Category Archives: Story Values

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“Tower Heist” from the script writer’s point of view

 

Screenwriting Corner
“Tower Heist” from the script writer’s point of view
Genres: Comedy/Drama/Action/Adventure
By Ronnie Tharp-Garber

Designing Principle
Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy lead an all-star cast in Tower Heist, a comedy caper about working stiffs who seek revenge on the Wall Street swindler who stiffed them.

Premise
After the workers at a luxury Central Park condominium discover the penthouse billionaire has stolen their retirement, they plot the ultimate revenge: a heist to reclaim what he took from them.

This is a comedy with the sub-genre of heist-comedy. The drama elements are the known Opponent, with a moral dilemma that blows in the Battle scene, with the Opponent defeated: finally a Wall St. multi-million dollar player who thinks he’s above the law is brought down by some very creative “working stiffs.”

The elements of action come into play with the Hero, Ben Stiller, greatly incensed when the trusted employee/doorman of a high rise tower building is bilked out of his life savings by the Opponent and then tries to commit suicide. To stay in this genre where comedy is the overall force, the doorman could not be killed – Ending up in a hospital, yes. And the Hero goes for a visit and vows to make things right. As a comic action Hero, “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do!”

The Character Web of hotel workers and bosses and funny residents of this super-expensive, posh residence that resembles Trump Tower is neatly played out. All of the secondary characters play against their natures, which contributes to that “comic gap” that is the mainstay of comedy: The desk clerk Russian young woman is studying for the bar and will end up being the shark lawyer for the Hero; the Jamaican maid is a brain with safe-cracking; the lonely, broke, divorced and bankrupt Wall St. occupant becomes part of the heist team instead of going asunder; the primo thief, Eddie Murphy, is bailed out of jail and wears a stolen business suit with attache case and becomes the heist trainer for these other “pansy-ass” would be thieves, who have never stolen anything in their lives.
All of the secondary characters support the Main Desire Line of the Hero, who wants to retrieve the money that the Opponent stole from the employees’ pension plan. Each character approaches the Desire according to his/her particular “quirk” and value system.

What keeps the Narrative Drive going is the continued “immoral” acts that the Hero commits to reach his goal/Desire of getting the money back for the employees. The Hero smashes a prized race car to smithereens; he engineers a safe-break-in; trains with a jailed criminal. The comic gap with his straight man character is that in the beginning of the story, he is a perfectionist- well-respected and politically correct with the wealthy residents of the Tower at all times. He plays along with the Opponent boss and maintains his calm under pressure. But then he goes berserk and is willing to jump completely out of character to go after the goal/Desire.

In a tightly crafted script such as this one, the story beats are all orchestrated: There’s the Inciting Incident at the 12-minute mark: The news that the pension fund has been raped by the unscrupulous boss. The end of Act 1 is at the 30 minute mark when the Hero receives new information to propel him into a definitive Plan of action to solve a huge dilemma that not only he is faced with, but all of his employees, or “working stiffs” as the Opponent likes to call them.

Act 2 is filled with preparation and training for the big heist moment. A sub-plot love interest for the Hero is woven in with the F.B.I. agent also desirous of putting the Opponent away, as she is totally disgusted with the rich raping the poor and being above the law. At the 60-minute mark, also called the Mid-Point Break, there is a distinct change of story world where the characters are in a very precarious time, just steps away from being discovered by the F.B.I., the Main Opponent, and the police. On page 75, a unique reveal occurs, and on page 85, another unique reveal occurs to jolt the audience forward with the Narrative Drive of the story. On page 90, the low point is very definitive, but because this is comedy, it is not a devastating low point.

There is a creative twist at the end, which comes after the Battle scene. The final sequences are compressed, as in comedy genre, these sequences are generally shorter than in other genres. The average comedy is about 96 minutes long, and this film is 99 minutes, including 5 minutes of credits. There is no Self-Revelation or New Equilibrium sequence, as the audience mainly cares about the Battle scene and wants to see the Opponent get his due.

For an entertaining, rollicking and good-humored 99 minutes, this film delivers. The cast is superb, the script is tight, and the comedy-heist genre is transcended, whereby the audience knows it will be a happy ending, but they will be surprised with the twist – It’s not a deux ex machina type of twist, but rather a set-up in good script writing, so that the audience feels a “poetic justice” type of emotion for a clever turn on predictability.

Learn About Values

A JCAD “Learn About Values” Workout

A thought-provoking exercise to hone your characters, your story idea, your theme

 

First, let’s differentiate between ethics, morals, and values

Ethics = A generally accepted set of moral principles

Morals = The good or bad or right or wrong of actions

Values = Individual or personal standards of what is valuable or important

 

Next, we decide what our values are.  Sounds elementary?  Take a test:

  • Write down the major challenges (both positive and negative) you have encountered in your lifetime. This could be a page long or ten pages long.  No time limit.  It’s just for your eyes.

  • Now, answer this question: How did you overcome or meet these challenges.  Are you still dealing with them?

  • Next question: If you could be a main character in a story, what challenges (positive and negative) would you like to give to your main character?

  • Next, how do you think your main character could overcome/meet these challenges you have given to him/her?

  • Next, write down some of the values that “speak” to you.  For example,

  1. Honesty

  2. Trust

  3. Kindness

  4. Integrity

  5. Courage

  6. Perseverance

  7. Personal Responsibility

  8. Empathy

  9. Tolerance

  10. Anything else you can come up with!

Now, let’s do a WHAT IF exercise with values:

We know that problems may arise where individuals allow their personal values to interfere with their actions, thereby potentially bringing their actions into conflict with stated ethical standards.

WHAT IF individuals allow their personal values (which are the opposite of what we wrote above) to interfere with their actions? 

For example, let’s say personal values are: Dishonesty, immorality (the opposite of what we wrote).

Now, we have a law firm that specializes in dishonesty and immorality, such as the one in The Firm.  Why?  Because it’s a firm that is a front for the mafia: Nobody ever leaves!!! (except in a coffin)

So we’ve just taken a value system and corrupted it, and what is the result?  We have CONFLICT.  John Grisham, who wrote The Firm, has given the hero (in the film, the Tom Cruise character), a young, idealistic lawyer, CONFLICT.  He doesn’t know about what this firm really does when he takes the job.  His wife has an inkling that all is not quite right, but Tom Cruise, young lawyer, is swayed by the offer of a Mercedes, a home, a mortgage that comes with a nice down payment, and a huge first-year salary with all the perks.  Is it greed on the hero’s part?  Or is it the lure of a poor boy finally “making it” and being accepted by his wife’s wealthy (and snobbish) family?

Then we look at the values of the hero: Integrity, Honesty, the complete opposite of the firm.

And now we know the challenges Tom Cruise’s character is going to have to overcome to SURVIVE because the Firm is going to murder him, as they have done to other attorneys who discovered just who they are.

How many of us are confronted with DISHONESTY AND IMMORALITY?  Do we consider ourselves to be honest and moral?  Are we ever tempted to be dishonest and immoral?  What happens to the Tom Cruise character as he confronts all of his challenges in the story?  Is he tempted by immorality?  Yes.  Is he tempted by dishonesty? Definitely.  So, how does he resolve his challenges?  We find out in the climax, in Act 3!

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