Am I writing this blog to point out the unoriginality in Hollywood?!? No. Both of these movies were probably my favorite movies from this year, and I can’t wait to watch them again! If they made this kind of movie a 3rd time with Chris Pratt, I’d pay to watch that too!
I guess the reason I wanted to write about this is mostly just because I’m trying to get better at writing and story structure is what I’m trying to improve upon. It seems like it’s the first thing any writer should learn before getting started on a first screenplay/treatment/pilot/short, and yet it’s the last thing any aspiring writer wants to accept.
“You mean there’s a How-To Book that tells me HOW I HAVE to write my stories?! Writing isn’t something you can learn from a book!”
Well, yes, kinda. Several, actually. But you can’t look at it like that. There are good books on how to write a feature/pilot, and I’m sure there are just as many or more bad books on the subject. I look at this kind of supplemental reading like this. Movies have been around for a long time, longer than most of these books. Movies came first, and anyone who writes a book with a bunch of “how to” structures is just creating structures based on those the movies they saw. Then once you apply these structures and templates to other movies, you can sort of see the patterns form (even though these patterns are very very loose). And, if you’re trying to write a feature, it’s probably not a bad idea to fit your story loosely into one of these patterns.
Even though Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie fit a relatively loose pattern (and it is loose), they are far from the same movie. And they’re both great!
First, even though Chris Pratt plays both the leads in these movies, he plays VERY different characters (in my opinion). In Lego, the character of Emmet is sort of a pathetic character that we pity. When we first meet Emmet, he’s an outcast in a world that doesn’t have outcasts. Everyone in Legoland is the same and they’re just all kinds happy about it! They even sing a song about being a part of a team every single day! Even when he gets banded together with his outcast crew to save the day… he’s sort of the outcast there! Most of his new friends don’t necessarily believe in him for like half the movie. But we want him to succeed, because despite the fact that no one likes him or accepts him, he’s just so positive and only wants to help everybody!
Chris Pratt’s character in Guardians (Peter Quill, Star Lord), is just so cool! He’s an outcast (literally stolen away from his parents as a child), but he’s definitely slick. He’s different form Emmet because he’s who we aspire to be, but with a few flaws to kind of make him relatable. He’s a little bit of a bumbling hero. He’s not the most efficient, the most skilled, but no matter what pickle he gets himself into he finds a way to slip out of it in a clever way that makes us like him for it. He’s Han Solo, or basically Indiana Jones.
Just a brief note, in both films all the characters don’t really like each other at first, but have to band together to save the day, and in doing so become friends by the end of the film. In Guardians, they’re literally attacking each other at the beginning, in Lego Movie everyone just kind of thinks of Emmet as a big disappointment, but he’s the only one with enough spirit to rally everyone together for the third act.
Even the structure is pretty different when you put it under a microscope. Obviously there’s the stuff I listed above, but a ten bullet summary doesn’t make a whole movie. The first acts of both movies are INCREDIBLY SIMILAR, but still have their own style. In the Lego Movie, the artifact (Piece of Resistance) comes into play a little later in the first act than Guardians of the Galaxy (if I remember correctly).
In Lego, the sequence goes something like:
opening image (Lord Business and the prophecy)
SEVERAL YEARS LATER
Character Scenes (we see WyldStyle, but we don’t really meet her much)
Meet friends when they escape
In Guardians it goes a little:
SEVERAL YEARS LATER
Artifact immediately shows up!
Meet friends before custody!
Go to prison, and then prison kind of becomes the second act of the film.
In Lego we spend a little more time with Emmet before he finds the artifact, and we see a day in his life and why he doesn’t fit in and how everyone kind of makes fun of him, then he finds the artifact and everything changes. InGuardians, we see Peter Quill dance around a little bit, but then he immediately picks up the artifact, and THEN we get to know him. Turns out he has a nickname he gave himself (Star Lord), he’s kind of cocky, but he’s very able (shoots all the bad guys and narrowly escapes), he has that moment where he forgot he even had that alien girl in his ship (He’s so cool!). Then he has a very character revealing conversation with Yandu, before trying to sell the artifact and getting into custody.
The second act of the films are obviously very different! But here’s how they’re similar. This is just a very, very brief summary of what happens, but in both films they sort of spend the first half of the movie evading the villain, then they spend the second half pursuing the villain with a plan to take him down. In Legothey go to West World and narrowly evade Bad Cop. In Guardians they go to prison and escape just before Ronan The Accuser shows up.
In Lego the next world they go to is Unikitty Land, they bring the Piece of Resistance to the Council, where they should tell Emmet what to do next and then the story’s over happily ever after, right? But then Bad Cop invades, takes the artifact, and now our hero has to take the fight to the villain in order to save the whole universe!
In Guardians the next world we go to is Knowhere, the home of The Collector, who is about to pay our heroes an impossible sum of money for the artifact they found, and then they ride off into the sunset happily ever after, right? But then Ronan invades, takes the artifact, and now our hero has to take the fight to the villain in order to save the whole universe!
In the second half of the second act (just after Ronan takes the artifact), the characters in Guardians hatch a plan to infiltrate Ronan’s ship to stop him. Same thing happens in Lego Movie just after Bad Cop takes the artifact.
You know, as I’m writing this, I forget how I thought these parts of the movie were different… But look they just are!
The third act of both movies is just sort of the pay off for the entire movie. They obviously have to stop the villains. In both movies, a supporting character has to sacrifice themselves. In Lego it’s Vitruvius, and in Guardians it’s Groot. Also the main character has to sacrifice themselves, but then the power was inside them all along! In Guardians, Peter Quill faces Ronan head on (distracts him), and grabs the orb (even though it’s power should kill him), turns out he can handle it with the help of his friends (and also he’s like secretly an ancient alien race turns out). In Lego, Emmet chooses to sacrifice himself by jumping out of the tower, he lands outside the Lego Playset, but through powers that we don’t truly understand he WILLS himself to move (because he’s The Special), and he somehow makes it back into the Playset and talks Lord Business down from gluing everybody in place!
They really are different though!!!
As you can see, the structure of both movies is very very similar. But does that make them bad? Or unoriginal? No! Both are huge hits this year. These are the two freshest movies out there right now! Literally both are fresh on Rotten Tomatoes! Guardians, 92%, Lego movie, 96%. What makes them original and new is the characters and the directing, and the writing. Structure of a movie doesn’t mean the writing of a movie. That meta-scene where Emmet falls out of the Playset and there’s a live action scene with Will Ferrell, there’s nothing that meta in Guardians. Even though they both have that “sacrifice” moment we talked about, the Lego Movie did something that you can say you’ve “never seen before”. And even though both movies had an escape from prison scene,Lego Movie did it in the First Act, Guardians did it in the Second, and I thoughtGuardians did it… not “better” but “funnier”. In Lego movie it’s a lot of action, and you get introduced to the concept of a “special” and a “master builder”, but in Guardians, it’s definitely funnier. Groot prematurely triggers the plan, Rocket Raccoon asks for a guys leg, Drax the Destroyer can’t understand sarcasm. There’s just a lot of jokes flying at you. So even though both these scenes are in both movies, they’re at different spots in the movie, and they’re totally different scenes!
Structure should be there to tell you kind of the journey your characters need to go on, but you still need to write the movie! You still have to come up with the characters and who they are. You have to come up with scenes that stay clever, that get meta, that stay fresh, etc. Don’t put that break-up scene in a restaurant! People have seen that and restaurants are boring! Put it in a car wash, or a drive-thru, something we haven’t seen before! Then think about what could happen in that NEW scenario. What if it were in a crime scene? You know where everyone has the CSI suits? Because then no one would recognize each other. Now that’s a different scene that is new and fresh to an audience, which is what Edgar Wright did in Hot Fuzz.
That’s what writing is, and using a template as a guide isn’t a cardinal sin. I have a lot of friends that are comedians, so maybe they can relate to it this way: when you write a joke, even if it’s new and original and fresh, it still has to go in a certain order. No one’s telling you it needs an act-out, and no one’s telling you it needs a reference, or a pun. But if you have any of these, it’s probably not a good idea to put them before the set-up. That’s just the structure of a joke to make it work. Premise, first punchline, then tags go here, act out if you got it. And that’s very general… you still have to write your own damn joke. But when you do, don’t start with a tag, then act something out, and then give me the premise at the end. (Or maybe do, maybe you have the Memento of jokes). But a decent joke is usually about 1-2 minutes, and a longer “bit” is maybe 5, and even then a lot of times you need to work it out to see what order it should go in. A pilot is 22 minutes, and a feature is about 100. You still have to write your own damn episode or your own damn movie, but when you’re tackling something between 4 and 20 times the size of a joke, it’s probably not a bad idea to take a couple pointers from somebody else that made it work.