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  • Locke script and two smoking barrels

    Spoilers ahead.

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

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

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

    Seeing a script for what it is

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

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

    Locke image 1

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

    Locke image 2

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

    Locke image 3

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

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

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

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

    And:

    IVAN LOCKE

    I have no choice.

    DONAL (OOV)

    Is it a bereavement?

    Ivan never lies. Silence. A long pause.

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

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

    IVAN LOCKE

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

    DONAL (OOV)

    Bottle of fizzy pop.

    Ivan reacts inside.

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

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

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

    Chewing your actors’ food for them

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

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

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

    IVAN LOCKE (CONT’D)

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

    A pause. His face harder and harder…

    IVAN LOCKE (CONT’D)

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

    He stares into the mirror.

    IVAN LOCKE (CONT’D)

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

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

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

    A character in a box

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

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

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

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

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

    IVAN LOCKE

    Katrina…

    KATRINA (OOV)

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

    IVAN LOCKE

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

    KATRINA (OOV)

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

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

    In summation

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

  • The Looper script isn’t running in circles

    Spoilers ahead.

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

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

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

    Keeping the heart at the heart of your story

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

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

    JOE

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

    OLD JOE

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

    JOE

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

    OLD JOE

    It doesn’t matter.

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

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

    KID BLUE (CONT’D)

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

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

    Abe’s head droops, weight of the world.

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

    SARA

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

    JOE

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

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

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

    Old Joe spins, his breath up into his head.

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

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

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

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

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

    Cultivating clarity of vision

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

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

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

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

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

    INT. APARTMENT 205

    Old Joe’s face. Remembering.

    INT. FARMHOUSE FOYER (OLD JOE MEMORY)

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

    Jesse explodes in a bright red fan of blood.

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

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

    Establishing shots

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

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

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

    EXT. CITY – ESTABLISHING – DAY

    Helicopters sweep by.

    INT. ABE’S OFFICE

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

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

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

    Moving perspective within a scene

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

    The creature’s foot breaks through the door.

    JIM

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

    COURTNEY

    gathers heavy items to put on it.

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

    EXT. FIELD – WITH CID & SARA

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

    EXT. FIELD – WITH OLD JOE

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

    EXT. FIELD – WITH CID & SARA

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

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

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

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

    In summation

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

  • 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.

  • Floating in orbit with the Gravity 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 picked up the Gravity script because there was something that bugged me about the film. It is an absolute game-changer of a film in the visual department. As much as I love going to the cinema, I usually don’t mind whether I see a given movie on a large or small screen. This was different. It needed to be seen big.

    But for all the love that was poured into the film visually, I found the story a bit tepid. I couldn’t understand how they would go to such great lengths to make a film and then leave the heart of it untended to. So let’s get into the Gravity script and see what we can learn from it.

    Finding a balance between beauty and function in prose

    A screenplay is a functional document that is intended to be turned into something else. This makes it a different beast to many other forms of writing. Its primary goal is to serve as a blueprint for another form of artistic expression. It needs to be purpose-built and lean.

    But, as I mentioned in my Brick script analysis, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to make your script an enjoyable thing to read. Adding a bit of flavor to your prose can do that, but add a little too much and it soon becomes purple. Finding the balance is a question of experience, your own personal style and the tone of the film.

    The importance of tone in finding the right balance of prose is one of my learnings from the Gravity script, because the father and son duo of Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón nailed it right from page one.

    BLACK-

    OUTER SPACE, 600 KILOMETERS ABOVE-

    PLANET EARTH.

    Like all images of Earth seen from space, this image of our planet is mythical and majestic.

    The globe seems almost tangible, slowly spinning, floating in the endless void of space. It is a blue planet, and bright white clouds twirl and stretch in capricious patterns across the deep blue of the oceans and the jigsaw of continents: green, yellow and brown.

    If ever there was a time to be loquacious, it would be when looking down at Earth from orbit. But to get from being a technical showcase to a feature length film which will captivate your audience, you need to focus in on characters. It would be a mistake, though, to think that those smaller, intimate moments are less deserving of beautiful description than the big setpieces.

    Desperately, she begins to unscrew the lock near her waist. She squirms under the suit and pushes off the upper half.

    Then she throws off the lower half, squirming out of it as if shedding her old skin, desperate to free herself from the claustrophobia of the suit.

    Wearing only underwear and a t-shirt, she floats in mid-air, relieved and exhausted. The hum of the Space Station surrounds her.

    Then, slowly, she pulls her knees to her chest and enfolds them in her arms, floating in a fetal position.

    For a moment, Ryan simply hangs in suspension, a fly in amber, surrendering to the poetry of the planets, rotating slowly in the cabin’s womb.

    So find those moments of beauty whether they’re big or small, and make sure they aren’t lost on your reader.

    On-the-nose dialogue in a blockbuster? No way!

    Over the years, Hollywood has trained us to not be too critical of blockbusters. So maybe my expectations of the Gravity script were a little too high, but there were some things which genuinely irked me.

    When dialogue contains too much exposition we think of it as being on-the-nose. It’s a tough thing to avoid when you’ve got a lot of story to get across and only an hour and half to do it in. Not even the pros are immune to it, and the Gravity script contains some real humdingers.

    MISSION CONTROL

    (on radio)

    Copy that. How long do you think it’ll take you?

    Matt begins a wide loop around the telescope.

    RYAN

    An hour.

    MISSION CONTROL

    (on radio)

    Outstanding. We appreciate your patience, Doctor. Installing your system in the Hubble is the main purpose of this mission.

    I’m glad mission control clarified that for Ryan. Having to go through months of training and then flying up to space not knowing what the purpose of the mission was must have been agony.

    I mentioned above how even beautiful pieces of filmmaking like Gravity need to be grounded in characters in order to work. Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, does go through some character development over the course of the story, but character development really needs to be shown through choices and actions instead of spelled out in dialogue:

    EXPLORER CAP (CONT’D)

    (on radio)

    Houston, this is Explorer. Copy?

    Still no answer.

    EXPLORER CAP (CONT’D)

    (on radio)

    We lost Houston!

    Matt stops next to Ryan.

    MATT

    Unstrap! You can’t tune out the world up here.

    Further down in the script, George Clooney’s character offers another suggestion for Ryan’s development:

    RYAN

    I’m going to take the Soyuz and come get you.

    MATT

    No you’re not. . I have too much of a head start. That ship already sailed.

    RYAN

    No. I’m coming to get you.

    MATT

    Ryan, you’re going to have to learn to let go.

    So how do we know that Ryan has completed her transformational arc? Well, helpfully she just comes out and tells us.

    The Chinese Station is approaching, getting closer.

    She disarms the emergency exit and holds on to the LATCH.

    She pauses and turns to grab the fire extinguisher and holds it tightly against her chest with one arm. With the other arm-

    She reaches for the Latch.

    The Station is hovering right next to her and the cabin is going to pass it.

    RYAN (CONT’D)

    Okay, I’m done with just driving. Let’s get go home.

    I’d like to give the Cuaróns the benefit of the doubt in some of these cases. The number of characters in the film is hugely restricted and there are very few opportunities for dialogue. I think it was inevitable that the concentration of exposition in the dialogue would increase as a result. But on-the-nose dialogue is still something to be mindful of at all times.

    Making the most of your characters

    Let’s pause for a moment on that paucity of characters in Gravity. The opening moments notwithstanding, there are only two. For that reason, it’s a real waste that they don’t develop Clooney’s character, Matt, to any significant extent.

    In fact, I’d go so far as to say the Matt character becomes an alternative version of the mystic negro trope – the mystic spaceman. As the excerpts above show, he seems to always be around with some key advice for Ryan, like her own spiritual guide in orbit.

    The Cuaróns also missed some opportunities to make the character so much more rounded. For example, when it becomes clear that Matt wasn’t going to make it, he could’ve dropped a lot of the bravado around his earlier character and revealed a lot about himself. Instead we get:

    MATT (CONT’D)

    So, now that we have some distance between us- you’re attracted to me, aren’t you?

    RYAN

    What?

    MATT

    Well, people say I have beautiful blue eyes.

    RYAN

    You… you have beautiful… you have beautiful blue eyes.

    MATT

    I have brown eyes… that hurts.

    She looks at Matt’s figure receding.

    MATT (CONT’D)

    (on radio)

    You wanna know the good news?

    RYAN

    What?

    MATT

    (on radio)

    I’m going to break Anatoly’s record, and I think mine’s going to stand for a long, long time.

    Then there are the little things. Like how Matt is the consummate astronaut throughout, but when he and Ryan are travelling towards the ISS, he tries to distract her with conversation and apparently ignores the fact that she’s low on oxygen.

    RYAN

    02 down to two percent.

    MATT

    We’re getting there.

    MATT (CONT’D)

    Beautiful, don’t you think?

    RYAN

    What?

    MATT

    The sunrise. That’s what I’m going to miss the most.

    But Ryan is not into the view right now. She’s stricken with fear. Her jaw is clenched and her eyes are almost closed.

    Matt looks at the dark emptiness that engulfs him and smiles.

    MATT (CONT’D)

    So, where’s home, Dr. Stone?

    Ryan keeps her eyes closed, doesn’t answer. Matt, trying to distract her-

    MATT (CONT’D)

    Ryan. Where’s home?

    Gravity is an extreme example, but the number of characters you’re going to have in your script will always be a function of the story you’re telling. Always keep an eye open for opportunities to peek behind their masks.

    A series of unfortunate events

    The last lesson I want to take away from the Gravity script is how to stack events in your story to keep the momentum going.

    Robert McKee talks in his book Story, which is available on Amazon, about story sitting in the disconnect between expectation and reality. There’s no story, he says, in someone flicking a light switch and a light coming on. Reality mirrors the person’s expectation. The story starts when the light doesn’t come on and the expectation is thwarted.

    While you want bad things to happen to your characters so that they can struggle to overcome them, it’s not enough to just create a series of unfortunate events if you want to carry momentum forward.

    Let’s compare two sequences.

    1. Your protagonist gets in an argument with a friend over a misunderstanding. In the next scene your protagonist drives away and shakes it off. The third scene shows your protagonist meeting another friend and having another argument.
    2. Your protagonist gets in an argument with a friend over a misunderstanding. In the next scene, the friend calls a mutual friend and says your protagonist is acting really weird, they’ve just had a huge fight. The third scene shows your protagonist meeting the mutual friend and it also ends in a fight.

    In the second sequence you can see how the momentum is carried forward and the outcomes can be related. The mutual friend was probably more likely to get into a fight knowing that one had already happened earlier. In the first sequence you’re dealing with compound coincidences. If you build up enough of them, your audience either starts disliking your protagonist, or their friends.

    On an episode of Scriptnotes, Aline Brosh McKenna describes it like this:

    You want all your scenes to have a “Because” between them and not an “And Then” between them.

    I felt, with Gravity, that there was too much “and then” between the setpieces and not enough “because”.

    Yes, Ryan had to go on and try the next solution to her problem because the last one didn’t work, but there was no causal relationship between one thing not working and the next. It felt like they just took this basic formula of “Try X. X doesn’t work. Try Y.” and repeated it until they had enough material to fill a feature length film.

    Gravity is not alone in having made that slip-up, not at all. But going back to the reason I chose this script, it was obvious from the very first moment of the film how much love was poured into the visual aspects of it. I guess I was just hoping, as a writer, that the story was going to change the game as much as the visual did.

    In summation

    The Gravity script taught me that different types of films call for a different balance between prose and brevity, that even the biggest blockbusters can suffer from on-the-nose dialogue, that you should never miss an opportunity to add depth to characters and that you should always connect your scenes with “because” instead of “and then”.