It’s not very often I don’t action a note, at least not without first explaining why it wouldn’t work – generally produces and directors are smart enough to accept reasoned arguments. Recently, however, I found a note I couldn’t action.
I tried, I really did. I tried four times, but every time I got to the middle it either fell apart or meant I had to keep rewriting the entire script.
The change sounded like a small and reasonable one. In essence (and without giving away the terrifically exciting plot) two teen boys do x in order to y. Where x is something monstrously stupid and y is getting laid.
The problem was neither the producer nor the director believed the teens would do x just to get laid. Which I was surprised at since we were all teenage boys once and I at least would have happily brought about the apocalypse for less.
But in retrospect, doing x to get laid is both extreme and not really an obvious decision.
So they asked if I could change y to z – after all, it’s only a minor change.
The problem is, z is revenge on their school bullies and revenge is a fairly negative goal. It’s hard to build empathy with someone who deliberately releases x on the world in an act of revenge.
Their solution was have them quickly realise x wasn’t a nice thing to do and immediately regret it … but that led to more problems as the rest of the script didn’t make sense. Also, since the audience knows x is a bad thing to do, it seems unbelievable the teens wouldn’t. For example, detonating a nuclear weapon because you’re cold and you think it might warm you up is stupid and weird, but perhaps more understandable than detonating one in an act of revenge for someone stealing your parking space.
The problem is one of justification. I tried various ways of justifying both the revenge and x, constructing several completely different openings in the hope one of them would segue perfectly into the rest of the script … but none of the new openings ever went anywhere near any of the other scenes, the ones everyone was already happy with.
And then it hit me, the reason I couldn’t just change y to z was because it was a fundamental change to the logline of the script. Changing the character’s motivation changes everything they do and (in some cases) everything they are.
That equation, people doing x because of y, is the DNA of the script. It runs through everything, it dictates not just story but characters and theme and … well, everything. You can’t just alter half the equation and expect to only change half the scenes which spring from it, because every scene and every character is in someway an answer to that logline equation. The only way I found round it was to alter x and y at the same time so the answers still made sense.
I wish I’d figured that out three weeks ago, instead of banging my head against that particular brick wall. In the end I found a y which was similar to getting laid and actually incorporated getting laid into it, but was much broader in scope. The other, more significant change was altering what they believed x was. So instead of doing something monstrous to get laid, they believed they were doing something heroic to be popular.* The fact that x was essentially the same thing approached from a different angle meant the rest of the script from x onward remained similar … and the problem was solved.
At least, I think it was. I haven’t had the feedback yet so I may well be wrong … we’ll have to wait and see.
* Imagine a world everyone made films about how nuclear weapons were just misunderstood and were actually fun and gently warming and sexy. Imagine the teens live in a town which has a nuclear weapon festival every year and all the other teens dress up as nuclear weapons and then have sex with each other because nuclear weapons are such a turn on. Then imagine a couple of desperate idiots and it seems reasonable (within the context of the story) that they might think detonating one would make them popular. Especially since we’re not actually talking about a nuclear weapon, it’s just a terrible analogy.