Last month I was introduced by producer Calix Lewis Reneau to the practice of timing movies at a workshop hosted by Scriptwriter’s Network. The practice involves timing the beats of a movie – observing when crucial scenes occur, or when information is revealed to the audience. I got much more out of this exercise than I expected to. Training Day, starring Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, was the movie I chose to time.
For the first 20 minutes, information is revealed, on average, every 26 seconds. In that first 20 minutes, we learn the setup. It’s morning. It’s a big day for Jake. He has a partner and a baby. He’s lower middle class, and he’s nervous about a meeting. There is a lot riding on this meeting. The person he’s meeting (Alonzo) is charming towards women, but not warm and fuzzy. On the contrary, Alonzo is mysterious, an alpha male, and kind of an asshole. We learn that both Jake and Alonzo are married fathers. However, although Alonzo has four sons, Jake is the only one of the two who respects women, or his marriage.
Most importantly, we learn that Jake is desperately ambitious, and that Alonzo feeds off that desperation the way a lion feeds on antelope. This is clearly demonstrated both by Alonzo’s demand that Jake take drugs while on the job, and Jake’s speedy acquiescence to this demand – despite the pangs of his conscience. The struggle between Alonzo’s demands and Jake’s nagging conscience is the primary antagonistic relationship in the movie.
The movie as a whole times out to average 36.4 seconds between beats. This seems appropriate for an action movie, since the goal is to keep the audience on the edge of its seat. The beats come closer together during crucial moments, such as when Jake finally chooses his own conscience over career success under Alonzo. The beats are further apart during moments that need to be lingered over, such as when Jake defies Alonzo with the help of “The Jungle’s” residents, signifying Alonzo’s humiliation and downfall.
Analyzing this wonderful movie, which I’ve seen several times, has helped me to enjoy it even more. As a writer, I can appreciate the strategic timing of important exposition, and the skill it takes to do this in a subtle way.
Storytelling is a fine art. It is also a craft that can be learned and honed over time. I expect that approaching movies this way, with the mindset of an engineer – taking it apart to see how it works – can only serve me in the future as I continue to write scripts. This is something that I will continue to do regularly.
Have a happy and productive weekend!
And keep in mind what Alonzo’s tattoo said: Death is certain. Life is not.
Peace and love,