Monday, June 28, 2010

Uncoventional Week - Star Wars

For those just tuning in, it's a Theme Week. This week's theme is great movies that tell their stories unconventionally. The idea will be to try and break down why, even though the scripts bucked traditional structure, they still worked. Yesterday, Roger led us with Kick-Ass, and today, I'm taking on a little independent film you might have heard of called Star Wars.

Genre: Sci-fi Fantasy
Premise: Luke Skywalker leaves his home planet, teams up with other rebels, and tries to save Princess Leia from the evil clutches of Darth Vader.
About: One of my favorite movies of all time. I still watch it a few times a year. Although George Lucas is the sole credited writer on Star Wars, everybody knows he had a lot of help with this script. For proof of this, go watch any of the prequels to see what happens when no one helps George. This is also why I say “they” a lot when referring to the writers.
Writer: George Lucas

Before I go into my review, let me explain a little bit about my approach to this week. Every script, like a figure skating routine, has a degree of difficulty to it. The closer you stay to basic dramatic structure, the lower the degree of difficulty is. So the most basic dramatic story, the easiest degree of difficulty, is the standard: Character wants something badly and he tries to get it. That’s all. “Taken” is the perfect example. Liam Neeson wants to save his daughter. So he tries to. Indiana Jones wants to find the Ark of The Covenant. So he tries to. Rocky wants to fight Apollo Creed. So he trains to. As you can see, these stories are simple but can still be very powerful.

Each element you add or variable you change that strays from this basic structure increases the degree of difficulty and requires the requisite amount of skill to pull off. If a character does not have a clear cut goal, such as Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate for example, that increases the degree of difficulty. If there are three protagonists instead of one, such as in L.A. Confidential, that increases the degree of difficulty. If you’re telling a story in reverse such as Memento or jumping backwards and forwards in time such as in Slumdog Millionaire, these things increase the degree of difficulty.

I bring this up because all four of the movies/scripts I plan to review this week have very high degrees of difficulty and I’d like to break down how these stories deviate from the basic formula yet still manage to work. We’ll start with one of my favorite movies of all time, Star Wars. Star Wars looks like a simple story from the outside, but this quirky adventure film is actually extremely complicated, and it’s a minor miracle that the story works at all.

Degree of Difficulty: 5 (out of 5)

Why the degree of difficulty is so high:

We’ll start with how Star Wars approaches the single most basic element of the story: the character goal. Unlike how the goal would be presented in a traditional story (Shrek’s goal is to bring back the princess to retain his swamp) Lucas gives his central story goal to a trash-can shaped robot named R2-D2 who speaks a language the audience doesn’t understand. R2-D2 has the Death Star plans inside his “rusty innards” and is trying to get them to Obi-Wan Kenobi so Obi-Wan can get them to Leia’s stepfather so that they can destroy the Death Star. Hence, R2-D2, not our hero Luke Skywalker, is driving the story.

Now here’s the thing. WE DON’T KNOW THIS YET. We know that R2 has the plans to the Death Star, but we don’t know that these plans will allow the Rebels to pull off the ultimate goal, which is to destroy the Death Star. That information isn’t given to us until roughly 20 minutes before the movie ends, which makes the ultimate goal one giant shrouded mystery. But this mystery isn't one of those “we’re dying to find out” mysteries. It’s kept under wraps only because the writers don’t want us to know it yet. That means during the majority of Star Wars' running time, we’re not even sure what we’re going through all this trouble for.

So you have a main goal that’s a mystery being driven by a non-human character who doesn’t speak. Yeah, try to throw that into your next screenplay. But what’s even more fascinating is how this affects the other characters in the script. Because R2 is driving the story, all the other characters are following him. That means all your protagonists are passive. They’re lemmings, following a random robot wherever he wants to go. Again, you’d be called out on this in a second at a production company. ("Make your characters more proactive!" they'd say.)

So why in the world are we interested in all this nonsense? I’ll get to that in a second. But first, we must deal with one of the most outrageous script choices ever. The main character, Luke Skywalker, doesn’t arrive until 15 minutes into the movie! Every producer, manager, and agent worth their salt will tell you that by 15 minutes time, we should not only have introduced the main character, but we should understand what he’s about, what his central character flaw is, and what he’s after. This late arrival forces us to spend the next 20 minutes learning about Luke Skywalker, and the story is essentially put on hold while we do.

Further complicating matters is that Star Wars makes the decision to jump back and forth between the good guys and the bad guys, creating multiple subplots that must be kept track of ON TOP of an already complicated story and structure. And, oh yeah, did I mention that this entire story is piggybacking on top of a completely made up universe with complicated made-up mythology which Lucas must familiarize the audience with? And that he must move the story along at a quick enough pace that the script doesn’t get bogged down in all the necessary exposition to explain that universe? I mean Jesus Christ. Every screenwriting choice Lucas made here practically guaranteed failure.

Why it still worked:

The number one reason Star Wars worked was because of its characters. Every single big character in the movie was perfectly executed, starting with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. While Luke was a passive protagonist for most of the movie, he was still driven. He wanted to take down the Empire. And that dogged idealistic drive helped us forget that for most of the movie he’s just following everyone else. Also, Luke’s fatal flaw, that he didn’t believe in himself, was executed to perfection via his eventual acceptance of The Force. When he decides to go it alone in the Death Star trenches, we’re so into it because we’ve been waiting for Luke to finally see in himself what we’ve seen in him all along.

On the flip-side, Han Solo was the perfect anti-hero. He was the epitome of I-play-by-my-own-rules charm. And the guy was hilarious. Never was it more evident how important a wise-cracking rogue character was than when the prequels came out. Without a Han Solo character, Star Wars never had a chance. And while Han’s fatal flaw was very simplistic – his selfishness - it is one of, if not the most memorable execution of that flaw I’ve ever seen. I mean, who didn’t want to see Han Solo crack and finally embrace the others over himself? This is why when he takes out Vader’s fighter in the end, it’s one of the only deus-ex-machina moments in film history that doesn’t feel like a cheat. They did such a good job setting up his selfishness, that finally seeing him help others over himself ended up being more important to the audience than the fact that a rogue force-less thief-for-hire somehow took out the most powerful villain in the universe with a single shot.

But, the characters can only do so much. You still need to have a compelling plot. You still need to have a story that’s driving forward, that keeps us interested, and Star Wars does this in two ways. It took me awhile to figure this out but one of the big reasons Star Wars works is because it’s one giant chase movie. One of the things I always tell you to do is use a ticking time bomb. Whenever time is running out for your characters, it adds immediacy to your story, which subsequently ups the tension, ups the stakes, ups the conflict and ups just about everything else. Because your characters need to do their jobs RIGHT NOW, the story has a continuous energy to it.

Well, a close cousin to the ticking time bomb is the chase. Why? Because it accomplishes the same thing. If your characters are being chased, then there will always be an immediacy to their actions. They always have to move move MOVE. Here, wherever our protagonists are, the Empire is close behind. From when they slaughter the jawas to when they slaughter Luke’s family to when they follow Luke and Obi-Wan to Mos Eilsley to when they’re looking for them on the Death Star… We know that they’re always RIGHT BEHIND US, and because of that immediacy, it makes us forget about a lot of the deficiencies in the storytelling (such as the hero being introduced on page 15). We’re so concerned our heroes are going to get caught, we’re not judging any of that other stuff.

Now remember when I said how it increased the degree of difficulty to jump back and forth between the bad guys and the good guys? Well this is why they did it. Since we actually SEE our bad guys, we SEE that they’re right behind the protagonists. Had Lucas not done this, had we just stayed with the protagonists the whole time, then that chase aspect wouldn’t have been nearly as effective, and the story wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.

Now here’s the thing you have to remember. No chase, no matter how short or how long, works unless we care about the characters being chased! As I mentioned before, Lucas executes all of his character development perfectly. We like all of them. Shit, we even like the damn villain! So we actually care when the Empire closes in on them. It's also interesting to see how the successful execution of one story element (the well constructed characters) affects another (the chase). Have you ever been bored by a car chase scene? You’re not bored because the car chase is boring. You’re bored because you don’t give a shit if the characters get caught or not. Since we love these characters so much, it wouldn't matter if they were being chased down a straight featureless hallway for 20 minutes. We'd still want to see them escape!

Another thing Star Wars does really well is it understands that its main goal is murky (the protags aren’t aware yet that destroying the Death Star is the ultimate goal). So Star Wars needs a way to keep us focused in the interim. It does this by substituting a series of smaller goals for the big one.

For example, the first mini-goal is for Darth Vadar to get down to Tatooine and find the plans. When that doesn’t pan out, his new goal is to find the droids. Next, Luke must go find a wandering R-2. Afterwards, Luke and Obi-Wan must find a ship to get off the planet. Then, Luke, Obi-Wan, and Han must deliver the plans to Leia’s father. Then, Luke, Obi-Wan, and Han must save the princess. Then Luke, Obi-Wan, Leia and Han must escape the Death Star. Each one of these goals is strong and explained ahead of time. This makes sure we're always focused - the characters always have something they're trying to do. If you ever get the note that your script is wandering and random, not having any immediate goals for your characters is probably why. So whenever you don’t have a clearly stated ultimate goal, it’s essential that you keep your characters busy with a series of smaller goals. Star Wars does this wonderfully.

Now of course, I could talk about Star Wars for days. I didn’t even get into the inventiveness of the Star Wars universe, the brilliance of the force, the surprises in the story, the comedy, the greatest villain of all time, etc. All of those things had a big impact on this movie being so special. But when it comes down to the quirky structure of this screenplay and why it worked, I believe the elements I listed above were the keys. It just goes to show that any story can work, even nontraditional ones, but only if you understand what rules you've broken, and have the requisite tools to make up for those choices.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[x] genius

What I learned: Star Wars is the movie where I learned the power of the chase. Imagine for a second Star Wars without the Empire chasing the heroes. Or, if that's too dramatic, imagine never cutting to the antagonists in the story. Let’s say that Luke and the crew were trying to deliver Artoo to Leia’s father and just occasionally ran into bad guys now and then. This movie’s high energy is due in large part to The Empire always being on their heels. If you’re writing any kind of story where your characters are on the move, you should probably have some bad guys chasing them. And if it works to cut to those bad guys, even better.