Solving the Problem of Pacing
How do you sustain momentum?
In Act Two, the protagonist encounters obstacles as she pursues her goal. Many editors’ biggest challenge in Act Two is sustaining momentum. Since Act Two is the longest act (a little more than half the film), it is imperative that the editor ratchets up conflict. A screenwriter can plot progressive complications without being constrained by journalistic ethics, but what can a documentary filmmaker do if the actual chronology of conflict ebbs and flows rather than steadily escalates? How can the editor ramp up the protagonist’s opposition while staying true to the facts?
One solution is to shuffle the order of events, recognizing that a chronicle does not have to unfold chronologically to be true. For example, an editor can begin act two chronologically and then reveal a crisis that happened years earlier. The backstory is placed where it provides maximum impact, raising the stakes for the protagonist and contributing to an escalating sense of crisis. For example, late in the second act of Metallica, archival footage from MTV introduces an important backstory: the so-called Napster controversy, which turned Metallica into a target for angry fans. This stormy backstory achieves two important structural goals. First, it steps up momentum at the required time–as the story approaches the climax of the second act. In addition, the Napster backstory raises the stakes for the very next scene, in which band members discuss going on tour and whether or not their album will be a hit.
Another way to deal with the mandate of escalating suspense is to allow the protagonist a taste of success, or a respite from the fray, just before a particularly stormy turn of events. In her personal documentary Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter (1994), filmmaker Deborah Hoffmann uses a plot reversal to portray her struggle to come to terms with her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. In Act Two, the ruthless progression of the disease supplies a predictable structure of increasing tension, but the truth is, there were times when life seemed to get better for Debbie and her mother. As a filmmaker, how could Hoffmann stay true to what happened while satisfying the structural demands for increasing conflict?
Act Two is fraught with mounting difficulties, until it finally dawns on Debbie in what she calls “a liberating moment” that if her mother thinks that the two of them went to college together, what does it matter? Life gets easier for a while. Then Debbie discovers that her 84-year-old mother has locked herself outside her San Francisco apartment at night. Debbie, who has always valued her mother’s independence, must face the fact that her mother cannot continue to live alone. The placement of this second act climax directly on the heels of Debbie’s reprieve is a clever “calm before the storm” juxtaposition. By abruptly reversing the languid mood, the second act climax jolts us into act three.
In a two-hour feature film, the second act will typically last 60-70 minutes. This vast stretch of progressive complications, also known as “development”, lacks the guiding mandates of act one (set up, inciting incident, defining of the central question). Subsequently, many screenwriters attempt to gain their bearings with the help of a guidepost halfway through the long act called the “midpoint”.
The midpoint is a crisis, often of life and death proportions, that provides the second act with both momentum and direction. In character-driven films, the midpoint may spell hazard to a character’s old way of being, or to the life of a relationship. In Metallica, singer James Hetfield returns from an alcohol recovery program a quarter of the way through the second act. “I’m in a very different place,” he tells his band mates. And indeed, James has learned to identify and express his feelings. But he is still a control freak. At the midpoint (67 minutes into the 140 minute film), the relationship between band members faces a life-threatening crossroads. Drummer Lars accuses James of “controlling us with rules,” and warns, “I don’t want to end up like Jason,” a reference to a former bass player who quit the band due to James’ oppressive personality. The midpoint scene also marks the start of James’ true transformation. Prior to the midpoint, James controls the band’s membership, musical tempo and practice schedule. After the midpoint, he works in an increasingly self-effacing and collaborative fashion to produce the best album possible.
In Capturing the Friedmans, the midpoint marks the internal transformation of Elaine Friedman. Prior to the midpoint, Elaine is a dutiful mother and faithful wife. Then, 53 minutes into a 105 minute film, Elaine begins to question family dynamics. At 58 minutes she calls her husband “a rat” and at 58 minutes gets angry for the first time, exploding at her son David, “Why don’t you try for once to be supportive of me?” As Elaine’s passive persona dies at the midpoint, a new aspect of character is born. By the end of the film, after she divorces her husband, Elaine says, “That’s when I really started to become a person”. Her transformation from long-suffering housewife to self-actualized person is complete. The midpoint marked the tilt.