Posts Tagged ‘Taken’

“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

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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
Back to the Future

Silence of the Lambs
Little Miss Sunshine
The Hangover
High Noon
Blue Brothers
Happy Gilmore
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.

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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?

Related Posts:
The Bomb Under the Table 

Scott W. Smith




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The truth is there won’t be any government bailouts any time soon for Hollywood. They don’t really need one.

If the box office numbers continue at the same pace they’ve  been the first two months of the year then it will be Hollywood’s biggest growth in 20 years. Movies like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Taken, Slumdog Millionaire, Marley & MeGran Torino and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button all passed the $100 million mark at some time in the first two months of 2009. 

According to Box Office Mojo January and February of 2009 have been the biggest months ever box office-wise for any January or February. Just as in the Great Depression people retreat to the movies in hard times. And just for an added emphasis in February,  The Dark Knight passed the billion dollar mark just before the Academy Awards. (That kind of makes up for not being nominated for best picture.)

Of course, it must be noted that the box office numbers are also due to the increase costs of a movie ticket. At least for the time being if people are going to forgo a trip to Vegas, Florida or Europe they are willing to pay $8-10 to see a movie. 

But playing off my last post, almost every single minute of all those money-making recent films that passed the $100 million mark this year were made outside of L.A. 

They were mostly made in New Jersey, France, India, Detroit, Miami or New Orleans. (And, just for the record, The Dark Knight, was filmed in Chicago.)

So the outsourcing of L.A. production jobs due to runaway production is one way Hollywood is becoming like Detroit. And just as new car sales are down, so too are DVD sales. Way down. As in the billions.

DVD sales were down two and a half billion from 2007 compared to 2006. Blu-Ray may have won the battle over HD-DVD but it hasn’t won the hearts of the people. Perhaps people are content with their DVDs. I know I am. Blu-Ray may have higher resolution but they won’t play on my laptop which is how I like to listen to the director’s commentaries on the $5 DVDs I’ve been buying.

A lot of people don’t want to shell out for another player and pay $25. for the Blu-Ray movies. The economy is part of the problem, but so is technology since digital downloads appear to be the next big thing. Why not ride that shift out and save a few bucks? And even psychologically when you have a stash of your favorite movies on  DVDs that you’ve collected over the years it makes it hard to justify the next obsolete shift.

When all is said and done there may not be the big three automakers any more and there may not be as much big Hollywood dollars flowing in the streets of Los Angeles. But there will still be cars and movies. They will just be originating from places beyond Detroit and L.A. 

As far as movies go, the downturn in the economy mixed with the rise in digital technology are empowering creative people outside L.A. and that’s one more reason why people are Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside L.A. (Note that the number one movie this weekend was written and made in a studio in Atlanta.)

And that’s why $86 million is being spent to convert a former Metro Detroit auto plant into a movie studio. (With the hope that 4,000 jobs will follow.)

The real question; Is Detroit the new Hollywood?

Related post: Screenwriting from Michigan


copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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I thought Taken was quite a good film and I wondered how the screenwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen worked as a pair. They come from different backgrounds. Kamen an American who is best known for writing The Karate Kid lives in New York and owns a winery in California. Besson the Frenchman who wrote The Transporter (with Kamen) grew up in places like Greece and Bulgaria because his parents were scuba instructors with Club Med.

Somewhere along the way the two met and now have worked together on several films. 

“Here’s how this works. Luc and I write scripts together. We conceptualize them together, then I write them, and then he does his Luc Besson things to them, then he goes off, and he produces them. So how Taken came about was Luc came to me and said, ‘I met this cop, and he told me this amazing story about an auction of women in a chateau outside of Paris; that they broke up this ring. I think this is amazing, so let’s make up a story.’ And then we made up the story of Taken.”
                                         Robert Mark Kamen
                                         WGA  Interview with Shira Gotsshalk

In that same interview Kamen offers this advice for those who want to be screenwriters, “Don’t read Variety. Don’t listen to gossip. Don’t live in L.A., and write. I write original screenplays every year besides the movies I get made, and I just put them away. Write what makes you excited, and if it makes you excited, and you’re any good  it will excite somebody else.”


Scott W. Smith

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Over the weekend I saw the movie Taken and it made me think back to a few films that feature a son or daughter who disappears—The Searchers with John Wayne, Ransom with Mel Gibson, and Hardcore with George C. Scott. 

Hardcore was written by Paul Schrader who also wrote Taxi Driver, Ragging Bull, and The Mosquito Coast. Born and raised in a Dutch Reformed community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he didn’t see a movie until he was 17. Since Hardcore is about a daughter who runs away and gets caught up in the porn industry, Schrader’s religious upbringing may seem an odd fit as the writer of the screenplay. But if you read the book Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings (edited by Kevin Jackson) you understand better where he is coming from.

Though film has been called a Catholic medium because of its use of symbolism and emphasis on guilt and works (as well as its understanding of sin & redemption), Schrader is one of the few modern giants of cinema with a Protestant background. (Protestants, especially evangelicals, tend to favor didacticism—instructional—methods which doesn’t play as well on film. )

Schrader’s understanding of what’s known at the doctrine of total depravity allows him to tap into characters such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Schrader is also considered one of the greatest intellectuals in Hollywood and though he later walked away from the religious beliefs of his youth, he credits Calvin College with teaching him to think. (And a few years ago he returned to his alma mater  to speak, so maube they’ve made their peace.) 

“There’s also a delicious line in Hardcore that’s actually taken from one of my uncles, which is at the beginning, at the Christmas part. The kids are sitting around watching some innocuous TV special and the uncle walks in and turns off the set—this is something that actually happened to me—and he says, ‘Do you know who makes television? All the kids who couldn’t get along here go out to Hollywood and make TV and send it back here. Well, I didn’t like them when they were here and I don’t like them now they’re out there.’ And this struck me as absolutely true, That’s what we all do, you know; misfits from small towns across America go out to Hollywood, make TV and movies and pump it back into our parents homes and try to make them feel guilty.”
                                                       Paul Schrader
                                                       Schrader on Schrader
                                                       page 149 


Schrader’s website is paulschrader.com


Scott W. Smith

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