Monday, 17 November 2008

Open with a bang!

Earlier today, I was thinking about movie openings and the impact they have on the film. You usually go to see a film at the cinema for 3 reasons -
  1. The trailer made you want to see it and/or you like the sound of the film.
  2. You want to see some of the actors, the director or writer etc
  3. You can't be bothered to do that essay, so the cinema is the best alternative

But if the opening of a movie doesn't grab you, you might walk out. I've only ever wanted to walk out of a movie three times (I never have). The first case was when I went to see Silent Hill. It was such a terrible thing and I didn't have a clue what was going on. The second incident was Pirates 3 - so long and boring - crap compared to the first two. The third movie was (the worst film I've seen in ages) The Mummy 3. It had nothing that made the first two great - the wit, the action, the adventure. This is clearly because Stephen Summers had nothing to do with the movie (he wrote and directed the first two). Anyway, away from the point.

When I'm watching a film on the TV, I have the 15 minute rule - if I'm not interested in the movie in the first 15 minutes, then it gets turned off! I'm sure that a lot of other people have this philosophy as well. So openings are pretty bloody important then.

A good opening should grab your attention from the off. All the screenwriting groups tell you that something major should happen in the first 10 pages. If you don't interest the reader of your screenplay (the movie execs) early on, they'll throw it away - they have a lot of screenplays to get through). Most of the experts say it should be the catalyst/trigger. The catalyst is the part of the movie that kicks everything off and sets the events in motion (Arnie and the gang heading to the jungle in Predator, the army guys attacking the school in X-Men 2, Peter Parker being bitten by that tiny spider in Spider-Man.) It's common sense really - you need to grab the audience's attention ASAP, so that they stick around. The same goes for prose fiction. I often pick up a book and licking through the first few pages. If I'm bored, I don't bother with it.
So the question becomes - How do you create an opening that grabs the audience by the throat and won't let go?

In an action film, this is fairly simple - open with some amazing action that (usually) introduces the main character. In horror or mystery/detective, have a brutal killing - most horror movies don't feature the protagonist in the opening, the show the killer. That's because the protagonist is the killer - no one cares about the girl who survives at the end, they care about the killer. (There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.) When you get out of the action-driven films however, things get more complicated (part of the reason I don't want to write them). How do you open a romantic comedy? I don't have a clue - I never watch them! I suppose you establish the characters, but how do you hook the audience? (Not a rhetorical question)

My other point about openings is that they should say something about the movie itself. In a sense, they should set the tone for the next two hours and possibly show the theme. If you think about the openings of certain movies, that seems to be a preferred method.

In X-Men, we open with Magneto at a Nazi concentration camp. He (and the rest of the Jews) are being persecuted. Persecution is the theme of the film - Magneto believes that one day will come when humanity will treat mutants the same way the Nazis treated the Jews. So it sets the tone and theme for the movie, while at the same time introducing the antagonist and showing the driving force behind his actions. It also features some good action. Three birds, one stone - clever eh?

In The Terminator, we see the future as it may one day become. This shows what is at stake throughout the film - setting the jeopardy and tone of the movie - 'This is gonna be one hell of a fight!'

The Matrix establishes one of our core characters (Trinity), showing her unusual strength and power, while at the same time showing the superior power of the antagonists - the Agents. And was I the only one (on first viewing of The Matrix) to assume that Trinity was one of the bad guys and that 'the nice friendly Feds' were the good guys? I'm not sure if that was intentional, but I suspect it was. Goes without saying of course, that it opens with action that establishes the tone for the movie. we see slo-mo, big jumps, shooting, martial arts and deception - everything that The Matrix is about.

So, I've rambled on for ages about openings and not really said much, I'm sure. But what I'm trying to say is that even if you have a killer movie, if your opening is crappy, then you've got little chance of getting it made, never mind watched! So discuss away gentle readers (sorry to steal from Jane Espenson) and think about how to write a great opening.

Comment on this post if you agree or (more likely) disagree with anything I've said. I far from know it all, so feel free to tear me to shreds!

Stay shiny


Lee said...

Greetings, young blogger. Just popping in to say cheers for the link to m'script site. Blogging is a great way to make friends and influence people, even if my own effort has languished for months. Keep it up, geezer!

Neil said...

Hi Lee, no problem. I love blogging now - i've got so much to say! Have fun blogging!