Monday, 28 March 2011

Writing The Thriller # 1: “The Primal Premise”

You don’t have to go far on the internet to discover a lot of industry people believe that reading scripts is mandatory in order to write a good movie. And this makes a lot of sense: *just* watching movies does not cut it, since without the script there is quite literally no movie. The script is the “foundation” if you will, so appreciating what goes into the writing of one is necessary to get one's story off the page and onto the screen. Thriller is a genre that never really goes away, but evolves and changes, taking various elements in: mystery and moments of gore and horror are the most obvious, but from time to time the genre itself will also take in elements of comedy, human drama and even science fiction and fantasy.

So if the script is the foundation of the filmmaking process, the premise is the foundation of the script itself.

The word “premise” is defined in the dictionary as “a proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion”. If we then apply this notion to Film then, we can view premise as a “starting point” for the story (note: not the WHOLE story), most often phrased as a “What if…?” style question in treatments and other story documents. Let’s look at some premises from really *big* movies of the past twenty years, regardless of genre:

“What if… Dinosaurs were re-created by scientists?” (JURASSIC PARK)

“What if… A child could see dead people?” (THE SIXTH SENSE)

“What if… The Earth stopped spinning on its axis?” (THE CORE)

“What if… You were falsely accused of killing your wife and sentenced to death?” (THE FUGITIVE)

“What if… A bright teenage girl falls pregnant and decides to give her baby up for adoption?” (JUNO)

Yet the premises at the heart of many spec Thrillers just don’t work. This can happen for a number of reasons, though most often for these two:

1) The premise is too convoluted. Easily the top reason for thrillers not working. As a result, scribes tie themselves and the plot in knots, so the reasons for various events happening and characters’ motivations for enacting them just are not clear. The reader ends up with a muddled view of the story world and is unsure what they’ve just read.

Here, a scribe needs to return to his or her premise and really figure out what is at the “heart” of the story – from here, s/he can then clarify how the plot works in relation to that “starting point”. There are lots of ways to do this, but one of the most effective ways of dealing with a lack of story clarity is to write a new treatment or beat sheet.

2) The premise is simply not “thrilling” enough. Sometimes a Scribe wants to create a Thriller, but actually writes what is essentially a human drama. The difference between the two is subtle, but significant: a Thriller is most often a literal triumph over adversity *of some kind*; a Human Drama might involve adversity as well, but very often involves the characters’ REACTIONS to that adversity and how they deal with it. In comparison, the Thriller frequently has an element of “vanquishing the beast” to it: Tom Cruise must bring down the Mafiaso lawyers in THE FIRM; Will Smith must overcome the government secret service in ENEMY OF THE STATE; Jodie Foster must defeat the burglars in PANIC ROOM.

But what does a Scribe do about a lack of “thrill” to their premise? This is where JK’s idea of what he calls “The Primal Premise” can really come into play. A primal premise plays on this element:

The Universal Fear.

A “Universal Fear” is one EVERYONE has – which transcends culture, class, race and even gender. It’s something everyone DOES NOT WANT to happen to them or their loved ones, for whatever reason. Evidence of “Universal Fear” then in the previous three examples:

In THE FIRM, Tom Cruise wants to do the “right thing” – he wants to expose the lawyers and their scam – but he DOES NOT WANT to die (a very real possibility, if he is found out). Universal fear: Who wants to die? No one.

In ENEMY OF THE STATE, Will Smith literally FALLS INTO the conspiracy, “wrong place, wrong time” – and could very well NEVER SEE his family or lead a normal life, EVER AGAIN if he does not resolve the issue. Universal Fear: being alone and on the run forever.

In PANIC ROOM, Jodie Foster’s home is INVADED by burglars, forcing her to wall up in her house with her child - AND during the night, her daughter suffers a diabetic coma from lack of insulin. Universal Fear: Home invasion… AND your child being in danger/dying.

With all the above in mind then, DEVIATION has that “primal premise”:

What if… you were trapped in your car with a madman?

DEVIATION plays on the Universal Fear of being kidnapped by a stranger. Like Will Smith in ENEMY OF THE STATE, Amber in DEVIATION is in the “wrong place, wrong time”, a staple of many Thrillers. Had she left work any earlier or later, she would never have run into the barbarous Frankie. In fact, in the first few moments of the movie – she *almost* turns back, which would have taken her out of Frankie’s range. But because she doesn't, she must deal with his campaign of terror and deal with what comes to her that night.

So if you feel your Thriller is not “thrilling” enough, consider THE PRIMAL PREMISE and what “Universal Fear” it plays on. Unlocking that could very well create the “starting point” that kicks off the action in your script and brings us toward that all-important conclusion.

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NEXT: Thriller characters and how they differ from characters in other genres

Monday, 21 March 2011

Q & A With DEVIATION'S Writer/Director JK Amalou

What was your inspiration for Deviation?

Rather than be influenced by any particular films, I’ve been influenced by styles of movies. Mainly Film Noir of the 40s and 50s and the documentary style of the films of the 60s and 70s.

DEVIATION is precisely that: an innocent person thrown into a dark, bleak world in which there seems to be no way out. This in itself is a very film noir concept (THE SET UP, SUNSET BOULEVARD, etc). So I chose the shadowy, bleak world of the film noir and treated it with the more visceral and realistic storytelling of the 60’s and 70’s films (DUEL, EASY RIDER, etc.)

To be fair, I have not seen any movie in which protagonist and antagonist spend an hour and a half in a car, driving around town so I couldn’t possibly say that DEVIATION was inspired by any particular film. However, I could cite films like COLLATERAL and THE HITCHER as distant references.

Why did you choose the title DEVIATION?

That’s because it personifies the film on two levels.

First meaning is obviously that the whole film is a deviation for our main protagonist Amber (played by Anna Walton): she’s on her way home after a long day at work and she’s randomly kidnapped by a nutcase on the run (played by Danny Dyer).

Second meaning relates to the character of Frank played by Danny Dyer. As already mentioned, he’s a psychopath on the run. His psychopath nature could be construed as ‘deviant’ behaviour or a deviation from the norm.

Deviation's essentially a two-hander for most of the film between Amber and Frankie, with short appearances from other characters. How did you keep the tension going in the story? Didn't you run out of events?

How did I keep the tension going? Easy. Create a formidable antagonist for our heroine Anna. That’s about it.

The premise is already strong: how would you feel if you were kidnapped randomly? This already helps greatly in creating tension from the start. Put yourself in Anna’s shoes for one second: who is this guy? Why am I being kidnapped? What does he want? Does he want to kill me? Rape me? Where is he taking me? And as you progress in the story, well, you provide answers to her questions.

So the first step for me was to fling my protagonist in the worst possible situation. In Anna’s case, I threw her in the hands of a very dangerous psychopath with a record of murdering women.

The second step to keep the tension going was the antagonist, ie: the psychopath. I had to make sure that he was unpredictable, volatile and yet capable of utter generosity and gentleness. This way our protagonist never knows what she’s up against. Second guessing her enemy leads to nowhere as well: she can’t fathom or predict him. And this is important: this heightens the danger our protagonist is in.

Nothing new here. This had been done since the dark ages of storytelling which is awash with heroes having to fight some unknown, strange dark monsters. Our good old friend Ulysses had to deal with a few of these beasts.

Who did you have to kill/sleep with/blackmail to get funding to make it?

Nobody. If you have to kill / sleep with / blackmail to get funding for your film, you are going about the wrong way to get your film produced.

I just went down the usual, well proven route: write (hopefully!) a killer screenplay, get some known actors on board by using the screenplay as a lure and then sell it to potential investors.

Oh, and try to keep your costs low so that means that you should work with a very good producer. In my case, that was my producing partner: Lara Greenway.

What makes a "good" Thriller in your opinion?

What kind of thriller? There are many kind of thrillers. The Bond thriller? Yes, it’s thrilling but it’s a rollercoaster more than anything as we all know very well that Bond is going to come through his ordeals unscathed. Same with the Bourne movies but they have a darker tone. So, in that kind of thriller, you better come up with a real rollercoaster of a ride in terms of stunts, special effects, chases, etc. etc.

Or you have the smaller types of thrillers, such as DEVIATION. For me, that kind of thriller works only if a) it has a strong, PRIMAL premise and b) it has strong characters. The reason is obvious: unless I did it illegally, my budget wouldn’t allow me to blow up the Parliament or have a car chase in Leicester Square. Also this kind of character-based thrillers tends to have an element of horror too.

A primal concept/premise is exactly that: a life-or-death situation for our protagonist. And most importantly, this primal concept/premise must be absolutely banal in the sense that our protagonist is going about his every day, normal, borderline boring life and out of nowhere, he/she is hurled into a dangerous situation.

Again this is what I’ve tried to do with DEVIATION. Anna, a nurse, has just finished her shift. She heads for her car as she speaks to her partner and then her daughter on her mobile. She gets into her car about to drive off. Bang! A psychopath barges into her car, ties her hand to her seat: she is abducted.

Strong characters are of utter importance. Your protagonists have got to be people that we care for, feel for and love. If they are not, you are dead in the water. Who is going to care about someone who is unlikeable? Take Amber in DEVIATION. Who is going to give a flying monkey about her if she is introduced as some kind of dour, bossy and sarcastic head nurse?

As for your antagonists, they have to be scary. Really formidable. Would you be scared if you were kidnapped, terrorized, pursued by a Teletubby or a Womble or Mickey Mouse? Nope, I didn’t think so either.

Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Annie Wilkes, Max Cady or Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci in GOODFELLAS) are the kind of characters you want. Would you like to be locked up in a room with them? I know I wouldn’t.

One word of caution though. Too many dangerous criminals I see in films tend to be a rehash of other movie psychopaths. Net result? They are so ‘unreal’ that they wouldn’t scare a 2 year old baby.

Without revealing too much about Danny Dyer’s character in DEVIATION, I based him on Raoul Moat (read and watched everything about him) and a real life ex-killer that I know. (He’s still alive so, out of respect, I am not going to name him. Also for those of you worried about my safety, he has gone straight a long time ago. Last time he killed was during a holiday in Cyprus. A pesky mosquito had the misfortune of entering my friend’s hotel room but I digress...!) Some other traits of his character were added after an extensive research into the sexuality of real-life psychopaths (Yep, I’ve got nothing to do with my time.)

Which are your personal favourite Thrillers and why?

THE HITCHER (the original!) had a great PRIMAL premise: young guy picks up a hitch-hiker and within minutes, the hitch hiker promises to kill him. And throughout the film, the hitcher – played by the suitably sinister Rutger Hauer – proves to be a formidable antagonist.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (the original). Yes, I know some see it as horror. However, one should also see it as a great thriller too. That bunch of young people were up against a seriously deranged man.

HALLOWEEN. Same thing. Sure, it had its horror moments but I see it mainly as a thriller as we watch young people in small town America being stalked by a psychopath on the run.

And of course, the wonderful BURIED. Now here’s a thriller that didn’t even have an antagonist. Well, maybe it has the semblance of an antagonist in the form of the Iraqi kidnapper but we never see him. However, this is a great example of bold screenwriting by Chris Sparling: a bloke wakes up and finds himself in a coffin, buried somewhere in Iraq during the Iraqi war. The result is not only terrifying but thrilling.

What are you working on at the moment?

Deviation, Deviation, Deviation! We are about to lock the picture edit and to proceed with the sound, grading, etc. Other than that, I am finishing a rewrite for a film which is due to go into production next month. If DEVIATION is a hit and I am allowed anywhere near a camera, I am also toying with a few ideas for my next film...

Monday, 14 March 2011

Deviation: New Shots From The Film

Great progress is being made on Deviation. There will be plenty of exciting announcements to come in the very near future, so thanks for watching this space and in the meantime, PLEASE let all your friends know all about the movie on Facebook and Twitter by sending the links and pics on and spreading the word.

Deviation was shot last year in November and December, two of the coldest months on record EVER, EVER. Team Devmov, not to mention our fab actors, braved the elements for the movie - so you better appreciate it! Of course, if you don't, we could always send Frankie after you all, like he went for poor Amber:

The unstoppable Danny Dyer might be the king of the indies, but you've never seen him like THIS. Frankie is a sick individual with a seriously warped view of the world, but he's also a character with layers - Frankie's NOT your classic 2D bogeyman. As Danny himself said, “Frankie is a complex guy, he’s not *just* a “psycho"... This guy is evil, but we can see why he’s ended up like this.” "Understandable" or not, I can't say I'd like to run into this fella down a dark alley:

Refreshingly, Amber does not identify with Frankie like *so many* thriller heroines - no Stockholm Syndrome here, thangyewverymuch (yawn!). In fact, she does all she can to get away, even appealing to outsiders for help like this chap here in the left of shot, Brian the Postman:

What happens, you say? Well that would be telling... But it's up to Amber, no one else, to rescue her! And about time too - we've had *quite* enough of sap heroines at Team Devmov. Here, earlier in the movie, Amber contemplates her fate as Frankie drives her in her OWN car across London:

So... What would you do if you were trapped in a car with a madman?

Hold that thought... imagine what Amber's going through. And what she MIGHT do in this movie.

Bet it's not what you expect.

Stay tuned! More photos and news very soon.


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Read producer Lara Greenway's blog here .

Read associate producer Lucy V Hay's blog here.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Frankie says... "Relax"? No Chance - GET YOUR LCWF TICKET HERE OR ELSE!

Team Deviation is supporting The London Screenwriters' Festival's new venture, The London Comedy Writers' Festival at Regent's College, April 9-10th, 2011.

Whilst Deviation is obviously NOT a comedy, what Team Devmov love about Team LSF is their ability to facillitate and encourage new writers and filmmakers as well as more established talent.

So do take a look at the events (London Screenwriters Festival's main event returns in October this year) and use discount code DEVMOV to get your £25 off tickets to April's Comedy Festival.

Don't make us send Frankie after you...!