Bodyguard

18 Screenwriting Tips from “The Bodyguard”

The_Bodyguard_1992_Film_PosterThese tips are not concrete in any fashion. They are merely suggestions based upon a closer look at various films and examining why they do or don’t work. So there’s no confusion, I include myself in the audience these tips are compiled for. Let’s see what today’s title has to offer us…

I saw this film a few years back and didn’t really pay much attention to it. Then I read how this was originally envisioned for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross. I wondered what was so great about it that people still wanted to make it fifteen years after being written. As it turns out, a lot.

It was written by Lawrence Kasdan. A name that should resonate with any movie fan, having written “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” And another little
movie you may have heard of called “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

This is also the first script he wrote. According to him, it was reject 67 times. This baffles me, since there’s so much right about this movie. Lawrence Kasdan proves in his first writing effort that he’s smarter than most guys in the room. What exactly can we learn from this movie? Let’s find out…

BEWARE: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

  1. Jump Right In: Within the first five minutes, we know everything we need to know in order to be totally engrossed. We know the protagonist, the job/goal. All they do in the first two scenes is establish Frank Farmer as a weathered professional. We don’t even need to see him protecting his client in the beginning. We just hear the shots, we fade in, we see Frank handling the situation, we see him protecting his client and we see several guys dead.In the next scene, the client is still shaken up.He asks Frank how he knew what was going to happen. Frank, from all his years of experience says, “He was washing the car. They don’t wash cars in the garage.” That’s all we need. In another movie, they might show the whole sequence. But that would’ve taken too long. By cutting right to the heart of the scene, Frank in his element, we’re not having to sit through a one or two minute scene to get to this important piece of information.
  2. Instant Conflict: This happens right after Frank takes his latest job: (Protecting superstar singer Rachel Marron from a stalker intent on killing her.) As soon as he gets to her mansion, he’s greeted by Rachel thinking his addition is unnecessary. She takes a jab at him when he says he protected Ronald Reagan, saying Reagan got shot. Frank simply replies “Not when I was on duty.”There’s also immediate conflict with Sy, Rachel’s publicist. He tries to play up Rachel to Frank, denoting an extravagant bedroom set they used for a magazine spread; Sy asks if Frank saw the fruits of his labor, to which Frank replies that he hadn’t. Sy and Rachel’s manager Bill (the guy who hired Frank) disagree on how severe this stalker case is. Sy tries to downplay it and not bother Rachel with it, since he doesn’t want it worrying her.
  3. Kids in Movies: This is where a lot of movies fall flat. In most examples, the kids only exist simply to show a character has a family. This is a case where the use of children is done well. Rachel’s son Fletcher is one of the main reasons Frank was hired. He is Rachel’s world. She doesn’t want him scared or made aware of Frank being a bodyguard. This is why she’s insistent that the grounds cannot be altered.Frank gets fed up with Rachel’s attitude and is about to leave when he meets Fletcher. From scene one, he is shown to be well-spoken, polite and really smart. (He knows who Frank is even though the adults haven’t told him.) In any other crime film, the child of a main character can expect to become a hostage. (“Lethal Weapon,” anyone?) If that is the case, those kids have got to be brimming with personality or have some quality about them that makes them memorable. Here, it’s that he’s smart and he immediately connects with Frank, just by asking if he’d ever been on a boat.In “Lethal Weapon,” Roger’s daughter Rianne is shown to be attracted to Riggs at the dinner table scene and we learn that she’s grounded for smoking pot in the house. By giving kids characteristics that are age appropriate (Though, I can’t say how many teenage girls find themselves attracted to older men.), yet unique to them, you create a much more memorable character.
  4. Upgrading a Side Character: In this case, Henry, the chauffeur who was injured by a bomb. Frank takes him under his wing as his assistant. It’s when this happens that we really see Frank in his element. This also takes care of exposition. We see Frank walking around Rachel’s property telling him how they’re going to modify it for security purposes. We also see Frank give him training with driving maneuvers and how to evade a threat.This all happens fairly early, within the first 15 minutes, giving us more time to have the two leads of Frank and Rachel get to know and trust each other. In other movies, they might have this training bit somewhere in the middle after another attack, prompting Frank to promote a side character. This would take momentum out of the main story.
  5. Inciting Incident: On their first official outing, Frank stops a little girl and her mom from approaching Rachel and getting an autograph and picture, but Rachel undermines him. After the picture is taken, she snarkily retorts that she’s “surprised you didn’t plug ’em.”Directly following that scene, an ominous Jeep follows Rachel’s limo. Frank, Henry, and Tony, her current head of security are squeezed up front. Tony tries to explain how things are to Frank, but he’s busy watching the Jeep tail them. He later gets out and tries to confront the driver, but he escapes.
  6. Good Exposition: The Store Dressing Room scene. Rachel goes on what may seem like a rant directed at Frank. What is actually happening is, we learn what makes Frank tick: he doesn’t stay on an assignment long because he doesn’t want to get emotionally attached, etc. All Frank can do is try to avoid answering the questions because he knows she’s figuring him out just by his reactions. In this case, not answering her questions (statements in this case) out loud, his body language betrays him.Good exposition comes in several forms. One of which is an argument. By having her be pissed off at Frank for imposing on her traditions, her mind state is prime for her to go off on him. By giving us this information in this form, it doesn’t feel like we’re being told outright.In a bad movie, there would simply be a scene (possibly over a drink) where the main character would outright tell his flaws to another character. Making it transparent is always the better way to go. Always.
  7. Character Growth: There’s a really good sequence that starts with Rachel seeing Frank watching one of her music videos. Directly following that, she and her publicist announce that she’s going to a club for dinner. Frank gives her a gift: a crucifix, which he tells her to keep with her at all times. She comments on it, saying it’s beautiful. He’s quick to point out that it’s actually an emergency beacon.The reason this is good, is because she saw the crucifix as a gift, possibly as budding affection for her, since she is used to having people fawning all over her. Frank is there to do a job. He’s merely trying to find compromise between doing his job and giving her some space. (If he isn’t around, and she’s in danger, all she has to do is press a part of the crucifix.)This shows growth for both characters: She is rejected, something she isn’t used to, and he is compromising, something he also isn’t used to. He is shown to be the man running the show, who people know to listen to, because he’ll keep them alive. This woman is a force to be reckoned with. She’s strong-willed, but she understands him, as seen in the Dressing Room sequence prior. This, to me, is why he allows her a bit more freedom than he would normally give.
  8. Upping the Stakes: After arriving at the club, Rachel discovers a death threat. She’s in the room when she hears that this isn’t the first one. Her publicist having not told her about any of the prior incidents. She rightly gets pissed at him for not telling her about any of it. Especially the part about the guy being in her house at the same time as her son.Frank tries to get her out of the club, but she shows balls, and goes on stage to perform a number, regardless of danger. She also shows that she can handle herself when Frank and the rest of her security try to stop several people from joining her on stage. As this is going on, her publicist is trying to explain to Frank how if she doesn’t performs, she’s done. It’s her job. She HAS to entertain these people. There’s no getting around it.Shortly after this conversation, a full-on riot ensues as several people get up on stage and Rachel is actually lifted into the crowd. That’s when her security team springs into action and are shown to actually do their jobs competently. Frank and Henry implement an exit strategy for getting Rachel out. A strategy Tony is left in the dark about.
  9. Subtlety: After the club incident, Frank gets Rachel home. After seeing that Fletcher is safe and sound, Rachel is tucked into bed by Frank. She asks if he wants to know why she behaved that way, to which he softly responds, “I know why” and leaves. It’s a short, subtle and effective scene.Thanks to her publicist breaking the archetype of being a dick, and explaining that her public image is everything to her success, Frank can understand her actions, even if he doesn’t agree with them. A sentiment he stated aloud in the Dressing Room scene.
  10. Stakes of a Fight: Following that short scene is an amazing one!! Frank is eating a peach, cutting it with a knife. Tony comes in, wet and furious about not being told about the limo being at a different exit. We can tell by his body language. Frank sees him come in. He takes a swing at Frank, but he dodges, putting him on the floor, using a chair to pin him down. He nods that he’s done. Frank lets him up.Tony tries to get him again. Frank drags him across a counter, throwing dishes to the floor, shattering them. This all leaves Tony panting. Frank turns his back, once again figuring he’s had enough. Tony pulls a knife from a holder. Frank hears it and turns back around. Tony waves him to advance. Frank, who has been holding the knife he was cutting the peach with, throws it, impaling it in a cupboard mere inches from his head. Tony drops the knife, yielding. Then Frank utters “I don’t want to talk about this again.”HOLY. SHIT!! This just became my favorite scene EVER! This scene had a fight with absolute high stakes. These two heads of security have never agreed on anything up until this point. But Frank saved Rachel. Tony’s brute force has been proved to be ineffective against Frank’s calculated moves. The other best part about this scene is that they don’t taunt each other with words. Merely body language. In fact, the line Frank gives are the ONLY WORDS said in this scene.

    I literally yelled at the screen: “No words, no words!” And I’ll be damned if this wasn’t one of THE MOST effective fight scenes I’ve ever seen. So many bad movies have people just fighting for the sake of having a fight on screen, and there are just taunts galore.

    Maybe it’s my absolute love of Boba Fett, but there is NOTHING more menacing on screen than an opponent who is silent. Who doesn’t let you know what he’s thinking. At least verbally. The use of taunting here would have absolutely RUINED this scene. Luckily, the filmmakers knew how it should play.

  11. Consistent Character: The scene where Rachel says she’s going to cooperate was a nice one. It starts with her apologizing, then she tries to compromise with Frank, asking about how they have to handle her dating habits before she flirts that he should have to take her out.It’s good because while the character is changing, she still has similar characteristics as when we first meet her: trying to be in charge and still flirts a little. In a bad movie, this would have been a simple scene where all we see is her saying she’ll cooperate and the guy thanking her for it. Hell, this might be the scene where he would outright say his character flaws. But here it’s a more three-dimensional approach to a character arch.
  12. Character Development: Frank takes Rachel out for a movie and a drink. At a bar, she asks if he likes women. She pries, jokingly asking if the last girl he liked he was protecting and got killed. She laughs, but he doesn’t answer, leading her to think she did get killed on his watch. Soon, however, he starts laughing, telling her that the woman just stopped loving him.He knows she’s used to hearing him be serious all the time, and this is his way of loosening up. Then, the two dance. It’s nice, simple, light in tone and just kind of perfect to lighten up the seriousness of a film like this.Soon, however, there’s a brief moment to remind you of what the film is about: protection. They hear a glass break, Frank instantly puts his guard up. Rachel has to reassure him, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”It’s a nice little shift; showing that she understands the seriousness of the situation and more to the point, understands and respects Frank all the more.
  13. Knowing Your Characters: After the date, Frank takes her to his house (more specifically, his sparsely furnished basement) where we get a great Show, Don’t Tell moment. She sees examples of just how good Frank is at his job. (Shooting targets, commendations, newspaper clippings, etc.) In a bad movie, all of these actions would be merely dropped into the film in a sentence or two.Here, she gets to see more of what makes him tick.We also see a samurai sword, calling back to them seeing “Yojimbo” together and Frank saying he’d seen the film 62 times. If we had trouble believing that, we won’t after seeing the sword. There’s also the great bit with Rachel wielding the sword, flirting with Frank. This time, he flirts back, showing her the sharpness of the blade by letting it slit her silk scarf. They are then shown to have slept together.Thanks to the slow build up of trust and the elements that make up their date, this doesn’t feel forced or contrived.
  14. The Midpoint Shift: After sleeping with Rachel, Frank says he doesn’t want there to be any confusion about what he’s doing, distancing himself from Rachel. Rachel, in turn, acts out. She gets flirty with Portman, a Secret Service agent, in front of Frank to make him jealous. It embitters him, but it ultimately doesn’t work, so she sends the agent away.The tension between the two is pulled taut when she is missing from her room. She comes in shortly, revealing herself to have gone back to her old ways of belligerence, and telling Frank where he can go. He wants no more of her and wants to be done with her detail.Shortly thereafter, Rachel gets a call. She thinks it’s her son, however it turns out to be her stalker. This shakes her up and she resolves to once again do as Frank says. The two once again have an understanding.
  15. Great Character Moments: Frank takes Rachel, her sister Nicki, Henry and Fletcher to his family’s cabin. We see Frank showing Fletcher how to start a motorboat. A callback to our introduction to Fletcher, asking Frank if he’d ever been on a boat before.Throughout the film, there’s a constant reference to that “Reagan incident” back when Frank was on his security detail. He’d said before when Rachel brought it up that he wasn’t there the day he got shot. We don’t think much of this. Perhaps it was his day off, who knows? Well, finally, we find out why he wasn’t there: he was burying his mother. If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about your protagonist, then I don’t know what does.His dad also tells the group how Frank became a tough guy: necessity. He kept at something he was scared of until he wasn’t scared of it any more. We are also privy to a chess game that’s been going on for three years between Frank and his dad. They’re either very good or very bad. It’s this scene where Fletcher proves himself very bright and suggests a move to Frank that impresses his dad. Yet another scene where a child is not just a hostage? Hooray!

    We also see Rachel’s older sister Nicki get some screen time, too. She’s jealous of Frank’s connection with Rachel and she tries to make a move on Frank, but he rejects her.

    Later, she is singing outside the cabin, a callback to her first scene in the film where she tells Frank about how she had started a group, and after Rachel joined, she out-shined her. When Rachel comes out and joins her in song, there’s a great look of sadness on Nicki’s face that Rachel is oblivious to that tells us Nicki can’t get out of Rachel’s shadow.

    Fletcher takes the boat out, but Frank stops him right after he sees a set of ominous footprints in the snow. After accidentally knocking Fletcher into the water and pulling him to safety, the group witnesses the boat exploding.

  16. Higher Stakes: We find out that the guy trying to kill Rachel… was hired by HER SISTER! Just then, there’s somebody else in the cabin. Frank rushes to find him. But while Frank goes looking for him, he shoots Nicki dead.There’s good news, however, the feds found the stalker. But wait, they were talking to him at the time of the attack. It can’t be him. So they’re looking for another guy! The plot thickens.
  17. Bombard the Protagonist: At the Oscars, it comes time for the climax. All the elements are in play: a full house, chaos backstage (normal for any live event) and high tensions. Rachel starts seeing things on stage, causing her to embarrass herself in front of an enormous audience. She tells Frank he has driven her crazy. It’s here where we get a payoff from Frank and Tony (her first security guard) working out their differences, with Tony standing up for Frank.Frank’s communicator causes interference with the backstage crew’s headsets, and they confiscate it from Frank, who is left high and dry. It’s at this point, he knows who the hit man is. (A familiar face, I assure you.) He has to get to the main stage as Rachel is named the winner of the Best Actress award.There are cameras and lights everywhere, blocking his view and getting in his way from seeing where the assassin is. Thanks to all the elements in his way and the pacing of the scene, all the audience can do is wait in bated breaths as we will Frank forward.
  18. Endings: The ending of this film split the audience. But if you’ve been watching closely, you’ll see that it is consistent with these characters. Their decisions are ones that we know they would make. Many people would suggest a happier ending, but since the writer knew his characters so well, he opted for them to follow their realistic paths. Personally, I think it was the right decision.

What Did I Gain? Knowing your characters both inside and out allows for you to better show them on screen. They bring their own logic to each situation and have equally compelling reasons why they would agree or disagree with it, and in both cases, it’s 100% believable. Conflict always results in great drama. Always.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!

Script Link: bodyguard-the-feb-92-numbered-shooting

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