Posts Tagged ‘Die Hard’

“By 1995 I was literally down to my last dollar. I called dad to ask for money, which was like pulling teeth. He wanted to know when I was going to get a real job. My car was stolen, so I was riding a bike. I thought I’d end up working in Starbuck’s.”
Screenwriter Ken Nolan

If you looked up screenwriter Ken Nolan on IMDB it’s possible you’d be underwhelmed. He has one lone feature film writing credit. But it’s a one big —Black Hawk Down. The 2001 film got solid reviews (74% at Rotten Tomatoes), made $172 million world-wide, and earned Nolan a WGA nomination.

But if you’re an inquisitive type you might ask,”Why does Ken Nolan have only one feature film writing credit?” Good question and I think the answer gives a nice mini-history of screenwriting in America.

Nolan was born in Detroit and grew up in Buffalo and Portland. He applied to UCLA Film School twice and was turned down twice. He ended up getting an English degree at the University of Oregon. While in school he wrote short stories and as soon as he graduated in 1990 he moved to LA. He got a job as an assistant at Richard Dreyfuss’s company and started to write scripts, “using Syd Field’s Screenwriter’s Workbook as my guide. ” By his own admission he learned to write by writing six bad scripts. His seventh script was sent out and some liked it, but no one liked it enough to buy it.

He read good scripts and bad scripts and decided to write his own version of a Die Hard/ Speed rip-off and sold it for $100,000. He had an agent and thought he was on his way,  but the film never got made. Then he wrote what he thought was a very commercial natural catastrophe script  but it didn’t sell putting him in a financial bind.

So if you’re keeping score:

1) Rejected from UCLA film school—twice
2) Writes seven scripts that don’t sell
3) Finally sells a script, but it doesn’t get produced
4) Next script doesn’t sell and he ends up broke

Inspired by an interview he read about Quentin Tarantino he decided to focus not on what he thought people wanted but on what he was interested in. He wrote a character driven script that sold for $600,000, but when a similar movie came out it killed the production of his script. But at least he had a little coin in the bank, right?

He then sold another script for $850,000 that also didn’t get made.

“I was starting to realize that I had a nice career, a car and could afford a house, but I had no movies made. I was very worried about my career.”
Ken Nolan

Through a little persistence by Nolan and his agent he landed on the Black Hawk Down project based on the book by Mark Bowden. He ended up writing a 60-page treatment and eight drafts over a year’s time before Ridley Scott was attached to direct. He did two more drafts before the project was green lit and eventually becoming his first credited (and to date, only) feature film credit.

And while other writers (including Steve Zallian) were brought on the project, Nolan retained sole screenwriting credit. In an interview with Alan Waldman for wga.org Nolan said of writing Black Hawk Down;

“One challenge was that Mark’s book had about 60 characters, so I had to figure out who our main characters were while maintaining the ensemble feeling and staying true to the story. Another challenge was that I had to track and balance several story lines, while eliminating others. I had to distill a book that dealt with the families of the servicemen who were killed, the political situation, the Somali side of the story and the repercussions after the venture. I thought that this movie should be about the soldiers only and put the viewers—to a greater degree than any movie in the past—into the boots of the soldiers and thrust the audience into modern urban warfare.

Jerry (Bruckheimer) kept hammering that we had to care about the characters, but I felt we had so much story to cover that we didn’t have time to develop characters. But as I went along in the drafts I realized it was important for the audience to care for the characters, lest it become a cold, distance movie that lacks gut punch. Mark’s book touches on the characters, but a big challenge was to invent the barracks scenes and hanging-around scenes before the battle, without making it seem expository or exploitative…Also the story is very confusing and complex, because, as I said, it is several stories. There’s the Delta Force capturing the bad guys story, the helicopter pilot crashing story, the two guys left on the corner story, the incredibly complicated lost Humvee column story, the General Garrison story at the joint operations center and what ties them together: the story of our Ranger Platoon who are the first on the scene of the first downed helicopter and who get pinned down there. So it was really hard to decide how much time to spend on each story and how to effectively weave them together. That took 11 drafts and 14 months of development.”

I imagine these days Nolan keeps busy working on various writing projects that, while not credited, I’m sure pay him quite well.

Scott W. Smith

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I know William C. Martell’s book The Secrets of Action Screenwriting is out of print but you can really track down a copy if you want one (and want to spend a little money) so this will be the last post from Martell’s book. I’ll leave you with some encouraging words:

“Now, it’s time for YOU to swing into action, and get to work on your script. Set aside a couple hours a day to work on your computer. Remember, it’s only one page a day at a time. If you write only one page a day, seven days a week, you’ll have a completed first draft in about three months. THREE MONTHS! You can write a page a day, right? So start tomorrow, and three months from now, you’ll have a new, exciting, action script…Maybe the next Face/Off or Die Hard!”
William C. Martell
The Secrets of Action Screenwriting
Page 208

Scott W. Smith

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When you think of classic actions films a few of these might pop into your mind; Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, 48 Hrs., The Last Boy Scout, The Matrix. Those films all have at least on thing in common —they were produced by Joel Silver. Orphan currently in theater was also produced by Silver.  His first producing credit was back in 1976, so what’s his box-office secret?

Let’s once again turn to the book The Secrets of Action Screenwriting for part of the answer:

Action film producer Joel Silver says, ‘You’ve got to have a ‘whammo’ every ten minutes; an explosion, a car chase, a fight scene, to keep the audience interested.’ Silver believes this is the most important thing in action films, and he’s probably right. Silver has made the most successful action films ever, and launched Schwarenegger as an Action Lead in the low budget Commando. 
    Pacing and Timing are critical to action films.
         Long dead spots and an abundance of talk scenes will sink your script before it ever gets made. Action scripts contain action scenes and you’ve got to keep those car chases and shoot outs coming, or the audience will get up and leave.”
                                                                                          William C. Martell 

Of course, Martell’s book came out in 1998 and I don’t know how old the Joel Silver quote is but it seems like the whammo factor has been bumped up to every ten seconds in some action movies these days.

Scott W. Smith


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“Grab the script to Die Hard. Sometimes the script goes as long as three pages without a single line of dialogue. It’s all action.”
                                                           William C. Martell 

You have a villain who has a horrible plan and a hero (Superman or Everyman) who is out to stop the villain, so what more do we need for an action movie? Maybe a little action?  We return to Martell’s book The Secrets of Action Screenwriting to see what he says about action:

“Action films have to be filled with action. That’s what the ARE. Action scripts aren’t dialogue scripts. You can’t write: ‘There is a big car chase, and the villain’s car explodes.’ That’s boring. The trick of writing a good action script, is to fully describe your action scenes in ways that are exciting to read. Action scenes need to be thrill a minute page turners, where the reader can’t wait to find out what happens next. The average studio reader comes to a block of action and wants to skim it. Your job as a writer is to make them read every single word, then skim your dialogue to get your next action scene…Just like what YOU do in the theater.”
                                                                            William C. Martell

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