Sunday, January 22, 2012

ScriptWalk Fight Scenes: The Matrix

Trinity from The Matrix.
Image courtesy http://jaymckinnon.com
Hey all,

A little backstory: I spend a fair amount of time on different screenwriting message boards, and there's one question I've seen several different times:

How do you write a fight scene?

I mean, not "you" as in me. The hypothetical "you." How does one write a fight scene, as it were. Quite.

Anyway, this is one of those tricky grey areas that no one seems to have a good answer for. Some people say you should basically write "They fight." and move onto the next scene. Other recommend nothing less than an exact blow-by-blow.

So I thought it might be fun this week to ScriptWalk through a few different famous fight scenes: take a look at the script, and then see how it translates to the finished product.

First up, The Matrix.

The Matrix: Trinity's Escape

I have a special place in my heart for The Matrix, because it was the last movie that I ever went into without any preconceived notions about what to expect. I had never heard of the movie. I had no idea what it was. It could have been about spreadsheets for all I knew.

The Matrix changed fight scenes. Hell, it changed action scenes. It's hard to remember now, but there had been almost nothing even close to the way The Matrix messed with time and space within a fight scene. And it all started, without warning, during Trinity's escape from the cops in the first few minutes.

The setup, if you haven't seen the movie in a while: several cops have shown up to arrest Trinity, whom we've just barely laid eyes on. A team of Agents arrives, and the lead Agent (Smith) reprimands the cops for going in without them.

    LIEUTENANT
   I sent two units.  They're 
   bringing her down now.

    AGENT SMITH
   No, Lieutenant, your men are dead.


First, let's look at the fight scene in an early version of the script, from April 1996. (Sourced from imsdb.com)

 INT.  CHASE HOTEL

 The Big Cop flicks out his cuffs, the other cops holding 
 a bead.  They've done this a hundred times, they know 
 they've got her, until the Big Cop reaches with the cuff 
 and Trinity moves --

 It almost doesn't register, so smooth and fast, inhumanly 
 fast.

 The eye blinks and Trinity's palm. snaps up and the nose 
 explodes, blood erupting.  The cop is dead before he
 begins to fall.

 And Trinity is moving again --

 Seizing a wrist, misdirecting a gun, as a startled cop 
 FIRES --

 A head explodes.

 In blind panic, another airs his gun, the barrel, a fixed 
 black hole --

 And FIRES --

 Trinity twists out of the way, the bullet missing as she 
 reverses into a roundhouse kick, knocking the gun away.

 The cop begins to scream when a jump kick crushes his 
 windpipe, killing the scream as he falls to the ground.

 She looks at the four bodies.

    TRINITY
   Shit.

Pretty straightforward, as far as a fight scene goes. We get a good feel for the sequence of actions, we learn that Trinity is inhumanly quick, and she takes out the cops, mercilessly, and in short order.

But this could be a scene out of almost any action movie. Punches, kicks, twisting arms and misdirected guns -- sounds like the sort of thing Jason Bourne does for breakfast (though a bit more gory). It doesn't really feel like the famous scene we know and love -- yet.

So, let's take a look at a later draft of the same scene (June 1997, sourced from myPDFscripts.com):


 INT.  CHASE HOTEL

 The Big Cop flicks out his cuffs, the other cops holding a
 bead.  They've done this a hundred times, they know
 they've got her, until the Big Cop reaches with the cuffs
 and Trinity moves --

 It almost doesn't register, so smooth and fast, inhumanly
 fast.

 The eye blinks and Trinity's palm snaps up and his nose
 explodes, blood erupting.  Her leg kicks with the force of
 a wrecking ball and he flies back, a two-hundred-fifty
 pound sack of limp meat and bone that slams into the cop
 farthest from her.

 Trinity moves again, BULLETS RAKING the WALLS, flashlights
 sweeping with panic as the remaining cops try to stop a
 leather-clad ghost.

 A GUN still in the cop's hand is snatched, twisted and
 FIRED.  There is a final violent exchange of GUNFIRE and
 when it's over, Trinity is the only one standing.

 A flashlight rocks slowly to a stop.

   TRINITY
  Shit.

Interesting. In a way, there's less detail here about Trinity's actual movement. The first version mentions specific moves, like roundhouse kick and jump kick. This second version leaves some of those details up to the imagination, but it does a much better job showing how inhumanly powerful Trinity is, compared to the cops.

She's no longer just twisting, punching and kicking: she's hitting with the force of a wrecking ball, and sending a 250-pound man across the room, taking out two cops with a single kick. She evades a barrage of bullets like a leather-clad ghost.

This version of Trinity isn't just "inhumanly" fast; she seems decidedly superhuman.

But... but... what about all the cool stuff? The bullet-time jump-kick and the running up the wall and the "she kicks high" no-look smackdown of the guy behind her? That must all be in the shooting script, right?

Nope. You can check it out for yourself over at myPDFscripts.com -- the shooting script version of the scene looks pretty much identical to the June '97 version.

There's a lot missing from the final scene:




So where did all that stuff come in? Clearly, during the pre-production, filming, and editing of The Matrix, a lot of the visual style was designed, developed, and implemented.There was fight choreography, special effects work, foley work. Lots of stuff, and it all went into shaping this scene, as well as all of the other action scenes in the film.

But the important thing was that the feel of the scene was established in the script. In the first version, Trinity is an ass-kicker. In the later versions, she's superhuman, ghostlike, and impossible to hit. It's hard to imagine the first version of the script being translated into the scene above, but the later version comes much closer.

Of course, the Wachowski Brothers had the advantage of writing the script and overseeing its realization into the finished film. Most screenwriters don't have that level of control. But from this example, we can see the importance of conveying the visceral feel of a fight scene.

We may not need the exact choreography, but we need to know, at least in the broad strokes, what makes our own fight scenes feel different from every other rock 'em-sock 'em scene in every other movie.

(Special note about myPDFscripts.com. It's a brilliant site that anyone interested in screenplays should have bookmarked in their favorites. Check it out!)

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