5 Types of Turning Points

One of the best representations of life after death is the turning point.  More than a simple plot twist, a turning point takes the momentum of a movie to an abrupt halt to completely change directions.  You have to kill it before you end it, but it must be organic.  The outcome is the spirit of the film, the soul, and breaks free of the physical trappings of what happens prior to the turning point. Fail to mark this event and you will have predictable and boring results.  Fail tactfully employ this procedure and your ending will seem unjustified and lazy.  If you do your job right, with the end in mind, you will lead the story away from the outcome, until the perfect moment comes to finally guide your characters toward their intended purpose.  Whether it’s a slap or a whisper there are several effective ways to bring your story home by way of the turning point.  Here are some of my favorites (this list contains SPOILERS by its very nature):

From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (the game changer)

More than a mere turning point, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn completely changes genres.  It’s like if Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid got halfway through and suddenly became The Lost Boys.  The criminal protagonist take a traveling family hostage in order to sneak across the border into Mexico to escape the law.  Once they are home free, the trouble begins when the bar they stop at to meet their correspondent turns out to be a trap run by vampires who aren’t after repeat business.  The switch is fun and very surprising if you don’t already know it’s a vampire movie.  It feels as though the movie is nearly over before the real fight for survival even begins.  Less effective was the much earlier implementation of this tactic in the recently released The World’s End.

Fight Club (reveal reversal)

I call this one the reveal reversal.  The movie itself doesn’t change at all.  it’s only your perception.  You go through with blinders on until you can’t take it anymore and the blindfold is replaced by a mirror to show you where you’ve been before finally showing you where you are in order to finish the story.  In the case of Fight Club it’s the realization that Tyler and… well, let’s call him Jack are actually the same person after Tyler has built up and subsequently destroyed the narrator’s sense of self worth.  The epiphany puts all that has happened previously into perspective, just before Tyler’s master plan is revealed so the stage is set for a massive showdown nobody saw coming.  This method was also used in The Sixth Sense as a twist ending rather than a turning point.

Rocky (the mind changer)

Sylvester Stallone is not known for subtlety, but as Rocky prepares for his match against Apollo, expectations mount in the collective audience.  Sly must have known this and cleverly decided to reshape those expectations and add an extra layer of satisfaction to an already superior ending.  Anyone going into the film for the first time would expect Rocky to beat Apollo, even though it would not make much sense.  If he wins it’s phony and predictable, but if he loses its just sad.  It’s a catch 22 nicely fixed with a small scene where Rock confides in Adrienne that he knows he can’t win and all he wants to do is go the distance– something nobody else has ever done.  Boom!  Surprise!  Perfect ending.  This method was also used but did not work so well in Ghost World.

Independence Day (the ray of hope)

Possibly the most common and with the most varied success rate, this is a fake out turning point.  It goes where it was always intended to go, but only after creating a false sense of hopelessness and creating a small sliver of a chance for the audience to grab onto.  In ID4 it seems as though Earth is doomed.  David gives up on his “save the world through recycling” philosophy and has absolutely no hope of redeeming the human race by fighting off an alien invasion.  That is until the idea is put into his head that he can give them “a cold” (In this case, a computer virus, but also a clever nod to H.G. Wells)  Suddenly, the plot goes from a stand still with nowhere to go, to a grand climax on board the mother ship.  Minority Report accomplishes this with another slip of the tongue from the film’s antagonist that regenerates the plot motion towards completion, but more commonly it is done intentionally through a mentor.

Back to the future (the turn straight!)

There are the movies that refuse to turn despite the characters’ will.  The outcome is anticipated, yet the protagonist is repeatedly held back from achieving his goal, especially when time is of the essence.  This can be maddening, but is hugely effective, especially in the case of the above listed title.  This is a difficult move to accomplish, resisting an easy answer and drawing out a climax can have audiences on the edge of their seat or, bored to tears.  You have to have some sort of time element involved, even if it’s the slowly sinking Orca at the end of the captivating shark hunt in Jaws.

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Influential Directors: Robert Zemeckis

zemeckis

“I could never… do only one kind of movie. Anything that’s good is worthwhile.”

If I’m going to give credit to the directors that have influenced me throughout my life, I would be remiss to neglect one of the most influencial filmmakers of my young years. Randal Graves once said there is “only one trilogy,” but it isn’t Star Wars 4-6 and it isn’t Lord of the Rings. It’s not even Indiana Jones, though it is a tight race (maybe even a coin flip’s difference). The trilogy above all trilogies is Back to the Future and the director in question is none other than Robert Zemeckis.

To be honest, I tuned out when Zemeckis got into all of that mo-cap stuff. I just hate that style of filmmaking. It’s an incredible tool when used well to create realism and believability in films like King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Lord of the Rings, but when stretched beyond its strengths the technology destroys the cinematic experience.  In an animated film, one of the key challenges is finding that balance between over and under-defining characters.  A Pixar artist will add just enough detail to be breathtaking without going too far and making an awkward, eerie, too real representation.  When a film relies entirely on mo-cap technology the composition becomes muddled and it makes the job of the director so much harder than it should be, because ultimately he has to decide when it looks right and it almost never will.

Motion capture has the potential to be ultra realistic and yet it is the job of the artists to create a balanced look, or the contrast between realistic and cartoonish features clash on screen and can be impossible to adjust to.  Some films have to be animated.  Some are better as a live action feature.  No film ever needs to be mo-cap in it’s entirety.  However, despite his apparent over reliance on cutting edge technology, nobody incorporates state of the art tech into brilliant storytelling quite like Zemeckis.  I think of him as an efficient Spielberg/Cameron hybrid.  Take A Christmas Carol.  Though it failed to work as a whole in my opinion, there is some really great stuff in there that I think only could have been pulled off by Zemeckis.

Zemeckis made the riveting thriller What Lies Beneath and Forrest Gump, which I happen to just have been listening to Alan Silvestri’s score from.  but what really sets him up as one of my favorites is that he made Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  Another massive technological achievement, Who Framed Roger Rabbit combines China Town with a wacky world in which animated characters interract with humans.  It’s one of my favorite movies as I love detective stories and film noir and I think the collaboration between the major animation studios is an achievement in itself (Daffy Duck and Donald dueling pianos!).  This film captured my imagination unlike any other.  I had seen Pete’s Dragon of course and portions of Song of the South, but for the first time the combination of live action and animation felt real to me and Toon Town, became a destination within my fantasies.

This was all happening in the midst of my obsession with Back to the Future which further cemented Zemeckis in my mind as a force to be reckoned with.  Though I was only 8 when Back to the Future part 2 came out (I desperately wanted a hoverboard) Robert Zemeckis next to Steven Spielberg is the first director I was actually aware of in a time when I was still learning to distinguish actors names from the characters they played.  Incidentally, Michael J Fox was my childhood hero on the strength of his roles as Alex P. Keaton, Teen Wolf, and of course Marty McFly.  I’m still immensely fond of him.  So, Zemeckis gets bonus points for being responsible for part of that trifecta.

Back to the future is one of the greatest films of all time.  I think it speaks volumes that it has survived so many other time travel and special effects movies of the decade, but I hope it will remain forever considered a classic.  Every generation should know and love the film.  It’s just so fun and clever and polished.  The characters are brilliantly developed.  The story is deftly plotted, piling set-up upon set-up for a lineup of the most amazing pay-offs.  It’s so thought out and thematically supercharged,  yet so whimsical and light and full of terrific dialogue.  While it carries itself like an average teen comedy it is so exceptional it is truly next to nothing in terms of its inherent value.  And if you want to talk about influece, lets talk about the torment I went through waiting for the third installment of the trilogy after Marty came back to 1955 and scared the hell out of Doc Brown.  The “To Be Continued” card was devastationg!  There is also something brilliant in the seemlessness of parts two and three, because they are a seperate story yet they have a momentum to them that makes the three part set feel like a whole.

Zemeckis has range, too.  From the wacky dark comedy of Death Becomes Her, to the Science fiction drama of Contact, to the solitary and desolate feature Cast Away, Zemeckis has revealed himself to be one of the industry’s top storytellers. What Lies Beneath, without the Z factor could have been shuffled away as just another Ghost story, but if you weary of the same tired concepts, Zemeckis’s creativity is a breathe of fresh air for the genre.  Another one of my favorites is Romancing the Stone, which I watched often as a kid. It had everything I wanted in a movie and I never tired of watching it. Now, I see it and I’m not exactly sure why I was so into the film, but at the time it was one of my favorites and certainly served to influence my tastes and expectations at an early age.

At home in Chicago, Zemeckis found creative freedom in an artless home through the family’s super 8 camera and became impassioned when he learned about film school on an airing of The Tonight Show. Though his parents strongly cautioned him, he applied for USC and though originally not accepted, he made a phone call to the admissions office and begged for a place. It was at USC that Zemeckis met Bob Gale, the co-writer of Back to the Future. The fact that he does a good deal of screenwriting and directing I think goes a long way toward making him one of the most effective and influencial storytellers of the last thirty years.

It was his expertise in incorporating special effects that imbued me with a thirst and excitement for knowledge about how films are made.  By addressing my belief in what I saw on screen, and learning a bit about behind the scenes planning, I began to piece together how to make the unreal appear real and put that skill to work for the first time, using forced perspective to create a monstrous giant in a student film of David and Goliath when I was twelve.  Though my dream was to become an actor, Zemeckis had opened a window that would eventually push me behind the stage and onto a computer which introduced concepts and production aspects I never dreamed of and eventually lead me to screenwriting.