When we’re toddlers, we love merry-go-rounds. Well, most of us do. When we’re teenagers, we love rollercoasters. When we’re in love, we love the image with which we’re obsessed. Oh, that’s another subject. Back to rollercoasters.
Your movie needs to be like a rollercoaster. I don’t mean made of wood and steel, I mean made of ups and downs and unexpected twists and turns, and mostly made of danger. Most of all it’s all about danger!
We go to movies for the same reason we once rode rollercoasters and before that merry-go-rounds. To experience what feels like extreme danger while at the same time knowing we are really pretty darn safe. Granted, the top of the theater could fall in on us. Or a crazy person with a gun could invade the theater. But it’s a good bet no one on the movie screen is going to actually interact with us (unless we’re in Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo”). We are pretending they will. We’re pretending, for that matter, that they are us, specifically that we are the movie’s brave protagonist, willing to risk everything to 1. save the world, or 2. get the girl, or 3. find redemption (take your pick). That’s the point of going to movies, so we can empathize with, identify with a character who’s taking big, BIG chances and, usually, pulling it off, while we munch away on popcorn from our safe stadium-seated perch.
Of course, some of the best movies ever made don’t follow that rule. I think those that have affected me the most have in common that they are about a protagonist unwilling to take the risk he really needs to take in order to be complete, “La Dolce Vita,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Annie Hall.” (It’s not really about Annie Hall.)
But just as we can’t all be Picasso, we should probably not start out trying to break that rule that drives virtually all movies, or at least all Hollywood movies.
I read in one of the thousands of books on how to write a screenplay that seem to be out there that each movie is about the most exciting day in the protagonist’s life. Because, who would want to see the second most exciting day in that person’s life if we could see the most? So that’s probably a good test for each of us to try when thinking about story ideas. “Day” doesn’t have to be literal, of course. But most emotionally involving movies do take place over a short time span. Maybe a week or two, not months or years.
Probably the most popular book on screenplay writing these days is “Save the Cat!” by Blake Snyder. And it’s a very good book to start off with. Blake was a guest speaker at my class about four years ago, and he proved to have an amazing talent for summarizing plots instantaneously, and making them sound exciting and fresh. Each of my students would tell him the idea of the script they were working on and he would instantly tell it back to them, only making it seem much more compelling than they had, with a dynamite logline improvised on the spot. And Blake insists in the book, quite rightly, that a logline – a one or two sentence description of a film’s story (usually from the protagonist’s point of view) -- isn’t just a selling tool. If you don’t know your logline, you don’t know your story.
Unfortunately, Blake passed away at a shockingly early age a couple of years ago. But his book keeps selling like proverbial hotcakes. Ironically, it’s subtitled: “The last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need.” But it became so popular so fast that he wrote two sequels. Not necessarily unfortunately, he was a better teller of tales and loglines than he was a screenwriter. Although he had a couple of million dollar sales, the few films of his that were filmed demonstrate a lot more formula than genius. But much of what he writes about when he is writing about how to do is extremely valuable.
I think the most important thing I learned from reading “Save the Cat!” was the word “primal.” Make your story primal. I’d never thought about that. But he’s absolutely right. If you learn to write actually good scripts about primal needs based on enticing, emotionally connecting loglines, you’re halfway home.
Two cases in point. Two international thrillers were released in 2009, “Taken” starring Liam Neeson and “The International” starring Clive Owen. Neither star has any resonance for me. I certainly didn’t go to see either of them. One’s a big lug and the other blends into the scenery. “The International” was probably by most standards a better film. It was much more sophisticated and complex and thoughtful, and it featured beautiful architecture and exotic settings. Actually, it was so complex that I couldn’t even explain the story. Something about banks financing terrorists, maybe.
On the other hand I can tell you exactly what “Taken” was about: a former CIA agent’s daughter is kidnapped, and he puts his life and limb on the line, racing through some of the most glamorous and seamy locations in Europe, to rescue her from sex slavers. That’s a synopsis I can remember. The first act is pretty on-the-nose; the rest of the movie is a non-stop rollercoaster ride. And nothing could possibly be more primal than saving your daughter from “a fate worse than death.”
“The International” cost $50 million to make. It took in $10 million in its opening weekend in the U.S., and by the time its run ended grossed a total of $55 million worldwide. That’s a disaster. (Remember, half of that goes to the movie theaters that showed it, and then a healthy percentage of the other half goes to the distributor. By the time the production company gets a taste, there’s only about a third of that $55 million left, thus leaving the production and its financiers around $30-40 million in the red.)
On the other hand, “Taken” cost $25 million to make, opened making $24.7 million its first weekend in the U.S. (and it wasn’t even an American film, it’s French, although shot in English), and had a worldwide gross of $224 million. Everybody made a bundle, and the audience had a great time watching it.
Primal. That’s a word to remember.
- Bob shayne