What Can We Steal From the Feature Film Hit and Run?
Title of Work and its Form: Hit and Run, feature film
Author: Written by Dax Shepard (on Twitter @daxshepard1). Directed by David Palmer (on Twitter @palmerman) and Dax Shepard.
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: The film has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. As of this writing, the film can be viewed on Netflix Instant. Want to see the official trailer?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization
Charlie Bronson (Dax Shepard) has a beautiful new life. He lives in a small town with a knockout girlfriend who is as brilliant as she is attractive. The Witness Protection Program has helped him get away from the problems in his old life and everything is perfect, until…INCITING INCIDENT. Annie (Kristen Bell) gets a dream job in L.A. Even though he knows he’s putting himself in danger, Charlie realizes that he must not only force Annie to go, he must abandon the Program and go with her. COMPLICATION: Annie must get her “teaching certificate” from her creepy ex-boyfriend. The ex-boyfriend uncovers Charlie’s real identity and gets the bad guys, Charlie’s former partners, on his trail. This is a road trip/car chase movie; I don’t want to summarize any further; just watch the movie and enjoy the twists and turns for yourself! (You’ll love Kristen Bell’s performance; she’s electric in everything she does. I’m pretty excited for the Veronica Mars movie.)
Before I get into my analysis, I have to point out that Mr. Shepard is one of the folks of whom I should be terribly jealous. Thankfully, I’m a tiny bit mature and I can get over it. Mr. Shepard and I were both born in Michigan (Warren represent!) and both of us are writers and funny people. Mr. Shepard played Frito Pendejo in the best film of all time: Idiocracy. (I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer, but I hope I’d be a little better than Frito.)
Mr. Shepard has pointed out in several interviews that, after having many scripts optioned into Development Hell, he wrote Hit and Run based upon what he would like to see on the screen. Instead of trying to calculate which characters and situations and jokes would reach the largest audience (or would appeal to the most studio executives), he told the kind of story he would enjoy. I don’t know how other writers feel, but I often wrote “for others” when I was a teen. I would try to write like Raymond Carver. This didn’t work. Why? I’m not Raymond Carver. A writer must privilege his or her muse over the desires of others. (At least most of the time.)
Another of the many great choices Mr. Shepard made was to devote a great deal of time to his characters, even in a car chase movie. Think about a Transformers film. There’s lots of stuff blowing up, sure, but we don’t really care about what is being blown up or why. Mr. Shepard allows Charlie and Annie to have several discussions in which they share their outlooks on the world. These characters seem like real people, so we care when the inevitable troubles erupt. And I love that Annie is only angry with Charlie when she really needs to be. When she does “start fights” in the film, she is doing it because of the real problems she sees in their relationship, and not just because Mr. Shepard needed a complication for the turning point of Act 2.
So Hit and Run doesn’t have a lot in common with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Mr. Shepard and Mr. Palmer do, however, mimic James Cameron in at least one important way. Instead of springing elements upon you, Mr. Shepard and Mr. Palmer make them very clear. Tom Arnold plays a U.S. Marshal who doesn’t handle his weapon in a very safe manner. This part of his character is made clear very early on. Later in the film, the Marshal is driving. We see the gun drop to the floorboard and KNOW what is going to happen and we KNOW it makes sense. There’s a moment in the film in which Charlie and Annie accidentally enter the wrong hotel room. (You need to see for yourself.) At first, I figured this was just a funny beat meant to enhance the comedy. Several minutes later, I was pleased to see that Mr. Shepard made that moment do some actual work in the story and it enhanced the suspense of the chase that was occurring. The point is that a writer must lay the groundwork so the surprises in a story seem inevitable.
What Should We Steal?
- Write the piece YOU would want to read. Homogenized writing is often boring and why try to be Stephen King? Stephen King is Stephen King.
- Devote time to your characters. Audiences are far less likely to care about lovers if they don’t have a hint as to what makes them or their situation unique.
- Telegraph what will happen in your work to make the events seem inevitable. I have trouble believing that a U.S. Marshal has trouble keeping his weapon safe. I will believe this is the case if you make it clear early on and in a graceful manner.