Wednesday, November 28, 2007

HEART TROUBLE

by William C. Martell

BLOOD WORK opened on Friday, but didn't break any box office records. In fact, Warner Brothers was disappointed - they were expected an bigger opening weekend. As William Goldman notes in WHICH LIE DID I TELL, Eastwood has consistently been a top box office draw. Though reviews for the film are mixed, every critic seems to agree on one thing - the film is slow paced. Half the critics seem to think that's a good thing ("You don't know whether to admire the film's stately nature and call it classicism or be exasperated by a noticeable lack of pace." - Kenneth Turan, LA Times) and the other half think that's a bad thing ("The pacing is glacial, the screenplay is stiff as a board, and things heat up only in the movie's final scenes." - Ella Taylor, LA Weekly). Audiences were not mixed - most thought it was a bad thing. I'm a long time Clint Eastwood fan, I saw the movie on opening night... and I thought the film was killed by its lethargic pace.

Pacing is the heart beat of your screenplay - it's what keeps your story alive and moving. Pacing has nothing to do with the depth of your characters, the amount we care about them, or the emotional resonance of your story. All of those things are important, but have nothing to do with pacing. You can have the greatest characters in the greatest story in the world, but without a regular heart beat it will die on the page. Slow paced scripts about fascinating characters are still slow paced - but we may stick around longer to see what happens to them.

Pacing is the frequency of exciting events (heart beats) in your story as well as the spacing of those events. You want to have enough heart beats to keep yourself alive, and you want those heart beats to come on a fairly regular basis. Irregular heart rhythms are NOT a good thing. Not enough heart beats is also NOT a good thing. You don't want all of your heart beats to come at once, then go 30 minutes without any heart beat... if one extreme didn't kill your story the other extreme is sure to.

We aren't talking about just any events, here. Getting a good night's sleep is an event in my life... but not the most exciting thing to watch. Brushing my teeth, putting on my shoes, driving from point A to point B, putting away groceries, calling my mom to assure her that I've eaten my vegetables... all of these things are events in my life, but watching about 20 minutes of them in a row will probably put you to sleep. The events we're talking about are the really exciting ones - the big juicy ones. In a comedy, these will be big comedy set pieces, in an action film they are action scenes, in a drama they are the big dramatic moments that fuel your story, in a thriller they are the suspense scenes where the audience sits on the edge of their seats. The scenes that create a strong emotional response in the audience. Every emotionally charged event is a heart beat. In an action script a car chase is a heart beat, a scene where the protagonist has dinner with his partner's family is not. In a drama a dinner scene where your protagonist's father tells him he'd better shape up or he's gonna be kicked out of the house might be a heart beat. Both are dinner scenes. Genre and context are important.

Your heart rests between beats, which is why films that are all exciting scenes with nothing in between seem to burn out. Too much of a good thing. A script needs balance. Peaks and valleys. If your script is always exciting, we'll become used to the excitement and it will become expected... and boring. When car chases and shoot outs become boring, you're in real trouble! All heart beat is as much a problem as no heart beat.

The number of heart beats in your script is critical to your story's survival. It's impossible to have a regular heart beat in your story if you only have four heart beats in 105 minutes of screen time. That heart is beating so slow the patient is either comatose or dead. A few critics have said BLOOD WORK has old fashioned pacing, but pacing was NEVER that slow! if you were to compare the pacing of BLOOD WORK to the pacing of DIRTY HARRY by timing both films you'd discover that there are about three times more events in DIRTY HARRY, and many of them are action scenes. Here are the exciting events - heart beats - in BLOOD WORK: We open with a foot chase... then there's a scene where a suspect punches Clint, jumps through a window and escapes... then the next it of excitement is Clint firing a shotgun at a Ford... then we have to wait until the very end for the shoot out on the boat.

In the novel, the character goes from one crime scene to the next... but we don't see him get in the car and drive there. The next chapter starts at the next crime scene. The movie shows us him getting from one place to another! That's just bad film making. We don't need to see him driving to a location, getting out of the car, walking up to the door, entering the location... that's cutting room floor material. People own cars - that's how they get from place to place. No need to explain that. No need to kill the film's pacing with those scenes. If we remove all of the cutting room floor scenes, we automatically improve the film's pacing - less dead time between heart beats....

But we still only have four heart beats in a 105 minute film. That's past hibernation, that's dead! You're going to need about one exciting scene every ten pages - really funny scenes in a comedy, suspense scenes in a thriller, big dramatic scenes in a drama, action scenes in an action flick, etc.

Another problem with BLOOD WORK's slow pacing is that gives us plenty of time to figure out who the killer is. There isn't enough excitement to distract us, so the identity of the killer becomes obvious about a third of the way into the movie. All of those boring driving around scenes give us too much time to think about the suspects.

Plus we never feel like the red herring characters are actual suspects - there's no race against time to catch them. Another pacing problem that kills the movie! There are two characters who are red herrings - but we KNOW they aren't the real killer because the pacing doesn't increase at all. We meander towards the scene where we find out they didn't do it. As soon as we have a suspect, we should be in a race-to-catch-them mode. That makes the audience feel as if that suspect is the killer... plus focuses us on that suspect (which excludes all others). When you don't pick up the pace, the audience KNOWS this isn't the killer... and has plenty of time to think about the other suspects and figure out who IS the killer. Our heart beat should have increased when we identified a suspect, and raced until we discovered this suspect wasn't the killer.

When you're excited, your heart beat does increase... and the same is true with the pacing of your screenplay. As the story progresses you need to increase the frequency of exciting events - make the script's heart beat faster. By the time you reach Act 3 your story's heart should be racing! Pounding almost out of control! Act 3 is frequently crammed with exciting events - one leading to the next with very little space between beats. Though you can't sustain a heart beat this fast throughout your entire script, by the time we reach the end you want the audience to feel the same excitement as the protagonist. Comedy films usually feature a cavalcade of gags (check out the end to BLAZING SADDLES), rom-coms often feature a race to catch the love interest before they catch a plane to somewhere else, action films feature a string of action set pieces. Our hearts are pounding by the end of the movie!

Slow paced films - not enough heart beats - not enough exciting events happening.
Fast paced films - enough heart beats - enough exciting events happening.

To me, BLOOD WORK was anemic.

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