The trick to great action? Contain and sustain, says Speed screenwriter Graham Yost.
“People called it Die Hard on a bus. And I loved Die Hard,” the Toronto-born storyteller told me recently on Script Apart – my podcast in which screenwriters revisit their first drafts of great movies.
When Graham sat down to write his own action thriller in the early 1990s, he looked to the Bruce Willis skyscraper siege thriller for inspiration, but it wasn’t the film’s set-pieces he tried to emulate, nor was it John McClane’s witty one-liners. Instead, he copied the way Die Hard used one single pressure-cooker location, packed it with characters, and gradually turned up the heat. “That’s what I was shooting for,” Graham says, reciting the mantra he still swears by today. “It was contained... and it was sustained.”
Almost three decades after its release, Speed remains a blueprint for nail-biting action. His episode of Script Apart is a fascinating insight into how Graham pulled it off, full of tips and tricks for emerging writers with dreams of setting off explosions of their own onscreen in years to come.
Here are a few pieces of action-packed storytelling advice to be gleaned from the episode, supported by Screencraft...
Find Ideas by “Fixing” Existing Movies
Speed is loosely inspired by Runaway Train, an unproduced Akira Kurosawa screenplay that became the basis for a 1985 movie by Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky.
“One thing my dad used to do was re-direct movies in his head, finding ways to improve them,” Graham says. When Graham did the same to Konchalovsky’s movie one day, he found his creative juices started flowing. “I thought a train is too linear – all you’d need to do is land a helicopter on top of it and get everyone off,” he recalls.
Move the action onto a bus and insert a bomb into the situation, and all of a sudden “there are way fewer easy solutions to the problem,” says the screenwriter. Just like that, the idea for Speed was born. The lesson is simple – the next time you watch a film that leaves you unsatisfied, ask yourself what story changes could have made it more gripping. You might just discover an all-new story idea of your own.
Find Inventive Ways to Torture Your Characters
Foiling a maniacal terrorist intent on blowing up a bus full of innocent citizens is hard enough at the best of times. Doing it hungover is even harder.
“That’s something I can’t actually take credit for – Joss Whedon came up with that,” says Graham, recalling how lead character Jack Traven’s work-day from Hell in Speed actually comes the morning after a big party. “But it definitely makes his task harder and contributes to the experience.” Learning to punish your characters is one of the first tricks taught in screenwriting school – without obstacles for your characters to overcome, where’s the drama, the conflict, the story?
In Speed, this fun, easy-to-miss addition to the pile of problems on Jack’s plate subtly cranks the audience’s sense that this guy has a mountain to climb. What subtle ways can you find to worsen your protagonist’s day?
Find a Sixth Sense for Ideas Worth Pursuing
“One bit of advice I always tell young writers is, you have to have the ability to do two things. First, you have to know when to abandon an idea if it’s just not panning out,” says Graham. “The other is, knowing when an idea has something to it – something worth sticking with and doing draft after draft after draft.”
Good writers generate plenty of story ideas. Great writers are able to tell instinctively which ones have a spark to them that make them worth putting hours and hours into, fine-tuning them till they’re perfect. Graham describes his early drafts of Speed as “not good.” But he knew that there was potential there, and kept working away until he cracked his story.
The lesson? Get a feel for when a story idea will and won’t sustain an entire feature. If you truly believe your idea has potential, then it’s worth persevering with.
Al Horner is a London-based journalist, screenwriter and presenter. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Empire Magazine, GQ, BBC, Little White Lies, TIME Magazine and more.