Is My Screenplay Big Enough to Be a Movie, Part 3: Set Pieces

This is a fundamental question screenwriters must ask themselves at all stages of a screenplay’s development and writing. Why? Because it’s a question movie studio execs will ask as one of the key determining factors whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to buy your script.

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“Is my screenplay big enough to be a movie?”

This is a fundamental question screenwriters must ask themselves at all stages of a screenplay’s development and writing. Why? Because it’s a question movie studio execs will ask as one of the key determining factors whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to buy your script.

For years, movies have been known as playing on “The Big Screen,” as opposed to TV (the “small” screen). Typically movies have big budgets, big marketing campaigns, and big stars. Their running times, clocking in at an average of two hours, are big. The film industry is our nation’s second biggest export business (behind airplane manufacturing). So much about movies is about being big.

Being ‘big enough’ pertains not only to huge blockbuster action-thrillers, but also to small character-driven scripts. While the plot may be ‘small’ in scope, what happens and what those events mean to the story’s characters must have a ‘big’ enough meaning and emotional resonance with a big enough potential audience to warrant a studio’s green light.

The central question here — Is my script big enough to be a movie — is a… well… big topic. What I’ve done is put together 10 questions you can ask in relation to any of your writing projects, current and future, to test if it’s big enough to be a movie. I’ll be posting these questions over the next few weeks.

PART 3: DOES MY SCRIPT HAVE BIG ENOUGH SET PIECES?

This goes back to “Is there a movie here?” Does the script have 6–8 scenes or series of scenes that qualify as movie trailer moments? In the old days, they called these “set pieces,” significant scenes requiring the construction of big sets. The chariot race in Ben Hur, Dorothy’s introduction to the land of Oz in The Wizard of Oz, the final stand-off at the foggy airport in Casablanca — those are all set pieces.

In some ways, big set pieces are what the current state of Hollywood production does best. Specialty movies like Napoleon Dynamite can transform a high school auditorium into a showcase for Napoleon’s dancing talent. Foreign movies like Millions can use a child’s imagination to transform a cardboard box into magic. But Hollywood can use artists and computers to transform models and binary code into pirates battling gigantic sea creatures and hobbits fighting hordes of sword-wielding Orcs.

This, in a way, is what Robert McKee is telling Charlie Kaufman in that bar scene in Adaptation: You can save a story by giving the audience a big ending, a big third act. And that’s precisely what Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter — not the character — does, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, a satirical homage to mindless endings and, yes, set pieces.

Kaufman can get away with that type of thing, but for the rest of us mere mortals, we have to make sure that our scripts have some key, big set pieces.

For those of you writing sprawling geopolitical or sci-fi thrillers, or action / action-adventure movies, this type of consideration is a given. But what about when we write ‘small,’ character-driven pieces: Do set pieces have a place in those type of movies?

This is where I end up turning away from the phrase “set piece” because finally, for a great movie, it’s not about the CGI, the set dressing, and the art direction. As important as those are in the filmmaking process, sometimes the best trailer moments are those which end up not in the trailer, but in the mouths of moviegoers as they talk about the movie with their friends afterward. This is known as “word of mouth” and for smaller movies, the reason people talk up a movie is that they connected with it emotionally, there were magic moments where they laughed, they gasped, they cried. Sometimes the scenes which help to make a movie big are not their scope or visual complexity, but the depth and power of what is going on in the story’s emotional world.

A great example of such a moment occurs in the movie Rachel Getting Married. In an unforgettable scene, Kym (Anne Hathaway), a barely recovering addict stands up at her sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner and ventures into a meandering toast, excruciating for its content and delivery. As noted in this post featuring a NY Times article by Stephen Holden:

“By turns bizarrely perky, hostile and self-pitying, her rambling four-minute toast at the rehearsal dinner for the wedding of her sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), offers an indelible, if sometimes repellent portrait of a recovering addict who makes people squirm. Every word and nuance of Jenny Lumet’s dialogue for Kym rings painfully, uncomfortably true.”

For those who have not seen the movie, the screenplay is available here. It is proof positive that a scene can be ‘big’ while not involving any other pyrotechnics than one person uttering some words — but some very well chosen words by screenwriter Jenny Lumet.

Tomorrow: Does my screenplay have big enough conflict?

Comment Archive

Part 1: Does my screenplay have a big enough story concept?
Part 2: Does my screenplay have big enough characters?

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