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.

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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.

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