The feedback from Faisal and my research into how to create tension allowed me to write me second draft of my step outline;
- During 1969 in a secret radio bunker in an underground brothel in Siagon, two American anit-war protesters are broadcasting a pirate radio show, while an American troop translates Vietnamese information in the corner.
- The three get startled by the sound of gunfire and bombs which to go off above, a walkie talkie in the room transmits the sound of combat.
- After waiting in anticipation, the radio bunker’s door swings open and four Vietnamese soldiers rush inside.
- The translator tries to confront them but gets beaten to the ground as a Vietcong general enters the room.
- The general questions the identity and purpose of these individuals, but due to the attack from the translator he remains suspicious.
- Suddenly the translator pulls out a knife and holds it to the VC generals throat, everyone in the bunker engages in a standoff – the presenters beg the translator to put the knife down
- The fire alarm in the bunker goes off which triggers the soldiers to panic and fire a shot.
- Out of confusion everyone in the bunker fires their weapons leaving the presenter protagonist alive.
- The presenter bursts out in a fit of tears and trauma, forced to endure the horrific sights of his friends riddled with bullets, all with the broadcast continue to record.
One of the major changes I made to this second draft is the part of the story when the VC talk to the presenters through walkie talkies. After looking at how much space dialogue takes up in the previous examples of screenplays I looked at, I feel including this part in the story would make it too long. My story is already a quite complex which needs as many pages as possible to explain, so this scene had to be removed; this means that the protagonist has one less obstacle to face over the course of their story, therefore risking the chance of audiences not being fully engaged with it.
The other major change was the incorporation of the smoke alarm which is the event that triggers the standoff. This is a key device in building up tension – it also creates even more confusion on the audio side of the story as a piercing screech will alarm the audience. Another side effect of using the smoke alarm is how the bunker will glow a red light from the alarm, this will amplify the horrific sight at the end of the script.
Whilst I was in the process of writing the second draft of my step outline I received feedback from our seminar leader Faisal Qureshi who raised a few questions concerning the nature of my script. Some of the issues he raised included whether my characters were protesters or troops, where they were based and how close to the war zone they were, how have they been continue operating for so long, and how can a radio based in the far East be powerful enough to reach the US.
In response to Faisal’s feedback I edited my story slightly to fix the lack of historical development which was perhaps unclear in my original step outline. A major change I made was the ending where instead us seeing American families listening to the broadcast, the film ends just on the record reels spinning, implying that it was recording the whole time but without showing who is listening – this can be left to the audience’s imagination. In relation to the question of how they have been continuing to operate for so long, I plan in including a piece of dialogue by Ho Dinh who asks why the south have kept them save for so long – relaying to the audience that the bunker is in the south (in a brothel just like Radio First Termer).
Aside from the feedback Faisal gave in relation to my story, he also helped with the dialogue of the Vietnamese men. Originally I had worried about writing the Vietnamese dialogue as it wouldn’t have been natural and could come across as slightly racist; however Faisal told me to write their dialogue just as any other character as most audiences cannot tell the difference.
We also analyzed the short film Wasp (2003) (above) which is about a single mother who has to look after her kids as well as enjoy her social life. The main thing I learned from Wasp (2003) was how the plot mainly developed through a question an answer format – the protagonist would be presented with a situation and they would have find a solution to it – this repeated over and over until it came to the climax. Although this narrative structure is quite basic I feel that my own story lacks this approach, as there is only 1 question and answer which drives the narrative of the story (the standoff).
Wasp. 2003. [Film]. Andrea Arnold. dir. UK: FilmFour
A major narrative device which my story revolves around is tension. Currently my story relies purely on delivering tension through the plot; however I conducted further research into building up tension through dialogue and other narrative techniques. I looked at a video by the YouTuber Michael Tucker from Lessons from the Screenplay (2017) which covers how suspense is created in the film Inglorious Basterds (2009). The scene which the video analyses is the opening sequence which features the Nazi’s questioning a family who are hiding Jews under their floors. This scene is similar to my own story, as in my case it would be the Vietnamese questioning the Americans.
In order to simulate suspense Tucker claims that a lack of control needs to be created – “Our inability to influence the course of events can lead to an experience of tension” (2017) – In the case of Inglorious Basterds the lack of control stems from the unquestionable power the Nazi’s have. For my own film the lack of control emerges from the location of the story – the bunker. Being stuck in an underground bunker with no escape, forces the protagonist into a position where he has no control, therefore creating tension.
The dialogue used in Inglorious Basterds also aids the suspense of the sequence. Tucker (2017) makes reference to the Nazi character Hans Landa who is questioning the farther of the family; he uses mind games like asking permission to speak English and tells him how beautiful his daughters are, which place him in a position where he comes across as having little control, but the uncertainty of his actions reinforces the suspense of the sequence. In relation to my own script I feel like it requires a powerful antagonist similar to Hans Landa, who questions the Vietnamese men. This character will be Ho Dinh Phuc, a Vietnamese general who enters the bunker after his men has stormed it. In order to make him seem more powerful he too will engage in mind games with Sebastian, such as asking to smoke, enforce the idea that they are friends, and complement Sebastian’s family photo, which will increase the uncertainty of the scene and therefore build up tension.
A final narrative technique Tucker (2017) mentions is how tension is created more effectively when the audience knows the protagonist is in direct danger. This concept was first mentioned by Alfred Hitchcock who said, by telling the audience there is a bomb under the tale before it goes off, more tension will be created – suddenly it becomes an emotional experience – this is because the audience can recognize the danger but the characters cannot. In Inglorious Basterds (2009) the “bomb under the table” is how Tarantino reveals the family of Jews under the floorboards, once this information is revealed the tension is intensified. For my own story I plan on having a smoke alarm positioned on the ceiling which will eventually go off causing the climax of the standoff. The implied threat that it will go off eventually is heightened by action of Gareth and Ho Dinh smoking a cigarette. Once it does go off the characters will start to panic and eventual the confusion will trigger the massacre. Michael Tucker’s video was a tremendous help in planning my story as the information I learnt will enable me to create a script where tension spills out.
Inglorious Basterds. 2009. [Film]. Quentin Tarantino. dir. USA: Universal Pictures
Lessons from the Screenplay. 2017. Inglourious Basterds — The Elements of Suspense. [Online]. [Accessed 29 March 2017]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvtOY0YrF-g&t=3s
After weeks of planning my story and finalizing characters I created the first draft of my step outline. The start of the story features the introduction to the characters through a radio broadcast they are recording. The first obstacle they are presented with is the initial finding out of the VC attack which they prepare for. This is followed by the VC initially breaching the bunker and shooting Johnny. After a slow build up where they make the decision to surrender or fight back they agree to lower their guns, this brings the story to the final act where the standoff happens after the VC push the Americans for answers. Eventually a shootout happens which is the climax of the film.
- The three protagonists are having a good time broadcasting music and telling jokes on air to the American public
- They intercept a transmission from the outpost above warning them of an attack from the Vietcong
- The VC breach the bunker and shoot the translator but pull back due to the protagonists’ advantageous position
- The VC try to communicate with the protagonists’ on a radio mic demanding they lower their arms
- The US troops eventually agree to surrender and allow the VC to enter
- The VC question the identity and purpose of these individuals but after the legitimacy of their story begins to collapse the characters engage in a suspense-driven stand off
- All the characters but the radio presenter are killed in this act of chaos, leaving our protagonist to aid a dying Vietnamese troop who pulls out a photo of his family
- The presenter bursts out in a fit of tears and trauma exposing the US listeners to be exposed to the horrors of the War
So far I have completed my rough story and my detailed character profiles, but to ensure my story is successful I conducted further research into the principles of stories. In Ted Jones book Getting Started in Short Film Making he lists 4 principles which every story should address these include a clear structure, a sympathetic protagonist, the protagonists goal, and interesting obstacles (2012:p.14). Jones created a list of questions which creators of stories should answer before the writing process begins in order to fully understand the plot, below are the set of questions and my answers;
Clear Structure – A clear structure is needed to raise the central question of a story that needs to be answered.
- Does the story follow logically? – Yes, it follows a linier narrative, starting at the beginning and climaxing at the end.
- Does the audience have the necessary exposition early enough in the story to understand clearly what follows? – The external conflict (the Vietcong invading) is made clear within the first minuet through a soldier above ground explaining the situation.
- Is there anything in the plot that is implausible? – No, everything that happens on screen is something that could happen in real life, even more so seeing as it’s a historical drama.
- Does the conflict have great significance to the protagonist? – Yes, it will determine the outcome of his life.
- Is the audience able to see the conflict? Is it internal or external? – The conflict will be shown through visual and audio elements that increase the tension throughout the film.
- Does the conflict increase in intensity as the story progresses? – Yes, the film is about the tension that is built up, ending with the dramatic climax
- Does every scene reveal new information about the characters or the main action of the story? – My story only has one scene, so not applicable.
- Does the story reach an emotional and visually satisfying climax and resolution? – Yes, the ending of the film is when Sebastian breaks down into tears, therefore a shocking climax which will surprise the audience.
Sympathetic Protagonist – A sympathetic protagonist is needed so the audience can identify with them, and therefore be more involved with the story.
- What are the needs of the protagonist? – Sebastian’s overall need is to stop the war but within the confines of the story he wants to escape the situation he is in alive.
- What is the protagonist capable of doing? – In his circumstance not much aside from either giving up or trying to hold off the Vietcong as long as possible, this adds to the tension of the film as we are unsure if he will survive or not
- Have you generated empathy, or a sufficient level of interest in your protagonist? – Yes, empathy is developed through his dialogue at the beginning when he talks about wanting to stop the war, also smaller devices will be used like the placement of a family photo on his desk.
- Do you know everything you need to know about your protagonist? – Yes, the audience is aware he is a radio presenter, has a family and wants to stop the war. The only issue will be trying to portray the fact that he is an ex-sergeant whose past deeply troubled him, however the ending where he breaks down could allude to this.
The Protagonists Goal – The goal is the reason for everything the protagonist does.
- Is the goal important to the protagonist? – Sebastian’s goal of getting out of the bunker alive without anyone dying is important to him, as it will A. determine the fate of his life, and B. determine the fate of his mental health (which comes crashing down at the end)
Interesting Obstacles – Interesting obstacles which the protagonist overcomes are needed to sustain the audience’s attention.
- Are the protagonist’s obstacles interesting? – Yes, a standoff which builds up tension to a climax makes for an interesting story line. The obstacles Sebastian has to face hang his life in the balance which is enough to retain the audiences’ attention.
The answers for these questions gave me a fuller understanding of my protagonist’s goal and story line. By using Jones’s principles I can move forward to develop my story into a step outline, one that will form the foundation of my script.
Jones, T. and Patmore, C. 2012. Getting Started in Short Film Making: Expanded and Updated Edition for the Digiatal Generation. 2nd ed. London: Apple Press
Now that my basic story idea was in a written form, I moved on to creating a more detailed profile of the characters. The main protagonist for my script is the radio presenter Sebastian Sorrow. Two other characters in my story are the radio technician Gareth Cooper and the American soldier Johnny West.
- Sebastian F. Sorrow is a loud mouthed, confident and humorous radio presenter who uses his upbeat attitude to appeal to US citizens and troops on the front line. Sebastian has a wife and daughters who are listeners of the show and frequently call in to check up on him. Unlike Gareth who is more of a rebellious anti-government youngster, Sebastian is older and wiser and doesn’t let his political agenda get in the way of the show too much; despite this he is still against the War and will frequently contest it on air. Sebastian used to be a sergeant during the early period of the war which taught him the skills of getting out of tricky situations, however this past experience also troubles him deeply, as he had a horrific incident involving the death of his squad; this incident caused him to seek a life of peace and bring an end to the war.
- Gareth Cooper is stereotypical tech head that operates the radio bunker with presenter Sebastian Sorrow. Gareth is an intelligent man whose political agenda lies with the anti-war movement. Back in America he was largely involved with the counter cultural movement as a band technician, his skills with the musical equipment led Sebastian to convince him to come to Vietnam and help him start a radio show. Although Gareth is good at what he does he spends a large proportion of time getting high and zoning out to the music on the show. Over the years Gareth and Sebastian have formed a close friendship which revolves around telling jokes and stories to turn the horrors of Vietnam into an enjoyable experience. For this character I used Grove’s (2009) technique of magnification when a stereotypical representation (tech head) is mixed with an unusual trait (consuming large amounts of drugs).
- Johnny West is an American soldier whose fluency in Vietnamese has landed him the position as a translator for the US. He is not an anti-war protestor and finds Sebastian and Gareth’s aim to stop the war through music as a joke, this leads to some tension between him and the others. Johnny’s character I based heavily on Colonel Kilgore from Apocalypse Now (1979), as he has a hungering for violence and will not give up without a fight. He only uses the radio equipment to translate messages from the US, and does not contribute to the radio.
Apocalypse now. 1979. [Film]. Francis Ford Coppola. dir. USA: Omni Zoetrope
Grove, E. 2009. Beginning Filmmaking: 100 Easy Steps from Script to Screen. London: Methuen Drama
After reading the screenplay from Apocalypse Now a particular concept I loved was how there was an overall battle between the pro-war and anti-war sides of the conflict. Captain Willard, portrayed by Martin Sheen, clearly wrestled with these two sides and remained ambiguous as to what his inner goal was. I also liked how Colonel Kilgore was very far to the pro-war side and