Speeded Up: Faster Movies, Better Stories?
This was movie weekend for me! And wasn’t I glad to be back at the Octoplex!
Early on, that’s how I spent most weekends: seeing lots of movies. I’d go downtown on Saturday early, stay all day, check out three, four, five films (plus the trailers), and even “interview” other moviegoers during the breaks just to see if they saw what I saw.
I recommend this still. Not many careers offer the ability to meet the target market so easily.
If there’s one thing we can do to get better at this it’s: Know thy audience!
This weekend I saw only two movies (lazybones that I am): Ironman and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Liked ’em both! And throughout both, as is my habit nowadays, all I kept thinking was: there’s-the-fun-and-games-there’s-the-midpoint-there’s-the-all-is-lost-a-ha! Third-Act-Synthesis — nice!
It’s an occupational hazard. But a fun one!
And very edifying!
The 15 beats of the BS2 can easily be found in both these films. And Ironman (the #1 film two weekends in a row) clearly hits every beat (spoiler alert!). I particularly loved the Midpoint of Ironman which covered pretty much everything identified in Save the Cat! including: a midpoint party scene, “false victory” of Robert Downey Jr. (great in this!) successfully flying around LA in the scene just before, near kiss with Gwyneth Paltrow (A and B story cross), plus a “raise the stakes” reveal of Jeff Bridges as the “bad guy” with Bad Guys Close In, and the All Is Lost “whiff of death” (Downey actually dies and comes back in this particular page 75) close at hand.
These very same beats can be found in Sarah Marshall.
They can be found in all successful stories be they Indie, big tentpole movie, or featurette.
The big difference I saw this weekend however was… more scenes! The pace in each of these films is faster than I’ve ever noticed, with more half-scenes, mini-scenes, flashbacks, cut to’s, cutaways, and point-of-view shifts than any movie I can point to of late.
If you don’t think the pacing of movies has changed, and can evolve still more, take a look at the languid rollout of most movies pre-1990. Audiences steeped in cinema, and ahead of us screenwriters, get it! Faster, slicker, and quicker than before.
And as the writers of said films, we must adapt.
The most human, poignant moments from both these films are what each story is really about — and the moments that make each work. Sarah Marshall was especially successful, and in every way broke our pre-conceived notions of stereotype. I really recommend this film as an example of “the same thing only different”; it’s so like the movie 10, starring Dudley Moore, and yet brand new.
The structure for these “speeded-up movies” remains the same, and the requirements of each section of the beat sheet is, too.
But I’d be curious how you are dealing with the issue of pace in your scripts. Do you find the need to move it along? Do you find any explanation to be over-explanation? And what special new tricks do you find help break the rules in a way that “gives us the same thing, only different?”
p.s. We had some great news today: this article in the L.A. Times. I’d like to personally thank writer Jay Fernandez, Anne Lower of Final Draft, and of course Peter Cook and the kids at Camino Nuevo Charter School for their outstanding efforts in making this outreach a great success!
Forgetting Sarah Marshall, unless you really do hate the character;)
- Mike Rinaldi
Good article, but I have to say that Irfan Khan’s photograph of Mr. Cook with that student is amazing. The lighting, everything– it looks like a movie!
As for my writing, I’m noticing that my action writing is extremely economical and fast-paced. What feels like 4 pages of content is usually only about one and a half.
But when I get into fun dialog, especially a scene with several people talking, I get scenes that are 7 pages long. One way to fix it is to simply not have five people talking in a scene all at once… but sometimes when it’s Monday morning at the office, you need to cover a lot of ground at the water cooler. Breaking these scenes up or shortening them is probably my number one issue right now.
Ha! Thanks JP! Working off the ad campaign!! Fixed now.
No problem, Blake!
**cyber extends hand**
Jeff Paterson, nice to meet you:)
Mike, I’m in the same boat as you. My action lines are really tight and economical, and then I might have a long scene with lots of dialogue, because sometimes once my characters start going it’s hard for them to stop. They’re so witty and inmteresting! Who are these people?
One challenge I have is when I’m introducing a person or important setting for the first time. I may have a scene that actually plays out very quickly, but I need to take a few senences to describe some important elements about a character or place and I hate how it bogs down the reading.
Sometimes I’ll look at other scripts to see how the masters do it. Sci-fi movies are good places to start, because sometimes the writer has to set-up an imaginary environment or cool technology without being too verbose.
The “Alien” script is pretty good at being both brief and descriptive.
This my first post here (although not my first time on the blog, see The Cat goes to MIT. Thanks again, Blake) but how could I resist posting about the pacing of stories.
Here’s an example…
One of my favorite cheesy 80s movies, okay, actually, just one of my favorite movies period, is Streets of Fire from 1984.
In the opening scenes we are introduced to Diane Lane’s character as a “rock star” by seeing her on stage performing. I think in a movie made today we would have at most 45 seconds of her singing and we would get it, she is a rock star, we would know what that means. But in SOF, she plays the entire song, a few minutes of her performing on stage, before Willem Dafoe strikes. The irony, of course, being that the song is actually about speed, “if we’re going nowhere, we should be going there fast” or something like that.
So the thought is this…
Is the reason the pacing is getting quicker because our audiences have more references, more experience with stories and images? So essentially we can use cliches to show something in much less time. I can give a character a Night of the Living Dead t-shirt, or make a character drive a certain car, and let the stereotypes move the story faster than a long establishing scene. So the next question is what happens when you sacrifice detail for speed in this way. Well, I guess, you are limited by the stereotypes, so the characters will be cliches, and could potentially not be very interesting at the onset. This could be okay, if they become interesting through the narrative, which might require keeping up the pace to put the details back in.
Maybe fast pacing works better for stories that show what the character does to show who they are whereas slow pacing might work better for stories that show who the character is to interest the audience in what they do. And by that thought, maybe a cliched character works better in a fast paced movie, as in, “Let’s see what this alcoholic scientist does that’s so special”.
Or maybe faster is simply faster, and it’s summer.
- Martin Blank
Re: pacing, I was studying “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” over the weekend, and while Brooks leaves a ton of time for the audience to laugh, the pacing is really slow. I’ve been seeing this a lot in “older” movies. Yet one does not see this in “Sunset Boulevard.” I think here’s why and what I’ve been doing… I make the stakes truthfully as high as possible all the time, which has a way of making scenes move quickly from a place of truth, instead of forcing it.
Your pal and fan,
Excellent observation Blank. I think “forced” pacing is what gets me down, not fast pacing.
By the way, I hear you stabbed a central american dictator with a fork… true? ;)
- Mike Rinaldi
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
I seem to recall the pacing and editing on “Citizen Kane” was pretty rapid-fire and ahead of it’s time (but maybe perfect for today).
For a generation that’s seen more movies and less life (more time watching “The Sandlot” than playing on one), you better show them something pretty fast or they’re gone (off to steal a car in a video game and participate in some interactive mayhem, perhaps?). Otherwise you can write “About Schmidt.” Anything in between, and you takes your chances on slow pacing.
- Rhys Southan
Does this mean you’re going to revise your suggestion in Save the Cat! that no act should have more than 10 scenes (assuming you count Act II as two acts)? That was the one rule in Save the Cat! that I tend to find myself ignoring, as I try to fit more than that into each of my acts. I still write full scenes, but shorter scenes that get at the point more economically.
- Robert Thompson
Yeah, pacing has really changed. I saw “To Kill A Mockingbird” a while back and the pace was deadly. I remembered it as one of my all time favorites, but that pace would not sell today. On the other hand, the pace sort of captures the flow of life in the south during a certain time period.
It’s a tough issue. The MTV generation is used to fast editing.
Personally, I get woozy if it’s cut too fast, and I like more character development. I think that the director and editor play a big part as well. These days they probably tinker and cut scenes down to the bare essentials…but if you wrote it that way nobody could keep up for lack of understanding.
- Jaime Bengzon
The pace in editing really has changed. I’m old enough to remember when a Bond film used to be the height of action movies, but after fare like the Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Matrix franchises with Tarantino and and Rodriguez efforts thrown in for good measure, 007 movies seem strangely quaint in comparison. At least up to the World is Not Enough; Die Another Day is faster paced.
I’ve been watching a number of Whydunnits recently. When Blow Out was first released I remember being on the edge of my seat for most of the movie. After watching it again yesterday, the pace was much slower than I remembered it although time hasn’t diminished the the heartbreaking ending. On the other hand, Charade seems amazingly contemporary in its pace; that could be because Grant and Hepburn have such great chemistry that you want to see more and more of them.
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I’m so glad you did a post on this topic, Blake, because it is a minor source of wistful longing for me as a viewer. To underscore, I watched three films this weekend myself… Charade (first time ever, wonderful movie, check out the Critereon edition if you can!), Good Night and Good Luck (flawless on every level, I thought), and finally Chinatown (probably my tenth time… so sue me!) In any event, these films all share one common trait… they take their time telling their stories, they linger in things as apparently unpopular as character and setting and detail. While watching Robert Towne speak on the Chinatown extras, he lamented, “I don’t think a movie like Chinatown could be made today.” What a sad state of affairs! (And yet it’s the model used in the granddaddy of screenplay books (heh heh, for now, anyway, right Blake?), Syd Field’s SCREENPLAY… strange paradox.)
Anyway, the point is this… wouldn’t it be wise as writers for us to distinguish ourselves by telling our stories in a less… what’s the word I’m seeking… perhaps AGGRESSIVE manner? The only screenwriters I see doing that would be perhaps Paul Haggis or Noah Baumbach.
By the way, I actually loved Iron Man AND Speed Racer. I think the NEW CINEMA, if you want to call it that, is just fine and the quick-cut/ADD style of storytelling isn’t exactly a bad thing.
I just wish there remained room for restraint. And who can control that?
*by the way, thanks for STC Goes to the Movies! I can’t tell you what a positive impact it’s had on my work!*