Screenwriting Structure – A FEW GOOD MEN – The Set-Up by Michael Hauge

Watch the video interview on Youtube here


Film Courage: Michael, when we first contacted you to do the interview for the 6-Stage Plot Structure, we thought it would be fun for you to break down a script applying your structure. You obliged and we were very happy to hear this. You chose the movie A FEW GOOD MEN from 1992. I’m curious why you chose the movie? Nothing against it, but…

Michael Hauge: Oh, that’s good! I hope you’re not miserable during this whole discussion!

Film Courage: [Laughs] No! Not at all.

Michael Hauge: A number of reasons. The first and foremost it’s one of my all time favorite movies and I don’t really enjoy discussing movies that I don’t love. I don’t really like using bad examples and so on. I think it is one of the great American screenplays and movies. Certainly the best courtroom drama since 12 ANGRY MEN. I have a hard time equivocating between those two. Also because it is based on a play written by Aaron Sorkin. He wrote the script and went on to become huge as both a screenwriter and a television writer because this was all pre-dated SPORTS NIGHT and WEST WING and so on. So he is now one of the best known screenwriters in Hollywood, so I thought it would be interesting to look at it that way.

But also, the main purpose is to kind of clarify and make simpler my particular approach to story structure and character arc. And because this follows that pattern or that formula (or whatever you want to call it) so clearly and in such a straightforward way, I think it’s a great example because it’s very easy to see as you pick the movie apart where all the elements that I talk about in structuring character are there. So I just thought this would be a good, fun one to talk about.

Film Courage: Okay. Excellent. Well let’s get started. So we’ll take the Set Up which is Stage 1 in Act 1. Do you want to start talking about it?

Michael Hauge: Sure. Let me give a little backdrop here for those of you who haven’t seen the other interview we did going into depth of my approach to the 6 Stage Structure and character arc, I’ll review some of that so you’ll be caught up and understand what I’m talking about. In my approach to structure or plot structure, I find all movies are always divided into 6 basic stages. And those stages are created by 5 key turning points in the script or in the movie. And even more to the point and even neater, those turning points always occur at essentially the same place in every movie. So whatever happens at the 10-percent point of TITANIC going to to happen at the 10-percent point of ZOOTOPIA and is going to happen at the 10-percent point of A FEW GOOD MEN.

So these are things that I think it behooves screenwriters and filmmakers to model because if this has worked consistently in so many successful movies, you probably want to replicate this approach in your own writing.

And in terms of character arc, I am going to get into that and explain that as we go through and I start talking about how these characters are revealed and how we go deeper into the characters and we go deeper into the characters and what their inner journey and their arc are and so on like that. So we’ll get to that part.

Watch the video on Youtube here

As far as the 6 Stages are concerned the first stage is (as you say) what I call The Set Up. It’s the first 10 percent of the movie or of the screenplay. As as a screenwriter or filmmaker, there are a few key things you need to do in that stretch. First thing you must do is introduce the hero of the movie. The hero is just my term for the protagonist. The main character. It’s the one we’re routing for. The character we empathize with or identify with. It’s the character whose desire defines the plot of the story and whose desire drives it forward. A hero (just to clarify) is not someone who is heroic. Unless maybe you’re are talking about a superhero in a movie. But even then at the beginning not so much probably.

What I call a hero is more a character who has the potential to become heroic. And in the movie (especially if there’s a movie with a character arc) the hero has to find a certain degree of emotional courage. That is part of what the story is about, how do they find their own heroism? How to they move into the truth of who they are?

So in the Set-Up of A FEW GOOD MEN, we begin with something I call an Outside Action Opening. Most of the time in screenplays, the hero is the first character on the page and when you submit your script to be read. The assumption of the reader will usually be whoever’s name appears first, that is the hero of the story. But you can oftentimes seduce the reader or the audience into the story more easily if you begin with the moment of great conflict. So the movie will begin with something that does not involve the hero. You’ll see this in THE DA VINCI CODE, it starts with a murder there or a number of other thrillers and so on. So in A FEW GOOD MEN in opens at the Guantanamo Bay base and we see a soldier getting…we’re not quite aware of it at the time…but we see a soldier getting smothered and find out he is dead, he will die. Then we cut to another character in the movie. So we’re still delaying the revelation of the hero. The effect of that (while it’s a little dangerous sometimes to have the reader wondering “Well who am I routing for here?” it does create more and more anticipation “Okay, well who is going to be leading this parade here? Where is the hero?” So we’re introduced to Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway, the Demi Moore character. I’ll talk about more how she functions in the story when we meet her and find out there has been this death. The navy wants her as an internal affairs attorney to look into it. They want her to sort of supervise. She hopes they’ll let her be the attorney. But she is not. They are going to assign her another attorney. So all of that is Set-Up and we are wondering “Well who is going to be assigned to this?” And since the audience already knows that it stars Tom Cruise, they’ve probably figured out it is going to be him. And then we cut to the hero. Notice all of this is still in the first 10-percent. So about 5 pages or 5 minutes in, then it cuts to the Tom Cruise character Lt. Daniel Kaffee. I’m looking down at notes because I am not always good at remembering character names. But we meet him. And what do we meet when we first see him? He’s out hitting a baseball or a softball to one of the other sailors or whatever and another attorney comes up and he’s not shown up at a meeting (Kaffee hasn’t) and the guy wants to plea bargain a deal and he wants to demand 5 years in prison and so on. And we see Kaffee plea bargain that down to no jail time, just a misdemeanor and so on because he says the guy just had a bag of Oregano. He didn’t even know. He just thought is was Marijuana and so on. So what does this show us?….And he finally wins. So it shows us a few things. First of all, because we feel sort of sorry for the guy who had the bag of Oregano, we start to like Kaffee immediately because he’s on the side of this other guy. He’s a likable guy. And he seems well-liked by the guy he’s playing catch with or hitting to ball to and so on. So being likable is one key way to establish empathy with a hero. That is one of the main things you have to do as soon as you introduce the hero.

The other thing we find out is he’s highly-skilled. So we admire the character. He may be kind of slick and quick about how he does it but it’s kind of amazing how he was able to get 5 years in the Brig down to no jail time and a misdemeanor and just ‘something on his record that’s going to be meaningless.’ In other words, he gets the guy off. So we’re very admiring of that about him. And the way he does it is very funny and we’re drawn to characters that make us laugh oftentimes they also have the courage to say things we wouldn’t have the courage to say. They’re not real politically correct and he’s very sarcastic and puts people down and so on.

So all of this is to introduce us to this character and create empathy with this hero. And then we come to the 10-percent point of the movie….(Stayed tuned for the continuation via the second video from Michael Hauge).

Question for the Viewers: What movie do you consider to be the best court room drama?


Watch the video series on Youtube here

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