Sunday, March 12, 2006


Finding the MacGuffin
Or, the “Whatsit” everyone is after
We’re working on our new screenplay, Distraction. It’s a thriller. Hopefully. Our hero (hmmm, perhaps anti-hero is a better description of pickpocket and street thief Hannah Logan) comes into possession of “something” that the villain wants back very, very badly. In the first draft it was photographs showing an assassination target. Didn’t work. Needed to be “something” more. But what?
So I started researching MacGuffins and the Great Whatsits on the web.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

A MacGuffin, sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin, is a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story, particularly one whose importance is accepted completely by the story's characters, yet from the audience's perspective it is usually not the main center of interest, might be minimally explained or may test their suspension of disbelief if it is scrutinized. The device, usually an object, is common in films, especially thrillers. Commonly, though not always, the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act and declines in significance as the struggles and motivations of the characters take center stage. Often the MacGuffin is all but forgotten by the end of the film. The term "MacGuffin" was invented by writer Angus McPhail (never heard of him either) but developed more fully by Alfred Hitchcock (I’ve heard of him).

Okay, I knew that but it’s sometimes a good thing to reread what you know (or think you know). I started making a list of cool MacGuffins – the black bird in The Maltese Falcon, the actual Ten Commandments in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the actual Declaration of Independence in National Treasure, the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the ring in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I remember one movie called The Formula where the MacGuffin was more intriguing than anything else in the story. The formula everyone was after was the formula Nazi scientists had developed to make synthetic gasoline. Can you guess who the modern-day villains were?

Usually, the MacGuffin is a more “serviceable” object. Gold usually works. It needs no explanation. But it’s a heavy object to transport in major quanities. Diamonds and cash are also good. Easier to move around, too. Drugs are another popular whatsit.

Those wouldn’t work though. Our story needed something explainable but unique. So I kept researching and hoping that something would give me an idea. In Cellular, it was a cam recording of a murder. In Charade, it was where the murder victim hid the stolen cash (in case you haven’t seen this Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn film I won’t spoil the hiding spot – it’s cool). In The Thomas Crown Affair, it was a priceless painting. In The Untouchables, it was the Capone accounts ledger. And in Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia the object everyone is after is revealed in the title.

Good and servicable objects but not what I was looking for.

Then: In Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the villains are attempting to flee the country with secret microfilm. What’s on the microfilm? We never find out. In James Bond’s second adventure, From Russia with Love, everyone is after a Lektor decoding machine. What does it decode? Never expained. In Barton Fink, there’s a mysterious suticase. What inside? We get a hint but never find out for sure. In the film noir, Kiss Me Deadly, there’s a suitcase that glows when opened. We’re told its something atomic but what exactly isn’t explained. That film is where Tarantino got the idea for the glowing-but-contents-never-revealed suitcase in Pulp Fiction.

Okay. Think. Object is valuable. A very wealthy and powerful individual wants it and sends a ruthless man to retrieve it. Bad man gets it. Then our hero takes it away. Our hero, along with her mentor, examine the object. Crucial plot moment. Because, upon seeing the object, the mentor immediately packs his bags and leaves town. But our hero, surprising herself, decides that something has to be done and these people have to be stopped. What is it.? What would make all the characters’ actions believable? Piece of cake. Yeah. Uh-huh.

What is the MacGuffin in Distraction? Ideas are lining up. All are waving to be noticed. Which will be the last one standing? Which will work the best? We’ll see. Just hope it turns out to be something cool.

3 comments:

dink said...

Good luck with your MacGuffin!

It's cool how, in some of the examples you gave (N x NW) how unimportant the "thing" becomes for the viewer/reader when the chasing/escaping/romance is so powerfully engaging.

I wouldn't remember what the heck they were after in N x NW if you mentioned it in your post.

Christopher55 said...

Yeah. Hitchcock is really good at that. In Psycho, the MacGuffin is the money Janet Leigh steals which is in the car that Anthony Perkins dumps in the swamp. Or maybe the real MacGuffin was "Mother."

Cool stuff.

Christopher55 said...

To "your" and "Sally":

You are both scumbags.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.