Screenwriting 101 — The Act Break

  asks: “I’m often confused about just where act breaks occur.  Reviews often mention them as if they’re obvious, but they aren’t to me.  Do you know of a good primer that would help me understand this?”

My father once described it to me like this:

In Act I, a guy gets stuck up in a tree, in Act II they throw rocks at him, in Act III he gets down from the tree.

Strangely enough, if you take out “tree” and put in “collapsed skyscraper,” you have exactly the plot of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, so let’s look at the structure of that.

Act I of World Trade Center is nothing more or less than an illustration of how Nic Cage ends up underneath a collapsed skyscraper. In a dry, unemphatic, almost journalistic tone, the filmmakers show us, step by step, the incidents that conspire to get Nic under that collapsed skyscraper. This is all fascinating because we’re all interested in what happened on 9/11 but very few of us, thankfully, got the firefighter’s pov of the event. So this is good filmmaking. And we see the politics of the firehouse and see the administration of the crews on the ground and the confusion and turmoil that surrounded the event, and then the building collapses on top of poor Nic and that’s the end of the first act.

In Act II, they literally throw rocks at him for forty minutes. He’s stuck under a ton of cement and twisted metal, he has no idea what has happened to him, he’s got his buddy pinned under a different ton of cement and twisted metal a few yards away and rocks keep falling on his head. And he has to deal with that, and we see, step by step, how he deals with that — he thinks about his family life, he thinks about his job and his friends, he hallucinates visions of the Virgin Mary. And while it’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie, I’d guess that the “Act II low-point” occurs when poor Nic has given up hope of ever getting out from under this collapsed skyscraper.

Then, in Act III, a ray of hope! Someone up top realizes that Nic is trapped under this collapsed skyscraper and we see, step by step, incident by incident, how a team of men work together to get him out. And there is much nail-biting suspense regarding if they’ll get to him in time, if the wreckage of this collapsed skyscraper will shift and smoosh poor Nic, if he’ll lose an arm or a leg or his sanity, et cetera.

So there you have it. Inciting incident: airplanes crash into the World Trade Center. Our protagonist is a simple working-class joe trying to do his job, gets caught up in the story of the century. Act I illustrates how he ends up under the collapsed skyscraper. There is escalating tension throughout Act II because, let’s face it, he’s trapped under a collapsed skyscraper and there isn’t much to go on as far as ideas for how to get out of that situation. Inevitably, despair sets in as it appears he will never get out from under the collapsed skyscraper, then, in Act III, miraculously, he does.

David Mamet put it a slightly different way: he said that Act I is “Once Upon A Time,” Act II is “Then One Day” and Act III is “But There Was One Thing That They Forgot.” So we would say that World Trade Center goes “Once Upon A Time there was a Working-Class Joe just trying to do his job with his team of Other Working-Class Joes. Then One Day a skyscraper collapsed on top of him and he worried that maybe he’d die under all that cement and twisted metal. But There Was One Thing That He Forgot, which was that, Working-Class Joe that he was, he was part of a Community of Working-Class Joes, and if there’s one thing you can say about Working-Class Joes, it’s that they are at their best when things are at their worst, and they will move heaven and earth when one of their own is in trouble.”

It’s also worth noting that not all movies have a three-act structure. Terminator 2, for instance, has a four-act structure. Act I sets the board with all the different characters: John Connor, the T-101, the T-1000, Sarah Connor, John’s evil foster parents, Sarah’s evil doctor, so forth, and sets them on their courses. Their stories all converge into a massive action sequence at the end of Act I. As Act I ends, John has survived the attack from the T-1000, is away from his foster parents and with his “new dad,” the T-101. Act II involves John beginning to understand the new rules of this new terminator setup and deciding that, in spite of what he’s been told, that they have to go get his mother, and so Act II sends John and the T-101 and the T-1000 all converging on the hospital where Sarah is being held prisoner and climaxes with them busting her out of the joint. Act III has them resting after their adventure, healing up and deciding what to do next. John decides one thing, but Sarah decides another, and Act III has, again, two teams heading to a destination with conflicting agendas. Sarah decides she’s got to kill Miles Dyson and John decides that killing is wrong no matter what the consequences. And again, just as with the preceding two acts, both teams arrive at their destination (that is, Dyson’s house) at more or less the same moment and a spectacular action sequence takes place. Through the prosecution of that action sequence (and again, here we see Cameron’s intuitive genius for the meaning of action) the stakes change. Sarah Connor is prepared to kill Dyson and John and the T-101 show up to stop her, and through the convergence of these two opposing forces, a new and surprising outcome occurs: Sarah achieves her goal of stopping the development of Skynet and does so without having to kill Dyson. (This moment is a particularly wonderful inversion because John has managed to turn the Terminator into a peaceful, protective machine but can’t control his crazy, bloodthirsty, out-of-control mother.) Act III climaxes with the destruction of Dyson’s company headquarters and yet another escape from the T-1000. Act IV is then a massive, multi-part action sequence involving trucks and motorcycles and helicopters and liquid nitrogen and molten steel and all that good stuff.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

“I’m now beginning to understand your appreciation of the genius of Schwarzenegger’s performance in Terminator 2.” —

, mid-way through Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is the perfect expression of commerce trying, and failing, to overtake artistry. The makers of Terminator 3 felt that if they hit enough “Terminator-related plot points,” presented in a new, interesting way and with a large enough budget, they would have another Terminator movie. But let’s not delude ourselves: Terminator 3 is the work of skilled, talented professionals and Terminator 2 is the work of a great artist.

Let’s start with the first act. The Terminator and T2 are both sterling examples of first-act construction: two strangers from the future show up and pursue the protagonist for different reasons and we don’t have the slightest clue as to who anyone is or what’s going on until the act break. In Terminator 3 the first act is bogged down with a ridiculous amount of exposition: it’s laboriously explained who everyone is, what they do for a living, who they’re related to, and why they’ll be important to the plot later on. Watch all three movies back to back as we have and the structural differences become shockingly clear. The Terminator and T2 have first acts that are surprising, shocking, thrilling and exceptional in their leanness and narrative thrift; Terminator 3 has a first act that seems very much of a piece with any generic action movie released in the past 25 years. Everything is spelled out and the story is tortured into an absurd shape in order to accommodate the demands of an uninteresting plot. John Connor is living “off the grid,” and just happens to wander into an animal hospital in the middle of the night, and the animal hospital just happens to be run by Kate Brewster, who just happens to be called in that night because of a lady with a sick cat, and also just happens to be both a one-time girlfriend of John Connor and the daughter of the US Army guy who will be responsible for activating Skynet and thus ending the world. To get all this crap across, we need scenes of Kate pricing wedding gifts with her douchebag fiancee, John breaking into an animal hospital to take pills for some reason, Kate calling her Army Guy dad in his Secret Headquarter Place, Army Guy Dad having bullshit discussions with his generic support staff about a Mysterious Computer Glitch, John threatening Kate with a paintball gun and then getting locked in a cage, and on and on and on.

(The animal hospital is destroyed and the woman with the sick cat is killed. We never hear what happens to the cat — there’s a mistake that never would have happened in a James Cameron movie.)

Now then: the action sequences.

Here is a cardinal rule of drama as I understand it: action arises from the desires of the story’s characters. “Action” may here be described as anything from a guy getting up from a table to fetch a beer from the refrigerator to two robots from the future duking it out in an abandoned steel plant.

When The Phantom Menace came out, George Lucas acknowledged that the Pod Race sequence was an homage to the immortal Chariot Race sequence in Ben-Hur. This is a perfect example of a writer-director misunderstanding the use of action.

The Chariot Race in Ben-Hur is, indeed, one of the most thrilling and technically sophisticated action sequences ever shot, but the reason it thrills in the context of Ben-Hur is because everything in the narrative up to that point has been building toward that chariot race. The first act of Ben-Hur is the story of two boyhood friends, one Roman and one Jewish, who love each other dearly but who are forced to become bitter enemies via the vagaries of law and race and heartless destiny. For over an hour we watch their relationship grow and be torn asunder, watch resentments grow and regrets harbored, a lifetime of loss and suffering unfolding before us, the narrative tension being screwed up into nail-biting levels. These two characters love each other and hate each other, and this chariot race is going to settle their differences for all time — it’s a life and death struggle we are heavily invested in, which is why each spill and crash in the famous Chariot Race sequence has thrust and devastating impact.

The Pod Race sequence in The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, occurs because the Jedi’s spacecraft needs a spare part. We care nothing about the Jedi’s spacecraft, we don’t believe that the spare part is important, we barely care about the Jedi’s problems at all, we don’t believe that this Pod Race scheme is the most likely plan for getting the spare part, none of it means anything. The race itself is an exhilarating exercise in staging, editing and special effects, but it has absolutely zero narrative impact.

James Cameron, regardless of any flaws you’d care to assign to him as a director, understands action like few other directors ever have, and all one has to do is compare either of the two truck chases in T2 with the massive truck-chase sequence in Terminator 3. Cameron directs his action with great intelligence, muscle, logic and heart — the characters’ desires conflict and give rise to the action, which flows naturally and with what I can only call humanity. You know where everything is in a Cameron action sequence, they have a sweep and inevitability to them and a sense of escalating stakes, not just escalating effects. You feel every crash, explosion and bullet wound because the action means something. The truck chase in Terminator 3 has been designed, staged and shot with great skill and imagination, but its effects come from nowhere, signify nothing and are there simply because they sounded cool in the story meeting. (“And you know what would be great? In the middle of the chase, what if the crane on the back of the giant truck turned sideways? And then a whole bunch of cars would go flying up in the air, and then, get this, it takes out a whole building!”) The makers of Terminator 3, like so many filmmakers before them, labor under the mistaken impression that audiences flock to movie theaters in order to experience production values.

(The action sequences in the Bourne movies are other stellar examples of action filmmaking. Because let’s face it, under normal circumstances, if someone attacks you with a knife in your apartment, that is, hopefully, a pretty big event in your day. The directors of the Bourne movies understand the startling impact of the simplest action beats — they ground them in a physical reality so specific that it feels like the bad guy is punching you instead of Bourne. They prove that, if you know what you’re doing, you can get more thrills out of a knife, a magazine and a toaster as you can with a flying robot and an army of commandos.)

The fight scene in the bathroom where the Terminator and the TX hit each other with sinks and toilets works quite well, has a logic and impact that the other sequences do not.

(Let me add here that I am a big fan of Jonathan Mostow’s earlier work, especially Breakdown, which climaxes with a wonderful car chase.)

Elsewhere, the script of Terminator 3 is glib and anecdotal when it needs to be epic and primal. The themes and conflicts introduced in the first two movies (fate, destiny, motherhood, fatherhood, manhood, so forth) are here expanded to “romantic love,” an attempt that leads only to lame comedy and unconvincing lovers.

Kristen Loken, who plays the Girl Terminator, plays her Evil Robot from the Future with smugness and and self-conscious sexiness, prompting the quote from Urbaniak at the top of the page. Schwarzenegger is okay in this movie, but he scowls a lot and his timing is off — he’s perfect in T2 but this script, while it has its moments, doesn’t serve his character well.

Even Schwarzenegger’s makeup is off in this movie — when his skin is burned away, it reveals what is supposed to be the metal skeleton beneath, but the “metal skeleton beneath” is obviously a latex appliance stuck to the actor’s jaw — it doesn’t move as the actor speaks, as it would if it were exposed jaw-bone, it just remains glued to the side of his face.

This observation prompted me to tell Urbaniak the one nice thing I have to say about Batman and Robin: surely one of the worst movies ever made, it nevertheless features an outstanding makeup job on Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, a dense, subtle frosting of blues and silvers, believable and evocative, topped off with silvery contact lenses that really help sell the character, as long as he’s not wearing his ridiculous Tin Man outfit.

(Discussion of Batman and Robin prompted Urbaniak to direct me to this, which I now direct you to.)

When Urbaniak and I watched Terminator 2 the other night, I had seen the movie at least ten times and it had never occurred to me before that the steel plant at the end of the movie was a set. But of course it is, the whole thing must be a set. In contrast, the Big Shiny Army Base that Army Dad works at looks absolutely like a set and like nothing else. You’d never guess for a moment that anyone ever worked in any of the offices or industrial settings of Big Shiny Army Base, another example of how Cameron wants us to believe that his fantastical characters are real and in genuine peril, while the makers of Terminator 3 wish to constantly remind us of how much money they spent on this thing.  Throughout the movie, you can feel the filmmakers working not from a script but a checklist — truck chase, check, gun cache, check, Dr. Silverman, check, sunglasses gag, check, redneck bar, check, end of the world, double check.  Mid-way through the third act, Urbaniak wondered aloud when someone would get around to calling the Girl Terminator a “bitch” before destroying her.  The movie obliged less than three minutes later.

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Update: evil robots, dirty cops,anxious Swedes and a neurotic Jew

My apologies for the recent lack of postings — I am finishing up an assignment and have been dealing with two kids over the moon about the arrival of Halloween.

I have little of interest to report — or perhaps, more accurately, I have little energy at the moment to report anything. However:

ITEM! [info]urbaniak and I watched Terminator 2: Judgment Day last night. I have little to say about this movie that hasn’t been said many times by many others. It has a screenplay of similar structure to the original (two mysterious strangers from the future show up, one wants to kill the protagonist, the other wants to save him, the first act is devoted to putting the pieces in place, the second act is about explaining the rules and catching the audience up to the action, the third act is about all the pieces coming together in a massive, bone-crushing action sequence) but vastly improved and with about a hundred million more dollars worth of production values. A pinnacle of American movie-making and James Cameron’s greatest achievement. I would also like to commend the two leads, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, both of whom turn in career-best performances that, for my money, stand next to another beauty-and-beast team from 1991, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, for sheer effectiveness. Schwarzenegger is okay but a little clunky in the first movie, but he’s just spectacular in T2 — slimmed-down, poised and in total command of his movements and voice. Schwarzenegger gets a lot of stick for playing a robot but what he does in this movie is a lot more subtle, complex and nuanced than one would expect from the big guy. He was a special effect in the first movie but here he’s a real actor giving a real performance — and not hogging the camera, either. As for Linda Hamilton, she seems like a completely different actor than the woman in The Terminator. She tough, uncompromising, no-bullshit and impossible to take your eyes off of. I watch her in this movie and am baffled that she doesn’t have a career equal to her contemporaries. I guess there just aren’t enough roles written for women with rock-hard shoulders who want to play moms whose kids can help them load machine guns.

ITEM! While finishing my assignment, I’ve been taking breaks by watching Season 3 of The Shield. If you’ve never heard of The Shield, stop what you’re doing right now, run to your video store and rent the first season. The pilot of The Shield is not only the greatest pilot in television history, it’s the spearhead of some of the greatest dramatic writing I’ve ever witnessed. Show after show for six seasons, this show kept up a seething, scathing, furious boil of urban Jacobean drama. Astonishingly intelligent, jaw-droppingly intense and complex. When I see a movie these days, I don’t say “Is it as good as Citizen Kane,” I say “Is it as good as an episode of The Shield?” Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackie is one of the great television performances of all time, on a par with Carrol O’Connor on All in the Family, Peter Falk on Columbo and Hugh Laurie on House. The fact that Mackie is perhaps the most unpleasant character ever delineated on television makes it that much more compelling.

ITEM! Before he became one of the 20th century’s most important and enduring artists, Ingmar Bergman was a screenwriter, just like me! His first produced screenplay is called Torment (there’s a calling-card title if I ever heard one). The movie was directed by Alf Sjoberg, but oozes Bergman all over the place. Students of excellent screenwriting must, must, must familiarize themselves with Bergman’s screenplays — they are expertly balanced, classically structured, compact little gems that manage to plumb the depths of human desires and needs without making a big deal about it.

ITEM! Took my son trick-or-treating tonight in Santa Monica. Certain blocks north of Montana were as crowded as Times Square the night before Christmas and as garishly decorated. A splendid time was had by all and I had the pleasure of sighting Larry David making his way through the crowd. As a New Yorker, I am forbidden to approach a celebrity in the street no matter high my admiration for his work.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: The Terminator

The Terminator perfectly embodies two crucial truths about motion pictures:

TRUTH 1. With a truly excellent script at its core, a movie can weather all sorts of strikes against it. TheTerminator sports some special effects that looked barely acceptable when the movie was released in 1984 and now look barely above the work of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, some occasional bad acting and generally cheesy, low-budget, badly-dated 80s production design. It still works beautifully because the script is tight as a drum and as compact as a Gremlin. Aspiring screenwriters, get out your notebooks and weep hot, bitter tears of envy as you behold the screenplay for The Terminator. Learn its lessons, go forth and do likewise and nothing will prevent you from wild success in filmmaking.

The motion of the narrative of The Terminator could not be more perfectly shaped. The first act presents all its players, tells us nothing about them except their actions, and sets them on an irreversible collision-course toward each other. There is no scene where the Terminator explains who he is, there is no scene where Reese pets a dog to make him “likable,” there is no scene where Sarah Connor complains to her roommate “look at me, I’m pushing 30 and I’m still working as a waitress! I’m such a mess, I’ll never get a guy or have kids! My life will never mean anything!” The Terminator moves implacably toward his goal, Reese moves implacably toward his, and Sarah gets caught in between. Once the characters all meet up, chase each other and exchange gunfire, they break apart for the start of Act II and we finally get a little information about who Reese is, who the Terminator is and why they’re doing all these crazy things. As the confusion lifts, solid, eternal themes emerge — destiny, fate, motherhood, fatherhood, the nature and purpose of humanity, all dealt with with a maximum of economy, grace and visual acuity. What Urbaniak calls “the moebius-strip nature of the time-travel movie” is intricately laid out in scenes that are heavily expository yet crammed with suspense and action, so that a 106-minute movie with a complicated backstory flies by in no time whatsoever. Events follow hard upon each other so that the story plays out over a matter of days, the few scenes of rest contain tidbits like a robot peeling off its face or a tutorial on building pipe bombs, the emphasis is on pursuit and jeopardy, sacrifice and honor. The love story, improbable as it is (two people meet, one a soldier from the future, fall in love, have sex and conceive a child, all within 24 hours, while being pursued by an evil, unstoppable robot) works because it stands as the inverse of the antagonist, a character who exists only to destroy.

TRUTH 2: Different narrative forms naturally lend themselves to different aspects of existence. The novel is ideal for presenting the inner lives of its characters, the play is ideal for showing people in a room talking and movies are ideal for showing large metal objects hurtling through the air. Or, to put it another way, novels are good for delineating thought, plays are good for presenting speech, and movies are good for displaying action. The action, however, cannot be action for its own sake. The lesser talents who followed James Cameron into the arena of “80s action movies” often did not share his intuitive sense of what constitutes effective action. An action setpiece in a movie is a lot like a song in a Broadway show. In a good Broadway show, the songs are memorable and powerful and also advance the plot, so that the narrative stakes at the end of the song are higher than they were at the beginning. In the bad Broadway show, the songs are “show stoppers,” big production numbers exuding spectacle and bombast, after which everyone goes back to doing exactly what they were doing beforehand. And so it is with the action movie. The excellent action sequence is a culmination of narrative, sharply expresses character, is innovative and surprising, uses location in a vital and thematic way, and serves as a plot turn without which the narrative is meaningless. The 80s and early 90s teemed with movies whose action sequences did none of these things. These movies are largely forgotten now, but the ones that remain, principally the Die Hard movies, the Terminator movies, Aliens, the first 80 minutes of The Abyss, and a few others stand as the fulfillment of not just action movies but as a genuine fulfillment of the potential of the cinematic form.

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