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Posts Tagged ‘Back to the Future’

“The purpose of a ticking clock: to inject urgency and tension into the story or an individual scene.”
Screenwriter Doug Eboch (Sweet Home Alabama)
Let’s Schmooze blog

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 11.05.48 PM

The last movie I saw (Eye in the Sky) was full of anticipation, and that was set up by the ticking clock scenario. Time was of the essence for the entire film. While I have touched on the ticking clock concept in pervious posts, I realized I had not done a post dedicated to unpacking the concept in detail—so here it is:

The ticking clock is simply a device writers use to create a sense of urgency—in both the characters and the audiences. It’s not found in every film and TV show, but there are plenty of examples over the years of stories across all genres that show it’s something worthwhile to have in your toolbox.

Sometimes the ticking clock is used in a single scene and other times it basically spans the entire film.

Two examples that come quickly to mind are Back to the Future (1985) and Taken (2008). Situations where major stakes are on the line if such and such doesn’t happen within in a specific time frame.

It doesn’t have to be a literal clock ticking down (though it can be) but it must be clear to those involved (and those watching) that there will be dire consequences if some terms aren’t met before a specific deadline.

“An example of a ticking clock would be the movie Armageddon, where the team had only a short time to blow up the asteroid, or all of mankind would be destroyed when it hit Earth. This gives an underlying tension to the entire movie”
Stephen Cannell

“A time endpoint, also known as a ticking clock, is a technique in which you tell the audience up front that the action must be completed by a specific time. It is most common in action stories (Speed), thrillers (Outbreak), caper stories (where the characters pull off some kind of heist, as in Ocean’s Eleven), and suicide mission stories (The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen).”
John Truby
The Anatomy of Story

“Always helps to have a ticking clock. In Millions, the two boys have only a limited amount of time before the fortune in cash they found is worthless, as all currency is about to be converted to Euros. They are forced to solve their problem before the suitcase of money is useless.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks

Here are other films with ticking clocks:

127 Hours —A solo adventurer must find a way to get his arm released from being wedged in a rock crevasse before he dies from lack of food and water.
48 Hours
The  Hunt for Red October
United 93
Notorious
Back to the Future

Silence of the Lambs
Little Miss Sunshine
The Hangover
High Noon
Blue Brothers
Happy Gilmore
Unstoppable
The African Queen
and more recently The Martian.

Here’s what the ticking clock looks like on the page from the Drew Goddard written screenplay The Martian (based on Andy Weir’s book). This scene starts at page 16 after astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) survives being left behind on Mars.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.53.39 PMScreen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.54.24 PM

Even terrific indie films Winter’s Bone, Buried, and Ida have ticking clocks. Tv programs like Breaking Bad and Empire have ticking clocks related to the health issues of the lead characters.

Like any technique there are times when its use can seem heavy handed and forced—even a cliche. But that doesn’t negate that in the right hands it is a time trusted (pun intended) way to produce a sense of urgency.

Remember in Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks and his troop are charged with finding (and returning) Private Ryan before he’s killed on the battlefield? That qualifies as a ticking clock. As does finding (and killing) the shark in Jaws before it wrecks the town’s tourist economy.  And, now that I think about it, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, E.T. and Schindler’s List all make uses of ticking clocks. So if Spielberg doesn’t shy away from ticking clocks why should you?

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Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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DSC_1801Tampa

Over the weekend I was finally able to see a movie at the Tampa Theatre (in downtown Tampa, Florida) which is one of the most beautiful settings to watch a movie in the United States—maybe in the world. I say finally because the theater was built in 1926, and while I’m not quite that old—it had been on my to-do list for well over a decade. I arrived early because I wanted to look around and was not disappointed.

Keep in mind that it was built in the era long before the internet, television, and even before the Great Depression. So this is a grand and ornate building complete with peacock statues, gargoyles, and twinkling stars. And I had the great thrill of hearing their Wurlitzer organ not only being played live before the movie started, but the organ and the organist unexpectedly coming up out of the grand on a moving platform. Before the movie even started I had my money’s worth of entertainment.

Keep in mind that back when the theater first opened that movies were the main form of entertainment, so every week as the Tampa Theatre website points out, “more than 90 million Americans were going to the movies every week.” If you’d ever like to be transported back in time to connect to early cinematic history the Tampa Theatre is the ideal place to go. In fact if you live in the greater Tampa Bay area—or will be visiting the area in the coming months—you have the opportunity to see The Wizard of Oz (June 7), Key Largo (June 14), Back to the Future (July 5) and/or a contemporary art house film in grand style.

Here’s what the outside of the Tampa Theatre looks like.

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P.S. My father moved to Tampa in the 1970s and ran Smith Advertising in the area until he died in 1995. So over the weekend I was able to retrace some of the places where I have many fond memories. If you’d like my Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—version of how to do Tampa Bay in a day or two here’s my list:
Eat at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, drive along Bayshore Boulevard and explore the Hyde Park Village area full of craftsman homes and a small shopping area.

Saint Petersburg which used to be the shuffleboard capital of Florida is turning into the Austin of Florida—hipster heaven. And why not, writer Jack Kerouac (On the Road) not only lived there for a spell, but died there in 1969. You can go sailing in the morning, visit the Dali Museum in the afternoon, get a tattoo, and catch the sunset in St. Pete Beach while eating at Hurricane Seafood Restaurant on Pass-A-Grille.

And, lastly I should mention, if the Tampa Bay Lighting win tonight they will be in the Stanley Cup Final. So you could always fit that into your schedule if you can get tickets.

Scott W. Smith

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“You’ll have a huge advantage if your concept contains irony.”
Carson Reeves
Scriptshadow

“The number one thing a good logline must have , the single most important element is: irony….Irony gets my attention. It’s what we who struggle with loglines like to call the hook, because that’s what it does. It hooks your interest.”
Blake Snyder
Save the Cat

“We teach best what we most need to learn.
And I sure hope this won’t come back to bite me on the ass.
Dramatic irony. What is it?
I got no clue — says the professional screenwriter.”
Terry Rossio
Wordplayer/Dramatic Irony

It’s hard to believe that I’ve written this blog on screenwriting for five and a half years and have never done a post specifically on irony. Probably out of fear of adding confusion to the subject of technically what is and isn’t irony. I think part of the confusion is words that have been used for centuries often have not only different meanings depending on the era, but sometimes even have contrary meanings.

For instances I’m told the word scan used to mean to examine throughly but when we say today that we “scanned the book” we tend to mean that we flipped through it quickly. So with that said I will dive into the territory of irony with the help of others in hopes that it will help you and your writing.

The word that I associate irony with the most is contrary—meaning the opposite. The example that jumps to my mind is in four-time Oscar-winner Rain Man when Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise)  has this exchange with his father’s lawyer, John Mooney, about being left out of the money portion of his father’s will:

Charlie: Disappointed? Why should I be disappointed? I got rose bushes didn’t I? I got a used car, didn’t I? This other guy, what’d you call him?

John Mooney: The beneficiary.

Charlie: Yeah him, he got $3,000,000 but he didn’t get the rose bushes. I got the rose bushes. I definitely got the rose bushes. Those are rose bushes!

That’s irony. Verbal irony. Charlie Babbitt is extremely disappointed that he got the rose bushes and a used car instead of $3 million. Now Babbitt is being sarcastic at the same time. But not all sarcasm is ironic, and not all irony is sarcastic.

“Irony is ‘a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result.’ For instance, if a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck, he is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony.”
George Carlin
Brain Droppings

We don’t have George Carlin around anymore to split that difference between irony and coincidence, but it seems to be a perfect example of dramatic irony is in Back to the Future when the teenager Marty (Michael J. Fox) goes back to 1955 and tries to make sure his future mom and dad (then teenagers themselves) fall in love with each other and instead Marty’s mom starts to have a crush on him. That’s a little confusing if you’ve never seen the film—and you really should—but it’s a humorous result of  “the reverse of what was to be expected.” A good example of situational irony.  And at the same time that situation is full of conflict where the stakes are very high. (If Marty’s parents don’t fall in love and eventually get married and have kids, then Marty won’t exist.)

“Dialogue is a playground for dramatic irony… In PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, the British Commodore, Norrington, thinks that Jack Sparrow is the worst pirate he’s ever seen. Later, when Jack manages to steal Norrington’s fastest ship, his First Mate comments, ‘That’s got to be the best pirate I’ve ever seen.’ Not only is the First Mate complimenting Jack, but he’s using phrasing that nearly mimics Norrington’s insult… a fact not lost on Norrington, or the audience.
Screenwriter Terry Rossio (Co-writer of Pirate of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Wordplayer/Dramatic Irony

“For a clown fish, he’s not that funny. ”
Bruce the shark in Finding Nemo

Charlie Chaplin understood irony when he wrote The Great Dictator and told the solution of having 3,000 workers planning to strike: “Have them all shot. I don’t want any of my workers dissatisfied.” Alfred Hitchcock understood the use of irony in Vertigo, Rear Window,  and Rope. But one of his most memorable uses of irony was from his Tv program Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In Lamb to the Slaughter (written by Roald Dahl) a police detective investigating a murder (and looking for the murder weapon) eats a lamb dinner prepared by the woman who used the lamb when it was frozen to kill her cheating husband.

“Irony is a fancy word for saying ‘the opposite of which is perceived.’ A priest who murders. A pianist who’s deaf. A clown who’s depressed. Audiences LOVE irony. Therefore you should try and incorporate it into your concept, characters and plot as much as possible! The most powerful king in the world is tasked with giving the most important speech in history…yet he can’t speak (The King’s Speech). Irony is your best friend. Use it whenever you can!”
Carson Reeves
Script Shadow Secrets

Now perhaps I’m confusing irony and coincidence (or perhaps just contrasting situations), but some other films that come to mind that use irony in the way that Blake Synder used the word irony—to mean “unexpected”:
Seabiscuit (A lazy horse becomes a champion)
Rocky
(A club boxer who loses his locker at the gym gets a shot at the title)
Jaws
(A sheriff from the city who is afraid of water must go into the ocean to battle a killer shark)
Erin Brockovich (An unemployed and uneducated woman jump-starts a lawsuit against a corporate giant)
Liar, Liar (A lawyer prone to lying must tell the truth for 24 hours)
Rudy (A small guy who never played high school football wants to play football at Notre Dame)
Miss Congeniality (A tomboy FBI agent must join a beauty pageant to catch the bad guys)
City Slicker (A guy from New York City joins a cattle drive in the west to find himself)
48 Hours (A cop needs the help of a criminal to catch the bad guys)
Babette’s Feast (
A servant of sorts wins the lottery and spends her winnings on a grand feast for a religious group dedicated to a austere lifestyle)
Pieces of April (
A young woman in an attempt to make ammends with her family decides to cook dinner only to have her stove not working on Thanksgiving day)

“At the beginning of [The Incredibles], Mr. Incredible gets sued for saving a person attempting suicide. He later goes through a mid-life crisis, when superheroes are often considered ageless. Also, superheroes are done in by their iconic capes (and after Edna’s escapade in cape-related deaths, Syndrome is killed after his cape is caught in an airplane turbine).”
Irony: The Secret to Pixar Plotting

It would seem that Pixar long ago figured out how to use irony. In fact, the ending of Toy Story 3 was one great unexpected ending.  There are few things as powerful (and rare) as a satisfying ironic ending.

P.S. The title Screenwriting from Iowa was always meant to be ironic. As in that’s the last place you’d expect to find people writing screenplays. And it’s also meant as a metaphor to connect with screenwriters from remote areas around the world. Ironically (am I using that word correctly?) I’ve been surprised that working screenwriters in Hollywood read these posts from time to time.

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Scott W. Smith

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Since yesterday I found a couple quotes from screenwriter Bob Gale about he came up with the idea for Back to the Future in his parent’s basement in St. Louis, I thought I’d find a quote today from the other half of that screenwriting team, Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis also directed the film as well as  Romancing the Stone, Forrest Gump, and Castaway.

“You have to hope that you can get your investment back, which is what we [filmmakers] all try to do. What we really want to do is make one dollar profit back, so that nobody gets hurt and the movie exists. Anything else is arrogant and unrealistic. All of us in this business are a bit superstitious as well. We don’t really talk about that, although I must say that [Paramount Motion Picture Group chair] Sherry Lansing would always talk about what she thought the success of the movie would be. And she was wrong by about $150 million. Nobody in their right mind is going to say a movie is going to make $300 million.”
Robert Zemeckis
DGA Interview with Ted Elrick


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“Studio executives kept saying, ‘Eh, time travel movies don’t make any money. Time travel movies don’t make any money.'”
Screenwriter Bob Gale

Twenty-five years ago the world embraced the movie Back to the Future starring Michael J. Fox based on a script written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. Though Gale and Zemeckis had teamed up on Used Cars (1980) it did not have a strong release and didn’t make getting their next script made easier. Gale explains the process of writing the script and the trouble they had getting others interested in it.

“We outline the story on index cards before we start detailing the individual scenes. And we come up with our index-car structure nonlinearly; we always like to know what the ending’s going to be before we really got started. You can’t take a trip if you don’t know where you’re going…The (Back to the Future) script was rejected over 40 times. Nobody read it said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to make this.’ You know there had been no time-travel movies that had made that much money prior to Back to the Future, and again the mashup of genres was confusing for some people. We’re talking 1981, 1982…Porky’s was around that time, and that’s what everybody’s idea of comedy was—fart jokes and naked girls.”
Bob Gale
Script magazine interview with Sara Scott
Volume 16/Number 4

According to Box Office Mojo, Back to the Future ended up with a domestic gross of $210 million  and a worldwide gross of $318 million. All on a $19 million budget. Gale and Zemeckis were also nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay. And, of course, two sequels were made that added around $500 million to the worldwide gross.

And where did the original idea come from? A basement in St. Louis.

“The inspiration for making the movie, for coming up with the story is that I was visiting my parents in the summer of 1980, from St. Louis Missouri, and I found my father’s high-school yearbook in the basement. I’m thumbing through it and I find out that my father was the president of his graduating class, which I was completely unaware of. So there’s a picture of my dad, 18-years-old, and I’m thinking about the president of my graduating class, who was someone I would have had nothing to do with. He was one of these “Ra-Ra” political guys, he was probably Al Gore or something. Captain of the debate team, all this stuff. So the question came up in my head, ‘gee, if I had gone to school with my dad would I have been friends with him?’ That was where the light bulb went off.”
Bob Gale
Interview with Matt Patches 

P.S. Zemeckis was raised in the South Side of Chicago and Gale was raised in the suburbs of St. Louis. They met at USC film school.

Related posts: Screenwriting from Missouri

Scott W. Smith

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