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Screenwriting Maxim #5 – Chase or be Chased

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The great Walter Murch, in his amazing book “The Conversations“, says that two things got audiences ready for how quickly cinema was so widely accepted into our culture: Beethoven (because of his shocking style of music) and Flaubert (because he was the first to describe things in great visual detail). If Murch is right, I still think he missed a third element. Sigmund Freud’s discovery of dream interpretation. The fact that someone said things in your dreams have “symbolic meaning.” In movies, there is always “symbolic meaning.” Rosebud in “Citizen Kane,” The totem in “Inception,” the bone/ space craft in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

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You watch a great movie in a dream state. That’s why you don’t want someone’s cell phone ringing or flashing in your face. You don’t want to be snapped out of “the dream.” That’s why if a movie sucks, you complain, because a shitty movie has that same feeling of trying to sleep but you just can’t. Two of the most successful filmmakers of all time, Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg, deliberately employ Freudian symbolism.

So what does that mean for you as a screenwriter? If you can harness the rules of dreams, you can apply them to the movie you’re writing. And one of the golden rules of dreams is that you’re…

CHASE OR BE CHASED

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The stagnancy that reeks form failing to employ Maxim #5 can make your screenplay stink to high heaven. Sometimes you did everything right. The theme is there. The world. The characters speak perfectly. But I just don’t know… it’s not moving. May I make suggestion here? Make your protagonist chase someone or be chased by someone. Let’s take a look at three examples.

#1 THE HUNTER

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Why is “The French Connection” so fucking awesome? This is the classic chase movie. Gene Hackman wants the French drug dealer. And he will do anything on Earth to get him. The scene where they tear that car apart makes you feel like you drank five espressos. You feel like you’re right there in that garage with Hackman. The man will scour the Earth to get this guy, and that means breaking the law himself, running over a baby stroller, and even shooting other cops. This movie is a nightmare that never ends. We’ve all had this dream, haven’t we? Until we woke up and thanked our lucky stars.

Other variations on “The Hunter” is “Taken” or “Kill Bill Vol.1“. Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman will absolutely put themselves through anything, travel across any land, eat whatever you put in front of them, wear anything, to get to their goal. She wants Bill, he wants his virgin daughter. Whatever. Don’t get in their way. Make your character chase something, anything, and you’ve injected the ultimate dream-state serum into your audience’s veins. In “The Big Liebowski”, The Dude wants his rug back. In “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” you know what Pee Wee wants. So, this chase doesn’t even have to be something important to you. In dreams, we’ve chased some bizarre shit, haven’t we? The thing is what Hitchcock called the “McGuffin.” A suitcase, like in “Pulp Fiction” or “Ronin.” A car like in “Repo Man.” A paycheck like in Do The Right Thing.” A symbol, baby, that’s all you need. Make The Hunter chase the The Symbol.

#2 THE HUNTED

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In “Some Like It Hot,” Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis witnessed the St.Valentine’s massacre and are chased for the entire duration of the movie. These guys will do anything to stay alive. This is what’s even more simple about BEING CHASED. It’s just about basic survival. In “Apocalypto,” Jaguar Paw is just trying to stay alive. In “Die Hard” Bruce Willis is doing the exact same thing (and they both have wives they’re trying to save). In “Predator”, Arnold and the gang think they’re chasing, but we know they’re the prey (because of those awesome POV shots). These guys just want to live. You’ve had this dream, haven’t you?

One rule about THE HUNTED is, they sometimes get to be the HUNTER in the last act. A friend of mine, Mark Crutch, once told me a story about his pet snake. They would feed it a mouse every couple weeks. But one time, this snake was sick. So the mouse Mark put in the tank wasn’t eaten. The mouse stayed alive for days. Until it finally said “fuck it” and started eating the snake. Mark had to get the mouse off and kill it himself. I never forgot that story.

This is what happens in most HUNTED stories. In “Cape Fear,” Nick Nolte eventually goes after DeNiro. In “The Game” Michael Douglas finally goes after the staff of “The Game”, and his own brother who set the thing up. In “First Blood,” Rambo is being chased Brian Denehy until the third act, when Denehy regrets that he didn’t just let the guy eat something (I know I’d be pissed if I was hungry and couldn’t eat anywhere). In “Office Space,” Ron Livingston doesn’t even wait till the third act, he does it in the second act. He’s the predator. Because the thing CHASING YOU, that can be your dream symbol. Whether its “The Terminator”, the ghosts in “It Follows,” or the premium leads in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

#3 THE HUNTER/HUNTED COMBO

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You can make your character the hunter and hunted at the same time? Oh yes. The most classic example has to be “The Silence of The Lambs.” Jodie Foster is hunting Buffalo Bill while she’s being psychologically hunted by Hannibal Lecter. Eventually, Lecter escapes and she could be physically hunted too. Either way, she feels persecuted and she’s persecuting simultaneously.

The Korean film “I Saw the Devil” brilliantly followed the same maxim. A secret service guy finds the serial killer who murdered his wife, but that’s only the beginning. He beats the shit out of him, then lets him go and chases him. The serial killer continues to hurt people along the way, but the secret service guy is only after the chase. He wants to hurt the guy who killed his wife as much as he can.

But not just thrillers enjoy this maxim. In “The Breakfast Club,” Judd Nelson is being chased by the principal and he’s chasing Molly Ringwald. In “Hanna and Her Sisters”, Woody Allen is being chased by death (he’s losing his hearing, he might have a brain tumor, he can’t conceive children) while he chases one of Hannah’s sisters, Dianne Wiest (he admits that he always had a crush on her). In “Amadeus,” Wolfgang is being persecuted by Sallieri and chasing the “Requiem” at the same time. In the end, the hunter/ hunted element converge masterfully.

Inject the “Chase or Be Chased” maxim in your screenplay and watch it transform into a kinetic dream that audiences can relate to, but can’t explain. Even as they leave the theater, or turn off their tablets, their instinct will be to want to experience your story again and again… without realizing it is their own dream they want to revisit.

For more screenwriting maxims, check out:
Maxim #1: Screenwriting is not Writing
Maxim #2: Make ’em laugh or make ’em scared
Maxim #3: Break the Ice
Maxim #4: Make Someone Disagree

Written by: Norith Soth

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