May 15, 2018

Watch: Why the Midway Point of a Screenplay is So Important

Michael Mann's Collateral demonstrates how a story's midway point is the key to characterization.

Having seen Michael Mann's thriller Collateral a few times now, I've always remembered how tight the movie seemed the first time I saw it, especially considering how big the production is. What I didn't remember was who directed the film (because with the exception, I guess, of Eyes Wide Shut and maybe The Color of Money, Tom Cruise movies always seem like, well, Tom Cruise movies.)

Of course, the director was none other than Michael Mann, which becomes super obvious once you realize that his restrained, stylized symmetry is all over this movie, accompanied by a terrific screenplay by Stuart Beattie.

In this video, Michael Tucker looks at how the film's midpoint (literally, the halfway mark of the film) functions as the hinge point where the film's plot and characters converge. In doing so, Tucker shows an elemental piece of storytelling wisdom neatly illustrated within this taut thriller.

In the films of Michael Mann, crime is an existential endeavor, a way of ordering reality. This is a common trope found in heist films influenced, in large part, thanks to Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (where Sterling Hayden's relentless clock-watcher Johnny Clay spends the entire running time attempting to stay one step ahead of the universe, conducting an orchestra of chaos to pull off a ridiculously convoluted heist that almost works). 

The hitman enlists a  gifted navigator in the form of his taxi driver (played by Jamie Foxx), and their conflict is what drives the film.

In Mann's Heat, Robert De Niro is an heir to Hayden, a man obsessed with time and systems. In Collateral, Tom Cruise's Vincent is another relentlessly ordered man tasked with a murderous job (in a super Mann-ish touch, Cruise's hair is silver, and I think it's for no other reason than to coordinate with his suit). The hitman enlists a  gifted navigator in the form of his taxi driver (played by Jamie Foxx), and their conflict is what drives the film.

Vincent is a sort of Anton Chigurh-type from No Country for Old Men, a hitman without a past or personal life, favorite song, fond memory etc., Foxx plays the cab driver, Max, as a sentimental everyman who has ambition (to run a classy limo company), but not enough drive and self-confidence (one could read the qualities he lacks, honestly, as sociopathic traits) necessary to succeed in this grinder of a city. He's a nice guy, a dreamer, maybe a little passive. On this night, those qualities are exactly the kind of thing that will get him killed. 

The protagonist lacks everything represented by the antagonist. 

What works well in Foxx's performance is the way Max reacts to what happens almost immediately after he meets Vincent: bodies start piling up. One imagines that Vincent has determined that Max is a passive mark, one who will go along out of fear and take the path of least resistance. Therefore, when Max actively begins to resist, it earns Vincent's respect while simultaneously setting up their inevitable showdown.

Tucker makes the point that in the story (in all stories, to a degree) the protagonist lacks everything represented by the antagonist. Vincent's negative traits that make him an unfeeling killer could, in small doses of get-up-and-go, help Max start his limo company and stop being such a doormat. 

The drive for the protagonist to change is nothing more, and nothing less, than their coming in contact with the antagonist. Protagonistnist, of course, comes from the Greek pro (first) and agonist (actor), so antagonist defiantly means, "against the actor." They are the character who is there to oppose the protagonist, and in doing so, the protagonist reveals their true self.

For the rest of the movie, Max will act with decisiveness, while Vincent will act just as decisively, but no longer with the unassailable advantage to stop him.

Max's facade is chipped away during the first half of the film thanks to his interactions with Vincent. This will climax in the hospital where they visit Max's sick mother and she inadvertently reveals that Max lies to her about his non-existent limousine company in order to make her proud. This revelation shames Max, and his response is to take the most decisive action thus far, to steals Vincent's briefcase. 

Quoting John Yorke's book Into the Woods, Tucker notes, "as the story progresses, the needs, the plans...the traits that help a character sustain their outer appearance are slowly transformed by the better angels within...The need that becomes conscious at the inciting incident is embraced at the end of the second act and at the midpoint triumphs for the first time; the subconscious has been dredged and brought to the surface to take over." 

Story Structure Credit: Lessons from the Screenplay

When Max takes Vincent's briefcase at the hospital, his outer appearance and pride are thoroughly destroyed, and the need he felt at the inciting incident to take action against this danger, is finally allowed to triumph. For the rest of the movie, Max will act with decisiveness, while Vincent will act just as decisively, but no longer with the unassailable advantage to stop him.

It's a big studio movie that feels remarkably indie.

Collateral was one of the first Hollywood films to be primarily shot digitally (it cost $65 million, which primarily went, I'm assuming, into salaries and trailers.) and this article from ASC is a good survey of how it was done. As everyone knows, filming at night on film is a serious hassle, and filming in a car is a huge hassle. This is why numerous movies feature car scenes shot on a soundstage with front (or rear) projection.

14 years ago, the idea of basically "just" driving and shooting and getting something usable was somewhat groundbreaking, and 14 years later, this movie is too. It's a big studio movie that feels remarkably indie, and I'd say that's primarily due not only to the digital aesthetic, but also the relentlessly economical storytelling, which every good, budget-conscious movie needs.      

To view more videos from Michael Tucker, click here.

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