Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Journey, Setting, and Tone

The last one of my little commercial ideas mini-series articles is here!

Basically, all great commercial films take us on a journey through a specific "world". To unclarify things -- in Campbell Herospeak this is the "external goal" of the film. A few examples: INDEPENDENCE DAY explores the world of an Earth under siege by genocidal aliens, THE MATRIX explores the world of human subjugation by machines, LORD OF THE RINGS explores the world of Middle Earth in the face of Sauron. My observation (after having read about 10,000 scripts (I kid you not)), is that screenplays that fail to make the next round in evaluation fail because they don't clearly identify exactly what the journey is and what kind of world we are exploring. Why are we here? Why should we care? And exactly what is this film about anyway?

I had a difficult time writing this post because I had to unpack a few things in my brain that are part of the industry's jargon. In Hollywood filmmaking, we talk about "setting" meaning, the world, its tone, and any other conceptual things about the world that will let us know what type of journey we are about to undertake. Truly commercial screenplays clue the reader and audience in early to the types of things that can happen in this world. The "promise" of the screenplay's setting (the rules, regulations, and norms) must be set up in the first minutes (pages) of the film, or the reader/audience starts to wonder why they are on this journey. And the minute that happens, you've already lost. Your script will be skipped through, flipped around (I know readers who skip to page 30, page 60 page 90 and the end, then write up their coverage) and generally mistreated.

A great example of setting is 13 DAYS by DAVID SELF. This screenplay is readily available on the internet and should be read if you are a die-hard drama writer. The film itself suffered from information overload, but was probably one of the most commercial ways to bring a story like this to the screen. The opening is essentially two parallel ribbons -- one details a spy plane capturing those infamous shots of the missile silos, the second follows a man at home with his kids, only this guy's not ordinary, he's got two phones in the kitchen, one black and one red, and breakfast table conversation includes a game of Name-That-Diplomat. From the beginning of the film, we know we are going to be treated to intrigue, and that our eyes and ears are going to be domestic, sympathetic, and very very politically plugged in. It also does a neat job of foreshadowing exactly what is at stake should our heroes fail to resolve the problem -- the end of those beautiful little babies we get to love in the opening.

Another great drama example is LA CONFIDENTIAL. It starts off establishing the tone of the film with a 50's style series of montage images and newspaper headlines, then immediately plunges into a little editorial commentary:

Palm trees in silhouette against a cherry sky. City lights twinkle. Los Angeles. A place where anything is possible. A place where dreams come true. As the sky darkens, triple-kleig lights begin to sweep back and forth.
That line "A place where dreams come true" defines as much as anything else, what type of journey we are going on, and what the stakes are in that journey -- the life and death of our dreams. Now don't get all crazy and prose-write your way through the script. Keep it down to a line or two across a sequence. These should rightfully be saved for establishing things at the top of act breaks and during major turning points in the script, when this writer's conceit won't be as noticeable, because, hopefully, your characters and story will have earned some buy-in by your audience.

Science fiction and adventure scripts have a very rigid 7 or 9 act structure which builds in the description of the setting and the journey. It's called the "teaser" or "inciting incident". In romantic comedies, dramas and other subgenres, this part of the screenplay is typically given over to a character introduction which is meant to do the same thing, but which frequently trips up inexperienced writers.

A character's introduction must establish setting and journey not just the character's idiosyncrasies. If your leading lady is a klutz who always puts her foot in her mouth and she's going to fall for Mr. Suave, please don't show her tripping on her own shoe laces to land at his feet. This doesn't give us much to go on in terms of the world we are going to be in, nor does it establish the rules for the other characters in the script.

Another way that films "cheat" in doing this is through casting established actors. Movie stars bring with them their own "baggage" as far as establishing setting and journey. We know that if we see Jim Carrey, the film will be funny, if we see Reese Witherspoon we'll be treated to a character-work deeply rooted in motivation (as opposed to say, Jessica Biels or Chad Michael Murray whose respective acting appeal is rooted in hotness), if it's Tom Cruise, we'll see a hero working through his own arrogance and foibles to save the day. These actors have done a good job in defining what their audiences are looking for in their work, and finding roles that deliver that, when they stray from the formula, actors (and movies) are generally punished by low audience turnout. This is a whole post in and of itself, so I'll leave that one for now.

To wrap up what's turned into The World's Longest Post, the journey = the setting = $$$$. There are a lot of things to master in filmmaking. This is just a bit of technique. Think of it as the tempo in a bit of music.


Eleanor said...

Great stuff!
Thanks for posting. :-)

Chris said...

Would you say, from a producer's perspective in terms of what you enjoy reading, do you prefer the style of the "L.A. Confidential" excerpt you quoted? I find myself being more of a literalist in describing the action, characters, and situations (an unfortunate consequence of my legal writing background) and I am moving towards a more visual style. But I'm not sure I'll ever be Shane Black in terms of being that loose with the form and I'm wondering if I should even aspire to that in any event.

alexandra said...

Spot on. And, indeed, thanks for sharing.