A few things I learned from writing an action script

Here’s just a few things I learned about writing an action script, as I was writing it.

1. Plot doesn’t matter, except when it does.

Action scripts have a strange relationship to plot.  If you think about all the actions films you’ve seen, it’s not really the plot you remember.  You remember the action and you remember the character(s).  Hellboy had something to do with the devil taking over the earth, but Hellboy is a fun character and that scene when he fights the monster in the subway is action at its best.  Lethal Weapon was something to do with militias and heroin, but what’s great is Mel Gibson being such a crazy bad ass.

Having said that, the plot is what drives the action along.  Obviously the better the story is, the better the action would be.  But looking at these films, as I’ve done a lot of, and the best plots are the simplest ones.   The more complicated ones get bogged down explaining everything near the end, when they should be delivering the main course.   The real story is what’s going on with the characters, which brings me to the second thing I learned.

2. Action films are really character dramas.

The action is fun, especially when it’s done well, but what makes an action film stand out is a fun character and what’s going on with their life and relationships.  Bruce Willis in Die Hard is dealing with the bad guys, but he’s also dealing with a marriage gone bad.  Spiderman is great when he’s kicking ass, but it’s just as much fun to watch him be such a loser in life, trying to chase Mary Jane.  If you don’t embrace those scenes as a writer, I’m not sure what you’re going to be writing because the action only gets you so far.

3. Endings are important

This may seem self-evident, but I’ve gotten an entirely new perspective on how endings work and how to approach them by writing this script.   Sure, you want to tie it all together at the end.   Of course, you’re big action scene at the end has to outdo whatever came before it.  (I’m not sure about that rule, but it’s a nice goal.)  Most importantly, you want to deliver that jolt, that shiver that goes up your spine, that feeling that makes you think, fuck yeah!  Think of  the end of Robocop.  What came before it was great, but the ending was so satisfying.

Maybe that’s the feeling you’re looking for: satisfaction.  You know that feeling when you keep eating and don’t get full, but eventually you just get tired of chewing?  The orgasm isn’t always the best part of sex, but when it is, it is.   The buildup is one thing, but if you need to deliver in the end.  To do this, you need to spend a hugely disproportionate amount of work on the last ten pages of your script.  That work pays off.

There’s plenty of other things I learned, so maybe I’ll do another post like this later.

Hollywood, trends and falling behind

It takes at least a year, and usually a lot more, to get a movie made and into theaters. This creates a strange relationship between films and current trends and styles that is both behind the times, and at the same time, in front of the next wave.

I was just reading through a script that I wrote a few years ago.  It’s dated 2007.  There’s so much that has changed in regards to the script that I’m thinking I should just make it a period piece and date it in 2006.  There’s references to the music business, which was in free fall then, but has now fallen.  The economy has crashed since I wrote it, which is a big deal for a script that takes place at the workplace.  There’s even a computer reference that seems dated somehow, as if the boxes that the computers come in are too big.

None of that is a big deal, because it’s still a script and I can easily update it, but once it’s a film, it’s set for life.  Films take place in present day, no matter what.  By that I mean, even films that take place at another time, are still taking place in our time because they reflect our ideas of our present tense, and not the ideas of the past or future.  FAR FROM HEAVEN may be about racism from the past, but it’s looking at from a very different point of view, ie. our present tense circa 2002, when the film was made.   GREEN ZONE happened only a few years ago, but it’s looking at those years in a way that was impossible at the time.

But because it takes so long for a film to get made and then seen, and because trends are coming and going so quickly, maybe all films need to be dated at the front.   Looking for a film at the multiplex that I could use as an example, a surprising half of them take place at another time.  SHUTTER ISLAND in the past, AVATAR in the future.

The trick for a filmmaker is to be incredibly forward thinking, but not forward enough to alienate the (35 year old) geriatrics that finance the films.

Next generation film watching

I was looking through my Netflix instant viewing queue and was pretty amazed at what I saw. There is a limit of 500 movies on the list, and half of it is stuff my kids put on, but the other half was an incredible mix of film classics, new foreign films and indie films that I’d heard of but never had the chance to see.

It was the classics that struck me first. Film after film of awesome films from LE CORBEAU to SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE. It’s the kind of library I had always wanted, and now, basically, I have it. I don’t need to buy it.

I bought a copy of DRAG ME TO HELL the other day on DVD, but this is probably just habit. I can see a future where the occasional DVD is bought, but mostly, I’m happy to let those films be, essentially, rentals.

There was a time, not that long ago, when rentals brought in enough revenue to fund films. Before DVDs, you rented VHS tapes for a couple bucks. Buying a tape was like 75 dollars, so there was only one or two that I actually owned. I had a small library I had taped off of cable, which was the equivalent of piracy today. As far as I know, it was legal then.

My point is that, as everyone keeps saying, the future of films will not include DVD sales. To me, it looks like it will go back to what it was in the 80’s, a rental model.

So what’s wrong with that? I don’t know. The rental model was a huge source of revenue back then. Beside the entire industry of B-films that it reinvented, there were quality films that got made solely on their prospects for rental.

There’s a few problems with this now, but it’s really not that different. Piracy is rampant, as it was in the 80’s. There’s a huge selection of films on the market, but that’s as it was then too. Budgets have gone up, but that’s not entirely true for indie films.

The other factor that I see changing is in the theaters. Exhibitors are beginning to chafe against the studios, who are trying to close their windows, so to speak. And studios are basically getting out of production, so they’ll need someone to make their films, albeit their usual crap films.

Remember, before VHS there was only theatrical. A film was put in the theaters and it had one shot to make its money back. This worked because more people went to the movies and because movies cost less. So, somewhere between the lower cost and the rental income, there is a way to get money back on a film.

Of course, a film still has to work with an audience, but there’s only so much control you have with that.