Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Script To Screen:
BLACK THUNDER Car Chase

Over on one of the message boards someone is *again* asking how to write an action scene, and isn't easier to just write "Hero kicks villain's ass" and let the stunt guys figure it out. Problem with that is that an action film is about the action - would you write a comedy script and leave the jokes up the the actors? We want our scripts to give the reader the feeling of the movie - the *whole* movie. The reason why we go to action movies is for the action... and the story and characters. Which is another thing about action scenes - they are character scenes and story scenes as well (or they are just junk). Part two of my article on action scenes is in the issue of Script Magazine (now folded into SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING book on sale at Amazon). One of the things I say in that article is to read some scripts with great action scenes.

Now, the truth is that sometimes, no matter how great that action scene you wrote, the stunt guys *do* come up with their own scene. I've bitched before about some of my action scenes being tossed in favor or scenes that not only were not about the character and didn't move the story forward - they sucked. In one of my films I wanted to smash that bad action cliche scene where Chuck Norris is surrounded by Ninjas, as each wait their turn to have Norris hand their ass to them. So I figured out how one man could fight a bunch of guys if they all attacked him at once. I wrote it up, it was a scene everyone loved in the script, and then the stunt guy tossed it out and had each of the bad guys wait their turn to get stomped by Don "The Dragon" Wilson. Very frustrating.

But sometimes the stunt guy is smart enough to get what you've written, and put that scene on screen. That happened in a few of my films, including BLACK THUNDER. Though that film had all kinds of other problems, it's one that I can watch without wanting to put out my eyes with a firepoker during the closing credits. So I thought it might be fun to look at the Chase Scene on the page, then see what they put on screen. Below is the *first draft* of the chase scene, but I don't think it went through much rewrite. After the scene is what they shot, and what aired on Showtime as one of their original movies.

THE SCRIPT (first draft):



EXT. HANGER -- DAY

Two big ugly bombs on the fork lift. Ratcher watches the biological weapons loaded onto the Nova. Stone startles him.

STONE
How much longer?

RATCHER
Almost loaded and ready for delivery. I'll get suited up.

STONE
Be in the air in one hour. Goodbye Kansas, goodbye yellow brick road.
Ratcher glares at Stone as he walks away.

EXT. LIBYAN TOWN -- DAY

The ancient pick up truck backfires and sputters away. Conners hidden in back amongst the melons and produce.

INT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY
Rojar drives through the village.

ROJAR
You like the American Cowboy?

MELA
What about the check point?

ROJAR
We drive through.

MELA
They won't want to know where you're going?

ROJAR
I tell them the air field. Even the pilots like the fresh melons.

MELA
What if they search the truck?

ROJAR
He's hidden good. Casabas over him.

MELA
If they look under the casabas?

ROJAR
We see if this old fruit cart can out run a motorcycle.

EXT. DIRT ROAD IN COUNTRY -- DAY

They leave the village, headed to the check point, and the air field a mile beyond it.

EXT. GUARD KIOSK -- DAY

The truck stops behind a beat up Peugeot waiting to pass through the check point.

A pair of SOLDIERS search the Peugeot, popping the trunk, looking behind the seats. Practically stripping it.

A pair of army motorcycles are parked behind the kiosk.

INT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

Mela watches the Soldiers search the Peugeot, tearing it apart. Tension: They will soon do this to the pick up truck.

EXT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

Under the casaba melons, Conners stays very still.

EXT. GUARD KIOSK -- DAY

The Soldiers lets the Peugeot pass through, and gesture for the pick up to move forward.

INT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

ROJAR
Here we go.

Rojar moves the truck up to the gate and puts on a smile. Mela is tense. Suspense builds as the Soldiers approach.

ROJAR
Hey! I have the melons for the men down there. Pilots love the melons.

SOLDIER
Out of the truck. Let's see your papers. Hers, too.

EXT. GUARD KIOSK -- DAY

Rojar steps out of the truck and shows the Soldier his papers. Mela hands her papers through the open window to Soldier #2.

EXT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

Under the casaba melons, Conners stays very still.

EXT. GUARD KIOSK -- DAY

As the Soldier examines his papers, Rojar moves to the back of the truck and pulls back the tarp a little.

ROJAR
See? Melons. Fresh fruits and vegetables. Chick-peas. I have to deliver before the sun comes up, to keep them from spoiling.

Rojar lowers the tarp back into place. The Soldier hands him back his papers, then raises the tarp himself.

ROJAR
Hey? You want one? They won't notice if a couple are missing. Don't touch them all with those filthy hands!

The Soldier begins digging around in the crates of vegetables.

EXT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

Under the casaba melons, Conners stays very still.

INT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

Mela takes her papers back from the Soldier, trying NOT to look at the search of the pick up bed.

The truck keys dangle from the ignition... She may be forced to scoot to the drivers seat, start the truck, and take off.

EXT. GUARD KIOSK -- DAY

The Soldier reaches a hand between the crates, feeling around.

EXT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

Under the casaba melons, Conners stays still as the hand feels RIGHT NEXT TO HIM.
Close...
VERY close!

EXT. GUARD KIOSK -- DAY

Rojar gets ready to brain the Soldier with a melon if he finds Conners. Tension builds.

Then the Soldier pulls his hand out, lowers the tarp, and takes the melon from Rojar with a smile.

ROJAR
You'll like that one.

Rojar gets back into the truck's cab, gets the ignition on.

Then Soldier #2 notices that Mela looks very much like one of the photos of dissidents on his clipboard. He shows the photo to Soldier #1.

SOLDIER
Halt! Halt!

Rojar slams the truck into gear and roars away, smashing the gate-arm into a dozen pieces.

SOLDIER
Halt! Halt!

Soldier #2 raises his rifle and opens fire. Bullets spark over the back of the truck.

EXT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

A melon explodes, raining juice on Conners.

EXT. GUARD KIOSK -- DAY

Soldier #1 joins in the shooting. Sparks off the pick up.

INT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

Mela and Rojar duck as the back window is BLOWN out.

ROJAR
Down! Stay down!

Rojar whips the pick up truck around a corner on the dirt road at high speed, rolling some melons out the back.

EXT. GUARD KIOSK -- DAY

The two Soldiers hop on their motorcycles and give chase.

EXT. DIRT ROAD IN COUNTRY -- DAY

The Pick Up Truck roars down the dirt road.
The Two Motorcycles roar after it.

INT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

Mela sees the motorcycles.

MELA
They're right behind us.

ROJAR
I knew I should have put the new spark plugs in.

EXT. DIRT ROAD IN COUNTRY -- DAY

The Two Motorcycles are getting closer.

Soldier #1 breaks away, zooming up to the driver's side window of the truck.

INT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

Mela looks across Rojar at Soldier #1, who is aiming his gun through the window, preparing to fire.

MELA
Down!

Rojar and Mela duck as the bullet whizzes through the cab, in one window and out the other.

Rojar grabs a melon from the seat and throws it out the window at Soldier #1.

EXT. DIRT ROAD IN COUNTRY -- DAY

Soldier #1 has to pull back to avoid being hit by the melon.

Soldier #2 opens fire through the back window, shattering glass and exploding melons.

Suddenly, the tarp flips up and Conners pops to his feet in the pick up bed. He double draws his two 45s in one fluid motion and begins blasting away at Soldier #2.

Soldier #2 stops firing and starts zig-zagging, as bullets blaze all around him. One sparks off his handlebars.

Conners shifts aim, firing at Soldier #1.

Soldier #1 fires at Conners, bullets sparking off the cab.

INT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

Rojar tries to outrun the motorcycles, but the pick up truck just doesn't have the guts.

He sees Soldier #1 zooming closer to the truck to shoot at Conners, and jambs the wheel to the left.

EXT. DIRT ROAD IN COUNTRY -- DAY

The pick up truck weaves towards the motorcycle, and Soldier #1 has to back off.
Conners fires at him with both guns, bullets sparking off the cycle, but missing Soldier #1. Lucky.

Soldier #2 is roaring up on the right side of the truck.

Conners and Soldier #1 exchange gunfire, bullets sparking.

INT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

ROJAR
Hold on!

Rojar has to turn the wheel quickly, to make a sharp corner.

EXT. DIRT ROAD IN COUNTRY -- DAY

Almost losing Conners from the back of the truck as he fights for balance. As he tries to right himself, Soldier #1 blasts at him, exploding several melons.

CONNERS
Who taught you how to drive?

ROJAR (O.S.)
Sorry!

Conners drops clips, reloads, and blasts at Soldier #1.

That's when Soldier #2 attacks. Riding VERY close to the back of the truck, he opens fire at Conners.

Conners hits the dirt (melons) as bullets fly overhead from both sides. He grabs the tarp, yanks it off its hooks, and tosses it over Soldier #2.

Soldier #2 is driving his motorcycle blind: The tarp completely covering him like a poncho. He drops his gun and grabs at the tarp, trying to tear it off. Steering the cycle with the other hand.

Soldier #1 opens fire, Conners blasts back with both guns.

INT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

The road curves, and Rojar begins his turn.

EXT. DIRT ROAD IN COUNTRY -- DAY

Soldier #2 can't see that the road curves, and bumps up onto the shoulder, zooming over the dirt towards a tree.

Conners and Soldier #1 continue blasting at each other. With the pick up truck shaking, and Soldier #1 zig-zagging, Conners can't get a good shot.

CONNERS
Bullets are too small.

Then he notices the melons.

Soldier #2 is getting CLOSER to the tree. He finally yanks the tarp off, sees the tree, corrects his steering, and zooms back after the pick up truck.

Conners kicks melons at Soldier #1. The third melon hits the front wheel, sending the cycle flipping into a ditch.

Soldier #2 zooms up to the passenger side, and jumps onto the truck. His cycle zooms away.

Standing on the running board, he reaches inside the truck, grabbing Mela and punching her in the face.

INT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

Mela fights with Soldier #2, as Rojar drives. She knocks him away... but he swings into the truck bed, fighting Conners.

EXT. DIRT ROAD IN COUNTRY -- DAY

Conners fights Soldier #2 in the bed of the speeding truck.

ROJAR (O.S.)
Hit him! Use the strangle hold!

Soldier #2 socks Conners in the face, almost knocking him off the truck. Conners barely hangs on, kicks the soldier away. They trade punches until Conners knocks him off the truck.

CONNERS
Splash two soldiers.

INT. PICK UP TRUCK -- DAY

Conners yells at Rojar.

CONNERS
Go back! We have to make sure they don't radio the hanger!

ROJAR
Go back? You're crazy!

Rojar yanks the truck into a 180 slide, almost losing Conners. The truck zooms back to the fallen soldiers.

EXT. EDWARDS AFB -- DAY

Establishing shot.

INT. OPERATIONS ROOM -- DAY

DeMuth looks up as General Barnes enters.

DEMUTH
No word, sir. A little over two hours left on the clock.

BARNES
Is the strike team ready?



THE FILMED SCENE:



Okay, that segment of the screenplay is exactly 7 pages long (I cut it at the end of the page) and the segment of film is five and a half minutes. You can see that there were some changes made when it finally came to shooting it - some *better* stunts ended up in the final film. I would never have imagined Conners throwing one soldier at the other soldier's vehicle - that just sounds dangerous! But the stunt guy took what I had and *improved it*, which is what all writers want. We want them to ADD their skills to ours.


SLUGLINES


Though once they have filmed the chase, an editor is going to cut back and forth a zillion times between vehicles and INT and EXT, and maybe from vehicle to vehicle, in the script stage we are going to use sluglines to create suspense or a twist or a reversal or a “button”. We want the reader be excited by the chase – and give them the experience of the film viewer. Where a film editor is going to cut maybe a hundred times, doing that on the page would be choppy and distracting. So we want to cut *for effect*. When you go from EXT to INT in the script there is a reason - usually to create suspense or some other excitement. There may be a cliffhanger or a “button” or a reversal or some other kind of twist at the end of the EXT before we go to the INT or vice versa. You *use* the change of location within the scene to make the scene more exciting. It's not just arbitrary.

There's a bit in my car chase where Rojar, driving, has to do a very sharp turn... and we go from INT to EXT to see our hero standing in the back of the truck as he loses balance, almost falling out, *due to the sharp turn*. There is a cause and effect thing there - where the reader thinks making that hairpin curve is the excitement... but that's what causes our hero to almost get killed! You want to guide the focus of the reader/audience to increase the excitement of the scene on the page. Though the filmed version may be different, our job as screenwriters is to make the scene exciting and involving on the page.


ACTION IS STORY AND CHARACTER


Every action scene is a character scene and a story scene – it's not *only* there to provide excitement. If you can cut the action scene from the screenplay and the screenplay still works – cut the action scene! There's more on this in the revised version of my “Secrets Of Action Screenwriting” book. In this story the protagonist has been hiding since his mission went south, and this scene is when he erupts into action. This is basically the end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act three, and this chase leads into the big action scene at the end.

The story: terrorists steal our new ultra-stealth fighter plane (push a button and it is invisible to the human eye) with plans to use it against us, and hero Vince Conners and his co-pilot Rick Jannick fly behind enemy lines to steal it back. But once they get behind enemy lines, everything goes wrong... Jannick is captured and Conners goes on the run. Now he is behind enemy lines - with an entire enemy army searching for him. Now he must rescue his partner and steal the plane.

Here are two Script Tips I wrote about the creative process of writing this script, one on how the theme is connected to everything in the story (including this scene) and one on how I found a character key to help me understand the motivations of the characters:

Concept And Theme.
Keys To Your Story.


At this point in the story Conners has not trusted Mela (who may be working for the underground or may be the mistress of a badguy... or both) - and this action scene is when they begin working as sort of a team. He must make the decision to trust here. Both things change the course of the story from this point on - and the end of the script could not exist without this scene.

These things also tie into character, but the big thing in this scene is that he has been completely by the book in the story - not taking any chances. This compares to his partner Jannick (who is a captive at this point) who was always reckless and takes wild chances – which is what got him captured. This action scene is where Conners begins taking chances... and crazy ones... and kind of switches personalities with his partner - who is in a scene just before this as a prisoner, no longer taking chances - he has given up. Using the melons as a weapon and having the truck go back for the motorcycle are both things designed to show that he is now taking crazy chances and doing things that will result in the bad guys finding him... or him finding the bad guys. Some of the things in the scene are two-fers: they show the change in character and change the story - but story and characters are connected so that makes sense.


SCENES WE HAVEN'T SEEN


You also need your action scene to be original and fresh – something we haven't seen before. Think of all of the hundreds of car chases – our job is to do something different.
This particular scene began as a joke: when I wrote this screenplay I was on a film message board with Roger Ebert and one of the movie cliches he often pointed out was the “fruit cart” - in a car chase one of the cars always ran into a fruit cart, spraying melons and fruits all over the street... so I thought it would be funny to have the fruit cart be one of the vehicles in the chase, and created Rojar Ebair The Produce King and his truck full of melons and fruit... and I would *use* the melons as weapons! I haven't seen “melon-fu” before in a film, have you? Once I had that, I brainstormed up a bunch of produce action gags. I was also influenced by the Yakima Canutt action scene from John Ford's STAGE COACH – but used motorcycles instead of horses. I also tried to come up with as many “gags” as possible that would put our hero in harms way. An action scene isn't exciting unless the hero can die... and *almost* dies again and again. If the hero isn't in danger, where is the excitement?

We want to create visceral actions, create emotions in the audience, which means the protagonist has to be in harms way - it's not just machines in the car chase, it is *people*. In SALT she jumps from the roof of one truck to another... and almost falls off - visceral action. How many times does Indiana Jones *almost die* in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK? Part of the reason why we cut back and forth from INT to EXT on the page is to create that excitement where the protagonist *might* die. One of the basic elements of an action scene is the *reversal* - more on that in the Action Book, but there's also a Script Tip in rotation on reversals in action that uses the big chase at the end of ROAD WARRIOR as an example. We want to use screenwriting techniques to make the script as exciting to read as the film will be to watch. To *use* our writing to create a visceral and emotional experience for the reader.

Eventually our writing gets transferred to the screen, and the scene may end up different (as this scene did) – but without that basic template of how the scene works to begin with, you may end up with a pointless action scene that isn't story or theme or character related.

Now, I have had all kinds of run ins with directors, but let me take a moment to thank the director of BLACK THUNDER, Rick Jacobson. There are directors you hate, directors you tolerate, and directors you like and would gladly work with again. Rick is the latter. We made two films together, and he was always a nice guy. There were no ego battles - we were both just trying to make the best movie possible. That's not to say that Rick and I agreed on everything - we had some battles, and I lost some of them. But Rick was always trying to make a good movie - he cared. And one of the great things about Rick is that he knew that good action scenes were important to an action movie. I've had other directors who pretty much cut the action scenes to spend more time on one B actor having a conversation with another B actor. No one watches a B action flick for the amazing performances... they want to see stuff blow up. Rick spent the time, and *used his imagination* to make the action scenes (and other scenes) really work. Rick also could make a film shot on a small budget look big - he has an eye for shots and angles and lighting, and his films always looked like big studio movies. I've worked with other directors who could make a $3 million HBO flick look like a $300k low budget film. I think Rick is working in TV, now, where his ability to work fast without sacrificing quality is a major plus.

Also, thanks to that amazing stunt department, and coordinator Patrick Statham. Cole McKay and Kane Hodder and the rest of the guys took what I wrote and made it real - which is what we all dream of. Having our words turned into pictures.

7 pages of script = 5.5 minutes of film... not exactly 1 = 1, but close enough. If it ain't on the page, it can't be on the screen.

- Bill

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7 comments:

Grant said...

One difference I noticed. The gate arm was up when they drove through, instead of busting through it. ;-)

I'm guessing that was in case they need to do multiple takes.

Lembit said...

No offense, Bill, but have you read "Altitude" by Michael S. Palmer? Premise: a plane cann´t drop below 10000 feet or everybody dies.

wcmartell said...

ALTITUDE
The Chicago to DC shuttle is hijacked... a bomb attached to an altimeter will explode if the plane flies below 20,000 feet. Disgraced bodyguard Jason Bolt must organize the passengers against the terrorists as they circle Washington National Airport... but what if the bomb is nuclear, and the target is DC? Is this the second wave of terrorism? Or a group of clever thieves cashing in on 9-11 paranoia? "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3" meets "Speed" in an airplane... one plane you don't want to miss.


And my LOC copyright form is from 1994. Oh, and the management company that sent it out read my one page synopsis years ago.

Seriously - that management firm should sign me tomorrow to shut me up.

- Bill

wcmartell said...

There are some other changes - but I was amazed at how close the scene came to the script. Lots of other problems with the film, but it's still mostlty my sctipt.

Too bad the "scrippet" thing didn't work. Damn that August dude!

- Bill

The Moviequill said...

the film killed all the tension from your script -- the cutting to Connor under the fruit, and then when he pops up to shoot. They could have made that more tense/exciting

wcmartell said...

Yeah - I think they focused on action instead of suspense. Hey, they focused on *something* - that's better than what they usually do.

- Bill

Just Some Guy said...

OK, I'm a year late here, but what if you have a car chase in multiple locations on the same road? Like a straight section and then curves and then a bridge, all of which seem to be important? Does every change need its own heading? I'm trying to streamline, not add more words.

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