fall in the script. If you use the common index card technique to outline your stories, you might find it helpful to use cards of different colors for the subplots. That will allow you to see how the subplot scenes integrate with the main plot.

Your subplots can do a lot for your story. Don’t waste them!