Screenwriting gurus stress one of the keys to a successful script is “write what you know.” Well, there are many examples where the screenwriter had to know or learn much about a place or how something worked as an integral part of telling the story. Movies take us places we’ve never been and show us actionable sequences we would never see in real life. James Cameron brought to life the Titanic in all her glory. The Hunt for Red October took us inside a submarine. The Hurt Locker showed us how bombs are diffused. Gladiator and Braveheart revealed how wars were fought centuries ago. Shawshank Redemption, Papillon, and The Rock took us into the bowels of prisons of the past. Minority Report gave us holographic computing, and the CSI: Miami TV series provided endless insight into modern forensics.
In Heist (Gene Hackman), we experience and see the logistics of a gold heist integrated with the creation of elaborate and complex plot twists, written by David Mamet. Mamet’s credits are considerable, including Glengarry Glen-Ross (won the Pulitzer), Hannibal, Untouchables, Hoffa and many more, with Phil Spector starring Al Pacino coming up in 2013. Mamet understands detail and knows how to reveal character and story through action and dialog.
How much does Mamet know about pulling off a robbery, the real estate business, serial killers, the FBI, and intimate portraits of Jimmy Hoffa and Phil Spector? Only an interview could reveal how much he knew and how much research was involved. Were consultants brought in as is often the case especially with cop and military movies?
Following is a description of the gold heist, where bits and pieces are spelled out in the script within the context of action and dialog.
The robbery starts with forcing a U.S. Customs security supervisor with a drinking problem to allow Hackman thru the security gates. Hackman poses as a FAA official, threatening to report her drinking if she doesn’t help. As an added detail, he smuggles in a small gun wrapped in a condom contained in his coffee. He forcefully takes out the other security guard then let’s his partners thru the gate as they drive the van.
The female supervisor never showed up, one of many complications where the characters had to improvise.
The van follows the plane carrying the gold onto the runway, then heads it off. Meanwhile, a bomb is planted nearby and timed to blow up a shed, diverting emergency vehicles and attention away from the stalled plane on the runway.
Hackman and his crew had to know the mechanics of the plane, such as where the headphones used to talk to the pilots from the ground are located.
As a ruse, the pilots are told there may be an explosive device on board. Hackman locks them in the cockpit and throws in a smoke bomb to knock them out. The van contains a ladder they use to roll the metal containers of gold from the plane’s storage area. They use hitches and need to know where to connect them. All this is under the pressure of time, since emergency vehicles will soon focus attention on the stalled plane.
They also had to know what tools to bring with them, primarily to access the gold stored in locked metal containers. They built a fake plane engine for the back of the van, which doubles as a door and inside is where they store the gold. When the door is shut, it looks like an airplane engine. They leave the tarmac area and drive to a garage/warehouse where the van is then stripped of its exterior side panels and license plates.
They had to know about the gold in the first place, how it was transported, and how much in quantity. Much of this was determined during the initial planning stages of the heist. The talents of the thieves seem to know no bounds. They had to know about smelting in order to disguise the gold. And for every double cross, and there were many, Hackman (Joe Cross) always had a backup plan. The heist is carried out revealing character and relationships all the while moving the story forward.
Another example of logistics is the planning and re-enactment of Sean Connery’s escape from Alcatraz in The Rock. General Hummel (Ed Harris) has taken Alcatraz Island by force to be used as a launching pad for a dozen VX gas rockets aimed towards San Francisco. During an incursion by Navy Seals, accompanied by Cage and Connery, both men are captured by Hummel and his men.
In a scene where both Cage and Connery are locked up in their cells, Cage reviews how Connery escaped and wonders how Connery managed to get out of his cell. He summarizes the escape (paraphrased):
“Down incinerator shoot, into a mine cart, through the tunnels into the power plant, under the steam engine, and into the cistern thru the intake pipe.” As Cage continues his rant his primary question is how Connery managed to open the doors of the very cell that currently holds them prisoner. Meanwhile, through action, we see how Sean Connery got out of his cell using a rope he swings and latches onto the handle that opens the cell door.
In other words, screenwriters Mark Rosner, David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook, needed to know how Alcatraz was constructed. How Connery maneuvered through the tunnels beneath Alcatraz is revealed during the incursion. The only thing we don’t see is how Connery timed the tides of San Francisco Bay as he makes it to shore.
Actually, logistics takes place on two fronts: the re-enactment of Connery’s original escape from Alcatraz, and the actual filming of it using a variety of stunts, explosions, gun fire, and the pursuit of the Seals, Connery and Cage by General Hummel and his men. The film was allegedly shot in the old Alcatraz, which helps explain the accuracy of detail in maneuvering through the Alcatraz underbelly.
Other things the writers needed to know about included the inner workings of a VX rocket, what the rockets look like, and how thermite plasma was an antidote for the gas. In the following short excerpt, the writers describe the kind of tool used to pry open the bunker’s steel doors during the heist of the rockets on the Army Weapons compound.
EXT. CHEMICAL WEAPONS BUNKER – NIGHT
The marines use a ‘rabbit tool, (hydraulic, compact and
powerful) to pry open the bunker’s steel doors. They
rush down a hallway.
Obviously the writers do not have to describe what the tool looks like or even how it works, but they do need to specify enough detail to make an action sequence believable. A writer can simply call for a character shooting a gun, but may not specify the look on the shooter’s face or if the gun is a 9mm or .357 Magnum. What is not in the script is left up to the imaginations of the filmmakers and actors–a truly collaborative experience.
Here’s another excerpt describing logistics:
INT. C.B.W. BUNKER – NIGHT
A refrigerated storage room for chemical weapons.
Storage tubes are labeled: V.X. POISON GAS. Across the
room are rockets labeled: 55 115 MM BOLT ROCKETS.
Using the TRACK HOOK SYSTEM in the bunker’s ceiling,
the marines move the V.X. CHEM ROUNDS and BOLT ROCKETS
to the waiting humvees. It’s very fast, like clockwork.
While in the morgue, where one of the VHX gas rockets is poised and ready for launch, Cage and Connery set about the task of disarming the rocket.
Goodspeed opens the CORPSE DRAWERS revealing the V.X.
CHEM ROUNDS (shaped like big tennis ball cans).
Goodspeed carefully lifts out a chem round. Mason grabs
one, accidentally knocking it against the drawer.
Careful. The second you don’t
respect this, it kills you.
Goodspeed and Mason set the V.X. chem rounds on the
mortician’s table. Goodspeed pulls out his EQUIPMENT
KIT. Begins detaching the tops of the chem rounds.
Goodspeed reaches inside a chem round and carefully
pulls out… a STRAND OF V.X. POISON PEARLS: ping-pong
ball sized glass bubbles filled with poison.
I need a hand here.
(Mason looks anxiously
at the poison pearls.)
Goodspeed hands the poison pearl strand to Mason. Mason
holds it like a string of wind chimes.
What… exactly does this do to
Any epidermal exposure or
inhalation and you’ll know: A
twinge at the small of your back as
the poison seizes the nervous
(hands over another
poison pearl strand)
Then loss of muscular function.
Then you spit your guts out, it
looks like a tub of spaghetti
spilled on the floor, then your
skin turns black…
Mason stares uneasily at the pearl strands.
Sounds like my first marriage.
Goodspeed has the chem round’s GUIDANCE SYSTEMS
exposed. Inside are tiny GUIDANCE SYSTEM MICRO-CHIPS.
Goodspeed plucks the chip from each chem round and
(into tac radio)
Pier 39 come in.
Goodspeed? Where the hell have you
been. Talk to me.
We’re in the morgue. I’m removing
the rocket’s guidance system chips.
Without em the rocketslll fly about
500 feet and splash down like a
Goodspeed moves on to the third and fourth chem rounds.
Suddenly there’s a BEEP. Goodspeed and Mason whirl.
Pvt. Gamble’s WALKIE TALKIE is talking to them:
Gamble, Starling. Come in.
Mason and Goodspeed exchange a nervous look.
Privates Gamble and Starling, come
EXT. ALCATRAZ – INFIRMARY COMMAND CENTER – NIGHT
Hummel clicks off his walkie-talkie. Stands there a
The morgue. Hummel and Baxter exit
INT. ALCATRAZ – MORGUE – NIGHT
Goodspeed goes faster; his hands are sweating,
trembling. It’s like he’s lost his spine. (And thinking
about Carla, perhaps he has.)
C’mon c’mon… faster…
Goodspeed nearly drops a chem round. Mason recoils.
I thought you were cool under
Shut up; you’re making me nervous.
EXT. ALCATRAZ – BETWEEN CELL HOUSE AND MORGUE – NIGHT
Hummel and his men race toward the morgue.
INT. ALCATRAZ – MORGUE – NIGHT
Goodspeed has dealt with eight chem rounds. There
should be seven more, but there’s not. Goodspeed counts
They’ll be on us in twenty seconds.
Wait a minute. Fuck. Hummel stole
fifteen chem rounds. There’s only
twelve here. Here. Quickly. Do
these last four.
Mason raises the poison pearl strands from each of the
remaining four chem rounds. Goodspeed quickly plucks
the chips from the guidance systems.
EXT. ALCATRAZ – MORGUE – NIGHT
Hummel and the marines converge on the morgue. Surround
the door. They burst inside, guns trained.
INT. ALCATRAZ – MORGUE – NIGHT
Cox, McCoy, and Darrow fire machine gun bursts at –
MASON AND GOODSPEED
Sprinting across floor, BULLETS chewing the floor. They
dive into the MORGUE INCINERATOR CHUTE, Goodspeed
leaving the tac radio behind…
INT. TUNNEL UNDER MORGUE – NIGHT
Goodspeed and Mason tumble out of the chute. Two MONO-
RAIL CARTS are hanging there. They exchange a look and
climb into the first cart. Mason throws the cart’s
RELEASE LEVER. The cart glides down the mono-rail.
INT. ALCATRAZ – MORGUE – NIGHT
Hummel goes to the mortician’s table. Sees the theft of
the guidance chips.
The key difference in using a novel vs. a screenplay to tell a story, is that where novels use adjectives to describe something, screenplays are meant to be visually reproduced. However, when it comes to dismantling bombs, planning heists, carrying out military incursions and especially in the use of computers and high tech, extreme attention to detail and accuracy of action.
- Storytelling Strategies: Argo and Recapitulation
- More What is a Story? by Jerry Flattum
- More Storytelling Strategies by Paul Joseph Gulino
- Meet the Reader: The Real Rules of Screenwriting
Tools to Help:
- Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc by Dara Marks
- Ten Steps to Break Into the Entertainment Industry On Demand Webinar by Charles Kipps
- Screenwriter’s Gift Pack
- Save the Cat Structure Software