…’cause you know you want to know.
One word. Speed.
Great movie. Holds up fantastically even after all these years. I think, despite the recent buzz about Justified, Graham Yost is still an underrated screenwriter. I seem to be the only person in the world who actually loved Hard Rain – and yeah, when your entire movie is filmed in a water tank, you’re never going to make your enormous budget back… But actually, isn’t it still one of the most ingenious and unpredictable heist movies you’ve ever seen?
And Speed is a classic. But to my mind, it makes a fundamental mistake, one which gives its name to this blog, and one of my Very Few Unbreakable Rules Of Screenwriting™. It gets off the bus.
Speed is – as even Homer Simpson knows – about a bus that, once it’s reached 50mph, can’t drop below that speed, or it will explode. Brilliant. Real jeopardy expressed with real clarity. Just show the audience that speedometer needle starting to drop, and they know exactly what the danger is and what needs to be done to resolve it. And for the first two acts of the movie, this concept works fantastically.
And then they get off the bus.
Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock save the day, the passengers are safe, the bus harmlessly explodes… Okay, the movie’s over, right?
No, now we go haring onto the subway system to try to catch the mad bomber. And yeah, it’s all very well done, very exciting, and who doesn’t want to see crazy Dennis Hopper get his comeuppance, but… It doesn’t feel quite as gripping as the rest of the movie, right? Aren’t you glancing at your watch, wondering if you have any popcorn left?
Why? Because they got off the bus. They told you the movie was about one thing, and then they resolved the thing it was supposed to be about and just kept right on going. See also, Casino Royale (2006). It’s about having to win a casino game to bankrupt a terrorist, right? It’s in the title, dude. And Bond does that, and, yes, the movie keeps right on going.
This is not really about location, of course. Plenty of movies shift location for their third act, and it doesn’t matter at all. Plenty of movies resolve one element of their plot and move on to another, larger conflict, or dispose of one antagonist and move on to battle a greater evil, and that works too.
Staying “on the bus” is about the core concept, the image in your head when you think of the movie, the tone and the actions and the conflicts that the poster and the trailer and the title sold you. It’s about giving the audience what they came for (but in ways they never saw coming), all the way to the point the credits roll.
And that’s what we’re all here to do. Keep the audience on the bus.