Tuesday, July 11, 2006

2 + 2 =

Do you remember a few weeks ago when Turner Classic Movies aired for the first time on television "Billy Wilder Speaks" in celebration of what would have been his 100th birthday? I’m sure you do. Billy said a lot of memorable things about screenwriting such as:

“You always start with too many ideas.”

“You can't tell the truth flat-out. You gotta dip it in chocolate first.”

And my personal favorite…

“You want to tell the audience '2+2=4' or '1+1+1+1=4' or '3+1=4' but you can't do that. You have to say '2+2=' and then you let the audience figure out the rest.”

That’s a great insight. “2 + 2 =.” I love it!

After the special, AMC played Double Indemnity, which I’m embarrassed to admit I had never seen before. Love the dialogue. However, the movie opens with Fred MacMurray, an insurance salesman, stumbling into an office, pulling out a dictation machine, and confessing his crime. He spills his guts about how he got involved with a married woman and how they schemed to kill her husband, collect the insurance money, and run away together. “But it didn't work out that way,” he says, “I didn't get the girl, and I didn't get the money.”

I screamed at the TV, "2+2=4!"

And then the movie turned into a big flashback that brought us full circle to the moment where Fred MacMurray would be back in the office confessing his sins. And along the way we would hear voice overs explaining every detail of every visual element on the screen.


And when we got to the Act III climax where Fred MacMurray actually confronts Barbara Stanwyck in her home, she reveals right before he knocks on the door that she has a gun, which she hides under the cushion of a chair. Of course, I wasn’t the least bit nervous about Fred MacMurray’s life being in danger because Wilder gave away the ballgame in the very opening scene of the movie by literally showing us and telling us that


He made this same mistake with Sunset Blvd.

Yes, these are classics. Wilder made the right structural choice for a 1940 audience that wasn’t accustomed to dark films. He was managing their expectations and preparing them for the fact that the end will be just a tad… tragic. It is film noir and it must end in tragedy. However, today's audience has seen a lot more movies and for the most part, they're smarter about how a movie functions. They will pick up on the subtleties you give them, and they only need a few hints to point the way toward that happy or sad ending.

I’ve read hundreds of amateur screenplays, and I don’t know why, but newbie writers cling to this Double Indemnity type of story structure like it’s the bread and butter of screenwriting. They give away the ending in the opening scene and then, of course, the protag starts telling a story, which always makes me cringe, and what usually follows is about 100 pages of flashback filled with needless voice-overs. Of course, inevitably, the story winds its way back to where it first started. By doing this, all the FUN has been snuffed out of the script, the rug has been yanked out from underneath all the tension and emotion and worry and hopes and fears we SHOULD be feeling throughout Act II. Why? Because we already know how it will end. It’s just a matter of connect the dots. And when the protag gets into danger, we’re not at all concerned, because, like the gun in Barbara Stanwyck’s chair, we already know that no matter what happens, the protag will not die. The protag must live long enough to take us back to the opening scene.



wcdixon said...

So is the point that if you start movie this way, one should pick a dramatic point just prior to conclusion so ending is still up in there air? Or just not start movies this way? Are there any examples of movies that start with ending (or thereabouts) and work (American Beauty?) ?

Mystery Man said...

I'm going to blog about this in the morning...