a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Monday, June 30, 2008

Can You Hear Me Now?

I've read a lot of thrillers and horror scripts over the last few years, and many of them come to the inevitable point where the main character(s) could really use some outside help, but are unable to summon it.

The modern-day complication is that pretty much everyone has a cellphone, which has to be accounted for so that the possibility that it can actually be used can be eliminated.

Unfortunately, there seem to only be a few ways to tackle this, and most of them have become cliched, very familiar and fairly uninspired.

Too many people fall back on simply having themain characters BE OUT OF CELLPHONE RANGE, which can work if they are in the middle of the desert or out in the wilderness. But I've read a scary number of lazy scripts where characters find they have no cell phone reception, despite being in the middle of a suburban area. The last script the characters had this problem, they were locked in a high school.

An alternative is to DISPOSE OF THE CELL PHONE, either by having it destroyed or lost along the way. But easily the most cliched scene now is the workaholic guy whose wife/girlfriend/buddy throws his cellphone out the car window, so that they won't constantly be on it for what is supposed to be a restful holiday weekend. Never mind that most people have so much info on their phones now that this comes off as an immature, stupid act that would simply serve to piss the cellphone owner off.

Occasionally the problem is a DEAD BATTERY, though this is handled in melodramatic fashion, with the battery dying at just the wrong moment.

The other one that keeps cropping up is the LEFT BEHIND CELLPHONE, usually marked by an early scene in which someone tries to call the main character, only to have the requisite shot of the phone ringing where the characters were before, but no longer are now.


It's time to come up with some inspired ways to eliminate the cellphone logic hole. If you've got one in your script, see if you can eliminate it in some interesting, clever way.


At 11:42 AM, Blogger Spartickes said...

I recently dealt with cell phones as a semi important part of a crime story I wrote. When the hero finds out that he's probably being double crossed his contact list becomes mostly useless, he doesn't know who to trust anymore. His only source comes from his best friend who doesn't know the info he needs, but points him in the right direction, which leads the hero to have to do some classic, detective style legwork.

Probably not the most original solution, but I thought that giving a reason he couldn't make use of the cellphone that had to do with the characters rather than a bad service contract would be a fun idea to play with.

At 12:01 PM, Blogger deepstructure said...

hear, hear! we need to start a wiki for these and other cliched situations that should either never be used or require a unique treatment.

At 12:39 PM, Blogger Tavis Sarmento said...

How about if the person they need to call has left their cell phone at home?

At 2:05 PM, Blogger Emily Blake said...

The locked in the school situation would be easy to solve. Some schools won't allow cell phones on campus and will confiscate them. And school phones don't usually dial outside the campus phone system.

Somebody could mug you and steal your cell phone. Or maybe you drop it and it smashes. Or maybe you're hiding out in the bathroom and you fumble for it and it slips out of your hand and lands in the toilet. That would be a pretty intense scene.

At 2:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't own a cell phone.

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Brett said...

For one recent project, I invented a fungus that devours cellphones.

That's GOLD, Jerry-- GOLD!

At 5:36 PM, Blogger E.C. Henry said...

Scott, I'm guilty of having a main character of mine try to use her cell phone in Los Angeles only to find out her battery is dead. Should I be flogged?

Why not have the cell phone work in a thriller, having cops/help arrive in a horror or thriller just adds to the killer's body count.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

At 6:11 PM, Anonymous GE said...

The easiest thing in the world is to criticize, so tell me Scott. What would you do?

At 6:59 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

I'd say we flog EC but he'd probably enjoy it too much.

At 7:16 PM, Blogger Matt said...

I think in some states, schools can actually put up signal jammers so kids in school can't receive cell phone calls - so that would actually be pretty clever, as long as you planted the seed.

But for all their tricks, cell phones are still some of the most fragile devices on the market. Especially for a character in a thriller/horror movie, who's presumably taking a lot of falls, it shouldn't be too much of a leap to see him reach into his pocket and pull out nothing but cell-phone parts.

At 3:38 AM, Blogger Leif said...

How about running out of credits? Or the phone turns out to not work at all and the guy holding it is just trying to look cool?

And can't dismiss just pushing the problem to the other end. Have them have a phone and call someone who says they are coming to help but get waylaid themselves or something like that.

At 11:04 AM, Blogger Christian M. Howell said...

Good post. I see too many movies where a cell phoen would solve most prblems. I embrace the cell phone and BlueTooth wireless.

I mean, you can have the person not be there when you call or they can lose the phone number.

Funny enough, I have a story that revolves around being locked in a high school, but not only do the cell phones work, they can hack into police communications.

I would say that if the hero's life depends on a cell phone call, you are going the wrong way. I can see calling for backup, but not to get a rescuer.

At 10:04 AM, Blogger ryanpaige said...

Not for nothing, but my cellphone often hits dead areas in the middle or both urban and suburban areas.

Though it would seem cliched in a movie.

At 12:49 AM, Blogger Clare said...

We still have dead spots in towns here in the UK -- and you might still see me standing on my bed throwing my phone in the air hoping it will dispatch an SMS if I can get it high enough.

At 9:39 AM, Blogger deepstructure said...

as the saying goes; just because it happened doesn't make it realistic. we can defend our choices as screenwriters by pointing to real life examples, but the audience watching the film (rightly) doesn't give a damn.

At 9:34 PM, Anonymous Matt Bird said...

I agree that it's tough, but all of the stuff that Scott says he's tired of is still better than a movie where they simply fail to address the cell phone problem. You don't want the audience yelling "Don't they have cell phones?"

Ultimately, however, I think that if you're running into these issues, its indicative of a larger problem. Your heroes problem shouldn't be solvable just by calling someone. I think that, for a thriller to be great, there has to be an element of "no one will help me/ believe me".

Granted, this usually means one of three things:
1. There is a supernatural/sf element to the bad guy that no one will believe.
2. The hero is, rightly or wrongly, on the wrong side of the law.
3. The cops are in on the conspiracy.

All three of these have been used a lot, but there's a reason for that. Physical isolation with a nemesis isn't enough of a problem to sustain a thriller. There needs to be a element of existential/ societal isolation as well.

Or, to put it another way, a phone shouldn't solve the problem because, if it does, then your hero isn't the ONLY one who can solve this problem.

At 8:55 AM, Blogger bob said...


You clearly don't have Verizon. I live in the middle of suburbia and I drop calls all the time. he he.

I just discovered this blog by the way, good stuff!

At 5:52 AM, Blogger Chuck said...

As long as your hero and his love interest get immersed in water for the requisite soggy tee shot, then killing the cell phone should be easy.

Or you could miraculously keep it dry, only to escape to a laundromat and put it through the spin cycle.

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