All posts by Matthew de Beer

  • Gloves off with the Fight Club script

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

    C’mon, do I really need to answer this? It’s the Fight Club script!

    Start as you mean to continue

    I’m going to start this post at the start of the script, because the Fight Club script has one of the greatest openings ever:

    SCREEN BLACK

    JACK (V.O.)

    People were always asking me, did I know Tyler Durden.

    FADE IN:

    INT. SOCIAL ROOM – TOP FLOOR OF HIGH RISE — NIGHT

    TYLER has one arm around Jack’s shoulder; the other hand holds a HANDGUN with the barrel lodged in JACK’S MOUTH. Tyler is sitting in Jack’s lap.

    They are both sweating and disheveled, both around 30; Tyler is blond, handsome; and Jack, brunette, is appealing in a dry sort of way. Tyler looks at his watch.

    If you want to talk about grabbing your reader’s attention right from the start, it doesn’t get much better than that.

    I don’t think I have to tell you that the first few pages of your script are incredibly important. If you’re a frequent listener to Script Notes then you know that John and Craig feel that three pages is all it takes to judge the quality of a script, and they’re far from the only ones. So, just like in life, a good first impression is key.

    The first thing I love about the Fight Club script’s opening is how much conflict it contains. There’s the obvious conflict of Tyler (Pitt) sticking a gun into Jack’s (Norton) mouth. There’s also the more “meta” conflict of the arm around Jack’s shoulder and sitting in Jack’s lap, very familiar acts, with the aforementioned gun. You don’t have to have weapons in your script opening to create conflict like this, all you have to do is juxtapose two concepts that don’t naturally occur together.

    Secondly, there’s an element of confusion and mystery there that draws us in. Are we listening to Jack’s thoughts in the moment? If we are, why is he so calm with a gun in his mouth? If people are always asking about Tyler, does that make him someone important?

    That mystery is created by implying details about the relationship between things and people before it’s been established what that relationship is based on. We know that there’s some conflict between Jack and Tyler, but we don’t know why. We guess that Tyler means something to a group of people, but we don’t know what.

    If you want to keep people reading, load the opening of your script up with all the conflict and mystery that your story concept has to offer.

    A character by any other name

    The more scripts I read the more fascinated I become by the different approaches writers take to naming their characters. The Fight Club script is an interesting case where Jim Uhls clearly wanted to keep the named characters to a minimum.

    The fourth character we meet is Jack’s employer. He’s a recurring character in some big scenes and gets a fair bit of dialogue, so by many screenwriters’ standards he’d usually get a name. Not here though:

    Jack looks up as a pudgy man, Jack’s BOSS, enters, Starbucks cup in hand, and slides a stack of reports on Jack’s desk.

    BOSS

    I’m going to need you out-of-town a little more this week. We’ve got some “red-flags” to cover.

    Even when characters are given a name, they don’t always get to keep it for the credits:

    SPEAKER

    Well, she had her first child a month ago, a girl, with her new husband… And, Thank God. I’m glad for her, because she deserves…

    The speaker breaks down, WEEPS UNCONTROLLABLY.

    Jack watches. A couple of the men go up to the speaker, comforting him, leading him away. A LEADER takes the stand.

    LEADER

    Everyone, let’s thank Thomas for sharing himself with us.

    The lack of names does make for some curious exchanges, especially later on in the script when Tyler’s army starts to grow:

    MECHANIC

    They shot Bob… they shot him in the head. Those fuckers…

    Jack walks away from Bob’s corpse, distraught, holds his head, turns to look back, his eyes filling with tears.

    ANOTHER SPACE MONKEY

    We gotta do something.

    RICKY

    We got to get rid of the evidence. We have to get rid of this body.

    ANGEL FACE

    Bury him…

    Jack looks around in disbelief.

    JACK

    What… ?

    What makes the process of denying a name to a character especially interesting in the Fight Club script is how it ties in thematically to the story. On the one hand it fits with Tyler’s ideals for Project Mayhem:

    RICKY

    But, this is Project Mayhem.

    JACK

    No, no. This is a man — this man has a name…

    RICKY

    But, in Project Mayhem, we have no names.

    But on the other hand it runs counter to Tyler’s ideal for society:

    JACK, Bob, Ricky, Angel Face and another GUY rappel down the side, SPRAYING PAINT. JACK is “TYLER” in demeanor, mannerisms, speech…

    JACK

    (shouting)

    You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank.

    TWO WINDOWS SHATTER OUTWARD — TWO MEN look out and yell:

    BRUISED MAN #1

    I am not my job!

    I don’t mean to start a debate about whether this practice of denying names rhymes with the theme of the Fight Club script or not, though. What interests me is the fact that the decision to name characters or not was linked to the theme at all. It points out that asking when you should name characters, might not be the right question at all. Maybe you should be asking why you should name characters.

    Writing visually

    When you get into screenwriting you hear a lot about the importance of writing visually. Your goal is to help the reader watch a movie in their head, or so you’re told. But there’s not a lot of detail on what visual writing really is.

    Once again this is a topic that needs to be experienced to be understood, and I found a great example in the Fight Club script to learn from:

    EXTREME SLOW MOTION:

    Jack’s finger squeezes the trigger…

    KABLAM! — Jack’s cheeks INFLATE with gas. His eyes bulge. BLOOD flies out from his head. The WINDOW behind him SHATTERS. SMOKE wafts out of his mouth and tear ducts.

    RESUME NORMAL SPEED as the GLASS FALLS behind Jack…

    Tyler stands, in gunsmoke, eyes glazed, sniffs the air…

    TYLER

    What’s that smell… ?

    Jack slumps to the floor… Tyler falls…

    Tyler hits the ground. The back of TYLER’S HEAD is BLOWN OPEN, revealing blood, skull and brain.

    Suddenly, a GROUP of SPACE MONKEYS burst into the room, moving forward to Jack. TYLER’S BODY IS GONE.

    Yes, this is a gory moment and no, moments like that might not take place in your period drama. But what you can take away from this to create visual moments in your story are the details and intricacies that Uhls puts into this shot.

    Does smoke really come out the tear ducts when a gun is fired in the mouth? Would you be able to film that? Who cares! It adds to the immediacy and the impact of the moment and you can’t help but form some kind of mental image. That’s visual writing.

    Flashback formatting

    On a less conceptual note, the Fight Club script also offers some examples of formatting that are worth looking at. The one I want to look at here is how Uhls formats his flashbacks.

    Flashbacks are a bit of a hackneyed solution in storytelling, but they became that way because they do have their uses. Chances are you will write a flashback into a story at some point, so it’s worth thinking about how to format them.

    In the Fight Club script flashbacks are pointed out in sluglines in two slightly different ways:

    INT. MARLA’S – 8TH FLOOR LANDING – LATE AFTERNOON (FLASHBACK)

    Tyler, a wry smile on his face, ambles up the stiars, looking at the rotting walls. He reaches the top of the stairs and heads for Marla’s room. Before he can knock, Marla’s hand shoots out and grabs him…

    The second variant puts the flashback connotation at the front of the slug:

    FLASHBACK – HALLWAY – NIGHT

    Commissioner Jacobs checks his tie in a mirror, goes to open the door of the MEN’S BATHROOM — face to face with JACK.

    FLASHBACK – LOU’S BAR BASEMENT – NIGHT

    JACK stands surrounded by eager fight club MEMBERS, under the bare bulb, talking and behaving like Tyler…

    JACK

    The first rule of fight club is — you don’t talk about fight club.

    There are things I like and dislike about this approach. One thing I like is that it gets the need to establish the flashback out of the scene description where it would be an awkward bedfellow at best. A single word addition to a slugline is nice and neat and doesn’t get in the way.

    Not getting in the way is also the basis for my disliking of the Fight Club script’s method. As I’ve mentioned before on this site after any amount of time reading a script you start to skip over sluglines to an extent. Squirreling the fact that a scene is a flashback into the slug might make your reader double back if they get confused by the time line, and that’s generally not a good thing.

    Taken on the whole, though, I think the practice works and I plan to use it whenever I need to write a flashback scene.

    Establishing precedent

    There’s one last take-away in the Fight Club script that I wanted to call out, establishing a precedent for (group) identities.

    In a recent episode of Script Notes John and Craig talked about the difficulty of writing about a group who act as a single entity. Craig mentioned how, for the Hangover movies, he would refer to the four main characters simply as ‘the guys’.

    In the Fight Club script Uhls establishes a name for people in Tyler’s army like you often see done in a legal contract:

    INT. 2ND FLOOR LANDING – NIGHT

    Tyler and Jack stand in bathroom doorway, watching Ricky finish SHAVING off all of his HAIR. Tyler comes to give the top of Ricky’s head a sharp SLAP.

    TYLER

    A monkey, ready to be shot into space. A Space Monkey, ready to sacrifice himself for Project Mayhem.

    From here on, all those with shaved heads: “SPACE MONKEYS.”

    It establishes a shorthand which is easy to use in either the singular form (as you can see in the section on naming characters) or as a name for any number of the army acting as a group. Very useful stuff.

    In summation

    A good opening is hugely important to any script, grab your reader’s attention by packing yours with conflict and a hint of mystery. Deciding when to name your characters can be an artistic question, so perhaps you should ask yourself why you name certain characters but not others. Writing visually is all about intricacy and detail, force your reader to imagine what the scene looks like in their mind’s eye. Indicating a flashback in your sluglines is a clean way of avoiding awkward scene description. Establishing shorthand for a group that frequently act as a single entity will save you a lot of headaches as you write.

  • Down and dirty with the Filth script

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

    Filth is one of the rare films that I enjoyed a lot more on second viewing. I didn’t dislike it the first time around, I guess I just had extremely high expectations of the next adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s work. But I gave it a second try and with adjusted expectations I found it a compelling story about the limits of control. Because it is rare for my opinion to change so drastically on a second viewing, I couldn’t pass this script up when I happened across it.

    Marking animation in a script

    I’ll get this short point out of the way first as it directly relates to my last post about the Monsters University script. The Filth script opens on a short animated sequence that set up some of the thematic elements of the film. Baird handles this as follows:

    OPENING ANIMATION SEQUENCE 1

    Music: “******” by ******

    Cartoon style animation of an innocent country setting. LITTLE PIG waves goodbye to MOTHER HEN at the entrance to a cottage. He jumps on his trike and cycles off, just as an unaware BA BA BLACK SHEEP appears in the distance.

    In my last post I asked how writers indicate that something should be animated and here we have an answer.

    If your whole film is going to be animated, you probably shouldn’t use a slugline like the Filth script does here for the opening sequence. In that case, just include a comment in the opening paragraph of scene description.

    Using other films as reference points

    Though the Filth script made an interesting read and led to the production of a fantastic film, it did contain a few elements that I hope other screenwriters don’t emulate. The first I want to point out is Baird’s tendency to use other films as visual short-hand. Here’s an example:

    INT. SUBWAY TUNNEL – NIGHT

    JAPANESE STUDENT is aware of a presence behind him and increases his pace as the GANG’S menacing silhouettes become visible (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE style).

    I think this is another example of the writer/director privilege at work with Baird making notes for himself of how he wanted to shoot certain scenes in the Filth script.

    INT. IDENTITY PARADE ROOM – NIGHT

    A Usual Suspects style minorities line up including; a BLACK GUY, a GAY GUY, a MIDGET GUY and a WHEELCHAIR GUY, who are all handcuffed to each other. GILLMAN marches up and down the line laughing insanely.

    It’s a tempting thing to do in a format that seems to always demand more concision from us. But I also can’t help but think of it as a little lazy.

    BUNTY (O.C.)

    Who’s he?

    (screams)

    WHO’S LITTLE FRANK?

    BRUCE

    Errr….i’m not talking anymore Boontay.

    (shouts over his shoulder)

    No mum, I’m not speaking to dirty prostitutes again.

    BRUCE slams down the phone. There’s a massive cheer from the TV show which becomes so deafening that BRUCE has to cover his ears. (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM style).

    None of us can help being shaped by what we watch and read, but we all have to be on the lookout for derivative ideas in our own writing. It’s a slippery slope from artistic influence to clichés and tropes if you don’t keep up that vigilance.

    Montage formatting

    Montage sequences seem to be in a kind of formatting limbo in modern screenwriting. There seems to be general acceptance that they should receive some special formatting, but very little agreement on how.

    It’s not even a case of screenwriters each having their own way of doing things. If you look through the Filth script montages are formatted at least two different ways.

    INT. PHOTOCOPYING ROOM – NIGHT

    Montage as INGLIS, GUS, GILLMAN and a reluctant LENNOX individually enter and approach the photocopier. BRUCE enters confidently and presses the enlargement button to 100%. He grins at US.

    The above example is very minimalist, just a word of scene description to inform us that this should be shot and shown as a montage. Then there’s another example further down where Baird makes it more explicit:

    I/E. MONTAGE OF CAROLE/BRUCE SCENES – NIGHT

    A quick flash of some of the CAROLE scenes (scenes 3,4,49,50,76A,119) but from a different perspective (See below) and with BRUCE in drag. BRUCE is ‘Carole’.

    Scene 4pt – ESTELLE laughs at BRUCE in the tunnel.

    Scene 49pt – BRUCE puts on a blonde wig in front of the mirror.

    Scene 76A – BRUCE sits staring out of the car window in silence as PUNTER drives.

    Scene 115A – BRUCE wanders around the club as the FLAMBOYANT CHARACTERS stare at him in confusion. He looks in a mirror but a reflection of CAROLE stared back at him.

    This is a pretty unusual scenario caused specifically by the narrative of Filth. I’m interested to see how other films that flash back to previous scenes in this way tackle this problem. As one example of how unusual this is, scene numbers aren’t usually added until a script goes into production so it’s extremely rare to use them as a reference point in the story.

    I said there are at least two examples of montage formatting in the Filth script because there’s a third sequence which certainly feels like a montage, but isn’t formatted as one at all. This is when Bruce (McAvoy) and Bladesey (Marsan) spend a weekend in Hamburg:

    EXT. TOWN HALL SQUARE, HAMBURG – DAY

    Music – ‘You’re all that matters’ by Curtis Stigers.

    BRUCE and BLADESEY (romantic comedy style) walk happily around the tourist spots.

    EXT. CANAL SIDE CAFE, HAMBURG – DAY

    BRUCE has been drinking heavily. He taunts BLADESEY.

    INT. BLADESEY HOTEL ROOM, HAMBURG – NIGHT

    BLADESEY is sleeping, fully clothed and still wearing his specs. BRUCE enters and carefully tucks BLADESEY under the covers and removes his specs, quite motherly.

    EXT. CANAL BRIDGE, HAMBURG – NIGHT

    BRUCE crushes the specs and throws them in a canal.

    What we can take away from all this is that there is no one true way to format a montage in a screenplay. The perfectionist in me would urge you to at least be consistent with whatever method you choose but if the Filth script is anything to go by, that doesn’t seem to be a hard requirement.

    For the record, this is how I tend to do my montages, which you’re welcome to copy:

    MONTAGE – VARIOUS

    1) INT. SUSY’S BEDROOM – DAY – Susy packs her teddy, some EZ-bake cupcakes and a juice box in a Dora the Explorer backpack.

    2) EXT. CARLSON HOUSE – DAY – Nicole, also wearing a backpack, waits for Susy and the two run off together.

    3) INT. SUSY’S BEDROOM – DAY – Jennifer sticks her head into her daughter’s room, looks surprised to find it empty.

    4) EXT. SCHOOLYARD – EVENING – A Dora the Explorer backpack lies open on the ground, its contents spilled out.

    Off-screen, off-camera and on-the-phone

    Montage formatting isn’t the only inconsistency in Mr. Baird’s writing. He also doesn’t seem too concerned with interchanging between (O.S.) and (O.C.) for characters not in view, sometimes in quick succession:

    BRUCE opens a cupboard, removing two whisky bottles.

    BLADESEY (O.C.)

    What about your daughter though?

    BRUCE thumps the table hard, then quickly composes himself.

    BRUCE

    Enough of that family stuff. Come on, a wee drink. Merry Christmas and all that shite. I’ve a cheeky wee Single Malt through here.

    BRUCE pours expensive whisky for himself and a cheap one for BLADESEY.

    BLADESEY (O.S.)

    Suppose one between friends wouldn’t hurt.

    You’d think (after the last point) that I would be all hot and bothered about this, but that’s not entirely right. Sure, I think it’s a bit sloppy, but honestly I didn’t even notice it until I was skimming through the Filth script again to summarize my notes. Once you see a bracket opening to the right of a character’s name your brain tends to fill in the rest.

    What I did notice the first time around was how Baird uses (O.S.) as the only indicator that a character’s voice is coming through the phone. This is another example of a situation that each screenwriter approaches slightly differently. Here’s Baird’s take:

    BUNTY (O.C.)

    Hello?

    BRUCE

    (mimics Frank Sidebottom)

    Hello Boontay! That’s your name in’t it, Boontay?

    BUNTY (O.C.)

    I’ve had just about enough….

    For comparison, I went and took a look at some of the scripts I’ve read in the past for this site. Mark Boal, in Zero Dark Thirty, employs a similar approach, as do Hubert Selby and Darren Aronofsky in Requiem for a Dream with a minor difference. In the Requiem for a Dream script off-screen is always written in full in parentheticals instead of to the right of the character’s name. In the Brick script, Rian Johnson takes a slightly different approach, he puts “over phone” in parentheticals on the first line of dialogue spoken that way. In the Prisoners script, Aaron Guzikowski does both (O.S.) and “over the phone” in parentheticals for each line.

    For what it’s worth, I think it’s useful to point out that it’s a phone conversation as the voice over will need to be modified accordingly in post, but it doesn’t seem to be a deal-breaker. I’ll keep an eye on this in future screenplays and see if a trend emerges.

    In summation

    The Filth script gives us an example of short animated sequences in a live action film. It might be tempting to reference other films as short-hand, but do so at the peril of becoming dependent on derivative ideas. There’s no gold standard for formatting your montage sequences, but try to be consistent with whatever method you choose just for the sake of professionalism. There’s also very little agreement on formatting phone conversations, but do make an effort to highlight them as they need to be treated differently in post-production.

  • Schooled by the Monsters University script

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

    I made a conscious choice not to talk too much about what makes for a good story on this site and focus more on the technical details of screenwriting. For that reason, I won’t bore you with my thoughts about the Monsters University script’s role in the meta-narrative of children’s stories for the post-millennial generation. I won’t bore you with them, but they are a large part of what made me pick up this script.

    It’s a good thing, then, that the Monsters University script had plenty more learnings to offer, or else this would’ve been a very short post. So, without further ado, let’s see what is worth talking about.

    Should we be reading and writing animated film scripts?

    This was actually the first script for an animated film that I’ve ever read. In my ignorance I must have been expecting it to be slightly different from live-action film scripts because page one came as a bit of a surprise. It looked just like any other film script I’ve ever read. Other than the fact that it opens on a scene starring a two-headed bird, there was nothing to indicate anything unusual was afoot.

    This led me to my first questions. How do writers indicate that their stories are intended to be animated? Do people actually write animation on spec? After all, the big animation houses are renowned for their in-house development.

    On doing a bit more research, there’s a lot of advice out there that says writing animation on spec is a bad idea. As such I’m guessing the answer to my second questions is: not really.

    The advice makes sense, even if it is a bit disheartening if you’ve got a great animated film idea kicking about in your head. If that’s you, then you might be interested in this counter-point by John August.

    I have no horse in this race as none of my ideas would lend themselves to animation (or even be remotely interesting to kids), but given the astronomical odds against a spec sale of any kind in Hollywood these days I tend to think John could be right. If you’ve got a great animated film in you, knock it out and see where it takes you.

    Directing voice actors on the page

    When I started reading the Monsters University script the one of the first things that struck me was the abundance of parentheticals. Some writers use them more than others so at first I attributed their profusion to a stylistic quirk on the part of Scanlon, Gerson and Baird. It actually took me 30 odd pages of reading to figure out what was going on.

    The writers didn’t just use parentheticals for the proverbial ships and giggles, they were actually providing direction for the voice actors on the page. It never dawned on me that the detached nature of voice acting would require that added context.

    This is when I finally got wise to what was happening:

    Mike rides Archie through a dance party.

    He collides with a guy playing football and falls off the pig.

    FOOTBALL STUDENT

    (impact voc)

    Hey!

    Sulley leaps over Mike as he’s down and continues after Archie.

    One of the things that threw me on the early pages was the frequent use of ‘walla’ in parentheticals. Of course I was aware of the concept of background vocals / crowd noise (although I didn’t know ‘walla’ is the technical term for it in American radio, TV and film) but this was my first time seeing it explicitly scripted:

    MI TOUR GUIDE (CONT’D)

    Welcome to the scare floor.

    The students are in awe as they see the scare floor.

    KIDS

    (walla)

    Whoa!

    Usually a general reaction like that will be covered in scene description rather than dialogue. An action like Mike’s laugh in the following excerpt would usually be covered in scene description too:

    A student on a skateboard whizzes by as a giant monster steps over Mike and moves to catch a frisbee.

    MIKE (CONT’D)

    (ground shaking vocs)

    Ah!

    FRISBEE MONSTER

    Woo hoo!

    MIKE

    (excited laugh)

    But it seems that Scanlon, Gerson and Baird were keen to lay out a very robust blueprint for the voice acting in the Monsters University script. I’m keen to pick up more animated film scripts in future and seeing if this is commonplace.

    Being funny on a page

    The Monsters University script was also the first comedic script I had ever read. I’m more of melancholic drama type of writer and I mostly pick up scripts that are in a similar vein.

    My single biggest take-away from the Monsters University script on this point is a respect for the foresight it takes to write a funny film. I think I’ve mentioned before on this site how I have respect for somebody who can see right through to the end product while staring at a blank page and blinking cursor. That seems to be especially true with jokes.

    Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

    MIKE

    (big laugh)

    No! And what about you with all your shedding!

    SULLEY

    I don’t shed.

    MIKE

    Really?

    Mike punches the bottom of Sulley’s mattress, and blue hair comes cascading down off the mattress.

    Now let’s see the on-screen version:

    It’s a solid joke which, if I remember correctly, got a good chuckle from the audience. But when you read it on the page it’s pretty flat. The page doesn’t give you the timing, which is such a huge part of what makes the joke. If it’s tough for us to imagine that as a reader, it must be even tougher to have to come up with it from scratch.

    That said, I find I have a sense for the dramatic which I can’t quite explain rationally, so maybe it’s the same with a sense of humor. Maybe when the joke is right, comedy writers just know. I think this is the stuff that cuts writers from one type of cloth or another.

    I know, from my time in theater, that I have the ability to deliver a comedic performance. I also think I could do a decent job of writing a comedy. But I think I have a much better chance of being a great drama writer than being a great comedy writer. That thought comes from the inexplicable connection that I have with the material when I’m writing drama.

    So ask yourself this, do you have a sense for when your writing is hitting the spot? If not, have you tried mixing up the genre and seeing if you get a different result?

    Scripting versus ad-libbing in background dialogue

    One last point to finish up, and one which is related to the take-away on voice acting that I mentioned above. I mentioned how it is unusual to see crowd reactions and background conversation scripted so thoroughly where a bit of scene description would normally suffice.

    I attributed it, in this case, to the atypical requirements of voice acting, but when you think about it it’s unusual that it doesn’t happen more often. Anybody who’s ever tried to get a clear dialogue recording knows that it doesn’t happen without a lot of effort by very experienced technicians. That being the case, why aren’t we expected to be very explicit whenever a human voice is intended to be a part of the final scene?

    My guess is it’s because much of this audio is added in post either from stock audio or by recording a “walla group” separately and layering them over the audio recorded during principal. As long as the character is in the scene, they’re likely to be micced up and so any ad-libbing can be coordinated between the actor and director on the day.

    I just find it odd that, on the surface, voice acting and live-action audio recording might appear to be sufficiently different that you would have to write to accommodate one or the other, but really the differences are only skin deep. Yet you would never see a live-action screenwriter consider a fragment like this in their script:

    MIKE

    (whispered)

    Slow and steady.

    ART

    (whispered)

    Slow and steady.

    DON

    (whispered)

    Slow and steady.

    TERRI/TERRY

    (whispered)

    Slow and steady.

    SQUISHY

    (whispered)

    Slow and steady.

    The misfits relay the exact message down the line to Sulley the exact way Mike did. They continue to move really slowly as Sulley is increasingly frustrated.

    Sulley can’t take it. He bolts forward, leaving his teammates behind.

    Mike’s eye goes wide.

    MIKE

    (gasp, whispered)

    Sullivan!

    ART

    (repeated)

    Sullivan!

    DON

    (repeated)

    Sullivan!

    TERRI/TERRY

    (repeated)

    Sullivan!

    SQUISHY

    (repeated)

    Sullivan!

    Mike shushes the misfits.

    MIKE

    (whispered)

    SHHH!

    But they shush him back exactly as he did.

    ART

    (repeated)

    SHHH!

    DON

    (repeated)

    SHHH!

    TERRI/TERRY

    (repeated)

    SHHH!

    SQUISHY

    (repeated)

    SHHH!

    MIKE

    (sigh)

    ART

    (repeated)

    (sigh)

    DON

    (repeated)

    (sigh)

    TERRI/TERRY

    (repeated)

    (sigh)

    SQUISHY

    (repeated)

    (sigh)

    In summation

    Hollywood basically doesn’t buy any spec animation scripts, but if you write a blindingly good one it might have other benefits, like attention. Writing for voice-actors seems to require much more direction in parentheticals than you would normally provide for actors performing with a scene around them. That feeling of confidence when you know your writing is hitting the mark is a good sign that you’re writing in the right genre for you. Isn’t it a little odd that we’re not as specific about vocals in live-action scripts as animations scripts seem to be? After all, the process of recording them isn’t that different.

  • Coming of age with the Boyhood script

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

    Does this question even need answering? Boyhood is one of the most ambitious film projects to come out of Hollywood in as long as I can remember, and deserves to be thought through and discussed on every level. Of course the 12 year production process also required a unique approach to screenwriting, so all the more reason for us to learn as much as we can from the Boyhood script.

    In defense of fluff

    Coming of age stories aren’t exactly untrodden turf in the realms of film. When Richard Linklater decided to tell the story of a young boy’s life, there were any number of stories out there that he could’ve looked to for inspiration.

    But he chose to strike out on his own for the Boyhood script and not tell a story, per se, but instead offer a window into a life with nary a three act structure to be found. This decision manifests itself in a few ways, including what I came to call “pointless” scenes.

    A case in point would be one scene where Dad (Hawke) drops Mason (Coltrane) and Samantha (Linklater) off at their mom’s after spending the weekend with him. Loosely, the scene beats are:

    • Dad offers the kids a loving goodbye.
    • Mason goes inside.
    • Samantha tells Dad about a sleepover during the next weekend they’re supposed to see each other.
    • Samantha thanks Dad for a great weekend and goes inside.

    Now, neither Samantha’s sleepover nor the mentioned weekend actually figure in the rest of the Boyhood script in any way, shape or form. Yes, we see that Dad clearly loves his kids, and that the feeling is mutual, but it doesn’t rally move the ball forward in terms of plot. A “pointless” scene.

    I use quotation marks because, of course, these moments are not pointless. They’re the fabric of life. It is entirely fitting that Linklater’s chronical of a young man’s life be made up of such moments. It’s also really quite revolutionary.

    Although Hollywood is known for spectacle and bombast, what it really strives for (like any commercial activity) is efficiency. How to tell the tightest possible story without any fluff or dead weight. It’s a noble pursuit, because it keeps films lively and entertaining from start to finish. It’s also a pursuit I wish they would relent on sometimes.

    I actually wish there was little more of that fluff in movies because, as the Boyhood script shows, it’s the stuff that life is made of. If you strip all of it out, what you end up with is a situation where everything is important. Every line of dialogue is either setting up or paying off some aspect of the plot. Every camera move is meaningful. Sounds great on paper, but it removes any kind of contrast. If all moments are important, none of them are. It also makes for very predictable films.

    Before my soapbox carries me away completely, let me offer the only piece of advice that I can for writers to improve this state of affairs. It uses a loophole which I alluded to in discussing the scene above. I think “fluff” is still moderately tolerable if it furthers our understanding of the characters and they, in turn, drive the plot. I’m not saying that you should stick 30 pages of character exploration in your next script, but a vignette or two that tells us something we don’t know about the character is probably palatable and might do wonders for reducing telegraphing in your writing.

    Leaps in time

    This isn’t a short film, and the Boyhood script is no pamphlet either. But it condenses 12 years of living down into two and a half hours of film, so that didn’t really come as a surprise. However the jumps in time that the film makes as it follows Mason’s life had a few interesting effects on the reading experience.

    Most notably, it hugely magnified this sense of being an omniscient outsider who occasionally dipped into Mason’s world to see what had changed. It got me thinking about why that feeling was so much stronger in the Boyhood script and what it stands in contrast to when reading other stories.

    Most films don’t track their characters in real time, but usually cuts happen when the next step logically follows on from the current scene. Character decides to go somewhere, we cut to them getting out of their car. Characters show a romantic interest in each other, we cut to one of them asking the other out or maybe their first date.

    The Boyhood script doesn’t tread quite that lightly though. Using that last example: at one point we see Mom (Arquette) flirting with her college professor and then we cut to them arriving back from their honeymoon. While the difference may only be the amount of time elapsed during the cut, that difference is meaningful.

    The way it feels is the difference between a good friend who you see on a regular basis and an equally good friend who you only get to catch up with a few times per year. In the first instance, your conversations aren’t dominated by what’s happened in your lives, because the other person was there for a lot of it. It’s more about how things happen. But with the distant friend you’re not able to get to that level because they weren’t there, weren’t a part of it.

    So it’s worth thinking about the relationship you want your audience to have with your story. If you want them to feel like they’re a part of it and to get immersed, don’t go for big jumps in time and expect them to infer details. If, on the other hand, you want to foster more of an omniscient watcher relationship, feel free to take long strides through the time and space of your world.

    Spartan scene description

    Around page 130 I started noticing how little scene description was being used. It was one of those “can’t be unseen” things, where suddenly I was seeing it everywhere. The thing is, I can’t figure out whether I just didn’t notice it for the first two thirds of the script or whether Richard Linklater’s writing changed during the 12 years of production.

    Linklater’s scene description wasn’t as verbose as, for example, Jeff Nichols’ from the start, but I really think I would’ve noticed it had it been this extreme. To show you what I’m talking about, here’s a two page scene that I’ve removed all the dialogue from, leaving only the scene description:

    INT. MOM’S HOUSE – DAY

    Mom sits at the kitchen table surrounded by bills and papers. Mason comes down the stairs.

    Dialogue

    Mason prepares cereal.

    Dialogue

    Mason starts to walk away.

    Dialogue

    Mason walks over to the sink.

    It’s not just that scene either, this one was three and a half pages long:

    INT. MOM’S HOUSE – DAY

    Mason sits on the stairs video chatting with Dad on his phone.

    Dialogue

    Mason laughs.

    Dialogue

    Dad pans the phone to Annie and baby.

    Dialogue

    Mom comes down the stairs and drops a bag at Mason’s feet.

    Dialogue

    She kisses his forehead.

    Dialogue

    Mason exits.

    I tend to write pretty dialogue heavy pieces, but even I’m not that frugal with my scene description. I definitely would’ve noticed if it had been like that from page one. So I do believe that Linklater’s style of writing changed over the course of production.

    I think that what you see on the page when you read the Boyhood script is the process of someone becoming an experienced Hollywood filmmaker. I mentioned, in my post about Locke, how the pros play by a different rulebook than we do and I think this is a prime example of what that means in real terms.

    You hear a lot about the need for new writers to ‘find their voice’ in order to make themselves stand out, and it’s a good point. What you hear less of is how styles change over time. It’s ok, and even a good thing, for personal style to change over time. It’s usually the result of growth and experience as to what’s extraneous and not. Your voice as a writer can survive these changes as long as they’re made consciously and deliberately.

    Names versus roles

    One last point that I want to make is another one about naming characters. The more I read and write for this site the more I become fascinated by how different writers approach this decision.

    The Boyhood script is an interesting case because of two characters: Mom and Dad. Despite the fact that the characters’ names are revealed in dialogue, they are referred to by their roles as seen by the kids throughout the script. This also goes for characters such as Grandma (Villari), Grandpa Cliff (Richard Andrew Jones) and Nana (Karen Jones).

    This decision certainly doesn’t do us readers any favors (it took me forever to remember that Grandma at Mason’s graduation party was Mom’s mother) so it must serve some other purpose. I would hazard a guess that it was to force Mason’s perspective of the characters onto us, but that’s nothing more than a hunch.

    In summation

    Films have become so lean that it’s starting to make them predictable. One way to get around that is to add in a touch more character exploration to contrast the major plot points. To make your audience feel like part of the story, avoid large leaps in time that cause them to fill in blanks on their own. Your style of writing will likely change over the years and that’s a sign of growth, just don’t let it detract from your voice as a writer. When to name characters or not is not a cut and dry subject, Boyhood provides an interesting example by obfuscating the character names to serve the protagonist’s perspective.

  • Going, going, Gone Girl script analysis

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

    I kind of hoped this script was going to be badly written. Not in a spiteful sort of way, it’s just that I had a theory about the main character and I was hoping that Gillian Flynn might expound a bit on his inner motivations in the scene description. I wasn’t able to confirm or refute my theory, but I did pick up on a few other things during my read. So, let’s take a look at lessons we can learn from the Gone Girl script.

    Death of a slugline?

    This point isn’t so much a lesson learned as a discussion I’d like to hear more views on. Throughout the film we get fragments of Amy (Pike) writing in her diary. The shots are close in on the diary to the exclusion of the surroundings. These scenes are sluglined in the Gone Girl script as:

    INT. SOMEWHERE – SOMETIME

    CLOSEUP on a PEN, cursiving across a DIARY. The pen is GIRLY, topped with pink feathers. We see at the top: January 8, 2005. We hear the words as we see them written in pink.

    This is understandable because not knowing the time and place that these diary entries are written is part of the story. But is that understandable? Take a moment and think about what sluglines were originally meant to be – tools to aid in the planning of production. So making them a slave to the narrative is actually quite a big shift.

    Even when you’re aware of the role that these scenes play in the Gone Girl script, it’s not unfeasible that they take place in different locations or under different lighting conditions. Those could all impact the way the scenes are shot. This is the kind of information which would typically be gleaned from a slugline, but now has to either be inferred from the scene or put as a direct question to the writer during production.

    If you’re a fan of the Scriptnotes podcast (and really, if you’re reading this blog you have no reason not to be) you’ve no doubt heard John and Craig talking about what the screenplay format would look like if it were reinvented for the modern Hollywood. One of their basic points is that the scene is no longer really the fundamental unit of film, and I think that this shift towards making sluglines a narrative tool is a part of that.

    I didn’t mention it in my post about Gravity, but one thing you’ll notice if you pick up that script is there are almost no sluglines in it. Of course this makes sense not only from a narrative, but also from a production point of view because where they shot the scenes had nothing to do with the locations of the story.

    So what do we think, folks? Are we witnessing the death of sluglines in the screenplay format? Do we need to talk about a new way to convey the information they were made for in other means? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    The right moment for a moment

    So you’re mid-way through your story and your plot is humming along nicely. You arrive at a pivotal moment for your protagonist and let it unfurl across the page. Bask in the glow of your genius, start writing your Oscar acceptance, your job is done. Right? Maybe, maybe not.

    One of the moments I loved in the Gone Girl script is when Nick (Affleck) sits down to a TV interview about the disappearance of Amy. We see the reporter and her crew setting up and just as we’re about to see the interview happen… Flynn cuts to the aftermath.

    INT. HOTEL CONFERENCE ROOM – NIGHT

    NICK goes to his seat. A makeup person powders his sweaty brow. A sound guy threads the lavaliere up his shirt. Sharon and her producer confer in intense whispers. The rest of the staff are glaring at Nick. He catches one woman’s EYE and her look is VENOMOUS. The makeup person re-powders him.

    PRODUCER

    And it’s 3, 2, 1….

    INT. TANNER’S CAR – NIGHT

    Go, Tanner and Nick driving home. Tanner is working his phone, answering emails, etc.

    GO

    Seriously, I can’t believe how fucking good you were.

    We’re given an idea of how the interview went, which is important for Nick’s character, but we don’t see what happened. Why? Flynn cuts past the interview for a very good reason, and it’s one worth keeping in mind for our own stories.

    The interview serves a couple of purposes in the plot. From the point of view of Nick’s character, it’s one of the few chances he gets to turn the tide of public opinion back in his favor. From Amy’s point of view, it’s the reason she decides to return to Nick instead of keep running. Which of those two is more important in the overall plot of the film? You guessed it – Amy’s revelation.

    So how do we see the interview in the end? We watch it with Amy, where we get to see that reaction which is going to cause a huge twist in the plot. It’s a very smart move on Flynn’s part and an easy one for us to learn from.

    When you’ve got a big plot point in your story, take a moment to think what it means to all of your main characters. Which reaction is most important for the direction of your plot? Is there a way that you can experience it through that characters perspective even if they’re not present when it happens? Try writing out a bullet point version of the scene/sequence from different characters’ perspectives and see which one gives you the most inspiration.

    Finding character in small moments

    From ‘how characters propel the plot’ to ‘how the plot can service the characters’, now. In the Gone Girl script there is a lovely little moment while Amy plays a game of minigolf with her new ‘friends’.

    EXT. MINIGOLF COURSE – NIGHT

    A red golf ball rolls into a hungry CROCODILE’S mouth. AMY, GRETA and JEFF are putting through a vacant, decrepit mini golf course. They hold plastic cups of beer.

    AMY

    Shouldn’t we keep score?

    No one listens.

    That one line of dialogue does absolutely nothing to the way the scene progresses (as Flynn points out), but it says so much about Amy’s character and her outlook on life. These are the moments in your story that you’re going to have to dig to find, but as small as they are they’re absolutely worth that effort.

    Whether your exposition comes across as on-the-nose or not is entirely down to your ability to go from ‘characters talk so you understand’ to ‘characters talk and you understand’. The way you do that is by putting them in situations that will draw their character out (even if it’s only momentarily) and then letting them be themselves.

    Shootable inner thoughts

    On the subject of how characters think; I talked in my last post on the Locke script about how we should avoid scenarios of facts not in evidence. I used this phrase for all things which the viewer cannot be aware of, including the inner thoughts of a character. But I came across an example in the Gone Girl script of a thought which is absolutely filmable and I wanted to highlight it here:

    ANDIE (CONT’D)

    Every day, Nick. Or I’ll go crazy.

    NICK

    I’ll call you. Every day. Hurry.

    She gives him a KISS that is more meaningful for her (“farewell, my love”) than him (“get out”). She leaves. He shuts the door, leans back.. .to see GO in the kitchen.

    So it’s not that all internal processing cannot be shot and should therefore be avoided if at all possible. If the thought is something that an actor can express facially, through behavior or timing then I see no reason to not include it. It can also keep the description moving along nicely, as you see in the example above.

    In summation

    We might very well be living and writing through the death of the slugline. The moment a plot point happens in your story might not be the best moment for your audience to see it, take into account whose perspective on the point matters the most. Natural character exposition comes from ‘characters talk and you understand them’ rather than ‘characters talk so you understand them’, so find situations where that can happen – even if they’re small. Some inner thoughts are shootable and if they help your scene description move at pace, it’s absolutely fine to include them.

  • Locke script and two smoking barrels

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

    As I mentioned in my post about Warrior, I’m a big fan of Tom Hardy’s work. So when I heard about Locke, a feature film that would focus solely on him driving and talking, I thought it stood a good chance of being pure genius. The movie didn’t disappoint, and it was a captivating watch from start to finish despite its narrow focus. So I had to pick up the Locke script to see how Steven Knight pulled this trick off.

    Seeing a script for what it is

    Something funny happened after I finished reading the Locke script. I had a moment of realization that turned my perspective on its head. To explain the change, let me first show you something.

    When I read scripts for this site I take notes and, amongst other things, categorize my notes by sentiment into ‘Positive’, ‘Neutral’ and ‘Negative’. Here’s a chart of what that looks like for a script that I had some real problems with:

    Locke image 1

    Here’s a script that I am an unabashed fan of:

    Locke image 2

    Now, here’s the same chart for the Locke script:

    Locke image 3

    At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking I am going to tell you the Locke script is terrible. But, like I said, upon further reflection, I had a change of heart.

    You see, I read the Locke script like any other screenplay – a written description of a movie that played in the writer’s (Steven Knight) head. But that’s not what it is. It’s actually director Steven Knight’s personal production notes, which just so happens to be printed in 12 point courier.

    By far the biggest portion of negative notes I took on the Locke script were to do with facts not being in evidence. This covers all cases where something is included in the script, usually in the scene description, which cannot be recorded on film. A couple of examples from the Locke script:

    Ivan is now confronting the crisis in his head. On the site he was in a familiar place but now he is on a journey and must necessarily begin to consider the destination and the place he is leaving.

    And:

    IVAN LOCKE

    I have no choice.

    DONAL (OOV)

    Is it a bereavement?

    Ivan never lies. Silence. A long pause.

    Side note: OOV is used here instead of OS, this belies Knight’s time in the UK filmmaking industry. It seems that writers in the UK are switching to OS to denote a character speaking off-screen, so just use that.

    I touched on this point in my post about Warrior, it’s what I like to call the writer/director prerogative. It’s the freedom to include reminders on how to direct a scene in the script. In that same post I left a cautionary note, saying that as writers we shouldn’t do too much of it. If you want to know how much is too much, pick up a copy of the Locke script. This is my favorite example:

    IVAN LOCKE

    Donal, are you drinking something? What are you drinking?

    DONAL (OOV)

    Bottle of fizzy pop.

    Ivan reacts inside.

    Not only are we not told what Locke’s reaction is (something Knight does a lot in this script), we’re also told explicitly that it can’t be seen – it’s internal.

    One day you might be in a position to demand the right to direct your own work. A position where your name carries such weight that the fact you’ve written anything is more important than its quality. But as you are reading this blog, I’m guessing today is not that day. Until it comes along, please don’t follow Steven Knight’s example of directing on the page.

    My change of heart was to realize that the Locke script isn’t bad, it’s simply written by someone who plays by a different set of rules to you and me.

    Chewing your actors’ food for them

    This point is actually part of the writer/director prerogative, but it’s not something I’ve mentioned in previous posts so I want to separate it out here.

    We rely on the craft of numerous individuals when it comes time to transfer our vision from paper to celluloid (or bits and bytes, these days). That craft isn’t all behind the camera, it’s important to remember the actors’ contribution too. When you’re responsible for what those actors must say, as we are, it’s easy to also start writing how it should be said. But doing that too much is a mistake, I believe.

    Typically you see this in the form of emphasis in dialogue lines. This is an example from the Locke script which I think is too heavy-handed with emphasis:

    IVAN LOCKE (CONT’D)

    You listen to me you fucking piece of worthless shit. I want you to watch…

    A pause. His face harder and harder…

    IVAN LOCKE (CONT’D)

    In fact I’d like to take a fucking shovel and dig you up out of the fucking ground and make you watch me tonight.

    He stares into the mirror.

    IVAN LOCKE (CONT’D)

    I’d pull open your eyes and kick the mud and worms and shit out your ears. Just for the duration of this fucking journey. Because it’s me driving not you.

    I think this is a bad habit for us, as writers, to get into for a few reasons. One, if the dialogue line (and its role in the context of the script) is clear, any actor worth their salt is going to know where the emphasis goes. Two, actors and directors can (between them) come up with readings that can surprise us in positive ways and they should be allowed to do so. Three, it’s disrespectful to the craft of acting; we don’t tell a DP where all the lights go in a scene and we should give actors their dues too.

    By all means, use emphasis if a non-natural reading is required (though a parenthetical could be called for if your character is saying one thing but means another) or to highlight a line that a reader might otherwise skim over. Just beware that, like so many things, emphasis is subject to diminishing returns.

    A character in a box

    I try and steer clear of talking too much about the structure of stories on this site. I don’t think I can teach anyone what makes a good story, or what makes a story good. But there’s something I want to point out about the group of stories that Locke falls into. It’s the group of character-in-a-box stories that Gravity falls into, even though the box is pretty damn big in the latter case.

    The medium of film is one of pictures and words and doesn’t lend itself well to portraying the machinations of the human mind as well as, say, a novel does. In a lot of cases, filmmakers who create a story like this end up having to contrive some kind of communication quirk that allows the protagonist to air their inner demons.

    In Gravity it was a series of things (talking to Houston in case someone was listening, followed by the ham radio operator, finished with Bullock’s character simply talking to herself). In Locke it was the specter of Ivan Locke’s (Hardy) father on the backseat of his BMW.

    I wouldn’t dream of saying “Don’t write stories like this,” but I do have one request. These contrivances seem almost unavoidable, so please do everyone a favor and make sure that yours is at least in line with something your character would do.

    Much is made, in the Locke script, of Ivan’s practicality and levelheadedness. So much so, that when he confesses infidelity to his wife, he almost immediately follows it up with:

    IVAN LOCKE

    Katrina…

    KATRINA (OOV)

    That didn’t happen. I’m not believing it…

    IVAN LOCKE

    Katrina, I want to move to a practical next step…

    KATRINA (OOV)

    I’m here in the dark in our bedroom and nothing looks the same…

    A man like this talking to his dead father in the rear view mirror as he drives along is quite incongruous. Was there no better way to handle this exposition? One example might have been to have his wife press him for more details on his decision to go to Bethan. It might’ve detracted from the realism of their interactions, but on the whole I think it would’ve still been the more credible of the two options.

    In summation

    Established writers (especially ones who direct their own work) play by a different set of rules than those of us starting out. We can still learn from their scripts, but there’s a lot we shouldn’t seek to emulate. Actors are crafts-men and women who deserve our respect just as much as anyone else on the crew so we should take care when telling them how to do their job on the page. If you’re writing a character-in-a-box story and have contrived some way for your character to speak their mind, make sure it fits in with their personality.

  • The Looper script isn’t running in circles

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

    I make no bones about my love of everything that Rian Johnson does. The inaugural post for this site was an analysis of his first film, Brick, and it was inevitable that the Looper script wasn’t going to be far behind. Johnson’s ability to have a complex but heartfelt story drive a pace-y, action-packed sci-fi flick like this is astounding. So let’s dig right in and see if we can tease out some lessons for our own writing.

    Keeping the heart at the heart of your story

    I’ve mentioned before how even the most spectacle driven films, such as Gravity, need to have an emotional core in order to sustain an audience’s interest. We create these worlds with our writing which are often totally alien to our viewers own experiences and lives. To get audiences “in” to those stories we need to give them an emotional hook to grab onto.

    The Looper script contains as fine an example of this as you’re going to find anywhere. Despite being full of high concept sci-fi, action sequences and socio-economic musings, the film doesn’t expect its viewers to get by on spectacle alone. In fact, just when the questions around the mechanics of time travel start to pile up, Johnson hangs a lantern on them to keep everyone focused on the important parts:

    JOE

    Do you know what’s going to happen? Have you already done all this, right now, as me?

    OLD JOE

    I don’t want to talk about time travel shit, because we’ll start talking about it and then we’ll be here all day making diagrams with straws. It doesn’t matter.

    JOE

    When I hurt myself now, it changes your body. Do my actions change your memories?

    OLD JOE

    It doesn’t matter.

    What does matter is establishing an emotional connection with your viewers. Doing that requires characters for your audience to relate to. They need to feel like real human beings that people can live vicariously through. Johnson does some stellar work in the Looper script of fleshing out his characters, even the smaller ones.

    Abe (Daniels) is the head of the mob who orders bloody torture and murder on a daily basis and only appears on a handful of occasions in the story. Despite that, Johnson makes sure that he’s given enough humanity to prevent him becoming a caricature:

    KID BLUE (CONT’D)

    Please just give me one more chance, I’ll bring him here alive and hold him and you can put a bullet in his brain yourself-

    Abe grabs the hammer. SLAMS it on Kid’s bad hand, crushing it. Kid howls, the Gat Men grab him. Drag him out.

    Abe’s head droops, weight of the world.

    You’ll note, from that last example, that I don’t consider relatability to be the same as likability. In fact, in the world of the Looper script, there’s not a lot of likability to go around. Even our “hero” – Joe (Gordon-Levitt) – is far from a saint:

    SARA

    If he comes here will you stop him? If I believed all this – I’m asking can I trust you

    JOE

    I don’t care if you trust me, I don’t care about your son. I’ve lost my life. I kill this man, I get it back.

    His future self – Old Joe (Willis) – is probably even less likable. But you can see how the bones of his psychology are set in young Joe (i.e. “I will hold on to what’s mine”) and then just allowed to mature through age, love and potential loss. This drives him to kill a child in order to reclaim what is his. Then Johnson shows us his reaction:

    Old Joe emerges from a backyard fence, walks across a park. Map in his hand. Children play in the distance. Children’s voices all around.

    Old Joe spins, his breath up into his head.

    The map falls to the ground. The park around him, green and full of children.

    He keels over onto his knees and cries. Grabs the grass, holds it in his fingers, thick and green.

    This is the difference between relatable and likeable characters. The first is about understanding the relative costs and benefits of the actions that they take, the latter is more about whether you would make the same decisions in those circumstances.

    Before having read the Looper script, I thought Brick was the most complex of Johnson’s works by quite a large margin. I based that opinion on the layers of story that were used to build up the mystery for Brendan to solve. Now, having read the Looper script, I’m not so sure. The depth of character development and the way their motivations interact to push the story to its end is nothing short of spectacular, and every bit as complex as all the intrigue and plotting in Brick.

    To turn all of the above into a lesson for our own writing, I’ll say this: no matter how rich in character you think your piece is, I’m willing to bet there are opportunities to stuff even more of it in. To find them, step through your script scene by scene and ask yourself questions like “How does each character here feel about what just happened? Is that reflected in something they say, do or decide? If another character had to fulfill the same role in the scene, how would it change?”

    Cultivating clarity of vision

    I hope you’ll indulge my fan-boy-ism for Rian Johnson’s work for one more point before I get down to some more concrete lessons from the Looper script. As someone who, outside of writing, dabbles in photography and videography I am always incredibly impressed by people who don’t just capture things which exist in the world, but can visualize and create before capturing it.

    My favorite sequence in Looper is the moment where Cid (Gagnon) manifests his telekinetic powers and kills one of the gangsters who comes after Joe. It is a stunning piece of filmmaking in every respect – editing, sound, cinematography, special effects, etc. A sequence like this no doubt requires a great production crew firing on all cylinders, but you really get the impression here that it was Johnson’s hand on the tiller that guided this masterpiece.

    This is further evidenced when you look at the script and you realize that so much of the end product was envisioned by Johnson before they even started production. Here’s a snippet:

    INT. FARMHOUSE FOYER / LIVING ROOM (OLD JOE’S MEMORIES)

    Sara pulls Joe through the front door, and he looks back and sees Jesse suspended in the air and Cid on the ground screaming like an animal

    INT. APARTMENT 205

    Old Joe’s face. Remembering.

    INT. FARMHOUSE FOYER (OLD JOE MEMORY)

    Sara pulls Joe across the threshold, and looking back he sees this:

    Jesse explodes in a bright red fan of blood.

    Frozen in a tableau – Cid screaming, raw power. Jesse EXPLODING. A bright red fan.

    This is part of the reason I wish that readers and other industry types who evaluate scripts would be more tolerant of a little directing on the page. This talent is a rare and beautiful thing, and it shouldn’t be discouraged just because of some archaic perception that it’s not the writer’s job.

    Establishing shots

    Ok, I’ve made it abundantly clear why I think Rian Johnson is one of the most exciting filmmakers active today, now I’ll get back to some tangible lessons from his Looper script.

    If you’ve read a few scripts already you might’ve come across the concept of an establishing shot. Usually this is a short scene which serves to show where the characters are after a cut, or how the location of the following scene fits into its environment.

    Establishing shots used to be called out in sluglines much like this:

    EXT. CITY – ESTABLISHING – DAY

    Helicopters sweep by.

    INT. ABE’S OFFICE

    Abe stands fuming, flanked by two Gat Men. Kid Blue sits like a kid in detention.

    Now if writers like Rian Johnson are still using a notation like that, it’s certainly not a wrong thing to do. But the fashion in Hollywood scripts seems to be going towards letting shots and scenes speak for themselves. An extreme example would be the scene on the I-95 which I mentioned in my Requiem for a Dream analysis.

    So, do use establishing shots in your writing to set the scene, but you don’t necessarily have to describe them as such.

    Moving perspective within a scene

    One thing that comes up fairly frequently in screenwriting is the necessity to shift perspective within a scene. I haven’t entirely decided on my favorite way to do this, but at the moment I tend to use the character’s name who I’m shifting to by itself in a slugline. For example:

    The creature’s foot breaks through the door.

    JIM

    sets his back to a table and pushes it in front of the door.

    COURTNEY

    gathers heavy items to put on it.

    In the Looper script, Johnson goes about it as follows:

    EXT. FIELD – WITH CID & SARA

    The wide bare field. Cid runs ahead towards the cane, Sara not far behind. The earth soft, their feet sink in, like a nightmare.

    EXT. FIELD – WITH OLD JOE

    Old Joe crosses the road and chases them onto the field, firing at them on the run.

    EXT. FIELD – WITH CID & SARA

    Bullets thunk in the earth. Sara stumbles, exhausted. Cid turns, about thirty feet ahead of her.

    My only issue with that way of doing things is how much of the information is redundant. As I mentioned in my Requiem for a Dream analysis, I’m a big fan of anything which gets sluglines out of the way of the reader.

    On the other hand, you’re probably going to have to move your cameras, lights and crew to get those other shots, so maybe it’s better to be clearer about that shift.

    I haven’t quite made up my mind on this one yet, so I’m going to take a note to pay specific attention to it in future scripts. For now you’ve at least got Rian Johnson’s example to go off and that’s not a bad place to start, in many respects.

    In summation

    Creating an emotional hook for your audience is all about creating characters who are relatable, even if they aren’t necessarily likeable. If you can clearly visualize every last detail of a scene before anyone even touches a camera, you have a rare and great talent which will stand you well if you ever decide to become a director. Establishing shots serve a useful purpose in a script, but these days it’s not expected that you label them as such. One way of moving perspective in a scene is to split it out by shots with a slugline like ‘INT. <LOCATION> –  WITH <CHARACTER>’.

  • Digging for lessons in the Mud script

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

    Despite now being a big fan of the McConnaughey-ssance, I was slow to catch on to it. Mud, arguably the film that started the revolution, had a short run in my local cinema and by the time I started hearing the buzz, it was gone. I found it an honest and enjoyable piece when I did get round to it, but I didn’t quite get all the hype. So I decided to dive into the Mud script and see if it would cause me to see the film in a new light.

    Individual style within a fixed format

    As you learn about screenwriting it’s easy to get caught up in the strictures of the format. If you’re anything like me, one of the first things you were told was “If your script isn’t properly formatted, no reader will even touch it.” So you spent ages poring over textbooks and websites in fear that if you didn’t get it right, it wouldn’t matter how good your story-telling was.

    I completely understand that fear, and that’s why I created this site. If, in some small way, I can remove any of that fear and help someone get their story down on paper I will consider this whole endeavor a success.

    Why do I bring this up in context of the Mud script? Well, the first thing that struck me about it is Jeff Nichols’ style of writing. It is very similar to my own and quite distinct from many other scripts I’ve read. This got me thinking about how, no matter how strict the rules are for the format, there’s still room for individual styles.

    Nichols’ style is most apparent in the scene description of the Mud script, where he goes into great detail in describing even the simplest of interactions. For example:

    Mary Lee sits down across from Senior, who doesn’t look up from his paper. Her eyes narrow and she extends a finger toward him.

    MARY LEE (CONT’D)

    If you don’t look up from that goddamn paper…

    She stops before completing the thought.

    After a moment, Senior lowers his paper. He stares across the table at his wife. He looks at her with true disdain.

    His eyes trace down her face and robe before finally settling on his cup of coffee. He picks up the cup, takes a sip, and sets it back on the table. He raises the paper up.

    Mary Lee’s eyes soften. She bites the inside of her cheek to keep from crying. Her eyes move to the kitchen window.

    Contrast the above fragment with pretty much any excerpt in my Requiem for a Dream analysis and you’ll see what I mean by the screenplay format leaving plenty of room for individual styles.

    Being a consummate writer, though, Nichols is aware that his style needs to adapt to the circumstances of the Mud script. When the scene calls for it, his description picks up the pace too:

    BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

    Both boys flinch at the sharp sounds. Neckbone’s hand flies to cover the alarm on his wristwatch.

    NECKBONE

    Shit.

    ELLIS

    We gotta go. I can’t be late.

    EXT. BASE OF BOAT TREE – MOMENTS LATER

    They drop out of the tree and hit the ground running.

    EXT. ISLAND WOODS

    REEK – MOMENTS LATER

    The boys’ feet rush across the tree trunk bridging the creek.

    EXT. ISLAND SHORE – MOMENTS LATER

    They launch out of the treeline and sprint to their boat.

    Neckbone grabs the side and starts pushing the boat to the water. Ellis slings his backpack in and joins him.

    So, what’s the lesson we can learn from the Mud script? Well, I mentioned the fear of getting things wrong earlier, and I think the lesson here is that having a style of your own isn’t wrong. In fact, it’s an important part of finding your voice as a writer. Just as important as knowing, for example, what kinds of stories you want to tell.

    So how do you know where the border lies between style and stricture? Unfortunately that’s a question of experience. Reading what people do differently and what they toe the line on is the only surefire way. The good news is that I’m already doing that work for you and putting my findings on this site, and you’re welcome to ask me questions in the comments or through the contact form.

    Ramping up the stakes

    What the Mud script is an absolutely shining example of, is a story that continuously ramps up the stakes for its protagonist. It builds seamlessly from the story of two young boys leading a simple life in the American South to a gangster shootout that wouldn’t feel out of place in something like Pulp Fiction.

    That’s a big shift for a film to make and it’s only something you can get away with if you’re constantly shoring up your characters’ motivations. To illustrate this point, let’s juxtapose the motivation for the protagonist at the start of the story with the outcome of his actions at the end:

    ELLIS

    When they show up, you’ll leave?

    Mud begins fishing again.

    MUD

    Yeah.

    ELLIS

    And when you leave, that boat’s ours?

    MUD

    Yeah.

    To a boy of 14, a boat of your own is probably worth lifting some foodstuffs from your mother’s cupboard. Low risk, pretty big reward – even if you’re not 100% sure of the person you’re dealing with. If Ellis (Sheridan) knew that the outcome for his father, Senior (Shepard), would be shotgun pellets in the face then I’m guessing he’d walk away from that boat with the quickness:

    Senior, in a robe, rushes from his bedroom with a pistol leveled. He’s met with a shotgun blast just above his head. Pellets nick his face. Senior hits the ground and elbows his way back inside his bedroom door.

    So, how does Nichols keep Ellis motivated in such a way that the stakes of the story can grow without it feeling forced? He plays some nifty tricks with love and authority, two of the big psychological factors in a teenager’s life.

    The story takes place just as Ellis’ interest in love starts to become personal and his role-models for romance, his parents’ marriage, hits the rocks. Into these confusing times the story brings Mud (McConnaughey) and Juniper (Witherspoon), a fantasy of pure romance that seems to defy the inconvenient truths of the real world. If only Ellis can keep that dream alive, maybe there’ll be hope for his parents too.

    When that illusion fades and Mud loses stature in Ellis’ eyes, Nichols offers Ellis friendship and family as a trade for romance. Ellis also learns that there are different paths he can walk in love to Mud’s and his parents’. A lesson which outvalues a boat stuck in a tree.

    Whenever you make things worse for your characters, it’s worth taking a moment and asking yourself “Why wouldn’t my character just walk away from this obstacle?” If you struggle to formulate an answer, then realize that ramping up the stakes at that point might alienate your audience.

    When to name characters – a redux

    In my analysis of the Prisoners script I mentioned how naming characters can sometimes make a scene easier to describe. Well, in the Mud script I came across an example of when that really doesn’t work in your favor.

    Nichols names some of the gangsters in the story and during the climactic shootout, refers to them by name. He also tries to remind us of the moment they were introduced to us, though, and that’s where it goes awry. The problem is, those moments are so far back that it totally extracts you from the moment. For example:

    EXT. ELLIS’ HOUSEBOAT – CONTINUOUS

    Mud crashes headfirst onto the edge of the houseboat grasping for anything to keep from sliding off. His hand catches a metal deck cleat. It bends under his weight but holds.

    Mud gets to his feet and is met by the tip of a rifle. Miller, the man from the cafe, stands poised to fire.

    That café is actually a bar scene and it takes place 30 pages before the scene we’re reading. That’s an awfully long way to expect your reader to cast their mind back when what you really want is them feverishly devouring your action sequence.

    So, as a caveat to the lesson I described in the Prisoners analysis, only use character names to simplify your scene description if you don’t have to interrupt the action to re-introduce the character.

    Be mindful of your world

    There’s a really nice little moment in the Mud script which caught my eye when Ellis and his partner in crime, Neckbone (Lofland), ask for some information at a motel:

    ELLIS

    We’re lookin’ for the girl in room 212. You seen her?

    MOTEL CLERK

    I’ve seen her.

    ELLIS

    You see her today.

    MOTEL CLERK

    Yeah, she came down askin’ for directions to the nearest bar. I told her to head out to a place on 61.

    Ellis digests this. They turn to leave.

    MOTEL CLERK (CONT’D)

    Wait a second, are ya’ll the little bastards tryin’ to sell fish to the guests?

    They’re already out the door.

    The clerk is referring to the scene where the boys went door-to-door with a cooler-box full of frozen fish looking for Juniper, the same girl mentioned here.

    The reason I liked this moment so much is because the clerk’s last comment serves no purpose in the story, but is both absolutely in keeping with the world that the story takes place in and a great exit from the scene.

    Being mindful of the world around your story and the people that inhabit it opens up doors for you. They’re not just useful for transitions either, you can also use them to perk up moments where you feel your plot is lagging. If there’s a subplot or character that you haven’t visited in your story for a while, take a look around your scene and see if there are any ‘world elements’ that can bring them back to the forefront.

    For example, in the story of Mud, the clerk could have offered some tidbit about the relationship between Neckbone and the uncle who raises him, Galen. Maybe the clerk had seen Galen perform with a band before Neckbone came along and asks Neckbone if they ever had any success. Maybe Galen gave up that dream and dives the river so he could take care of Neckbone. This is just brainstorming obviously, but you can see how a random encounter can serve to explore that relationship.

    In summation

    Though the screenplay format has many rules, there is room enough for individual styles of writing and finding yours is important. If you’re going to ramp up the stakes of your story, your characters need to be motivated to stick with it as things get worse. Naming characters to simplify scene description is fine, as long as you don’t have to interrupt the action to re-introduce them. Be mindful of the world your story takes place in, it could offer you opportunities for transitions, to refresh a sub-plot or to give a new spin to a character.

  • Captivated by the Prisoners script

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

    Much like The Place Beyond the Pines, I wanted to look into the Prisoners script because I thought I missed something about symbolism and religion. But, unlike The Place Beyond the Pines, the Prisoners script was an absolute pleasure to read. Possibly even more so than any other screenplay I’ve read for this site.

    All of my original questions about the story went out the window and I just sat and enjoyed a great piece of writing from Aaron Guzikowski. So let’s take a look at what we can purloin to make our own screenplays as good.

    Of characters and change

    Let me knock this first point out of the park before I get onto something meatier. If you want to see a great example of showing character development in a story, grab the Prisoners script and take a look at Keller’s (Jackman) attitude towards religion.

    It starts on page one, where we see his go-to in car entertainment:

    INT. KELLER’S TRUCK – TRAVELING

    Keller drives. Ralph sits in the passenger seat. The Everyday Testament is playing while Keller talks over it.

    So we know from the outset, Keller is a religious man, though it’s not overtly mentioned. Guzikowski takes another chance to highlight this visually when Keller pauses for a moment, looking at the toothbrush of his (by now) kidnapped daughter:

    INT. BATHROOM – THE DOVERS’ HOUSE – CONTINUOUS

    Keller splashes water on his face. A little gold crucifix hangs around his neck.

    His eyes drift to the toothbrush holder. The little toothbrush with the cartoon character on it.

    But as the strain of the situation starts to wear on Keller, his faith begins to chip. First we notice it in his language when he takes the lord’s name in vain:

    LOKI (CONT’D)

    You sure you heard him right?

    KELLER

    Jesus Christ — you think I’m making this up?

    Loki observes Keller’s hands are shaking…

    Then he starts creating justifications for his actions which don’t rhyme with his beliefs. When Franklin (Howard) questions Keller on his treatment of Alex (Danes), Keller feels no compulsion to do unto his neighbor…

    KELLER

    We hurt him until he talks or they’re going to die. That’s the choice. I know what I heard.

    Franklin looks back inside at Jones, perhaps thinking on what horrible things he might have done to his daughter, rage starting to take hold –

    KELLER (O.S.) (CONT’D)

    He’s not a person anymore. He stopped being a person when he took our daughters.

    Guzikowski then gives us a nice little visual portrayal of his waning reliance on spiritual guidance:

    INT. KELLER’S TRUCK – TRAVELING – CONTINUOUS

    Keller listens to the Everyday Testament while he drives, fast forwarding, looking for something he’s not finding, until it EATS THE TAPE.

    But, even though his faith gets cut to the bone, he doesn’t let it go. He doesn’t let his rage and desperation consume him completely:

    KELLER (CONT’D)

    Don’t make me do this anymore.

    Keller reaches to turn the water back on, but he can’t — tears crawling down his face as he mouths: I’m sorry –

    He kneels down. Squeezes his hands together. And after a moment starts to mutter what sounds like a prayer –

    It’s exactly for this reason that Keller had to be the protagonist, rather than anyone else who lost a child in the same way in this story. It’s that mixture of indestructible faith and ferocity. Without the former, the latter would’ve played into the hands of the kidnappers:

    He was the first kid we ever took. His real name was Jimmy or Barry — I can’t remember. I doubt he can either. So many names. I forgot all about Bobby until I read about him in the paper. He never forgot us though — neither will your neighbor’s bitch daughter. They never really get away, their minds I mean. Making children disappear is how we wage war with God. Makes people lose their faith. Breeds demons like you.

    Remember when I mentioned in my Zero Dark Thirty analysis that causes make for bad characters because they can only develop along one dimension? This is the contrast to that. Religion is one facet of Keller’s character and throughout the course of the story he changes along that dimension. Other dimensions include his relationship with his family, his issues with alcohol, his issues with control… They all change as the story unwinds and that’s what makes for a rich, rounded character.

    Directing on the page

    This is another subject I wanted to talk about after having read the Prisoners script, but it’s a bit of a tricky one. The problem is not only that I don’t have an answer to the question “How much directing can I do on the page?” it’s that nobody seems to have one.

    First, let’s define some terms. When I say directing on the page, I’m talking about things like choosing camera angles, including unshootable directions (usually mental processes of characters), inserting delivery instructions for dialogue lines (ellipses for pauses, emphasis on words or phrases, etc), providing blocking for the scenes, etc.

    Next, let’s talk about the example set by the Prisoners script. Guzikowski directs on the page quite a lot. I wouldn’t have found it unusual if this was a writer/director script but Dennis Villeneuve wasn’t even the first director on this project, let alone the scribe.

    EXT. FAIRMOUNT CIRCLE – MORNING

    An AERIAL VIEW of LOKI’S SEDAN heading down the street toward the Dover House.

    In the example above and the one that follows, Guzikowski is stepping beyond the realms of talking about what’s happening and giving very clear instructions on how we see it play out.

    EXT. LOKI’S SEDAN – NIGHT

    Loki walks to his car — angle widens to reveal the downtown area. Strip malls, gas stations — cars whizzing by — blurred faces in car windows –

    He also doesn’t restrict himself to the visual aspects of the film. Among other forms of directing on the page, he includes guidelines on how to deliver specific lines of dialogue:

    KELLER

    He’ll just clam up and act crazy like he did last time. Someone has to make him talk.

    I’ll get onto my overall views on the subject of directing on the page in a moment, but before I do, let me just point out where I think it got to be too much in the Prisoners script. The following two lines of dialogue are on consecutive pages:

    KELLER

    You wasted time — you wasted time following ME! YOU LET THIS HAPPEN!

    KELLER

    I want you to listen to me. I need you to stay around the house for the next couple days, make sure she doesn’t see the news — when the paper comes throw it the fuck away. We don’t give up on your sister — I’m gonna find her and bring her home.

    I understand the desire to emphasize certain words, but when you’re throwing around formatting like that it both tends to reduce its impact and it just confuses matters. Was that underlined phrase supposed to be delivered in a certain why? Or did Guzikowski just intend for the reader to pay extra attention to it?

    So, after all that, what are my thoughts on directing on the page? I think the idea of it being verboten is an old-world hang-up that hasn’t taken into account how times have changed.

    I think the shrinking number of films that go into production in the modern movie business has done nothing to reduce the stress of directing a film. It is an unimaginably demanding task and I simply can’t believe that assistance in completing it will cause all directors to get up in arms.

    Also, as John August is fond of saying, when you go in to pitch a film, you’re the only person in the room who’s already seen it in your head. We humans are simple creatures who are tied to a perspective from the day we’re born, it is only natural that our imaginations work in the same way and so do our stories. It would be impossible to tell a story without any perspective, it would have no focus.

    Lastly, advice for aspiring screenwriters these days is rife with suggestions to shoot some material of your own and slap it online so you can gain feedback, experience and (if you’re extremely lucky) attention. It’s good advice, because there’s a lot to learn that can and will help your writing. Screenwriters have also, often, gone through some kind of film school where they’ve gained production experience. To then expect all writers to throw out that know-how when they’re writing for a studio is wasteful and counter-productive.

    So I don’t have any particular advice on this point (other than my note above regarding over-use of formatting for emphasis), I just wanted to use this space for an impassioned plea to the readers of the world. Please don’t shoot us down for a little direction on the page, we’re just trying to tell a story.

    When to name characters

    Enough soapbox talk, let’s bring this post back down to earth with some concrete learnings. One question we as writers are faced with is when to name characters and when to leave them as ‘The Girl’.

    I can’t offer you any hard and fast guidelines on this subject like “If a character has more than two lines of dialogue, they should be named”, but I will point out two noteworthy examples in the Prisoners script.

    The first is a forensics expert who has quite a lot of dialogue in a scene with Loki (Gyllenhaal). I felt that he really should’ve been named, just as recognition for the actor who worked for the part to deliver those lines. After all, a named part is going to carry more weight in their next audition.

    FORENSICS GUY

    There you go. Probably read this book and decided he was taken by the Invisible Man. Now he’s doing his best imitation.

    LOKI

    Did his best imitation. He shot himself last night.

    Forensics Guy shakes his head.

    FORENSICS GUY

    How did he do that? I thought he was in custody.

    Loki ignores the question and takes a photocopy of Bob’s map out of his pocket.

    LOKI

    Taylor drew this. It was supposed to be a map to the bodies. We found a corpse last week wearing a pendant with the same design on it.

    FORENSICS GUY

    It’s not a map, it’s the last maze in the maze book. Unsolvable. No way out. Corpse is probably just another wannabe who read the book.

    The other example is a scene where two uniformed police officers are given names despite only appearing twice in the script and delivering minimal dialogue. I suspect that Guzikowski did this because of the following passage, in which two other cops join in and the group gets divided. It sentences like ‘the third cop puts the prisoner in the car while the second and fourth enter the woods’.

    LOKI (CONT’D)

    Seal all this off, the entrance — all of it.

    (to one of the cops)

    You — come on –

    Loki rushes into the woods, Carter and one of the two uniformed cops following after, the other uniformed cop gets on his radio, watching as Wedge puts Jones in the squad car –

    Convincing someone to change course

    There’s one last thing I want to pull out of the Prisoners script, a scene where Keller entreats Loki to hang on to a suspect in the kidnapping. It is a brilliant example of how hard it should be to change a character’s mind.

    I really enjoyed The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I thought it was a great film and a big improvement on the first movie in the series. The only issue I had with it was that some deeply held beliefs had to be overturned in very little time. I think this was the result of having to squeeze a lot of story into a single film. The worst example of it was this scene, where Katniss is literally running for her life, but this 39 second clip is all that’s needed to turn her back into the face of danger.

    Now look at this scene, in which Keller is asking Loki for a favor (a relatively small one in comparison to asking Katniss to put her life on the line):

    KELLER

    He stays in custody until my daughter is found, right?

    LOKI

    We’ve got a forty-eight hour hold on him. Ends tomorrow unless we bring charges.

    KELLER

    Then charge him with something.

    LOKI

    Mr. Dover, let me worry about –

    KELLER

    Detective, two little girls gotta be worth whatever rules you have to break to keep that asshole in custody.

    Loki considers for a moment while Keller’s desperate eyes bore into him…

    KELLER (CONT’D)

    I know you can’t promise me anything — I’m just asking you to be sure.

    Loki doesn’t answer.

    KELLER (CONT’D)

    Thank you, Detective. I appreciate it.

    Loki nods and drives off –

    A sense of duty is a strong motivation for a character’s actions, it shouldn’t be an easy thing to get them to ignore. This repeated battering from Keller not only tells you how seriously Loki takes his job, it also goes a long way to showing how determined Keller is to get his daughter back. It’s good stuff!

    In summation

    Rounded characters have many dimensions in which they can develop – the Prisoners script has a great example of this wherein the protagonist loses and re-finds his faith. The old maxim that writers shouldn’t direct on the page is something which, I wish, would disappear from readers’ minds. If characters are going to deliver a significant number of lines or naming them will help you describe a scene more succinctly, give them that name. It should be difficult to change your characters minds – it shows character on their part and on the part of their antagonist.

  • More uppers than downers in the Requiem for a Dream script

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

    This is another one of my favorite films for its sheer emotional impact. Especially in the early part of his career, Aronofsky was one of the most unapologetic film makers around. His films put audiences through an emotional wringer and I wanted to look for traces of that crushing pressure in the Requiem for a Dream script.

    Not all scene description is made equal

    The scene description or action parts of a script are one of the defining characteristics of screenwriting. They are words which we as writers spend a great amount of time on, only to watch them be subsumed into camera angles, blocking, set design, score and all other aspects of the final film.

    The dialogue is usually what critics focus on when evaluating the quality of a script, but there’s a lot of quality to be found in scene description. I, myself, have focused in on the action in a number of previous posts. In Zero Dark Thirty I looked at hiding character in description. In Warrior I highlighted questions around unshootable action and the writer/director prerogative. In Gravity I picked out instances of suiting the prose to the situation.

    So even if the scene description is intended to ‘disappear’, it deserves attention and there are good and… less good ways of writing it.

    The Requiem for a Dream script contains some stellar scene description, and other examples that I was less enthused by. The first example I made a note of was a short action sequence as Harry (Leto) and Marion (Connelly) escape from the Seacoast Tower.

    Harry, who’s already inside, looks at his girl’s mischievous eyes.

    HARRY

    Marion!

    Harry gets it. He smiles. Then, Marion yanks the wire.

    ALARMS SCREAM!!!

    Harry and Marion bolt to the -

    TOP FLOOR

    - where both elevators charge the top floor.

    MARION

    They’re coming.

    Harry grabs Marion’s hand and pulls her down the hallway.

    Dead end.

    Harry and Marion squeeze against the doorway — fighting the urge to crack-up. Then:

    PING! — the elevator. A Security Guard charges out.

    Harry and Marion hold their breath. The Guard heads straight for the staircase.

    Then our criminals charge –

    THE ELEVATOR

    – and in black-and-white video make out all the way down.

    THEN:

    EXT. SEACOAST TOWER – DAY

    Harry and Marion burst out of the front door laughing, alarms ringing behind them.

    This is a great example of keeping pace in the action, you can see how even the cuts and sluglines are woven in to keep up the momentum. This is not an action based story, so to come across this excellently written sequence in the Requiem for a Dream script was a pleasant surprise.

    In general, though, Aronofsky’s description is probably best described as economical. Even sparse at times. Sometimes I really liked the irreverent way that worked to communicate his thinking, such as:

    INT. MARION’S APARTMENT – DAY

    (Post-sex) + (pre-sleep) = (intimate talk)

    HARRY

    You know something? I’ve always thought you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.

    MARION

    Really?

    I also liked when he didn’t feel the need to include any description of the scene/shot at all:

    Then, we look into her face as she screams. Air bubbles shoot to the surface.

    CUT TO:

    EXT. I-95 – MAYBE GEORGIA

    CUT TO:

    INT. PONTIAC VENTURA

    Tyrone still drives.

    But at times his brevity was also jarring, like when Tyrone (Wayans) gets lucky:

    INT. TYRONE’S NEW PAD

    Alice and Tyrone make some crazy love. Arms flail, teeth bite, mouths scream. Some crazy love.

    CUT TO:

    For reasons I won’t go into here, you could make a very good argument for saying that this impersonal way of portraying (or thinking of) sex is in keeping with Tyrone’s character. If Aronofsky intended for that to be the case then he could’ve hung a lantern on how this was just another ‘fix’ for Tyrone and I would’ve kept right on reading. The only thing that gave me pause was doubting whether Aronofsky meant for the act to come across as impersonal, maybe even perfunctory.

     

    Creating character voice on the page

    So the Requiem for a Dream script contains some great learnings for scene description, what about the dialogue? As I mentioned, dialogue is one of the things that gets picked apart a lot. One of the biggest criticisms of starting screenwriters is that their characters tend to sound the same.

    If you want to see an example of how to avoid that trap, pick up a copy of the Requiem for a Dream script. Aronofsky is crystal clear about his characters’ voices from page one:

    He tries to stop his mother, Sara Goldfarb, from locking herself in the closet.

    HARRY

    Ma! Ma! C’mon, Ma!

    SARA

    Harold. Please. Not again the TV.

    She slams the door closed and Harry talks to the shut door.

    HARRY

    Why do you haveta make such a big deal out of this? Eh? You know you’ll have the set back in a couple of hours.

    Even when there is a significant overlap in two character’s voices, the differences still shine through to make each voice distinctive. For example, Harry Goldfarb’s voice belies his Brooklyn Jewish background, but is still distinctive from his mother Sara’s (Burstyn):

    HARRY

    I don’t know why I do those things. I don’t really want to do them. It just sort’ve happens, I guess. I don’t know. It’s all kinda goofy somehow, but I really do love ya, Ma, and I want you to be happy so I got ya a brand new TV set. It’s gonna be delivered in a couple a days. From Macy’s.

    Sara squeals, but Harry wards her off with his hands. She sits down, grins and grinds her teeth.

    SARA

    Oh, Harry, you’re such a good boy. Your father would be so happy to see what you’re doing for your poor, lonely mother.

    Harry leans over and gives her an honest, open and perfectly beautiful kiss.

    SARA

    You see that, Seymour? You see how good your son is? He knows how lonely his mother is living all alone, no one to make her a visit…

    Harry’s background shapes part of his voice in the Requiem for a Dream script, but his drug-riddled present also has an obvious impact. You would expect there to be some overlap between him and his partner in intoxication – Tyrone. There is some overlap, but Tyrone’s voice is very different to Harry’s and at times, I felt, wandered past distinction and into parody:

    TYRONE

    Ahm glad ah doan’t have no one laying that kind of heavy motha shit on me, Jim. You honkies are too much with that guilt shit.

    Honestly, though, you’re better off going too far in creating voices for your characters because it’s easy for an actor and director to dial it back in production. But a script full of characters that all sound the same isn’t even going to make it into production, so don’t hold back.

    Also, don’t forget that the responsibility of capturing the vernacular of a region or sub-culture rests on you, the writer. An actor can learn how words are pronounced in their character’s home town, but you have to make sure those words would be used there in the first place. For example, would your most recent protagonist call a carbonated beverage soda or pop?

    Capital punishment

    Something else I picked up on while reading through the Requiem for a Dream script was the relative lack of capital letters. It first struck me as a negative thing, because Aronofsky doesn’t even use capitals to introduce new characters:

    EXT. SARA’S APARTMENT – HALLWAY – CONTINUOUS

    Waiting for Harry is Tyrone C. Love, young twenties, leaning against the wall, playing skillfully with a yo-yo.

    There’s a lot of disagreement about many conventions of screenwriting, but the practice of introducing characters with capitals seems to be one thing that everyone agrees on. Well, everyone but Darren Aronofsky if this script is anything to go by.

    The point of the practice, as I see it, is to set readers’ minds at ease. Let them know that they don’t need to try and recall who the character is and how they relate. It has a genuine use, which is why I was disappointed to not see it used in the Requiem for a Dream script. But after a while, the shortage of caps started to grow on me.

    Look back at the first excerpt I included, where Harry and Marion escape the tower. Other than the sound effects (which some writers capitalize at all times as a production aid) there is very little in the way of emphasis through capitals. Pervasive use of capitals starts to annoy me fairly quickly in scripts, so I was happy to see them used sparingly in the scene description. When they’re overused it starts to feel like you’re reading a comic book and every punch should land with a KA-POW!!!

    Cut back to reality

    I’m going to touch on this one really quickly. At one point in the story we follow Harry into a daydream which ends with a snap back to reality. This is not an uncommon device to use in story-telling, and I really liked the way it was handled in the Requiem for a Dream script:

    The Cop chases Tyrone.

    Harry and Tyrone laugh as they toss the gun back and forth just over the frustrated Cop’s head.

    The Cop slips and falls on his ass and we -

    CUT BACK TO:

    REALITY. FIVE MINUTES EARLIER -

    WAITRESS

    Anything else? Huh?

    Tyrone butts Harry. Harry looks up at the Waitress who stares at him. The towering Cop looks over as well.

    The master scene format

    The Requiem for a Dream script does something else which I really like, but which I don’t see used all that much – the master scene format. The idea is simple, you establish a master location for a sequence of scenes and use abbreviated sluglines as you move around the location. In Requiem for a Dream, it looks like this:

    INT. ARNOLD THE SHRINK’S MANHATTAN CRASH PAD – HALLWAY

    At the front door Arnold, wrapped in a sheet, hands Marion some money. She leaves and he quickly locks the door. Down the hallway and into –

    THE ELEVATOR

    – as anger, disgust and who knows what else billow up inside her. Her eyes begin to tear. Then –

    ON THE STREET

    – she leans against the building and vomits.

    In my own writing I use the format described here – INT. APARTMENT/LIVING ROOM – DAY followed by INT. BEDROOM. I don’t think there’s One Right Way to do it, but I think this method makes it clear what you’re doing.

    The benefit of the master scene format, as I see it, is it just gets sluglines a bit further out of the way. After a while your eyes start to gloss over them anyway, but I’m a fan of anything that reduces their footprint, even if it’s only a little.

    Done on the page isn’t done

    So what about the point I raised in my motivation to read this script? Did I feel as emotionally drained from the experience of reading it as I did from watching the film? In short – no. I mean the electric spark of that emotional wringer is there, but paper doesn’t conduct it as well as celluloid. You could take that as damning evidence against the Requiem for a Dream script, but I saw something else in it.

    It’s no secret that writers are often walking baskets of insecurity, tenuously held together with caffeine and misdirection of self. Even if we weren’t, when you spend as much time on any one piece of work as we typically spend on a script, you tend to get too close to see its impact. This can lead to despair when a script is finished and you just can’t tell if it’s any good.

    So the lesson I want to take away from the Requiem for a Dream script is to have a little more faith in the words on the page. Just because it’s Done on the page, doesn’t mean the experience of watching the film is going to be there too. There’s a long journey still ahead and if it results in a movie with as much impact as Requiem for a Dream, then you did a helluva job.

    In summation

    Even if your scene description is intended to disappear into the finished product, it deserves just as much love as your dialogue. Your characters’ individual voices should be established clearly and early and it’s your responsibility to make sure that regional or sub-cultural dialects are captured in your word choice. Do use capital letters to introduce characters, but maintain their value by using them sparingly for emphasis. There are creative ways to use cuts and sluglines to jump out of a daydream. The master scene format is a great aid in condensing sluglines. If your words on the page don’t give you a thrill of emotion, take heart – they could still end up becoming a film like Requiem for a Dream.