Some movies are a slow burn. They take their time introducing the audience to the characters, the world, and the main conflict propelling the story forward. When done right, like Drive, they can be an awesome experience.
But what I think is important for any of those films, and what Drive does in its first scene, is to set the tone. The first scene in Drive is the Driver doing what he does best. It’s tense, and exciting, and sets the tone for the film even though the rest of the film veers away from that.
I have a problem with setting the tone of my scripts. I think a lot of writers/filmmakers do. This is a reason why people didn’t like Hancock. The first half of the film was comedic, and people loved that. The second half of the film was highly dramatic and steeped in mythology, and people didn’t expect that. They railed against it and for many it ruined the experience of an otherwise solid film.
Recently I’ve gotten two critiques on The Inhabitors and Peripheral that mentioned the scripts don’t do enough early on the set-up the tone. At first I was a bit ambivalent toward the criticism, but the more I think about it the more I think he was right. It goes back to audience expectations and their dislike at being unduly surprised.
William Goldman, in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, recounts a similar experience with his film The Great Waldo Pepper. He explains how excited he was for the film because it had been such a good experience working on it and the subject matter was so interesting. The historical basis for the film even lent itself to three acts! The problem, he later realized, was that the first act was too much fun. So he and the director, George Roy Hill, tried to better set the tone with the credits sequence. It didn’t matter. Once the mid-point turn rolled around the audience turned on the film. Not only was the shift in tone not what they expected to happen, they didn’t want it to happen either.
Another personal example with Granted. Up until midway through Granted, the story is basically a drama about a guy who can’t get over the fact that his girlfriend died. Only when he stumbles on the room does the story shift more toward a mystery/thriller. My director and DP/editor recognized the problem in early cuts of the film. It takes too long to get to where it’s going, and when it does the tone shifts too dramatically. Their solution was to take a piece of the film from the middle and insert it into the beginning. It’s a simple, quick scene but establishes the tone immediately. I think Granted is better off for it.
But for me the question is always: How? The Inhabitors and Peripheral are both about relatively normal people thrust into extraordinary situations beyond their understanding. With both films the inciting incident is fairly early (the deus ex machima of The Inhabitors is found and used by page five and in Peripheral the first signs of the climax are near the end of the first act on page 20-something but there are a few mock scares before that), but neither do a good job of setting the tone. My issue is, without flash-fowarding like in Granted, how do I set the tone for something that doesn’t yet exist in my characters world? Why would they be scared of something they don’t know about? Why would there be signs of insanity or magic if they’re unaware of either of those things?
My solution for The Inhabitors, I think, is to add a prologue. This solves two problems from my perspective: 1.) it will establish the tone from the first page and 2.) it will give me an opportunity to deepen the mythology of the deus ex machima.
Peripheral is more of a problem. In The Inhabitors elements of the world exist before the characters learn about them, so we can visit them without the characters as a way of setting that up. That’s not the case with Peripheral as the conflict in that story is almost solely internal. That’s something that I’ll need to consider a while longer.
I’ve always discounted setting a tone in my stories because tone shifts in films don’t bother me. I thought the one in Hancock was fine. As a matter of fact, I appreciated the shift because it showed a depth the film was lacking before then. But what I’m learning, and what most writers have learned at one point or another (I think) is that my tastes aren’t necessarily the public’s. And because I’m not writing for myself I can’t discount that. I’ve always been cocky when it comes to writing and storytelling, which is a flaw deserving of another post, but I’m realizing now that regardless of my opinion or technical prowess or mastery of language I’m never right. The audience is right. Always. Sometimes I may be able to surprise them, maybe even change their mind, but they are the judge and jury of the ultimate fate of my stories.
I can’t keep forgetting that.