Alien Covenant: Setting Up A Trick Ending

Alien Covenant

Alien Covenant: Setting Up A Trick Ending

Podcast Transcript:

This week, we are going to be looking at Alien: Covenant, by John Logan and Dante Harper.

 

One of the things that makes Alien: Covenant especially worth studying for screenwriters of all genres is that it’s a script that starts off really strong, but suffers as it reaches its conclusion from a really common malady of all screenwriters: the totally predictable trick ending that the writers are wedded to, that ends up undermining the real story that they’re trying to tell.

 

Now, sure, Alien: Covenant is a regurgitation of something that we have seen a million times before in every Alien movie: a simple structure where you take a bunch of really well drawn characters and slowly kill them off one by one.

 

This is the formula for Alien; this is the way it works. And this movie, like all the others in the Alien series, is built around the horror of being chased by a creature that is way more powerful than you.

 

So when I say it starts off strong, I’m not suggesting that they’re reinventing the wheel. I’m suggesting they’re taking that wheel, and rolling it in a slightly more complicated direction. Which is really the goal for any serialized screenplay– to deliver the same thing in a slightly different way.

But though the script may be built upon the same old formula, it is also built from something deeper.

 

Like the original 1979 Alien movie, Alien: Covenant grows not just out of the commercial question of “how do I– as Blake Snyder would put it– tell a ‘monster in the house’ horror movie in space?” It grows out of a theme. Something that was genuinely terrifying to the original writer, Dan O’Bannon, that he wanted to explore in a personal way. Something true that he wanted to explore through fiction. And this was what separated the original Alien from other movies of that genre.

 

As Dan O’Bannon has noted in interviews, the idea that actually spawned the original Alien, was the horror of rape and forced pregnancy– a horror that so many women have gone through in their real world lives, but that few men could viscerally understand. So instead of going after women in an exploitative way, as so many horror movies have done, he wanted instead to go after the men– to make that horror visceral to men, in a way that would make them, “Cross their legs” and feel what that is like.

 

 

And you can see that the entire structure of the Alien franchise, from the structure of each individual script, to the horrifying visuals, to the rules of the universe, down all the way to the production design, the way the alien creatures burst from the chests (and later, in Alien: Covenant from the backs) of impregnated males, every single decision grows from that one simple idea. The deeply personal why that the writer is actually writing it.

 

So, you have a theme, and that theme is the thing that gives your script unity. It isn’t necessarily the thing that the audience leaves talking about. Nobody leaves Alien saying, “Wow what an interesting theme about male insemination, male pregnancy!” No, they leave going, “Holy shit, a fucking alien burst out of this guy’s back!”

 

But they feel the theme. The theme gives the screenplay a feeling of unity. And the theme guides the creative imagination of the writer.

 

It’s this same theme that leads to another element that ties all the Alien movies together: the strong female protagonist. And we can see that once again in Alien: Covenant, the characters we relate to most are the women. The characters who have the highest intelligence, the greatest leadership abilities among the crew are these powerful female protagonists, who don’t actually end up escaping their fate, but end up putting up the best battle against it.

 

What’s so exciting about the beginning of Alien: Covenant is that woven in with these familiar themes, it also brings something thematically new to the table, something that is derived from its predecessor Prometheus, but nevertheless pushed to an even deeper place in the early pages of the script: an exploration of these themes in the world of the synthetics (Aliens’ name for the humanlike Androids who populate its world).

 

There are two synthetics at the center of this film: The first is Walter, played by Michael Fassbender, the synthetic who assists the crew of the spaceship on their journey.

 

As you know from the trailer, even if you haven’t yet seen the film, the crew is a group of couples all heading to a new utopian planet where they hope to repopulate. And they have a very long journey, which means they have to spend most of their journey asleep in claustophobic cylinders. So, Walter is a synthetic who is there to keep the ship going while they go through their forced sleep cycles in these strange cylinders.

 

And there is also another synthetic involved, also played by Michael Fassbender, who (to prevent spoilers) we’ll get to in a moment.

 

So, as we’ve discussed, as in every Alien movie, the structure, the engine of the piece, is always built the same way. We start off getting to know a bunch of really well drawn characters, as they deal with the challenges of space travel: no aliens involved, just the challenge of surviving in space.

 

And we have seen this from the very first Alien and we are seeing it again here in Alien: Covenant.

 

After a cool opening sequence, that takes place many years in the past and sets in motion the theme we’ll discuss later, we find ourselves aboard another, bad-ass spaceship, with it’s own visually stunning technology. Walter, alone on the ship, puts up these beautiful recharging sails.

 

 

And like all the movies, the special effects and the beautiful chiaroscuro of the shots is certainly there from the very beginning. We have these gorgeous shots, we have this very dark tone, we have the feeling of Alien.

 

We have the shot of this is incredibly beautiful golden sails that are used to recharge the ship. And then, BANG! They get hit by a neutrino burst and we’re catapulted into the movie–

 

Right there from the very start, no aliens at all, we are already in crisis. The humans on the ship need to be wakened from their forced slumber, and immediately into life and death action–

 

This is an important lesson to anybody writing action movies– or any other kind of movie for that matter– oftentimes we start to think about our opening pages as a time to “set things up”, as a time to “establish this” or “establish that.”

But the truth is the opening 10 pages; the first 10 pages of your movie are the most important 10 pages, not only artistically but also commercially.

 

Artistically they are the most important pages because these pages are the beginning; this is the sequence that creates the window through which your audience views everything else in your movie. Artistically, this is the window through which you view the rest of the movie; this is the bar that you set for yourself of what your movie needs to be.

 

If you are writing an action movie, the bar on your action should be really high. You should start off with the most badass action scene you can possibly create, so that you can then outdo it, and outdo it, and outdo it- make it stronger and better and cooler, and more badass.

 

If you are writing an action movie, your first sequence to the degree that is possible should probably be an action sequence. If you are writing a romantic comedy, it should feel like a romantic comedy sequence. If you are writing a drama it should feel like a dramatic sequence.

 

But no matter what you are writing, it shouldn’t feel like you are setting stuff up.

 

The reason for this is twofold. First, setting stuff up is boring; it is boring for the audience, it is boring for the writer, and most importantly, it is boring for the producer. And the truth is, page one is the only page you can be guaranteed that most people are going to look at. And the truth is, if you haven’t got them by page 10, they are never going to make it to page 100 for your awesome trick ending… or your not-so-awesome trick ending, as we will talk about later.

 

So, the first thing to understand is that if you waste your first ten pages setting stuff up, you are doing your story, your readers and your audience a disservice.

 

But, the second thing is that you are also doing yourself a disservice; you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to get the feel of the movie from the very first page.

 

Every decision you make about your screenplay creates a feeling. And the first sequence of your movie should create the feeling that you are seeking for your script.

 

Now look, there are exceptions to this. Sometimes you use opening scenes for misdirection, like setting somebody up for a punch. You lead them to believe they are in one kind of movie and then… BANG! on page 10 you hit them with another–you pull the rug out from under them.

 

You can hear an example of this if you listen to my podcast about Guardians of the Galaxy.

 

So this isn’t a formula, but it is a way of thinking about films.

If you are not leading with your best stuff, you are probably robbing both the audience and yourself.

 

You are robbing the audience of the best opportunity that they could have to get excited about your movie, and feel viscerally what your movie is really about.

 

You are robbing yourself of the creative inspiration that will lead you to even better places, and more materially, you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to actually sell your script– because the truth is if you don’t have them by page 10, people are going to check out.

 

The first 10 pages of Alien: Covenant are beautifully done. Before the movie is even fully started, we already have all these great stuff happening. We’ve got the problem of trying to get to somewhere very far away. We’ve got a dead Captain-the great leader who dies in the chaos after the neutrino burst. We’ve got a female protagonist who is now dealing with the death of her husband. We have a hugely insecure new Captain, who is trying to hold on to his Christian values in an environment mostly ruled by science. And we are watching this incredibly insecure Captain create anger and resentment among the crew, as he tries to do the things that he thinks are right, even when they conflict with the morality of those he is trying to lead.

 

We are already launched fully into the action, and then BANG! Inciting Incident: a new planet is found, the perfect planet, a planet even better than anyone could dream of.

 

 

Sure they don’t really know what is there, but it seems to have all the conditions they are looking for… except instead of being far away like the planet they’ve been heading toward, it is right there in front of them. It is practically screaming “Come to me!”

 

If you’ve ever watched a horror movie, you know this is probably bad news.

 

And although the wise women on the ship know this is a dangerous risk, the men– particularly the insecure Captain– are eager for an easy way out.

 

You are robbing the audience of the best opportunity that they could have to get excited about your movie, and feel viscerally what your movie is really about.

 

You are robbing yourself of the creative inspiration that will lead you to even better places, and more materially, you are robbing yourself of the opportunity to actually sell your script– because the truth is if you don’t have them by page 10, people are going to check out.

 

The first 10 pages of Alien: Covenant are beautifully done. Before the movie is even fully started, we already have all these great stuff happening. We’ve got the problem of trying to get to somewhere very far away. We’ve got a dead Captain-the great leader who dies in the chaos after the neutrino burst. We’ve got a female protagonist who is now dealing with the death of her husband. We have a hugely insecure new Captain, who is trying to hold on to his Christian values in an environment mostly ruled by science. And we are watching this incredibly insecure Captain create anger and resentment among the crew, as he tries to do the things that he thinks are right, even when they conflict with the morality of those he is trying to lead.

 

We are already launched fully into the action, and then BANG! Inciting Incident: a new planet is found, the perfect planet, a planet even better than anyone could dream of.

 

Sure they don’t really know what is there, but it seems to have all the conditions they are looking for… except instead of being far away like the planet they’ve been heading toward, it is right there in front of them. It is practically screaming “Come to me!”

 

If you’ve ever watched a horror movie, you know this is probably bad news.

 

And although the wise women on the ship know this is a dangerous risk, the men– particularly the insecure Captain– are eager for an easy way out.

 

So, you can see, before a single creature enters the frame, we are already rooted in characters with strong wants, we are already rooted in characters trying to achieve big things, we are already rooted in beautiful action sequences from the very first page, and we are already rooted in powerful conflict.

This is a concept that I call Save The Best For First.

 

Commonly in screenwriting we think that we should save the best for last, that we should “set up” the stuff early and then “pay it off” later. In fact, this is what many screenwriting books (usually written by critics rather than writers) suggest writers should do with their first pages. But this is truly the biggest mistake you can make. Because setting stuff up is boring, and making things happen is exciting!

 

So the goal I set for myself instead is: save the best for first. Take your very best idea, and make it happen as soon as you possibly can. Take that crazy trick ending you’ve got sitting in your back pocket and see if you can allow it to happen halfway through the movie. Take that killer action sequence you’ve been building to, and see what happens if you put it in the very first scene. Get your most awesome stuff out there at the very beginning. Set the bar high, and then outdo it, and outdo it, and outdo it.

 

 

Does this mean you have to bring out your aliens from the very beginning?

 

No, it means you have to bring out stuff that would be worthy of being a movie, even if this was the only thing we saw. Let us feel like we would have gotten our money’s worth even if the whole movie was just a ten minute short film of the first 10 pages of your script.

 

If you want to survive as a writer, you can’t save the best for last, you’ve got to save the best for first.

But is it really saving the best for first to start yet another Alien movie in essentially the same damn way every Alien movie has started since 1979?

 

Yes, and no.

 

If Alien: Covenant was a spec script written by an aspiring writer, rather than another installment of a big budget franchise, it would be vital to start out in a new way– a way that distinguished your movie from others in the genre, and showed your specific voice as a writer.

 

But that isn’t what these writers are doing here. Rather, they’re building an installment of a beloved franchise, that must fit in with all those other parts, and deliver the same genre experience– in a slightly different way– than the other installments of the series.

 

As I’ve mentioned in my podcasts about the latest Star Wars movies, series television and feature films are becoming more and more similar, particularly at this big budget level. It’s one of the reasons we’ve put such a huge focus on TV Comedy, TV Drama and Web Series classes here at the Studio, and brought in big names like Jerry Perzigian and Stephen Molton to teach them. What used to be a sharp line of differentiation between TV and Features has now started to intersect. Which means writers, especially at the big budget level, now need to be fluent in both genres, in both television and features.

 

When the audience comes to see a TV drama, a TV comedy or even a Web Series, they are coming in the same way that they come to a blockbuster action sequel. Meaning they are coming for a very specific genre experience. They want to feel a specific way.

 

Some critics have criticized Alien: Covenant saying “Oh what did some producer write all over this script: ‘More aliens, more aliens, more aliens’?” But the truth is, that wouldn’t be a bad note. When people come to Alien they are coming for a very specific experience.

 

They want a specific feeling. They want it to feel different, but they also want it to feel the same. Just like you, when you go to a sequel, want to feel like you got something different but also something that feels the same. You don’t want to feel like they spent your same 15 bucks for exactly the same movie. But you do want to feel like your spent their 15 bucks and got a similar genre experience, went through a similar journey.

So, when you build a movie like this, you are trying to create something that feels the same, but also… different.

 

And to do that, just like when building a TV series, you need an engine: a replicable model that grows out of the previous installments.

 

 

But the thing that makes this installment different– that begins with your theme. And the way the specific theme of your episode weaves in with the overarching theme of the series.

 

We will look at the ways Alien: Covenant failed to do that later, when we talk about the things that didn’t work in the movie.

 

But you can see from the beginning that the basic theme, the original theme that drives the franchise, is still present in Alien:Covenant, and in fact expounded upon, driven a little further.

 

The theme of sexual perversity starts to intermingle with the theme of male pregnancy and rape, trust and consent, and gets woven in with this exciting new thread as we follow the synthetics.

 

So here’s the engine playing out in Alien: Covenant: we get to see a bunch of people fighting to survive in space, we are going to get this really nice character portraits, these really lovely characters that we can really care about and connect to. And usually we are going to have great actors playing them.

 

And then slowly what is going to happen is an alien is going to appear, it is going to impregnate one of the men. It is going to burst out of their body- that is just how the aliens do it. So if you are doing sequels you’ve got to figure out what are even cooler ways for aliens to burst out of people’s bodies, what are even grosser ways, more horrifying ways.

 

There is going to be a strong female protagonist, and eventually all of these characters are going to be chased to their deaths. That is how Alien works.

 

So, we understand how Alien works, we understand what the engine is, we understand what the structure is and here we are replicating it in a different way. But we can’t feel exactly the same so we need a different layer.

 

And Alien: Covenant starts off so strong in finding that layer. And it finds that layer at the beginning with Theme, by laying-in a different level of theme. And we have a bunch of different themes playing around.

 

We have the concept of duty versus love; this is established from the very first flashback scene between Peter Weyland and the newly activated synthetic-David…

 

And now… some spoilers ahead…

 

…David who will end up making a surprise appearance… first as a savior, and later as something quite different, on the mysterious planet the crew is exploring.

 

We have a Frankenstein story about the creation turning on the creator.

 

We have a theme about love, of David falling in love with Elizabeth Shaw, of Walter feeling love for Daniels, the strong female protagonist that he serves.

 

We have a theme about creativity versus programming, a theme about creation and perfection. A theme that probably resonated with you if you’re a writer.

 

We have a theme of Christianity versus science, we have a theme about insecurity vs confidence. We have a theme about search for easy utopias instead of working for the real dream.

 

We have a lot of different themes.

 

And as I mentioned in my last podcast, usually when you have a lot of different themes that don’t really tie together it means you still have a lot of work to do on your draft. It means you still have to pull out that one theme that is truly important, around which all the others can be built.

 

It isn’t wrong to have a lot of themes, because the truth is there are a lot of themes in our lives– and it’s that crazy mix of themes that give our lives, at times, a feeling of chaos. But to bring order to the universe of our screenplays, to boil down a lifetime of experience to 105 pages, we need a controlling theme, to help us make sense out of all the themes that serve it.

I like to think of theme like a coat rack.

 

If you think of your closet, your closet has lots of different clothes in it. And maybe it even has some things that aren’t clothes. In my closet I have clothes that fit and clothes that don’t fit, a jacket, a sleeping bag and I have a backpack and I have some luggage and I have a vacuum cleaner, some things that are clothes and some things that aren’t clothes– some of them hanging nicely on hangars, and other just piled up, ready to explode out when I open the door– and that’s why my closet is horrifying and messy and not somewhere I ever want to go.

 

But if I could organize those contents around the thing my closet is really supposed to hold, the clothes I wear everyday during this season, and throw out everything else or store it somewhere else, suddenly my closet would not only be a lot less scary, it would also make a lot more sense to anyone who looked at it.

 

In the same way, you can think of your little mini themes like the articles in your closet, some that fit and some that don’t, some that were great in early drafts, when you were 30 pounds lighter and Michael Jackson jackets were in style– but don’t fit the screenplay you are writing today. And you can think of your main theme as the coat rack that needs to hold them all.

 

It’s normal in early drafts for all those themes just to be jammed in there, as you try to hold onto everything that was ever good– or better said, as you allow your screenplay to grow and mature, just as you did as you grew older and wiser and learned who you really were, as opposed to who you thought you were supposed to be.

 

And so ultimately what we are looking for in a revision is to take all those many themes, all those many themes that used to matter and figure out what is the main theme that is hottest for us right now– the thing that we’re really building in this draft.

 

And in Alien it was the idea of turning rape inside out. But this movie is much more complicated. This movie is adding another theme, in fact is adding all these many, many, many themes.

 

And we have to ask ourselves, “what is the main theme that we are really trying to build around?” so that we can start to make choices. In a TV show, or action franchise installment, the theme that makes this episode special within the larger context of the series.

 

What is the one ring to rule them all, the coat rack strong enough to hold these other themes, where all these other themes in some way serve the main theme?

 

The challenge of rewriting, the hardest choice in rewriting, is choosing which freaking theme to focus on. Because oftentimes there are a lot of really great ones.

 

And depending on what theme you focus on, that theme will lead you to understand what choices you need to make, and what choices you need to let go of.

 

If you watched Alien: Covenant you probably felt this, even if you didn’t consciously understand it: This movie starts out so strong, and you feel so connected! It’s built like the other Alien movies but there’s something deeper and more complicated going on. And there is a moment where you start to feel like you get what this is really about…

 

Until it stops being about that.

 

Here’s how it works:

 

The crew ends up on this planet, and of course this planet ends up being inhabited by crazy spores that ends up inseminating and spawning crazy aliens out of male crew members.

 

And just when it seems like everyone is going to die, a synthetic living on this planet, who turns out to be David from Prometheus, suddenly appears and saves everybody.

 

He takes them to a place that seems safe, but we can feel that he isn’t sharing everything.

 

We watch as he connects with Walter as a brother. And eventually that connection starts to grow even more than brotherly between the two synthetics; it starts to grow sexual, with David making unwanted sexual advances upon Walter, in a slightly more complicated inversion of that familiar Alien theme.

 

We start to feel this brilliant creature’s loneliness, his desire for someone with whom he can actually connect, create with, share with and be understood by. And we start to feel like we understand what this movie is about.

 

Meanwhile, the crew members have been recovering in this mostly safe place. But just when it seems like everybody is okay, an alien creature makes its way into this protected area and brutally kills one of the crew members.

 

Our completely insecure captain, Oram, discovers the body. But before he can kill the alien creature, David intervenes.

 

And we watch this incredible moment that we had never seen in an Alien movie before: the alien stands up, approaches and comes to a stop, head bowed almost in worship of David.

 

And we can feel that something is going on that we didn’t know before, that we haven’t seen before in Alien movies. That there is some kind of control; some kind of respect between these two.

 

Oram trains his gun on the creature, but David warns him not to shoot. And, of course, Oram, the insecure Captain, ends up shooting the alien right in the middle of his communion with David.

 

And we have this wonderful moment, when David screams at Oram, “I told you not to shoot, it trusted me!”

 

And we have this new theme that emerges that feels like it is going to be the coat rack– the theme that ties all of these wonderful themes together. This theme about trust versus betrayal, trust versus love, and how the violation of trust and love can turn good into evil, can turn beauty into ugliness; can turn two civilizations or two creatures from different places, that could have gotten along, into enemies.

 

 

Trust versus betrayal seems like it is going to be the main theme. And in fact we can see it playing out in the relationship between the two synthetics – Michael Fassbender playing against Michael Fassbender in really cool scenes, as David makes his case to Walter that they should be together, as brothers, as creators, as sexual creatures.

 

We can see that theme of betrayal in the way that Oram’s betrayal of the creature’s trust leads David in turn to betray him. So we can see the way that one betrayal starts to feed another, and we start to think we are understanding the movie.

 

In fact, we can start to see how this coat rack is holding all these other coats. How this theme of betrayal versus love, betrayal versus trust, betrayal versus duty; the feeling of being betrayed by his creator, the feeling of being a superior in every way but still servile, how all this stuff starts to weave around this theme of betrayal.

 

And so we think we are on a really strong track, until suddenly about three quarters of the way into the movie, the whole thing falls apart.

 

And while I wasn’t there for the process by which the structural problems developed, I’d be willing to wager it wasn’t because the writers didn’t understand the theme they had so masterfully woven through the first two thirds of the screenplay. It was because they, or a producer, had a trick ending in mind, that they were so wedded to that they stopped serving their theme and started serving the trick ending instead.

Any time you are building towards a trick ending, you’d better watch out.

 

It is very rare that a trick ending is actually going to help you. And most of the time, in most projects they really hurt you.

 

They hurt you because they force you to make decisions that have nothing to do with your theme, that have nothing to do with the really hot elements of the story that you are trying to tell. You end up turning yourself into a pretzel trying to preserve your trick ending– because trick endings are so hard to pull off– and often as a result you end up losing track of your better instincts as a writer.

 

And we can see that really clearly here in Alien: Covenant where so much good stuff ends up getting completely dropped in order to serve a trick ending that isn’t even tricky!

 

Because the truth of the matter is you can see it coming from light years away.

 

To help you understand the effects of this trick ending on the writing of this script, I do need to give you some more spoilers… so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and you don’t want the spoilers, now is the time to tune off…

 

Here is how the trick ending works. There is an initial defeat of the alien, which happens way too easily, in fact it happens so easily that if you’ve ever seen a movie in your life, the first thing you’re thinking is, “Well there is no way it is over! I know it’s going to take more than that to defeat that alien.”

 

The reason that defeat happens so easily is because the writers aren’t stepping into it as a culminating sequence in relation to the characters’ journey or the theme– they’re using it to set up the trick ending– thinking about the future rather than the present, and rushing through what should be the fun part, to get to the part that we’re not even going to care about.

 

During that underwhelming defeat of the alien, there is a big battle scene between Walter and David, which should be the culmination of the thematic argument between the two of them in relation to their betrayal by those they serve…

 

In a strong revision of this movie, every structural complication would have grown out of that first, powerful betrayal when Oram shoots the Alien–as Oram’s perceived betrayal of David and David’s perceived betrayal of Oram, and the perceived betrayal of the alien by both of them and the loss of the aliens’ trust in David, as those events tossed David’s utopian vision and the crews potential physical utopia into chaos. And those two mutually exclusive points of view in relation to that theme of betrayal: serving of only yourself in David, and serving of others, even those who can or who have betrayed you, in Walter–would come to a head in that final battle between the two synthetics.

 

Rather than pushing the theme to its conclusion, the story cuts away at a moment that has nothing to do with the theme– once again in order to “set up” the trick ending. David and Walter are fighting– we see a knife, and we see the final struggle, and we aren’t sure who is going to get the knife first– and that’s when we cut away, to make sure the audience “doesn’t know.”

 

Structurally, the whole scene, that’s supposed to be the turning point of their relationship in relation to the theme gets boiled down to “who’s going to get the knife– who’s going to win?”

 

And then magically Walter appears, and we are so happy he has survived but we know something is weird, because we weren’t shown it! Something is being hidden and we are pretty sure we know what it is. Because we’ve seen movies before. And we’ve seen Alien movies before. And we know they don’t usually end happy.

 

What we know already, despite the filmmakers being convinced that they’ve tricked us, is that Walter ain’t Walter; Walter is David. We know it from a million light years away, and the filmmakers don’t seem to realize that in order to build to this totally unsurprising surprise ending, they’ve already sacrificed what should be the coolest and most important action sequences in the piece, not to mention the coolest and most important structural and thematic elements of the piece– the culmination of everything they’ve worked so hard to build up until now.

 

And they’re about to sacrifice even more.

 

Because we’re back on the ship, thinking “Well, I know it isn’t over…” And , of course, like we expect, there is another alien on the ship. And it is boring. It exactly what we were expecting. It isn’t exciting. And the reason it isn’t exciting is because we see it coming.

 

So now we get yet another easy battle sequence on the ship, which once again gets short changed for the same darn reason, where once again the alien gets defeated, and it looks beautiful but it is way too easy, and we know it isn’t real.

 

So, of course, just when the crew members think everything is good… and Daniels goes under to go back to sleep, so they can head back towards the planet they were supposed to go to in the first place, of course that is when Walter shows himself not to be really Walter just like we’ve known he was going to do, and vomits up two really scary alien spores to be stored in with the human fetuses, ready for repopulation upon arrival…

And, maybe, all this would be really cool if it got us by surprise. But it doesn’t. We know how these movies work. And we can see how the movies are built.

 

And what is really a shame is in the best version of this movie, you don’t need a trick ending at all.

 

In the best version of this movie, what you need in that final battle is for Walter to defeat David physically, but not defeat him thematically. For something David says during their final battle to allow Walter to see how he, too, has been betrayed by those he loves, for something that happens on the ship as they defeat that final alien to help Walters realize that his love is misplaced, that his feelings of duty are misplaced… that David was right all along.

 

What you really want, if you really want to build a cool structure, is not to leave these two synthetics exactly the same in the beginning of the movie as they are at the end. Rather, you want to move Walter, the guy who believes in duty and love, even in the face of betrayal, to the point of view of David. You want to attack Walter’s trust with the betrayal of human after human after human, you want to push him to a place where he can betray the ship, where you don’t need David to do it for him.

You want Walter to change. Because change is the primary engine of structure, and the primary engine of theme.

 

Imagine how much more rewarding that ending would be, if it happened at Walter’s hands, rather than David’s.

 

So, here are the lessons to take with you: save your best for first, lead with your very best stuff, challenge yourself to outdo your very best writing, that is number one.

 

Number two, find your theme, find the theme that you most connect with, the one that really matters to you, the intensely personal why that led you to write the script in the first place, and use that theme like a coat rack, removing anything that that doesn’t hang upon it.

 

Number three; don’t let your trick ending destroy your movie. Don’t build to where you planned, instead allow yourself to surprise yourself. Take your character on the biggest possible journey in relation to the theme rather than worrying about taking your audience on the biggest possible journey related to the trick ending.

 

The character’s journey will always carry you. If a trick ending comes, allow that trick ending to trick you, allow that trick ending to surprise you.

 

There is a great story of M. Night Shyamalan who didn’t realize until draft 10 of Sixth Sense, “Oh my God, this guy is dead!”

 

The best trick endings aren’t planned, the best trick endings come as we push and push and push our characters on the biggest possible journey in relation to their themes. The biggest choices they can make as they pursue the things that they truly want.

2 Comments

  1. I loved the podcast, Mr. Krueger. Thank you very much. This is your second podcast I’ve listened to. The first one was about the amazing innovative thriller “Get Out”.
    I’m still on the fence about that famous trick ending. When I went to see the film I was pretty happy with it. I didn’t think it was a masterpiece by any measure but I was entertained. Ridley Scott is a filmmaker, despite his numerous narrative and story problems, who always manages to create fascinating visual words and otherworldly dimensions. “Blade Runner” in my mind is one of the greatest pieces of visual filmmaking in history. And it’s also a fascinating story and character study. I wasn’t a fan of “Prometheus” at all. I actually liked “Alien Covenant” much more. Still your analysis of the trick ending has left me thinking about how it works organically to the story, like you mentioned. Maybe I was blown away by the cinematography, the production design and Michael Fassbender, one or the world’s greatest actors. It sounds silly I know, but now after listening to your podcast you’ve given me new elements to reevaluate and reappreciate the trick ending. Whether it really makes sense in terms of the themes of the film and the characters’ true nature. As an all time movie cynic, I love when the bad guys win, I enjoyed Alien Covenant’s ending but tracing back the steps of the narrative and the screenwriting choices it does seem to be cheating, working to create a trick ending to build the future instalments instead of thinking of the present, actual movie in question, its virtues and valuable characteristics.

    Once again thank you so much for your thorough and comprehensive podcasts.

  2. Mike Jozic 2 months ago

    I wouldn’t bring in Shyamalan and/or The Sixth Sense to help bolster your argument in the end considering he is a hack and that movie is total, senseless garbage. The Sixth Sense wishes it had the integrity of Covenant.

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