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Learning by Example

People have a variety of methods that they use to familiarize themselves with the unfamiliar. For me, my first step is often seeing how others have done it. Screenwriting has been no different.  I choose to read scripts for movies that I’m fairly familiar with.  Here I will describe the hard copy screenplays in my library (I have dozens more in soft form, more on this later), and what lead me to plucking them out of the script bin for study.

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These are listed in no particular order, only categorized with a quick snip of the category and the reason I thought the example was relevant. You’ll see some entered in more than one category.

Timeline
These stories have some interesting aspect to them with regards to the story timeline.  For example, Ocean’s Eleven. If you don’t already know, this is a fun heist story where the audience follows along curiously about how the crew will pull it off given the comprehensive security around their target. After recruiting for all of the different roles, it is revealed that the leader, Danny Ocean, isn’t just in this for the loot – he wants revenge and to win his ex-wife, Tess, back.  After convincing the crew that this won’t jeopardize the operation, the heist gets back underway.   The reason I loved reviewing this script for timing was that  the key part of the movie – the heist itself – takes place over just a few minutes and is done without completely confusing or losing the audience. I thought this was a rather interesting writing challenge.  Similarly, I’m looking at these scripts for timeline challenges:

  • Pulp Fiction – This asynchronous audience-puzzle of a story is a clear example of owning the story timeline and laying out in a clever and entertaining way.
  • The Hangover – A fairly recent story showing how to handle backtracking through a series of events without cheating the audience with an obvious outcome.
  • The Social Network – The story itself is told in a straightforward way in terms of the story timeline, but the audience has knowledge of some of the history here and would be watching for the timeline to jive with their knowledge (or fill in holes, but certainly not conflict). I think that creates an interesting constraint on this script.
  • The Bourne Identity – In this story we take the issue of a dual-past to be uncovered and teased apart all while under immediate time pressure.  Handling these two vectors in one story is challenging.
  • When Harry Met Sally – This story takes place over some 15 years. It was important for the offer to allow the time pass to be believable and not a short cut to the characters’ development.

Romance / Romantic Comedy

Being my primary genre for writing, I picked a few well-loved examples. Most stories have a romance plot or sub-plot, but the light-hearted romance is as difficult to write as a complex song in Major keys.  The first is listed often not just as a popular romance but as the best written movie of all time. I think romantic comedy is especially challenging because there is an audience mandated outcome, yet that outcome must be delivered in an unexpected way.

  • Casablanca – A classic tale. Can you choose to not be with your love for a greater purpose? Are there different types of love?
  • When Harry Met Sally – There are a few questions that might be answered here – Can love grow over time? Is it ever too late to be more than friends? Opposites may attract but can it work long term? Can women and men be ‘just’ friends?
  • You’ve Got Mail – This one is not only in my library because it’s a great romantic comedy but it incorporates modern technology and the challenges not only for the characters in meeting in person but also for the writer to not bore the audience when technology is being used.

Dialogue

What’s great about the Ocean’s Eleven script – and I would love to see the original script to see if this was something carried forward or recaptured –  is that it has an old style dialogue, especially between Danny and Tess.  One of my favorite sections of dialogue is in the restaurant when Danny approaches Tess while she waits for Terry. I started to put a snippet here but I think I’ll wait for a full post on the script for that.  It’s for similar reasons I love Casablanca.  Prime examples of accomplishing the most bang with the fewest words. It’s an art, for sure. When Harry Met Sally also features some simple and effective dialogue. I think they call this efficient dialogue in writing circles.

Character Development

The following are a mix of genres but all present a fantastic exploration into one or more characters. Some even surprise us in the end – for example Ferris, seemingly a teen punk, and may normally be, but in this story a caring friend who just may have saved his friend, Cameron.  Others feature every-day people that help us learn or once-again recognize something about ourselves.

  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – The general study of older characters in later stages of life and relationships – tolerated and forbidden.
  • The Silver Linings Playbook – A ground-breaking appropriate humanization of extreme personalities.
  • Sideways – The joy of finding someone who can look beyond the cover of a person who has a lot to offer and does not even realize it himself.
  • Napoleon Dynamite – Really a time period piece but also the complexity of what seems simple.
  • The Breakfast Club – Everything is relative and deserves perspective. These reps of various walks of life exposed and finding common ground is a beautiful mental watermark for the audience.
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – The child of absent, demanding parents has to be rescued from despair by a trouble-making friend with good intentions if with risky methods.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life – I watch this movie every Thanksgiving. This classic helps us recognize the impact we have had even when we currently feel like a failure or that life is too unfair to bear.

Comedy

I never appreciated good comedies more until I tried to write comic aspects into my script. I’m still trying to address comments that my story needs to be ‘funnier’!

  • Wedding Crashers – Chalk full of several types of comedy, a great example and often quoted movie.
  • This is 40 – A recent addition which has few dramatic lines but the ability to pull in things that suck about being middle-aged (I am well aware at present) without being cliché is fantastic
  • Office Space – Another case of brining things out of the office experience that drive us all nuts in a hilarious way
  • Swingers – Probably primarily a favorite because I know it was early work of Favreau’s, more subtle humor and humor in characters

A few others already mentioned like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Hangover, are good to study for their comedic elements as well.

I hope this has helped trigger some ideas for movies to look study for certain aspects of screenwriting.  Next I will blog some great sources of scripts that I have found.

A.