SCREENWRITING TIPS: DISTRICT 9

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District 9 gives us insights into the power of genre hybrids, films that make you think, and open endings…

SPOILER ALERT

I wish I’d seen District 9 at the cinema, but when it came out, I had a small child. Now that I have two kids, nights at the cinema still remain a luxury reserved for birthdays, anniversaries, and days when my husband has surfed all day.

At that time, the only thing I knew about District 9 was that it had visual effects that were cheaper than normal. And that I had to watch it on TV, which was a shame.

I didn’t know anything about the story at all – and that’s the best way to watch a film, with no preconceptions. So if you haven’t seen it, don’t read on. It’s great. Well worth a view. Don’t let me spoil it for you. Bookmark, view, return…

FINAL SPOILER ALERT!!

First, a reminder of the story: Aliens have arrived in South Africa, and unable to communicate, are kept in slums and treated as second-class citizens. An ineffectual manager is given the task of relocating them all to a new district. Searching an unusually resistant alien’s shack, he sprays himself with a strange liquid (brewed by said resistant alien for 20 years as the only way to power the aliens’ escape…).

He starts to develop an alien arm. His alien DNA makes him the only human able to fire alien weapons, and he becomes highly sought after by the powers-that-be. His boss (his wife’s dad) conspires not just to separate him from his wife, but to murder him. On the run, the manager builds a relationship with the alien whose liquid he impounded. Together, they fight to recover the liquid – now his only hope to return to his human DNA and his wife; and the alien’s only way back to his planet.

ORIGINAL COMBINATIONS OF CLASSIC IDEAS

What unexpected combinations can you play with in your script to bring a fresh twist – to the genre, the tone, the ambition, and audience expectations?

I’ve read a lot of formulaic scripts – they follow the rules of a particular genre too closely, impose predictable turning points and character shifts, and end exactly as you expect. They never really come alive because they are trying so hard to do what they think they are supposed to do. They don’t look beyond the established status quo for new and intelligent alien combinations that might exist out there.

In contrast, District 9 offered new perspectives and exciting original combinations of traditional ideas. It knew the rules, and it reinterpreted them in a fresh way. It demonstrated a compelling balance of classic story-telling techniques and less familiar combinations of genre, style, tone and setting. The more predictable story elements helped an audience to stay rooted while we enjoyed the thrills of unexpected new pleasures:

  • Sci-fi thriller and a pseudo-documentary genre
  • Comedy and dramatic tension.
  • Gripping action and strong characterisation.
  • Empathy with humans and aliens – who’s the bad guy here?
  • Intellectual and emotional stimuli
  • Big budget film and a low budget attitude.

While District 9 was cheap for a VFX film, it delivered the thrills that we expect from a big budget production, combined with the intelligent alternative perspectives we hope for from more independent lower budget offerings.

None of the combinations noted above stand alone as completely original, but the sheer volume of fresh ideas made the film a much more stimulating experience – with lots more to talk about in the bar (or indeed the unnavigable living room of discarded toys) afterwards.

Apart from the original premise, what most tickled me here was the hybrid genre: a sci-fi thriller ‘documentary’. The interplay between ‘documentary-style’ footage, documentary interviews, and more traditional action brought a fresh perspective to a familiar genre. Crucially, I didn’t notice the joins.

The documentary elements made the fantastical sci-fi situation more credible and impactful. They allowed for amusing parody (political and otherwise), and helped to shade the serious and comic tones of the film. They also usefully implied that something terrible must have happened to our hero, building tension and setting up a knowing dramatic irony for the audience.

Did these genre shifts also mark out the shifts in the audience’s experience of the film?

  • On the one hand, a more distanced intellectual experience (analysing the interviews’ meanings; smirking at the clever politics, parodies and techniques; scoffing at our hero’s attempt to work with a film crew…).
  • And on the other (alien) hand, a more emotional, immersive and thrill-seeking experience (the visceral drama of the thriller plot, chases, gory bits, battles and visual effects).

This is a really tricky balance, and for me, they pulled it off (obviously, being both Virgoan and a woman, I’m more than capable of thinking and feeling at the same time – in fact I’m probably incapable of not doing so – so I loved that).

As a striking alternative to setting the film in the US, South Africa is an unusual and powerful setting for a relatively populist action movie – providing a clear political context for a challenging story about how we mistreat each other as humans.

PROTAGONIST

Is your protagonist credibly motivated? What journey do you take the audience on to shift how we feel about them? How do we understand what they want, and believe their transformation in pursuit of this?

Our introduction to our protagonist of District 9 is low-key and funny – he’s trying ineffectually to cope with his new promotion, and the slightly disjointed shooting style reflects his awkward performance. His inept show of confidence in front of the camera and vulnerable desire to impress (us, his wife, her father) makes the audience initially feel superior. It’s also his downfall, leading to him spraying himself with the aliens’ mysterious liquid.

Initially his main aim is to prove his mettle, to do a good job of moving the aliens out and living up to his promotion. However, once he begins to see the signs of his own alien DNA, he has a much stronger ambition. He wants to get back to his normal life, and most importantly, his wife (and has to fix himself, escape, survive, fight back etc. in order to prove his sanity and get back to her).

The protagonist’s transformation from ineffectual manager to courageous desperado is a huge leap, but it’s convincing because the stakes are so high – we believe he has no alternative, it’s change or die.

We may laugh at him to start with, but we come to sympathise with and respect him as his conflict increases. In classic thriller mode, we watch him go to the very edges of his capacity to survive, discovering his inner strength and the force of his love for his wife.

STORIES THAT MAKE US THINK

Do you know what you want the audience to discuss when they leave the cinema? What message is explored in your film?

The level of conflict and character growth (in response to obstacles) in District 9 illustrates how well-told stories can engage an audience at a deeper level. I wonder what I would reveal about myself if pushed to the edge – I hope I’d find a hero, and fear I wouldn’t.

District 9 charts this fluctuating journey between selfishness and potential selfless heroism – most crucially, tested when our broken lead chooses to leave his new alien friend behind, to his death. Would we turn back even as we despair of ever being saved ourselves? I blooming well hope so, but you just don’t know.

Great stories allow us to play out the great moral questions.

Our hero overcomes his prejudice. And he finally chooses heroism, coming to his friend’s aid. This action allows him to retain his one chance of finally changing (in three years time, in the sequel perhaps, finally coming soon…) and of getting his wife back.

It’s worth noting here that our alien hero also has a clear aim and faces huge conflict in his pursuit of this. How might the story have been told differently from the alien’s POV? Ultimately, using the bumbling manager as the hero works because it gives the audience an easy way into the story – his world is close enough to ours for us to accept an otherwise far-fetched story, and makes it easier for us to see how we too carry prejudice.

The story makes us think about our own judgements, fears, and ignorance – how would we act in that situation? How are aliens any different to anyone else we might encounter who is different to us?

We wrote our hero off as a bumbling idiot, yet who were we to judge him?

ALLEGIANCES

How do you play with your audience’s allegiances in the course of your screenplay?

I enjoyed watching how the film-makers play with our allegiances in District 9 – shifting the audience from a shared prejudice (looking down on the ‘prawns’) to engagement with the alien’s predicament.

An effective tool here is the introduction of the young alien son that our hero needs to befriend – making the aliens seem ‘cute’ and unthreatening for the first time.

We also shift to the alien’s point of view, and see them experiencing conflict – our bumbling hero arriving to search their home just as their plans for escape are coming to fruition.

OPEN ENDINGS

Do you have a ‘Hollywood’ ending where all the loose ends are tied up, or do you leave it more open? Does your character get both what they want and what they need?

Unusually for a ‘big budget’ action movie, in District 9, our hero doesn’t get his overarching desire at the end. He doesn’t get his life back. He doesn’t get his wife back.

It’s always interesting to think about the potential outcomes you set up for your audience, and what it means for them (and the film’s success) if you don’t deliver what they hope for.

In this case, it gives the film a darker flavour, which suits the material (a sense of frustration that is heightened by the image of our hero now entirely alien, waiting…); but in the wrong story, it can leave the audience feeling unfulfilled, the experience a little hollow.

As we see here – if you want your audience coming back for a sequel, an unfulfilled ambition can be a very useful tool to keep them hooked – as long as there is enough resolution for us to feel that the story has been worthwhile (in this case the successful launch of the alien ship, opening a chink of hope for the future).

Depending on how you want your audience to feel at the end of the film, you get to play with delivering both the want and need, just the want or just the need, or neither at all…

And for my very own open ending, I’ll hope to continue my notes on District 9 at a later date, when I have a child-free chance to watch it for a second time. I know there is a huge amount more to explore here, so please do add any of your own observations below, I’d love to read them.

And maybe we can all come back again, if and when we finally get to watch the sequel…

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