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Script Secrets: Set Pieces

Your screenplay is going to need some amazing set pieces, and at least one that will practically force people to buy a ticket. Wait... what's a set piece? William C. Martell explains.

Your screenplay is going to need some amazing set pieces, and at least one that will practically force people to buy a ticket. Wait... what's a set piece? William C. Martell explains.

Last year’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol restored the series to both box office and critical acclaim after the lows of #3 (which got the same rating on Rotten Tomatoes as #2... but made significantly less money, and was a full grade lower on the Cinemascore audience poll) and also proved Tom Cruise was still a star, and Brad Bird could direct live actors as well as he directed cartoon characters. Though the screenplay by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec didn’t have the strongest plot in the world, it made up for it with sheer adrenaline and a rocket fast pace. What did you think was the coolest part? If you haven't seen the film, have you seen the trailer? What's the scene the trailer focuses on to get you excited about the film? If you haven't seen the trailer – have any of your friends seen it? What was the scene they talked about the most?

I'll bet the answer to any and all of the above questions is the scene on the side of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai where Tom Cruise (not a stunt double) scales the side of the building from the 119th floor up to the 130th floor - then has some trouble getting back down. That scene was the focus of the trailer, and the scene all of my friends were talking about. Completely amazing. The set piece that got many people to buy a ticket to the rest of the film. Your screenplay is going to need some amazing set pieces, and at least one that will practically force people to buy a ticket.

Wait... what's a set piece?

The term “set piece” comes from the old days when films were shot on existing sets. The studios had police station sets and courtroom sets and office building sets and mansion sets and almost anything else you might need to make movie. An entire back lot to film movies on. But what if a script came along with location that didn’t already exist on the back lot?

Your screenplay is going to need some amazing set pieces, and at least one that will practically force people to buy a ticket. Wait... what's a set piece? William C. Martell explains.

A really big exciting scene was a “set piece” - and would be worth the cost of building a brand new set. The studio would decide to build a new interior or exterior set because the scene was so amazing and exciting that it justified the cost of construction. Those scenes were the “whammos” in old films. In a comedy film those scenes will be big comedy set pieces, in an action film they are the amazing action scenes, in a drama they are the big dramatic moments that fuel your story, in a thriller they are the suspense scenes where the audience sits on the edge of their seats, in a rom-com they are usually scenes where the lovers come together only to be pulled apart. The scenes that create a strong emotional response in the audience... and are exciting and interesting. Worth spending the money to build a new set.

Back in the 1930s, director Busby Berkeley turned set pieces into an art form with his crazy synchronized musical numbers often featuring massive staircases like in Dance Until the Dawn (1931) or the huge waterfall and pond for By a Waterfall (1933), or the break-away office and alarm clocks that turn into hundreds of beds filled with dancers that turns into hundreds of bathtubs that turns into hundreds of vanities that turns into hundreds of stage doors that just keeps changing during the epic dance number in Dames (1934). Berkeley took the stage-bound concept of a dance number and turned it into cinematic spectacle... and kept a lot of set builders employed by the studio.


Today, most films are made on location – but they still have those big exciting scenes. They are “set pieces” even if they don't build a set. For Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol they had planned on building a replica of the skyscraper to film that set piece – but ended up using that replica for practice because they decided to shoot on the real thing. With the real Tom Cruise hanging from a wire over 100 storeys up!

Here's the scene (in the trailer, so probably few spoilers): Ethan Hunt and his Mission Impossible Team are pulling a scam. A hired assassin (Moreau) is meeting with a villain (Wistrom) to exchange some stolen Russian nuclear missile launch codes for a bag of diamonds. The team has rented the room on the floor below where the swap is going to take place and changed all of the door numbers so that it appears to be the same floor. The plan is to use those rubber Mission Impossible masks to impersonate both the seller (on the correct floor) and the buyer (one floor below) and substitute fake missile launch codes for the real ones...

But this requires that they have the ability to control the elevators and the numbers that show up on the elevator panel so that they can send the buyers to the wring floor. They need to patch into the hotel's master computer and by-pass security and all of that stuff – but to do that they have to get to the computer room on the 130th floor without being seen by security – and the only way to do that is by climbing up the outside of the building. A set piece!

This is not just some random set piece glued onto the story to provide some excitement, because back in the very first film they established that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) climbed rocks as a hobby. So this set piece fits the protagonist’s character. Though it *does* seem kind of shoe-horned in, since you’d think they would have figured out that they needed to access the master computer on the 130th floor before they get to the location, at least they connected it to character. What would be better is if this was the result of cause-and-effect in the story; either by being an obvious step to achieve the goal or set up earlier or something that now had to be done after a prior plan fell apart for good reason. You want to make sure your set pieces are not grafted on to the story from the outside, but grow organically from the main story.

In my book Secrets of Action Screenwriting, we look at action set pieces like this... and the gold we are all panning for - high concept set pieces where the idea is amazing and exciting on its own. The safe stealing scene from Fast Five is a great example. In Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol it isn’t the concept that makes the scene amazing, it’s the location. Though at the end of the scene when Tom Cruise is running down the building’s face - that’s pretty high concept! If you can come up with a set piece idea that is amazing on its own, that’s gold.

So Cruise must climb up the side of the world’s tallest skyscraper and plant a slaver onto the mainframe computer and get back down before the villains get in the elevator. To accomplish this, we need some additional cool stuff - because a set piece isn’t just the concept of the scene, it’s the dozens of details that make up the execution as well. So our nerdy tech-whiz team member Benji (Simon Pegg) has a pair of gloves that will grip any surface - with a lighted display that shows how secure the grip is. “Blue is glue, red is dead.” Hey, it’s like a James Bond gadget!


As Cruise climbs the side of the building, team member Brandt (Jeremy Renner) watches the monitors for the villains and provides a countdown (“24 minutes to door knock”) which starts out as a great ticking clock... and ends up being annoying to everyone involved. Even if you are writing a comedy set piece, a deadline keeps things exciting. If you are writing a rom-com and the gal only has 2 minutes to tell the guy she loves him before the big party begins and all of those other gals show up and maybe steal him away, that’s a more exciting scene than one without any deadline at all.

After climbing a few storeys, Cruise’s right glove begins to malfunction - turns red and he almost falls. In any scene, we need to keep escalating the conflict - create complications that make an already difficult task even more impossible. This holds true no matter the genre. Cruise takes off the glove and throws it away... but the high winds blow it up the side of the building! This is a great “gag” because it demonstrates the high wind element and does the opposite of what the audience expects. We’ve seen many scenes where something falls all the way down to the street (to show us what would happen if our hero falls) so instead it blows upwards. Unexpected.

Brandt sees something outside and says “What the hell is that?” Cruise stops climbing to look at the horizon... where a huge sand storm is heading right at them. Though Benji says it’s far enough away that it won’t be a problem, it’s an additional ticking clock. If Cruise gets stuck on the side of the building, he’ll be caught in that sand storm! This ups the risk and is also a set up for the next big set piece - the chase in the sandstorm. That makes the sandstorm chase seem integral to the story - just by setting it up ahead of time.


Because their whole room-switch con depends on them being able to control the elevator, the stakes are very high. You want to make sure any set piece has high stakes so that it’s not just hollow excitement. Along with deadlines, a good scene needs consequences for failure. If Cruise loses his grip and falls off the side of the building he’ll be dead, but the larger consequences: the villains will have nuclear launch codes and will start World War 3... and that is the Villain’s Plan. He’s a crazy theorist who has come to believe wiping out most of the human race with a nuclear war would benefit mankind. We’d get a clean slate and a chance to begin again.

A few floors higher up the side of the building Cruise comes across the discarded glove - attached to the side of the building. Now it completely shorts out and falls all the way down to the street to show us what would happen to Cruise if that other glove malfunctions. Our job is to find a different way to do any cliche bit. To use our creativity to come up with something original or a new twist on the version we have seen before. When you come to a cliche, find the way to twist it into something new.

Once Cruise gets to the computer room floor he runs into another problem - he has a laser glass cutter to cut a hole in the window, but with only one grip-glove he has trouble hanging on. He starts cutting, but the laser is so powerful it blasts him off the side of the building... falling! He manages to use the grip-glove to catch the wall, and climbs back up to computer room window - but no longer has the glass cutter. It has fallen to the street. And the window is only half cut. How can he get in? Time is ticking away! The buyers arrive early!


Hanging on to the lip of the window 130 storeys up, Cruise swings his feet against the glass again and again... each time almost getting knocked off the face of the building. Eventually he smashes into the computer room - clock ticking - and now has to find the specific computer amongst the hundred or so mainframes in the room that operates the elevators. He finds it, installs the slaver... and now must get back down to the 119th floor so they can do the scam. This has all just been to set up the scam.

There is a door leading out of the computer room... but it is alarmed. He can’t use it... and can’t really climb down without both grip-gloves. The key to any scene is conflict - even if it’s a dialogue scene in a drawing room comedy. In a big action set piece? It’s life-or-death conflict. You want to push the conflict and complications to the limit - make it tough on your characters. If you can find an easy way out, remove it! That door is the easy way out of the computer room - so we need to find a logical reason why it can’t be used. It sets off an alarm and will alert security to their scam. So Cruise has to find another way down to the 119th floor, and that way is a coiled fire hose.

He ties the hose around his waist and jumps out of the broken window... then runs down the side of the building. The audience might expect him to rappel down the side of the building cautiously - so we can’t use that. We need something unexpected and interesting. If you have seen it in another movie, either don’t use it or find a unique way to use it. Running down the side of a building? Never seen that before!

Of course, the next thing that happens is that Cruise comes to the 119th floor window they’ve cut open and climbs back into the room... so that can’t happen. It’s expected and there’s no conflict. So Cruise comes to the end of his fire-hose rope about two floors short - and seven rooms to the right. Now he’s stuck on the side of the building! No easy ways out! Every conflict leads to more conflict in a set piece. It’s not just one problem, it’s an avalanche of problems within that one cool problem. The set piece is just the beginning, you need dozens of other cool things and interesting conflicts that are part of that set piece and keep it exciting and interesting and unusual.


1) Is the scene concept big enough?

2) Are the scene’s stakes high enough?

3) Is the set piece organic to the story? Or did you paste it on from the outside?

4) Has the set piece been done before, or is it original?

5) Is the location interesting and unusual?

6) Is there a deadline and an escalation of the conflict?

7) Will this set piece be the high point of the trailer? Will it be the scene everyone is talking about after they see it? Does it top anything you have seen in other films?

The resolution of Cruise reaching the end of that fire-hose rope is a great bit that brings all of the team members together... with an amusing topper from Benji. The set piece is more than just an amazing action scene, it also has a conclusion that is character related. A great action scene is also a character and story scene.

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