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Posts Tagged ‘Jaws’

[Movies] have an obligation to be sort of timeless. A good story is a good story, it doesn’t change. The Searchers is still The Searchers. It’s A Wonderful Life is still charming, Dirty Harry is still suspenseful, Jaws is still terrifying. These are movies that are prime, pristine examples of storytelling. The Exorcist is as compelling today and is absolutely frightening as it was when it was first released. It didn’t age. I took a friend of mine to see it recently, it scared her out of her wits.”
Writer/Director Shane Black
Interview with Alex Young

Related post: Study the Masters-Martin Scorsese 

Scott W. Smith

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Since much of the story of JAWS takes place over the Fourth of July weekend, it seems fitting on this Fourth of July weekend that on today’s repost Saturday I at least touch on the classic summer blockbuster movie. If you don’t have time to read the whole post, I’ve since found what I believe is the definitive comment regarding using coincidence—and boiled down to just one sentence:

“Use coincidence to get characters into trouble, not out of trouble.”
Alexander Mackendrick
On Filmmaking (edited by Paul Cronin)
page 41

For those of you that want a little more to chew on, here’s the original post from September 9, 2008:

“Coincidence. It’s a screenwriter’s stock in trade. It lies at the very heart of storytelling; it’s been around even before Oedipus slept with his mother. It’s the essence of the ‘what if.’ Coincidence comes into play for inciting incidents, chance meetings, clever plot twists, surprising revelations. It’s a very necessary dramatic tool.”
Screenwriter Terry Rossio
Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lone Ranger 

“There’s nothing wrong with coincidence, per se. Almost every movie is going to have some incidents where one character just happens to be in the right place at the right time.”
Screenwriter John August
Big Fish

Last week I spent two days in a town I had never been before and both mornings went to the same Starbucks at different times in the morning. And both times the same person was standing behind me in line. What are the odds? It’s hard to miss that kind of coincidence. It made me think about how coincidence is used in screenwriting,

All of us have real stories of coincidence ranging from simple to complex. Things like hearing a song you haven’t heard in years playing on the radio at the same time on two different stations. Or like the time I got on a connecting standby flight in Dallas and ended up on the same flight as a guy I went to high school with who I hadn’t seen in years.

Coincidence is a part of life so we shouldn’t be surprised when coincidence is used in the movies. But if it’s not a law it should at least be a rule that coincidence not be used throughout your story unless you are writing a farce (Groundhog Day) or a story where coincidence is built into the story. For instance we expect Forrest Gump to bump shoulders with Elvis, John F. Kennedy and John Lennon. It’s part of the fun.

But since coincidence must be used to one degree or another it’s best if you don’t use them at important moments of your script.

Coincidence is best used in the first act and as early as possible. Sure it’s a coincidence that the swimmer in Jaws just happens to take a swim at feeding time. But something has to start the story. Inciting incidents are often a fitting place for coincidence.

The worst time to use coincidence is at the end of the film.  As Robert McKee writes in Story, “Never use coincidence to turn an ending. This is deus ex machina, the writer’s greatest sin.” A phrase from ancient Greek and Roman theater where a god would be lowered on stage to fix everything.

You will find coincidence abuse across every genre. Perhaps the biggest offender is romantic comedies as writers work to get two people together. Could there be a bigger coincidence (or heavy handed metaphor) than after a man’s wife dies to have him  and fall in love with the recipient (via heart-transplant) of his dead wife’s heart? Critics used words like gimmick, contrived, and  creepy to refer to the plot of Return to Me. Yet the quirky comedy did find a satisfied audience.

So you can overcome heavy-handed coincidence but it takes work to avoid. The real secret of using coincidence is to sneak it in where needed. Avoid using coincidence at key moments of the story.

Terry Rossio writes in his Wordplay Columns:

One of the classic rules of coincidence is that fate — if it must be present — should always favor the antagonist. If our hero has a gun on the villain and the hero’s gun jams, it’s called drama. If the villain has our hero dead in his sights, and the villain’s gun jams, it’s called a lousy cheat, a not-very-inventive way to sneak the hero out of his predicament.

When the audience rolls back their eyes and has one of those “you’ve-got-to be-kidding” moments you know that coincidence has been misused.

It’s best when the audience doesn’t even realize the coincidence. For instance in Mystic River the novelist and/or screenwriters start and end the movie with coincidence, but the story is so compelling it’s not a stumbling block. (Spoiler alert) Sean Penn’s daughter is killed the same night that his friend Tim Robbins kills a man — big coincidence. And Sean Penn kills Robbins thinking he killed his daughter the same night that detectives arrest the real killers of Penn’s daughter–another big coincidence.

Perhaps coincidence is like subtext, exposition and other tricks of the trade in that it can be handled well or poorly. The best way to handle coincidence in your scripts is to do so organically. For instance it is not just a coincidence that at the end of Jaws Roy Scheider has a gun and knows how to use it (he is the police chief) or that there is an oxygen tank on the boat. Those were built into the story.

Scheider is simply forced to go to the end of the line because he has run out of options. May you strive with the same diligence to fight off heavy-handed coincidence in your scripts.

Scott W. Smith

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“A logline conveys the dramatic story of a screenplay in the most abbreviated manner possible.”
Christopher Lockhart
The Construction of a Logline (Get this free PDF.)

“A good logline usually covers three bases. It gives us the main character, the main character’s goal, and the central conflict in the story (what’s preventing them from getting that goal).”
ScriptShadow Special – How To Craft A Damn Good Logline

Recently I was listening to Adam Levenberg’s podcast Official Screenwriting and he hit on the ever popular topic of writing loglines. Levenberg is the author of The Starter Screenplay and in the communications I’ve had with him he’s always come across as a guy who understands what makes movies and screenplays work. I recommend you give his podcast a listen.

“I really like this [logline] for JAWS:

‘A police chief, with a phobia for open water, battles a gigantic shark with an appetite for swimmers and boat captains, in spite of a greedy town council who demands that the beach stay open .’

I think this is the perfect logline, but it’s also for a nearly perfect movie. Look at how it does these things; A police chief, so we have our hero, we know whose eyes we’re seeing the movie from. And I think that’s key. You want to identify who’s our hero and tell the logline from their point of view just like you’re telling the movie from their point of view….The second thing, ‘with a phobia for open water.’ That’s great because we’re going to be putting him in the water. Why? Because he’s battling a gigantic shark….I like the way it identifies the goal—which is to stop the shark—it identifies the problem which is the shark. It identifies the opponent which is the shark. And it identifies the life and death stakes.”
Adam Levenberg
Podcast Writing Great Loglines (Check out the full podcast as Levenberg goes on to talk about the importance of turning the main character’s world upside down.)

Levenberg goes on to quote Jeffrey Schechter (My Story Can Beat Up Your Story) who passes on four key questions he learned from Michael Roberts when he tried to pitch an idea to the Disney Executive:

Who is your main character?

What are they trying to accomplish?

Who is trying to stop them?

What happens if they fail?

Levenberg doesn’t mention where he found that JAWS logline, but when I Googled it took me to the blog post Writing Good Log Lines written by Stanley D. Williams. (That article also references Schechter.) Williams is the author of the excellent book The Moral Premise.

One additional thing that the above JAWS logline has is irony. A police chief with a phobia for open water must go into the water to do battle.

“The loglines that read the best are the ones with some sort of irony in them, where the character and the situation are at odds with one another. A lawyer who can’t lie (Liar Liar). A king who can’t speak to his people (The King’s Speech). A Detroit cop investigating a case in Beverly Hills (Beverly Hills Cop). A time manager stuck on an island with all the time in the world (Cast Away). An alcoholic superhero (Hancock). These loglines will always catch a reader’s attention, so you’ll have a huge advantage if your concept contains irony.”
ScriptShadow Special —How To Craft A Damn Good Logline

A final tip on writing loglines comes from a post by Don Bledsoe on Script Nurse  stating that the Three C’s of loglines are “Clear, Concise & Conflict.”

“Most story ideas fail at the level of concept. Sad, but true. I’ve learned this the hard way.”
Producer/Writer Erik Bork
Loglines and SAVE THE CAT

These days I’m a big fan of nailing down your concept and logline (they’re related, but not the same) before you invest six months, a year, two years or more writing your script. Before you jump into your next script read Article-GSU! by Carson Reeves (on the importance of goal, stakes, urgency), It’s the Concept, Stupid by Max Adams, and Christopher Lockhart’s I Wrote a 120 Page Script But Can’t Write a Logline: The Construction of a Logline.

Related Posts:
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 1)
“The Inside Pitch”
Script Consultant Adam Levenberg
What’s at Stake?

Related Link:
The “A” List  (Advice from someone who’s read 30,000 scripts. Yes, 30,000.)

Scott W. Smith

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“There’s no such thing as a totally new concept, just reworking old ones to make them current and fresh.”
Adam Levenberg
The Starter Screenplay

We’ll start the new year by looking at an old trend in the movie business—Similiarities between films.

It’s not hard to look at Roger Corman’s Piranha (1978) and see how it was influenced by JAWS (1975). But it’s also not hard to see how JAWS was influenced by the classic 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. I’d like to think that a then eight year old Steven Spielberg saw Creature from the Black Lagoon when it first came out and thought, “Gee, when I grow up I think it would be fun to work at Universal Studios.”

—The creature and the shark both kill people
—The creature and the shark strand a boat that threatens all aboard
—Both stories have an element of greed on the part of the humans
—Both have quirky boat captains
—Both have scientists
—Similar music to announce impending danger of creature/shark (Da-Dum)
—Both are Universal Pictures
—The creature and the shark are killed at the end

I’m sure there are a few other similarities. Just as there are similarities between Creature and King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1946), Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). Of course Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein was published in 1818. And if we went back in time we have tales of creatures by the Greeks and Romans, and even in the Garden of Eden we have the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve.

To use Blake Snyder’s phrase, “monster in the house” stories have been with us a long time. (Even if the house is technically a lagoon or a small beach town.) Overall I think we put too much emphasis on the similarities of film instead of their differences. Earlier this week I watched Creature from the Black Lagoon and JAWS and found they each stand on their own.

I once had a teacher say that if you gave ten writers the basic concept of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and had them write a script you would have ten original stories. Heck, Scorsese has made a career out of lifting chunks of 1930s gangster films and giving them his own imprint.

So don’t be discouraged when people read your script and say, “Oh, it’s just like….” They’re just seeing patterns that are in every film. Last week I saw The Black Swan and I thought, “Oh, it’s The Wrestler meets The Fight Club.” Then I saw Mark Walhberg in The Fighter and even though it’s based on a true story, I still thought, “It’s part Rocky (1976) and part Fat City (1972).” Your originality will come from your own unique background.

And speaking of  Creature from the Black Lagoon, I saw where screenwriter Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) is remaking the film. Turns out that Ross’ father, Arthur A. Ross, was one of the screenwriters on the original film. The elder Ross was nominated for an Oscar for the 1980 film Brubaker which was just eight years before Gary received his first Oscar nomination for Big—shared with co-writer Anne Spielberg, who happens to be Steven’s sister. (One big happy family, right?)

And lastly, I can’t help but point out that the actress (Julie Adams) who the creature from the Black Lagoon was attracted to, in real life was born in Waterloo, Iowa. (Just a few miles from where I type this post in Cedar Falls, Iowa.)



P.S. If you’re a filmmaker near the Florida panhandle, the exterior shots for Creature from the Black Lagoon were shot in Wakulla Springs State Park. I’m not sure what the requirements are to shoot there, but it’s as untouched today as it was when then filmed Creature. Crystal clear water and beautiful natural light.

© 2011 Scott W. Smith


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“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Andy Defresne in The Shawshank Redemption

In light of quoting Secretariat screenwriter Mike Rich this week (Screenwriting Quote #145Mike Rick & Hobby Screenwriting) it would be hard to look at the list of films he’s written and not see that there is a thread of hope and redemption in all of them.

“It’s very, very hard to get a movie made. Quadruple or quintuple that degree of difficulty when your movie is about endless grim horribleness. If there is no spiritual uplift at the end , the reader is going to heave the script into the fireplace and cackle as it burns. Why should the audience suffer along with the character only for it to have been in vain?…Let the reader end on a note of hope or redemption.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks
page 15

The themes of hope and/or redemption aren’t limited to Disney films or more overtly spiritual films. Here is a short list in a mix of genres and old and new films that I’d put in the category;

The Shawshank Redemption
Casablanca
On the Waterfront
Seabiscuit
Juno

The African Queen
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Toy Story

Jaws
Tender Mercies
Field of Dreams
Erin Brockovich
Rocky

Rain Man
The Natural
Tootsie
Saving Private Ryan
An Officer & a Gentleman
Jerry Maguire
Pieces of April

It’s an easy list to come up with because those are some of my favorite films. It’s also a list shows that themes of hope & redemption are often popular with audiences, the Academy and critics. Sure getting a film made is hard, but what are the odds that your film resonates with audiences, the Academy and critics?(There are reasons universal themes are called universal.)

And on one level every screenwriter hopes the script they are working on will be produced and find an audience and will redeem the time spent working on their craft. (Even the edgy, indie, non-mainstream screenwriter working on the most nihilistic script ever written shares the same desire.) May hope & redemption fill your writing career and your life.

Scott W. Smith

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“Surely the most famous life line in classic storytelling is the glass slipper.”
Wells Root (referring to Cinderella)

Your character has a goal or a problem that needs solved—what they ultimately need to achieve that goal is a life line.

Do you remember in the movie Jaws when the Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) was facing imminent death at the end of the movie? It’s a scene of high drama. It’s a you or me face-off and it looks like Brody is on the losing end with a shark…until he reaches for a life line.

From the Peter Benchley script (this draft only has his name on it) at page 112:

Brody is sliding toward (the shark) with the rest of the debris as the bow raises thirty degrees. He intercepts one of Hooper’s compressed air tanks and just as he and everything else pours toward the whirlpool and into the jaws Brody braces himself and shoves the tanks at the bottomless pit. They jam between the upper and lower jaws and stick fast.

But where did these compressed air tanks come from? The tanks are loaded on Quint’s (Robert Shaw) boat on page 79. They are intended for diving by Hooper, but just so we know the power and danger of the tanks Benchley writes a little exposition.

Quint almost trips over Hooper’s tanks as he walks to the chum barrels. He roughly kicks them aside.

Quint
Fancy goddamn toys….

Hooper
(jumping up)
Careful! Compressed air — you crack that and it explodes like a bomb!

It’s a quick exchange that doesn’t draw attention to itself. So now let’s fast forward to page 112 of the 113 page script. Brody has tossed the tanks in the shark’s mouth. That’s the set-up and now the payoff. Benchley writes (major spoiler coming):

The shark twists backward in the water and turns away. Hooper, rising, is peering around for Brody and Quint. The shark is spinning in crazed circles, the head-thrusts indicating that it can neither dislodge nor swallow the silver tanks. It bites down at fifteen tons pressure per square inch. The TANKS EXPLODE!

Now Spielberg (or Benchley, or additional credited writer Carl Gottieb, or even somebody else) said something like, “Yeah, technically Brody got the shark, but what if we raised the stakes? What if we put victory or defeat in the hands of Brody? Wouldn’t that be a more satisfactory ending than the shark basically killing himself? Brody is a cop, he knows how to shoot a gun. We laughed at him for pulling out his pistol at one point and trying to shoot this giant killer shark. ‘ But what if he falls back on his marksmanship and takes a rifle and has to shoot the compressed air tanks wedged in the sharks teeth or he’s a dead man?” The audiences will be thinking ‘Good luck. That’s not going to work.’ The shark gets closer and closer. Brody pulls himself together, concentrates, fires…and boom The TANK EXPLODES.”

That’s what happens in the movie. The box office exploded as well. And some would say that Jaws was the film that changed American movies forever. With a great big assist by a great life line.

In the book Writing the Script (which happened to be published in 1979—the same year as Syd Field’s Screenplay) Wells Root writes;

“This life line, therefore, is whatever device you can use to resolve your hero or heroine’s problem…But the technique has certain strict limitations. It must be logical. Not cloud-built or contrived. It should not be just wild luck, such as a lightning bolt killing the heavy or a flash flood drowning all the escaping bandits. Your life line should not be deus ex machina. That is latin for ‘a god from the machine.'”

So give your character a life line, but always remember to set it up properly so we’re not reading your script or watching your moving and reacting with a uniform bewildered look as we bury our face in our hands.

And just for the record, life lines tend to have the most impact when what’s at stake is life or death. (What’s at Stake? Tip #9)

What are some of your favorite movie life lines?

Scott W. Smith

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“A good title should be like a good metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or two obvious.”
Walker Percy

I’m staying on the Up in the Air gravy train (gravy plane?)  just a little bit longer. Not only did I love the film but I love the title. It’s a title that has a literal meaning since it’s a film that deals with traveling via airplanes. But it’s also a common phrase in our culture meaning undecided or uncertain.

Up in the Air is a pretty good description of the Up in the Air main character Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney.  A character whose only real purpose appears to collecting frequent flyer miles. Everything else is up in the air.

Many writers talk about starting with a title and build from there and others say they can’t even decide on a title even after they’ve written the script or book.  Can a movie succeed without a great title? Sure, look at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Looking at the AFI list of top 100 films and you’ll see a mixture of great, good, and bland titles. A title doesn’t make a film, but in a day and age of the importance of the opening weekend, a great title is desired to help attract an audience.

The most common titles seem to focus a main character or being, place or thing, or an event.

Character or being:
Citizen Kane
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
King Kong
Rocky
Forrest Gump
Spartacus
Bonnie and Clyde
The Godfather
Tootsie
Jaws
Psycho
Raging Bull

A place or thing:
Titanic
The African Queen
Bridge on the River Kwai
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
On the Waterfront
Chinatown
Sunset Blvd.
The Maltese Falcon
The Apartment
Casablanca

An event:
High Noon
Apocalypse Now
Star Wars
2001: A Space Odyssey
Saving Private Ryan
Bringing Up Baby
Sophie’s Choice

And while not a hard and fast rule, great titles tend to be short (three words or less). Just look at the above list.  And my favorites of those listed are Jaws and Psycho. Each one a simple word, but both hit you at a gut level.

Titles like Avatar, Batman, The Matrix are easier to discuss around the water cooler.  Even longer titles (especially sequels) tend to get edited around the water cooler and just called  Harry Potter, Narnia, Pirates, Star Wars, Twilight, Spider-Man.

Up in the Air falls into that minority category of a title that’s a little more obtuse, in line with The Last Picture Show, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Silence of the Lambs, or Gone with the Wind. (All of which happened to have been books or plays first which tend to favor a more intellectual audience.) If you go with a metaphor, it doesn’t hurt to have a movie star in the lead role. As I talk up the film Up in the Air, I find myself calling it “The George Clooney Film.”

What are some of your favorite titles (even if they aren’t one of your favorite films)? Or some of your favorite bad titles.
I love the title of the lesser known 50s film Them. And I like titles such as Black Hawk Down, Meet the Parents, Witness, The Hunt for Red October, Collateral and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly because they all have built in conflict, mystery and intrigue. And the worst titles off the top of my head goes to Ishtar and Valkyrie, neither of which leave me with a visceral reaction.

Of course, the most bland title ever might just be…Movie Titles (tip #32). (But at least it’s twitter friendly.)

Update: I decided to do a Google search to see what others thought were the best and worst movie titles ever and found one blogger who had a post called Top 10 Worst Movie Titles Ever and the writer put Surf Nazis Must Die at #10. That film was written and directed by Peter George who I happened to go to film school with. (I was always a little upset I didn’t get a small role in the film.) If anyone knows where Mr. George is these days tell him I want my watch back. The one that I left at his Hollywood apartment after I crashed on his sofa one night back before he was making top ten lists.

Scott W. Smith


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