Given that it's one of the first (and maybe only) things most movie execs learn in Movie Executive School, along with the Lightbulb Theory (Q: How many movie development execs does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: Does it have to be a lightbulb?), seeing that the term's so screenwriting-ubiquitous that it's become a cliche, I was startled when I recently asked a roomful of screenwriting students to define the term set piece, and only a couple of them were able to give it a shot.
C'mon, people! Especially if you're writing comedy, having at least one set piece in your script is absolute necessity. Because Movie Exec School teaches its acolytes that the most fail-proof response to being pitched anything, to convince anyone that you are, in fact, a legitimate movie executive, is to ask: Where are the set pieces?
So where be your set pieces, and to take this bit of bull by the horns, what is a set piece?
Ask the question at today's university of choice, Google (soon will come the day when people will present their academic credentials as, "I went to Google"), you'll find the dictionary definition: a piece of scenery intended to stand alone as part of the stage setting.
Well, yeah, okay, but that's not it. This definition does speak to the origin of the present-day concept, though, and presents the model for a working metaphor we could call That French Door Thing. Picture the row of half a dozen French doors traditionally found on stage in an old-fashioned bedroom farce. During the big scene where all the comedy's duplicitous adulterers and confused dupes end up caught in the same tight spot, this bunch of doors, though nice enough as scenery, exist for one real purpose: to send various characters flying in and out of the bedroom with escalating hilarity.
A broader definition, more conceptual, is nicely summarized in part by this American Heritage entry: an often brilliantly executed artistic or literary work characterized by a formal pattern. In other words, you got your set, and you got your piece, which is essentially what you do with that set: if it's an action movie, literally and figuratively blowing everyone away, and if it's a comedy, making your audience laugh HA-HA! and, if you're doing it right, keep laughing, from smaller guffaws to bigger near-screams and tears.
And that's the key factor: a set piece is not a one-shot deal. It's not a bit, a line or a riff. A set piece is an extended scene or sequence that exploits the setting or "world" of the movie to build from one joke or thrill to a series of same, climaxing in a satisfyingly big pay-off topper.
In Star Wars, it's Luke's wild dog-fight charge through the Death Star's trenches, which ends, pinball-style, in the mega-tilt of the Death Star being blowed up good. On a vastly smaller scale but with the same principle at work, it's Sally's faux-orgasm in When Harry Met Sally's deli.
What's it come to mean in movieland is: the thing everyone talks about when they've seen the movie. It's Facebook discussion-worthy, e-mail and Twitter-fodder. It's also become, in a very pragmatic way, the element in a given screenplay that justifies the project being a big-screen theatrical feature (i.e. a sequence that really fills the screen, thus suggesting viable box office returns). When the movie exec asks of a script, where are the set pieces? he's echoing the uber-query of the music exec when faced with a new album release: where are the hit singles?
In fact, the term used to come up in opera, to describe a flashy aria. And it's used today in sports (particularly soccer), to describe a well-executed maneuver that scores a goal with panache. This points to the one mandatory requirement for a set piece: it scores with its audience by delivering its goods in a memorable way, and the subtext of its being memorable is originality. The best cinematic set piece induces a very specific Wow Effect, born of the viewer thinking, "I've never seen that before!"
For a crash course in classic set piece construction, see Hitchcock. The Master never made a movie without at least one, and the best are things of beauty exemplifying Heritage's secondary definition: "a carefully planned and executed military operation." North by Northwest features half a dozen, from the famous "that plane's dusting crops where there ain't no crops" sequence to its shoot-out on Mount Rushmore climax. And in terms of milking a literal theater set for every conceivable drop of suspense, nobody's ever really topped the Royal Albert Hall heart-pounder at the end of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
What too often gets overlooked in thinking up a set piece is that it should be organic in its conception. Utilizing the "world" of a movie means: find your comedic idea in some person, place or thing that's inherent in the material. It ought to arise naturally from its story's trajectory, like a found object becomes art.
The most effective romantic comedy set pieces are an inspired collision between character and circumstance. If your story takes place on a soap opera set where episodes sometimes get shot live, then it stands to reason it'll climax in that context, e.g. Tootsie's fabulous "Michael Dorsey unmasks Dorothy Michaels, live on the soap set's staircase" set piece. If you're in an Amazon rain forest, then why not get swept away by a mudslide (Romancing the Stone)?
Thus, given the title Groundhog Day, it's inevitable -- and immensely satisfying -- when Phil (Bill Murray) kidnaps the town's beloved groundhog Punxsutawney Phil and drives, with hog in his lap at the wheel, to a flaming suicidal death. It's essentially an old-fashioned chase sequence, but its air of "of course!" makes all the difference.
"Killing Two Phils" begins with a mini-set piece, the actual kidnapping (managed cleverly, deftly, an amusement in itself). It builds exponentially, adding supporting characters as the chase intensifies. It gains emotional ballast and additional humor from producer Andie MacDowell's concern for newsman Murray and cameraman Chris Elliot's cynical detachment (his reaction to Phil going bonkers is a barely contained "This'll be good!" as they join the chase).
I love the wonderful detail work in Murray's Phil-the-man to Phil-the-groundhog driving commentary ("That's not bad for a quadruped... hey, don't drive angry!"), and especially the topper. After a wild chase, Phil's car goes over the cliff, bounces, slo-mo crash-lands upside down. Pause. "Phil!" cries horrified Andie, looking down at the wreck. Chris, camera on shoulder, hazards "He might be okay." Boom! and the car explodes in a massive fireball. "Well, no, probably not now," says Chris, and hurriedly starts filming the holocaust.
The groundhog, the small town environs, the news team stuff -- all of it's already in place, ripe for the heightening. Using what's there (what the audience might expect to be utilized) is key in set pieces. Stuck in an apartment for a pivotal scene? Hey, sometimes even a couch might do.
Along with its "build from small laughs to big" structure and the necessity of a winning topper (it's not for nothing that Meet the Parents' rooftop set piece ends with the entire family caught in a literal shit storm, as the septic tank blows), having your set piece involve your primary protagonists and arise organically from the story is what can make all the difference. An audience feels the contrivance when a set piece is arbitrarily imposed.
One is a necessity for any comedy script these days, but there's no fixed number beyond that. The danger zone arises if you do too much, and get too derivative. I read a spec this morning that suffered from this. Lots of set pieces, all of them with a warmed-over which two movies did they cobble together to yield this gag we've seen before? feeling. They had the requisite "someone put pot in Mom's brownies" scene, the obligatory "someone put ex-lax in Dad's brownies" scene, the old "golf game that gets violent" scene... I had the sensation of reading some Frankenstein-ian "Standard Generic Set Pieces From American Comedies, 1980-2005" gag reel, and this was one of the reasons I gave it a Pass.
On the How To Do It Right side, another rom-com set piece that will reward study is Some Like It Hot's brilliant cross-cut seduction sequence, which features Tony Curtis faking impotence to seduce Marilyn Monroe, while Jack Lemmon in drag dances a tango with Joe E. Brown (two reversals, topping one another). Bogdanovich's What's Up Doc? has an incredible third act that's virtually one giant set piece. More recently, Something About Mary delivered a handful of set piece greats, among them, its fabulously painful "Ben Stiller caught in a zipper" scene (memorably topped by the line "We've got a bleeder!"). And then there's the hair-gel.
Even if your romantic comedy is largely urban interiors, you can find a way to exploit the most mundane of settings if you're alert to comedic possibilities (e.g. When Harry...'s diner). And if you're writing a rom-com... find one. Do it. Explore the world you've created and see what's there to tap into. Because it can help turn a "small" rom-com into a bigger, more accessible movie-movie. Because comedy audiences have come to expect this kind of sustained, belly-laugh entertainment. And because believe me, when you go out with a comedy spec, you're going to hear That Question.
And like those movie execs on the hunt, as a rom-com appreciator I'm always looking for good set pieces to savor. Got any faves you'd like to cite?
[First person to name the movie this pie fight comes from gets a free Mernitman CD.]