How screenwriter Shane Black and director Richard Donner created a landmark action movie of the 80s by injecting a bit of humanity into the story
Martin Riggs is crazy. Not just your usual kind of crazy. He’s CRAZY. “Jumping off the top of a building for fun” kind of crazy.
A story about a family man cop partnering up with a loose cannon ready for the mental asylum is not a unique story in itself. Mismatched partners is a movie trope as old as movies themselves, but Lethal Weapon have managed to stay relevant and watchable decades past its original premiere in 1987
One of the reasons why Lethal Weapon has captured our attention for so long is the amount of depth there is to the characters. Depth? In an action movie from the 80s? With Mel Gibson? Yes, depth.
So, how do you go about writing a screenplay for a feature length movie? Or any longer story for that matter?
You do one thing: Outline. Outline. Outline…. and… outline.
I know that many big-time novelists and screenwriters don’t outline at all. The Coen brothers have said in numerous interviews that they never outline, but for the rest of us, I truly believe that outlining is the way to go.
The classic books on screenwriting by Syd Field, Michael Hauge, and Christopher Vogler all talk about the need for structure to your story. Here, I’ve tried to summarize their wisdom and mix it all together to come up with a fundamental structure for storytelling.
It has worked really well for me and has always kept my writing on track and moving forward.
Why is structure so important to a story?
Stories, like music, almost always follow some kind of rhythm or harmony. I’m no musician but I can clearly hear if a piece of music is out of tune.
Creativity — music, storytelling, paintings — need to follow some form of structure. There must be a plan to the madness. If there is no structure, everything is muddled together and becomes noise.
Stories that don’t follow a structure often feel rushed, or flat and boring or, as is most often the case, become hard to follow.
Looking into how one cleverly constructed long take perfectly illustrates Brian De Palma’s extraordinary craftsmanship and his mastery of the visual language.
Your body instinctually moves around when playing a video racing game. You can’t help it. You are leaning left and right, moving with the virtual car in the game.
And almost everyone has tried to lean forward in their cars to get a better look at a road sign, while speeding past on the highway. It makes little sense to the rational mind to lean forward a few inches to get a better glance at a sign, while moving forward a high speed. But we do it anyway.
Why? Because certain visual stimuli make us do it. It’s ingrained in us, as humans. The individual senses are tricked into overruling each other; even though we know we are sitting on our couch playing a racing game, the body leans, because our eyes tell us the car is moving. It’s pure muscle memory.
Director Brian De Palma is a masterful visual storyteller. He knows all the tricks in the book of visual medium, and his gangster opus “Carlito’s Way” from 1993 is a perfect example of this.
The Visual Language
One aspect where “Carlito’s Way” and Brian De Palma’s work excels is in the visual language. From fade in, he is telling us what kind of movie this will be.
He is inviting us into the realm of the story. The entire story you are about to watch is told directly by Carlito (brilliantly played by Al Pacino), laying on the stretcher being rushed to the hospital.
“[..] the first job of any good story is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is creating such a compelling illusion of reality.”
— “Wired for Story” by Lisa Cron
Lost but not forgotten
“I can’t make a better picture than this”
— Brian De Palma (from the “De Palma” documentary)
Brian De Palma is not credited enough for his skill as a filmmaker. No matter if you regard him as one of the most significant auteurs of the 1970s to 1990s or you see him as a master craftsman capable of surrounding himself with top talent, you have to respect the work that carries his name.
How the simple and to-the-point character introduction in “Die Hard” elevated it from a mere standard action flick to an all-time classic.
Introducing characters in a story is difficult. As a storyteller, you have to introduce the characters to the audience in a way that they can relate to them. Even unlikeable characters.
We all have our favorite and memorable characters from the annals of film history. Characters that in some form or another made a lasting impression on us. Some of the characters made a grand entrance and others grew on you the more you got to know them.
This article focuses on the introductions. The scene or sequences where the characters were introduced to the audience in such a way that you instantly knew “this is going to be a good story.”
Since its premiere in 1988, “Die Hard” has become “The Perfect Christmas Movie”. It is arguably one of the best action movies of all time, but where it really excels is in the character introductions. So it’s only fitting that in the spirit of the holidays, we look at Die Hard as an example of good introductions of characters.
Meet John McClane
The first two minutes of Die Hard accomplishes something that very few movies do. It introduces the main hero and at the same time carefully drops some very important expositional details about him. It even manages to set up a sequence for later in the movie.
It’s a great opening scene, and it only lasts two pages in the screenplay and two minutes of screen time. It is as economical and to the point as it can get.
Read the pages from the screenplay below and notice how the scene is written. Notice how nothing is explored for too long. Almost everything is mentioned in passing. But notice that after it, you have a very good understanding of who John McClane is and where he’s going.
There you have it. In less than two pages of screenplay, the screenwriter successfully managed to cram a ton of information about John McClane into the story. And I bet you didn’t even notice it the first time you saw the movie. But in just two minutes, we gathered a lot of information about John McClane:
He is afraid of flying
He is a father, and he’s bringing a teddy bear for one of his kids
He is married (or as least not actively looking for women at the moment)
He is good looking
He is a policeman from New York with years of street experience
He wears a gun on the plane (this was 1988)
He has a sense of humor (“Trust me I’ve been doing it for eleven”)
They could have introduced McClane in a hundred other ways. They could have shown him in his natural milieu in New York as an ass kicking street cop kicking ass and taking names. They could have shown him as a tough guy — “You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”. But they did not. They showed him as a vulnerable husband that’s scared of flying and comes to visit his estranged family.
That is a novel way of introducing your main character in an action movie.
Imagine for a moment what a different story Die Hard would have been if they had opted to introduce John McClane as some Dirty Harry clone. Even if the rest of the movie had remained unchanged, framing McClane like this would have completely shifted our feelings for him and I dare to claim it would have made the story far less interesting.
And the majority of the introduction wasn’t even about McClane and who he is. It was mostly about his fear of flying and the salesman sitting next to him giving him advice on how to handle jet lag. This conversation with the salesman might seem strange or even off-beat funny at first, but it seamlessly sets up why McClane later in the movie is running around in the offices of Nakatomi Plaza barefoot.
Now watch how the entire scene made it into the movie. There are a few minor changes between the screenplay and what ended up on the screen, but the setup, structure, and dialogue are virtually unchanged.
All this, in just two minutes.
Strong Independent Female Lead
John McClane’s wife, Holly, is introduced in a similar economical and lean fashion. She is introduced in a scene right after the previous scene with John McClane landing in LAX. This scene is a bit longer, spanning just over three pages.
When you read through Holly’s introduction, notice how feminine and motherly she is portrayed while at the same time, she’s strong and independent. There is no man here to tell her what to do and what not to do.
This is not just a female character in an action movie put in as fancy window dressing.
And again, see how the scene is extremely skillfully acted and somewhat downplayed on the screen by actress Bonnie Bedelia.
It is understandable that you as a storyteller and filmmaker want to dazzle your audience and get as fast as possible to the “fun parts” and the more exciting action sequences of your movie, but if the foundation isn’t laid down properly, the audience won’t care one bit about the character. They will have nothing invested in the story. By building it up like this, tension and a sense of urgency are added to the story.
When Shit Hit The Fan
So, when Hans Gruber and his gang of terrorists/bank robbers enter the story and the “action parts” of the action movie start, then you are 100% onboard as to why different characters act like they do — what their motivation is. You know from very subtle clues what their dreams and fears are and what drives them.
Everyone’s’ motivations are as clear as day. John to flew to LA to win back his estranged wife and spend time with his kids. Holly wants her husband to change. To settle down, and maybe follow her to LA. She still loves him deeply.
Hans Gruber is motivated by the age-old motivation of them all; the almighty dollar.
Nothing that happens later in the movie is “out of character” for any of these characters.
The introductions and setting up of internal emotions and external motivations is so phenomenally well made in Die Hard. It is done so subtle that you’re not even aware of the incredible amount of background information that’s been provided about the various characters. You might think that their motivations are simple, but remember that simplicity is not a very simple thing.
John McClane is the perfect action hero leading character. Not because he’s a cop and therefore by default saves the day. Being a cop is just his skill set. He’s the perfect hero because we believe in his drive and his motivation. He truly loves his wife.
Sidenote: The Perfect Villain
It’s hard to fathom that the role of Hans Gruber was Alan Rickman’s motion picture debut. He had extensive theater pedigrees before venturing to Hollywood, but with the role as Hans Gruber, Alan Rickman perfected the action movie villain. Cool, calculated and stealing the scenes just as much as the charming Bruce Willis.
The writers of Die Hard also showed Gruber as a proper villain. In his mind, he is the hero of the story and McClane is the antagonist trying to foil a perfectly orchestrated bank robbery against an evil money scheming mega corp.
It’s all the sadder that he left us all too soon this year — but we have the many, many movies, he perfected with his presence to look back at.
RIP Alan Rickman (1946–2016).
“Everybody in Hollywood wants to be the second person to do something the first time.” (Steven E. De Souza, screenwriter of Die Hard)
Die Hard became the de facto action movie template that all other action movies were to be measured against. And in the time-honored tradition in Hollywood of “copy and repeat” — in the years since, we have seen movies like “Die Hard on a Bus” (Speed), “Die Hard on a Boat” (Under Siege), “Die Hard in a Hockey Arena” (Sudden Death) and “Die Hard with the US President” (Air Force One). But none of them has captured the pure essence of the first Die Hard movie, not even the Die Hard sequels themselves.
It is so rare today that we get to see action or adventure movies like Die Hard where the craftsmanship is so prevalent. If we have to believe in a one-man-army out to rescue us all from the imminent doom and destruction, it has to be someone who has flaws and vices and by no means is a super-human. Because none of us are, and in movies like these, we don’t want our heroes to be.
Making a lasting impression on others is hard, and the first impressions last. But if you as a storyteller do it with economy and elegance like Die Hard, the audience will thank you for it.
And then you have made a lasting impression with your story.
Simon Lund Larsen works as a Product Manager at a large toy maker in Denmark in the daytime and writes short stories, screenplays and posts like these in his spare time. You can find him here on Medium as Simon Lund Larsen or on Twitter with the same handle @SimonLundLarsen.
On Why Hitchcock Still Can Make You Sit on the Edge of Your Seat. Written as part of my education in Medialogy in December 2003
From the introduction:
What is Suspense?
Suspense is today such an incorporated element of movies that it for many seems second hand, but what elements are needed to create a good suspense scene? It is easy to spot a non-working suspense scene, but what are the key elements that make a good scene become a masterpiece?
It is impossible to talk about suspense without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). He was the master of the technique. Although Hitchcock was not the first to use suspense in movies he had in the “golden era” of his career (from the mid 50s to the late 60s) developed a template for implementing suspense that worked so well that it is still revered as the best examples of the use of suspense.
In Hitchcock’s own words:
“There is a clear difference between surprise and suspense […]. We are sitting here and having an innocent conversation. Let us assume that there is a bomb under this table between us. […] suddenly there is a loud boom and the bomb goes off. The audience is surprised, but before this surprise they have only seen a very ordinary scene without any significance. Let us instead look at suspense scene. The bomb is under the table and the audience is aware of this because they have seen the anarchist plant it there. They also know that the bomb will go off at one o’clock, and up on the wall is a clock showing that the time is now quarter to one […]. In the first scene we have given the audience 15 seconds of surprise […] but in the last scene we have given them fifteen minutes of suspense.”.
The whole scene rests on this difference in knowledge and the audience’s fear on behalf of the unknowing characters.
In short: Suspense is a dramaturgy technique that plays of the difference in knowledge between the audience and the characters on the screen. It often revolves around subjects like; will the hero reach the right place and save the heroine before it is too late? Will the bomb expert defuse the bomb before it goes of? Will the detective see the sinister figure waiting in the alley?