It was my birthday last week, so I went to watch John Krasinski's A Quiet Place. My wife is a huge Jim/The Office fan, and I had heard the reviews for the film were stellar. But as with all horror flicks, I was a little sceptical about the premise. Aliens? A post-apocalyptic America? A silent film? All of it sounded awfully familiar. And at a lean 95 minutes, I assumed this would be another not-so-memorable film that screamed: Straight-to-TV.
But, damn, was I wrong.
A Quiet Place has got to be one of my favourite movies of 2018, and maybe one of my favourite suspense thrillers of recent years. Not only is it a nerve-shredding thriller that makes your pulse work overtime (probably because it's in your throat), it's also a tightly hewn family drama with high emotional stakes. For those that haven't watched it, and to prevent spoilers, here is the logline description:
A family is forced to live in silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound.
Now I don't know about you, but this has got to be one of the best loglines I have ever read. It’s short, clear and conjures heaps of visceral mental imagery. In terms of getting the crux of the story, I don't think you can write it any better. It makes me lean in. But let's break it down further.
Family + Monster that Hunts by Sound = Suspense + Conflict
A Quiet Place begins with a family on-the-run in a small town, but soon descends into a dreadful parable that explores how society is driven to its breaking point. At the same time, I was stunned by the script's ability to craft an engaging family drama, a cuticle-gnawing thriller and a sci-fi monster romp that is actually fun to watch.
And then there's the unique sensory experience of sitting with other cinemagoers as they whispered, hushed and screamed in a nearly silent theatre. The sound design was so unique, pulling back when it needed to, and totally rejecting the need for explosions and jump scares. They're cheap, let's face it.
Now A Quiet Place isn't a perfect film. But what it does well, it does really really well. So well, that I had to take a look at the box office results (correct as of April 24).
Did you see that? The movie has nearly made 10 times its budget! If you were a producer or an investor in the film, I can imagine you could say "Ka-ching" right about now.
So what about the movie makes it such a huge success? Is it the simple, sparse but effective writing? Yes, for sure. Is it the skilled directing? Without a doubt. Is it the wonderful production design and acting? Yes to all these elements, please. But for me it's also the central concept, which was the foundation of why the screenplay sold on the first place.
After some research, I read the original script was designed to be a page-turner, a frightening thriller about a small family, and easily produced. It also had just one word of dialogue. Screenwriters, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, put in diagrams and drawings to illustrate some key scenes as they wanted the reading of the script to be an experience. Now that's an ingenuous idea that goes against anything you've learnt in a scriptwriting textbook. So for me, A Quiet Place excels for one important reason.
It's the epitome of a satisfying High Concept idea
Now a High concept film is a term that is rarely referred to in Singapore. I've heard it, but on the whole, teachers, students and filmmakers seem afraid of its connotation that High concept = High-budget. It doesn't mean that at all. I've even met some filmmakers that feel this approach is selling out. Oh dear. No wonder we're stuck as an industry.
Now, Singapore doesn't have millions of dollars to spend on a film budget. The average may be anything from $50k - $700k on the high side. Forget about Jack Neo-like budgets for the average producer. Plus, Singapore's pool of "bankable" stars is small. We rely on connections to regional actors and actresses to make some films travel. So, what do we really have if we boil down the core of what we can do better?
Our original premises
That's it really isn't it? If we don't have scale and resources, we need effectiveness. Singapore's film industry is hampered in terms of budgets, stars, and what we can feasibly achieve production-wise. There are topics we can't tackle, lest we want to forget a theatrical release. But to me, these are just creative constraints. In my opinion, if we don't have the budget, the production capabilities, or the stars, maybe, just maybe, we need to think in terms of High Concept more often.
And it's my honest belief that for the Singapore film industry to grow, we need to start producing hits that span locally, internationally and globally. Less art films. Less films vying for awards at Cannes. Less films that are ONLY understood by locals.
We need to grow our creative repertoire.
We need films that tackle universal themes.
We need films that are written well and make $$$.
We need films that are conceptualised to do both.
Films like A Quiet Place, Get Out, It Follows, Paranormal Activity and The Purge—Blumhouse Productions have nailed the formula—drive profits, awards and careers all at once. The focus is on a great story told in a modest way. Less risk, but with more of a chance that you can make a profit. So it makes sense that Singapore needs to create more High concept films like A Quiet Place. But the question is: how?
Decoding the High Concept - Don't be afraid
If you're a (starving) filmmaker, producer, screenwriter, or someone that wants to create/sell content, you could benefit a lot from the idea of High-Concept. Simply put:
A High Concept is a hooky idea that is understood by everyone. Immediately.
For Hollywood, High concept scripts are not new. In fact, thousands of scripts are being shopped around with that buzzword attached. It all starts with a WHAT IF? question that sparks ideas, scenes, characters and universal themes. And most importantly, the idea must feel cinematic. Here are a few examples:
What if a theme park, filled with living dinosaurs, suffers a security failure and the dinosaurs escaped to eat the inhabitants?
What if alien monsters from another dimension started attacking humankind and Earth built giant robots to fight them?
What if a stunningly charismatic cop realised a bus had a bomb and it would blow up if it went slower than 60mph?
Okay, I edited that but you get the idea? A High concept is all about creating a premise that screams: TAKE MY MONEY. Not the characters, not the direction, not the emotional character arcs, or the moving theme you have planned. All these are a given. They are inherent in writing a script anyway. What it is really about is a concept that makes us go "ooooh" when we read it. But it also goes deeper than that.
1. The High Concept Idea combines themes and ideas that are understood by everyone. It is commercial.
Look at the online poster above. Do you get what the movie is selling from a ten second glance? What about the genre, style, stars and elements of the plot? I'm sure you have some ideas. Good. That's the point. Because you've already made up your mind if you want to see it from just this image alone. It's not a bad thing. It's human psychology.
You've been hooked.
High Concept ideas combine ideas and themes that have stood the test of time to attract and sustain your attention. They are understood by everyone and already have in-built audiences. That's why it is so important. You're not trying to reinvent the wheel. You're trying to make a unique wheel inspired by the design of the old one. Therefore, there are several touch-points you can tap into to make it more easily sold and understood.
It's not writing down. It's writing smart.
Here are a few traits attached to Protagonists in High concept ideas:
● Has experienced some undeserved misfortune
● Has secrets
● Has fears
● A crucial desire
● A central vice
● A central virtue
● Makes decisions
● Performs actions based on those decisions
● Usually an underdog of some kind
● Has an interesting job and or some unusual skill
● The quintessential representation of his or her kind
Harry Potter? Luke Skywalker? Chris Washington from Get Out? You get it. After you have the basis of a compelling protagonist, look at what other films have been successful. Here are a few that rank up there.
● Historical Disasters
● Cool Cars
● Secret Agents
● Time Travel
Forget about making your artistic HDB drama, or your exploration of the human desire through inanimate objects...for now. A High Concept idea is designed to be business-driven first and foremost. Once you've decided that, you can merge compelling characters with topics that attract those audiences. It's not even formulaic. The creativity is in combining these tropes and interests to make something new and exciting again. That's what a writer does. That's your craft.
Now, these ideas should have mass appeal--but be careful. You don't always have to target the masses, as the masses don't want anything particular. That's why they are called 'The Masses'. It's always better to go niche with your premise to appeal to smaller, hardcore fans of a genre. These audiences will fully understand the film's specific language, whether it's horror, suspense, sci-fi or fantasy. And if it's really really good, your niche audience will share the idea with others to come see it. Then it becomes big. Then it might become a phenomenon.
Because every hit, from A Quiet Place to Da Vinci Code to Harry Potter, was a surprise hit.
This happened with A Quiet Place. The film focuses on a family trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where aliens hunt by echolocation. The characters are likeable, driven and want more than anything to survive to see the birth of their child. But it's not your typical Hollywood smash and grab. When things go bad--opening scene level bad--what begins is a bone-crunching ride that doesn't let up until the climatic scene. But it's still smart and unique.
So let's unpack that:
- Family themes (Characters)
- Relatable, interesting characters (Father, pregnant mother, scared son, deaf daughter)
- Visible goals (Survive, see birth of child, stay in farm)
- An antagonistic force that is seemingly unstoppable. (Aliens)
When combined, these elements have the potential for audiences to share the idea quickly. This is what happened with A Quiet Place. Audiences and celebrities were so intrigued by the experience of a silent sci-fi film that they told others. Word of mouth then made the film an undeniable hit.
The main subject of the film can be specific and niche. The characters and topic can be new. The point is we get it straight away.
2. It has a story and characters we can relate to - or at least know.
You've been through it or know someone that's been through it. It's not centred on an alien life-form's mating ritual. Instead, this story could be about us, no matter where we live. Or at least someone we know.
A father trying to earn the respect of his children.
A teenage boy trying to impress a girl at school.
A little girl trying to win a contest for fame.
An artist trying to earn enough money to earn his freedom and travel the world.
A mother trying to protect her family.
For A Quiet Place, there were themes of family, protectionism, isolation, tribal instincts, disability and the extremes parents will go to ensure their survival. There was even an indictment of Trump's America if you look closely enough. Themes galore. But on the whole, we get what the characters are going through and connect with it in some way. We've experienced some of these spectrums. We've felt them.
3. The premise makes people perk up and say, "Ooooh! Go on".
If you pitch it tomorrow to a friend over lunch, you have a winning idea if they say "Go on." You've hooked them. And if you’re doing it right, this means more people may want to watch it unfold on screen.
Like with A Quiet Place's logline, the central premise is one that immediately sparks images, scenes and emotions without you really thinking about it at all. It's VISUAL, EVOCATIVE, and SEEDS scenarios that ricochet in the brain like a furious pinball. If you can compel one person to desperately ask "What then?", it can certainly compel others to pay for it to find out the answer.
So never forget the power of hooking your audience's attention in a smart, emotional and NOT CHEAP way. No hoodwinking tricks, please. Patience isn't always a virtue. Do it good, fast, effectively. Because once we're into your story and hooked, you'll have a much easier time telling that special story or message you want them to hear.
4. High Concept ideas are easier to finance, cast, distribute, sell, make a profit and launch careers.
Let me mention it again: Using High Concepts is not selling out. It's simply tapping into a method that can help boost the prospects of your film and your career. It strengthens the potential that your idea will sell, have financial legs and be seen by people. And, at the end of the day, ask yourself: why wouldn't you want to increase the chances that your film/content is a success? Answer: So you can make more.
But I didn't say you don't have to write a KICKASS SCRIPT, people.
YOU DO. Singapore and Asia’s collective film industry is also different from Hollywood. It has different sensibilities, cultural nuances and filmmaking styles. So do the work, figure it out, and then write your script with a High Concept idea in mind.
But to start, forget about what can or cannot be done for now. Just write, create, produce. Don’t be defeated at the beginning. This is a common trend I see with writers and filmmakers. They repeat tired adages like: Singapore will never be able to compete with Hollywood. No money.
Well here's an idea: We don't need to. We can create our own content that is totally different from other parts of the world. We can create our own playing field. If that means low-budget--let's do that. Because the benefits of starting this trend on your own could change your industry forever. Why? Because you own it.
So what are 3 Things Singapore filmmakers can take away from A Quiet Place and its High Concept approach?
1. Create film premises that combine familiar themes but in unique settings: a monster in a family HDB drama; time travel during a 7-Eleven robbery; magic in a school dance studio etc.
These are subjects and interests that can resonate and plant butts in seats. People want to feel escapism, to be transported, to be thrilled, feel in love, and have fun. It's not an intellectual exercise in logic. It’s understanding what audiences want out of their movie-going experience and presenting them with it, before you show surprise them with how original it actually is. Just as long as it sparks people's interest and makes them think, "I might check that out."
2. Think creatively about the HOW. Can you set the story in only a few places? Can the concept be congruent with your minimal budget and still deliver the same thrills?
What about actors? Can you create a story about only one or two characters that are stuck in an impossible situation? You're the creator. You can do anything. Stop creating excuses. Don't just be a writer. Be an engineer. Place the elements in a soup. Cook em'. Do what you want to be paid to do.
3. Openly pitch and discuss the idea with others. Take your time. JUST START AND MAKE IT.
MAKE IT WORK from the ground up. It all starts with starting: pen that script, write that treatment, contact that producer you've been meaning to have tea with. Open up. Pitch your ideas. Don't be afraid to dump them if they don't work. Stop worrying about "giving away your baby". Your baby isn't real. It's an invisible baby you care too much about. It has no value in your head or sitting in your harddisk. Collaborate. Put it out there. Get people listening. Get them talking.
And so, before I go, let me try to create a High Concept film for Singapore!
For the last few days, I've been thinking of a High Concept idea I would like to develop. Maybe you can help me. It will be set in Singapore with Singaporean characters but it's designed to be sold anywhere in the world. My aim is to take familiar concepts and combine them in a unique scenario that will get people interested enough to pay money to experience it. Let's see if we can do that. So here's my pitch.
Working Title: 100 Days to No-one (90 min feature)
Logline: When a breed of mosquitos is discovered to spread a deadly disease that wipes human memories, a timid mother struggles to protect her family in an abandoned mall amidst urban chaos. But when her son is bitten, she realises she must find a cure or risk losing everything she has ever loved.
There you have it! Now I'm not saying this is the best movie idea ever, but I'm sure you can see some potential. What are the familiar elements were are combining here to promise an unique, exciting and cinematic experience?
- Mosquitos that transfer a memory-loss disease: Touching upon Singapore's long-lasting "fight" against Dengue, Zika, SARS and even mental health issues. Our fear of being infected by anything is universal in nature.
- A Singaporean family stuck in an abandoned mall. Originally it was a HDB flat, but I realised this might not be universally understood. I'm not trying to dilute Singapore culture, but attempting to focus on the best of two worlds. A mall setting seemed more compelling.
- The protagonist is a timid mother that must transform into a survivor. Perhaps a reverse of your typical "auntie" stereotype. No queuing for Hello Kitty for her. No, this auntie will become a ruthless, violent force of nature that we may come to care about.
- Minimal dialogue because of the tension-filled atmosphere.
- Low light. Indoor settings mostly. Outdoor settings for the money shots, showing mosquitos.
- Another theme: If they're sequestered in a mall, this could imply the family is without food and water, especially the water part.
- A visible goal: survive and find a cure.
- Urban chaos: The hint that society has fallen, a fantasy we rarely see in Singapore. This also implies that other people could be sources of conflict too.
- The Unstoppable Antagonist: VFX Mosquitos. Mindless, swarm-like mists of death. One bite and you forget who you are. High stakes. Our characters will need to adapt. Imagine a swarm of mozzies seeping slowly into the mall, surrounding our characters, licking their skins. We already have a set-piece!
And there you have it! I might write it. High Concept films, again, are not easy. This is just a guide. Making anything takes time, effort and an understanding of what sells. It involves taking off your writer hat and putting on your producer and marketing hat. And it doesn't guarantee an automatic success. But if you want to create entertainment that makes money, engages audiences on an emotional level, and sustains a career, you wouldn't do wrong by it.
So play the long-game. Art films, psychological dramas, character pieces--there will always be a place for them. We need these films to push artistic and storytelling boundaries. They are important. But sometimes, we can dream on other scales. We can create films that are not afraid to tap into thrilling spectacles in small, intimate settings. We can create business and art at the same time. And, at the end of the day, isn't it why we create stories and go to the cinema in the first place?