Script Secrets: I’ve Seen That Before | Part I
Imagine eating a McDonald’s Big Mac for every meal for the rest of your life. Aside from whatever health problems this might cause, how long would it be until you got bored of the food and stopped tasting it? You eat one Big Mac, you have eaten them all… they taste exactly the same. The same is true with anything in your screenplay: if we’ve seen it before, it becomes boring. In both my “Secrets Of Action Screenwriting” and “Scenes Blue Book” I caution against scenes we’ve seen before… generic scenes that could be in any movie and are not specific to *this* story or scenes we actually have seen in some other film. We want our screenplay to contain “all original parts”! This becomes even more important when we realize most screenwriting is within some genre where there are thousands of existing movies which have done that story beat on screen before. It’s a romcom and you need a “meet cute”… what hasn’t been done before?
One of the things many people have said about MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is that it’s all one car chase. Though that is false, it’s really a series of a whole bunch of car chases… how do you make sure the scenes in a story like this are all unique and interesting when they are all *car chases*? You’ve seen one car chase, you’ve seen them all, right?
Or, should be wrong. Our job as screenwriters is to make every single scene unique, even if our story is made up of a bunch of car chase scenes. So let’s take a look at the latest Mad Max movie and see how they made each scene unique…
Some of you may be wondering how a screenplay can be one long chase scene (or a series of chase scenes), so let’s start there. No one ever seemed to raise that issue with NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) or THE 39 STEPS (1935) or THE FUGITIVE (1993) or even THE FUGITIVE TV series which ran four years and 120 episodes (102 hours after you subtract the commercials)… and was all a chase. Chase stories are nothing new in cinema, but this is the first time the Mad Max series has used one, despite being all about cool cars in a post nuclear future where people kill for gasoline.
The story opens with Max (Tom Hardy), haunted by the murder of his wife and child, captured by one of Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne who played Toe Cutter in MAD MAX) raiding parties and taken to the villain’s stronghold, The Citadel. Joe is an evil dictator who uses his water well and rationing to subjugate his people, and keeps an army of “War Boys” (pale, cancerous, radiation poisoned men raised from birth to die for their leader). Joe also has a harem of wives locked up so that none can escape before they can bear him an heir… and a handful of trusted Lieutenants (Imperators) lead by the one armed Furiosa (Charlize Theron). When Furiosa is tasked with a “milk run” to deliver supplies to the Gas Town and the Bullet Farm and pick up supplies for the Citadel… she drives her huge tanker truck War Wagon off course… and makes a run for it. She has the five wives hidden away inside, and all six women are looking for freedom. When War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) needs a transfusion to stay alive, Max becomes his human “blood bag” and ends up being taken into battle after Joe discovers his brides missing and sends his troops to chase down Furiosa. And that’s the story: Joe and his War Boys chase Furiosa and the Runaway Brides through the desert, with Max mounted on the front of Nux’s car like the figurehead on a ship…
Which is part of the key to keeping all of these car chase segments unique: don’t limit yourself to thinking of them as “car chases” and open your mind to “casting” the chases in different genres, like pirate movies. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s look at the different car chases in the story and what makes them different.
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD isn’t one long car chase, but a series of different chases often broken up by moments where characters expose the vulnerability beneath their tough skins, or fight using machetes, or both simultaneously. Usually in an action screenplay you alternate the type of action scenes so that you don’t end up with two car chases in a row… but even then you want unique action scenes. The same as if you were writing a horror script or drama or thriller or comedy or any other genre. No scenes we’ve seen before. But FURY ROAD has that additional challenge of being just about all car chases.
Add to that, often the unique element in a car chase is the location (from against traffic on a freeway to rooftops in BATMAN BEGINS), but here we are stuck with a post nuclear wasteland. Though the specific actions within the car chase will be unique, there is usually an overall concept for each car chase which makes it something we haven’t seen before (and use to tell our friends when we describe the scene). The idea of doing a car chase on the streets of San Francisco is a nice *location* idea used in BULLITT, but what really made that scene unique was “yumping” (when all 4 wheels leave the street when a car goes over a hill). Peter Yates had to make up a word to describe it because we had never seen it before. Instead of different locations, the chases in FURY ROAD were mostly made unique by using vehicles that reflected their characters. Let’s look at the five main car chases and how they made each unique.
CAR CHASE #1
When Furiosa and the War Wagon leave the Citadel and alter course so that they are heading away from the Gas Town, they are pursued by the scrappy scavenger Buzzards who wait outside the “city limits” and attack stray vehicles. The Buzzards seem to drive mostly old Volkswagen Beetles, which are protected by hundreds of quill spears so that they resemble porcupines. That’s not just a cool idea for a way to differentiate cars in a chase, it also shows us the character of this tribe. I’m not sure we ever see a Buzzard driver long enough to matter, but we see their vehicles and get a pretty good idea who these folks are. The quill spears are a logical defense weapon, and we see them in action in this chase. The porcupine cars makes this chase great! In my Scenes Blue Book I have a dozen ways to make scenes unique, and *details* is one of them. Details like those porcupine quills not only make the scene unique, they make it fun and something that people talk about! The little cars scurry around the War Wagon like cockroaches. They don’t have much in the way of sophisticated weapons…
But they have construction vehicles as well as those Beetles! The porcupine cars slow down the War Wagon so that the construction vehicles can attack. A giant excavation claw emerges from the porcupine construction vehicle, it’s razor teeth trying to take bites out of the War Wagon! The cool thing about this is that it shows how the Buzzard society works, it’s not just a car chase for the sake of a car chase; the Buzzards have a plan that has brought them success again and again… just not this time. Furiosa is a *great* driver. But this car chase gives us *story* information.
The porcupine quills are a great way to make the *vehicles* different which makes the chase unique… and as those old WGA trade adverts used to say: “Somebody wrote that”. That is part of the story, not something a stunt coordinator would invent on set. When they were writing these chases, each was a different chase… and they had to know what made it different. These are things that need to be known at the script stage so that they can *build* the vehicles and have them ready. In this case, the vehicles reflect the society that drives them… they are the bugs that wait in the shadows for the scraps of food that fall from the table. The Citadel is the table, the War Wagon is a rather large scrap. Too big for the Buzzards, it seems, as Furiosa gets away.
CAR CHASE #2
But the Buzzards have slowed her down enough for Immortan Joe and his troops to catch up. Before we get to the next actual chase, let’s look at Joe’s army on wheels and how it is unique. Back in MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR we had this horde lead by the Dark Lord Humungous, a rag tag bunch of punks on motorcycles and hot rods which look remarkably like Joe’s vehicles… even down to the human figurehead holders like the one Max is chained to on Nux’s car. You might even think that once the Dark Lord Humungous got smashed to bits in ROAD WARRIOR the survivors of his horde may have come under the spell of Joe and joined his army. But how can we show that this *is* an army and not just a horde of scavengers?
Let’s think about armies for a moment. Since American Independence Day just passed, let’s think about the armies during the Revolutionary War. They always had a drum and fife corps to keep them marching in step. Today you would only find the drum corps in parades, but for centuries those drummers accompanied the soldiers into battle. From the late 16th century to the late 19th century it was common for every company of 100 men to be assigned 2 drummers and 2 fife players to accompany them into battle and sound signals, alarms, and provide marching music. So let’s use another *detail* to make a scene unique and take that thing from the past and transpose it into this post apocalyptic future! Immortan Joe’s military vehicles go into battle accompanied by a *drum corps on wheels*! This turns this group of vehicles into an *army* and gives the cars in this chase a distinctive personality. Oh, and Joe doesn’t stop at a bunch of men beating giant drums, he’s got an electric guitar player on the vehicle to add flavor. Now *that’s* an army!
And this army is chasing Furiosa on the War Wagon.
So Furiosa aims the War Wagon right into Tornado Alley!
When was the last time you saw a car chase in a slalom course of tornados? Ever? DAMNATION ALLEY (1977) comes closest, but it’s not a car chase. Furiosa must not only avoid the chasing army, she must avoid the tornados as they touch down and lift cars and people into the sky… breaking them to pieces along the way. This is a wild use of *location* and even *genre* to make a car chase unique, and it’s part chase scene and part disaster movie! Furiosa lures some of Joe’s War Boys right into the path of oncoming tornados, and they are whisked into the heavens! Okay, have you ever seen that in a car chase before? Think of recasting your chase in a different genre, like the disaster movie. Also think of amazing locations that you can use for your scene. This works in any genre, but it’s easier to see in a movie that is all one type of scene like MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. But that’s just two of the five car chases in the film, and *all of them are different*! So we’ll look at the next three in my next column.
To be continued ………
Learn more in the continued article Script Secrets: I’ve Seen That Before | Part II
William C. Martell
William C. Martell has written 19 films that were carelessly slapped onto celluloid: 3 for HBO, 2 for Showtime, 2 for USA Net, and a whole bunch of CineMax Originals (which is what happens when an HBO movie goes really, really wrong). He has been on some film festival juries, including Raindance in London (five times – serving with Mike Figgis, Saffron Burrows, Lennie James, Edgar Wright and in 2013 with Julian Assange). The late Roger Ebert discussed his work with Gene Siskel on his 1997 “If We Picked The Winners” Oscar show. He’s quoted a few times in Bordwell’s great book The Way Hollywood Tells It. His USA Net flick Hard Evidence was released on video the same day as the Julia Roberts’ film Something To Talk About and out-rented it in the USA. A few years back he had two films released on DVD on the same day and both made the top-10 rentals. Recently wrote the remake of a hit 1980s horror flick, and later this year should have both a family film shooting. He’s the author of Secrets of Action Screenwriting, Hitchcock: Experiments In Terror, and the Blue Book series.