Twitter Rant: F. Scott Frazier on Writing Action Set-Pieces

October 7th, 2014 by

Last night screenwriter F. Scott Frazier (The Numbers Station, Autobahn) did a Twitter tip session on writing action set-pieces. Reprinted here by permission:

So I figured I could share a few of my “things” that I do in both inventing and physically writing set-pieces.

So this is my process, based around stuff that works for me. These aren’t rules, these aren’t the only ways to write an action piece.

I take action set-pieces very seriously because of the genre that I’m in. Nowhere near as important as character and conflict…

…But definitely important. My aim with action is to be as unique and inventive as possible. To bring something new to the table.

That’s not always possible, so my 2nd goal with action is for each piece to be as unique/inventive in comparison to the rest of the script.

By the way, if you’re writing drama/comedy/sports… Literally any other genre than action, writing “They fight” is pretty acceptable.

Dull, but acceptable.

If you’re writing an action movie (or any of its constituent sub genres) “They fight” can ruin your script. Not your story, your script.

My goal with every action scene I write is for it to pop off the page and directors say: “I can’t wait to shoot that.”

Here’s what you don’t want a director to say: “Give to the 2nd Unit.”

I personally am attracted to two things in action scenes: POV and personality.

POV is easier to figure out. POV is the one-shot in CHILDREN OF MEN.

Heroes attacked while in a car. How many times have we seen that before?

Heroes attacked while in a car… While the movie never cuts and our view never leaves the interior. I’ve never seen that before.

POV doesn’t have to be one-shots, it can be any *unique* view of the action other than “Coverage, coverage, wide shot, close up, coverage.”

POV is definitely more the “director’s realm” and calling your shots in a script too often can quickly feel overused.

But once or twice? A guy breaks into an impenetrable building and we only see it from a slow pan of security feeds? That’s kinda fun.

If I have an action scene that’s somewhat generic, but NEED it for the story, I look at the POV, and see if there’s a way to twist it.

The second aspect of action scenes is personality. This one is ENTIRELY the realm of the screenwriter. This is where we earn our keep.

Quick, name this movie based on the action scenes: break out, break in, break in, foot chase, car chase, foot chase, shoot out, fist fight.

That could be a lot of movies. Could be any movie. And you’d be right!

Unlike with character, unlike with conflict, unlike with story there are only so many ways two people can have a physical confrontation.

OK, what if I say: prison break out, Kremlin break in, Burj Khalifa break in, sandstorm foot/car chase, automated parking garage fist fight?

Every action beat in MI:4 is not just one thing. It’s not *just* a foot chase. It’s not *just* a prison escape. Everything has personality.

And no one scene is like any other, even though the main action verbs (chase, fight, shoot) are the same throughout.

It’s totally possible to write *just* a car chase, but please be sure to have John Frankenheimer directing.

Pro-tip: if John Frankenheimer is directing your movie, please call the police. He is either a ghost or a zombie and wants to hurt you.

So how do you find this personality? Where does this personality come from? Mexican Pizza.

When I worked in video games, I had the pleasure of working with a guy who taught me about Mexican Pizza.

Mexican food? Good. Pizza? Good. Mexican Pizza. Two tastes that shouldn’t work, but do.

I once wrote a military movie that was basically action front to back. The rough draft was soooo boring. Everything devolved into shooting.

I wanted to rip my hair out. If I had to write “They SHOOT” or “They OPEN FIRE” or “They KILL so and so” I was gonna scream.

Then I remembered Mexican Pizza.

So what I did was I cleaned off my white board and divided it in two sections:

Section A was ACTION VERBS: run, shoot, chase, jump, fall, etc. Section B was NOUNS: locations, equipment, obstacles, etc.

And for EVERY action beat in the movie, I looked to my list and I picked a verb and a noun. And that’s what the beat became about.

Then I CROSSED THEM OUT. And I kept myself from using that same combination again. (Shooting got used a lot, but never with the same noun)

So if there was a shootout in a hallway, I never did that again. I forced myself to make sure all shooting scenes were different.

But that just makes it so they scenes are unique from one another, the personality comes in finding the combinations that are “weird.”

So for MI:4, it ends with a fist fight. But a fist fight in an automated parking garage. How is that gonna turn out?

So for me the action scenes are *a lot* of brainstorming. A lot of lists, and finding fun combinations within those lists.

By the way, this is Mexican Pizza. This is *not* Mexican Cheesesteak Italian Pizza. I try to stick with two or *maybe* three “things / scene

The best way I find to put together my lists is to figure out location first. (Well, “first.” Before any of this, your scene needs a goal.)

(But to me that’s more of a story concern than an action concern, and fuck if I know how to teach someone how to tell a story.)

So I Google image search my location. And I just kind of look through things. (If I don’t know my location, I go to Wikipedia instead.)

And I look at the location and just note down everything that’s there. Everything physical, everything visual. Anything that moves.

And I list and I list and I list. And then I step back and think: What would be cool? What would I pay $15 bucks to see?

Like, honestly, that’s my secret sauce. What would I pay $15 American to see that I’ve never seen before.

And then sitting down to physically write the scene, I have my guidelines. I have a verb (or two) and a noun (or two).

At that point it’s easy (“easy”) to write the scene because I never leave the verb. And once I do leave the verb… Guess what? Scene over!

Some notes: I tend to overwrite action scenes (and everything) in my first draft. Then when I rewrite I cut judiciously.

You might write short and then add in. Whatever works for you, let it work.

And I also try to make sure that every action verb written into the scene is different…

Reading “he punches, then he punches back” can get boring.

Reading “He punches, then she grapples him and he counters her” can also get boring, but not as quickly.

Don’t worry about length of the scene in the script. Get in, write the cool thing, get out.

Yes, action movies have these huge set-pieces these days that are twenty minutes long. Doesn’t mean you should write a 20 page sequence.

Give us the moments, give us the dialogue, give us the cool beats, then peace out.

Some of my favorite Mexican Pizza movie moments:

Dragons vs. Helicopters – AVATAR

Car in tree – JURASSIC PARK

Dragging bank vault with car – FAST FIVE

Slow speed car chase – WAY OF THE GUN

Also: I had AUTOMATED PARKING GARAGE on my list since 2011 and never got to use it. Thanks, Appelbaum & Nemec!

There are some great tips and techniques in this Twitter rant, but perhaps the biggest lesson becomes visible when you step back and look at Scott’s post from a meta view. What you see is screenwriter as problem solver. How to write unique, entertaining action set-pieces? POV. Personality. Verbs here, nouns there. Mexican pizza. Brainstorm. Lists. Nothing romantic about the process, just a focused approach and hard work combined with creative instincts.

Here’s the problem. Embrace the problem and make it part of the solution.

You should follow Scott on Twitter: @screenwritten.

For my March 2012 interview with Scott, go here.

For all of the Screenwriting Twitter Rants, go here.

Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” — Part 19: Thought and Diction

February 9th, 2014 by

As I’ve been interviewing screenwriters, I typically ask what some of their influences are. One book title comes up over and over again: Aristotle’s “Poetics”. I confess I’ve never read the entire thing, only bits and pieces. So I thought, why not do a weekly series with a post each Sunday to provide a structure to compel me to go through it. That way we’d all benefit from the process.

For background on Aristotle, you can go here to see an article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

To download “Poetics,” you can go here.

Part 19: Thought and Diction

It remains to speak of Diction and Thought, the other parts of Tragedy
having been already discussed. concerning Thought, we may assume what
is said in the Rhetoric, to which inquiry the subject more strictly
belongs. Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced
by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation
of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion
of importance or its opposite. Now, it is evident that the dramatic
incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic
speeches, when the object is to evoke the sense of pity, fear, importance,
or probability. The only difference is that the incidents should speak
for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in
should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech.
For what were the business of a speaker, if the Thought were revealed
quite apart from what he says?

Next, as regards Diction. One branch of the inquiry treats of the
Modes of Utterance. But this province of knowledge belongs to the
art of Delivery and to the masters of that science. It includes, for
instance- what is a command, a prayer, a statement, a threat, a question,
an answer, and so forth. To know or not to know these things involves
no serious censure upon the poet’s art. For who can admit the fault
imputed to Homer by Protagoras- that in the words, ‘Sing, goddess,
of the wrath, he gives a command under the idea that he utters a prayer?
For to tell some one to do a thing or not to do it is, he says, a
command. We may, therefore, pass this over as an inquiry that belongs
to another art, not to poetry.

I may be taking a simplistic view here, but let me run with this and see what our Aristotelian experts have to say on Part XIX: Isn’t this simply Aristotle’s way of drawing a distinction between what screenwriters would call Dialogue and Action?

Dialogue: Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech [emphasis added].

Action: Now, it is evident that the dramatic incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic speeches [emphasis added].

Dialogue = Speech.

Action = Incidents.

Moreover, as in a screenplay, the impact Dialogue and Action may have on the plot is the same. Aristotle lists the “effects” as being proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite. In other words, make something happen.

As to the observations about Diction, I’m thinking this is an implicit nod to the nature of ancient plays which were, I am supposing, heavily dialogue oriented. They are, after all, considered to be “poetry,” not some other “art.”

Of course with the advent of motion pictures, especially during the silent film era, the emphasis switched almost entirely to visual storytelling.

Motion. Pictures. Both visual words. To this day, movies are primarily a visual medium. As screenwriters, our scripts may very well have a “command, a prayer, a statement, a threat, a question, an answer, and so forth,” but whatever dialogue we write can be best served while maximizing the visual trappings of a scene.

In any event, the distinction between Dialogue and Action is an important one, reminding screenwriters to find a balance between the two, something that can differ genre to genre, story to story, but should always be a consideration in the writer’s consciousness.

Furthermore as Dialogue and Action occur in the physical realm of a movie, what we hear and what we see, there is an implied meaning in the psychological realm, what we interpret and intuit.

For Dialogue, we may call that Subtext. For Action, we may call that Intention.

A reminder: I am looking at “Poetics” through the lens of screenwriting, what is its relevance to the craft in contemporary times. And I welcome the observations of any Aristotle experts to set me straight as I’m just trying to work my way through this content the best I can.

How about you? What do you take from Part 19 of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?

See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.

“What’s Behind Hollywood’s Obsession With Old Man Action Heroes?”

January 31st, 2013 by

The Expendables. Taken. Red. Bullet to the Head. A Good Day to Die Hard. What’s the deal with “old man action heroes”? That’s a question raised in this Flavorwire article:

These days it seems action films aren’t just a young man’s game anymore – they’re becoming a game for finely aged actors. We’ve had actors dolling out justice well into their middle-years before (see: John Wayne, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, the cast of The Wild Bunch ), but it’s never been this pervasive as a trend. Which begs the question: why now?

One reason is the current state of the action genre. As Adam Sternbergh noted in his heartfelt eulogy for the bygone days of Commandos and Rambos – “America forgot how to make action movies.” Where once we had a healthy action genre, now we just have action movies – most of which are superhero flicks or CGI sinkholes. There’s no more good old-fashioned bare-chested, bare-knuckled grit. Not that there’s anyone to get bare-chested or knuckled. Aside from Jason Statham and false-starters Vin Diesel and The Rock, no new young action stars have come along to replace the old, and the existing ones have faded (Tom Cruise, Will Smith). Now we just get regular actors like Matt Damon and Daniel Craig taking on action movies.

Ah, so Hollywood somehow forgot how to make action movies. What, this particular type of genre movie is ultra complicated to craft? There was some sort of expiration date on the secrets of making action movies and that date has passed? And of course, with the passing of this ability to understand how to make action movies, the number of Hollywood projects in that genre has absolutely plummeted, right? I mean look at these spec script sales in 2011 where… hm… the #1 genre was Action with 29 deals. Okay, that was 2 years ago. Surely, in 2012, sales for Action spec scripts just crashed and burned with a measly total of… uh… 29… again leading the pack as the top genre.

Well…

I don’t claim to be a genius, but here’s another number for you: 87 million.That’s the number of Baby Boomers still kicking who grew up with action movies, love action movies and have proven they will show up in numbers… if Hollywood actually produces good action movies aimed at them. And names like Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Lima Neeson, and Helen Mirren for God’s sake actually mean something to that target demo.

What do you think? Has Hollywood somehow forgotten how to make action movies? Or could it possibly be that there is a sizable audience that actually wants to see Old Farts on screen kicking ass?

For more of the Flavorwrite article, go here.

Genre Essentials: Vote for your Action titles!

October 8th, 2012 by

It’s time to round out our Genre Essentials series. For those who need a reminder, it all started here:

I have gotten to know a lot of screenwriters through the years including many of those who have broken into the business recently. In talking with or interviewing them, there is one thing I find they have in common: They know their stuff, particularly about the genre in which they write.

This is important: When you are writing an original screenplay within a specific genre, you really should know the heart, soul and guts of that genre. This will inform every step of your creative and writing process: concept, character development, brainstorming, plotting, tone, style, atmosphere, voice, pace, and so on. There are certain attributes common to certain genres, and you need to know as much about them as possible, if you want to follow, reverse or break those conventions.

Obviously you can’t read and watch everything, but isn’t there a way to cover the essentials?

Which led me to a new GITS series: Genre Essentials.

Take the eight most common genres: Action, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller.

Combine with five content areas: Movies, Scripts, Books [Fiction], Books [Non-Fiction], Resource.

Use the suggestions of the GITS community to generate a list of essential study for each genre.

I ran this series for 2 months, week by week, and you generated some incredible titles and resources.

Now let’s finalize those lists.

Today: Action.

Go here to vote in each area:

VOTING: 10 Must-See Action Movies

VOTING: Must-Read Action Scripts

VOTING: Must-Read Fiction Books for Action Writers

Action: Must-Read [Non-Fiction] Books

Other Action Resources

Each day this week, I will invite you to vote in different genres. Based on that, we will end up with a set of essential resources you need to cover per each of these eight genres.

So please take the time to make your voice heard.

Tomorrow: Comedy.

Genre Essentials: Action

July 30th, 2012 by

The idea: If you want to write in a genre, you should know [at least] the essentials of that genre. Dynamics, themes, tone, pace, feel, atmosphere, characters, dialogue, scenes, memes, tropes, and so on. So we are dutifully compiling lists of essentials for every major movie genre. For those who care about the action genre, please hit continue to vote. (more…)

Genre Essentials: Action — 10 Action Resources [Blogs, Websites, Journals, Magazines, DVD Commentaries] You Must Track

July 13th, 2012 by

When you are writing an original screenplay within a specific genre, you really should know the heart, soul and guts of that genre. This will inform every step of your creative and writing process: concept, character development, brainstorming, plotting, tone, style, atmosphere, voice, pace, and so on. There are certain attributes common to each genre, and you need to know as much about them as possible, if you want to follow, reverse or break those conventions.

Obviously you can’t read and watch everything, but isn’t there a way to cover the essentials?

Which led me to a new GITS series: Genre Essentials.

This week: Action.

Today: – 10 Resources [Blogs, Websites, Journals, Magazines, DVD Commentaries] You Must Track.

Please post your suggestions in comments. Let’s do our best to generate quality suggestions for the other categories.

On Sunday, July 15, I will post the Genre Essentials: Action list.

To read your suggestions for 10 Action Movies You Must See, go here.

To read your suggestions for 10 Action Scripts You Must Analyze, go here.

To read your suggestions for 10 Action Books [Fiction] You Must Read, go here.

To read your suggestions for 10 Action Books [Non-Fiction] You Must Cover, go here.

Next week: Comedy.

Genre Essentials: Action — 10 Action Books [Non-Fiction] You Must Cover

July 12th, 2012 by

When you are writing an original screenplay within a specific genre, you really should know the heart, soul and guts of that genre. This will inform every step of your creative and writing process: concept, character development, brainstorming, plotting, tone, style, atmosphere, voice, pace, and so on. There are certain attributes common to each genre, and you need to know as much about them as possible, if you want to follow, reverse or break those conventions.

Obviously you can’t read and watch everything, but isn’t there a way to cover the essentials?

Which led me to a new GITS series: Genre Essentials.

This week: Action.

Today: 10 Action Books [Non-Fiction] You Must Cover.

Please post your suggestions in comments. Let’s do our best to generate quality suggestions for the other categories.

On Sunday, July 15, I will post the Genre Essentials: Action list.

To read your suggestions for 10 Action Movies You Must See, go here.

To read your suggestions for 10 Action Scripts You Must Analyze, go here.

To read your suggestions for 10 Action Books [Fiction] You Must Read, go here.

Next week: Comedy.

Genre Essentials: Action — 10 Action Books [Fiction] You Must Read

July 11th, 2012 by

When you are writing an original screenplay within a specific genre, you really should know the heart, soul and guts of that genre. This will inform every step of your creative and writing process: concept, character development, brainstorming, plotting, tone, style, atmosphere, voice, pace, and so on. There are certain attributes common to each genre, and you need to know as much about them as possible, if you want to follow, reverse or break those conventions.

Obviously you can’t read and watch everything, but isn’t there a way to cover the essentials?

Which led me to a new GITS series: Genre Essentials.

This week: Action.

Today: 10 Action Books [Fiction] You Must Read.

Please post your suggestions in comments. Let’s do our best to generate quality suggestions for the other categories.

On Sunday, July 15, I will post the Genre Essentials: Action list.

To read your suggestions for 10 Action Movies You Must See, go here.

To read your suggestions for 10 Action Scripts You Must Analyze, go here.

Next week: Comedy.

Genre Essentials: Action — 10 Action Scripts You Must Analyze

July 10th, 2012 by

When you are writing an original screenplay within a specific genre, you really should know the heart, soul and guts of that genre. This will inform every step of your creative and writing process: concept, character development, brainstorming, plotting, tone, style, atmosphere, voice, pace, and so on. There are certain attributes common to each genre, and you need to know as much about them as possible, if you want to follow, reverse or break those conventions.

Obviously you can’t read and watch everything, but isn’t there a way to cover the essentials?

Which led me to a new GITS series: Genre Essentials.

This week: Action.

Today: 10 Action Scripts You Must Analyze.

Please post your suggestions in comments. Let’s do our best to generate quality suggestions for the other categories.

On Sunday, July 15, I will post the Genre Essentials: Action list.

To read your suggestions for 10 Actions Movies You Must See, go here.

Next week: Comedy.

Genre Essentials: Action — 10 Action Movies You Must See

July 9th, 2012 by

The push to push you to learn what you need to learn to succeed as a professional screenwriter continues here at GITS.

There is 1, 2, 7, 14, a simple formula to be a more productive and better screenwriter.

There is Deep Focus: The Go Into The Movies Project, a poor person’s version of film school to help you immerse yourself in the world of movies.

There is How I Write A Script, a 10 stage approach to the actual process of writing a full-length original screenplay.

There is How To Read A Screenplay, a series of exercises you can use to dig into and unlock the secrets of a script, its structure, characters, theme and style.

There is The Business of Screenwriting, weekly posts on business side of the craft.

There is The Story Behind Script Coverage, a detailed analysis of a major Hollywood agency’s training packet for script readers.

And ongoing series such as Great Characters, Scene Description Spotlight, Script To Screen, and so forth.

Now the next series to help you learn and succeed: Genre Essentials. It all started here.

I have gotten to know a lot of screenwriters through the years including many of those who have broken into the business recently. In talking with or interviewing them, there is one thing I find they have in common: They know their stuff, particularly about the genre in which they write.

This is important: When you are writing an original screenplay within a specific genre, you really should know the heart, soul and guts of that genre. This will inform every step of your creative and writing process: concept, character development, brainstorming, plotting, tone, style, atmosphere, voice, pace, and so on. There are certain attributes common to each genre, and you need to know as much about them as possible, if you want to follow, reverse or break those conventions.

Obviously you can’t read and watch everything, but isn’t there a way to cover the essentials?

Which led me to a new GITS series: Genre Essentials.

Take the eight most common genres: Action, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller.

Combine with five content areas: Movies, Scripts, Books [Fiction], Books [Non-Fiction], Resource.

Use the suggestions of the GITS community to generate a list of essential study for each genre.

Here is the schedule:

July 9-July 13: Action
July 16-July 20: Comedy
July 23-July 27: Drama
July 30-August 3: Family
August 6-10: Fantasy
August 13-17: Horror
August 20-24: Science Fiction
August 27-31: Thriller

For this to work, we all need to pitch in with suggestions. This is especially true for those of you who are fans of a certain genre. I’m asking every GITS reader to spend some time over the July 4th holiday week thinking up useful titles for these:

– 10 Movies You Must See

– 10 Scripts You Must Analyze

– 10 Books [Fiction] You Must Read

– 10 Book [Non-Fiction] You Must Cover

– 10 Resources [Blogs, Websites, Journals, Magazines] You Must Track

I am talking about titles you will need to know when you break into the business — for general meetings, script meetings, OWA meetings, and as noted for your own benefit as a writer. What have writers and filmmakers done before? What commonalities can you find between them? What differences? What is the core content you must know in order to be able to give yourself a decent shot at nailing a script within a particular genre?

Genre Essentials: If you read, watch and analyze these, you will give yourself a foundation upon which you can build your understanding of one or more of the eight genres in which Hollywood traffics.

This week: Action.

Today: 10 Action Movie You Must See.

Please post your suggestions in comments. Tomorrow and the rest of the week, let’s do our best to generate quality suggestions for the other categories.

On Sunday, July 15, I will post the Genre Essentials: Action list.

Next week: Comedy.

Note: Some people have asked to do a Genre Essential list for Romantic Comedy. I’m fine with that. Are there other Sub-Genres or Cross Genres we should add? Given how popular they are nowadays, perhaps Action Thriller.