URGENCY solves all your screenplay’s ills!
Premise: (from IMDB) United Nations employee Gerry Lane traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments, and threatening to destroy humanity itself.
About: World War Z, the movie, has had its own apocalypse leading up to its release. Its well-publicized awful third act (which forced the studio to rewrite and reshoot the whole thing) steered buzz on the film towards Death Valley. Things didn’t exactly get better when geek screenwriting whipping boy Damon Lindelof came on to “save” the movie. But just like a zombie, the film came back from the dead and started building positive word-of-mouth with strategic early screenings and that cleaned up ending. Projected by much of Hollywood to bomb, the film made $66 million this weekend, 16 million more than the studio’s best case scenario. It looks like all aspects of World War Z got an improved ending.
Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof (story by Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski) (based on the novel by Max Brooks)
Details: 116 minutes
I’m not sure why everyone thought this was going to flop. The trailers looked awesome. It had Brad Pitt in it. What else do you need to get butts in seats?
I actually read an early draft of this script a long time ago and there were textbook problems with it that needed changing if this movie was going to have a shot. They made those changes (nailed them, in fact) and voila, we have a MUCH BETTER script and therefore a MUCH BETTER movie.
World War Z follows United Nations agent Gerry Lane as he and his family (wife and two daughters) are beginning their day. As they’re driving through the city, chaos erupts, with crazed possessed people attacking and killing everyone in sight. Those victims then turn into attackers as well, creating an exponential path of destruction.
In a harrowing opening 20 minutes, Gerry leads his family to safety and eventually to an extraction point where the government picks them up. They head to the only safe area on the planet, military boats in the middle of the sea, and everyone starts trying to find out what’s going on.
What’s going on is a particularly lethal strain of zombie. One that’s making quick work of the planet. If they don’t do something soon, these boats may be their final destination. Just like any plague, if you find out the source (Patient 0), you have a chance of coming up with a vaccine. Because Gerry’s job is to go into dangerous places and get answers, he’s a natural fit to go searching for this patient.
Problem is, every country is being overrun by zombies. So it’s sort of like sending a tree into a field of chainsaws. The chances of making it out with all your bark in tact isn’t very good. Gerry starts his investigation in South Korea, which experienced the worst of the attacks. Clues there eventually lead him to Israel, which somehow knew to build a zombie wall before the zombie outbreak even began. These guys were onto something and Gerry wants to know what.
While there, however, our clever (and quite energetic) zombies, figure out a way to scale the walls and overrun the city, forcing Gerry to make a harrowing escape on a passenger plane. That plane eventually leads him to a World Health Organization center where Gerry uses the clues he’s gathered to (spoiler) come up with a vaccine.
Okay, are you guys ready for today’s big screenwriting lesson?
This script proves how important urgency is to a story. Why do I say that? Because I have the old script to compare it to.
In that version, the script tried to stay true to the novel. The novel was more about the AFTERMATH of the zombie outbreak. It took a “Post-Hurricane Katrina” approach to things, with Gerry trying to find who was to blame for the outbreak rather than Patient 0.
That’s fine for a book. But shit like that don’t fly in movies. In a movie, you need urgency. I’m surprised they didn’t figure this out right away – that they paid a writer to write a draft that had no hope of pleasing audiences. But someone finally got it right. They realized that telling everything in flashbacks and having Pitt strolling around countries leisurely without a single immediate threat didn’t lend itself to an exciting flick.
The brilliance of World War Z, the movie, is that it never slows down. Outside of the opening scenes establishing the family together, once the zombies hit, they never stop hitting. And for that reason, Gerry had to do his investigation WITH THE THREAT OF BEING KILLED AT ANY MOMENT as opposed to the threat of getting a paper cut at any moment. And everywhere he went, the zombie threat was right behind him. I know some people don’t like fast zombies, but they multiplied the urgency in this case a thousand fold and really made things exciting.
The best example of this was in Israel. We saw these zombies clamoring to get inside the country and we knew it was only a matter of time before they did. So when Pitt’s investigating, he doesn’t have time to hop around the country meeting numerous people and getting detailed rundowns. He talks to one dude before the zombies scale the wall and he’s running for his life.
World War Z is actually the prototypical GSU script. You have the Goal (find Patient Zero so you can create a vaccine), the stakes (Gerry being reunited with his family AS WELL AS the fate of the human race) and the urgency (zombies always on their tail).
Speaking of, that was another great change Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard made. They actually suggested going back and adding the family scenes at the beginning of the movie, as well as another phone call between Gerry and his wife during the second act. They wanted more stuff between the family. They know that GSU doesn’t work unless the audience CARES ABOUT THE CHARACTERS and WANTS THEM TO REUNITE.
One of the best ways to create that caring is to create a family unit, a pair (or a group) of people who we want to see reunited. You do this by showing the family together, show how much they care for each other, then rip them apart. If Gerry is ONLY trying to save the world here, this movie doesn’t work. It’s that we want to see him back together with his family that keeps us so invested.
As for the ending, I don’t know what they changed the script from, but you can tell where the split happened. Clearly, that plane was going somewhere else in the old film. Now the plane crashes and Gerry comically walks over to the World Health Organization, which just happens to be a pleasant 5 minute walk form the crash site.
But once Gerry’s in the building, things pick up splendidly. Lindelof and Goddard create their own little mini-movie with new GSU. The goal is for Gerry to get a special bottle the scientists need in B-Wing, the stakes are, once again, survival of mankind, and the urgency isn’t as prominent, since the situation is so fraught with tension (the zombies potentially spotting them at any time). For coming up with this ending as quickly and under as much pressure as they did, they really did a great job.
You know, I got to thinking about this movie and wondering why it was so good, despite its mechanics being so simple. There are no real surprises in this script, no x-factor. It was all straightforward. I was reminded of a movie from earlier this summer that had a similar structure, yet wasn’t nearly as good: After Earth.
In that movie, we have the family unit (Dad and son) and a clear goal with high stakes and lots of urgency (son must get to the tail section to retrieve the S.O.S. beacon). So why did it fall so short of this one? A few things stuck out to me. The first was that the stakes were so much higher in World War Z. In After Earth, only the father and son’s lives were at stake. World War Z had the lives of the family at stake AS WELL AS the entire world.
A second problem was that the obstacles were so much greater in World War Z. I always talk about the value of creating big impossible obstacles for your characters and I never saw that in After Earth. Everything the son ran into was bad, but never “Oh shit ohmygod holy shit we’re fucked” bad. Contrast that to World War Z, which has tons of these moments. I mean at one point Gerry is watching the plane he’s on be overrun by zombies and must decide whether to blow a hole in the side of the plane with a grenade, effectively crashing it, or take on the zombies in close combat. Now THAT’S what I call an obstacle.
The other problem was that After Earth’s storyline was too simple. You were always way ahead of the story. World War Z squashed that issue by creating a central mystery to the storyline: What happened? Pitt needed to put together clues to figure out what happened in order to get to each successive clue. In After Earth, the kid didn’t really have to figure out anything. His father just told him where to go and he followed orders.
And that’s ANOTHER reason why this is such a great screenplay to study. On top of all this, we have a snapshot of the proper way to write a protagonist: HE’S ACTIVE! Pitt is making his own choices, figuring things out himself, and charging forward. Isn’t that a way more interesting protagonist than one who just follows orders from his dad the whole movie?
That’s not to say World War Z was without fault. What keeps this from being impressive are some of the glaring logic oversights. Israel is being heralded as this genius country for building a wall before anybody else to keep the zombies out. Yet they’re allowing random planes to land on their runway and random people from those planes to hop into their city without enduring – oh, I don’t know – a QUARANTINE.
Ditto for the random folks they’re letting through the wall. If someone can take as long as 10 minutes to turn, why are you allowing people into your city after a Q & A session that basically amounts to “Are you a zombie?” The plane that Gerry and crew stop and board is the worst example of this. Gerry’s helping along a pale sickly woman, who’s coming with him. She never turns into a zombie, but if you’re those pilots, aren’t you thinking she might?? And yet they never blinked. Yeah, sure, come on in.
I understand why they did this. They balanced the audience’s need for logic against the audience’s need for urgency. It’s a problem screenwriters are constantly faced with. You could have had Gerry and crew placed into quarantine for 12 hours after they landed in Israel to be more realistic, but it would’ve killed the momentum. I’m not sure there’s a universal solution for this. It needs to be addressed on a case by case basis. But my gut tells me they needed it here. Because everybody looked like morons for never once considering the fact that the new guy they’re letting in the room might be infected.
The thing was, everything else was so damn well done that I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I mean there isn’t a slow moment in the movie. So congrats to the writers who worked so hard on this. It paid off!
[ ] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the price of an EVENING ticket
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I always talk about giving your protagonist a difficult choice at the end of the movie, something that challenges their fatal flaw. This reminded me that you don’t want to ONLY wait for that ending to do this. You should give your characters difficult choices WHENEVER YOU CAN in the script. I loved the scene in the plane where Gerry is watching the zombie mayhem get closer and closer, and must make an impossible decision. He’s got a grenade he can throw at them, which will crash the plane and probably kill him, or he can try and fight the zombies off, which will probably kill him. Those are the great moments in scripts, where you see the character battling that impossible choice.