All posts in Drama

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Cause and effect in the Zero Dark Thirty 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

    What I loved about this film is how it capitalized on its audiences’ emotional state to tell part of the story. The slow, drawn out pace of the film made you feel the protagonist’s frustration over the hunt for Bin Laden in a way that, when the film ended, made her loss of purpose your own. It was a masterful and supremely confident act of filmmaking, and I wanted to see if I could find traces of it in the Zero Dark Thirty script.

    Of course there were a few more things that stood out while I was reading, so let’s see what we can learn from Mr. Boal for our own writing.

    Why causes make for bad characters. Usually.

    I mentioned in my analysis of the Place Beyond the Pines script that a large cast can stand in the way of developing any one given character. This might make you think that the Zero Dark Thirty script, with its singular focus on protagonist Maya (Chastain), would showcase a lot of development in her. Think again. When you get down to it, Maya doesn’t actually develop as a character at all through the course of the film.

    The reason for this is that Maya isn’t really a character. She’s a cause, like retribution, or justice or chaos. Essentially she’s the anthropomorphization of the United States’ desire to kill or capture Bin Laden. We basically learn nothing about her and never see her in an environment that’s not related to her hunt.

    Maya turns her attention back to the WHITE BOARD and as Debbie keeps talking we follow Maya’s gaze across the row of MUG SHOTS of Al Qaeda personnel. While a few of the men are African or are distinctive looking for other reasons, most of them look fairly similar in that they’re all wearing the same type of clothes and have the same trademark long gnarly beards.

    DEBBIE (CONT’D)

    (pressing on)

    Anyway I thought you should know about it.

    (plus)

    I just want to say I’ve heard a lot about you. You inspired me to come to Pakistan.

    Maya’s eyes narrow. She keeps looking at the WHITE BOARD

    DEBBIE (CONT’D)

    Maybe you’ll let me buy you a kabob sometime?

    MAYA

    (distractedly)

    Don’t eat out. It’s too dangerous.

    Maya stares at the Al Quaeda mugshots – a thought crosses her mind.

    The weird thing about this is, as a character, Maya works in this story. Under normal circumstances, causes make for terrible characters. They give an actor very little to work with in shaping their performance, they can only develop along one dimension – intensity, they give an audience very little to empathize with, they’re predictable, they can’t be influenced much by external factors… The list goes on and on.

    So how does the Zero Dark Thirty script get away with focusing so intently on a protagonist who is a cause rather than a character? I think it works for two reasons.

    First of all, the hunt for Bin Laden and its conclusion was of global interest. How could the most sought after man in the world evade capture with relatively few resources for so long? What undid him in the end? Everyone was intrigued by these questions, and they hadn’t been around for all that long when the film came out. Only 19 months elapsed between his death and Zero Dark Thirty’s release. For a Hollywood blockbuster that’s a pretty damn quick turn-around. That would probably have been reason enough to draw an audience in and hold on to them for the duration of a feature length film. That’s just my gut feeling, I obviously can’t speak on behalf of audiences worldwide.

    Secondly, right at the moment that the audience realize the ending was inevitable, and that they already knew it walking into the cinema, they get hit with one of only two interesting questions that can be asked about a cause. Those two interesting questions are how a cause comes to be, and what happens when it ceases to exist.

    I’d like to say at this point that you shouldn’t make causes into your protagonists, but I’ve just pointed out that there are circumstances where it can work. So I guess the best advice I can give here is to be aware of this happening and make sure it’s what your story needs to happen.

    Questions to help you tell if your character is a cause:

    • Can you list a handful of distinct ‘wants’ for your character? (Note: they don’t need to pursue them all in your story)
    • Can your character’s goal be partially achieved?
    • Take the protagonist from the last film you watched and give them the same goal as your protagonist. Does your story have to change in any fundamental way?

    If you answered “no” to most of those questions, you might have a cause on your hands.

    Show me character

    On a related note, I want to call out something which the Zero Dark Thirty script only does ‘wrong’ once or twice, but which I want to call out nonetheless.

    They remove their masks and we see that one is a beautiful young woman in her mid-twenties.

    She has a pale, milky innocence and bright blue eyes, thin and somewhat frail looking, yet possessing a steely core that we will come to realize is off-the-charts. This is MAYA, a CIA targeter and subject-matter expert on her first overseas assignment.

    Spelling out the nature of a character like this is clearly cheating. Either your character’s actions are going to reveal that aspect of their essence (in which case you didn’t have to waste the page space) or they won’t (in which case your description isn’t going to change anything). Either way, including it isn’t serving a useful purpose.

    Worse than that though, I think it lulls you into a false sense of security. The more you include of these hidden character descriptions, the harder it’ll be to judge how clearly your characters’ actions show their nature on a quick read-through.

    It’s a small risk, I’ll admit, but I basically don’t see there being any reward to justify taking it. So just play it straight, show your character through their actions and choices and not in the scene description.

    Let bullets fly in action sequences, not bullet points

    This is a point which comes up more frequently in the Zero Dark Thirty script than the last one, but it’s less severe. In fact, it’s downright nitpicky because it’s purely a stylistic issue. But it really grates on me so I want to call it out.

    INT. KHOBAR TOWERS – DAY

    - The man enters the hallway of the KHOBAR RESIDENTIAL TOWERS

    - And immediately opens fire on TWO WESTERN MEN he happens to find inside, killing them both.

    TITLE OVER: MAY 29, 2004

    - The CRACK of the shots sends the rest of the residents into a panicky, screaming dash for cover

    - As he strides quickly down the hall, he finds three other RESIDENTS scrambling for safety, and shoots and kills them all.

    I’m all in favor of suiting your scene description to the content. Like I mentioned in my Gravity analysis, if some flowing elegant prose is called for, then go for it. Or if it’s a fast moving action scene, keep the description tight and punchy. But using bullet points here is just all wrong in my book.

    SUDDENLY, AN EXPLOSION RIPS THROUGH THE RESTAURANT.

    – SHATTERS THE WINDOWS

    – DESTROYS TABLES AND LIGHTS

    – MAYA, JESSICA, AND OTHERS TOSSED TO THE GROUND, SOME FATALLY.

    –SMOKE FILLS THE ROOM

    As alarms wail, Maya struggles to her feet, grabs Jessica by the arm, and they stumble to safety.

    I think the intention is to create a kind of choppy, stop-motion effect in the description, but to me it’s just jarring enough to pull me out of the reading experience. That’s something we should be trying to avoid at all times.

    The hero’s resolution versus the audience’s resolution

    Other than successfully using a cause as a main character, the Zero Dark Thirty script does another thing which is unusual and noteworthy. First of all remember how I said I think audiences went into this film to learn more about the events that lead to Bin Laden’s death? Now look at how much Maya cares about how those events unfold:

    MAYA

    Bin Laden uses a courier to interact with the outside world. By locating the courier, we’ve located bin Laden.

    PATRICK

    That’s really the intel? That’s it?

    MAYA

    Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and your velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb but people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb, so they’re using you guys as canaries on the theory that if bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser.

    (beat)

    But bin Laden is there – and you’re going to kill him for me.

    PATRICK

    (softening)

    Bullets are cheap.

    If you accept these premises, what Mark Boal has now done is create a gap between the audience’s resolution of the story and the protagonist’s. Widening that gap even further is the fact that Maya isn’t even there for the climactic raid on the compound.

    What this does is create a kind of dissonance and then uses it in a very creative way. In Zero Dark Thirty the dissonance prompts that question I mentioned earlier – now that he’s dead, what’s left for Maya? What’s she supposed to do next? Forget about Maya, after two hours and 40 minutes of this slowly paced but relentless film, what am I supposed to do next? This is what I meant when I said the film uses the audiences’ emotional state to tell part of the story. It’s a double punch that lands square on the jaw and, as I said, was the reason I wanted to delve into the Zero Dark Thirty script.

    The dissonance of separating the hero from the resolution of a story can also be used in other ways, for example to highlight that the hero is done with whatever the sequence of events is. For example, look at The Usual Suspects. Verbal Kint puts a sequence of events into play and walks away as the inevitable result resolves the story for the audience – he is done with this chapter of his life. If you have a story where you want to show that your hero has finished a chapter in their life, consider removing them from the resolution and see how it feels in your story.

    In summation

    Causes usually (but not always) make for bad protagonists. If you’re not one hundred percent certain that your story requires your protagonist to be one, then you’re better off revisiting the character.

    Exposing character in scene description doesn’t serve much purpose and could make you think your job’s done before it really is, so avoid overusing it.

    Don’t use bullet points in action description.

    Separating the hero’s resolution from the audience’s resolution creates tension which can be used in creative ways, for example to prompt the audience to ask what the hero will do next.

  • Struggling to see The Place Beyond the Pines script for the trees

    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

    Unlike some of my previous picks, I decided to analyze the Place Beyond the Pines script because I felt a bit ambivalent about the film. I felt like there was something that Derek Cianfrance was trying to get at which just didn’t materialize on screen for me. So I thought I’d look into the script and see if I could find the thing which I missed on screen.

    In hindsight, I’m glad I did it, because I have some real issues with this script and that obviously means there’s a lot to learn from it. So let’s dive right in and see where the Place Beyond the Pines script and I clashed.

    I’m only going to touch on two themes in this post, because they’re both very important and I want to do them both justice.

    An ensemble cast doesn’t excuse poorly motivated characters

    One of the reasons I picked this one was because I wanted to know what the star studded cast of Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper, Mahershala Ali and Ray Liotta saw in The Place Beyond the Pines script. What attracted them to the project?

    With a lot of big names to service the stories of ensemble pieces sometimes struggle to deliver a great amount of character depth across the board. This doesn’t mean that a big cast is a bad thing, it could be that each of these characters is necessary for the story you’re telling. Just be aware that that’s a trade-off you’re making.

    The larger cast of The Place Beyond the Pines might be one reason for the shallow characters on display here, but I’m not going to let Cianfrance, Coccio and Marder off the hook that easily.

    For example, let’s look at the moment where Scott tries to recruit Avery into his shady use of material stored in evidence.

    Scott puts his hand up and waves for Romina. “Ma’am!”

    SCOTT (CONT’D)

    We’re dealing with a case, DeLuca and me. And it’s pretty sensitive. I’m hoping this can stay private.

    Avery is listening. Romina comes back to the table, trembling with fear and rage. She pours Avery’s coffee.

    SCOTT (CONT’D)

    Tuna melt. Large iced tea.

    Scott hands her the menu, notices who she is, makes big eyes at Avery. She turns to Avery, waits for his order. Avery can’t tell if she is terrified or angry. Probably both.

    AVERY

    I’m fine with coffee.

    She takes his menu, walks away. Scott looks at Avery like a kid who has just gotten away with something.

    SCOTT

    You trying to fuck her? You sick fuck…

    AVERY

    What’d you want to talk about?

    SCOTT

    Right. I knew I could come to you. You could really help us bust this thing wide open.

    Remember, this takes place at a location of Avery’s choosing and relatively soon after he, Scott and the others force their way into Romina’s house and essentially steal from her. Surely Scott would be more cautious about bringing Avery in after seeing that he still has some unknown connection to her?

    Or how about this little encounter:

    DELUCA

    Okay shitbag, walk ahead of us and stand by that tree.

    The Coke-head is petrified. Deluca takes Avery aside.

    DELUCA (CONT’D)

    Okay hero, go find out who his source is.

    AVERY

    This is crazy. What are we doing here?

    DELUCA

    This is the fucking job.

    Avery looks at Scott. Unspoken, Scott urges him on. Avery walks to the Coke-head, tries to be a human being.

    AVERY

    What’s your name?

    COKEHEAD

    Fuck you motherfucker.

    Avery leans in and whispers.

    AVERY

    Listen. You have any idea what kind of trouble you’re in here? I need to know the name of your source so I can get you outta here.

    Junkie doesn’t say anything. He’s not scared of Avery.

    DELUCA

    What’s taking so long? Do the right thing, hero.

    AVERY

    This is your last chance.

    JUNKIE

    Or what? Fuck you bitch.

    The other cops hoot with laughter. Avery is mortified by the man’s defiance and the ultimate ghetto insult – no man calls another man a bitch without a fight.

    Did you notice the character name change half way through the scene? That’s sloppy writing, at best, but the real issue here is how the character behaves. How does he go from petrified to using “the ultimate ghetto insult” to a cop in the space of half a page?

    But both of those examples are minor characters, so what does it matter if they’re inconsistent? It wouldn’t matter, if the main characters were any better fleshed out.

    When we first meet him, Avery is a new cop on the beat. By coincidence he takes down a notorious bank robber and becomes a hero. He fights with (and will eventually divorce) his wife for obscure reasons, loses his beat job on return to the service and gets drafted into a corrupt operation with some other cops. Notice a pattern here? Everything happens to this guy. He is 100% reactive throughout the entire story.

    You could be forgiven for thinking that, as a character, he’s a bit of a wet blanket. It will probably surprise you to find out that he’s actually incredibly ambitious. Even unrealistically ambitious. It certainly surprised me when it first came up on page 54 of a 115 page script:

    CHIEF WEIRZBOWSKI (V.O.)

    The question is can you go back out on patrol anytime soon? And if you went out, could you be effective?

    AVERY

    No, I don’t believe I can.

    CHIEF WEIRZBOWSKI

    I’m glad you’re being clear-eyed about this. A lot of guys think there’s only one way to be a cop. You know, out there busting heads.

    AVERY

    I never saw it like that.

    CHIEF WEIRZBOWSKI

    There are a lot of jobs that need to be done around here that in ways, and you know this, in ways are more important than what happens out on the street.

    AVERY

    Make me a Lieutenant. Put me in charge of special investigations.

    CHIEF WEIRZBOWSKI

    (laughs)

    I can’t fucking do that.

    AVERY

    Yes you can.

    CHIEF WEIRZBOWSKI

    You paid too much for your education to act so stupid, kid.

    AVERY

    I have ideas that could turn that whole division around.

    This is a tale of two families, though, so maybe the writers should get the benefit of the doubt. Maybe all the good character development goes on in the other branch of the story. The film opens on Gosling’s character, Luke, the pater familias of the other plot arc. He’s a guy not likely to win awards for his people skills:

    INT. ROBIN’S SERVICE STATION – LATER

    Luke walks into the garage, only to find his bike cut into pieces. Only the engine is intact. Luke can’t believe his eyes.

    Luke reacts as if Robin put down his horse. He storms out of the garage. We follow him to…

    INT. ROBIN’S SERVICE STATION – CONTINUOUS

    Robin is passed out on the couch. Luke comes in and sticks the barrel of the pistol against Robin’s head. Robin wakes up. Luke is out of his fucking mind here, close to squeezing the trigger.

    ROBIN

    We had a good thing going. We kept it up as long as we could, made a nice little score, now it’s over.

    LUKE

    Open your mouth.

    Luke sticks the gun inside Robin’s mouth. Turns it against his teeth. Robin pisses his pants.

    So you wouldn’t blame Robin for not remembering Luke in a kind light. But later, when Luke’s son Jason pays Robin a visit, all seems to be forgotten:

    Robin pulls out a box of papers, memorabilia.

    ROBIN

    Gotta be in here somewhere… there we go.

    Robin pulls out dusty newspaper from the stack. Above the fold headline reads, ‘Moto Bandit Killed by Sch’dy Cop.’ He hands it to Jason.

    ROBIN (CONT’D)

    There he is. That’s him. That’s Luke.

    Jason stares in awe at LUKE’S MUGSHOT. It is the first time he has ever seen his father.

    ROBIN (O.S.) (CONT’D)

    He was a crazy son of a bitch. But he had a big heart.

    Then, a day later, Jason goes to visit Robin again. This time he’s looking to get closer to his father by moving into his father’s old trailer. Suddenly Robin isn’t as welcoming, though. No interaction has happened between the two of them since the last excerpt, but somehow everything has changed:

    ROBIN (O.S.)

    What’re you doing back here?

    Jason turns, SEES: Robin, with cigarette, approach him. Not so cordially this time.

    JASON

    Sorry. Just coming to say “hi.” I was wondering if anybody was staying in my dad’s old trailer… you might rent it out to me… or something…

    Robin ushers Jason out of the bay with a whistle and a snap of his finger.

    ROBIN

    Come on. Let’s get out. Can’t have you back here. Regulations.

    They snake through the office and out into the front of the shop. Robin keeps it moving the whole time.

    ROBIN (CONT’D)

    I can’t have you just walking in on me like that. It’s not professional. I have a lot of work on my plate, and I am in no position to fall behind. I wish I could spend my days reminiscing and getting all nostalgic with you about your dear old daddy. All misty eyed and shit. But I just can’t. See you down the road, though.

    Robin has walked Jason to the edge of his property.

    This disconnect in tone between one meeting of a pair of characters and the next seems to be an ongoing theme in the Place Beyond the Pines script. Another example:

    A.J. (CONT’D)

    OK. So. Dude, I’m sorry I was kinda a dick to you yesterday and everything. I was just kinda rip shit with you about losing my $500 bucks, you know. But it’s cool. I’m over it. And I hope you’re over it, as well. So, what do you think? We cool?

    JASON

    Yeah, whatever, man.

    Jason walks off. A.J. gets up along side him.

    A.J.

    Hey dude. Dude. My dad is gone this weekend and so, I’m having a party at my house tonight – my dad’s house is seriously ridiculous. Anyway. I was thinking you should come over. I know you have the sick connection and everything. And I was thinking, if you brought the skittles or something, I could just forget about the money you lost me.

    JASON

    Yeah? I thought we were cool, bro?

    A.J.

    We are, man. You know. We’re just making it correct.

    JASON

    I got shit to do tonight, A.J.

    Jason keeps going. He seems in a hurry.

    A.J. (CALLING OUT)

    What do you have to do?

    (to himself)

    Play scrabble with your family?

    I’m not even going to dwell on how on-the-nose that last line is from A.J., the jealous child of a broken home. Instead I want to skip ahead till the next time these two see each other, where Jason suddenly seems to care a quite a bit about what A.J. thinks of him:

    Jason makes it through the crush of dancing bodies, finds A.J. in a crowd of kids. They shout to talk.

    A.J.

    Oh shit! You made it!

    They give hugs. Jason is all wet and sweaty.

    A.J. (CONT’D)

    Damn, bro. You stink!

    JASON

    What?!

    A.J. leans in to shout in Jason’s ear.

    A.J.

    You got the Oxy?!

    Jason produces the bottle of OxyContin from his hoodie pockets. A.J. is beyond psyched. He grabs the bottle and immediately shows off the score to friends around him.

    A.J. walks through the party to the back pool, handing out the drugs to party goers. An adoring group forms quickly around him. Jason looks on somewhat dejected. He approaches the group and waits his turn to receive.

    I think it’s safe to say that there are some real issues with character in this story. They’re also about to get worse.

    Misogyny

    This is a point I don’t raise lightly. After all of the previous examples of terrible character motivation, I wasn’t sure whether the women in the Place Beyond the Pines script simply suffered under the same yoke. But there is an undertone of sexism in this script which I can’t just explain away as a poor understanding of character.

    The problems of the female characters in this story aren’t just that their actions don’t make sense. They also seem to be restricted in the actions they can take and to always be overruled by the desires of the male characters.

    Luke LOOKS out the window, SEES Kofi hefting many bags of groceries up toward the house.

    MALENA (DOWNSTAIRS)(IN SPANISH)

    He brought a lot of stuff.

    Luke HEARS Romina coming up the stairs.

    LUKE

    (to Jason)

    When your mom comes in here, do you think she’s gonna be bummed? Or do you think she’s gonna be psyched?

    Jason just swings. Romina enters the room.

    ROMINA

    What’s this shit? What is all this?

    LUKE

    (to Jason)

    She’s bummed.

    ROMINA

    What are you doing here? You are gonna screw up my life.

    LUKE

    Just calm down. Don’t be so dramatic. OK.

    (to Jason)

    You needed this right? You can’t be sleeping at night in a bed with two huge people, worrying about being crushed the whole time if they roll over or something. You need some space to dream, right?

    Romina turns and looks down the stairs, SEES Kofi coming up. She resigns herself to be a spectator.

    You cannot have any character in your story expect their life to be screwed up (her words) and not take any action at all. You especially cannot have that happen because she’s a she and the man-folk are gonna sort things out like men. And then go chop some wood, like men do.

    Then let’s look at how the drama unfolds:

    KOFI (CONT’D)

    I want you take all this stuff out of here. All this…

    Kofi, anger building, stands.

    KOFI (CONT’D)

    Take it away.

    Kofi reaches down to grab the frame of the crib that Luke is working on and, in an instant, Luke grabs a wrench, springs forward and cracks Kofi’s forehead open with it.

    Kofi is knocked out. He crashes to the floor, hitting the back of his head. Concussion. Romina shoves past Luke to get to Kofi on the ground. Luke watches Romina cradle Kofi’s head. Malena appears in the doorway.

    ROMINA (O.S.)(IN SPANISH)

    Mama call an ambulance.

    Malena runs out, dials 911. Luke just stands there, invisible to Romina. She is now unattainable to him.

    Let those last words sink into you. “She is unattainable to him.” Even in the moment where she makes her decision about Luke, those five words manage to deprive her of all agency and relegate her to the status of object. A thing which, up until now, Luke could have reached out and grabbed whenever he wanted.

    In fact it takes 85 pages for us to get to a point in the Place Beyond the Pines script where Romina (or any other female character for that matter) shows any desire to control her own destiny. When it looks like her son is drifting away from her, she asserts herself:

    ROMINA (CONT’D)

    No call? No nothing? You were afraid we’d be angry?

    (Beat)

    Well guess what. We’re angry.

    JASON

    Sorry.

    ROMINA

    You need to start acting like you’re a part of this family. Not just some guy who lives in the same house. Okay?

    Nothing.

    ROMINA (CONT’D)

    Say “okay.”

    JASON

    Okay.

    Jason puts his head down.

    ROMINA

    I will not watch this happen.

    She leaves his room, slamming his door shut.

    Once again, let’s jump over to the other story arc and see if there’s any improvement in matters. Here’s Avery telling his wife who she has his permission to talk to:

    AVERY

    Why are you making me feel like I’m doing something wrong? I’m a cop. And I don’t know why I have to apologize for that.

    JENNIFER

    We are just worried about you…

    AVERY

    Who’s “we?”

    JENNIFER

    I talked to your dad today…

    AVERY

    There it is. Now I get it. Jesus Christ.

    JENNIFER

    … and he agrees with me.

    AVERY

    Of course he does. Of course he does.

    JENNIFER

    We’re all just worried about you.

    AVERY

    Is that what it is? You two are worried about me? Or maybe you’re just worried about yourselves. Maybe you’re just wishing you had a lawyer’s salary now?

    JENNIFER

    Oh come on…

    AVERY

    No you come on. You go and talk to my fucking dad about my life? What do you expect him to say? Huh? What did you think he was gonna say? And why do you think that it’s OK for you to go and talk to him?

    JENNIFER

    I’m sorry Avery, I wasn’t…

    Now you could argue of the above excerpt that one character’s views don’t imply any kind of bias on the part of the writer. I totally agree that writers don’t have to hold the same beliefs as their characters. But when there are so many more examples of this bias which aren’t the behaviors or opinions of a character, it becomes much less likely that this is just Avery.

    If we can’t expect much from the main female characters, I suppose it would be foolish to get our hopes up about the minor characters. But this interaction towards the end of the Place Beyond the Pines script still left a bitter taste:

    He goes and sits down on a couch. Watches ASHLEY, a girl with an endless mid-riff, dance before him: so beautiful, so sensual. Jason falls into the spell of everything.

    The girl beckons him up off the couch. He gets up. She keeps dancing so good. She giggles at him. He’s cute to her. She moves closer.

    The room is slowing down around him and her hips and pierced navel swallow his focus. She pulls him towards her and their bodies grind together. A.J. checks them out from across the crowded room.

    A.J.’s friend approaches and starts grinding her from behind. Her movements have changed. She seems to be enjoying the crude grindings of this other guy. Jason can’t get her back. It disgusts him. His moment is being torn from him. Jason lets go and moves away. Leaving his girl in an animal embrace.

    First off, she’s not annoyed by this other guy suddenly getting all hands on with her? After all, it’s not like she’s shown him any attention at all. It’s another example of how, in this world, the men do what they want and the women just go along with it. But ok, this is a drug-fuelled high school crowd, affections are fickle, so I’ll let that slide. Just.

    Second, there’s again this question of objectification or possession in how Jason thinks of her as “his girl”. Now, I don’t think this kind of language is always a problem. For example, a couple can talk about “our song” in the sense of the song having a special meaning to them. This doesn’t imply that they feel any sense of ownership over it. Equally, here it could mean that Ashley has a special meaning to Jason, but given that all they’ve shared is a few minutes grinding at a house party, I struggle to buy that.

    In summation

    • If you expect your film to have an ensemble cast, be aware of how thin you’re spreading character development. Ask yourself whether any characters can be removed to make way for more development of others.
    • If you know you struggle to write rounded characters and scenes in which they’re motivated to act, at a minimum you should check that the tone of interactions matches up from one scene to the next.
    • Bias is a difficult thing to detect in yourself, be hyper-critical when writing characters who differ from you in gender, race, sexuality or religion and call in others to review your work.
  • Going into battle with the Warrior 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 absolutely loved this movie. I went into it being a fan of Tom Hardy and expecting a good beat ‘em up film, but I never expected that the heaviest punches would be to the heart. I have a huge weak spot for stories about brothers (strange, because I don’t have one) and the way O’Connor, Tambakis and Dorfman wove a layered family drama into the brutality of the Warrior script is nothing short of phenomenal.

    So let’s get down to some script analysis and see what we can pick up from this work.

    Writing un-shootable action and the writer/director prerogative

    I think one of the reasons the Warrior script pulls off the tricky balancing act of being both family drama and combat sport flick is because it’s guided by such a clear vision. Writer/directors like Gavin O’Connor seem to pull off that trick particularly well.

    Being the author of a script must be slightly different when you know that you are going to be in charge of making the film too. You know the level of detail that you personally need to go into production and make something work. For example, if you look at Woody Allen’s script for Midnight in Paris the location of some of the scenes is simply listed as “TBD” – something to be figured out in production.

    One of the freedoms this gives you, as a writer, is to include fundamentally un-shootable action as a reminder to yourself of how you want to direct your actors. The Warrior script gives a few examples of this:

    Paddy places the cup of coffee on the night stand as Tommy stirs, then sits on the empty bed and unrolls the poster. It’s yellowed with age and covered with a boy’s handwriting.

    ON BOARD: THEOGENES 1415 WINS. NO LOSSES. TOMMY CONLON 315 WINS. NO LOSSES. ALSO, A 1994 NEWSPAPER CLIPPING READING “PRODIGY WINS STATE CHAMPIONSHIP,” AND ABOVE IT, GOALS: 1998, COLLEGE, PENN STATE. 2000, SUMMER OLYMPICS, GOLD MEDAL.

    PADDY (CONT’D)

    Look what I found in that disaster of a basement. Whattya say we sit down and update this sometime? You can fill me in on how close you got to that record.

    Tommy says nothing. Not a nostalgic bone in his body. The dreams on that poster are long gone.

    There’s no way you can place a camera that shows there isn’t a nostalgic bone in someone’s body, but it’s good grist for the mill in directing a scene. When you know you’re going to be the one giving those directions, it’s a no-brainer to include it like they did in the Warrior script.

    BRENDAN (CONT’D)

    I’m in. I’m going.

    A look of serious concern crosses Tess’s face. She puts her hands on her hips.

    TESS

    Really? So that’s your decision? You decided? ‘Cause I really enjoyed that conversation we just had about making that decision together.

    Brendan doesn’t say anything. Knows she’s right. And that he’s about to get laid into.

    Opinions differ on how much of this you can get away with if you’re not planning on directing your screenplay yourself. The old tenet of “writers shouldn’t direct on the page” seems to be in decline, but it’s probably still better to err on the side of caution for one important reason: control.

    Because these characters live in your head, their motivations are clear to you and are easy to spell out on the page. Without that privileged knowledge, it’s all too easy for your audience to fall off the rails of your story by missing something that connects the dots. The more you depend on your director to connect those dots for the audience, the less control you have over the audience’s reception of the film.

    Writing great monologues

    Film scripts are probably most like stage plays in their nature, but there are differences between the two that stretch further than where the words go on the page. Films, for example, typically have less in the way of sprawling monologues for actors to get to grips with.

    I’m fine with the different formats having developed that way, but a good monologue does have a certain sparkle to it which is great to see. O’Connor, Tambakis and Dorfman do some great work here with the Warrior script.

    TOMMY

    Spare me the compassionate father routine, Pop. The suit don’t fit.

    PADDY

    I’m really trying here, Tommy.

    TOMMY

    You’re trying? Now? Where were you when it mattered? I needed this guy back when I was a kid. I don’t need you now. It’s too late now. Everything’s already happened. You and Brendan don’t seem to understand that. Let me explain something to you: the only thing I have in common with Brendan Conlon is that we have absolutely no use for you.

    Paddy’s shaken. He can’t fathom the anger in Tommy, yet he knows he’s responsible. It’s written all over him. Tears well up in his eyes. They seem to make Tommy madder.

    TOMMY (CONT’D)

    Look at you. Yeah, I was right. I think I liked you better when you were a drunk. At least you had some balls then. Not like now. Tip toeing around like some beggar with your cup out. Take it somewhere else, old man.

    Tommy reaches down and picks up a plastic CUP made for holding coins and dips it into his tray, filling it with QUARTERS.

    TOMMY (CONT’D)

    In fact, you know what? Here’s a cup. Why don’t you take this and go buy some more of your shitty tapes? Go back to the room and listen to some more fish stories no one gives a shit about. Go on, get outta here.

    (beat)

    Get the fuck outta here!

    What makes this, and other great monologues, so good are the shifts you see in Tommy’s thinking as the words spill out of him. If you were to plot out the beats of his psychological state, it might look something like:

    1. You can’t get to me anymore, I’m stronger than you. (“I don’t need you now.”)
    2. I’m going to take a shot at you to prove my strength. (“…we have absolutely no use for you”)
    3. Why aren’t you fighting back? Where’s the demon I built you up to be? (“I think I liked you better as a drunk.”)
    4. Why do I feel bad for beating on you? Make it stop. (“Go on, get outta here.”)
    5. How are you still able to get to me? I’m supposed to be stronger than you. (“Get the fuck outta here.”)

    What’s wonderful in this scene and this monologue is how conflict is created out of inaction. We talk a lot about conflict in screenwriting. Situations where the world is at odds with what your protagonist wants and so forces them to change or into action. We think of the character as having momentum and direction and conflict happening with a force that works to change one or both of those.

    But real people aren’t always that composed. A lot of people are a veritable mess of psychological imbalances held only in equilibrium by a series of forces in their environment working on them in all directions. If you take one of those away, like removing Tommy’s idea of this demonic father figure, the conflict of that character struggling to maintain their equilibrium becomes visible.

    When dialogue is action

    I mentioned in both my Brick analysis and my post about Gravity that making your script an easy read is important. In the Warrior script I picked up on one way of doing this which I hadn’t thought about much before – when to make a dialogue line not a dialogue line.

    INT. BOARDWALK HALL ARENA CAGE – SAME


    Midnight Le takes Brendan to the ground. Brendan tries to escape, but turns his back, allowing Midnight to sink in a rear naked CHOKE. He puts the strangle hold on Brendan and squeezes his neck with his enormous biceps.

    FRANK

    Get out of there! Get out of there!

    Brendan tries to pry Midnight’s hands off him. No use.

    CALLEN (V.O.)

    And now he’s got the hooks in. 20 seconds left.

    SHERIDAN (V.O.)

    The end is near. Can he make it to the end of the round is the question.

    Midnight squeezes for all it’s worth as Frank screams at Brendan, imploring him not to tap.

    That last block of action could easily have been a dialogue line, something like “Don’t you dare tap!” An actor worth his salt like Frank Grillo could have delivered that line with great energy on the screen, but it’s so much more powerful to read how his character screams at Brendan to stay in the fight.

    Getting value out of your tertiary characters

    During my examination of the Gravity script I mentioned what a shame it was that they didn’t develop George Clooney’s character more. Even more so because there were so few characters in the story to begin with.

    I don’t know about you, but I think a lot about what I put into my characters because they’re products of my imagination. It’s quite rare that I stop to think about what I’m getting out of my characters.

    INT. COLT’S PITTSBURGH FIGHT CLUB – SAME

    Sheer amazement that Tommy didn’t submit.

    INT. BOARDWALK HALL ARENA CAGE – SAME

    Tommy, flap down, tears of pain pouring down his face, stands defiantly in his corner. In the other corner, Frank attends Brendan. In the crowd, Tess covers her mouth. She can’t believe what Tommy allowed to happen to him.

    In a past life, when I did some acting, a director told me something that stuck with me over the years. Authority, he said, is not something which you can act. It’s something which is acted by those around you for your character. In a similar fashion in the scene above, the inhuman suffering that Tommy puts himself through is lent weight by the reaction of Tess, a tertiary character.

    This is something I see myself doing in the last pass over a scene – check what characters are in it and see if they’re working as hard as they can to amplify the focal points of the scene.

    Referring to items in a scene

    This post is getting on in length (and believe me I could keep writing until it’s as long as the script itself) but I want to finish with one more thing that O’Connor, Tambakis and Dorfman do in the Warrior script which I want to copy.

    BRENDAN

    We had that conversation. I was paying medical bills. Is that in your file?

    Taylor looks at Brendan. Takes him a second to remember.

    DAN TAYLOR

    Oh, right. Sorry. Your daughter’s…kidney?

    BRENDAN

    Heart.

    DAN TAYLOR

    Heart, right.

    (off stack of files on desk)

    Lot of stories.

    It’s a minor thing, but using this “off <item>” notation in parentheses is a nice clean way to avoid breaking a dialogue block.

    The only thing I would caution against is using it when the environment the scene plays out in has any ambiguity to it. If you can’t tell the reader all they need to know in 2-3 words, then break your dialogue block and set the item up properly.

    In summation

    From the Warrior script I learned that writer/directors often leave notes for themselves in action, but non-directing writers might want to minimize that to keep control over the final result of the film. I learned that great monologues move with the shifts in the character’s thought processes. I learned that all characters in a script, even the smallest ones, should carry their weight in all the scenes they appear in. Lastly I learned how to refer to items without breaking a block of dialogue by using “off <item>” in a parenthetical.