Archive for April, 2009

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.

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Liveblogging a script analysis

Posted on April 19th, 2009 in screenwriting | No Comments »

Many scriptreaders, including the BBC’s Writers Room, have a policy, either acknowledged or covert, of judging a script on its first ten pages. Is this accurate or is it simply a high-percentage early cut policy? Can a script be boring or incomprehensible in the first ten pages and then improve massively? Or is writing any ten pages of nonsense reason enough to reject a script?

Today, I have a script to review, and to put this to the test, I am going to record my thoughts page-by-page. Then you, and I, will be able to see if the die is cast by page ten or whether subsequent pages change my mind. I will not discuss any of the details of the script – they remain between me and the author.

First impressions – script is properly presented, and shows every sign of not having been scrawled by an outpatient (not always the case). There are a couple of minor infelicities, both the product of over-pedantry rather than lack of care. Scripts which are not properly formatted will go in the bins of some readers, unread. The script is too long at 125 pages however, especially for a comedy. Writers should aim for 90, and no more than 105. You may not think these rules are meaningful, but since they are subscribed to by others, you should at least be aware of them. PREDICTION: Script will be a little bloated.

Page 1 – opening action line is all camera instructions and no atmosphere. It’s weird that action lines are so important, since directors may very well ignore them and no audience for your movie will ever read them, but a spec screenplay is for reading not watching, and so any opportunity to say to the reader “This is who I am, this is my voice,” should be grabbed with both hands. Pedantically choreographing the camera is not telling the story. Flat, sparse action lines written in telegraphease don’t create a world. These action lines suggest that the writer has not read any other modern screenplays, which is a small black mark against them. This page also contains a number of typographical errors and some overwritten dialogue. The introduction of the characters is not clear and nor is the setting. PREDICTION: This screenplay will include a number of familiar romantic comedy tropes, but no recognisably human characters, nor any really memorable moments. The characters will not come to life in the dialogue and the writer will not create a consistent and truthful world for their story, nor will their intentions always come across with clarity and style.

Page 2 – Our leading character is being introduced to us via voice-over and flashback which is very inelegant. This smacks of first-draft – which is fine, but each reader only gets to read your material for the first time once. Never send anything out in to the world which you aren’t happy with, except in emergencies or to very trusted readers. This whole page is “tell don’t show”. The characters tell us about their relationship by talking about their relationship, and then the leading man tells us again by putting this flashback in context through voice-over. The overall effect is like hearing a story third-hand rather than being immersed in it. Openings are tough. You want to enter the story late in order to get to the good stuff sooner rather than later, but you also want to take sufficient time to provide a context for the excitement which is to come. Tellingly, I don’t at the moment know how to begin my synopsis for the report, since it’s not at all clear to me what the real situation is here. PREDICTION: The story will continue to be marred by inelegant construction.

Page 3 – brings us another persistent formatting error, and a cliche situation. Almost all the screenplays I’ve reviewed so far make the mistake of hewing too closely to an established template, or giving the reader nothing familiar at all to hang on to. Most stories – and this is also the easiest route as well as the most common – portray a single unexpected event happening in a familar world. This is true across all genres. An ordinary day in the ordinary life of a divorced New York cop becomes extraordinary when criminals take over his ex-wife’s place of work. An ordinary day in the ordinary life of photographer recovering from an injury becomes extraordinary when he thinks he has witnessed a murder. An ordinary career of an ordinary actor becomes extraordinary when he takes the risky step of dressing in women’s clothing to get a part. And so on. But that doesn’t mean you get to use Die Hard, Rear Window or Tootsie as a template. We need to see something of you on the page. Here, my first prediction is already being fulfilled – this is another version of an already successful movie, rather than an original piece of work with a unique voice.

On this page we also have a sudden cut to a new location and set of characters which is another sign of this being a first-draft. “I need to introduce the reader to Alex and Barry and Caroline and Daisy,” thinks the writer and bashes out those four scenes. But each scene needs to be a situation in its own right, and ideally, the Alex scene should make us curious about Barry, or herald his arrival, so that a feeling of momentum is maintained. PREDICTION – a slightly eccentric one – this choppy quality won’t be maintained, and the script will develop the necessary momentum, but that doesn’t make the opening any better.

Pages 4-6 – still choppy. We’ve lurched into the future, and still not shaken off the voice-over. These three pages cover enough events to fill a typical romantic comedy. Boy meets girl, boy gets to know girl, boy overcomes his fears, they move in together, they agree to marry. At this stage I have no idea where this story is going. I do know it’s his story – she has only had one line of dialogue so far. His ex and his parents have had more!! It’s a persistent weakness of romantic comedies that leading men are complex, conflicted and amusing characters and leading women are sparkly prizes to be won, but of no more interest or depth than that. PREDICTION: He will do all the changing and get all the laughs, she will be a cipher.

Page 7 – another collection of new characters, in another new situation, but no reason for me to care about any of them, or even be interested in who they are.

Pages 8-10 – aha! I think the plot has shown up at last, but this twist is more confusing than anything else. More new characters keep showing up and our leading lady has taken a course of action which is totally unmotivated by anything which has gone before. PREDICTION – story will never find a strong, clear hook. Events will be confusing and disjointed. Dialogue will not improve.

That’s where I’m leaving this for now. Join me back here for page 125 and I’ll let you know how many of my predictions come true.

Well, that was quite a long read. Unfortunately, pretty much all my worst fears were confirmed. As well as the problems mentioned above, the screenplay lurches from event to event with no structure and no clarity, is much too long,  features many supporting characters who contribute nothing to the plot, and a resolution which leaves many questions unanswered. I could easily have stopped reading after 10 pages and I would have diagnosed all the major problems with this script. But that’s not what I’m paid for – now to write the full report and look for ways to be encouraging and constructive.

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.

Review of Watchmen

Posted on April 5th, 2009 in At the cinema | 1 Comment »

I thought I’d break from my musings on screenwriting and storytelling and give you a review of Watchmen from the point of view of someone who is familiar with the original graphic novel, but is neither an insane proselytizing zealot, nor someone who regards still pictures plus dialogue as beneath him (whereas moving pictures plus dialogue is high art).

This review is basically spoiler-free, but if you want to know nothing about the movie before you see it, then read this – and any review – when you get back from the cinema.

In 1985, Watchmen was an extraordinary achievement from writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons and comics company DC who let them tell this story. The premise was very simple: what would America look like today if in the 1940s, maverick crime-fighters actually had started running around in spandex tights, instead of this merely being depicted in what were fairly simplistic comic books for children? From this basic premise, Moore and Gibbons spun a tale which not only included its own roster of memorable “super” heroes (almost none of them has superpowers, only fancy costumes and tenacity) but which added to that mix a glowing blue godlike man, a terrifying form of detente, a pirate tale-within-a-tale and of course an gigantic alien psychic squid.

The comic was a sensation, and in the wake of the success of Tim Burton’s Batman, a movie was swiftly mooted. But it’s taken 25 years and a revolving door of directors and screenwriters before Zack Snyder’s movie version has finally made it to our screens, basically fairly faithfully, with some easy-to-swallow compressions and elisions, some minor updates and the substitution of the original’s most outré (and tentacled) element with something rather more mundane in conception, but equally devastating in effect.

But the world has also changed in the last 25 years. In some ways, this is immensely to Watchmen’s benefit. Can you imagine how hokey a 1987 version of Dr Manhattan would have looked, perhaps played by Charlie Sheen, slathered with blue make-up and covered with hand-drawn rotoscoped sparkles? We had a lucky escape there.

But superhero movies have also changed. It’s a cliché to say that directors like Zach Snyder use the original comic as a storyboard, and here it’s clearly untrue in the strictest sense, since one of the comic’s most notable features is that almost every page is divided into nine tall-and-skinny frames, none of which would be suitable storyboard illustrations for a 2.35:1 widescreen movie. But while the individual compositions may have vanished, it’s impossible to watch the movie and then read the book without each reflecting the other very strongly. Snyder takes his lead from Gibbons again and again and again, in terms of pacing, angles, lighting and even the expressions and hairstyles of the actors.

However, Snyder adds to this his own CGI environments and impossible tracking shots, speed ramps, fast cutting and explicit gore. The Watchmen of the comic are highly realistic and grounded compared to other comic-book heroes of the day – but the crimefighters depicted in Snyder’s film are every bit as preternaturally fast, sturdy, hyperaware and impervious to pain as the most ludicrous of their modern day cinematic brethren. And so this is the second change which the twenty-five year gap has wrought – we know what comic book movies are supposed to look like now. After the twin false starts of Superman and Batman, an established cinematic style has been established for this kind of movie – never mind that Watchmen was never intended to be this kind of movie!

And this lack of real-world grounding is added to by the fact that this is now a period piece. This, the third gift of the quarter century gap, is the one that neither Snyder nor Gibbons nor Moore could really do anything about. When the comic was published, Moore was writing about an alternate now, but the movie is a period piece set 25 years in the past. So everyone looks weird, because they’re wearing old fashioned clothes and hairstyles, and even those don’t look quite right because it’s an alternate 1985 of course, and so it’s much less of a jolt when people start putting on costumes. The sporadically funny, but ultimately badly flawed Mystery Men actually does a better job of showing you what putting on a costume and fighting crime would actually mean today.

This stylisation in design, costume, lighting, camera and so on is all just part-and-parcel of the comic book movie of course, putting off mainstream critics like The Observer’s Jason Solomons, who took one look at the trailer and made Xan Brooks go and see it for him. It’s interesting to note how stiff and CGI-ish Dr Manhattan looks compared to the different ages of Benjamin Button. If anything, replacing Billy Crudup with an entirely computer-generated character is an easier challenge than affixing a CGI puppet Brad Pitt head on to the shoulders of a clutch of differently-sized stand-in bodies – but Benjamin Button can’t afford a second of less than total photorealism, whereas nothing in Watchmen looks remotely real to begin with.

So – the opportunity to make a real Watchmen for a new audience has gone, but what does Snyder’s film leave us with? Well, actually quite a lot. Once I gave up any expectations that I’d be seeing anything remotely resembling the real world, or anyone who remotely resembled a real person, and gave myself over to the movie, I quickly got caught up in it. I deliberately didn’t reread the comic until after seeing the movie again, and while I recalled the rough outline of the story, much of the detail I failed to remember. And it is a very faithful retelling of the tale, which is where it really succeeds. All the actors, but particularly Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley, work hard to chisel out their own little pieces of humanity from inside the whirling, kinetic visuals, and Alan Moore’s story, darting nimbly back-and-forward in time, never abandons its narrative drive, and delivers the viewer to its shocking yet inevitable conclusion.

Moore, by now playing the mad genius role to the demented hilt, has had his name taken off the movie, leaving the bizarre credit “Based on the comic book co-created and illustrated by Dave Gibbons”, which is an intense pity. Because to the extent that Watchmen works, and for all my carping, that’s a great extent, it’s largely due to his controlled imagination, expert storytelling and crisp dialogue, which has been lifted almost wholesale for the movie version. Whether or not you’ve read or intend to read Watchmen in comic form, if you like the movie, tip your hat to Alan Moore.


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.