Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter @scriptgods.
I'm a drag.
If you ever go to the movies with me, I apologize in advance. Why?
Plausibility. I need to "buy" your story.
Obviously, standards shift depending on genre– are we watching Michael Clayton or Zombieland? Erin Brockovich or Airplane!? More story believability is expected from a drama than a spoof comedy.
For dramas, gravity needs to apply. Real-world rules should be in place. If your audience can’t “buy” X Y or Z, it raises a red flag and you might lose them. Movies by their nature are illusion and fantasy, sure, but if we’re not grounded in some sense of reality, then that’s all it is– the fantastical. That's fine if you’re writing Donnie Darko, but not so fine if it’s Donnie Brasco.
• The Bowling Ball Test
If a bowling ball drops on the foot of a character in your movie, will it hurt? If you’re expecting us to believe your world is a depiction of the world in general, it has to hurt. Real world laws have to count for something. Gravity applies. Otherwise, what the hell am I watching?
I had an argument with my brother once (something new!) over one of his scripts, which eventually got made, Light And The Sufferer. The junkie brother (Paul Dano) rips off his drug dealer. My brother had written it where, after the rip off, he tries to peddle the drugs on the same street corner where he always deals from. I thought the dealer would come gunning for him and be looking at every known hangout of the junkie. That corner would be the first place he’d look. He would never go there. Would YOU go there? No, you'd beat it out of town with the drugs even if you had to walk. Eventually he changed the scene.
When considering if an audience will “buy” a scene in your script, ask yourself—what would I do? That’s how the audience is measuring it. Something happens on screen, they’re questioning if they would do the same thing.
Again though, the standards of plausibility vary greatly, from anything in the surreal world of David Lynch, to 007 action flicks and Tarantino fight-sequences, to period-piece English novel adaptations where the audiences are expecting an accurate interpretation of what life was like back then. Here’s a couple movies where I had an issue or two. Did you ever wonder about any of these?
• WIZARD OF OZ
Am I the only one to ask: The epic chase leads right to a bucket of water? In that exact corner of the castle? Let’s see if I’ve got this right: Water is death for the Wicked Witch of the West. Being all powerful, you’d think she’d have left a general order for NO WATER ALLOWED in the castle. It also means she’s never taken a drink of water or consumed anything liquid in her entire life, and she's never showered. Damn, no wonder she’s green.
Did one of her winged monkeys bring the water in, not comprehending her weakness? Maybe an ambitious Tower Guard plotting an overthrow? How all-powerful is she if she gets doused by a swish of water and her “beautiful wickedness” goes pure liquid?
I seriously doubt the world cares that I think an all-time classic movie is flawed. I'm just sayin'...
• DOUBLE INDEMNITY
I revere this movie. One of the greatest film noir flicks of all-time. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Book by James M. Cain. These are names that will be around a hundred years from now.
Doesn’t it bug you that Walter Neff (Fred McMurry) agrees to commit a murder with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck)…after three scenes?
Scene 1: Phyllis’ House. Walter tries to sell her insurance, likes what he sees, makes a pass, she rebuffs his advance, they make a date for him to return when the husband is home.
Scene 2: Phyllis’ House. Husband absent, more sexual innuendo, Phyllis inquires about a 50K accidental death policy, Walter gets the intention, calls her on it, gets kicked out.
Scene 3: Walter’s apartment. Phyllis arrives late night, more sparring, more sexuality innuendo, Phyllis is miserable, teary, telling of her awful life. Walter, being the iconic film noir male, can’t lay off. He agrees to kill the husband.
One of the great movies of all time and I’ve got a problem with it?
• EYES WIDE SHUT
Kubrick is God. I’m merely a flea at his heel, but even a flea has will…
You’re telling me there’s a secret society composed of dozens, if not hundreds of people. They wear cool masks and robes, have somber rules and rituals followed by outrageous sex orgies that end in torture or death for anyone who would dare reveal them and…
It’s all been kept a complete secret until Tom Cruise shows up?
This is a modern-day world. So modern day rules are in effect. It hasn’t been made public in some fashion, on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube? It hasn't been captured on anyone's cellphone? Hundreds of people at these events? Going on for years? And it takes Tom Cruise for it to leak out?
“It vexes me. It vexes me very much.”
Question: If Maximus vexes you, why not just kill him? You’re Caesar! Why would you care what the mob says?
Answer: Because there’s no movie if Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) rams a sword through Russell Crowe, reborn as Gladiator.
The discovery that Maximus is still alive happens at about the story’s mid-point. Being as the Emperor ordered the killing of Maximus' family, knowing that his life's mission is now to kill the Emperor, you'd think upon learning this Commodus would order his Imperial Guard to take Maximus out. What would YOU do? You'd kill the guy, obviously. 'Course if he does what he would in real life and kills Maximus, there’s no movie. So the filmmakers will have us believe that because the Roman mob might boo him, the Emperor gives a thumbs-up and doesn't kill his enemy right there. Give me a freakin' break.
Hey Peditto, it’s not real life! Movies are an escape, an illusion, entertainment! It’s the magic of that silver light. Forty-foot high people reflected in the darkened theater. Suspension of disbelief, I get it. That’s why people pay $10+ to sit and watch for 90 minutes. I know all that. And yet I can’t shut it off. Always questioning– motivation, logistics... My movie-going friends ignore me, feed me popcorn and Snickers bars, anything to shut me up. It doesn’t work.
I have a plausibility problem.
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