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  • Creating Set Pieces for Success

    December 19th, 2011

    By Danny Manus

    Ever wonder what it takes to create truly memorable movie moments? Those scenes that just stay with you long after you leave the theater? Those scenes that, when someone mentions a movie title, immediately rush back into your mind? Those scenes that allow you to picture the trailer?

    These scenes are often called set pieces. And this week, I want to share with your how to create them and automatically make your script more commercial.

    While I had heard the phrase “building set pieces for your script” hundreds of times, I never truly thought about it until the recent panel/interview I moderated with A-List comedy writers Tim Dowling and Joe Nussbaum. Dowling has written Just Go With It, Role Models, the upcoming This Means War, and more. Nussbaum has directed Sydney White, Prom, American Pie: Naked Mile and has written some very hot scripts around town, two of which landed on the Black List.

    I learned something so valuable from our chat about the importance of set pieces that it has changed the way I look at scripts. And maybe it will have the same affect on you. 

    Set pieces are not just locations – they are a scene or a short, connected sequence of scenes that builds in a way that not only makes for a memorable and trailer-worthy moment, but also develops your characters, plot, increases emotion, and exploits and explores the hook of your story.  One of the keys to building great set pieces is building layers into your scene.  If your scene is not accomplishing all of the aforementioned things, then it is not a set piece – it’s just a scene.

    Nussbaum and Dowling said that it’s their ability to brainstorm and picture these 3-6 major set pieces that tells them if their concept has potential.  If you cannot think of 3-6 scenes and moments that do all the things mentioned above, then you may not have a strong enough concept to write about. All the big comedy giants – the Farrelly Brothers, Judd Apatow, Weitz Brothers, etc – use these types of set pieces in their scripts.

    And this is NOT only for comedy – action, horror, thrillers, sci-fi, and even drama – ALL should have some version of set pieces. When you come up with a concept and a hook, you need to brainstorm and ask yourself what kind of big set piece scenes could EXPLOIT this idea – where are the big moments within this concept?  What are the scenes that are going to get this hook across, connect an audience with my main character, and create big cinematic, iconic moments?

    The difference between a scene and a set piece is in how it builds. Your set piece should build so that you’re not JUST writing or building a scene to hit that ONE joke line or have that ONE visual gag moment, but instead the comedy is constantly and continuously building and hitting throughout the scene. So basically, there are at least a handful of big laugh (or action, scare, suspenseful) moments within each set piece.

    To create a set piece, I’ve come up with a basic formula for the scene. Though sometimes the steps are not exactly in this order and not every set piece is alike, this is a basic guideline:

    1. Set-Up – This includes your location, setting up what your character wants to get out of the scene (so we know why it’s funny when it all goes wrong), and the situation your character has walked into.
    2. Bring out the conflict of the scene.
    3. First big funny moment/visual (or action, scare, suspenseful moment)
    4. Payoff for first funny moment/visual which causes or increases an uncomfortable situation, tension, anxiousness, or other funny emotion. Changes your character or the way others view your character.
    5. Regroup and try again hoping for different results – but unsuccessful.
    6. Second big funny moment/visual that raises the comedic stakes.
    7. Payoff for second funny moment/visual.
    8. REPEAT steps until you have exhausted the hilarious moments and visuals of the scene and exploited your hook.
    9. Last button on the scene which is the final, if not funniest moment or visual of the scene that makes it clear how the scene affected or progressed the story.

    And just so you can see exactly what I’m talking about, I want to give you a few of the examples Dowling and Nussbaum used, which will help illustrate this perfectly;

    –        The Zipper scene in There’s Something About Mary – Stiller gets to the house, is already nervous and wants badly to impress her and her family and seem like a suave guy. He sees Diaz in the window (first funny moment), her father isn’t too happy with him (conflict), Father goes into the bathroom to help – doesn’t work, raises humiliation (second funny moment), they regroup and wife comes in (third funny moment/line/reaction), cop comes to the window (fourth funny moment/reaction), then the memorable visual of what’s stuck in the zipper (fifth funny moment), then the button final action and reaction (fixing the zipper and Stiller’s hilarious scream). Then he’s taken by the paramedics – prom is ruined and he’s lost his chance with his dream girl.

    –        The Dinner/Urn scene in Meet the Parents – the set up of the conflict was set up previously but increases in this scene as Stiller tries to impress and win over DeNiro’s character (his motivation). The scene builds with the “milking” dialogue (first funny line), the VISUAL of Stiller milking the invisible cat (first funny visual), DeNiro’s reply (the payoff and second funny line), Stiller regrouping and trying again unsuccessfully which makes him even more nervous and anxious, the revelation that Stiller’s girlfriend was engaged before (creates more conflict and affects the story later on), champagne cork hits the urn and smashes it (third funny moment),  the cat takes a shit on the ashes (the button on the scene).

    –        The opening Masturbation/Sock scene in American Pie – it’s clear what Jason Biggs’ character wants. We have the scrambled porn and porn dialogue (first funny visual and line), mom comes into room and he scrambles to hide and excuse away what he’s doing (second funny moment, causes uncomfortable situation), more porn dialogue (third funny moment), father comes in (fourth funny moment, raises stakes of comedy), Biggs tries to regroup without success, reveal of the penis sock (fifth big funny moment/visual), and the father’s dialogue and look at Biggs’ humiliated face (button on scene).

    And a few scenes I thought of which also exemplify creating great set pieces – you can watch them and do the breakdown yourself:

    –        The Bridal Shoppe scene in Bridesmaids where they all get sick

    –        The Beauty Pageant scene at the end of Little Miss Sunshine

    –        The chase scene in The Departed that leads to Martin Sheen’s death (spoiler, sorry)

    –        The opening scene of Scream.

    Each of the above-mentioned scenes USE and EXPLOIT the hook of their story piece – a guy who can’t get laid, a guy meeting his fiancée’s family, a woman dealing with her friends’ wedding arrangements, etc. And they build from that hook with a visual, a set up, an action and/or dialogue, and a payoff – then another visual/dialogue and a payoff that builds the moment even more – then repeat and repeat until that scene leaves you in stitches, or crying, or scared, or on the edge of your seat, depending on the genre.

    All of these scenes don’t just have ONE payoff moment or line or visual – but a constant build of big moments/visuals and creates those trailer moments. Memorable moments.

    Even smaller personal private journey movies often employ this technique. For example, in Into the Wild, each of the important characters that help the lead character on his journey is a different set piece. 

    Sometimes the first big set piece is in the first act, but if not, it could serve as a great scene to begin your second act. Just as your characters are starting their adventure, this is a great time for a big set piece because normally your set pieces also serve as OBSTACLES for your characters (look at all the examples above).

    Another key to set pieces is that they must feel incredibly natural to the story and concept you are writing – they are not forced moments. They fit naturally within your story and structure and character arcs. Do not force a set piece – it will throw your story off completely.

    So, take a look at your scripts and stories and see if you are creating set pieces for success. Good luck and keep writing!

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