Friday, 9 February 2018

Save the Cat!

When the screenwriting manual Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need was released in 2005 it became an immediate success, and has been reprinted multiple times. It has two sequels and there is a Twitter account and a website carrying on the ideas of the original book. There have been conferences, works shops and lectures around it. Blake Snyder, who wrote it, clearly managed to fill a need out there for a quick read on how to write a screenplay.

The book has of course also been criticised many times, primarily from people who see it as having ruined Hollywood, and from people who believe that there is more to film than just Hollywood mainstream cinema even though Save the Cat! might pretend otherwise. Snyder is only interested in profit, and his book is about writing the most commercially successful script possible. If it does not satisfy an impatient teenager, it is of no use to Snyder. But he is upfront with this and there is no need to disparage a book just for wanting to teach how to write a successful teen movie. Such films also have a place in the world.

At long last I have now finally read Save the Cat! myself. The book has eight chapters which go through the steps Snyder thinks a writer should take. Some of these are useful, such as having a good logline (a sentence or two which captures what the film is about) and having a board on which you can see your whole script and the structure of it, so you can easily arrange scenes and plot points, and move them around. But other than these basic suggestions, which are pretty standard advice from such books and not unique to Save the Cat!, nothing else in it makes sense, even for the kinds of films Snyder wants his readers to write. Snyder has put so little thought into it, and has such peculiar ideas about films, audiences and, well, screenwriting, that it is hard to understand why it was even published in the first place.

Let's consider the logline. According to Snyder a great logline should be ironic, "create a compelling mental picture", tell the production company what the potential "audience and cost" will be, and suggest "a killer title". Fair enough. Then he provides this as an example of a great logline: "A just-hired employee goes on a company weekend and soon discovers someone's trying to kill him - The Retreat". (p. 5) I do not see how this satisfies any of the key ingredients Snyder just said a logline must have. There is no irony. It gives no idea what kind of a film it is, as it could be a comedy, a thriller, an action film or a drama. Hence it tells us nothing about either audience or costs. By his own favourite example he has negated his own argument. And, surely, The Retreat is not a killer title. It is a rather lame and generic title. Snyder is confusing about titles elsewhere too since he mentions these four Hitchcock films as examples of what he thinks are great titles: Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). These he claims are titles that sell, and clearly tell what genre and style the films are of. "All of them, across the board, certainly say what it is and they do so in a way that's not on the nose or stupid" (p. 15). But, with the possible exception of Psycho, they certainly do not. Nobody would be able to guess what kind of film North by Northwest or Rear Window is if all they had to go by was the title. So what does Snyder mean?


One chapter is called "The Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics" and Snyder gives eight examples of such laws which he calls:
Save the Cat
Pope in the Pool
Double Mumbo Jumbo
Laying Pipe
Black Vet
Watch Out for That Glacier!
The Covenant of the Arc
Keep the Press Out

These rules Snyder says are always true for all good films. But they are not. Not at all. He knows this too because he mentions very successful films that break them so even by his own examples they are not in fact "immutable laws" and it is unclear why he claims that they are.

It is not just that the "laws" are not immutable, they are also weird to begin with. I will just briefly discuss three of them, "Pope in the Pool", "Double Mumbo Jumbo" and "Laying Pipe". The first one is about what to do in scenes with boring exposition so as not to lose the interest of the audience. His example, from which the name comes, is to present the exposition while the pope is going for a swim in a pool in the Vatican. But what is left unclear is why, if the exposition is boring for the audience, included it at all? Why have a scene in which things are said which the audience will not bother about? If the scene is constructed to keep the audience distracted from the dialogue it is likely that they will not pay any attention at all to said dialogue, which is even more reason to delete the whole scene to begin with.

"Double Mumbo Jumbo" refers to Snyder's belief that the audience will accept one piece of weird, unrealistic thing in a film but not more than one. As an example he mentions that in Spider-Man (Sam Raimi 2002), first Peter Parker develops superpowers and then Norman Osborn also develops superpowers and becomes the villain The Green Goblin. This, according to Snyder, is a bad thing and an example of double mumbo jumbo which is supposedly off-putting to the audience. But is not the opposite true here? A key aspect of the whole superhero concept is the idea of one hero and one villain who both have developed superpowers and often are in same way mirror images of each other, and audiences since at least the 1930s have loved this concept. Why Snyder would consider this a major flaw, and something to avoid, is a mystery.

"Laying Pipe" is what Snyder calls it when there is too much exposition and too much information in the beginning of a film, before we get to the important stuff. Here he mentions Minority Report (Steven Spielberg 2002) as an example as it is 40 minutes into the film that John Anderton becomes hunted by his own team. Since Snyder sees the film's hook to be "a detective discovers he is the criminal" (p. 129) it is according to him way too late to have this moment occur after 40 minutes. The audience will be bored by then. This is another example of a Snyder argument that makes no sense. There have been plenty of action and drama before this moment, and if an audience member is bored it will not be because of this moment happening after 40 minutes. And is that really the hook of the film? Is it not more of a twist? (Not to nitpick too much but Anderton does not discover that he is a criminal, he discovers that the system says he is one, which is not the same thing.) Snyder's complaint is similar to arguing that The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan 1999) is a failure because it is not until the very end that we are told that Malcolm Crowe is dead.

So much for the immutable laws. Another argument Snyder makes in the book is that all buddy films, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill 1969) or Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott 1991), begin with the buddies disliking each other. This is not true at all. It is not even true for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Thelma & Louise. In a film like 48 Hrs. (Walter Hill 1981) the two leads dislike being together at first and then their relationship deepens during the course of the story but that is just one kind of buddy film, not a rule for all of them.

Snyder also says that nobody wants to see a film about a man who is "a little world-weary and yet bravely wise" (p. 53) even though that description applies to a large number of exceptionally successful male movie stars, then and now. He also talks about the importance of the first image of a film, how it must immediately grab the audience and tell them what the film is about and what it will be like. The audience he says, is supposed to think "This is gonna be good!" (p. 73) As an example he uses Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean 1962). This is the first image of Lawrence of Arabia:


Snyder says a couple of times that by following his advice success is assured. About his immutable laws he says "they always work." (p. 38) and later he says about his rules that "The point I'm trying to get across here is - it works. And it works for a reason." (p. 42) But works in what way? Success comes not just from a script; acting, directing and marketing also matters for example. Most films are not particularly successful even though many of them since 2005 have been written following Snyder's guidance, such as it is. I suppose this is one reason why his book is so successful. He makes the claim that if you buy the book and follow the rules in it you will not fail. For an aspiring writer that might be just what you want to hear, I can understand that, and Save the Cat! is a very quick read too. But this book is not the answer to their needs. There are many other books written by people who actually know what they are doing, understand their own arguments and have good advice to give.

I have singled out a few things about the book but there is a lot more that I could have brought up. But for now, just one more thing. Snyder measure things according to box office returns. He scoffs at people who think Memento (Christopher Nolan 2000) is worth talking about. "But be ready for one hell of an argument from me!! I know how much Memento made." (p. 96) I am sure he does. But if box office is what matters why is he criticising Spider-Man and Minority Report? According to Snyder's logic they cannot have any flaws considering how successful they were. In the part where he waves away Memento he uses Miss Congeniality (Donald Petrie 2000) as an example of a film with a perfect script, yet it made a lot less money than the other two. Memento, while not making as much money as Miss Congeniality, did pretty good for a cheap indie production and in terms of return on investment it was the more successful of the two.

***

Before he wrote the book Blake Snyder was a screenwriter himself, and he seems to be proud of his career and his accomplishments, which he uses as examples to emulate. I do not begrudge him that. (He co-wrote Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (Roger Spottiswoode 1992) and Blank Check aka Blank Cheque (Rupert Wainwright 1994).) But he is also referred to as "one of Hollywood’s most successful spec screenwriters" and sometimes just "Hollywood's most successful spec writer." Yet I have failed to figure out who it was that made that claim. The closest I got was that some trade journal allegedly said it, but not which one or in what context. (If some trade journal did say it, it cannot have been an important one because if it was its name would obviously be mentioned by Snyder.) It is one of those cases where a quote gets a life of its own, and there is never a source but only circular references. It is quite possible that nobody ever made that claim.

"I had this great premise, which was: 'Dirty Harry gets a new partner - his mother." (p. 81)

4 comments:

  1. The whole thing sounds extremely strange, not least the fact that the books seems to have become so popular. Has anyone actually tried to write a screenplay according to his rules? If so, have they been better than "Stop!..." ;)

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    1. Yes, many have written scripts based on the book. Although I can't say which ones have been big box office hits, or to what extent this was due to the advice given.

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  2. Given the films based on this writer's scripts, why would anyone take his advice? I would love to see how Snyder reacts to Godard's GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE, although I can guess.

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    1. Well, you could be a good judge of others scripts even if you've failed with your own. But I agree it should be a cause for concern.

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