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trailers | for writing

As most people who go to the movies know, there are many times where a trailer for a movie serves as a sort of standard for judging one’s reaction to the final product.    Most people who watch movies have probably used the phrase, “it wasn’t as good as the trailer” more than once in their lives.  This can be very subjective, of course, since an individual response to a trailer can be as varied as the person who watches it.

There are actually very few films that achieve the feverish pitch of intensity and gradual build that we so often successfully see in well done trailers. As a filmmaker myself, I am well aware of the challenges in doing this. It is not easy.  A pitch is always easier than a fully fleshed out concept.

It also must be kept in mind that trailer science, while very similar to film writing and film making, tends to take on its own ground rules, sometimes due to the interference of marketing and studios with how trailers for particular films are compiled, and sometimes merely due to the simple fact that it is much easier to cut a 2-minute exciting film than a 2-hour one.

All that said, I believe there are things that film makers and writers focus on or make important when writing or cutting an exciting trailer that they do not apply when they are building or completing their films, evaluating their primary characters and their motivations, or even editing their final draft of their films.  Trailers almost always have excellent pacing, exciting moments, and a gradual build to a crescendo as a general rule – well done trailers cut out the flat or the boring or the stupid and make you believe.

A trailer is to a movie like one date is to actually marrying someone.  Everyone knows how to write and behave within a trailer – and everyone knows how to act on a first date – but it is in the long run that we often lose and abandon our focus, and our real weaknesses come out.  I am not suggesting that writing or creativity become shallow or glib, or plastic – merely that our dedication to excellence in the bigger and more important parts of life should be as focused as they are in the small moments.

The fact that almost everyone likes to use trailers or first dates as a standard for judgment suggests that this is also an unwritten but assumed law with humanity – “deliver as you promised.”

For me, a very classic recent example is the final trailer for “Terminator: Salvation,” and the final film.  Without question, the action scenes in the movie matched the intensity broadcast throughout every frame of the trailer – yet, and most Terminator fans seem to agree with me, the movie itself was a torrid, limp product that did not provide a very strong scaffolding/foundation for the action to take place.

The Terminator franchise is a franchise fraught with difficult things to piece together – there are already three major films in the franchise and a television series with another one coming out in 2015, and this movie happened to be the first official Terminator movie set after Judgment Day.  One thing is clear to me when I watch the film – either the script writers, the director, the studio, or whoever else was involved, couldn’t narrow down in just a few sentences what was absolutely most important for an effective entry into the current events in the Terminator universe.  All of the reasons why could be reserved for a different post – I mostly want to narrow down a few very essential items I felt were missing that could have been noticed if the writers merely applied some “movie trailer” class thinking as they looked at everything in the film.

When writing for a film, the most important thing you can do for your movie is to evaluate each and every major plot point, each and every item that impacts the viewer, and make absolutely sure that not only you know why these events are happening in your film and to your characters,  and that you lend some sense of progression to your viewers – whether or not they are meant to fully grasp it, depending on your approach.

In a trailer, people set aside their long-term expectation for clearly motivated characters and character depth, and with the exciting music and pacing, are often more willing to accept a one-liner as signifying the kind of writing they expect to see when they arrive in the theater.

That is often the problem with modern film making and writing – the motivations and reasonings and personalities of the characters hardly ever go any deeper than the one-liners in the trailers, or someone’s distant memory of some other character in some other film.  When we watch trailers, we are willing to suspend disbelief with fewer caveats than when sitting in a two hour film – we are more willing to believe the writing on the packaging, or at least notice it.  Without question, the trailer for Terminator Salvation suggests they had some amazing actors, some amazing concepts (that of Salvation as the core concept), and some amazing looking scenery and effects, all in a well-loved, exciting universe – it left very few people doubting whether the film itself would be powerful.  It almost suggested that the new Terminator movie not only had effects that surpassed the old ones, but a new seriousness and “believability” factor that had never been seen.

Unfortunately, there were major things written into Terminator Salvation that not only made the most important architectural meeting points of the characters and the places feel weak and hastily written, but the very reason that all the characters did what they were doing, to “save John Connor” didn’t get any mileage within the film.  As a Terminator fan, I perfectly understand why this is important – but I also wanted to see more.  I wanted to see the actual events and steps John Connor takes that make him absolutely essential to the War against the Machines – which is the most basic plot point in the mix.

Ultimately, this should have been set up with politics and technology and the associated conflicts, but they didn’t do anything more than make him a shallowly written rebel against a horribly trite “nuke ’em all” general, and they did this without showing why it was necessarily important or effective.  Yes, they threw in the fact that humans were being harvested at Sky-Net, and “Kyle Reese” was there/  John Connor’s Dad, who of course, went back in time in the first film to father John Connor, so he HAD to be saved, in order to save John Connor’s life – but don’t make everything you tell me about a film merely a minimal summation of what we already know.

Again – this is why the script’s scaffolding was so weak – it is based on circular reasoning that is entirely dependent on things other people have written in other films set in other time periods.

Throughout the Terminator franchise, we have been constantly exposed, almost to the point of silliness, to the importance of John Connor’s life, and protecting him.  Unfortunately, the film did almost nothing to make any sort of why behind this absolutely clear, and the framework upon which John Connor was acting, the Resistance, was vague, and thinly written at best.  When all we see the Resistance doing within the movie is a few badly-dressed extras sitting around wave radios looking all starry-eyed at John Connor’s voice, unfortunately, it does little to finally show us, now that we have arrived in “the future,” why John Connor is so important.  The importance of John Connor was a central plot point that seemed to get little thought or treatment.

Thus, the primary crux of the movie was merely stolen from the other films, and it almost feels like someone said “this is a Terminator movie so we have to save John Connor” without really thinking about connecting each and every thing they showed in the film to “why.”   It is certainly possible that this film didn’t HAVE to focus on why Connor is important – the core issue is that the primary events in the movie didn’t hold my interest, because they didn’t establish enough of the most important world in the writing universe:  “Why.”  I am not one to suggest film making or writing should be overly explanatory or not as sometimes grey and vague as our own world is – I’m merely referring to assembling enough rational elements that people can actually connect with something on screen in a tangible way.

I understand and believe in keeping character motivations simple and not overly complicated – but when you do this to the degree where it actually strips the fat off of why almost all the other elements in your movie are acting the way they are, or even why they are there (like Kyle Reese) you risk a very unfounded and ultimately silly feeling outing into a familiar universe, that, four films in, has already gone a long way towards stretching our daily willingness to “suspend disbelief” for just another two hours.

If only they had sat through the script and the film and written a 2-4 minute summary of each major character and the plot decisions, thought of things rhythmically and sequentially and structurally, and then thought of all the questions and lack of clarity that would come up at each step of the way, and how trite certain characters were, and how much development of motivation was actually lacking in the film – then, perhaps, the movie would have come close to the amazing tension and explosion of energy displayed in its trailers.  The plot points I mention are merely very high level – there were plenty of other similar moments and questions in the film.  The filmmakers, by following previous films, and setting it in a new time frame, took on a lot in the fourth film, and some of the <a href=””>problems on the set</a> suggest that there was more going on than we realize.

I actually encourage film makers to sit down and try to summarize your whole film while listening to music – then use that summary as a somewhat rigid <em>pacing</em> guide as you continue to work your films towards the finish line.  It will help you to feel where your characters are headed, where they come from, why they are doing what they are doing, and give you more ideas about nuances and brush strokes to add to the worlds you create, so that when people sit down for your film, they are held breathless as they are swept into it all.

As this Terminator Salvation trailer shows, at least someone knew what makes a great movie – themes of life, death, survival, hope, loss, all presented with a build towards amazing intensity… unfortunately, the film is really hardly more than a confusing puzzle that seems like it couldn’t figure out where/how/why to assemble these elements in an order and manner that would make it truly powerful.    I give the movie kudos for recognizing these things – something simply went wrong in the process from A to Z.

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