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One of the big learning moments in this week, which I also wrote in my report, came when I was watching the movie and then reading the screenplay of The Matrix (1999) and clearly became aware of the kind of opening sequence. Because it was similar to a movie I happened to catch on TV a few days earlier: the action comedy Bird On A Wire (1990); however strange that may sound. Let me explain. What I noticed was that the opening sequence starts in the middle of what the story will be about, including showing the villains. The story is established, including the look and more importantly its genre, more or less, and because of all this, you remove all doubts and as an audience you’re on board right away. Also, the obvious bad guys, more or less, are established for the audience, helping to choose sides immediately, so when we see an obvious good guy, we know we need to side with him, root for him. And we do. When you were to show the good guy and his normal life first, this would be too boring and it would leave the audience too long to try to grasp where we’re going with the story and this main character. Thinking of for instance Jaws, Transformers, Jurassic Park, but also other kinds of movies like E.T. and A Few Good Men, you see the pattern of this kind of opening sequence. And those are just on the top of my head from the thousands of movies I have seen in my life. I had seen comments about this ‘you have to impress your readers in the first 10 pages’ (aka the first 10 minutes of the movie) many times in the screenwriting group, but I always thought ‘come on, really’? I mean, if your story is a good one, then surely they will discover that in the whole reading, no? Only now am I beginning to see, understand what this means and why.
It is all connected to attention span really. Like with any other kind of storytelling, the reader, the audience wants to be made curious, captured, drawn in, hooked from the get-go. We have taken off time to read or watch what you have written, made, and time is valuable to us. It’s not about ‘dumb entertainment’, we don’t need to be blown away by spectacle immediately, we just want to be enticed to keep watching. We don’t want to have to think too much what we’re getting into, what we’re seeing, where we are, who we are following or we’ll lose out on the experience that keeps playing right in front of us. In this brief time of the opening, the first 5, 10 minutes at the most, the writer has a very important job, you have to educate us, the audience, what the genre is, what the story is going to be about, the rules of this world, who to side with and if appropriate, who to dislike. When you are able to establish this well, we can ‘relax’ if you will and we will be onboard with wherever you are taking us, because we have been explained ‘the rules of your game’. It really is all about the presence, how you enter the room, or better said, what you are presenting us with the minute we walk into that room, the opening of a movie. Screw this up and it will be difficult to get us back in, on track. And although we need to know enough to follow you, when the information is too complicated, we drift away, you lose us too. But also when you try to explain too much, thinking we’re not clever enough to understand your clues. Don’t do that. Don’t insult your audience by over-explaining either, they are smarter than you think. It is a delicate balance. And then usually within in the first 20 or 30 minutes, a problem, an event, an opportunity must rise. A challenge, something that brings the ‘ordinary’ world of the protagonist, that we have been presented with, out of balance and we the audience will want to know how this is going to end, how this will turn out. The inciting incident, the call to adventure, the central dramatic problem. More and more, I see that now right in front of me in the screenplays I am reading in the Immersion Screenwriting Course.
Although I have given the opening sequence some thought before, I even wrote the first draft of that in my screenplay already, but also thought about making some other scenes the opening sequence to make it more enticing, I never realized how crucial it is or noticed it this much before. I guess it’s like editing and music in a movie. When done well, you aren’t consciously aware of it. That’s the sign that you have done it right. Only when it’s off like in the case of the opening sequence, when you feel like you’re scrambling to find out what is going on or the start of a movie is too slow, which you will then read about in the review, that’s when you really notice. The key is of course not to consciously notice. All of a sudden my eyes are opened to this. No, not all of sudden. It’s immersion.
This technique, used to get the audience curious, in from the get-go, is also used in a different way, like we see in Breaking Bad for instance. In the pilot we are also thrown in the middle of the story, but then literally, in a flashforward. This teaser shows us Walter White in the middle of an exciting, thriller action scene wearing nothing but his white underwear and a gasmask, speeding in a RV, and then crashing in a ditch in the middle of nowhere, taking out a gun and pointing it in front of him. I don’t know about you, but I’m in right away! The thing is, Walter White’s ordinary world, before this all happened was pretty mundane and boring. Can you imagine showing that first? I would zap away quickly, I am sure. Because we have seen this teaser first, we can stand watching his normal life then, also because we now see the enormous contrast to what we just witnessed. We’re thinking: how on earth did he get to that? And we stick, because we’ve been made curious. Instant suspense has started. Bravo, Vince Gilligan, the creator of the series and writer and director of this pilot. And many more episodes start this way. He understands.
And now I understand it even more. And this is only one month into this course and five more to go. Yep, I am still liking it!