Hello Goldminers, Viv here. And a belated Happy New Year! It’s a busy time in development land so forgive the tardiness of this post. But hopefully it’ll be worth it, because this week I’m talking about something TV writers often overlook: action.
But before we start: a quick thank-you to all of you who’ve emailed me, and apologies if I haven’t replied yet. Please keep your questions and comments coming to [email protected] and be patient—I will reply to everyone eventually. A special thank you to KT Parker, who was the only person to actually answer my question about your favourite TV dramas in 2014! KT, I agree with you about Happy Valley but I had my reservations about The Honourable Woman. I’ll try to find time to talk about these in a future post too…
And with that, to business!
The British tradition – less action!
In the UK we have a kind of theatrical heritage to our telly writing. It’s why we have a writer/script editor model where writers work in splendid isolation, usually at home, while a Script editor works in the production office and is the point of contact between the producers and the writers. In the US, where TV writing came out of movies rather than theatre, shows tend to have a writers’ room, with writers breaking the story collaboratively—literally together in a room with a whiteboard. It’s also more common for writers’ contracts to be exclusive (so they’re not distracted by trying to write three things at once), and for them to have some kind of producing role in the show.
I’ll have more to say about this in a later post, but suffice it to say that while our theatrical model is a fine way to learn how to do great dialogue, it’s often not very helpful for writers learning the visual medium of the screen.
Case in point: recently I had to evaluate a script which purported to be an action-adventure aimed at older children. The writer has written quite a bit of kids’ TV and the script was fine as far as it went—a decent, emotional story at its heart, some interesting characters—but one thing struck me above all else: the action scenes were terrible. They were lacking in tension, disjointed and confusing. Many just petered out, without any kind of climax. They all felt bolted-on, and didn’t move the story on or reveal character.
Another example: a couple of years ago I read an early draft of a major new British drama (which will be on our screens later this year). In the opening Sequence our heroes are chasing a villain through a crowded London scene. The writer throws an obstacle in their way—as a good writer should. But what obstacle does he choose? A cleaner pushing a cleaning cart! I bet that took all of three seconds to think up. (And I hope they ended up with something more inventive for the shooting script…)
So a lot of writers struggle with action sequences. Even ones who should know better. Are you one of them? Do you tend to reach for a car-chase, a cleaning cart, or some other derivative trope? After all, the director and the effects people will work it all out, won’t they?
Allow me to disabuse you of that notion. Like everything else, good action sequences start with the script.
Great action starts on the page
One of the best action movie scripts of all time, the MUTHUR of all action movies if you will, is James Cameron’s Aliens. The script can be found here and is essential reading for screenwriters. Cameron packs a huge amount into a small space with economic language. His concise, evocative stage directions are a lesson in how it can be done.
The sequence I’m going to talk about runs from Scene 76 (the Marines locate the lost colonists) to Scene 105 (Ripley drives the marines to safety). This sequence is the midpoint of the movie, and it marks a huge character shift for Ripley. It’s the moment she goes from passivity to activity. Up to now she’s been a passenger. Pretty much the only decision she’s made is at the end of Act I, when her nightmares force her to confront her demons and agree to go on the expedition to LV-426. But in this sequence, as we’ll see, she literally gets in the driving seat.
The sequence also marks the first time we see any Aliens. Take note, action writers: Cameron keeps the Aliens out of the movie until halfway through. It’s a great lesson in building tension, and not revealing your hand too soon.
Because… because… because…
Every story beat leads on—surprisingly yet inevitably—from the last, just as Aristotle said it should. It’s all “because… because… because…” instead of “and then… and then… and then…” And yet the entire sequence hinges on some fairly intricate technical gubbins to do with the marines’ ammo. Cameron keeps the audience engaged with enough shocking, character-related twists and turns that the audience never gets bogged down in ballistics.
The backstory: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been persuaded by her former employers to return to LV-426, the planet where she first encountered an Alien in the prequel. No-one believes her stories of multi-jawed beasts but the company has lost contact with the planet, which is no longer a deserted rock but now a colony populated by miners and their families.
The action itself
We join the action after Ripley and a platoon of colonial marines have set down on the planet and made contact with a young (and annoying, if you ask me) girl called Newt who has been hiding in the colony’s air ducts. The marines have located what appear to be the heat signatures from the remaining colonists’ bodies in the warm environs of the atmosphere processor.
(from left) Gorman, Burke, Ripley and Newt watch the marines’ progress from the safety of the APC.
The marines go in on foot. Ripley, Gorman (the inexperienced officer in charge), Burke (a scheming corporate douchebag) and Newt watch via head-cam and bio-readout monitors from the relative safety of the gigantic armoured personnel carrier (APC) which is parked outside the atmosphere-processing complex.
The readouts show the marines helmet cameras and vital signs.
Cameron drew a lot of inspiration from the Vietnam war, and here we see the officer class hiding behind technology and firepower while the grunts are sent in to fight an enemy they are neither trained nor equipped to deal with.
The marines head down into the bowels of the complex, where they encounter weird and disturbing biomechanical structures. Ripley (and the audience) recognise these Gigeresque shapes from the first film. The tension mounts.
Ripley spots something on the schematics. The troops are moving into the main cooling system of the colony’s nuclear reactor. She asks Gorman what kind of ammunition the marines’ pulse rifles fire. He tells her: explosive armour-piercing rounds. Burke realises what she’s getting at right away—if the marines fire their weapons for any reason they’ll rupture the cooling system and trigger a thermonuclear explosion.
Vasquez and Drake hold back some explosive rounds, disobeying orders.
Starting to panic, Gorman radios his sergeant, Apone. He orders him to collect all the troops’ pulse rifle magazines. Apone does so and gives them to another marine, Frost, who puts all the explosive ammo in his rucksack. Frost is nonplussed (“What the hell are we supposed to use, man? Harsh language?”) As they hand over their magazines we see that a particularly badass marine, Vasquez, has held back some pulse rifle ammo. She gives some to another badass marine, Drake. From earlier in the movie the audience know that Vasquez and Drake have a special bond—some combination of mutual respect of their badassity—and we suspect they are probably shagging too.
Now without their main weapons the marines crack out the flamethrowers and shotguns and continue into the darkness. Horrific cocooned bodies begin to emerge out of the gloom.
K… kill me!
They find a survivor, a woman who pleads with them to kill her. As they are preparing to rescue her, her chest erupts, revealing a screaming vision of hell—a young Alien chestburster. Apone reacts quickly and unleashes a torrent of flame, consuming the colonist and her parasite.
As the corpse burns a hissing sound begins all around them. Dark shapes detach themselves from the walls. The motion sensors start to ping, showing movement in every direction.
Ripley, knowing what’s coming, implores Gorman to pull his troops out. He ignores her. The marines switch to infrared. Still they see nothing.
Look behind you Dietreich! Actually on second thoughts… best not.
One marine, Dietriech, has a theory. “Maybe they don’t show up on infrared at all,” she says—and with that, the first Alien of the movie proves her right, leaping out from the wall behind her and tearing into her shoulders. Her flamethrower goes off as the Alien drags her away, engulfing Frost in fire.
Frost (whose rucksack, remember, is filled with hundreds of explosive rounds) falls over a gantry balustrade. Hicks (a heroic marine) realises what’s about to happen and manages to pull Hudson (an idiot marine) away before the rucksack explodes. But it’s too late for several other marines.
Back on the APC Ripley and the others watch in horror as several marines’ vital signs flatline.
Confusion follows. Desperate shouts ring out. Apone tries to take stock of who’s still alive.
In the APC Gorman, unused to combat, remains silent, no orders forthcoming. Through the APC’s speakers they hear the Aliens’ screeching and the desperate shouts of marines as they are picked off.
In the power vacuum, Vasquez seizes the initiative. “Let’s rock!” she yells, and she and Drake open fire with their armour piercing rounds.
Now, finally, Gorman sparks to life. He demands to know who’s firing, tells them to stop. Everyone ignores him, except for a dutiful Apone who tries to decipher Gorman’s babbled instructions over the bellowing of the pulse rifles. With his attention elsewhere, Apone doesn’t notice the Alien crawling towards him until it’s too late. He too is taken.
Gorman loses it.
With his sergeant gone Gorman loses his shit entirely. Again Ripley tells him to pull the troops out. He tells her to shut up. Outside, Aliens explode in clouds of acid-blood. More marines die. In the APC Gorman stares blankly at the monitors. It is hell — the crisis or “worst point” of the sequence.
Ripley grabs Gorman by the neck and shakes him. “DO SOMETHING!” He does nothing. She has given him every chance. Fuck him. It’s her turn. She straps Newt in and dives for the controls of the APC, shoving it into gear. Gorman tries to stop her but even Burke realises what’s good for them all and pushes him out of the way.
In the driving seat.
Ripley smashes the APC straight through the wall into the compound and the remaining marines prepare to board. Drake is the last man, holding back the Aliens with his pulse rifle so the others can get in. Out of ammo, he ditches the rifle and switches to his flamethrower as he backs towards the door. But unseen by him, an Alien lurks next to the APC. It rises beside him as he fires, ready to tear him apart. Vasquez comes to his rescue, blasting it to pieces with a burst of her pulse rifle. But it’s too close and Drake is drenched in the creature’s acid blood.
Drake is sprayed with Alien acid blood.
Vasquez watches in horror as her lover’s face melts before her. As he twists in agony, his flamethrower engulfing the doorway of the APC. She tries to reach him through the inferno, but he is gone.
As they try to close the door, another Alien fights its way into the opening. Hudson blows it away with his shotgun, covering his own arm in acid blood but allowing them to slam the door shut. Ripley hits the gas. Some unsecured ammo boxes fall onto Gorman’s head, knocking him out—hooray!
Now, they’re on the home straight, surely? Nope, Cameron still keeps hurling obstacles at them. An Alien that had been lurking on the roof smashes through the windscreen. Its razor tail lashes out, inches from Ripley’s throat. She hits the brakes. The Alien loses its grip and is hurled onto the ground in front of the still-burning APC. Ripley grits her teeth, throws it into gear and floors it. The APC careers forward and crushes the Alien under its giant wheels.
The burning APC makes for the exit.
Up ahead of them—a huge metal roller door. Ripley doesn’t slow. The APC blasts through and out into the cold night of LV-426, finally extinguishing the fire from Drake’s flamethrower. They are safe. For now.
So how does it work?
What most people remember about this sequence are the standout visual moments: the pleading eyes of the impregnated colonist, the Aliens detaching themselves from the walls, Vasquez shouting “Let’s rock!” as she opens fire, Gorman’s sweaty face, Drake’s melting head. But behind all those powerful images is a meticulousness that feeds into the sequence and back into the story. Everything makes perfect sense. There is no deus ex machina. And there is no cleaning cart.
The detail and in-world consistency of the obstacles is extraordinary. Nothing comes out of the blue; everything is a consequence of something that happened earlier. Look at how Drake runs out of pulse rifle ammo just before he gets on board the APC. This means he has to switch to his flamethrower. When he dies, he sets the APC on fire, adding another level of threat for those on board.
Also, look at how Cameron thinks about the backstory as he plans the action. For example: the Aliens have taken the colonists somewhere warm to maximise their chances of their survival as hosts for new Alien young. Coincidentally, but in a way that makes perfect sense, this warm place is also the place most vulnerable to the kinds of bullets the marines carry. The physics of it are perfect. The hostility of the world creates the irony: the Aliens’ natural breeding process (seeking warmth near the nuclear heat exchangers) not only renders the heavily armed marines powerless (using their ammo is as deadly as not using it) but even makes things worse (they are reduced to clumsy flamethrowers and end up setting fire to Frost’s explosive rucksack and the APC).
Where there are coincidences (and there aren’t many), they obey the dramatic rule: you can use them to make things harder for your protagonist(s) but never to make things easier.
So the marines can’t use their main weapons and are left with only flamethrowers, hopelessly unsuited for close quarters. It’s such a clever obstacle and relates the movie’s Vietnam-inspired themes of military arrogance and incompetence as well as being a great visual and elemental contrast: orange flames vs moist blue/grey corridors and dark shiny beasts. The Vietnam resonances are further reinforced when Ripley, calm and unencumbered by ego or insecurity like Gorman, spots immediately that his only viable move is to pull the troops out. Gorman’s failure to do costs several lives, just as American persistence did in the Vietnam war.
Strong characterisation is key
Everything that happens in the sequence is consistent with character in this way: Vasquez’s impetuous decision to ignore Gorman and keep her explosive rounds saves them all in the short term but ensures the destruction of the colony in the long term, setting off a ticking-clock nuclear threat that drives us through the rest of Act II and into Act III. We know Ripley is technical: it’s established early in the movie that she’s lost her status as a flight officer, so it makes sense that she spots the danger of live rounds causing a nuclear explosion. She’s also practical: we’ve seen her driving the loader earlier in the movie so it makes sense that she can drive the APC. Likewise, Gorman’s inexperience, also established earlier, leads him to send his men and women into a close-quarter battle with hopelessly mismatched weaponry, where they end up setting fire to one another.
The most important thing about this sequence is of course that it marks the point Ripley becomes truly active in the story. It’s a great midpoint — the massive escalation of jeopardy, the moment everything changes. Up to now, everything she has said about the Aliens has been treated by the other characters with patronising scepticism. But by taking the controls of the APC and smashing her way into the story, she’s now literally in the driving seat. In this new reality, she is acknowledged even by the battle-hardened marines as the expert, the leader (and ultimately, in her role as foster-mother of Newt, she is the only one who can face her shadow: the Alien Queen and her hellish offspring).
Stuff added after the script
If you’ve read the script extract (and if not, why not?) you’ll notice there are an extra couple of beats in the movie that aren’t in the script. In the script, Apone collects the explosive ammo and nothing more is said, but in the finished film he hands it over to Frost. When Dietriech is snatched, her flamethrower sets fire to Frost’s rucksack which explodes, adding to the chaos and carnage. It doesn’t fundamentally alter the sequence but it’s a great, elegant addition of the kind that sometimes you only come across once you have a director on board. Directors who really understand action can bring something extra to a good sequence in the script, but it’s very hard work for them to rectify a flawed one.
There’s also a bit of action in the script that didn’t make it into the film. The section where Gorman is wounded by the rooftop Alien’s tail, which is then blown away by Hicks using the APC’s cannon, is greatly simplified on screen—Gorman gets a box on the head and the Alien gets run over. This may well have been done to save time and money, but the end result is more elegant and it means Ripley is active in killing the Alien instead of Hicks, which I think is a better version.
Writing in Visuals
Of course in this instance the writer was also the director, and one more thing that struck me on revisiting the script was just how evocative and visual Cameron’s writing is. Look at Scene 91 (below). At this point the Marines have detected movement on their sensors but can’t work out where it’s coming from. They’re tense, alert; only their training is keeping panic at bay. Back in the relative safety of the APC, Ripley watches on remote monitors with Gorman. The audience knows that Ripley has experience the Aliens first-hand before, while all the other characters are sceptical. We are with her. We trust her instinct, but no-one up to now has been listening to her. Now, things start to shift.
Gorman is playing with the gain controls on the monitors.
GORMAN: We can’t see anything back here, Apone. What’s going on?
Ripley senses it coming, like a wave at night. Dark, terrifying and inevitable.
RIPLEY (low): Pull your team out, Gorman.
“Like a wave at night.” Isn’t that brilliant? I think he overdoes it with “Dark, terrifying and inevitable,” — we’ve already got that from “wave at night” — but hey, I’ll forgive it. The script is full of other examples of terse stage directions that convey image and emotion with maximum economy: the Marines are “Hulking techno-samurai;” they exterminate the chestburster in “an orgy of purging fire.”
Before I go, one final thought on structure. This sequence itself has three acts. Like fractals, most stories follow a similar structure at any level you care to zoom in or out to. In story terms, this is the sequence that gives Ripley a voice in the main story, and makes her active.
- Protagonist: The marines
- Antagonist: The Aliens
- Inciting incident: Spotting that the colonists are in the atmosphere processor
- Desire/journey: To rescue the colonists
- The crisis: The Aliens launch a devastating attack
- The climax: Ripley smashes the APC through the wall
- The resolution: The surviving marines escape
The sequence has its own midpoint too: torching the hapless colonist and her demonic parasite. This is the action that changes everything, alerting the Aliens, triggering their attack and massively increasing the jeopardy.
All well and good. But it’s those other elements that really make this sequence sing: Gorman’s insecurity; the wrong kind of ammo leading to the nuclear countdown; the empathetic horror in Ripley’s face as she watches the chestburster, recalling Kane aboard the Nostromo and her own nightmares; Vasquez losing Drake. Once you have a rock-solid structure, then it’s time to layer in the gorgeous (or horrific) details.
So that’s it! Thanks for reading, and as a reward for making it to the end here are a couple of footnotes:
- For an idea of how convoluted development can be, read this interview with Walter Hill, one of the producers of the original Alien.
- The Aliens APC was in fact a second hand “pushback tractor”—the little tugs that push airliners back from the terminal onto the runway, as planes that size can’t go into reverse. The movie was shot at Pinewood, so the art department picked one up from nearby Heathrow Airport.
An old pushback tractor. Look familiar?
Until next time, have a good time, all the time.