Choreographing a Fight Scene
The first movie I ever got sole writing credit on was one of the worst pictures ever made. I’m not kidding. I won’t even tell you the title because if I do you’ll lose all respect for me.
But I learned one enormous lesson on that movie.
We were shooting a gunfight scene. The scene took place in a warehouse. It involved the hero and his girlfriend and about a dozen bad guys. Dudes were dropping from the rafters, plunging through skylights; cars were blowing up, the warehouse was going up in flames, not to mention gunfire was ripping in all directions, coming from half a dozen different kinds of weapons—.45s, nine-millimeters, shotguns, machine guns.
In the script, all it said was “X shoots it out with a dozen bad guys.”
But in actually filming the scene, the stunt coordinator and the Second Unit director had to block out and choreograph every gunshot, every fall, every explosion, every vehicle crash. It was an amazingly complicated operation, with absolutely nothing left to chance.
Here’s what the Second Unit director told me:
Any time you film a guy firing a gun, you MUST also film where the bullet hits and what effect it produces. Otherwise the scene becomes totally confusing to the audience. And it looks fake.
I had never thought about that before. But I could see at once that the director was absolutely right.
I thought about fist fight scenes, even sword fights. Don’t you hate it when one guy slashes with a samurai sword and you don’t see where the blade goes or what it hits? Or those horrible fakey kung-fu fights that just look like a blur of kicks and punches and you can’t tell who’s winning or losing?
I thought about dance scenes. How bogus is it when you see the star start to do a pirouette or a flip and then the camera cuts to someone who’s obviously a stunt double doing the move, then they cut back to the star (close up of course, so you can’t see her body in motion) as if she had just performed the move herself.
I thought about the great old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies (or Fred with Cyd Charisse or Eleanor Powell or Rita Hayworth, or Fred with anybody) and how not only does the camera never show anything but both dancers head-to-toe, but it never cuts away. Every scene is shot in one take, so you know there’s no cheating. This is Fred. This is Ginger. They really did it, and with no tricks.
The same principle applies, of course, to any setup and payoff in any story. The old saw that says
If you show a gun in any scene, that gun has to be fired in some subsequent scene
could not be more true.
If the gun is not going to be fired in the story, don’t show it at all.
If you start any narrative thread anywhere in the story, that thread has to be paid off later. Otherwise don’t start it.
I remember watching the final cut-together version of the shoot-out in the warehouse. Forget that the movie was terrible. The scene played great.
One Bad Guy pops up from behind a barrel and fires a shot; we see the bullet strike and shatter the windshield of the car the hero and his girl are hiding behind—and we see them react as the glass blasts all over them. Next a villain plunges through the skylight firing a machine gun. Rat-a-tat: a row of bullet strikes is stitched along the wall, just missing hero and girl as they flee.
The scene looked absolutely real and made complete sense. You could follow what was happening. The action looked authentic and convincing.
The director’s axiom worked.
When you fire a gun (or throw a punch or open a narrative thread), make sure the audience sees where it lands and what effect it produces.
Otherwise the scene looks confusing and fake. It looks like a cheat.
I always learn a lot from all of your posts. Today’s about showing where the bullet hits and the effect it has brought an insight you might appreciate. Sometimes I get a text or email that gets “shot” (sent) but where it goes & its effect is unseen & unknown. It is palpably confusing. It is a fake shot and there was a “cut.” Someone even said “I didn’t mean to send it.”
Take away: If the gun (text) is shown & used, choose the appropriate (to you) effect. It’s your script.
Steve, I didn’t know you wrote the script for Howard the Duck?? Or was it Trolls the movie?
So my takeaway is: Don’t show something in a scene unless it is required to be there. If you do show something in a scene, be sure to use it. If you use something in a scene (physical or narrative/dialogue) be sure to show the effect of that item.
I had a writer’s group member go to great lengths to describe an air-ship where all the action takes place in the first two or three chapters. But the airship itself never figures in the story other than as a stage for the action. The fact that it floats or travels through the air is never a factor in what happens to the characters That seems like a lot of construction for a stage set that has no bearing on the story.
Great input as usual. I always appreciate concrete principles like this one that are clearly applicable to scene-by-scene writing.
I’m drawing a lot of parallels in my thinking to emotional and internal action as well as physical, visible action. One of the things that quickly turns me off of some literary fiction is a penchant for building elaborate metaphors or interesting dialog that never quite get around to having any direct bearing on the story or the growth of the characters. A lot of very pretty word-bullets get fired, but we don’t often get to see the impact that they supposedly have.
Definitely taking some personal lessons away from this one.
Ah, I love that, Justin. “Pretty word-bullets.”
Au contraire, mon ami. Knowing that you started out with a bomb (check out Wikipedia for the name of the film) actually inspires me. It means that you didn’t spring fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, but that you evolved over time; it gives me hope to keep on plugging away.
“Lose all respect?” Not a chance! Thanks for another great post.
One more reason to revise. Sometimes a ” throwaway gun” early on proves to be critical later. Often we write ourselves into a corner that, in revision becomes an ah-ha at the end.
Awesome post. Reminded me a lot of this Every Frame a Painting episode on Jackie Chan where Jackie repeatedly invokes the “show the complete action” mantra stated by your Second Unit Director:
As always, thanks for the insight!
I thought “Above the Law” was a pretty good movie for what it was. The scene you describe doesn’t seem to match “King Kong Lives”.
Keep trying, Tim!
thanks, steve. “where does it land” … i am gonna be thinking about that all night. great post
This is a great reminder of how our brains catch more than we consciously do. Each bullet is a new (albeit short) chapter in a story, and if it doesn’t get to the end, our brain feels bad, so we feel bad, and we leave with horrible thoughts.
Did this film share its name with an album by an Irish band? I’m sure your readers wouldn’t desert you, if they knew…
You’re right. I HAVE lost all respect for you. “An Army of One”? Really? Written by the very same man who penetrated and presented to us the mind of Alexander? Oh, my goodness! Did you have no shame? No decency? Here’s one instance when Resistance should have triumphed!
Then, again, maybe I’m being a bit harsh; after all, who among us hasn’t had to meet the rent…?
So, on second thought, I guess I still love you, Steve.
Keep up the great work, my friend!
— Bob —