Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Be Small To Be Big

A lot of scripts try to impress with the scale of their story, and litter the plot with action, explosions and all manner of special effects. Most of the time, the scripts fail to make an impression because of their superficial and often vacuous presentation. In some instances, the writer will display a talent or penchant for good action-writing, and this is a difficult skill in itself, but on the whole won't make the cool set-pieces worth the while because of the underdeveloped characters and story that surround the jumps and chases.

This is where a love of genre can sometimes be a misguided attempt to emulate the writer's favourite action-moments or movies. A perfectly good genre idea might be ruined or underserved because of the writer's roadmap approach to familiar set-pieces and special effects. Audiences definitely want spectacle but they also want the story to support the spectacle rather be contrived around the plot. The ideal scenario is for characters to drive the narrative and action with their emotional and dramatic needs rather than conveniently reacting to the plot's desire to deliver thrills and spills.

You've got to "be small to be big". This means that if you can focus on the singular needs of a character, no matter how mundane or humdrum, you will tap into a broader emotional resonance than you would have given yourself credit for. That way, when the character eventually gets thrown out of a plane, or whatever, the audience is in the tune with the character's emotional stakes, not just the immediate peril he's facing.

Domesticity seems to be an area that helps give a movie its emotional and dramatic anchor. By focusing on the family network, and the key dynamics involved therein, the drama can become really compelling later on once the meteor hits Earth (Deep Impact). Three other examples come to mind as I write: A History of Violence, Signs and War of the Worlds.

A History of Violence was very much a domestic drama until the pesky Ed Harris showed up and blew Viggo's cover. The story focused on the emotional fall-out with Viggo's wife and family, which leads to the cracking violent showdown with William Hurt, and an Oscar nomination for screenplay. The result: an emotionally rewarding story of a man trying to forget his past alongside the vicarious thrill of some awesome fights.

Signs was an apocalyptic alien invasion movie told exclusively from a family's point-of-view on their isolated farm. No dazzling special effects, no big alien landing or blazing scenes of space, just a father struggling with his faith as he tries to protect his family from disaster.

The War of the Worlds perfectly balances the scale of a big budget movie with the emotional needs of the story. It's Signs out in the open, on the run and with amazing SFX. While some might carp and groan at the perfunctory domestic set-up of Tom and Dakota, the story manages to dramatise effective scenes regarding their dynamic to counterbalance the alien action.

So, for all you hungry genre-busting writers out there who want to pay homage to all your fave action films, think of the emotional needs of your characters, and ask yourself if you've really done them justice, or are you just using them as the necessary transitions for the next amazing set-spiece and special effects extravaganza?


Stephen Gallagher said...

Quite right. There's no point putting all your creativity into stuff that's going to be shot by the second unit!

Lucy V said...

I agree too...Unless I'm falling into the TOO-BIG-NOT-ENOUGH-SMALL category with WISH! ; )

English Dave said...

The 'old timers' call them 'Pat the Dog' moments.

Shorthand for actions creating empathy for the character.

Lucy V said...

Is the American version WAG the dog?

Or am I thinking of yo-yo's?

Danny Stack said...

I think the 'pet the dog' moments are derogatory, as in, "that was a shameful and plain attempt to make the character more likeable." You can't win.

Lucy V said...

We're all doomed, doomed I tell you!!!

Still wondering about the yo-yos tho. Never mastered them in the 80's. Do you think there's room for a movie about yo-yos? What's the oddest thing you've ever read a script about? I read one about a man who built tunnels under Liverpool once so his wife wouldn't have to walk in the rain. Thought I'd hate it but actually still it's one of my faves to date. What's yours Danny?

English Dave said...

''I think the 'pet the dog' moments are derogatory, as in, "that was a shameful and plain attempt to make the character more likeable." You can't win. ''

Hell, no wonder those writers I said that to don't speak to me anymore.


Andy Phillips said...

You should have your villains pat the dogs and your heroes shout at the kids.

That'll be fifty cents.

Danny Stack said...

The oddest script I've ever read? For offball charm, my favourite is the upcoming Stranger Than Fiction, not just for content but the craft and skill of the writing (Zach Helm); it was a joy to read. For plain weird (but also enjoyable), the one about a creepy New York loner who becomes a 'fire escape decorator' in his romantic pursuit of three women comes to mind...

Anonymous said...

I've actually read STF to and it's bloody brilliant. Just from the word go I knew it'd be something special. Zach Helm is a great writer and he's got alot of praise, took him 18 months (more or less) to write it though.

Okay, thats enough of the praise.

Piers said...

English - yeah, we're talking about two different things.

A Pat The Dog moment is when the hero takes time out from their ordinary day to perform an action which, it is claimed, will make the audience think they're "nice", but which has nothing to do with their deeper character or reasons for existing. Whereas Danny talks about using small moments to define character, rather than add false (because unmotivated) likability to an otherwise unsympathetic lead.

I hate Pat The Dog.

Unfortunately, they're likely to become more prevalent in US films over the next couple of years, based on a new book called Save The Cat, which is going down a storm among US executives right now.

Same thing. Different name. Still a bad creative choice.

Lucy V said...

A fire escape decorator?? Do they really exist??

Talking of which - did you know GOLDFINGER invented the idea of "skin suffocation" (in painting that woman gold so she dies)? There was a documentary on about it last night. It seems so plausible, especially if you know that spiders die when you paint them 'cos they breathe through their skin. Seems logical that humans might. Brilliant example of sacrificing facts for drama AND people believing what they see.

Tim Clague said...

However - the car chase from French Connection was FORCED in after the success of Bullit. No need for it. But its still great.

Piers said...

Does that mean French Connection has a "Chase The Car" moment?

Ditto for The Island, I suppose. In fact, that film has a lot of Chase The Car.

Lucy V said...

Do ANY films need "chase the car" moments?

Or is this a bloke thing?