Thursday, May 19, 2011

10 Screenwriting Mistakes To Avoid Courtesy of Alien 3

So last week I gave you ten screenwriting tips to take away from Aliens, one of the best sci-fi action films ever. This week, we’re looking at the sequel to Aliens, Alien 3, which a young David Fincher directed. Now originally, I wrote this long impassioned opening about how terribly directed this movie was. The setting was beyond boring. The casting was uninspired. For some reason Fincher had every character whispering to each other. I’ve since done some research and learned that Alien 3 had an extremely complicated development period even by Hollywood standards. 30-some takes were written over the course of six years and when they finally hit production, they were still rewriting the script. Fincher was so upset about the experience that he parted ways with the project and left the studio to cut the film. Does this mean I’m going to take it easy on the script? Hell no. They had six years to write this thing. They made the choice to go ahead with it before it was ready. Casablanca was rewritten during production, right? No, I’m not going to be easy on it because even with these excuses, Alien 3 is still terrible beyond comprehension. With that in mind, here are ten mistakes to avoid when writing your next screenplay.

You’ve heard about passive heroes a lot – characters who let everything come to them, who let outside forces dictate their actions instead of taking charge and doing it themselves? Well there’s another passive activity you want to avoid – passive storylines! Alien 3 spends the first half of its running time with absolutely NOTHING going on. Where is the goal? Where is the story? Where is the DESIRE from any of the characters (alien included!) to do ANYTHING?? It’s just a bunch of people sitting around with occasional cuts to an alien growing up. Contrast this with Aliens where there’s always a strong goal for the characters (go in and kill the aliens). Or even in the first Alien, which is closer in spirit to this one, the alien itself was active (searching out and killing its prey). Here, no one’s pursuing anyone. Even when they decide to catch the alien, they do it in a passive way (they try to lure him to a spot on the base – forcing them to run away from it the whole time). Reflecting on this film, I can’t remember a single active pursuit by anyone. This alone killed any chances the movie had of being good.

In the real world, people act out of character all the time. In the movies, the rules are different. If someone who’s perennially shy busts out the Dougie on the 3rd Street Promenade, the audience is going to be really confused (unless it’s properly set up of course). One of the quickest ways to lose a reader is to have your character act completely out of character, as is the case here with Ripley. Let’s recap, shall we? Ripley survives her entire crew being killed by a crazy ass alien. Ripley goes into cryo-sleep for 57 years. Ripley is asked to come help some marines dispose of some more aliens. She does, kicking ass and being one of the only survivors. She again goes into cryo-sleep. Her ship crash lands on a prison planet, and everyone onboard besides her dies, including the little girl she’s unofficially adopted as a daughter. After a few minutes of crying, what does she say to the big creepy ugly personality-less weird dude taking care of her? “Are you attracted to me?” Yes, all of a sudden Ripley wants to fuck!!!! Despite us not seeing Ripley have a single sexual urge for two movies, now she’s a nymphomaniac! Seriously, who the hell wrote this?

For some weird reason, certain writers believe they can skimp on the details and we’ll just go with it. We will not go with it. We will always spot when a writer is lazy. Let’s look at the prison here in Alien 3. This is supposed to be a maximum security prison right? So then why are there NO RULES!?? Why is there NO STRUCTURE!?? Prisoners can walk around wherever and whenever they want. There are no prison cells…IN A PRISON! There is no structure besides an occasional meal in the common area. It’s unclear who the warden is. It doesn’t even look like a prison. It looks like a series of interconnected tunnels. If you’re going to write a movie about a prison, learn how prisons operate so that your script will at least be somewhat plausible. Laziness gets you nowhere.

I’m always disappointed when writers ignore logic. But especially in a sci-fi movie. The rules are much more precarious in sci-fi because you’re already asking your audience to make a leap and believe in a world that doesn’t exist. Throwing a bunch of logic holes into that story is like shining multiple spotlights on the illusion. We are asked to believe, in Alien 3, that in a maximum security prison with the most lethal prisoners in the universe, that there isn’t a single weapon in the entire prison??? This is such a preposterous notion that it alone could be used as a legitimate excuse for hating the movie.

I have a theory I’ve formulated over time and I think it’s a solid one. When it comes to key decisions in your story, trust your gut. If your gut tells you it’s bad idea, it’s probably a bad idea. Even if it feels right from a logistical-standpoint. Even if it feels right from a character standpoint. If there’s that little voice in the back of your head saying, “This doesn’t feel right.” Trust it. To prove this theory, go back to all those reluctant choices you made in your previous screenplays. Chances are on an overwhelming percentage of them you turned out to be right. They didn’t work. I bring this up because while Ripley getting pregnant with an alien and having a special cross-species relationship with it may have sounded cool in the room, it’s one of those things that, at a gut level, you know isn’t right. Ignoring this gut feeling led to one of the dumber storylines we’ve seen in the franchise.

There are a lot of reasons for you to differentiate your characters. One of the most important ones is that the more different your characters are, the more they bring out the differences in the other characters. If a person is nice, for example, we’ll obviously see that they’re nice. But we’ll see that niceness more clearly if we put them in a room with a mean person. Their qualities are exaggerated by being in proximity to their opposite. In Aliens, Burke’s sliminess is brought out in large part by what a good person Ripley is. In Alien 3, every single character looks the same and acts the same. They’re all a variation of annoyed, twitchy, and angry, except for maybe the doctor, who’s so boring in his own way that it doesn’t matter. You need variety in your characters. If you were to ask what’s the biggest reason for why Aliens is so great and Aliens 3 is so terrible, the unique cast of characters would likely come up as the top answer.

This is a common beginner mistake. Someone wants to make a dark film. So they make every single stinking frame as dark as humanly possible. Dumb move. Emotions are like anything in life. If you get too much of one, you’re going to get bored. I love cake. But that doesn’t mean I want to eat it three times a day. When it comes to emotions, you need to bring the audience to the other end of the spectrum every once in awhile to mix things up. Again, look at Aliens. There’s some bleak ass shit in that movie. But it’s peppered with a lot of humor (and plenty of hope as well). Alien 3 is one long bleak-fest. I counted a single joke, one joke!, in the entire movie (“No need to get sarcastic”). It could be as simple as adding a comedic relief character (Hudson) or throwing in a reasonable amount of gallows humor. Don’t think of it as selling out the darkness. Think of it as reminding the audience what darkness is.

At some point in the writing process, you should note the major problems in your script (the things that don’t quite make sense or aren’t yet working) and formulate a plan to fix them. Bad screenwriters allow many of these lingering issues to stay in the script, figuring they won’t be a big deal. If you aren’t striving for perfection, why even bother pursuing screenwriting? Let’s take a look at a really lazy mistake in Alien 3. In the final act, where they confront the alien, it’s established that the alien won’t hurt Ripley, because she’s impregnated with another alien. So let me get this straight. The only person on this entire base that we even halfway care about – your HERO no less - CAN’T BE HARMED BY THE ALIEN????? How stupid of a story decision is that? Identify your major problems and fix them. Or else you get ridiculous situations like this one.

Let me make something clear. Audiences hate woe-is-me characters. They hate them more than any other character you can possibly put in your screenplay. Whoever was dumb enough to turn Ripley from an active intelligent ass-kicking take-charge protagonist into a whispering, whiny, mousey annoying whisperer who can’t shut up about how awful she feels should never be allowed near a copy of Final Draft again. There are very VERY rare occasions where woe-is-me protagonists work (Mikey from Swingers comes to mind) but my suggestion would be to avoid them like the plague. The audience will hate your hero, and by association your movie.

Audiences are savvy. Many of them have seen enough television and film to have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen next. However, if your script is packed with scenarios where the audience can predict EXACTLY what’s going to happen next, chances are you’re being too cliché and need to make a better choice. There’s a moment deep in Alien 3 where Ripley asks Rock (I don’t even know his character name so I’m using his real life one) to chop off her head because she’s pregnant with an alien. She turns away and puts her hands up on the bars, waiting for him to do it. There is then a 60 second build-up where he brings the axe back and prepares to kill her. Oh no! Is he going to do it??? I’d say of the 5 million people who saw this film, 4,986,000 knew Rock would deliberately swing and miss, making the loud dramatic “THONK” on the bars, we'd stay on Rock’s face so as to momentarily wonder if he'd killed her, we'd show that Ripley was indeed still alive, then give Rock a rah-rah speech about how much he needs her. What do you know? That’s exactly what happened! You can’t always avoid your audience being ahead of you, but with a little effort, you can avoid cliché moments and at least keep them guessing.

I don’t know what else to say. I guess if there are great screenplays like American Beauty and Dogs Of Babel out there where every single choice the writer makes is perfect, there can also be screenplays where every single choice the writer makes is disastrous. Such is the unlucky distinction of Alien 3. But maybe it was a nice reminder to the studios that you can’t fake it. That even the death of some of your biggest franchises is one bad script away. I’ll finish this breakdown with another question for all you Alien nerds. To this day, I’m still confused about the Alien 3 trailer that came out promising aliens coming to earth. What the hell was that? Why would they play a trailer that had nothing to do with the movie? I guess it’s just one more nonsensical thing associated with this catastrophe of a film.