Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A question of tone

Chad writes in with a question:

Recently, I got a review from a reputable website where they said that my script was "tonally muddled" because many of the characters were kids, the beginning is about the main character as a child, so it starts out with a family friendly vibe--but they have to fight (presumably CG?) giant insects and this reader thought that I was mixing family-friendly with horror and that I should tone down the violence. 

This same reviewer admitted that MIB (one of my influences) combined these elements successfully, but said the difference was that MIB used practical effects for the aliens and mine would have to be more photo-realistic CG. This brought to mind the obviously CG cockroach that explodes at the end of MIB. "Got some entrails on you there..." I don't want to be one of those writers who gets offended at a critique. This same reviewer gave me some constructive criticism on my dialogue. 

My question is, how to I write non-human "monster" characters getting blasted without pro script readers getting an R-rated image in their heads that conflicts with the family-friendly stuff in this script? Eight-Legged Freaks with David Arquette is an example of what I am talking about as well.

Okay, this is a good question.  First, I want to say that I don't think it really matters if we're talking about CG monsters or practical monsters.  It's not really accurate to say that any single approach is more "family-friendly" than the other.  So let's set that aspect of the question aside entirely.  That's a debate that's more appropriate once a director's attached and he's figuring out the best way to bring the tone of your script to the screen.

Without reading the script, I can't be too specific about what might have set this reader off about the violence.  Perhaps you wrote the violence a little too vividly, or brutally.  It's one thing to say "The giant cockroach explodes in a fountain of puss and entrails! Gross!"  It's quite another to write something like "The motherfucker gets shot to pieces.  Blood. Guts. Gore. It's all over the place, painting the walls and coating the ground with a slimy secretion. You can almost smell the death."

A sanitized version might even just say: "The blast blows up the giant cockroach. Who needs Raid when you've got a big gun?"

But there are a lot of things that can contribute to tone beyond just the words in your description.  MEN IN BLACK can play that violent moment for laughs because it's crystal-clear from everything else in the film that we're in a universe that applies a light touch to everything.  It's been ages since I've seen the film, so I don't remember too many specifics in terms of how that tone is introduced.  But think about the overly-serious deadpan dialogue give to Tommy Lee Jones, or the background gag of Will Smith being tossed around by an alien about to give birth.

For crying out loud, MEN IN BLACK is a movie with a talking dog!

Everything from plot, to characters, to dialogue in MEN IN BLACK sets the tone that this is a broad comedy. A more serious movie might have played Edgar's possession for the horror of it, but here it's handled with a comedic touch. We're allowed to laugh about how gross it is instead of focusing on what a violation it could be.

So the way you keep the monster deaths from feeling like it's an R-rated scene is to make sure that the rest of the film reinforces that.  The fact that they say it's muddled suggests to me that there are scenes where you probably get the tone right, but that any of that lighter feeling is completely absent in scenes that get violent.  As you point out, the MIB cockroach death is instantly undercut by the "you've got entrails on you" joke.

If there ARE moments that are brutal, you've gotta be willing to take the piss out of them.  GHOSTBUSTERS achieves this often through Venkman's snappy lines, using his quips to cut the tension.  Really, I can only think of two moments in the entire film that might veer towards the intense.  The first is Dana's possession, which was pretty damn scary as a kid.  She's grabbed by one dog through her chair and pulled into her bedroom where another dog waits.  The film actually lets that tension hang until Peter shows up and it's clear that Dana has been taken over.  Fortunately, a side effect of the transformation is that she can't stop feeding Peter straight lines, thus letting us know it's okay to still laugh at the film.

The other horror moment is when Louis is pursued and attacked by one of the terror dogs.  Even then, before the attack we get the sight gag of the dog hit with a coat, plus Louis's "Who brought the dog?" line.  The scene concludes not by showing us the attack, but by giving us the perspective of the people inside the restaurant where he's banging on the glass for help.  Thus, our reaction is more about the amusement over how crazy he seems to those diners who go right back to their meals without missing a beat.

Use comedy to thin out the tension and make sure your script doesn't play like a silly script and a dark script that keep alternating scenes.  I'm not saying every scene has to be pure slapstick, but give your reader transitions from the silly to the straight moments.  If you do it right, we'll accept the shifts as merely the variations in a melody rather than a mash-up of two completely different songs.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your reply. I was JUST about to rewrite this script (for this and a few other reasons) when I saw you had posted this. Ha. Thank you very much.