Every movie begins and ends with a script!
Great movies begin with a great script! If your movie is to be seen in theatres, on DVD or VHS, you need a great script. The best scripts --from Euripides to Shakespeare –fuse plot, character, and motive in what is called structure.
One of the best contemporary examples of such a structure is the motion picture Elizabeth, 1998, starring Cate Blanchett.
Act I: The Set-up
The first 30 minutes of a screenplay is called the Set-up. Even action movies, whose very first sequence may be action-packed, as in the Bond films, are merely expository for those first 30 minutes. In the first 30 minutes: we are introduced to the "hero" and other main and supporting characters; we are shown the setting and historical context --contemporary or period; we learn something of the "premise" or the "primary motives" of the main characters.
Consider, for example, how much we learn in only the first 30 minutes of Elizabeth:
England, under the rule of Queen Mary I, a zealous Catholic, is racked by financial and religious instability. The country buzzes with rumors of terror, conspiracy, and the burning of Protestants as Mary steps up her campaign to purge the country of heresy.In a meeting with her half-sister, "Bloody" Queen Mary, Elizabeth affirms her loyalty and disavows any connection with plotters led by Thomas Wyatt. It is unclear whether her life is saved by her pleas of innocence or by the death of Mary who dies without naming an heir. Norfolk reluctantly orders that Elizabeth succeed to the throne.
Mary is married to Phillip of Spain but it is doubtful that her marriage was consummated. Childless, her impending death will leave the succession in doubt.
We are introduced to the enigmatic, ruthlessly Machiavellian Sir Francis Walsingham –in exile during Mary's reign. We are also introduced to Norfolk, Sir Francis’ antagonist, who covets the throne. He shares with Spain a desire that England remain Catholic.
A plot to overthrow Mary and place Elizabeth on the throne is discovered and Elizabeth is suspected of complicity. While in the company of Lord Robert Dudley, of whom she is particularly fond, Elizabeth is arrested by Norfolk allies and imprisoned in the infamous Tower of London.
The Second Act then begins when the Crown is placed upon Elizabeth's head --an event which occurs at the end of a segment that is very nearly 30 minutes to the second.
The succession of Elizabeth to the throne is what author/script guru Syd Field calls the first "plot point". And it almost always happens within thirty minutes of the start of the film give or take a minute or two. I began timing Elizabeth from the opening titles in which "supers" provided some essential expository information. I would not have begun timing with titles over a black screen or other non-expository footage.
Plot Point #1 is the beginning of Act II. Act II is always characterized by what Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writring) calls rising conflict leading to Plot Point #2 one hour later, on page 90 of the script.
Pages 90-120 comprise Act III. By timing and analyzing many movies, I have found Field to be accurate, either because screenwriters have read and emulate Field or because good story structure seems to naturally fall into that pattern.
Although there is no denying Field's influence, many "older", pre-Field films are easily found to fall into this pattern. Casablanca, Psycho, Notorious, Rebecca, Citizen Kane, High Noon, Chinatown come to mind. It was, after all, Aristotle who first described the structure of a play: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Field’s theories are mere refinements of Aristotle.
Structure is story and story is character. Motivated characters act upon their motivations and equally motivated characters oppose them. Strong characters do not merely lock into siege; they attack and counter-attack. Stakes are constantly raised. A good story is an unfolding, universal dialectic as old as Socrates. And with Plot Point #1, the words of Sherlock Holmes apply: "The game is afoot".
It is not merely because it happens 30 minutes into the script that the crowning of Elizabeth is the first plot point. The first plot point is not simply defined as whatever it is that happens thirty minutes into the story. It is, rather, the very beginning of the story at the end of background exposition.
The "story" of Elizabeth is the story of her reign and how that reign changed her and the nation she ruled. That story must begin with her coronation. It is her coronation that is the catalyst for the rising conflict which propels the next one hour of film time. That conflict is nothing less than the conflict between those would plot to assassinate her and replace her with a Catholic monarch and Elizabeth's allies -- equally ruthless in her defense.
This is the stuff of high drama and it rarely gets better than this. It is, literally, a struggle of life and death, a drama of Shakespearean weight and profundity. Anything else is a "sub-plot" and, in this film particularly, the subplots are subtly interwoven into the main story line like a fine Belgian tapestry. They provide context, commentary, and perspective but also influence in subtle ways the main story line.
Syd Field attributes a "structure" to Act II:
- a "pinch" on page 45;
- a "mid-point" on page 60;
- another "pinch" on page 75.
In my analyses, I have found the "pinches" to be more specific. An event on Page 45 almost invariably defines a serious complication or obstacle. In Elizabeth, the French "warrior queen" Mary of Guise, has amassed troops on the Scottish border and forty-five minutes into the film, Mary routs Elizabeth's soldiers in the field --a serious complication which threatens Elizabeth's tenuous hold on her throne, undermines her efforts to unite her deeply divided realm, and incurs the murderous enmity of Mary of Guise.
This event leads causally to the arrival of the Duke of Anjou. A marriage to the Duke, an alliance with France, is deemed necessary to secure Elizabeth's tenuous throne and repair the deteriorating relationship with Mary of Guise. All this is in reaction to the conflict in Scotland and sets the stage for the next big plot point of page 60.
The Point of No Return
Elizabeth angers Catholic partisans with the passage of the Act of Uniformity. This is, indeed, a point of no return for both England and Elizabeth. It is seen by the Vatican as heretical and sets the stage for yet another dialectical reaction. A Catholic plot, involving the Pope and local traitors, is hatched to assassinate and replace Elizabeth.
While Field recognizes an important "pinch" on page 75, I have found this point to be, in most cases, a "reversal of fortune". In Elizabeth, this occurs when Elizabeth, against the wishes of her loyal advisor, William Cecil, refuses the Duke of Anjou's proposal of marriage. Seventy-five minutes into the film, this move almost costs Elizabeth her life. Mary of Guise vows revenge.
When her attempt to murder Elizabeth with a poisoned dress fails, the Machiavellian Walsingham, who has become Elizabeth's "Master Spy" takes action. Walsingham –in response –tricks, seduces, and murders Mary of Guise. One enemy of the Crown --down! The stakes are raised and set up Plot Point #3.
Lesser movies bog down in Act III. Not Elizabeth, where Act III itself evinces three discreet sections of 10 minutes each. They flow seamlessly from one to the other. On page 90, Walsingham begins to fight back against the enemies of the Crown: the plotters who have conspired with Norfolk to install Norfolk as King.
Walsingham secures the remaining evidence of plots against Elizabeth. He does this by eliciting the cooperation of informers and by torturing a murderous priest sent by his "holiness" to assassinate Elizabeth.
Confronted with the evidence, Elizabeth gives Walsingham carte blanche to "round up the usual suspects". They are imprisoned in the tower until they can be tried and beheaded.
The final section I call the apotheosis of Elizabeth in which she becomes the Virgin Queen. The final section is worthy of note. Few movies have approached Elizabeth in the manner in which all the various threads, motivations and conflicts are resolved so profoundly, so poignantly, so tragically. Much of that effect is owed to the inspired direction. A montage of piked "heads" dissolves into Elizabeth in contemplation before the statue of the Virgin Mary.
The enigmatic, ruthlessly loyal Walsingham, appropriately distant from his Queen in the Cathedral shadows, addresses her in hushed tones. The people need the Virgin, he tells her; "They must be able to touch the divine!" The people, he says, have found nothing to replace her.
A moving crane shot makes it appear that the Virgin is leaning beneficently above Elizabeth. CUT TO: a reversing angle above Elizabeth who is symbolically shorn of her long, red, worldly hair. In a straight on head shot in which she looks like Joan of Arc, Elizabeth intones to her unseen companion, Kat Ashley: "Kat...I have become a virgin". Thus, in a Protestant nation, England will still "...touch the divine" but will do so via their Queen.
When Elizabeth appears in public, her court is awed, and as she passes among them, they bow to kiss the hem of her garment. She is transformed, deified, untouchable. She is the Virgin Queen.
Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett
©Len Hart, 2001, originally entitled “How to Write & Produce Your Own Movie, Part II”; Sunday, December 04, 2005
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