Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What *Happens*? And What Happens Next?

The horror story of my life is that friends ask me for advice on their movie projects, then ignore what I suggest and make a film that is unwatchable and unsalable and wonder why. And it happens again and again and I always get invited to the screenings of these unwatchable films. A couple of years ago, a friend tells me his story over coffee, and instead of one of those pitches where he tells me the concept, this thing just goes on and on and on. I could have read the script in less time. But the big problem was - there was no story. It was one of those stories where nothing happens.

Now, because I usually write action and thriller stuff, you may think I mean a story where nothing blows up or there are no car chases... No, I mean nothing happens. One of my favorite movies from last year is THE VISITOR about an uptight college professor who discovers an illegal couple squatting in his NYC apartment, and learns to live again. Something happens in that movie. I also liked THE WRESTLER, where a washed up wrestler tries to make peace with his daughter and get his life in order after a health scare. Something happens in that film. I’m talking about a movie where the emotional conflict (if there is one) is buried so deep that it never erupts into drama, and there is no visual conflict at all - the “plot” of the story is to prevent something from happening by talking about it. A lot. So, by the end of the story, the event does not happen. The *concept* of the story is to prevent anything from happening - so nothing happens... and it’s not a dramatic debate that prevents things from happening, it’s a bunch of ho-hum scenes and conversations. You would think that the flaw here would be obvious. It wasn’t.

So I mentioned that it seemed like nothing was actually happening in this story, either from a plot standpoint or an emotional standpoint.

He began arguing that I didn’t understand the story, so I asked him: What are the big decisions the characters have to make in the story? Well, all the decisions are made before the story begins. So what are the changes that happen in the story? What happens... and then what happens... and then what happens next? He answered that nothing changes (happens), well, until the very end... except that isn’t actually a change because the characters make sure that the change is prevented, so nothing happens. Things stay the same.

Nothing happens, nothing changes...

He was reluctant to make changes to his brilliant script... and he never did. Maybe he's just anti-change. No change in the script and no change to the script. He filmed the story he told me, and when I watched it, nothing happened. Boring as hell.

So now he has this film where nothing happens, and my big question is: How could anyone miss something as basic as “something has to happen”?

Every year when I have to come up with classes for Expo, they want to know whether this class is aimed at Basic, Intermediate, or Professional screenwriters. This always confuses the heck out of me because when I see a movie that just plain doesn’t work about 9 times out of 10 it’s one of those basic things where they screw up. The dialogue may be filled with amazing subtext but the structure sucks, or the characters may have depth and are fascinating but they are not involved in any sort of conflict so there’s no story. Like in the novel WAR OF THE WORLDS it’s not the military that takes down the invasion, it’s something as simple as the common cold. Basics. So I always wonder if I should put my basic classes in the Pro section and my pro classes in the Basic section.

Your script can’t be about nothing happening. It can’t be about making sure the conflict never happens - because that’s the same as having nothing happen. You must have a conflict, and you must have the characters deal with that conflict. That can be an emotional conflict (as long as your make it visual and dramatic) or a physical conflict (sharks and asteroids and other types of badguys). Something’s gotta happen! Action & reaction. If you remove the action you have no reaction... and you end up with this guy’s movie where people sit around and talk about what might happen... but never does.

It’s a basic!

Before you waste all kinds of money on equipment and tape stock and cast and crew and editing, make sure the script works. And before you even write the script, make sure the story works on a basic level. That it is about characters in conflict who must make tough decisions... and the characters and world are changed by the events of your story. And, you know, basic 3 act structure: Introduce your conflict, have the protagonist struggle with an escalating conflict, then resolve your conflict. And you don’t go 75 minutes with no conflict, then have the conflict introduced and resolved in 5 minutes and then ten minutes of happily ever after. If the sh*t hasn’t hit the fan by page 30, you’re stalling. Get in there and make sure something happens!

I am concerned about this old script of mine I’m rewriting because a couple of new subplots may add a lot of fistfights and subplot conflict, they delay the *main* conflict from completely kicking in until about page 40 - ten pages later than I would like. Now, the main conflict is *introduced* pretty darn early, but the protagonist isn’t going to be locked in the conflict - trapped with no way to avoid the conflict - until about page 40. This worries me. I’m going to go back and see what I can trim here and there, but I’m afraid these two new subplots - one with someone attacking our hero (not *threatening to attack* - that’s not conflict, just the threat of it) and one where our hero finds out the last guy with his job was murdered and must find the killer before he’s next (this subplot is connected to the main plot) - can’t be trimmed enough to land the start of act 2 at page 30. But at least I’m delaying act 2 with fist fights and a murder plot - things happening that are both physical action and force the character to do many things he would rather not do... and which he will regret later in the story. But I’m sweating all of this stuff in the script stage. My friend seems to only be sweating this stuff now that he can’t find a single distrib who wants to pick up the film, and had some trouble at his screening with other friends walking out after an hour. I mean, if your friends don’t want to sit through your film what are the odds that total strangers will want to?

Before you rent the camera or write the script, look at your story. What happens? Okay, and then what happens? Okay, then what happens after that?

Something has to actually happen.

- Bill

Yesterday’s Dinner: Chicken and waffles burger at Waffles on Sunset.
Movies: Saw the remake of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT at the premiere, afterparty at Katsuya on Hollywood Blvd.


Emily Blake said...

In grad school I wrote a short story about a girl who has to go to her father's funeral and doesn't want to talk to her grandmother. So she never talks to her grandmother.

My professor just looked at me and said, "You don't like talking to your grandmother, do you?"

Me: Well, no.

Him: Well the character has to or there's no conflict. This story is not about you avoiding pain. This is about someone else who has to face it.

I'm paraphrasing, but it was something like that. Good advice I've tried to follow ever since.

Anonymous said...

screenplays are collaborative beasts, so your friend's reluctance to budge an inch off his stance indicates to me a lack of collaborative incentive -- hence, watch out production peeps and producers for what we got here is a... failure to communicate

martinb said...

The script can be about preventing something, but then you have to *do* stuff to prevent other stuff.

You have to prevent WWIII by slugging the President before he pushes the red button... or by decoding an alien message of hope... or by getting everyone in the world to join hands and say "Om"... or by putting in such a ridiculous "Idols" performance the Secretary General spares America just for the laughs...

(BTW, insightful story, Emily. Your professor could probably say the same about some of my stuff.)

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