I watched John Carpenter’s Escape From New York for the first time earlier today and the way the plot is set-up got me thinking about how contemporary screenwriters/filmmakers handle exposition as opposed to even 30 years ago. The first few minutes of Escape From New York are dedicated solely to explanation of the concept; In the near future Manhattan is turned into a high-security prison that houses every dangerous criminal in America. A wall has been erected around the city to keep them all in.
This is typical, and somewhat necessary. But what happens next is something I don’t think we’d see today. Basically, the story just drops us into the middle of everything. Snake Plissken is just being arraigned for robbery (although we never see him when he’s not a criminal) and for some reason Air Force One is already in the middle of a hijacking and the President is put into an escape pod and sent into the Manhattan Prison.
If this were remade, or were first coming out today, I can’t help but think that the audience would demand to see Plissken before he was a criminal – perhaps meeting him as he robbed the bank (which I read was in an early draft of the script) or even in his former life as a soldier. We would have had several minutes of the President on Air Force One discussing the important summit he was going to with China and Russia before the plane was hijacked in a clearly explained manner. And we wouldn’t have gotten to the Presidents eventual kidnapping by the most powerful gang in Manhattan until around the hour mark.
Why is this? I think because audiences are so much more discerning today than years before. They expect films to be a closed-loop and for everything to pay off within the two-hour timeframe unless they’re watching a franchise film. I don’t think there is a right way or long way, although I lean toward explaining everything I can.
In fact, I think leaving things unexplained is a viable storytelling technique if used properly. The advantage Escape From New York has is its high concept and forward motion. It whisks you along on its ride and you find yourself not really caring why the plane was hijacked in the first place, or what type of person Snake Plissken is, or why he is so recognizable to all of the criminals in Manhattan. None of that really matters to the story the movie is trying to tell, so it’s not talked about.
This will lead to a tight, fast-paced script. If you’re writing an action/thriller like Escape From New York this might be more important than character and plot. The audience wants a ride so the trade-off is a lack of depth and insight to the story. Not a bad thing.
But the mystery this creates can also be an advantage. We only learn enough of Snake to understand why he’s the man for this job. And this mysteriousness adds to his persona. We have a sense of what he’s capable of, we see it in action, but there is an unpredictability to not knowing who he is or why he ended up a criminal that is enticing and adds drama to every scene. Simply put, we never really know what he’s going to do or why. The same can be said of the villain in the film, Isaac Hayes’ Duke.
There are lessons to be learned in studying the way audiences have changed and bringing back outdated techniques to writing. I’m excited to try the art of withholding information one day.