Furious 7: Feeding The Genre Monster
By Jacob Krueger
Hello I’m Jacob Krueger and this is the Write Your Screenplay Podcast. As you know, on this podcast, rather than looking at movies in terms of two thumbs up or two thumbs down, we look at movies and we look at screenplays in terms of what we can learn from them as screenwriters. We look at good movies and we look at bad movies, we look at movies that we loved and movies that we hated.
Today we are going to be talking about the genre of movies that I affectionately like to call “The Big Dumb Action Movie,” with the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise, Furious 7.
And, hopefully, we’re going to be looking at Furious 7 in a way that’s valuable not only if you’re a big action movie writer, but also if you are a writer in any other genre: if you are writing a thriller, if you are writing a comedy, if you are writing a drama, if you are writing an independent film or even if you are writing an art film.
In an odd way, “big dumb action movies” and super experimental art films actually have a lot in common. That’s because they both exist in a world of expressionism.
Oftentimes, when young writers sit down to write a movie, they think that most movies take place in the world of realism. But this is simply not true.
There are very, very few movies that take place in the world of realism.
Most movies actually don’t take place in the world of realism. They take place in a world of naturalism, which is a slightly heightened version of reality.
In naturalism, we never order our meal, the waiter just knows what we want. We never pay for our order. The cashier always seem to have the exact change.
In realism, your friend says something really funny, and three hours later, on the ride home, you think of the perfect response. In naturalism, your friend says the funniest thing ever, and you immediately respond with the funniest possible answer and then your friend responds with an answer that tops that.
In realism, we make the same mistake again and again and again until finally one day we turn around and say, “you know what? I think I want to do this differently.” In naturalism, we go to the worst possible version of that mistake in the very first scene, and start changing immediately in profound ways.
Naturalism is a lot like realism but it’s slightly heightened so that your movie can happen faster, your character can change faster and, most importantly, so that your movie can be more compelling or interesting for your audience.
You know those conversations that you have with your girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife that take place in realism? When you go around in the same repetitive circle for 6 hours, until neither of you can even remember what you were arguing about. Imagine if you captured that in a movie exactly the way it happened, how boring and redundant it would be to watch. You don’t even want to be in that scene when you’re living it!
So, one of the reasons why we move to naturalism is because naturalism helps us distill those real emotions (those real moments, those real journeys that we really go through in our real life) down to their essence, down to that one line that made you cry or made you smile, rather than the ten lines that surrounded it. Naturalism helps us distill it all down to that one action, which can really reveal who you are as a character, rather than the fifteen other things that you did that day.
Most movies, most independent films, most dramas, most romantic comedies, take place in this world of naturalism. Even most thrillers take place in the world of naturalism. It’s a world where we can accept the things we are seeing as reality. Even a lot of Sci-Fi take place in the world of naturalism! Not because it exists in the world we know, but because it exists in a world we can accept as possible and real.
Action movies rarely take place in naturalism. Action movies take place in a magical land called expressionism: a more heightened form of writing and performance, where action heroes can blurt out funny quips even as they are fighting for their lives!
In naturalism: we boil down the real emotions to their essence but we present them in a way that feels real.
In expressionism: making it feel like reality is no longer important. In expressionism, we are heightening everything to a level that goes beyond the real. It’s a heightened view of life, a more extreme view of life.
In experimental films or art house films or independent films, expressionism is usually used to externalize some internal emotions that we truly do feel in reality. It’s used to bring out that thing inside of us that we feel but don’t want to say or that we feel but that we wish we could say.
You can see this use of expressionism in a movie like Beasts of The Southern, when the inner feelings of the characters are externalized into magical beasts.
There is a beautiful example of expressionism in the theater version of The Cider House Rules by Peter Parnell. It’s a totally naturalistic play – those of you who have seen the movie know that the movie was also totally naturalistic – except in the play version there is one sequence of total magic. The adoptive father figure in the story is an ether addict, and throughout the naturalistic play, we’ve seen him sniffing ether out of a mask. But during his death scene, he takes that ether mask and puts it on his head like a cap and does that beautiful dance number that, for me, was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen on stage. The whole cast joins him in a beautiful routine until he dances off, in this ether-y haze, to his death. And the reason it works – even though it’s not real – is because it feels like he felt. It feels like what it must feel like to be addicted to ether, and also what it must feel like to finally slip away from all the troubles of his life, and all the people that he loves.
In film, we see expressionism in artists like Charlie Kauffman. We see expressionism in movies like Birdman. And, curiously, we see expressionism in action movies – in Big Dumb Action Movies!
In independent film, expressionism is generally used to show or externalize something that is internal and real, but would never normally get expressed in the world.
In big dumb action movies, expressionism is used to externalize something that we want to feel, something that we wish we could feel; to externalize the way that we wish our lives could be.
And when you think about it this way you realize why Furious 7 is breaking box office records.
These movies are built around the ideas that we wish for our lives. Our wish to be heroes, our wish for our lives to be simple, for good to be good and evil to be evil, and our wish to be able to tell the difference between the two.
These movies exist in a world without psychology, without complexity of human behavior. Where the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad and we can distinguish between the dark and the light. These movies exist in a world which heroes fight for things like family. And create a world for us where we can feel the excitement that we long for our own lives. And then return home and appreciate the real values of our mundane lives: the time we spend with our families and our children and our spouses and the people we love.
These movies exist, not to externalize the things that exist inside of us exactly the way they actually exist, but to externalize the things that we wish existed in the way we hope and imagine that they could. And you can see this really strongly in Furious 7.
So what you need to understand is that these movies are actually soap operas for men. They capture highly melodramatic story arcs about love and relationships, and the archetypal roles that men and women dream of playing in those relationships.
You can start off with the Vin Diesel character, who is the Alpha male that every person who’s ever dreamed of an Alpha male dreams of, right? The sensitive brute: the man who is tough enough to win a good street fight, but sensitive enough to let you know that “no one can force you to say I love you.” A man who understands the street and understands love.
And he’s in love with a girl who has a storyline pulled straight out of “Days of Our Lives.” A woman who has forgotten everything that they’ve ever been through, who’s forgotten their whole relationship, and even the fact that they are married, based on a bunch of events that happened in the prior movie, and is now embarking on a journey with a man that she loves but no longer knows.
And of course at the climatic moment—spoilers ahead—at the climatic moment when the evil has been defeated, and the love of her life, that strong alpha male, is lying dead, she’s the kind of woman who knows that what you do is not resuscitate him with CPR. What you do is you tell him the story of your love—the memories that suddenly have come flashing back to you at that moment when you remembered everything. And you tell that man that if he dies, you die with him, because the power of love heals all and he will come back to life.
This is not naturalism. This is not realism. This is expressionism. This is the relationship that we want to have. This is the way that we want the world to work.
You can see a similar storyline in the Paul Walker character, Brian, who’s going through a related struggle. See, he is also the kind of warrior that any person could love, the kind of warrior who longs for bullets and guns and excitement, but loves his children and his wife more. And that’s his journey. His journey is to learn that what he’s really meant to be doing is spending his time with his wife and his child—that this, in fact, is the true test of a man.
He’s yet another sensitive alpha male, a guy who may long for bullets but in the end is going to be there to tuck his kid in at night. And through the course of the journey that he goes through with his wife, and with Vin Diesel’s character, we watch men help men be men.
We watch Vin Diesel, Dom, teach Brian what a real man does and what the real challenges in life are. And you can see that this is not American Sniper that we’re watching. And this is certainly not The Hurt Locker. This is not naturalism and this is not realism; this is expressionism.
But at the same time, we’re watching a character who’s going through a struggle that most of the audience has probably gone through as well: that desire to live a life of excitement, that desire to be an action hero that every little boy and a lot of little girls had when they were kids. And now you’re finding yourself in a minivan and you’re feeling crappy about your life, and this is the movie that tells you that that’s okay. That, in fact, you are fighting the real challenge, that what you’re doing is braver than going out and crashing cars, and shooting ‘em up.
This is how Furious 7 works as a soap opera for men. It gives you the adrenaline-pumping experience of being that action hero, and then it lets your go home to your family and realize that that’s really what it is to be a man. It allows you to feel good about your life and see things like love in black and white.
This is not a movie about complicated relationships, about the troubles of navigating a relationship with a complex man and a complex woman: a man who’s haunted by war memories but has a strange desire for them and a woman who, for some reason, is attracted to that. This is a movie where love is pure and real and ultimately conquers all—where family triumphs, where good defeats evil. This is a little fantasy trip into The Big Dumb Action Movie world, that brings us back to our homes feeling like we want to feel.
So action movies in general—and Furious 7 is a prototypical example of it—action movies use expressionism to tell us the stories that we want to hear. And that doesn’t mean that those stories aren’t true in some way. That doesn’t mean that there’s never been a relationship where love was clear and men chose their families over their desires for adventure. That doesn’t mean that love doesn’t conquer all.
There’s a saying that independent movies tell you the truth you don’t want to believe, and commercial movies tell you the lie that you do.
And that certainly may be the case in many commercial movies. But the best commercial movies don’t tell you the lie that you want to believe. The best action movies tell you the truth that you want to believe.
The difference is that because these action movies exist in the world of expressionism, often it becomes a lot less important whether it looks real, whether it seems real or sounds real, whether anybody’s ever talked like these characters or made the decisions that these characters make.
Now I’m not saying that’s good and I’m not saying that’s bad. In fact, some of my favorite action movies have transcended that problem. If you listen to my podcast on Guardians of the Galaxy, that’s an action movie that I feel transcends the problem of not feeling real, even though it’s a ridiculous comic Sci-Fi, the characters have a genuine inner life.
So, if you’re writing an action movie, this doesn’t mean that you should just throw anything real or anything truthful out the window. But if given the choice between the two gods, you need to know which god to serve. In an independent film, in a drama, in a thriller, you’ve got to serve the god that makes it feel real.
In a big dumb action movie, you’ve got to serve the god that tells us the story we want to hear, that affirms our lives and, most importantly, that gives us the excitement that we desire.
And the reason that we need to do that is because Big Dumb Action Movies cost A LOT of money. They cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make and market. They are a huge risk. And when numbers get that big, huge audiences are required in order to make your money back. And that’s why these action movies cater towards an audience by reaffirming the beliefs that they already want to hold, rather than challenging those beliefs.
But let’s talk, for just a moment, about action. Because this is the next thing you need to know if you’re building a big, dumb action movie: these movies are built like firework shows. They start off with an opening salvo that captures our attention. And then they build and build and build to a crescendo.
When you’re building an action movie, sometimes you have the urge to save the best for last. You come up – for example, in Furious 7 – with that scene where you’re dropping cars out of an airplane and you’re thinking, “this is the most amazing thing ever! I should save it for last.”
But, actually, exactly the opposite is true: don’t save the best for last. Save the best for first.
And then outdo it and outdo it and outdo it.
This is not only true in action movies. Think about Se7en and how that thriller, which does take place in a relatively naturalistic world, saved the best for first. Think about those seven murders and the seven acts of that film. Think about how each murder seems so horrific that it could never be topped and yet was topped and topped and topped again.
I call this: “Feeding The Genre Monster”
Audiences go to movies because they want a genre experience. If you give them that genre experience, you can get away with pretty much everything else.
The genre experience is the way the movie makes the audience feel. If you’re making an action movie, then the movie better make the audience feel thrilled, get their adrenaline pumping, and at the end of the day it better leave them feeling like their lives are ok.
If you fail to do that, your action movie is taking a huge risk because you’re basically doing a bait and switch on your audience. You’re saying “you came for that but I’m going to give you this instead.” And if you do that, they will eat you alive.
On the other hand, if you feed the genre monster and give them the emotional feeling that they want, then you can get away with jus about anything.
For example, you could make a movie like Avatar, which, for all its problems, pretty miraculously manages to make an American audience see the Iraq war from the Iraqi perspective! Imagine pitching to a producer “I’m going to do a 200 million dollar movie, in which I take a mainstream American audience, and make them wonder if maybe the Iraq war isn’t such a good thing, make them see themselves at the unwitting participants of a big war machine that’s destroying the lives of a lot of Iraqis over an “unobtainable” substance called oil. That’s a pretty amazing thing in a Big Dumb Action Movie. And the reason that James Cameron gets away with it in Avatar is because he’s feeding the genre monster in every other way.
This is the interesting thing about dealing with action movie producers: in general, they don’t give a crap about your theme. They don’t give a crap about your message. They care about delivering the genre experience that they need and their audience desires.
Feed the genre monster and they will let you get away with anything. Fail to feed the monster – write a thriller that isn’t scary, write an action movie that isn’t exciting, write a comedy that isn’t funny – and they will eat you alive.
And this is one of the powers of action movies. This is one of the reasons that action movies are worth watching and worth exploring, because these movies are seen again and again and again by millions of people! These movies actually change the way that we see the world. These Big, Dumb Action Movies have a profound ability to affect our society.
Now, I’m not saying that Furious 7 brought about a huge sociological change in its audience. But if it wanted to, it could have.
So if you’re a writer of action movies, you do have a responsibility. You’re shaping the world view of a huge audience. You need to realize that a lot of that audience is really young and impressionable and your movie is going to be the way that they see the world, they way that they humanize of fail to humanize other people, the way that they see both sides of an argument or fail to see both sides of an argument.
Whether you’re writing a Big, Dumb Action Movie or a thriller or a comedy or any other genre, you need to know what your genre monster is. What is the feeling that the audience is coming for? And you want to make sure that in each of your acts you are serving that genre monster in a really powerful way, building your own little fireworks show.
If you’re building a soap opera, that’s about the emotional tears. That’s about tears and betrayal and sex and love. If you’re building a comedy, it’s about having the highest joke density you can possibly have. And if you’re building a movie like Furious 7, then you better have at least seven amazing action sequences and you better build them like a fireworks display.
So if you think about the sequences in Furious 7, the first is probably the coolest filmically. And what’s really cool about it is that we don’t actually see it.
When we first start the movie, we’re hearing a little monologue from the Jason Stratham character, who is in a hospital room with his brother. It’s a monologue about family values and his love for his brother. And it’s not until he turns around that we see that the room is filled with dead people. That, in fact, the whole hospital is filled with dead people. And as he walks out he hands a staggering guard a grenade, which blows up the building behind him.
This is an amazing vignette for a character. And it’s one of those examples of the shark in the water is sometimes scarier than out of it. The action sequence that we don’t see is sometimes more exciting than the one that we do.
So, we start with an implied action sequence, an opening salvo that brings us into the movie, the danger, and the threat of the antagonist. The second action sequence is a fight between the Jason Stratham character and the Dwayne Johnson character – a big fight crashing through glass. We have the action sequence in Tokyo that culminates with a game of chicken between Vin Diesel and Jason Stratham and the emergence of the Kurt Russell character and all of his scary army people. We have the dropping-cars-out-of-helicopters sequence, the road-chase sequence, and the running-out-of-the-bus sequence.
And you can see that each one of these sequences outdoes the last and that whenever possible, if they’re going to do it, they do it with a car, because this is The Fast and The Furious franchise, and cars are what it’s all about.
So when we get to the next sequence we have a car crashing through three buildings. We have a car chase against a helicopter in the streets of Los Angeles with people diving in and out of car windows, and we have a sequence where Vin Diesel’s car is launched off the ground and crashes into a helicopter.
You can see about every 10 pages or so – or even fewer in this movie – that there’s a big ol’ action sequence. And you can see that these sequences are set up almost like video game levels in something called “set pieces,” where you think of a location and all of the possible problems of that location and then you use things wrong.
You don’t drive a car, you crash a car through a building. You fly a car into a helicopter. You think about all the things that could go wrong in an environment and you make sure that every single one of them goes wrong. You think of images that we’ve never seen before and you think of different kinds of action sequences that outdo the ones that have come before. You save the best for first and then you outdo it and outdo it and outdo it.
You can see that once again we’re living in a world of expressionism. Dwayne Johnson crashes an ambulance off of a bridge directly into the bad guy, magically. The bad guy magically shows up at all these different places. Even on a road that you can apparently only access after being dropped off from a helicopter. Well he randomly shows up, magically! He seems to have the god device, even before it’s captured.
These are Big, Dumb Action Movies, and although a purest, like myself, would strive for something more, the most important thing is not the literal reality. The most important thing is the action.
If you deliver the action, you can get away with any message that you want. If you deliver the action and you’re interested in real relationships, you can develop real relationships. If you deliver the action and you want to look at the Iraq war, you can look at the Iraq war. If you deliver the action and want to look at the Patriot Act (as Batman does) and look at the nature of morality, you can do so. If you deliver the action and want to look at racism (as X-Men does), you can do so.
But if you don’t deliver the action, they will eat you alive. This is true no matter what genre you’re working on. If you’re writing a drama and you don’t deliver the complex emotional relationships, they will eat you alive. If you’re writing a political action movie and you don’t deliver the sense of outrage, they will eat you alive.
You must deliver the feeling that your movie promises. But here’s the good news: you get to decide what that promise is.
Because the promise that you ultimately need to deliver should be the promise that drew you to writing the movie in the first place. The promise that you need to deliver is the thing that would make you spend your $12 to see that movie if someone else had written it.
So, even though I’ve laid out these principles of how these action movies are generally built, the chances are that if you’re writing an action movie (or a drama, or comedy), then you already are the audience for that movie.
And that means that an audience like you already exists elsewhere. That means if you want to subvert some of these principles or move us through a caldron of doubt before the moment that affirms our values (or affirm our values in a way that sheds doubt), you can do so.
You are the audience for your movie. So, it’s important to understand that the ultimate genre monster you’re feeding is not some mysterious “them” out there.
The genre monster you’re really feeding is the genre monster in you.
What is the feeling that you want to feel when you leave this theater? How are you going to deliver that feeling in each act of your movie? How are you going to save the best for first and get your best stuff out there in front? And how are you going to outdo it, taking your movie beyond where we expect it to go, beyond even the places that you imagined it going when you first sat down to write it?