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Monday, April 02, 2007

The 15 Minute Test

I don't care what anyone says. Us under-30's, we're part of the MTV generation. We're super-media literate. We want flashing images (though preferably the type that *don't* cause epileptic attacks). We want super-fast cuts, interesting shots, questions raised, fancy colours, interesting facial expressions...Oh yeah: and a super-skinny latte to go. And a kitkat. Bee-atch.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it anyway. So: I get bored. VERY EASILY. Movies have very little time to impress me - or my brain goes on vacation. We're talking, what-are-we-having-for-dinner, I-can't-believe-David's-wearing-that-jumper-AGAIN, must-remember-to-buy-disinfectant-for-the-floor-type vacation. I may be looking at the screen, but I am comprehending none of it. Why? Because it has failed my FIFTEEN MINUTE TEST.

So renowned is the FIFTEEN MINUTE TEST in my house my own husband will no longer take me to the cinema unless I have promised him that a) I read the script first b) I know something about the production of it (like it's a director or producer I respect, etc) and c) I buy him nachos WITH jalapenos. Tough break or what. This may have something to do with the fact you have to drive NINETEEN MILES to a decent cinema in this godforsaken place and that neither of us get NUS discount anymore. Which smarts, incidentally, since we were students for about three quarters of our twenties. Damn you Capitalist Cinema Owners!!!

So, anyway. My Fifteen Minute Test goes something like this:

1) Opening shot. What is it? Is it interesting? Does it have a Voice Over? If so, is it a good voiceover (AMERICAN BEAUTY or PITCH BLACK-style) or a shit voiceover by a throwaway character that has no business having a frigging v.o and/or highly expositional(CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK and UNDERWORLD style, shame on your asses!)

2) Who do we start with? Is it the protagonist or the antagonist? Are their goals and/or needs apparent OR the starting point from which they will have to change? Or are we given loads of incidental info that we won't remember or care about twenty minutes from now, regardless of whether it pays off or not? In the 80s, often protagonists would not come to light until approximately ten to fifteen minutes in. NOTE TO SELF, SCREENWRITERS: this is not the 80s. Deal with it, mofos.

3) Is it genre-specific? I don't mean it has to be OBVIOUS but the TONE of it should be. If it's a drama, is it going to be a drama still ten minutes from now: YOU CAN COUNT ON ME does a great job of this, as does LANTANA and SWEET SIXTEEN. Equally, if it's Supernatural, please give us a clue from the start that it's going to be, even if the idea is no one knows it's going to be Supernatural on the first minute. START AS YOU MEAN TO GO ON. No one gets chopped up in SEVERANCE in the first act, but we all KNOW they're gonna get chopped up: why? Because they're a bunch of yuppies in the middle of nowhere on a COACH for christ's sake and EVERYONE knows people who live in the city get killed in the country! Only one means of escape? Uh-oh, coach driver and coach smashed up. Same with DOG SOLDIERS and the landrover. Nice one. Give us a sense of inevitability, but keep us guessing. As hard as it sounds.

4) Characterisation. Do I know/care who is who? If not, uh-oh: doesn't matter how great the concept is. HARD CANDY? Love the idea of a guy meeting some *innocent* girl of the 'net, then getting fucked over by her 'cos she's not what she seems. Watched it last weekend - BORED. Why? Because the two main characters - whom we were asked to listen to for AGES in the first ten minutes just sitting down in a cafe btw, that's my next point - were, for me, completely 2D. I got no sense of foreboding. I got no sense of "oooooh, he's a predator out to get virginal schoolgirl" or even any subtext that she was actually not what she seemed either. Maybe it was just me. Maybe it was poor acting and/or scripting. Whatever. Quack, quack - oops.

5) Static scenes. Oh my god. First thing screenwriting students are told: keep your characters on the move. Why do so few films do this? I love Michael Mann as anyone knows who reads this blog regularly knows: COLLATERAL, MAN EATER, HEAT...They all do a wicked job of this. But bloody MIAMI VICE? I know: let's have two guys on the roof of a night club having a highly expositional conversation cutting between two PHONES - ARGH!!!! Even the shooting of the Feds which we SAW was explained away in dialogue...

6) Which leads me on to my final point: dialogue-led scenes. Often part of a static scene, but not always. Sometimes one can get away with big chunks of exposition if the situation is funny enough - WHEN HARRY MET SALLY is a good example of this. What would have been clunky is funny because Harry's breaking his heart to his friend at the same time as doing a Mexican Wave in a football stadium. Genius. So often however, big chunks are served up to us on a plate WITH FRIES just for the sake of it. LAST OF THE MOHICANS, another Michael Mann debacle in my opinion, likes to repeat itself alot (even though we might have seen what they're talking about) whilst leaving out some really obvious questions like WHY DIDN'T THEY ALL JUMP OUT OF THE BLOODY WATERFALL??? WHY DIDN'T NATIVE AMERICAN BLOKE WHO WANTED TO KILL THE TWO WOMEN KILL THEM THEN AND THERE INSTEAD OF TAKING THEM AND OTHER BOYF OFF TO ROAST HIM?? ARGH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So, if a movie fails two or more of these aspects in the first fifteen minutes, it's gone. Either the DVD is turned off or I sit, vacant in the cinema, whilst David watches the rest of it. He'll come out and say, "Wow, that was great!" (he's easily pleased) and I'll go "Hmmm." He'll say, "Which bit did you like?" and I'll say, "Do you want curry or stir fry for dinner?"

My family say that if I like a film, it's one of three things: either bloody brilliant, bloody weird or so bad it's great. So there you go.

However, knowing what you LIKE about movies and HOW you respond to them helps your writing. I know I have a low attention span - as such, I try and ensure my set-up is as smooth and interesting as possible, with transitions leading into the second and third acts doing the same. I think structure is everything in keeping people like me watching - so I invest heavily in this area. It doesn't always work out, sure, but knowing this means I have a head start on those annoying buggers who sit there and say "Thrill me", because I am one of those annoying buggers.

How do you respond to movies? What is the most important part for you?


Good Dog said...

Oh, I'm easy to please...

I just want to see something I haven't seen before.

I want situations where I can't immediately figure out how the characters are going to get out of bother.

Usually it needs to have a credit that reads 'Directed by Michael Mann' or '...Ridley Scott' or '...Steven Soderburgh' or one or two others. Heck even '...directed by Michael Bay' if I want it quick and kablooey! But even then it doesn't mean that is a total guarantee. (Still pissed that there won't be a ' Alfred Hitchcock' or ' Stanley Kubrick' or ' Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger'.

Haven't seen Miami Vice yet. But Manhunter - that's Manhunter, without the Freudian slip - should be watched by any director who has to film a discussion around a boardroom table.

And lay of Last of the Mohicans. Bad girl. Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas leave Cora and Alice Munro and Heywood under the waterfall basically because they are slowing down their. Hawkeye's strategy - and their only hope of survival -is to let the trio get captured, find where Magua is taking them and then rescue them on his terms. It does make sense. Magua takes them to the Huron camp as leverage with the tribe's leader. So there.

Lucy said...

Oh yeah, MANHUNTER. Got me there. But you HAVEN'T got my other point my canine friend: why the hell does Magua take the two girls at the waterfall???! He goes to so much trouble to describe to his mate he's going to kill "Old Grey Beard's" "seed", then he actually tells the ACTUAL guy he's gonna destroy his "seed" when Magua takes out his heart...Then he comes across his "seed" at the waterfall- Alice and Cora - AND DOESN'T KILL THEM!!! WTF?? That's just silly.

Good Dog said...

Yes I did...

Magua takes them to the Huron camp as leverage with the tribe's leader.

Magua has been corrupted by the French led by Montcalm. "Destroying" the Munro girls means he's going to have Cora burnt as a human sacrifice and take Alice for himself - dirty bugger.

And anyway, if the plot took a different course it wouldn't end up with Mann's trademark no-dialogue, all-music violent showdown. Absolutely top.

If I had the time, I'd watch the film again to be more concise.

...I'll probably end up watching it again this weekend. About time I watched The Keep again. Should be a good double-bill.

Dom Carver said...

If I've paid my money I'm sitting through the entire movie, even if it is shit. I won't even budge until the credits are well and truely running.

Chris (ukscriptwriter) said...

Interesting post. Clearly this applies to the writing, but can some of it be the fault of the director?


Anyway, interesting point with 5 and 6. If you are going 'low budget', you could be forced in this direction. I know a lot of people will just say write what you want, but if you are writing against given requirements around budget you may not have a choice.

It can be pulled off (your given example), and I think Good Will Hunting is another, or at least I think it is.

Not sure what my point is really, other than it can be done but you have to get it right. Perhaps that is why we often love a low budget film that tells a real story as they often have to take care where big blockbusters pay lip service.


Lucy said...

GD - Leverage??? YAWN. Suddenly I'm reminded of THE PHANTOM MENACE and all its bullshit about trade embargoes. Just ALL jump out the freaking waterfall, get caught by Magua, have a bloody battle on the riverbank, get separated - MUCH BETTER!!! Besides, the female characters in this film SUCK ASS my friend - androcentric misogynistic nonsense: "Seed", GRR!!!

Dom - this is because YOU ARE OLD. If more people voted with their feet and WALKED OUT OF CINEMAS then the buggers wouldn't get away with it... ; )

Chris - I believe, even with budget constraints, that there is no excuse for dialogue-led, static scenes. Low budget films are often far more inventive than these Hollywood blockbusters anyway IMO.

Sheila West said...

"3) Is it genre-specific? ... Equally, if it's Supernatural, please give us a clue from the start that it's going to be, even if the idea is no one knows it's going to be Supernatural on the first minute."

I missed the first ninety seconds of "Predator" and therefore I missed the quiet opening scene of the space craft entering Earth's atmosphere. So when I sat down in my friend's livingroom and asked "What are you watching?" she said "Some war movie with soldiers in a jungle. It's got Schwartzenegger in it" I nodded and prepared for another "Commando."

And then, about an hour later, I realized there was an alien prowling throught he jungle tree tops. Talk about disorientation! I had to readjust my whole perspective of the picture from "war flick" to "sci-fi" and I also had to back-track in my mind to everyting I had seen so far and reprocess it all through my sci-fi filters. But I love sci-fi, so to me that was an improvement on the film, a "genre up-grade" of sorts.

Sheila West said...

"How do you respond to movies? What is the most important part for you?"

I like a nice tight package of structure.

Structure. Structure. Structure. When it all fits together so tightly it positively HUMS.

But I don't mind if part of that structure includes expository dialogue. There's GOOD expository dialogue and BAD expository dialogue. George Lucas writes some of the absolute worst expository dialogue I've ever suffered through. Jullian Fellowes, however, writes some of the most brilliant lines.

Lucy said...

Hi Sheila! Funny - I had exactly the same experience first time I watched PREDATOR because my dad had taped over the beginning!

And I agree: good exposition is effortless, it flows - bad exposition I could jump out of a window. If there had been any in the cinema where we were watching ATTACK OF THE CLONES, I just might have. Thank god we weren't sitting up on the balcony...

deepstructure said...

hey lucy,

found your blog again! it looks much nicer this time. :)

definitely a movie should grab you in the first few. my friend and i coined a term, ADDI-compliant. most movies don't make the cut.

good to see you again!

Lucy said...

Yay, Christopher! You're back. I've missed you. And I totally agree - the term "ADDI Compliant" gets my vote. I shall use it from now on...