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.

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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.

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