I was giving a talk about blockbuster films at an Apple Store the night before my class and I asked people what they loved about the HUGEly successul films - Star Wars, Titanic, Spider Man, Finding Nemo, etc. - and suprisingly I got one person who said "the action" and then the other responded with these facets: character, theme, good conquering evil, clever set ups, dialogue, likeability of characters. And it was like I expected: the huge spectacle aspect is not the first thing people remember about these films.
And taking that as a cue... I think it's important to remember that what some teachers teach about the blockbusters is sort of irrelevant. Why? I will answer it in much greater detail and with supporting data in an upcoming blog but you, the aspiring writer with no major credits, aren't going to be the one to write them. (Two specs in top 40 US all-time box office: Hangover (pre-packaged with successful director) and Sixth Sense) And you aren't going to sell a script that could only be made for $200,000,000. So from a practical career perspective, it doesn't make sense to write an unmakeable and unsellable script other than as a writing sample or maybe to win contests. Or because you just want to.
However, there is a boat- (or butt-) load of talented filmmakers and great storytelling in that top 40. So I think writers would be alot better off learning some of the principles behind this storytelling without trying to emulate all aspects of it. Here is an exanple. Check out one of the coolest action scenes in a long time and a set-piece of a movie that cost 2 jillion dollars to make. Here is the scene in LOTR:ROTK where Legolas single-handedly takes down the elephant-like beastie...
THE SCENE STARTS AT AROUND 2:27
The real beauty of this moment is not the scope and the huge landscape on which this plays out but the cleverness of the beats. If you're a beginning writer, don't worry so much if your story has 6 new races, 4 new species of animals, 4 warring factions, magic users of different levels, 14 doubles, dragons, mammoths, magical swords, etc... What you can REALLY take from Mr. Jackson and his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens is a respect for how much damn cleverness and cool and surprising beats there are in about a minute of film time.
Here are most of the beats, escalations and surprises:
Great sitcoms have this rule of having at least 3 jokes per page. Imagine this scene on its page or page-and-a-half (it's only about a minute long). Circle the "jokes" - the really cool and clever and inspired moments. You have a circle every inch. There are no generic beats. Everything is linked to the character and the physical environment. The arrows for ladders, riding the rope up. There is no repetition. He uses his bow AGAIN to kill it but there is a twist, something new: THREE ARROWS (and don't you dare give this away in the moment when he reaches to his quiver...snoring!)
- Counting their kills. A bit of humor
- Someone calls upon Legolas, raising suspense...why is he the one to deal with this beast?
- Mario Bros, way of getting on the beast
- Swinging to back legs.
- Using arrows as ladder
- Swinging from rope
- Cutting rope
- Riding up as the thing falls
- Watching the people discover that they are going overboard and then watching them go
- Deftly avoids attackers and arrows while perched on beast's back and even shoots some enemies
- Since we already saw him use arrows....he reaches into quiver and SURPRISE his bow has THREE arrows in it....kills the beast
- Skateboards down the trunk as it collapses
- Dwarf says that only counts as one. Downplaying the awesomness of what we just witnessed.
- Did I miss any?
You argue that this scene was created with a team of special effects people and three writers and probably wasn't even written and the writer was the director and blah blah blah? So what? You have a page or so for your action scene. You know what great is. Are you going to settle for less? If your action scene is filled with generic and unsurprising stuff -- the car careens around the corner, he speeds up, he bumps in to the car, he jumps the fence, he shoots, a bullet ricochets by his head -- and it doesn't escalate and surprise us and integrate the setting and find a clever beat every few lines, well, then make it short, rewrite it or don't write action.
If you need help reminding yourself what great is. Check out the opening of Casino Royale....several locations, people who are chasing each other like ONLY they can chase each other. Legolas uses his bow, his dexterity, his cleverness, the physical reality in front of him. See how James Bond's clumsy and brute approach contrasts with his chasee's dexterity and surprisingly deft moves. If you only have 4 cool beats in your action scene, fine. Make it 1/4 of a page, but if you need to make it a page, make sure that just like a dramatic scene in Oscar-winning film, make sure you have characters, uniqueness, surprises, stakes, escalation, integration of setting, cleverness.
You want a shot at being a working writer on Hollywood's B-list (or better), here's a hint: you gotta aim higher. Raise your expectations for every beat and every word on your page and you are already ahead of the herd and on your way.