Why “Jaws” is not a Slasher film

Posted on April 29th, 2009 in At the cinema, screenwriting | No Comments »

When Reservoir Dogs was first shown on British television, it was accompanied by a very thorough and thoughtful documentary made for Channel 4. Among the interviewees was the redoubtable Robert McKee who opined that Tarantino had written and directed the perfect first film to the template that he often recommends to first-time directors. Take six actors, put ’em in a house, and chop ’em up. Cheap, exciting, quick and easy to shoot.

Many others have followed this template since. A few examples which spring immediately to mind are Cube, Severance, Cabin Fever and Evil Dead. But the template is no guarantee of success. It’s also not surprising that Dogs is rarely thought of in this category – although it certainly belongs – because there is so much else going on which elevates and enhances it. Any number of direct-to-DVD schlock quickies fit the template perfectly and next-to-none are actually worth watching.

One film which is often thought of as being a superior entry in this canon, I don’t think belongs, and that’s Jaws. Yes, Jaws is a wildlife slasher movie, yes Jaws heralded a new way for Hollywood to make money, being one of the first megablockbusters and one of the first movies to make a feature of hacking up pretty young actors in order to make the audience jump, but Jaws is richer, deeper and better constructed than all the others in the chop-em-up mould, and that’s because it’s following a different template entirely.

Consider the basic pattern of the chop-em-up movie. Assemble a small cast of characters. Trap them in a single location. Reveal enough about their personal lives to interest us. When the movie needs a lift, have one of them savagely killed. Repeat until only the most noble remain and escape, or if your worldview is bleaker, until none remain. And it’s true that Jaws does all of those things – but only after it’s done the opposite.

Small cast. Jaws has a very big cast. Apart from the central trio of Brody, Hooper and Quint – about whom more shortly – Brody has a wife and young son and a deputy. Brody is initially pitted against the town mayor who wants to keep the beaches open. Then we have Mrs Kintner who opens the bounty on the shark. Then there’s the mayor’s deputy. Then there’s Quint’s assistant Salvatore, the anglers who catch the tiger shark briefly thought to be responsible, and any number of townsfolk. You know what these supporting characters all have in common? None of them ends up as sharkfood. There’s a good reason why in the traditional chop-em-up movie, we have to learn about these characters and spend some time with them. It’s so we have a reason to care. We’ll happily watch any number of anonymous ninjas or security guards get gunned down in any James Bond film you care to mention, but when Diana Rigg gets a bullet in the forehead, most of the men in the room suddenly have something in their eye.

In Jaws, it’s totally different. None of the shark’s victims are proper characters in their own right. They are introduced only minutes before they end up as fishfood, are lucky to be given first names, and never have more than the most perfunctory dialogue – with the sole exception, of course, of Quint. So what the hell are writers Peter Benchley and Carl Gottleib playing at here? The answer is that the various shark attacks are not about raising the stakes for the remaining survivors or keeping the audience on edge because suddenly anybody is vulnerable. It’s simply establishing that this shark is a motherfucker. And that it’s still here. 

Part of the reason for this is that a shark is lousy antagonist, compared to a boobytrapped prison, a demonic force or a mad axe-murderer. Don’t want to get eaten by a shark? No problem! Just don’t go for a swim. As long as you are on dry land it can’t get you. We like our heroes to smart and good at their jobs, so there’s no way they are going to voluntarily wade out into the shark-infested ocean, except as a last resort (and we don’t want to get them stuck out there by mistake, since that makes them doofuses). That’s why it takes so long for the movie to zero down to one location – which it eventually does, Quint’s boat.

So what is going on in the early stages of Jaws? Let’s work backwards. Jaws ends up where most movies of this kind begin – with three characters stuck in a boat with a fish to kill. A slasher movie would have seven characters and kill them off one by one. In fact, if you prefer to see that movie, you can – it’s called Deep Blue Sea. So the job of the first three quarters of that movie is to get them in the boat. But because that needs to take the first eighty or so minutes of the movie, it also can’t be easy. So each of them has a reason for not being in that boat. And now the structure of the film starts to reveal itself.

PROLOGUE: Shark. This is simply the initial shark attack on the skinny-dippers.

ACT ONE: Brody, Hooper, Quint. Each of these three star parts is given a wonderful entrance, strong contrasting attitudes to play, and each has their own interest in the shark. Brody, the police chief who’s afraid of the water (a hokey idea, delivered with subtlety and grace) is ultra-cautious. Hooper, the icthyologist, has been tracking the shark for months. Quint, the bounty hunter, will kill it if the price is right. Brody has the will, Hooper has the intellect and Quint has the brawn. Between them they could kill this motherfucker.

ACT TWO: Keep them off the boat. Brody won’t go, he’s afraid of the water and a useless sailor. Hooper has no standing in the town. Quint’s asking price is too high and by now the water is teeming with other fishermen.

ACT THREE: Get them on the boat. Brody has to step into the breach when Quint’s assistant refuses to go. Hooper wants to go, and when Brody is proven right and the mayor proven wrong, Brody has enough power to bring him along.

Now pretty much all anyone remembers is ACT FOUR – “On the boat”. They remember the USS Indianapolis, they remember “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”, they remember Quint’s gory death and they remember “Smile, you sonofabitch” – all of which is a really terrific thirty minute chop-em-up movie. But by reducing the number of characters from seven to three, and giving them goals to persue that we care about, attitudes we relate to, quotable dialogue (Dreyfuss is just brilliant as he performs his autopsy on the first victim, hammering out without pausing for breath “The torso has been severed in mid-thorax. There are no major organs remaining. May I have a glass of water, please?”) once we get to the three-men-in-a-boat-with-a-fish-to-kill stage, we really care about the outcome. Because for much of it’s length, Jaws is not a slasher film, it’s a character piece.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Rules of physics, not surefire templates

Posted on April 10th, 2009 in screenwriting, storytelling | No Comments »

Ever wonder why rockets like the ones that put humans on the moon have several stages? Why even the space shuttle, which was designed to be reusable is blasted off by those huge non-reusable boosters which then drop away and burn up in the atmosphere? Why not just build ’em like a plane? Put plenty of fuel in, blast ’em off, bring ’em back empty.

It’s not that easy.

It takes a lot of fuel to get a capsule big enough to hold people into orbit – that’s at least 100 miles up. And if you want to carry a lot of fuel, you have to have a box big enough to hold it all. That box is big and heavy, and the more mass you’re trying to lift, the more fuel you need. Crunch the numbers, with reasonable estimates for the weight of fuel and the weight of the tank and you discover that it’s impossible to build a rocket which could carry a reasonable payload and which can be reused. What you have to do is build an enormous tank, use the quantity of fuel in there to get you part-way up, then ditch that tank so you can use a smaller amount of fuel to keep pushing the now smaller mass higher and higher. Two stages is the minimum and diminishing returns sets in after three, so most rockets which don’t need to be reused come in three stages.

If you want one stage, you can have one stage, but you can’t deliver a capsule big enough to take a human high enough to make it into a stable orbit, let alone go to the moon. This isn’t because of some tradition of rocket-building – it’s simple physics.

So in a world where everyone has their own pet screenwriting structure, whether it’s Chris Soth’s eight reels, Blake Snyder’s fifteen beats, Syd Field’s two plot points or any of the countless others, it’s worth bearing in mind that these structures all come from the same place – they are all different ways of describing the laws of storytelling physics. Each emphasises one aspect or the other, and some allow for a little more give than others, but everybody who writes stories obeys the laws of storytelling physics, whether consciously or unconsciously. 

“Rules” like make your hero active, not passive, don’t emerge in a vacuum. They aren’t a cultural tradition, peculiar to a particular form of western, Hollywood, 21st century narrative, waiting for some brave young iconclast to bring the whole edifice tumbling down with their revolutionary new take on the narrative form. They all come back to the basic elements which make stories stories, as opposed to not stories. And our ability to tell story from non-story is an innate part of what makes us human, which is why the fundamentals of stories have remained unchanged since history began.

A story must have cause-and-effect, which means somebody has to make things happen. And an audience expects the storyteller’s choices also to be purposeful, so if you spend the first thirty pages of your screenplay getting us to know and like some guy, you better be having that guy making things happen for the remaining ninety pages. You can no more ignore these forces in your audience than a rocket-builder can ignore how much the fuel tank weighs.

Can you think of successful movies that buck this trend? Sure you can, and so can I, but they are almost always violating these rules because something else is more important or because they want to achieve a very particular narrative effect. Alfred Hitchcock spends ages setting up a heist plot with Janet Leigh at its centre, only to bump her off spectacularly around the half-way mark. The cost to the narrative is that the audience is confused, shocked and frustrated, which is exactly what Hitchcock wanted. The benefit is that the remaining half of the movie is totally unpredictable. If Janet Leigh can get hacked up in the shower, then nobody is safe.

But you know what? It’s harder. It’s an awful lot harder to write an entertaining screenplay which ignores these rules than one which follows them. If the detail of your world is compelling and original enough, and you hide your plot points with grace and elegance, then nobody will ever know whether the superstructure you had in mind was McKee’s or Snyder’s or Soth’s or whether you just felt it. But the reader – and if you’re really lucky, the viewer – will be drawn in to the story and want to know what happens next. And your rocket won’t come crashing back down to earth, 12 miles short of orbital altitude.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Storytelling II: Character flaws are also cause-and-effect

Posted on March 2nd, 2009 in storytelling | No Comments »

Comparing different gurus who tackle the same subject-matter is always fascinating. Robert McKee, for example, appears to know almost nothing about reincorporation. He briefly mentions foreshadowing, but completely fails to spot that good structure is not just about timing sub-plots and breaking down long stories into smaller acts, it is also about “planting” what you need early to reincorporate it later.

Keith Johnstone, on the other hand, who sees reincorporation as the primary technique for structuring stories, is very weak when it comes to creating characters. The best he can offer is a super-objective persued by different means and to remind us that characters need to be affected by what happens to them. Unhappily, we are given no guidance as to how to combine the two. His work on status, which doesn’t appear to be about character, is much more useful.

McKee is much stronger on creating characters and on how to assemble a cast of characters which will work well together. Rambo, he tells us (or I paraphrase him, at any rate) is a less successful and less interesting character than James Bond because Rambo is entirely consistent. Rambo looks like a killer and behaves like a killer. Bond looks like a playboy and behaves like a killer. With contradiction comes fascination. 

Having designed a central character with lots of contradictory elements, you can then round out your cast by having characters likely to bring out their different qualities. When Bond is with M, he behaves like a loyal footsoldier. When Bond is with the villain, he behaves like an assassin. When Bond is with the girl, he behaves like a lothario.

So, it’s not surprising that a great many heroes who have been given exciting skills, or even superpowers, such that they can legitimately achieve what the plot demands of them are also given fatal flaws. This not only allows the possibility of failure, but also makes them more interesting.

But it’s not as simple as creating a character who – let’s say – can run very fast and then giving them a lisp. You can’t just give with one hand and take with another. Even if the lisp turns out to be a vital plot point, preserving narrative cause-and-effect (he can’t make a voice-activated gadget work at a crucial moment!?) we still don’t feel like we buy in. There is no way in which we perceive a lisp as being the cost at which his amazing running was bought. There is no cause-and-effect.

Consider on the other hand, one of literature’s first and most successful superheroes: Sherlock Holmes. Is Holmes’ lonely existence, lack of empathy and opium addiction just colour? Are these arbitrary choices to lend dimension and enticing contradiction to a bland character? No, they also *justify* his amazing powers of deduction. Only because he has devoted his life to learning botany, chemistry, mythology and heaven knows what else, can he solve the crimes he does – but this has come at a price: he has cut himself off from human contact, and now seeks solace in the chilly beauty of classic music and the impersonal intoxication of opium.

The original Superman – Kal El / Clark Kent – is an even more interesting case study. His allergy to Kryptonite is simply a plot point, like Achilles Heel. It tells us nothing whatsoever about his character. The price he pays for his awesome powers is that he can’t connect with Lois Lane. His social failures as Clark Kent does far more to make us accept his astonishing powers than any scientifully vacuous blather about yellow suns.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.