Finally saw Tropic Thunder and really liked this Ben Stiller-directed comedy. The story is a movie in a movie about a group of actors who, Apocalypse Now-style, go into the jungle to shoot a film and wind up participating in a real life version of it. And apart from the solid cast and production values, including the single funniest way to get a director off the set, it is a great example of “misdirection and surprise.”
What is this time-honored screenwriting technique?
Misdirection and Surprise is the moviemaker’s gleeful way to keep an audience on its toes by keeping them forever guessing about what will happen next. It’s seen throughout Tropic Thunder.
(Spoiler alert!) From start to finish, we think this movie is going one way, then it goes another. We are set up for the old army veteran (Nick Nolte) to be a tough and cantakerous mentor only to learn — in a disarming way — that he is a fraud. We are “set up” to expect Ben Stiller’s character to be the one who ultimately leads the group of captured actors out of harm’s way, only to learn that he is the “Princess in the High Tower” who will need to be saved. We are even “set up” to have the boy he befriends and attempts to rescue in the Finale to be the one who “saves” him, only to see him tossed aside — literally — for being a pain in the neck.
We are set up for cliche, and have the rug pulled out from under us as an audience — and we love it!
That’s all screenwriting is. We take you by the hand and set you up for one thing, then take an ironic left turn. From the irony found in concept, to the surprise twists in characters and scenes, it’s the same.
Misdirection and Surprise is a great thing to consider in writing any screenplay, and a good excuse to see Tropic Thunder to note how many left turns can be mined from turning cliches inside out.