In 2018, I decided to get to know the process of scriptwriting with a view to writing a screenplay for a science fiction conspiracy film. I’ve also taken a number of courses in video editing in order to understand how a story can be re-focused by the editing process.
Some people say this is all just an excuse for me to watch a whole batch of movies about aliens. The thing is, I don’t need any excuse to do that. I grew up on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and still think it’s the most magnificent movie I’ve ever seen.
Indulge me on this subject for a while…
I also don’t mind the 1998 edit of Close Encounters either – that’s the one known as the “Director’s Cut” aka the “Collector’s Edition“. Although in adding in new scenes for that version, Spielberg had to cut others out from the 1977 version, including the famous pillow scene. And therein lies a small problem…
The thing is, our protagonist Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) still refers to seeing the mysterious shape in the pillow in the 1998 edit, but we never see him see it, because that scene was cut – and so we are left questioning what on Earth he’s on about when he refers to it. Not good.
Earlier on in the 1998 version, a good minute and a half of the 1977 version has also deleted – the sequence inside the power station – but that’s OK because its loss doesn’t affect our understanding of the events, nor does it create any inconsistency. We find out that Roy is an electrical engineer when he’s at home and is called out to work one night and we don’t need to hear the dialogue inside the power station to understand that.
We do, of course, need to see what he does after he leaves the power station – that’s absolutely key to the story – and although the power station sequence informs us precisely where he is going (to Crystal Lake) and why (to look for a power line that’s gone down), Neary’s conversation with himself on the road gets that message across to us well enough. It’s this scene here:
Having said all that, I was rather fond of the power station scene, because it highlights how much of a geek Roy is (if we hadn’t already cottoned on to that, having seen his vast model train set in his living room).
Cutting out the power station sequence does, however, provide time for the SS Cotopaxi scene to be inserted, a scene which works well to add more intrigue to the parallel strand of the story that follows the government’s plans for the actual close encounter of the third kind and the attempted cover-up.
But I do put my foot down when it comes to watching the 1980 edit known as the “Special Edition” which includes a sequence inside the alien spaceship, right at the end of the story. I watched it once, long ago, and will never watch it again. And from what I have read online, Spielberg regrets having been forced to make the edit. So I am in good company.
I could talk about Close Encounters until the abductees come home. Because it’s important. Because it means something. And if you are a lifelong fan like me, you will know perfectly well just what I mean by that.
But it’s not just aliens that feed my appetite for sci-fi drama. I devoured every one of the original Planet of the Apes film franchise – that means the films made between 1968 and 1973 – which I discovered in the mid-seventies after having been introduced to the saga through watching the 1974 TV series spin-off as a child. And I was not disappointed at all with the recent POTA reboot trilogy (Rise, Dawn and War). But, like the “Special Edition” of Close Encounters, I will never watch the 2001 POTA remake again.
I have also watched almost every asteroid and comet impact disaster movie ever made, from the very first – a silent film called The End Of The World, which was released in 1916 in the aftermath of the panic invoked by the passage of Halley’s Comet in 1910 – right up to date, replete with far-fetched storylines that threaten to put an abrupt and unexpected end to our planet.
I wrote a blog post summarising all of these asteroid and comet impact disaster movies, which you can read here. If you do read it and think I’ve missed anything out, let me know (but it is only impacts and closely related themes that I’m interested in for that, not disasters due to natural processes on Earth).
Let me just clarify: watching all these movies isn’t just for entertainment; it forms part of my background research into understanding how to structure a story, a script, a story in a script, a story within a story, and analysing dialogue, as well as seeing how characters can evolve and the best way to structure the plot for maximum impact.
I’ve dissected the structure of many scripts, including the available online scripts for some of the original and POTA reboots and for Close Encounters in order to pick apart the act structures and plot points.
I’ve spent some time analysing draft pilot scripts for a number of (non-science fiction) TV shows and dramas, noting which elements changed between the original script and the pilot that aired. This has helped me understand, in terms of characters, what had to be changed in order for the show to work.
Currently, I have two script ideas running simultaneously: one for a film, which is chugging along nicely, and one for a TV drama series, which exists only in my head for now.
The script that is still mainly in my head is based around a small society called S.E.A.R.C.H., the Society of Eccentric Asteroid, Rock and Comet Hunters. To get into the mindset of how the Society operates, I produced some trial issues of a monthly magazine and no doubt this will feature in the story, along with its annual meetup, as the Society goes about its daily membership business. I must say, you do meet some interesting personalities when you go to conventions and conferences in this field.
My more progressed idea for a film – and the one on which I am actively working – is a speculative sequel to a decades-old science fiction classic. Conspiracy. Disappearances. Repressed memories. Old technology. New technology. Astronomy. Geology. And there will, of course, be a fated reporter on the trail. I’m currently doing research with vintage equipment to make sure that the two key pieces of evidence for my plot hold up to scrutiny when revisited decades later.
Keep a look out.