Friday, March 13, 2009

insider information

This week we took a look at the film Inside Man in an effort to understand the mechanics of a thriller. I always talk about these films as if you've just finished watching them, so if it's been a while you may want to check it out before reading this post. The first thing we did was take a look at the scene breakdown. As with every film I assign, I like to have a list of all the scenes that we can refer back to. It's a good habit to get into if you're trying to deconstruct a film and it certainly helps to understand structure.
We noticed that almost every scene in the film deals with the A story: the heist. The B story (Detective Miller's troubles at work with the missing $140K) and the C story (his girlfriend and the pending marriage proposal) account for about 2% of the movie and they are usually handled within the context of the A story. That's something to keep in mind about thrillers-- there tends to be room for just the A story and not a lot of tangential information.
Raymond Chandler said, "When things slow down, bring in a man with a gun." Good advice. Scenes of quiet introspection are followed by quickly paced scenes that raise the stakes and generally involve a degree of life-and-death risk. It keeps the reader/viewer on edge and the juxtaposition of quiet with noisy can create an interesting effect.
Often writers will make things too easy for the protagonist in the early draft. I always say get them up a tree and start throwing rocks at them. Whatever you can think of that will make it as hopeless, as impossible and bleak as you can imagine is probably the right way to go. Never give your protagonist a convenient break. Making this work is a matter of setups and payoffs. In the film Detective Miller meets up with Ms. White (Jodi Foster) and you pretty much figure she's going to manipulate him into doing her bidding. She's got everyone, including the mayor, wrapped around her finger so preventing a low level detective from doing his job and exposing her client is not a big deal. However, she turns out to be key in Detective Miller's successful exposure of the larger crime (the Nazi diamonds) and ultimately is the reason he is cleared of any wrong doing in the missing $140K issue back at the station. Another way to do this is to give your protagonist a time limit and then if possible, shorten the time limit. Miller has a hostage situation and a ticking clock that lets us know how close or far he is from solving the case.
Just as important as making things hard for your protagonist is giving them enough initiative to see them through the story. They MUST solve this case. More depends on it than doing their job. It's all about something larger and more important than that. They have to heal some wound, protect their family or friends, in some way they must have skin in the game.
For sure, one of the worst mistakes you can make when writing a thriller is not doing the research into your protagonist's career. Most likely your protagonist is a detective. This does not necessarily mean they work for the police or an agency, though. They may be a Miss Marples type-- someone with no official license or training. But you have to know the details of investigation in order to make your story feel real. In Inside Man one of the details that gives this film it's texture is the careful portrayal of racism in the post 9/11 NYPD. Then there's the standard stuff; teaching us new information about hostage negotiation and the technology that makes it possible.
One of my favorite things about this film is the way it continues even after it ends. We had a bit of a debate in class about whether Detective Miller keeps the diamond at the end or not. The class was pretty evenly split. The open-endedness of this question mirrors the larger themes in the film and does not lend itself to easy answers. The writer sets up a very interesting moral dillema and lets us see all the arguments for each side then leaves us to make up our own minds about what is right and wrong. The recent film Doubt does the same thing.
You may be hearing a lot lately about how the studios are only interested in genre films (comedy, horror, thriller). There is some truth to that, genre films are easier to market and because the studios are beholden to corporate parent companies they're under ever greater creative constraints. You might be tempted to write a genre film for a quick buck. This is a mistake. First off, the notion of a quick buck is a complete fallacy. I've never seen anyone make a quick buck as a writer. If you spend a year or longer of intense work on a script it MIGHT result in a sale. That's a big if. The second thing is you have to LOVE what you write or it won't work. I've read many thrillers that weren't thrilling, horror scripts that weren't horrific and comedies that weren't even remotely comedic. The only script you should write is for the movie you are dying to see. You have to go into your story with enthusiasm because it is the only thing that will sustain you when you are on draft twenty three in year two of the writing and you've yet to see a single dime. In short, the only way I know to succeed is to write for love and not for money.
Next week we'll be discussing character based on a viewing of the documentary "Crazy Love."

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