Wednesday, June 16, 2010

You're Terminated: Story Development

(Note: An edited version of this post was previously submitted for my AFTRS Screen Culture course, Development Task, March 2010) 

To start off the new course that is the Graduate Certificate in Screen Culture at AFTRS, we began by discussing the topic of Development. An area often under thought and under explored in the Australian industry, the creators of the course specifically placed it as the first subject for the year. This instilled in our minds the importance of the general basis of the idea for a film. As is you cant sell a 27 word concept for the film, how can you sell the film itself?

I had previously explored these story development concepts in the Cracking Yarns scriptwriting course I undertook with Allen Palmer, now a lecturer at AFTRS. In this course we discussed screenwriting in much greater detail, but again Allen also stressed the most important element to a good script, the basic concept of it. Whether it be high-concept (a story easily described by a succinct statement) or something more in depth, the importance of these 27 precious words should not be understated. They should be referenced throughout the entire production, to identify what the film is actually about and what it is trying to say.

 Arnold made a big impression
I covered James Cameron's 1984 cult hit "The Terminator" for this task (just as I had in Allen's Class 2 years previous. #lazy). I've always admired the simplicity of the 'concept' statement for high-concept films. The story is laid out in just one sentence, and yet high-concept films often have much greater depth and detail than those that are more complex.

What if a soldier from a post-apocalyptic future was sent back in time to protect the mother of the humankind's saviour  from an unstoppable killing machine?

Philosophical Premise:
You have to embrace your destiny in order to achieve it. 

 The legendary Michael Biehn

“The Terminator” is a Feature Length Science Fiction film about Responsibilities. In it, Kyle Reese must save Sarah Connor’s life or else he will cease to exist, as will mankind. This sets in motion a deadly chase as Kyle & Sarah try to flee from the Terminator’s grasp, but ultimately cannot escape their destinies. Through a distinctly entwined story structure, groundbreaking animatronics and distinct visual style “The Terminator” provokes the ‘Chicken and the Egg’ scenario and takes the audience on a journey from the Future to the Present, and back again.

This premise covers the 4 basis elements that a story needs to have strongly identified before the script is even thought of. These are all answered in some respect in the premise outlined above:
1. What does the hero want? (i.e. To protect the mother of humankind's saviour)
2. Why do they want it? (i.e. Its his role as a soldier)
3. What's stopping them from getting it? (i.e. The Terminator)
4. What's at stake? (i.e. The future of humanity)

Now upon development of this concept, we know that Kyle Reese has an alternative motive for No. 2 (he is in love with Sarah Connor) and we learn further elements as for No. 4 (if Kyle and Sarah don't meet, John Connor is not born and cannot save the world). But this general premise is maintained throughout the entire film and production as must have played a crucial part in the creation of the film. The fact that the Terminator character was originally planned to be played by a slight figure, think Robert Patrick from Terminator 2, does not impact upon the final product. That is a significant change from what we see with the larger than life Governator in the final role, but the story premise remains the same, and thus we realise what is really important. 

 The Tullinator

I have continuously analysed the tech-noir thriller throughout my educational studies as I find its complex simplicity quite amazing. As part of my Certificate IV in Film course at North Sydney TAFE, I was given a task to create a scene out of still images that had to cover a certain set of criteria. You can read about it in full on my website The basic idea was to establish an environment in 12 shots, that features a change in direction, certain shot sizes, time compression, be rated PG and to tell a story. 

After ticking all the boxes, and re-creating a scene from the Terminator in one intricate design, I moved into the makeup chair and put on my best Schwarzenegger impersonation. The result has always been something I quite admire, as I discovered how story can be told through little to no action. It highlighted the key elements of blocking, set design and camera angles and is more than just a task in direction. 

From establishing an individual scene, to a feature length script, the premise of a film should always be referenced. A Bible of sorts that must be adhered to. It may be the basis of screenwriting, but it is the mortar to the bricks of a screenplay. Below is an extended video version of the directing task, complete with remixed Terminator theme soundtrack. I hope you enjoy and learn from it as much as I did. 

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