Can the Stephen Sommers Meme Be Ignored?

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  • Can the Stephen Sommers Meme Be Ignored?

    As a writer of action scripts, I have certain examples of structure that I strive to emulate: DIE HARD, GUNS OF THE NAVARONE, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, ALIENS. Films that have entertained me time and again over many years.

    Lately (due to the influence of certain directors, I would presume) a more frenzied action style seems to have taken precedence -- throw as much up on screen as you can, keep the "thrills" coming, hit the ground running, etc. I would cite VAN HELSING as the worst example of this style, but look at UNDERWORLD or THE MUMMY or LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARILY BADLY-WRITTEN GENTLEMEN -- all the big-budget action flicks seem to be choosing "frantic" over "well-paced."

    DIE HARD has almost no action for the first half hour. ALIENS doesn't even show a damn Alien for the first 50 minutes. If I trust my gut, I want to emulate those films -- build character first, pace the action so it gradually builds, hold back the eye-candy for the climax. But if I look at what's appearing at the corner multi-plex, I see the opposite.

    Do spec writers today have to copy the crap that hacks like Sommers spew onscreen, or can we safely emulate the great structures of past action greats?

  • #2
    I wouldn't want to "copy" anyone... or their style... but that's just me!

    As special effects guru's perfect their craft even more you will continue to see these SPFX affecting the pace of certain action plot lines. "Spider Man" was a good example.

    On the opposite end of the action spectrum you find films such as "Ronan"(probably spelled wrong), "Heat", etc., as well as some examples that you mentioned like "Die Hard"!

    That's my own opinion , however, as always!

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    • #3
      Technically, the first alien bursts from Ripley's chest during an intense dream sequence. It was enough of a charge to get you through the exposition-heavy first hour.

      But yeah, anyone who chooses to emulate crappy chaos from the likes of Sommers or Paul Anderson over structure savy Cameron and Steven E. de Souza needs to be smothered with a pillow.

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      • #4
        I can't actually your question on Specs but I do want to say I LOVE Cameron's Alien's script for just the reason you point out: he spends over half the script building tension then introduces the creatures for maximum impact.

        I would point out that Cameron does "cheat" it a bit. In the first act he has the dream sequence where the alien bursts out of Ripley's chest. There's also a scene that got cut where a face alien thingy gets Newt's father. Then there's the incredibly tense scene where the Colonial Marines search the empty base. There may not be fighting but there is drama.

        To my mind scenes like that last one are even more important in the age of CGI. Audiences have literally "seen it all." It's what they don't see that's important.

        Just my humble opinion.

        Frank

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        • #5
          To my mind scenes like that last one are even more important in the age of CGI. Audiences have literally "seen it all." It's what they don't see that's important.
          Amen to that. What I'm wondering is if producers/agents feel the same way. Or do they look at Van Helsing's opening weekend, look at your first 30 pages, and say "too damn dull... nothing explodes!"

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          • #6
            compare the movies you've chosen as models vs the movies of today and your question is answered--none of those new flicks have been particularly memorable and most of them have been downright dreadful.

            it's true the envelope gets pushed all the time, but i believe good storytelling adheres to the same principles thru time and those principles of structure don't really change. those flicks are the result of narration being given up to make way for explosive action and cg. the good recent action flicks might have a lot of cg as well but they haven't ignored the most paramount elements of story: character and structure, and they have been incredibly successful--x-men, x2, spiderman, shrek, pirates of the carribean, the matrix.

            action only for the sake of action is particularly tedious.

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            • #7
              Damn straight!

              WinterMuse - you and I are most definitely on the same page on this subject (must have something to do with the 'groundhog day' like season we're perpetually stuck in! )

              Die Hard, Aliens (and throw in Predator) and you'll see action films that raised the bar so high that I'm not even sure if there has been a film in the last 15 odd years that has come close to emulating them.

              When writing action, I - like you - prefer to build character. One of the worst things I see week in week out is action films which start with sh*t getting blown up. People dying. People miraculously surviving. And guess what campers? We're meant to care about the guy who survived.

              Huh? Say what?

              Why should I care about this guy? - I don't even know who he is yet! I don't know the first thing about him. I have no empathy for the guy, and all I've done is been forced to sit through yet another action sequence without a soul.

              And do you know what? If your action sequence doesn't have a soul. Then it's going to have to be pretty damn impressive / inventive to suck me in on its own.

              And 99 out of a 100 action set-pieces just can't cut it (let's face it...we've seen it all before, right?).

              Much better to build character. To involve the audience from the get go with 'why' the character does what he does / thinks what he thinks. THEN let the audience follow the protagonist through the story. THEN let the action build.

              Oh, and let's see if we (the audience) can't discover what the protagonist discovers...WHEN he / she discovers it.

              Come on folks. Let me live vicariously through this macho guy who's up on screen kickin' ass! PLEEEEZE!

              Character first. Always. Even on high concept films.

              Winter in New York

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              • #8
                I think the big problem with Sommers isn't the pacing - it's that he's writing cartoon characters instead of people.

                NORTH BY NORTHWEST hits the ground running - so do a bunch of action flicks and thriller - but they also *use* the action to explore character and between action scenes there's story that explores the characters.

                I think pacing is an important consideration...

                But so are character and story. Best thing to do is find a way to make them *all work together*.

                - Bill

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                • #9
                  Reminds me of Speilbergs Jaws experience. The plan was to have lots of scenes with the shark all through the movie, until the vast technical problems forced them to concentrate on story and suspense with only glimpses of Bruce. He later admitted that it made the movie much better than it would have been and resulted in the first summer blockbuster movie that probabley STILL makes more money every year for the studio than some of the latest releases!

                  So it's simple. Write your great action script, then throw in lots of gratitious action scenes early on to get the thing greenlit, then sneak onto the set every day and sabotage the props. Then as the director and producers are tearing their hair out mention that you think you could do a rewrite that could work without these scenes and save the day for them. For a rewrite fee of course.

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                  • #10
                    gratitious action scenes

                    That's the problem with Sommer's films - *gratitous* action scenes (sometimes they're fun, sometimes they're just junk). What you want to do is write action scenes that are also character scenes - and load your script up with those.

                    Even when we don't see the shark in JAWS, those are still suspense or action oriented scenes - and there are lots of them. But take any of those scenes and just watch Scheider - you'll see his character engaged in an emotional struggle (he's scared to death, out of his element, but trying to act as if he's in control). In the earlier scenes, check out how the shark scenes are about Brody's family.

                    Even if the world has gone to video-game-hell and scripts require an action scene every 2 minutes, we can still make those action scenes part of the story and use them to explore character.

                    - Bill

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                    • #11
                      Re: gratitious action scenes

                      Interesting point about NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Bill. Can you think of any more recent examples of successful wall-to-wall action films? I'm thinking THE ROAD WARRIOR was like that, but I haven't seen it in ages.

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                      • #12
                        Re: Good action flicks

                        Could you put True Lies in the list of good action movies?

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                        • #13
                          Cam

                          Very few in the world handle action as well as James Cameron. Sure there are the John Woos and the Quentin Tarantinos. But they are indulgent in their direction of action compared to Cameron. Cameron's style is lean. His skill in pacing is extraordinary. I just hope he's got Titanic 'I'm the King of the World' out of his system and goes back to what he does best.

                          Winter in New York

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                          • #14
                            Re: Cam

                            He should have done Alien vs. Predator...

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                            • #15
                              Re: Cam

                              When I write action, I strive to meet the Die Hard/Lethal weapon bar (though I know I fall short) but am guilty of thinking I have to throw more action up on the screen to match what is going on in movies today, problem is that when one does that the story feels "tacked on" and you end up with a Mission Impossible 2 scenario of action scenes that are barely glued together by a plot.

                              I take Martell's comments to heart and try to think of how the action reveals character, I know I still slip into throwing some stuff onto the page beacuse "it's cool", but now find myself going back and cleaning some of this up in my last two scripts.

                              There also should be an emotional investment in the action - what are the stakes of losing ( outside of death) and what is mind frame of the character? (desperation is quite often what most characters are about when you talk about the everyman thrown into an extraordinary situation)

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