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Garner + McQueen 4th of July = Best thing ever.

Because I love James Garner and Steve McQueen and wouldn’t hesitate to chop off a toe, foot or leg to have a drink with either. Godspeed to recovery, JG.

Unk had another installment on screenwriting structure last week, focusing on the Protagonist’s entrance into the NEW WORLD which would, as it turns out, mark the character’s departure from the ORDINARY WORLD. As usual, there were lots of ideas & commentary tossed around in the comments section, and I particularly enjoyed neil bringing up the oft-abused cliche of ‘refusing the Call to Adventure’. But I got hung up on THE DECISION– that, ultimately, the choice to proceed into the NEW WORLD is coming from the protag. I understand this is mostly straightforward- give the protagonist a choice that essentially is anything but that- they MUST go forward or there’s no story. Indiana Jones (who, thanks to Moviequill, has somewhat returned to my graces after reading Frank Darabont’s CITY OF GODS draft) could just tell the G-men to go screw at the beginning of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, but he won’t because he’s designed in every way to be completely unable to refuse that particular call to action. That right there is the whole movie! I really need to work on memorizing the entire Raiders script word-for-word. If there are flaws in that script, feel free to point them out, because I’m just whole-heartedly taking RAIDERS as the gold standard for storytelling.

Anyway, what perplexed me wasn’t the need to give characters a moment to embrace/realize/reluctantly decide to set out into the NEW WORLD, but rather where the origin of the decision might possibly occur. In this instance I was thinking about the off-screen back story build-up before page one of a script– very specifically a ‘going to prison’ scenario where prison was not the story’s NEW WORLD. The question then being- Okay, what is the NEW WORLD in those circumstances? I was feeling around for an example that had all the elements and factors dictating the decision occurring before the movie begins. Where the decision was more of a realization that there’s really no where else to go, which seems like a pretty weak justification for moving the story forward.

I tried to hijack the SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION to illustrate what my thinking was, but Unk pointed me toward THE GREAT ESCAPE. Dusted off and watched my two-tape VHS edition, which fit the bill nicely. WWII makes for a huge back story element, not to mention the motley group of Prisoners all having extensive escapes on record and the interesting Luftwaffe vs. the SS/Gestapo angle. All that gets set up as the ORDINARY WORLD while quickly introducing a huge nuanced cast, some having different takes on the essential goal of escape. McQueen and Ives’s cooler-time makes the real distinction against Bartlett’s 250-at-once GREAT ESCAPE.

And really, even going to the gold standard of RAIDERS there’s plenty of off-screen back story playing into Indy going after the Ark– the G-men invoke the ever-hated Nazis and certainly dropping Ravenwood’s name is tugging on his motives whether it’s addressed out front or not. When Marion does enter the picture and we get their dynamic it just locks in and the story takes off.

So I’m beginning to suspect that the real skill with this particular point of screenwriting structure is weaving the off-screen back story into the decision and entrance into the NEW WORLD, without being awkward and expositional. Which might be something I don’t completely have a handle on just yet. I’m a big fan of rich story mythology (as demonstrated by my love of LOST and Battlestar Galactica). I outline back story in decades and centuries. An in medias res whore, I am. All for the long, obscure payoff. Straightforward? Fuhgeddebahdit! Which is probably why I get a lot of confusion. I’m definitely going to have to work on editing for necessity and clarity.

3 Comments

  • Unk on Jun 22, 2008

    Yeah, the books and the gurus have a tendency to do that to all of us unfortunately.

    Their intrusion into the business by way of their HOW TOs really do cause a lot of clichéd writing.

    I like the fact that you honed in on the real Indy from the script… LOL. He was originally conceived as an exploitive grave robber archaeologist… Fame and fortune as his number one priority.

    I wish more of that had been kept in his character because doing that would have made for some amazing changes in being by the end of the film(s).

    He would have been darker but I think he would have been even more real.

    Oh well. Kasdan certainly knew what he was doing. Lucas however, wanted a cliffhanging serial archaeologist good guy.

    Good stuff!

    Unk

  • nicolle on Jun 19, 2008

    Yeah, I appreciate you pointing me toward it. I suspect I’m actually going to be watching it again a few more times soon, so I’m gonna spring for the DVD tomorrow.

    What’s really weird about Indy is that I went through Kasdan’s RAIDERS script again and that scene with the Government guys is prefaced by a discussion with Marcus that really distinctly paints Indy as this exploitive grave robber. The standing agreement that Marcus is gonna buy whatever Indy brings him and the description of Indy’s home give the sense that he’s making money hand over foot. When it’s announced that the G-men are there, I think Indy’s first reaction is that he’s in trouble for stealing artifacts again. Which makes any sort of moral, keep the magical weapon from the Nazis argument pretty thin. I think the classroom/professor basis also undermines all mythology and faith to superstition to him. He never really has a ‘Hey, forget it moment’, but when Marcus informs him the G-Men want him to go after the Ark and Indy jumps at it, it’s got nothing to do with the Ark- it’s fortune and glory, maybe showing up the damn Nazis bastards (not that he truly believes they’ll gain power from God) and possibly finding out about his old flame.

    I need to look at it again to see if there’s specifically a moment where faith is over taking his greed, but if so, I’d suspect it had more to do with Marion and him falling back in love with her than anything else.

    But back to TGE– With Hilts it’s certainly not a direct refusal- he’s not hindering Big X by doing his own thing, but as everything builds and the guys in the camp bond it really hones in to the moment Hilts CAN’T say no, he’s got to take it for the team.

    Which was really a lot more protracted than I guess I was thinking of– likely because I’m as programmed with the ‘hit this point at this page number’ approach as anyone else. Which has got to be where the over-used cliches are coming from. It’s a lot easier to parse outright refusal -> immediate consequence than really deeply integrating a character-relevant demand acceptance into the story.

    Trying to implement that sort of realization is pretty daunting, but I think I’m getting my head around it bit by bit. Thanks ever so much to you.

  • Unk on Jun 19, 2008

    Some outstanding thoughts there and I think you’re on the right track…

    The MORE RELEVANT the call to action is to the Protagonist the more we’re gonna buy it but just me putting it that way, makes it sound like bullshit and Screenwriting 101.

    Take Indy for instance… He’s the quintessential adventure archaeologist. No way could he turn down a chance to go after the Ark. In fact, we don’t even need him to refuse the call outright and in our face… If I remember correctly, his refusal was based more on him being a non-believer in the paranormal and the power of God. In fact, didn’t he almost MOCK the idea of the power of God?

    Therein was his refusal and it was a great way to do it because it wasn’t the traditional, flawed, and cliched shit we see today: But I have classes! But my Mom is counting on me! Yada yada fuckin’ yada.

    Same with THE GREAT ESCAPE… These co-protagonists if you will, are perfectly suited (relevant) to the ACTION (the escape).

    Hilts refuses the call to grab intel for BIG X in favor of tunneling out like a mole and getting away on his own but we KNOW and FEEL that he is a fuckin’ PATRIOT in every sense of the word and has NO CHOICE but to sacrifice a month or so in the cooler to get the much needed intel on what’s outside the camp.

    So once again, you’re on the right road… I’m really happy you revisited TGE and it seems like you’re understanding how to weave the call to action – refusal of the call in such a way that we don’t end up fucking YAWNING our way through the story.

    Good job.

    Unk