Wednesday, March 9, 2011

10 Screenwriting No-Nos you can learn from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

Whoa, I’m not usually nervous while writing up Scriptshadow posts but this one’s got me a little jittery. Outside of the prequels, I don’t think there’s been a more documented breakdown of a film’s failure to deliver on an audience’s expectations than that of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. The thing is, I didn't participate in that documentation. There was something never quite right to me about a 65 year old Indiana Jones. This was a character built on his vitality, on his youth and strength, so to turn an Indiana Jones film into Space Cowboys 2: Let’s Laugh At The Old Guy, felt like a disaster in waiting.

This allowed me to approach Skull with super-low expectations, and ironically, enjoy the film for what it was – a sloppily constructed summer tentpole film. The movie was clunky and awkward and weird – like a lot of those films tend to be – and seemed to spend most of its running time trying to figure out what it wanted to be rather than just…be.

And I think that’s the ultimate failure of Indiana Jones 4. Clearly, Lucas and Spielberg wanted to make two different movies, and a handful of unfortunate writers were assembled to balance those opposing visions and turn them into a cohesive story.

Now it’s important to know that my goal here is not to rip this movie apart. Millions of internet nerds took care of that long ago. I want to identify the poor screenwriting choices Skull made so we can learn from them and avoid those mistakes in our own writing. So, I give you the opposite of my previous Raiders article: Ten screenwriting no-nos you can learn from Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull.

Remember Raiders of The Lost Ark? Remember my very first observation about that movie? Indiana Jones was ACTIVE! In the very first scene, the man is risking his life to secure a golden idol from a trap-filled cave with death at every corner. When he hears about the Ark’s possible resting place, he’s on the first plane to Nepal, obsessed with locating the mythical relic. In this film? You wanna know what happens in the first scene? Indy's been captured. Indy is REACTING to everyone else. Indy is doing WHAT OTHERS TELL HIM TO DO. It sets the tone for who Indy will be for the next 2 hours (or is it 3 hours?). He will be a REACTIVE character. He will be following Mutt around on this quest for the crystal skull. And because someone else is driving the story besides our main character, everything seems…less important. Think long and hard if you want to have a reactive hero in your action script. Chances are, it ain’t going to work.

Remember how quickly Raiders moved? Remember how there wasn’t an ounce of fat on it? A big reason for that was that the story knew what it wanted to be so it was able to get there right away. 15 pages in (FIFTEEN PAGES!) we’re given our goal: Get the Ark Of The Covenant. Contrast that with the bumbling, stumbling, mumbling Skull. Do you know when the plot is revealed to us in this film? Page 30! That’s when Mutt tells Indy about the coded Mayan message. Do you know when we actually START our adventure? Page 38! That’s over 20 pages further along than when Raiders got going. And people wonder why Skull feels like it drags.

Clarity in your main character’s central objective is crucial to the audience’s enjoyment of the movie. It’s the key to everything else working in the script. If, for example, in Raiders, we didn’t know that Indiana was looking for the Ark, we wouldn’t have cared nearly as much as we did. Yet that’s exactly how Skull tells its story. We’re never exactly sure what we’re looking for. I mean, the title mentions a crystal skull, but we only find out about the skull once Indy and Mutt locate it. Then what’s the movie about? We’re never sure! Indy’s double-agent buddy mumbles something about a city of gold. Russian Psychic Chick talks about plugging the skull in somewhere. But all this jibber-jabber is incredibly vague and we're constantly wondering what the endgame is. The point is, the audience is never clear what the characters are going after in Skull and the second we’re unclear about your characters’ objectives, your movie is dead.

Someone gave me a note on a script once that I’d never heard before, yet I understood exactly what he meant as soon as I read it. He said my scene was too “writerly”. It’s tricky to define this word, but essentially it’s when you’re too clever for you own good, when a scene seems original and interesting as you write it, but feels false when it’s read. The magnet bullet scene in the beginning of Indy 4 is a “writerly” scene. I’m sure it felt inventive when it was conceived. (“And, like, these bullets will be dancing down the warehouse and we’ll be like, ‘Where is it taking them???’”) But man does it feel awkward when you watch it. Another “writerly” moment is the “family holds hands on top of car with baby monitor to get the alien signal” scene in M. Night’s “Signs.” Sometimes we can fall so in love with our creativity, we can’t see the forest through the trees. Be aware of “writerly” scenes in your script.

The reason people got so worked up about the infamous “nuke the fridge” scene in Skull actually had nothing to do with nuking the fridge. The problem was that the scene shouldn't have existed in the first place. We could’ve easily cut straight from the warehouse to Indy’s classroom. So why, then, was this scene included? Because Spielberg (or Lucas) liked the gag. That’s the only reason it was there. And boy did they pay the price for it, because by holding the movie up for an entire 8 minutes for a silly gag that added nothing to the story and did nothing to push the plot forward, it allowed the audience to focus their attention on the absurdity of surviving a nuclear blast in a fridge. Except in rare circumstances, avoid putting anything in your screenplay that isn’t pushing the plot forward. Didn’t Spielberg learn this after his buddy's whole fish-dragon sequence in Phantom Menace?

Don’t force unnatural plot points on your audience. After the opening warehouse sequence, the FBI – for no logical reason - thinks Indy is a commie, which leads to an embarrassingly forced scene where Indy gets fired. If you need your hero to get fired for story purposes, GIVE US A REALISTIC REASON THEY’D BE FIRED. Don’t make up something that takes us out of the story. I’d easily buy Indiana Jones being forced into retirement because of his age (he is 65). Any time you insert a nonsensical plot piont in your story, you run the risk of breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Keeping that suspension intact is essential to making the story work.

Remember how much I praised Raiders Of The Lost Ark’s action scenes. Do you remember why? Because the main character always had a clear objective! Here, action scenes are given out like past due Halloween Candy, none more random than the university motorcycle chase. On the one hand, we know Indy and Mutt are trying to escape. The problem is, we don’t know why. What do these men want? Are they killers? Are they kidnappers? Do they want the scribbled note? Do they want Jones to explain it? Is it okay to kill Indy and Mutt? Or do they need them alive? There’s an overwhelming lack of clarity in this chase, which is why it feels so pointless. To make an action scene work, make sure everyone’s motivation in the scene is clear. (as a side note: Compare how much Indiana is BEING CHASED in Skull to how much he was DOING THE CHASING in Raiders. Coincidence that the first film was more fun and exciting? Hmmm…)

I’m starting to think Christopher Nolan did a rewrite on Indiana Jones 4. The exposition in this script is so abundant and so lazy it’s embarrassing. How many pure exposition scenes do you remember in Raiders? Me? I remember one. The scene where they discuss going after the Ark. Here we have an exposition scene with the CIA agents after the Nuke The Fridge scene. We have one with Mutt in the cafe. We have another Mutt-Indy exposition scene after the motorcycle chase. Then we fly to the Amazon and get ANOTHER exposition/backstory scene as Indy and Mutt walk through the market. We then have another exposition scene down in the haunted cave. Usually when you have that much explaining to do in your story, it’s because you haven’t figured everything out beforehand, and are therefore forced to work it out during your script, resulting in… guessed: lazy overly abundant exposition.

This is an action movie. So can someone please tell me why there is a 15 minute scene in the middle of the movie that takes place in a tent? Putting your characters in a room for too long in any movie is a bad idea. But in an action movie, where the audience is expecting…ACTION?, a scene like this is deadly. And here’s the thing. WE DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT THE PURPOSE OF THIS SCENE IS! CIA Double Agent Buddy comes in and yells at Indy about a city of gold or something. Russian Chick comes in afterwards (as if she was waiting for her turn – GOD THE LAZINESS IN THIS SCRIPT!) and tries to read Indy’s mind for…some reason. Then Rickshaw Jim The Mental Moron shows up to write something on a piece of paper. How many “people in a room” scenes were in Indy that went over 3 minutes? The Marion-Belloq scene maybe. But that scene actually had a purpose. Marion was trying to escape. This is just a big fat tent of non-stop  exposition (and what's even more baffling is that the point of exposition is to CLARIFY things for the audience.  After this scene, we're actually MORE confused than we were before it). The lesson here? Don’t place your action hero in a room for any extended period of time unless there’s a strong plot-related reason for it.

You remember the truck chase in Raiders? Remember how Indy had to use every ounce of strength, every punch, every kick, every last brain cell (cleverly sliding underneath the truck so as not to get smushed). He worked his tail off to get control of that truck. Here? Everything, from fights to escapes are just HANDED OUT to our heroes. That 15 minute long tent scene I mentioned above? How did they get away? Shia KNOCKS OVER A TABLE! Are you kidding me? When Indy is shot into the desert with the Russian after the warehouse scene, what happens when he comes to a stop? The Russian has fallen asleep! In the back of the truck arguing with Marion? Indy KICKS the guard in the ass when he’s not looking, resulting in him passing out! But the worst is when our characters accidentally fall into a river, get dumped down three successive waterfalls, and miraculously happen to end up RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE MYSTERIOUS CAVE THEY’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR! This is a huge reason why the Indy 4 experience feels so unsatisfying. Our characters don’t earn anything. They’re HANDED everything. So please, always make things difficult for you characters. And make sure they earn their way.

So, I guess the only question left to ask is…did Indy 4 do anything right? Barely. While the goals are weak, the stakes are low, the urgency isn’t there, the plot’s unclear, there's too much exposition, the villains suck, and the characters are barely developed, I will admit that the last 40 minutes or so were pretty exciting. Unfortunately, the reason for this had little to do with the screenplay. We, as an audience, simply knew that the story was coming to an end, and this finality, while artificially generated, gave the story some much-needed purpose. I’m disappointed with Spielberg and Lucas. I understand that there were a lot of factors at play in making this movie happen, but you’d think they’d at least put together a COMPREHENSIBLE screenplay, one where we actually understood what was going on. For some odd reason, when directors get older, they get lazier, and we got the result of that laziness here. Oh well, I heard they’re making a fifth film. Maybe someone actually plans to write a screenplay for that one?