All posts tagged motivation

  • 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.

  • The Looper script isn’t running in circles

    Spoilers ahead.

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

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

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

    Keeping the heart at the heart of your story

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

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

    JOE

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

    OLD JOE

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

    JOE

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

    OLD JOE

    It doesn’t matter.

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

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

    KID BLUE (CONT’D)

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

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

    Abe’s head droops, weight of the world.

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

    SARA

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

    JOE

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

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

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

    Old Joe spins, his breath up into his head.

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

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

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

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

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

    Cultivating clarity of vision

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

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

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

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

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

    INT. APARTMENT 205

    Old Joe’s face. Remembering.

    INT. FARMHOUSE FOYER (OLD JOE MEMORY)

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

    Jesse explodes in a bright red fan of blood.

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

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

    Establishing shots

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

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

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

    EXT. CITY – ESTABLISHING – DAY

    Helicopters sweep by.

    INT. ABE’S OFFICE

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

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

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

    Moving perspective within a scene

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

    The creature’s foot breaks through the door.

    JIM

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

    COURTNEY

    gathers heavy items to put on it.

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

    EXT. FIELD – WITH CID & SARA

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

    EXT. FIELD – WITH OLD JOE

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

    EXT. FIELD – WITH CID & SARA

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

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

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

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

    In summation

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

  • Digging for lessons in the Mud script

    Spoilers ahead.

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

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

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

    Individual style within a fixed format

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

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

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

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

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

    MARY LEE (CONT’D)

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

    She stops before completing the thought.

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

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

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

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

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

    BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

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

    NECKBONE

    Shit.

    ELLIS

    We gotta go. I can’t be late.

    EXT. BASE OF BOAT TREE – MOMENTS LATER

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

    EXT. ISLAND WOODS

    REEK – MOMENTS LATER

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

    EXT. ISLAND SHORE – MOMENTS LATER

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

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

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

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

    Ramping up the stakes

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

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

    ELLIS

    When they show up, you’ll leave?

    Mud begins fishing again.

    MUD

    Yeah.

    ELLIS

    And when you leave, that boat’s ours?

    MUD

    Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    When to name characters – a redux

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

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

    EXT. ELLIS’ HOUSEBOAT – CONTINUOUS

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

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

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

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

    Be mindful of your world

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

    ELLIS

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

    MOTEL CLERK

    I’ve seen her.

    ELLIS

    You see her today.

    MOTEL CLERK

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

    Ellis digests this. They turn to leave.

    MOTEL CLERK (CONT’D)

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

    They’re already out the door.

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

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

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

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

    In summation

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

  • Captivated by the Prisoners script

    Spoilers ahead.

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

    Buy from Amazon

     

    Why I chose this script

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

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

    Of characters and change

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

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

    INT. KELLER’S TRUCK – TRAVELING

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

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

    INT. BATHROOM – THE DOVERS’ HOUSE – CONTINUOUS

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

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

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

    LOKI (CONT’D)

    You sure you heard him right?

    KELLER

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

    Loki observes Keller’s hands are shaking…

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

    KELLER

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

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

    KELLER (O.S.) (CONT’D)

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

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

    INT. KELLER’S TRUCK – TRAVELING – CONTINUOUS

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

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

    KELLER (CONT’D)

    Don’t make me do this anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

    Directing on the page

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

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

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

    EXT. FAIRMOUNT CIRCLE – MORNING

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

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

    EXT. LOKI’S SEDAN – NIGHT

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

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

    KELLER

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

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

    KELLER

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

    KELLER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    When to name characters

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

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

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

    FORENSICS GUY

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

    LOKI

    Did his best imitation. He shot himself last night.

    Forensics Guy shakes his head.

    FORENSICS GUY

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

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

    LOKI

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

    FORENSICS GUY

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

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

    LOKI (CONT’D)

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

    (to one of the cops)

    You — come on –

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

    Convincing someone to change course

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

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

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

    KELLER

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

    LOKI

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

    KELLER

    Then charge him with something.

    LOKI

    Mr. Dover, let me worry about –

    KELLER

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

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

    KELLER (CONT’D)

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

    Loki doesn’t answer.

    KELLER (CONT’D)

    Thank you, Detective. I appreciate it.

    Loki nods and drives off –

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

    In summation

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

  • Brick 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

    Let’s not mince words here, Brick is pretty much my favorite film of all time. The way Rian Johnson took a knife molded from modern high school drama and rammed it right into the heart of the film noir genre is nothing short of brilliant. Layered plots, rounded characters, fantastic dialogue, I could go on and on about what I love about the film, but instead why don’t we dive into the Brick script.

    Mastery of dialogue

    One of the most egregious sins that we screenwriters can commit is to create unnatural, wooden dialogue. We’ve all come across those on-the-nose lines that drop like a lead balloon in even the best of scripts.

    The reason that bad dialogue sets our teeth on edge is it makes characters feel a bit unreal to us. There’s no way in the world anyone would ever say that line in that situation. This means that the language that characters use is indicative of the world they live in. If the words are ones we’d expect to hear, then the world feels natural and similar to ours.

    In the case of Brick, Johnson uses dialogue masterfully to set his world apart. Dialogue spills out of his characters quick as a whip and smooth as silk. In any other film adolescents delivering these lines would be far too glib. But Johnson creates a world in which these lines and characters are the norm, and we feel comfortable slipping into it because he does it so well.

    LAURA’S VOICE

    You think you’re cute, whoever you are.

    BRENDAN

    Wait’ll you get a load of my felt fedora and spats.

    LAURA’S VOICE

    Who are you? Or I’ll hang up.

    BRENDAN

    You don’t know me – I’ll save you some time.

    LAURA’S VOICE

    I know everyone and I’ve got all the time in the world.

    BRENDAN

    Folly of youth. Ask whose invitation I’ve got.

    LAURA’S VOICE

    (slightly)

    What you said.

    BRENDAN

    Emily Kostich.

    A beat.

    LAURA’S VOICE

    15 Bush street, up in Stockton Cove. Buzz 42 at the gate. Nine o’clock. But who-

    The dialogue oozes a kind of old-school cool in a huge tip of the fedora to films that made the noir genre what it is. You could easily imagine so many of Brendan’s lines being delivered by Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep.

    BRENDAN

    Jake runner, right?

    THE BRAIN

    Big time… maybe. Ask any dope rat where their junk sprang they’ll say they scraped it from that who scored it from this who bought it off so, and after four or five connections the list’ll always end with the Pin. But I’ll becha you got every rat in town together and said ‘show your hands’ if any of them’ve actually seen the Pin, you’d get a crowd of full pockets.

    BRENDAN

    You think the Pin’s just a tale to take whatever heat?

    THE BRAIN

    (shrugs. Beat)

    But what’s first?

    BRENDAN

    A show of hands.

    It’s helped by the fact that every character in the story has their own agenda and the de facto style of interaction is conflict. Though the film isn’t jumping from one action sequence to another, the characters are constantly trying to outwit each other and words are their weapon of choice.

    LAURA

    I want to help you.

    BRENDAN

    Go away.

    Silence behind him. He stops, turns wearily. She looks genuinely hurt.

    BRENDAN (CONT’D) (cont’d)

    Look, I can’t trust you. You ought to be smart enough to know that. I didn’t shake the party up to get your attention, and I’m not heeling you to hook you. Your connections could help me, but the bad baggage they bring could make it zero sum game or even hurt me, so I’m better off coming at it clean.

    LAURA

    I wouldn’t have to lead you in by the hand-

    BRENDAN

    I can’t trust you. Brad was a sap, you weren’t, you were with him and so you were playing him, so you’re a player. With you behind me I’d have to tie one eye up watching both your hands, and I can’t spare it.

    This confrontation and misdirection is of course another hallmark of film noir, and Johnson’s homage to the genre stretches further than just the dialogue.

    Setting the perfect tone for the modern noir

    Dialogue plays a large part in setting the tone for a film, but there’s so much more that Johnson pours into the world of Brick that I love.

    To start with, let’s look at our hero, Brendan. Looking at classic noir films there’s a consistency to the heroes. They’re usually not the strongest, or the fastest or even the smartest. The only thing in which they do excel is tenacity and Brendan has that in spades. The way he fights is a prime example of this:

    Brad tumbles, and Brendan comes up fast, connecting hard with the point of Brad’s chin. Brad gets his balance fast, and before Brendan can throw another he throws one himself, then another, both into Brendan’s stomach. Brendan pulls back and kicks Brad’s shin where he had kicked it before. Brad roars and hits Brendan very hard in the face.

    Brendan bounces back like a rubber ball and throws his weight into a square punch right into Brad’s nose.

    The sound of eggs breaking, and Brad falls backwards like a board.

    He stays down, holding his face.

    Noir worlds are also steeped in cynicism and the characters that inhabit them are nothing if not self-serving, conniving and underhanded. I highlighted a section of dialogue above where Brendan explains why he can’t trust Laura, so later on in the script it might be surprising that he breaks down in front of her.

    BRENDAN

    (croaks)

    Go away.

    Laura floats across the room to him. Her hair falls around him. Brendan shrinks back. She puts a pale hand on his clammy forehead. Brendan tries to speak, but cannot.

    He fingers slide over his face. She pulls off his glasses.

    Her hands all over his face. Brendan’s throat contorts in a hard swallow. His eyes are wet.

    Her hair, her hands all warm and gentle, touching him.

    LAURA

    I’m sorry Brendan.

    Brendan breaks. In silent sobs first, then shivering with an almighty release he cries like a baby in her arms.

    So Brendan finally trusts Laura enough to let down his guard at that point. But it’s a mark of the wonderful perversion of this world that he doesn’t trust that she’s on his side, instead he knows enough to be fairly certain she’s the opposite. Knowing he’s one step ahead of her is what allows him to drop his guard.

    How to handle thin motivation

    As much as I like heaping well deserved praise on Brick, it’s not entirely sunshine and rainbows. While reading through the script one of my biggest stumbling blocks was thin character motivation.

    There are times when characters in the film take actions that seem a little bizarre. But most of these occurrences are well handled, so I think there are good learning points here.

    BRENDAN

    About a year ago I had a small time dealing partnership with Jerr Madison. Know him?

    PIN

    Till he took the fall for you.

    BRENDAN

    Yeah well. I didn’t ask him to, but he was a straight player. I got out clean – almost. Nothing on my official record, but the VPs play it like I owe them one. When I made it clear I wasn’t playing their hound dog, well they didn’t like it. They keep calling me in, badgering me.

    PIN

    Gee that’s tough.

    BRENDAN

    I don’t like being told whose side I’m on. So now they think I’m on your trail, I’m in a nice spot to know their movements and feed them yours.

    PIN

    I gotcha.

    The above fragment shows the entire argument that Brendan makes to convince the Pin, the biggest drug dealer of the neighborhood, to trust him. It’s a pretty thin argument, so the the fact that the Pin then lets Brendan walk out of his house scot-free is a bit weird.

    Johnson handles this by delaying the confirmation of the Pin’s trust in Brendan. The Pin sends Brendan away saying he’ll check his story. Johnson then goes a step further in ramping up the tension by co-opting an earlier subplot into emphasizing the stakes of the Pin’s trust. An unidentified thug comes after Brendan with a knife, and this follows:

    BRENDAN

    Chuck Burns, big lug with hair like a sheepdog.

    THE BRAIN

    (on the phone)

    Yeah I know him, I just can’t pin him to any crowd. He’s definitely not muscle for anyone. He taps the Carrows crowd but doesn’t hang with them. If you’ve got a guess I could check it out-

    BRENDAN

    The Pin. If he’s with the Pin everything’s kablooie and I gotta blow the burgh.

    So I don’t think that weak motivation here is the result of inattention or poor writing. I think Johnson just ran out of space to make these characters any fuller than they are in an already demanding plot. Further evidence that his instincts are on point here is a moment which he wrote into the script, but thought better of including in the final film:

    Brendan and the Pin are silent for a beat, not looking at each other.

    BRENDAN

    So?

    PIN

    So. Tangles.

    A stocky kid in the front seat turns, and reaches into his jacket. For a moment he stays like that, hand in his jacket, eyes on Brendan. Brendan’s face is placid.

    Tangles pulls out an envelope and drops it in Brendan’s lap.

    After first delaying the Pin’s trust in Brendan, then throwing out the misdirection of the knife wielding thug, including this last point would’ve overcooked the tension arc.

    Holding your reader’s attention

    One last thing I want to take from the Brick script and focus on in my own work is paying attention to the fact that real people have to read your scripts. Sure, they are functional documents meant to be turned into a movie, but it doesn’t hurt at all to make them entertaining in their own right.

    There’s a symbol which is used a couple of times in the film and which is very iconic. The first time it’s shown Johnson includes the symbol in the script rather than just describing it. He does this with good reason because it’s one of those things that are easier to understand visually, so including the symbol is a space saver.

    But if space on the page was a primary concern, then the second time the symbol appears in the script it could’ve easily been alluded to with a few words. But Johnson includes it in the script again:

    Brick symbol excerpt full size

    The last time Brendan saw this symbol, it led him to the location of Emily’s corpse, so it has taken on an aspect of menace in this story. Including it in the script again heightens the tension in the scene around it in a great way.

    Another thing worth mentioning is that no matter how entertaining a script may be, it is possible to bog it all down in the strictures of the format. Look at how Johnson formats a series of intercut shots between Brendan stuffed in the trunk of a car, Tugger driving the same car and the area they travel through:

    EXT. STREETS

    Twisty and narrow. The black mustang flies through them at impossible speeds, roaring past like a bullet.

    DARKNESS

    Loud engine noise, jostling, grunting. Then a metallic jangle, some scraping, and a CLINK!

    EXT. REAR OF FAST MOVING MUSTANG – LATE AFTERNOON

    The trunk pops open, revealing Brendan holding a jack rod.

    INT. MOVING MUSTANG – CONTINUOUS

    Tug is putting a tape in the deck, eyes down. Behind him the trunk pops open, then pulls down out of sight just as he looks back up.

    INT. TRUNK OF MOVING MUSTANG

    Brendan holds the trunk about three inches open, just enough to see which street signs pass by. Loud music plays from the car — “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor.

    The car zooms on.

    BRENDAN’S POV

    Through the ajar trunk. The mustang slides to a stop beside an elaborate wooden mailbox carved as an eagle’s head. Brendan closes the trunk.

    You could spend an age agonizing over the formatting of these cuts, but what I like about the way Johnson has done it is how the sluglines enable him to condense the description and point of view. The action of the characters is tight in the description because the sluglines are doing the work. This keeps the pace clipping along and prevents the reader from losing interest.

    In summation

    My take-aways from the script of Brick are that your character’s dialogue is critical in setting the tone, genres of films all have tropes that can be utilized to great effect,what to do when your character motivation gets thin and how to hang on to your reader’s attention