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Screenwriting Maxim – #2 – Make ’em…

Make ’em laugh or make ’em scared.

rocky-iv

If you think about it, those are the only two emotions you feel when you watch a great film. And the best movies do both. It doesn’t matter what the genre is. When a movie is high drama like say “The Revenant,” it’s considered “dry.” That’s why I never need to see that movie again. Enduring that whole thing again with zero jokes is too much for me. But you take a movie like say “Rocky”, I want to endure the experience again…. and again… and again. Because Sylvester Stallone is the master of the “make em laugh or make em scared” maxim.

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My barometer for creating a character to root for is very simple. Am I scared for him? If I’m not, that’s always bad news. Think about why in most horror films, even though the characters are either horrible or dull, but we keep watching because we know they’re about to get violently killed (take “Saw” for example). Horror films become unsatisfying when no one gets it and thus wasted our time. Making the audience scared for the protagonist is a weapon that can carry most films.

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But what about “make ’em laugh”? Isn’t that just for comedies? Dramas like “Rain Man,” “Good Fellas,” and “Scent of a Woman” are filled with comedic moments. These films win Oscars, are very respected, and according to Amazon, Netflix or IMDB listings, are serious dramas. But they’re funny. That’s because these films have beautifully employed Maxim #2, “Make Em Laugh or Make Em Scared.”

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But just for fun, let’s examine “Rocky IV,” the film I consider the best sequel of the Rocky series (and the film that spawned “Creed”). I watched “Rocky IV” recently after not having seen it in about 20 years. I was astonished to discover a very well written script that employs Maxim #2 all the way to the end. “Make ‘Em Laugh or Make Em Scared.”

HOW ROCKY IV EMPLOYS SCREENWRITING MAXIM #2

MAKE EM LAUGH


Rocky arrives at Paulie’s birthday party late. Paulie is a great character, the comic relief. When asked to make a wish, he says “I wish I wasn’t part of this nightmare.” His strange present is delivered with the lights off, creating suspense. This prevents this scene from being too comical, because this is, after all, a drama. What is the present? A giant robot with a creepy voice. Funny, but a little unnerving. This sets up the next scene.

MAKE EM SCARED


The introducing of Ivan Drago, a 6’7″ Russian Boxer who can punch 1800 something of pressure, which is 1100 more than the average boxer. He looks scary. And the robot from the previous scene perfectly sets up this fear. We are scared for Rocky here, because we know he’s going to meet this monstrosity in the ring. Drago is a machine of death.

MAKE EM LAUGH AND MAKE EM SCARED

But it’s not Rocky who Drago meets, it’s an aging Apollo Creed, who wants to fight this giant, scary Goliath… but first, Apollo arranges a meeting with Rocky at his house. Stallone, who wrote and directed this great film, skillfully plays with the maxim of fear and laughter.

Adrian begs Apollo not to fight, says,”how much more can you take?” The giant robot appears again, creating comic relief, especially when we see that Paulie changed its voice to that of a sexy woman. Paulie once again comes to the rescue to avoid this scene from getting too serious. Because…

MAKE EM SCARED


… the next scene is really serious. Apollo and Rocky engage in a philosophical duel about being warriors. This leads to a very scary press conference, when Stallone brilliantly tosses jokes at the audience that only adds more fear for our heroes. The more they make fun of Drago in public, the more fear we have for Apollo. This is only going to escalate.

Stallone carries this “Make ‘Em Scared” train all the way to the fight. There’s one more moment when Rocky tries to talk Apollo into cancelling the fight, to which he professes, “you may not know what I’m talking about now, but you will when this is over.” Then he repeats, “you will when this is over.”

Of course, Apollo walks into a buzz-saw. Drago is a superhuman death machine and brutally kills him. Rocky could have thrown the towel, but didn’t, because his friend looked him in the eye and told him to not throw in the towel. His eyes said, he’d rather die than have the towel throw in. The funeral happens next, as “Make Em Scared” is bleeds into…

MAKE EM SACRED AND MAKE EM LAUGH

… Rocky setting up the fight with Ivan Drago in Russia. On Christmas. For no money (this is funny to me because Stallone was at his superstar height, earning about $15 million for this fourth installment, but I digress). We are scared, very scared, as Drago’s spokesman calls Rocky a little man, old, weak, but Paulie once again comes to the rescue and verbally assaults the spokesman. And everybody gets a good laugh. Stallone brilliantly knew to relieve the pressure a little bit here, because…

MAKE EM SCARED

… Adrian didn’t know her husband was fighting. I guess he didn’t tell her. The press surrounds their mansion. And that night, a small marital argument ensues between the lovebirds, ending with Adrian screaming, “YOU CAN’T WIN!”

Rocky drives his Lamborghini real fast and thinks about the last Rocky installments in a matter of minutes. He knows he can’t win, as he thinks about all his fights, which makes it appear like just fought 100 guys. Yeah, we’re scared for Rock.

MAKE EM SCARED AND MAKE EM LAUGH

When Rocky and Co. arrive in Russia, a snow blizzard welcomes them along with some KGB looking guys. It looks scary, but Paulie once more prevents the scene from getting too scary. We already know Rocky can’t win and his buddy died, that’s in the back of our mind. Hearing Paulie complain about not having sun, cable, and other amenities is not amazing comedy, but necessary. We need it.

MAKE EM SCARED


Rocky enjoys not one but two training montages. He uses basic tools like rocks and wagons to get into shape. Whereas Drago has a staff of hundreds, all in lab coats, like they’re making this high tech Frankenstein Monster. They shoot Mr. Drago with a suspicious looking syringe (this is never broached, but we know this is Lance Armstrong shit). So, we’re very scared for Rocky. How can he beat this guy who killed his buddy and he’s on PEDs too? Even though Adrian caught a flight here and to now support him, we’re not sure how Rocky will emerge.

MAKE EM LAUGH AND MAKE EM SCARED

There’s so much tension before the fight, Stallone beautifully sets up a joke that will erupt at the right moment. As Rocky jogs toward the ring, Paulie uncharacteristically tells his brother in-law he wishes he was him – wishes he was Rocky! – and hugs him. It’s as if he’ll never see Rocky again. It’s scary to see this, in a way.

When Rocky faces Drago before the fight, the Russian is so frightening that Paulie whispers to Rocky, “remember that stuff I said about wanting to be you? Forget it.” This is beautiful screenwriting. And employs the Maxim to its maximum effect. There’s so much tension, we need that joke.

MAKE EM SCARED AND MAKE EM LAUGH


Rocky fights Drago for 12 brutal rounds. Stallone keeps the tension by never giving Rocky the upper hand until the very end. Rocky gets knocked down half a dozen times, but keeps getting up. Stallone peppers minor comic relief when he cuts back to his kid watching the fight with his friends, the robot hovering in the background with a Santa hat. Eventually Rocky wins and gives a speech and we’re very relieved for him.

EPILOGUE

Nietzsche once said, and I paraphrase here, that human beings are the only animals that laugh because he suffers so excruciatingly. Why do we suffer? Because we fear stuff. We fear how weak we are, how limited we are, and how mortal we are. Ivan Drago reminds us of this, since he’s stronger than us, younger than us and he wants to kill us. Drago must break you. He is fucking scary. We have to train hard to beat this giant, but cannot do it without Paulie with some jokes, since the fear alone might kill us. This is why great movies like Rocky IV, Back to the Future, even Schindler’s List employ the Maxim, “Make Em Laugh or Make Em Scared” to its greatest heights.

For more screenwriting maxims, tap your cursor on this thrilling link.


Written: Norith Soth

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