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Epic Scene-Telling

By December 5, 2013 No Comments

There was a long-discussed article written by Damon Lindelof this summer regarding the rules of blockbuster screenwriting. It appeared in New York Magazine and was quickly circulated across various online industry portals. In short, Lindelof discusses how Hollywood continues to raise the bar of expectation that every epic story eventually results in the protagonist saving the world universe. The inevitability of writers facing this conundrum compounds exponentially as budgets increase and visual effects technology advances.

I think this rumination is true, and often met with negativity. The core of what’s being said is the need to consistently provide the audience with something they’ve never seen whilst staying within a set of boundaries that they are comfortable with. As an exercise, I started evaluating how this logic — this constant upping of the ante — applies to scenes. For, as we know, scenes are screenplays. (I inherently think of Christopher Guest’s enthusiasm in This is Spinal Tap when explaining how his amplifier can go up to eleven. It’s this exact notion that often makes the best — and worst — screenplays.)

Let’s pick apart some scenes from recent well-known features.

Starting with Lindelof’s own, Prometheus.

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At some point, the heroes of Prometheus are tasked with trying to escape from the planet they came to explore. The easiest method of doing so would be to pilot the same vessel they used to get them there. This is easy. Instead… It’s revealed that the base the scientists have been exploring is not altogether stationary. Instead, it’s a spacecraft. What’s more, it’s a spacecraft that’s carrying a fatal substance headed for earth. What’s worse, the pilot of the hero vessel deduces that the only way to stop this spacecraft from destroying all of humanity is by crashing their ship into it. Also, this spacecraft happens to be shaped like a ring. So…the alien vessel rolls along the surface of the planet forcing our primary heroine to run for her life as it it thunders along after her. What’s the moral? All that conflict leads to a single fairly stellar scene of a massive circular spacecraft (that we once thought was a base) turned upright rolling after the protagonists on the planet’s core. Don’t think that’s important? The studio did. Ask yourself why they used that one scene to sell the film in the final ten- seconds of their initial sixty-second spot. It’s an epic scene. Epic scenes get butts in seats.

The Dark Knight Rises

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It’s always Gotham City. Bane, the poster villain of the third Christopher Nolan Batman feature, wants to show all the citizens of Gotham that he’s got a bomb capable of destroying the city. Gone are the days of recording a home video and trying to intercept the nightly news feed. How do they raise the bar? Bane overtakes a football stadium full of people (broadcasting city-wide) by detonating bombs around the perimeter. This happens DURING the game, where the field, mid-play, is swallowed in a chaos of exploding debris. In front of an audience of spectators, Bane activates the bomb, murders a doctor, ensnares the police, and landlocks Gotham City. One scene. Once again, this single scene is what Warner Brothers used to promote the film in the highly anticipated trailer.

Does epic scene-telling only apply to big budget sci-fi action thrillers? Not at all.

Last example.

The Descendants

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George Clooney’s dying wife has secretly been cheating on him, unknown to him until she’s on her deathbed. Near the end of the film, they have to pull the plug to take her off life support. Epic drama is built in. How do you go bigger?

Clooney’s wife’s father, played by Robert Forrester, stands over the dying body of his daughter to verbally assault Clooney’s inability to be a husband to his faithful wife. Clooney, with all the ammunition ready to blow his accusations away, says nothing. He swallows the insults, whilst his kids take up arms in his defense.

I suppose the point of this analysis is to evaluate your own work to determine where you can go bigger. It’s not always going to be the right choice, but when writing for the current market, epic scenes are rampant in successful media. Like it or not, super-sized products are the building blocks of consumerism and the movie industry doesn’t get a free pass.

If you’re forced into making your script bigger, do it within the scenes. Better yet, find an organic need for growth. Tie it to the objectives of your characters. Make it resonate with who they are — with what the theme of your movie is. It doesn’t have to feel like a miscellaneous appendage. Do it right, and you’re sure to capture the vivid attention of your readers yearning for that next big hit.

Link to Damon Lindelof article: http://www.vulture.com/2013/08/script-doctor-damon-lindelof-on-blockbuster-screenwriting.html

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