You probably wouldn’t be a screenwriter if you hadn’t grown up watching summer blockbusters. Movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Die Hard, The Dark Knight and Guardians of the Galaxy are all summer blockbusters that do exactly what they should: frighten us, thrill us, surprise us and make us laugh.
But writing a summer blockbuster is much harder than it looks. Today’s audiences are sophisticated and seek new thrills that are fresh and different. We sat down with all three writers of The Meg, Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, to get their expert tips.
Producer on The Meg, Belle Avery, is on the ScreenCraft Action & Thriller Screenplay Contest. Enter for the chance to have her read your script here.
1. Familiar yet different.
Writing a movie that feels familiar yet appeals to today’s movie audience is a special talent. The Meg is familiar in that most of us hold Jaws as one of the best blockbusters of all time. But considering the shark in The Meg is actually a megalodon, a 75-foot shark that went extinct millions of years ago, The Meg is actually closer to Jurassic Park. But none of the writers wanted it to be too much like either Spielberg movie.
“When I first read the original material [the book Meg by Steve Alten],” says Georgaris, “I wasn’t worried about comparisons to Jaws. I was more thinking about Jurassic Park and being wary of that franchise and being respectful to play in a different space. Yes, it’s a shark that happens to be huge but really what we’re talking about is a prehistoric monster that happens to be discovered in the ocean. The three of us have always talked about James Cameron movies like The Abyss and Steven Spielberg movies, so I think it was as much about trying to get all of the thrills and humor that you want in a movie that, at its core, is something that’s both really scary and really absurd.”
2. Carefully choosing when to meet the monster.
Part of the fun in this film is anticipating the meg. But the writers struggled to figure out exactly how much suspense a modern audience can handle.
“We are aware that historically,” says Georgaris, “in movies where you’ve got a big, scary creature, there’s a lot of anticipation up to its reveal – and that’s a delicious thing to play with. As three writers dealing with the modern blockbuster and more sophisticated audiences and, frankly, more sophisticated producers, one of the discussions we had was ‘can you make them wait as long as Steven Spielberg does in Jurassic Park to see the T. rex? Or do you need to show the audience the shark five minutes in? We believe that suspense and anticipation are things audiences really enjoy so our goal was not to treat those first 30 minutes as biding our time but really find the entertainment in the buildup to the reveal.”
While many movies introduce the monster as the inciting incident or the end of act one, in The Meg we don’t actually see the shark for the first time until about 40 minutes into the film. This gives the movie time to introduce the characters and set up the stakes.
3. Keep your characters grounded.
This type of movie typically presents ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Make your characters feel like people you know whether you like or hate them. As the action intensifies, you’ll need both good guys and bad guys to heighten the drama. Besides, someone has to get eaten by the shark.“Always think about how to ground your characters individually,” says Jon Hoeber, “because then it’s a great anchor for you to bring multiple points of view that are going to generate a fresh feeling into whatever traditional scenes are going to be there.”
Erich Hoeber adds, “You may have larger than life things happening in the movie but if your characters are dealing with them authentically, as if they were real, then the audience will just go along with them.”
4. Find those little moments between the big ones.
This is another way to help keep the script fresh and original.
“We tried to take the time to create the little character moments that are separating people out in an ensemble piece and give them pop, along with giving the casting director direction to work in. Also, we’re hopefully giving the actors those fun, memorable summer movie moments that we all cherish,” says Jon Hoeber.
5. Pay very close attention to tone.
Most blockbusters have spectacular action sequences and frightening moments. Don’t forget to balance them with laughs to relieve the tension.
“We talked a lot about humor,” says Georgaris, “and about delivering the kind of hero moments you expect but hopefully they feel original.”
Georgaris also urges writers to study the films that worked tonally. “Remember, there’s actually a wide range of films. Die Hard is actually a film in this genre even though there’s no monster in it. There’s still an ‘everyman’ in an extraordinary situation.”
6. A small amount of science goes a long way.
We’re not saying it’s impossible for a megalodon to still exist, but it’s pretty unlikely. The good news is there’s no need to worry about having too much explanation if it’s going to hurt the story.
“That’s always been a mantra of ours,” says Erich Hoeber, “not letting the truth get in the way of giving people the experience they want. Give just a fig leaf of truth here and there to let people feel it’s okay to think this is plausible. That way you free them up to have a really fun ride. You disarm them and they get to have fun watching the giant shark eat the people who desperately have it coming.
7. Keep inspiration nearby.
Sometimes, objects related to your story or protagonist can prompt you as a writer to come up with ideas.
Though megalodon skeletons have never been found due to the fact they are mostly cartilage and not bone, tons of megalodon teeth have been found over the centuries. “I keep a megalodon tooth on my desk,” says Jon Hoeber, “and I marvel at it.”
8. Cherish other writers.
On these types of huge movies, it’s common for several writers to be involved. Often, however, wounded egos and hurt feelings abound. This wasn’t the case for the writers of The Meg.
“Dean wrote a draft and then Erich and I were hired on,” says Jon Hoeber. “Then, after a bunch of talking back and forth, Dean was looped back in, and we thought maybe we should talk things over together and maybe even work together. Dean, Erich and I did drafts together as a cohesive unit.”
“The three of us had a blast. Writers come in and out of movies for a whole variety of reasons, very rarely does it have to do with the talent of the writer. These types of movies have many masters and are financed by multiple people. I was really grateful to work with them and we got to address everyone’s concerns as a unit and it was really satisfying. And basically, I can take credit for any good idea [the Hoeber brothers] came up with,” says Georgaris with a laugh.
The Meg opened on August 10, 2018.
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards
Photo credit: Warner Bros.