Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Ensemble Epidemic

It’s out of control, folks.

Someone asked me last week what’s the single biggest problem I see over and over with submissions to Coverage, Ink? My reply didn’t take much thought: “%#$@&*!^& ensemble scripts.”

Allow me to clarify. See, this is what happens: a writer begins a script with a good idea of the story he wants to tell. But something happens along the way. As the writer crafts the story, he explores the secondary characters—winds up giving the secondary characters a subplot. Before you know it, the secondary characters are competing for screen time with the hero. At some point, the writer realizes this. But instead of going back and fixing the problem, he rationalizes, “Well, hey, it’s an ensemble.” Next thing you know, we have four or five or more main characters, each with their own storyline, all competing for screen time. Reader disinterest is the inevitable result.

Let me make this as clear as I can: when it comes to ensembles, DON’T DO IT. There are only a small handful of these films that ever get made, and they’re generally done by auteurs such as Altman. Does Hollywood ever make them? Very, very rarely, and hardly ever do they sell as a spec.

Part of the problem is it’s such a difficult balancing act to pull off. It’s far easier to follow one protagonist’s story scene after scene, than it is to juggle a handful of major characters, any one of whom could be considered the protagonist.
I learned this, as I learn everything, the hard way. Some years back I wrote an action ensemble script on assignment. The idea was to make “The Dirty Dozen” using the top 8 low-budget action stars at the time—all together in the same movie. So I wrote “Hauser’s Renegades,” a fun, sprawling caper action/ensemble film. And it was a nightmare to write.

The problem was that Hauser was very much the hero, but all of the other parts had to be significant enough to get the other stars--all “names” in their own right--to commit. It was the balancing act from Hades. I finally pulled it off after much much, hair-pulling and rewriting. And that was an action film, with a very standard track-down-the-bad-guy A-leads-to-B-leads-to-C plot. If I was to try the same approach in, say, a dramatic script, forget it. I know that quite honestly, I could not pull it off.

You might be surprised at how many scripts CI gets in where our main note is, “Focus on the protagonist. He needs to be in every scene--and the scenes he is not in should be ABOUT him.” Following this simple advice--and pretending ensemble movies never, ever existed and are simply NOT an option to you--will go a long way towards curing the ensemble epidemic and keeping your audience invested in the hero’s journey--where it belongs.

1 comment:

Edsel said...

Damn, I do that shit ALL the time!