So I just read a cool story the other day (I believe on Slash-Film) about how George Lucas was stressing out over the release of Star Wars. He visited buddy Spielberg on the set of his current production, “Close Encounters” and was so impressed by the grandiosity of it all and was so convinced Close Encounters would do better than his film, that he begged Spielberg to trade profit points with him on the two films. Spielberg figured, “Why not?” and he’s reportedly been collecting ever since, to the tune of more than 200 million dollars. Nice little trade there (though I’m sure Lucas isn’t losing any sleep over it. According to “Celebrity Net Worth,” he’s worth 7 billion dollars – Spielberg is at a paltry 3 billion). Close Encounters went through a lot of different iterations before it got made. Spielberg was originally going to shoot it before Jaws with only a 2.5 million dollar budget. He had UFOs landing on Robertson Boulevard, which nobody seemed to like (ironic since that’s all they want nowadays). After Jaws’s success, every studio was willing to let Spielberg make any film he wanted, but the script for “Close Encounters” still wasn’t there. The main character was a Project Blue Book agent, and then a police officer, but Spielberg said he couldn’t identify with those people. Hence, he eventually settled on an everyday normal blue collar worker for the protag. This is what finally allowed him to see the movie clearly. Though a ton of people worked on the screenplay, Spielberg ended up with sole credit.
1) If possible, the audience should identify with the hero – One of the keys to Spielberg’s mega-success is his penchant for building a story around a character everybody can identify with. Here, we have the everyday working man. And typically Spielberg uses a boy as the main character, as it’s instantly identifiable to the core audience, boys and men. I mean, who doesn’t remember the innocence and wonder associated with being a young boy?
2) Know the everyday man’s limitations – To be honest, you don’t find many movies today focusing on the everyday man in the extraordinary situation. Instead we have police officers and secret agents and former agents and former Navy Seals being placed in extraordinary situations. The reason for this is that when the action heats up, producers want your main character to be able to keep up. We have to believe that our hero can take down a military trained baddie or escape a building surrounded by the FBI. It’s hard to buy that a “normal guy” would be able to pull that off. Thus, we get “exceptional guys.” So, if you are going to write an “everyday man in an extraordinary situation,” make sure all the extraordinary stuff he does is believable and logical, which “Close Encounters” does a good job of.
3) The Teaser – The “teaser” is something that’s typically used in a TV pilot. It’s that first scene that creates a sense of mystery or wonder or suspense or shock or all of the above. “Teasers” are also often used in big splashy blockbuster-y type movies, such as Close Encounters, where we start with air traffic controllers tracking a strange blip on the radar that eventually disappears into thin air. A teaser is a great way to grab the reader’s attention immediately so it’s highly advisable if it fits your story (but please, avoid the cliché, “Cut to X weeks ago” after the teaser. It’s so overdone and should only be used if it’s absolutely essential to the story).
4) When writing a big set-piece scene, pretend that the producer nixed it because of budget. What would your replacement scene be? – The opening of Close Encounters has several planes coming in contact with a UFO. We could’ve seen this play out up in the air, but instead we see the scene exclusively through the eyes of air traffic controllers. The scene is tense and exciting for the very fact that we DON’T see what’s going on. It’s the difference between a 2 million dollar scene and a 20,000 dollar scene. And I’d argue the 20,000 dollar scene is better. You see, most big set piece scenes tend to be obvious. Cars chasing after another. Explosions. Shootouts. Space battles. We’ve seen all that stuff before. When you ask yourself to come up with the “low budget version” of a scene, you often have to be more creative, and that creativity results in something way better.
5) The second act is all about STRUGGLE – Remember that the second act boils down to your hero struggling. He should be struggling inside, outside, with the world, with the people in his life. Struggle struggle struggle. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), our hero, is struggling with this thing that he saw. He’s struggling with his wife, his kids, with what he should do. Every step of his life becomes a struggle. Struggle results in drama, and when done properly, anything dramatic will keep an audience interested.
6) Get those “marketing scenes” in there – Spielberg is a master at thinking of the marketing while writing his script. He looks for those 4-5 scenes that are going to look great in a trailer, that are going to make people HAVE TO leave their homes to drive to the theater and see his film on opening night. You get it here with the little boy being summoned by the big giant lit-up UFO outside the house. You get it with the headlights behind Roy’s truck going UP ABOVE instead of AROUND him. You see it, obviously, in Raiders of the Lost Ark with Indy running from the boulder. As “sell-out’ish” as it sounds, you need to be thinking of the marketing of your film as you’re writing it. Never let it dictate the story. But be aware of how important it is.
7) Explore your second act in your first few drafts, then streamline it for the final draft – Close Encounters actually has a very slow and wandering second act. This makes sense, as they rebooted the story several times during development. Spielberg likely threw his shooting script together with time running out. Hence this draft has a second act with a first draft feel. Tons of scenes with Roy driving around for his job, at home talking to his family, all mixed in amongst an unending amount of UFO sightings all over the world. I encourage you to use a few drafts to explore your second act. This is where you find those unexpected storylines and snazzy subplots. But at a certain point, you have to streamline: That means cutting out all the stuff that doesn’t relate directly to the protagonist’s goal – and that goal here is Roy trying to find an answer to these UFOs. If that’s not the focus of a scene, it should probably be cut.
8) A passionate main character – I believe that we, as people, are drawn to passion. Whether it be the butcher down the street who loves chopping meat for you, the musician who couldn’t imagine himself doing anything else with his life, or the blogger who wakes up every day excited to write about screenwriting. Movie characters are no different. We love to follow and root for passionate people, people who are driven by their goals and dreams. Roy becomes so passionate in his pursuit of these UFOs (who can ever forget the model mountain he builds in his own living room?) that we can’t help but root him on and hope that he achieves his goal.
9) Once the aliens show up, so what? – Another genius thing about Spielberg’s movies is he understands that once the cat’s out of the bag, the cat’s no longer interesting. He famously held the cat back with Jaws (despite it being by necessity), but does it even more so here, waiting until the very last scene to reveal the aliens. He knows that if he reveals the aliens early, that sense of mystery and intrigue and suspense is gone. It’s getting harder and harder to do this in a day and age where audiences require eye candy as soon as their butts hit the seats, but executed well, it can still work.
10) Close Encounters is a great reminder that you have to continually take chances to succeed in this business. Sci-fi was NOT popular at the time this movie was made. Hollywood thought a movie about UFOs would be stupid. People who claimed they saw UFOs in the 70s were considered to be loonies. Spielberg could’ve made anything he wanted after Jaws, but he took a chance on something he was really passionate about. I’m a firm believer that you have to take a big chance with every screenplay you write if you want to succeed. If you’re just following the latest trends, you’re not going to stand out.