Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Screw The Cat, Save The Film

Have you noticed that most films are starting to feel eerily similar? There’s a reason for that. Some years back, a man named Blake Snyder wrote a book about screenwriting called “Save the Cat”, and many people blame that book. This has resulted in a specific problem that drives me nuts. Let’s discuss.

From the things I’ve read, “Save the Cat” proved to be an incredibly successful screenwriting book because it took a novel approach. Whereas most screenwriting books talk about things like how to develop characters, how to weave themes into your story, and the importance of crafting a climax, “Save the Cat” was different. “Save the Cat” laid out the specific formula the writer could follow to make a competent movie, everything from what elements each film must include to the order of the events and the number of pages each element should take in the screenplay.

Many people say this book caught fire in Hollywood and most films since 2006 have been written using the formulas and models include in the book... everything from romances to action films to science fiction films. Hence, many people blame this book for the increasing formularization of films.

Anyway, one of the ideas buried in this formularization is that the writer should always increase the challenge to the hero at every possible step. Unfortunately, while this sounds like good advice, it rarely is. In fact, what you end up with are films filled with scenes like this:
Step One: Villain escapes hero, runs into street, carjacks a car, and drives away.
Step Two: Hero chases villain. Hero also carjacks a car to catch villain.
Step Three: Hero discovers that the person he threw from the car took the key. Hero must stop and hotwire car.
Step Four: Hero starts driving. Now hero discovers that he has a flat tire. Hero must fix tire or steal another car.
Step Five: Luckily, the villain is held up in traffic.
Step Six: Hero fixes tire issue and starts moving. Engine starts smoking. Hero opens hood and see engine is dead. Must now get another car.
Step Seven: Villain now delayed by some new event.
Step Eight: Hero races after villain, but drawbridge goes up. Hero cannot jump bridge and must steal a boat.
Step Nine: Hero races boat out into water, but boat is out of gas. Hero must now swim. Hero reaches other side of river.
Step Ten: Villain sees hero and drives on sidewalk to get away from hero.
Step Eleven: Hero chases villain on sidewalk. Two guys with pain of glass walk in front of him, as does woman with baby carriage, and three nuns on a mercy mission, and falling meteorite.
Step Twelve: Villain barely escapes.
Exciting, right? Ha. Hardly. This is crap. Observe the audience’s thought process. They are excited by the chase to come. They love the idea that both have carjacked cars and will now race through the streets of Paris. They expect an exciting chase. Now the hero runs into “the key issue.” This actually adds to the suspense because it causes the audience to worry that the hero can’t make it.

Then it starts to go wrong. The hero has the flat tire. Suddenly, a hint of unbelievability enters the audience’s mind. Rather than seeing this as a tension raiser, they realize that it is highly unlikely that the key and the flat tire will occur at once. Now comes a real sin: the villain is held up in traffic. We know this was a fake decision by the filmmaker to keep the hero competitive in this race.

And that’s not the end. Nope. It keeps coming. Now we have the engine trouble. The odds of adding engine trouble to a missing key and flat tire are unbelievable low. And having the villain now delayed by some new event is simply not credible. Then the hero runs into the drawbridge issue and you suddenly realize, “This is nonsense. This is just the writing throwing up any challenge they can think of for the hero, whether it makes sense or not.” And it doesn’t stop there, it just keeps coming and coming.

By the time this sequence is over, you feel like the writer thinks you’re an idiot. You are bored to tears by the banality of the obstacles and you’ve completely lost your suspension of disbelief because the odds of this sequence of events happening is close to 0%. It feels like an unfunny comedy routine.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a theoretical issue either. I’m seeing more and more movies that feel this way. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was a huge offender in this regard, as was A Good Day To Die Hard. In both movies, you had these never-ending chase scenes where the writer simply threw up one obstacle after another at every single step. I’m sure they thought they were making it more dramatic, but after the first couple obstacles, it just became torture.

Let me reach into a different “genre” to complete the point. The greatest audience tease in the history of the world was Hulk Hogan. Hogan did the exact same routine in show after show, yet you fell for it every... single... time. And having seen him live, I can tell you that I’ve never seen another human being having more control over an audience than Hogan. What he understood, i.e. why this worked, was exactly how much abuse the audience could watch him take to get the maximum anguish from the audience without losing them to boredom. THAT is what filmmakers need to grasp. They need to understand that there is a point with an audience where all the frustration reaches its peak and you must let the hero prevail. If you don’t, then you go from an asskicking moment to a moment where the hero feels bumbling.

The problem with the formula is that it ignores this vital point. It just wrongly assumes that the more obstacles you can create, the higher the tension. That’s just not true, just like it’s not true that all stories can be told using the same formula. Hollywood needs to stop relying on theory and start relying on feel. No more stupid chase scenes where random things keep happening. No more final fights that last so lost most people are praying for it to end. No more wedging every round and oval and star-shaped peg into the same square hole.

49 comments:

Kit said...

I've come to the conclusion the 2 biggest things that make an action sequence/movie suspenseful are:
(1) Pacing of editing that escalates from slow to fast in a certain scene or sequence. For a prime example of this watch the shooutouts in the Dollars movies directed by Sergio Leone. But there are many other movies which no doubt qualify. Basically start slow and carefully ramp up the urgency of the situation. This works great for chase scenes.
(2) The villain is smart and is nearly always (believably) one or two steps ahead of the hero(es). Die Hard is a perfect example of this.

There are others as well but those are the two that come to mind.

Kit said...

I guess the key is that the obstacles must come from the Villain and show that he is very smart and capable. A match for the hero.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I think that a well-placed, believable obstacle can be a real enhancer. That one moment in the film after a long chase where the hero is seconds away from getting the bad guy... and his gun is empty or his car won't start. Those moments add such a sense of "Oh God! He ALMOST HAD HIM!!" and that makes you want to see the villain brought down even more.

That's how this idea should be used.

But that's not how they are using it. Instead, what they are doing is just tossing in every obstacle they can think of whenever the hero does anything. It comes across like a bad comedy almost: "duh, let's see what else we can think of to make this guy's life hell." That doesn't add to the tension, it makes the film feel fake and annoying.

And I'm seeing this in more and more films because it's become the standard way "to ratchet up the tension."

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, If anyone has read "Save the Cat," I've love to hear your take on it.

Tennessee Jed said...

i think those are definitely valid points. It is probably why I seem to be enjoying moore of the indy films that are either based fairly closely on true evnts or off-beat character studies. I actually enjoyed American Hustle and Dallas Buyers Club for th stories they told and the quality of acting, but had to turn off the re-make of Total Recall.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'm finding the same thing. The indi films are the only ones not really using the formulas and they tend to be more interesting films.

Remakes in particular are done by formula now and they are generally lousy. But even putting that aside, the bigger films all follow these same rules now and they are just getting worse and worse.

Rustbelt said...

Well, now I know where all the drawn-out sequences from the second Hobbit film came from. Good grief. First the barrel scene (which included waterfalls, elves, orcs, gates, white water rapids, and maybe even the Scoleri Brothers), and then the confrontation with Smaug (which featured chases through mountains of gold coins, chases through tunnels, chases designed by M. C. Escher, chases through working blast furnaces, chases down bottomless pits, chases that end with a mold-full-of-molten-gold-that-break-up-and-reveals-a-statue-that-melts-in-five-seconds-because-it's-not-set-and-coats-Smaug...).

Anyone remember 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks?' Well, in his first scene, David Tomlinson sings a song with lyrics that often end with "do it...with a flair."
Methinks Peter Jackson's mantra- as well as some other screenwriters and directors- must be "do it...to excess."

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I think it's all connected. You have directors who rely on formula and gimmicks. They hand off half their films to "post production." You have actors who never even meet when they do things like animation voices, or who rely on editors to give them their timing.

All of this means that modern Hollywood talent doesn't have a feel for story telling because they don't do it. They are assemblers rather than creators. So it's no wonder that they have no sense of when they've pushed something too far to the point that it's gotten boring.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, I didn't see 2, but one bored me to the point I almost turned it off. So I can't imagine 2 is any better.

ScottDS said...

I thought Ghost Protocol handled this all very well. I could maybe buy that they had to make too many excuses for Tom Cruise to climb the building (the server room is isolated, heavy security, etc.)... but it never occurred to me while watching it. Again, if a movie is going along and it's good, you don't think about these things as much. And Ghost Protocol was the best MI movie since the first film and the most fun I had watching a new movie in a long time.

Other than that, I totally agree with you. There is something to be said, however, about getting the most out of your premise. I think I mentioned this in my License to Drive review but the rules might be different when it comes to comedy.

PDBronco said...

Andrew, I like your comment: 'They hand off half their films to "post production."' That is a feeling I get from a lot of modern films - they shoot a ton of footage and hope to get a movie out of it in post.

In contrast, I just saw an interview on TCM with Eva Marie Saint (overall a fantastic interview), and she told a story of visiting with Hitchcock after the release of "North by Northwest". She saw in his office the storyboards he had drawn up before filming and they were shot-by-shot what those scenes looked like in the final film. She said that "Hitch" edited in camera - he knew what he wanted and how it should look before he filmed it. And because of that, he spent little time cutting the film. I think that is a great lesson to directors (and writers). Know what story you're trying to tell before you start making/writing it. Don't just throw something against the wall and see if it sticks (the old "a hundred monkeys with typewriters will ultimately write Shakespeare"). Actually, that's good advice for a lot of things in business and in life.

PDBronco said...

One more off-topic comment on that Eva Marie Saint interview is how great she still looks at 88. Then again, she was 30 when she did On The Waterfront, so she has always looked younger than her age.

Joel Farnham said...

Hi guys,

Andrew, I bought and read the book "Save The Cat" this morning.

I like his new categories of genre movies. I like his tool of thirty-six cards and a cork board. I also like his definitions. I did find it dated a bit. "Go out and get a newspaper to read log lines." Who buys newspapers to find out what is readily available on the internet?

It really is a primer on the structure of and how to create salable scripts. Beyond the sale and possibly a rewrite of a script, the writer usually has nothing more to do with a given project. Having said that, I can see how it is easy to conclude that Most of Hollywood has glommed onto this book as formula to create a movie. If they would only stick to the formula.....

"Then it starts to go wrong. The hero has the flat tire. Suddenly, a hint of unbelievability enters the audience’s mind. Rather than seeing this as a tension raiser, they realize that it is highly unlikely that the key and the flat tire will occur at once. Now comes a real sin: the villain is held up in traffic. We know this was a fake decision by the filmmaker to keep the hero competitive in this race." I think the author addresses this problem, only he refers to it as mumbo-jumbo. Only one magic per movie. Also, he would have condensed your chase into one beat or two, not the twelve that you have. He also addresses the point of adding too much when he talks about a collaboration on "Lefty".

A lot of these books on screen writing are really about how that particular writer works. This one creates a log line, tests it out, and then fleshes it out with cork board and thirty-six to forty index cards. He makes sure that there is a likable hero with a "Save the Cat" moment. Writes his script keeping to the log line and gives it to his genius agent who sells it to executives.





AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That scene felt a bit too much with the gloves malfunctioning. But the bigger issue in that one is the ending chase. Go watch the whole parking garage chase again and notice how every single time Cruise overcomes one obstacle, another one is put into place. It never stops.

(That said, it was the best of the franchise since the first.)

In any event, this is something I've really started to notice lately that so many "action" sequences are now done like this - a simple chance turned into a nightmare of petty annoyances to the point that you just shake your head and think, "This is bull."

AndrewPrice said...

PDBronco, I think it makes a huge difference. A guy like Hitchcock knew the story he wanted to tell and he was an excellent storyteller. He had a real sense of timing, how to pull the audience in and how long to keep them in place. Think of the shower scene in Psycho if done today -- it would be 12 minutes longer, there would be a lot more blood, and it would be intercut with the hero racing there only being stopped by baby carriages, traffic and flying monkeys,

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Howdy! :)

As I mention above, I have no personal knowledge of this, I only know what I've read about it. And the things I've read put a lot of blame on this book. So it would be very interesting if it turned out that the problem isn't the book so much as it is hacks misusing the book. That wouldn't surprise me in the least.

So he does say one "magic moment" per story, does he? Huh. Then the blame for that definitely lies elsewhere. But wherever that issue is coming from, it's driving me nuts. In movie after movie these days I'm finding myself just getting annoyed watching the writer throw up a never-ending stream of pointless roadblocks for the hero. That doesn't make a film exciting, it makes it annoying.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Out of curiosity, do you see this book as anymore useful or practical than other screenwriting books?

djskit said...

I read another article on this book a year or so ago...the gag was the article (revealed at the end) was written using the directives of the book. (Can't seem to find it now.).

I specifically recall it tying together Kahn surrenduring in Star Trek Into Darkness as well as Loki pulling the same move in Avengers.

My take is the premise of the book is sound, in and of itself, but it caught fire in Hollywood and everyone decided to dial it up to "11" and the point of absurdity.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, That is of course the other angle here. Something may work really well when done only rarely, but will become ridiculous when done by everyone.

I think I remember the article you mention actually! I remember both the comparison of those two films and the guy claiming that he had written the article in the "beats" the book proposed.

Mycroft said...

I had a similar problem with the first Harry Potter book. I understand that he is the prototypical "sad sack" character, but Rowling really layered it on thick.
Not only was he an orphan that lived with a horrible aunt, uncle and cousin, but had to live in a cupboard under the stairs - not because there was no room in the house (Dudley had 2 bedrooms, after all), but just because his relatives were so horrid. And his birthday/Christmas gifts weren't just socks and underwear, they were Dudley's hand-me-downs. And the kids at school don't like him. And he has no friends, etc. etc. etc (said in Yul Brenner voice).
Part of me wanted to just put the kid out of his misery.

Jason said...

I read another article on the Save the Cat book that pointed out how many recent films were seeming kinda familiar:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/07/hollywood_and_blake_snyder_s_screenwriting_book_save_the_cat.html

Tennessee Jed said...

I enjoyed Ghost Protocol immensely; definitely best of franchise. Scott, I agree that if you are immersed enough in the film, characters, plot-line, you are less likely to mind the cliche devices. Whatever else they may be, MI franchise, like any Cruise vehicle is slickly done. Of course, I am a fan of Emmy Rossum with whom I share a birthday.

Andrew, the car chase scene and the garage scene at the end were exactly the scenes that came to mind when you mentioned this film as a major offender. There is no question it is. Another thing is that I am old enough to remember the original MI show which was a classic. As such, I am more likely to accept formula faux pas from MI than other franchises with which I am unfamiliar. Funny how that aspect works.

AndrewPrice said...

djskit, I think this was the article: LINK

Here's another take on that article: LINK

Mycroft said...

Scott's comment on Ghost Protocol reminds me of the finale of Jaws.
Yes, it was ridiculous to blow up the shark with a scuba tank, but after the perfect buildup leading to it, everybody bought it.
A great movie can break the rules.
Trouble is, few great movies are getting made.

AndrewPrice said...

Mycroft, Rowlings was never subtle at any point in the series. Everything she did was cliches, stereotypes done to excess, and pound you over the head storylines.

Tennessee Jed said...

Hollywood, be it t.v. or films is famous for their copycat mentality. Just look at the pitch men. "I have an idea for a new series which will be Top Gun meets A Few Good Men." We'll call it J.A.G.

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, That article is the first time I became aware of this book.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I enjoyed Ghost Protocol. I thought it was the best since the first and I thought they did a lot right (as you say, all Tom Cruise films are slick and fast and generally watchable). It did, however, trigger this thought to me as I watched the garage scene in particular. I just kept thinking, "Oh come on, this is getting stupid." Worse though, was A Good Day To Die Hard in the annoying stupid car chase. You could tell that even the actors weren't buying it.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Someone (or several someones) once said that a great actions scene is a series of mini-conflicts. The Raiders truck chase being a great example.

I suppose it's a difference between obstacles created by characters vs. obstacles created out of thin air...?

And certain things can go either way - is it more believable that the magic briefcase falls over the ledge? Or is it more believable that it's perched just close enough for the hero to get it?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, On copies, that's true. But it's the execution that matters. So long as your execution feels different, it doesn't matter if you copy something. Unfortunately, Hollywood is now copying the execution styles of other films. That's a problem.

Joel Farnham said...

He also made a comment that each "buddy movie" is actually a love story with out the sex in it. He has a point. Basically what he did was create a system which could analyze a movie script to find out what is wrong with it and correct it prior to shooting. He uses it prior to writing his own scripts.

I could easily see that an executive gets a notion about a certain script then assigns a writer to punch it up. The writer, having recently bought this book, sees only one item in the book he can relate to, the index cards plus cork board and increasing conflict with each card. Something easy to mimic and do. Punches up the script with more conflict/obstacles and voila! The executive is now onto other projects and has no more time with this certain script, but the project had been green-lighted, how? Magic! When it becomes a flop, the writer, when asked, said he used "Save the Cat" and his formula. It should have worked.

If the new writer had used the cork board, he may have been able to save it by cutting the chase scene completely or making it all one beat and look elsewhere in the script for the perceived problem the executive found. It could have been an excellent script, but the executive, for one reason or another, didn't like it.

Also, the author has sold a lot of scripts to Hollywood. However, I have only seen one movie. "Stop! Or my Mom will Shoot!" A not especially spectacular vehicle for Sylvester Stallone and Estelle Getty. The book is excellent for analyzing a movie according to beats. As to creating a new script......

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, By definition action scenes are mini-conflicts. The difference is the believability of the conflict.

When the Raiders scene starts, we know that Jones needs to eliminate the drivers, steal the truck in mid-motion, and eliminate the troopers in the back of the truck without slowing or stopping. We have no problems with that or whatever they do to fight each other because we expect that. It is the story and it is what you would expect to happen.

Thrown into that are two believable and one stupid moment that complicate his plan. The Mercedes symbol bending, the grate on the front of the truck breaking, and the stupid native landing on the hood of the truck and distracting him and the last guy he's fighting.

You can accept each of those because (1) we know the symbol isn't strong enough to support a person, (2) the grill already appears broken when he grabs it and (3) they drive into the natives.

Hence, the whole thing works.

Now compare that to the garage in Ghost Protocol. You have hotshot, impossibly tough Cruise chasing a fat, aging scientist. Yet, the scientist manages to outrace and outfight Cruise because stupid things happen in this crazy video game environment where giant mechanical arms chase Cruise around at impossibly high speeds as they supposedly grab cars and put them on an elevator. All the while everything Cruise needs to grab bounces around from floor to elevator to floor to elevator, always landing on the edge so it can be knocked off or so far beneath a car that Cruise can't reach until the car gets grabbed, at which time the briefcase gets moved again.

Everything in Raiders was not only possible, but it was expected. If those guys hadn't come out the back of the truck or the Mercedes symbol hadn't bent, you would have said, "That makes no sense." By comparison, nothing in Cruise's chase makes sense: the old guy would be knocked cold by the stronger, faster Cruise the moment things began, the briefcase would have stopped where it landed and stayed there, the garage wouldn't move so quickly and it wouldn't be following Cruise around, not to mention that someone would have shut off the garage immediately once they saw what was happening, etc.

That's the difference -- one makes sense, the other just tosses crap on screen.

ScottDS said...

To be fair, the environment is based on a real place.

But yeah, I get it. Sounds like a case of too much, too fast.

:-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It is a real place, but it doesn't function like it does in the movie in real life... it can't. For one thing, our level of technology has not yet created strong enough lightweight metal to move around as fast as this thing did. This moves like a robotic arm attaching chips to a motherboard. You can't move a two ton car at the same speed.

Secondly, even beyond the silly speed it employs, its motion makes no sense. It basically follows Cruise around and knocks him over every time he gains an advantage in the fight. It doesn't even bother getting cars because it's busy hunting for Cruise.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I've heard that before actually and I think it's true, that buddy movies are love stories without the sex. In fact, in several instances I know that they changed the gender of one character from what was in the original script and changed a romance into a buddy movie or vice versa. In fact, I just read about that the other day, but I can't think of the name of the movie.

It sounds like the book is better as a tool for analyzing scripts than generating them. That's interesting.

I can totally see the scenario you paint where the guy is hired to punch up a script and he just takes ideas from this book out of context and just starts adding things to action scenes or throwing in a couple cat saving moments. Unfortunately, it's very human to only follow some of the instructions we are given.

I've seen people criticize the book on the basis that the author has only had a couple scripts made into films and that none of those movies was very good. I don't tend to worry about that though because I prefer to examine work on its own merits.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That car park thing says they hold a world record for speed -- it takes 1 minute and 44 seconds for the elevator to go from the bottom to the top. In the film, it took less than 20 seconds would be my guess... five times faster than reality.

Kit said...

I think its when a movie draws you in and keeps you entertained, you forget about any formula they are using but when the movie is bad you start noticing every single formulaic cliché and every little flaw.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That's true, but it's also a chicken and egg issue. Are you losing interest because of the formulas and cliches or do you just notice them after you lose interest. I would say they cause you to lose interest in the first place because they make everything feel less natural and harder to believe.

tryanmax said...

The thing that annoys me are the interminable running sequences. Especially when the protagonist is supposed to be an everyman. I don't care what kind of shape you are in or how much adrenaline you've got pumping through you, no one can sprint for 20 minutes straight.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, The "interminable running sequences" vastly understates the problem. They aren't running, they are sprinting. They are also hurdling obstacles... like speeding cars, jumping off heights that will shatter a normal person's knees and legs, and fighting minions, trading pinpoint accurate weapon's fire on the run, and running and running and running and running and running.

I've actually found myself fast forwarding some of those sequences.

tryanmax said...

Do you ever try to hold your breath through underwater scenes? Cause I do that. Most of those are just as bad.

AndrewPrice said...

I have tried that and pretty much died a third of the way through the scene... and I wasn't even swimming.

Ty in TX said...

Sadly formulaic has become the norm. Watching last night's CSI, I saw a husband and wife police officer banter I thought to myself: "You're gunna get shot." Sure enough 65 seconds later, bang.

Joel Farnham said...

If we are going to complain about Movie Reality versus Normal Reality, I have a complaint. It involves showing that a 110 lb woman can best a 200 lb man. While it is not an impossibility, it certainly is improbable. Yet, time and again, we see a tiny woman beat into submission a man almost twice her weight.

AndrewPrice said...

Ty, Yeah, sadly, so much is formulaic these days. That said, part of what has made this a pretty decent "golden age" for television is the lack of formula in so many shows.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Yeah, that's always stupid. I will say though that you don't see that much anymore.

wulfscott said...

I think the book may be getting a bad rap. The worst offenders among the filmmakers lack time and budget contraints, they have no self-discipline, and worst, no sense of story. Peter Jackson's The Hobbit has som many examples of all of this - the troll scene that took too long to develop (my attention wandered to the point I didn't care how Jackson resolved that scene) to the escape from the goblin king that should have ended at step two but kept going past step 12 to step whatever-i-don't-care-anymore-will-this-scene-ever-end?
George Lucas, of course, does the same - throw everything and the kitchen sink (or refrigerator) into his film because he can. Or remember the Arab swordsman scene from Raiders? Lucas wasn't satisfied with that, he really wanted to film an extended sword fight, so he put one in the Temple of Doom. The Raiders fight is memorable, iconic, and shocking, in a good way - do you remember the first time you saw it? The one in Temple is meh. Been there, done that, and so much better before.

wulfscott said...

By lack of budget or time constraints I mean that the filmmakers can make the film as long as they want (no time constraint), can spend tens to hundreds of millions (no budget constraint), and have no discipline or story sense (no self-restraint). Constraints lead to choices that have to be made, so the filmmaker has to really think about what adds to the story.

AndrewPrice said...

wulfscott, It definitely seems to be a problem that some of these guys just don't have any ability to cut their scenes. That's often a problem for writers, that they refuse to remove anything they include for some reason. When they don't have an editor to take that stuff out, then their books(films) become bloated and strange.

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