Monday, March 09, 2009

Romancing the Stone - Act One Breakdown


Screenplay by Diane Thomas
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Produced by Michael Douglas

And now for something completely different!

RTS is a romantic comedy/adventure. There’s not a lot of theme going on here; what this film promises is romance and a fun ride. As you watch it, notice how masterfully the movie delivers on the promises of the genre and premise: a major delight of the movie is in seeing the transformation of Joan, the meek little romance author, into a strong, confident, adventurous woman. There are moments and scenes of romance and chemistry all the way through, and an action scene at least every sequence. It’s funny, it’s high energy, and perfectly cast with actors who know exactly what the audience is looking for and how to give it to them.

The movie opens with a story within a story: Joan is writing the climax of her latest romance novel, Angelina’s Revenge. She narrates in voice-over an archetypal Western bodice-ripper, with a bodice-ripped heroine with a well-placed knife killing the evil bastard who “Murdered my father, raped and murdered my sister, shot my dog and stole my Bible.” We are instantly engaged in the story because it opens on an action scene with obvious jeopardy; it sets the comic tone, and treats us to some beautiful Southwestern scenery. And it introduces us to Joan’s alter-ego – the sensual and intrepid Angelina, and her heart’s desire: the shadowy, hunky Jesse. A complete externalization of the HEROINE’S INNER DESIRE – she wants to be that woman and have that man.

[4 min.] As Jesse and Angelina ride off into the desert, we dissolve to Joan in her office, typing “The End” and sobbing her eyes out. Joan is, to put it bluntly, a mess. This is a fine character introduction and great example of how you can use a character’s environment to tell us all we need to know about the character, pretty much instantly: we see her book collages on the wall, her book posters and awards, the state of her apartment, the obsessive (and apparently ineffective) Post-It notes, the sad state of her refrigerator (a hard boiled egg, dozens of vitamin bottles, and cat food). Also, she’s still in her pajamas. Not that any of us would recognize this state of affairs. (all this is seen under the CREDITS. Nowadays no one has a credits sequence like this – the credits almost always go at the end of the movie.).

[5:22] We see her social life in a nutshell as she celebrates the completion of her book with her cat, Romeo. In a word, pathetic. And there’s another very obvious statement of her desire – she toasts to the book poster – the shadowy silhouette of “Jesse”, and actually says: “Whoever you are.”

7:43 Jeopardy – a shadowy man in sadistic-looking leather gloves (yes, they do look sadistic) – makes a call from a phone booth. The call wakes Joan up – the man says nothing. This is the first sight we get of the ANTAGONIST – Zola. He has a copy of one of Joan’s books with her author photo on the back, so we know he’s after Joan. This is also a recurring joke – the book with the author photo.

9:14 Joan rushes to her publisher appointment with her finished book. She is not a fashion plate – no makeup, bland clothes. She helps her elderly neighbor up the stairs, and the neighbor hands her a bulky envelope from Columbia, which Joan doesn’t open.

9:29 Out on the street Joan tries to catch a cab while being pestered by street vendors. She has trouble fending them off. (Important SET UP for her CHARACTER ARC – we’ll come back to this street and these guys in the end).

Meanwhile, the South American man with the ominous gloves is in the hall of Joan’s apartment building, breaking in to her apartment. The janitor catches him and Zola knifes him. So now we know the STAKES are going to be life and death – and the FEAR starts that Joan will be killed by this guy.

10: 24 Joan in the bar with her publisher. (ALLY). Thematic scene here with the publisher analyzing a line of guys at the bar – all losers or flawed in some major way. This is a typical scene you see in a romantic comedy – the ally’s sole goal in life seems to be to make the protagonist happy. This must be some kind of holdover from all those theatrical drawing room comedies when the ally and sounding board is the servant. In real life, it’s not very believable that anyone would be so focused on someone ELSE’s happiness, don’t you think? SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE is another example of the ally, Rosie O’Donnell, going way out of her way to effect the protagonist’s happiness with no apparent desire for her own love life. It’s much better writing to give the ally a desire of her own.

In this scene though, that unreality is mitigated by the fact that the publisher is halfway cruising for herself as well and obviously enjoys gutting the hapless line of men.

We get an overt statement of the heroine’s DESIRE: “I know it sounds crazy but I know there’s someone out there for me.”

Now, in this story, unlike in the other two we’ve talked about so far, the inner desire and outer desire are not so far apart. Joan wants the love of her life and she gets him. But her inner need is to come out of her shell and start living her life fully, which is exactly what she does that GETS her that love of her life.

The scene serves as exposition: Joan’s sister Elaine is living in Columbia and her husband was recently horribly murdered. This is some deft writing and performance, here – it’s tough to play exposition like that as comic, but it works:

“Did they find the rest of her husband’s body yet?
“Just the one – piece.”

10:33 Nice dialogue cut to introduce Elaine, the sister. Joan says “Elaine always manages”, and we cut to a hotel by the beach in Cartagena, where Elaine is fleeing the hotel but is kidnapped – by a little boy. Again, the scene is played as comic, and it keeps the tone light that the kidnapper is a little kid – we don’t have to worry about anything too bad happening to Elaine, here. I for one am always grateful to filmmakers and authors who let me know up front that I’m not going to be subjected to rape or torture. (Thomas Harris does this very deftly in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).

This is the INCITING INCIDENT - an ACTION SEQUENCE that is also the sequence climax – a kidnapping, speeding car, cut to the kidnappers, and getting Elaine on the boat, all with the beautiful backdrop of the Cartagena port. It also sets up the location we will come back to for the climactic BATTLE – that stone fort (or whatever it is!) on the harbor.

15:00 Within this sequence we meet one set of antagonists – Elaine’s kidnappers, Ira and Ralph. They are classic comic characters – one tall and thin, one short and round (comedy loves contrasts like this). They are city boys from Queens who are fish out of water in this South American country. Ira is suave but crazy (that obsession with the gators – SET UP); Ralph is neurotic but actually the more sensible of the two – he knows this whole venture is ill-advised. Again, we don’t have to really worry about Elaine being held captive by these guys, which keeps the tone comic. We hear from a line from Ralph that the two have made a fortune from antiquities.

15:40 Joan comes back to her apartment and finds it ransacked. Suspense scene – because she should not be walking through that apartment – and classic FALSE SCARE – the can jumping down on her from above. Then another FALSE SCARE – the phone ringing right beside her. All total manipulation, but storytellers do it because it works.

It’s Elaine calling, in a classic and blatant CALL TO ADVENTURE: she’s been kidnapped and needs Joan to fly to Cartagena and bring the treasure map that her dead husband sent to Joan (in that envelope that she had with her, meaning Zola couldn’t find it in the apartment. The treasure map is the MACGUFFIN). Ira is holding a knife on Elaine and Elaine says “They’ll cut me, Joan… they’ll hurt me.”) STAKES: Joan’s sister will die like her husband if Joan doesn’t go to Cartagena to ransom her.

17: 36 Joan is packing and leaving her cat with her publisher. The publisher is trying to talk her out of going and makes a big point out of how hapless and hopeless Joan is in the real world (set up for character arc). She says, “You’re not up for this, Joan, and you know it.” (See what I mean about just saying it aloud?)

Zola follows her taxi.

19:20 INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD: Joan arrives in Cartagena. Big location scene and contrast – the crowded bus station. Joan doesn’t speak English and is whiter than white in the scene – fish out of water. Notice that she passes right by Ralph, who is looking for her, with a copy of a book and her author photo on the back. A big rule of drama is – “Keep the hero/ine and antagonist in proximity.”

Zola, in the guise of a businessman, directs Joan onto the wrong bus and follows her onto it. Ralph realizes too late that she’s taken off in the wrong direction.

21:20 Joan wakes up on the bus in middle of the Columbian mountains. It’s gorgeous – we are really in the SPECIAL WORLD now. Joan realizes she’s made a bad mistake and when she tries to talk to the bus driver he is not watching the road and runs into a Jeep parked by the side of the road. Hundreds of tropical birds are released from cages in the Jeep.

The other passengers pour out of the bus and start to walk. Zola tells Joan she should wait – another bus will be along. SUSPENSE and FEAR – and part of the suspense here is that we know more than the heroine. As soon as they are alone, Zola pulls a knife on Joan and demands her purse (where the treasure map is).

25:38 A man in silhouette appears at the top of a ridge (just like Jesse in Joan’s story) and starts shooting at Zola. GUN BATTLE – action sequence. The stranger runs Zola off. (INTRO TO LOVE INTEREST).

27:22 And to top off this action scene, Ralph has been following Joan in that little yellow car, and Zola now uses his police badge to commandeer the car and drive him out. (REVELATION – the bad guy is a cop). This is an extremely important element for a romantic comedy or comedy: the CONVERGENCE OF SUBPLOTS. All of these subplots are operating really right on top of each other and constantly complicating each other – as if they’re magnetized and constantly within each other’s magnetic fields.

(This is a prime example of what I’m talking about when I keep saying you need to break down ten films/books in the genre you’re writing in. This convergence of subplots is one of the games that a romantic comedy or comedy plays with its audience that you are not necessarily going to find playing out so blatantly in other genres, and you need to see how other storytellers handle this element of the genre.)

You could say that the gun battle is the climax of ACT ONE, and I wouldn’t really argue with you. But I think it’s only one of a couple of climaxes to the act, and the next scene really is still part of Act One, so I’ll include the next scene in this discussion.

As Ralph and Zola drive away, we are left with Joan and Jack at the bus.

Now, in Hollywood terms, Joan is the protagonist, and in a romantic comedy the main antagonist is always the love interest. But ROMANCING THE STONE is different from a Hollywood romantic comedy in that it’s an actual romance, and typically the male and female leads in a romance have pretty much equal weight, and the POV alternates between the female and male leads. (All the romance writers here feel free to jump on me if I’m wrong – believe me, I’m not an expert!). So we have both these things going on in this movie – the almost-equal male/female leads and the love interest as a major antagonist (but Zola has been set up as such a threat it’s hard to think of Jack as the MAIN antagonist).

Here we have a detailed set up of Jack Colton, his backstory and outer desire. He’s been in Columbia working on a scheme to sell exotic birds to get the money to buy his dream boat (the photo he rescues from the wreckage of his Jeep is an external representation of his drive and desire). We suspect he’s a good guy because he’s selling birds rather than drugs, which he says straight out was another option. And of course we know this is Joan’s prospective true love.

But at the moment, all Jack cares about is that he’s penniless and vehicle-less. Joan wheedles with him to take her to civilization and a phone, and offers to pay. This is a nice scene for CHARACTER GROWTH – Joan actually bargains with Jack and gets the price down – we’re proud of her! And we see a spark of CHEMISTRY as they haggle with each other – very nicely played, and an essential story line for a romance – the growth of attraction. Jack is attracted to Joan when she asserts herself. But not enough to carry her suitcase for her. 30:49

(This is another place you could call the climax of Act One. The CENTRAL QUESTION is very clearly set up: Will Jack get Joan safely back to Cartagena in time to ransom her sister (and before Zola kills her for the map?)

They start off in the pouring rain, Joan stumbling on her Italian pumps. And that mousy little beige outfit she’s wearing starts to undergo a transformation as the rain turns it into a clinging knockout of a dress.

Zola arrives at the local police station and starts gathering a team of men. Now, interestingly, and I would say this is unusual: there’s no TICKING CLOCK attached to the kidnap and ransom demand from the cousins; they seem to be on South American time. But there is a sense of urgency and a time clock associated with Zola – especially when we see him amassing troops, we know if he finds Joan he’ll kill her.

31:22 Jack gets annoyed at Joan’s dawdling with the suitcase and takes it from her – only to throw it over the cliff. The cliff edge crumbles and Joan takes a wild ride down the muddy slope – followed by Jack, who ends up with his face in her crotch. Another large spark of attraction for Jack, here, and what I would say is the real climax of Sequence Two and Act One, as Jack crows – “Welcome to Columbia, Joan Wilder!” 33:30

So I’ll throw that one open to discussion – what do YOU think is the Act Climax? The gun battle, which climaxes the action plot? The bargaining for Jack to take Joan to a phone, which starts them off on the road together? The mudslide ride?

The bottom line to me is – it doesn’t really matter. You can go crazy debating the exact moment, but of course in a romance you’re going for multiple climaxes, and that’s exactly what this movie pulls off so well.


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Stephen D. Rogers said...

"I for one am always grateful to filmmakers and authors who let me know up front that I’m not going to be subjected to rape or torture. (Thomas Harris does this very deftly in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS)."

Could you give me an example of how he accomplished that? (I have the book, but not the movie.) Subtlety is a great skill.

Anonymous said...

When Clarice is being briefed on the particulars of the crime it's stated that the victims were not sexually abused. In the book Clarice flips to the autopsy reports in the file and sees from the level of free histamine levels in their bloodstreams that they were not tortured before death, and is relieved.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

A change in direction for a moment...

In Dancing with Wolves, where the soldiers begin taunting the wolf, I had to leave the theatre. By the time I reached the sidewalk, I was fuming. It felt as I had just been manipulated. The director/Costner decided,"Oh, okay we should heighten the conflict now by having an animal torture scene."

I felt the same way in Saving Private Ryan. The camera zooms in on the old man's eyes, then zooms back to show Tom Hank's face, hence telling me the old man was Hank's character 40 years later. Wrong. At the end when he dies, I felt again as if the director was playing with my emotions, and lying to me.

I'm twisted, eh?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, I'm not a fan of PRIVATE RYAN for all kinds of reasons, but I do remember being very annoyed with the whole old man subplot.

DANCES WITH WOLVES I've never actually seen.

But, you know, other people love those movies. No matter how you try to analyze and construct things, there's always that overriding factor called individual taste.

lucidkim said...

ROMANCING THE STONE is one of my all time favorite movies - and one I've watched many times. Even my young daughters love it (and pointed out during NIM'S ISLAND that the story was "THE SAME, MOM!" but then said, "but not as good." In Nim's Island a writer becomes part of real 'action' even if little else was the same to RtS!).

I think the mudslide scene is the end of Act I.

I've printed out all your advice in this series - have it in a three ring binder so I can go back and refer to it often. It's already been very helpful for me. I really appreciate it!


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks for letting me know, Kim!

I didn't know that about NIM'S ISLAND. How great of your daughters to recognize the premise.