Script Review (Part 1): It’s Kind of a Funny Story

For this exercise, I elected to read a script for a movie I have not yet seen, so that I can see how the movie played out compared to my read.  This analysis will have two posts.  Part 1, below, will be my analysis of the script itself, and the next post, Part 2, will be my comments after viewing the film.

Please remember, my intent with these script review posts will be to point out the things I thought were notable – unique aspects of the script or story based on my (albeit novice) experience and as seen from my eyes.

Part 1 – The Read

Why

I picked this script because of the title and the fact that I had not yet seen the movie (or read the book).  In fact, I had forgotten hearing or seeing anything about it. While I have since looked at the IMDB listing to check the user rating and other details.  You can find the script online (http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/free-script-downloads/).

Story

Young Craig is caving under the pressures of the expectations of his current academic path and the awkward situation of being in love with his best friend’s girl.  Fearing his ongoing and escalating suicidal feelings, he seeks admission to the hospital for treatment. The story was written for the screen by Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini.

Genre

The movie is listed several ways on the major sites: “Comedy-drama”, “Art House”, “Drama”, and the trifecta “Comedy-drama-romance.”  One could even give it a nod as a coming-of-age drama, so possibly this movie is trying to be everything.

Art House – After wading through a few pretentious article on what constitutes an Art film, and the state of the art film today, I did find a good source linked from Wikipedia topic “Art film”.  In the article by Lindsay Steenberg, actually referring to one of the references, we find an informative view on what the art film is:

Bordwell further describes the structuring basis of the art cinema as based on “‘objective’ realism, ‘expressive’ or subjective realism, and narrational commentary.” In brief, the art cinema relies on a recognizable authorial voice (or narrational commentary), self-reflexive stylistic choices, causal gaps in the narrative, episodic structure, ambiguity in reading, and a plot which relies on complex psychology rather than goal fixated action to provide forward momentum.  

You can read Steenberg’s full article here:  https://web.archive.org/web/20081113113059/http://www.film.ubc.ca/ubcinephile/cinephile/steenberg-framingwar.pdf

Drama – If drama is meant to show us characters as we would like to be, whereas comedy is meant to show how we really are (per our excellent teacher, Steve Kaplan), then we are inclined to classify this script as a drama.  Even though we don’t necessarily hope to land in the mental hospital, we may hope that 1) we would be strong enough to seek help and admit ourselves before taking drastic steps, just as Craig did, and 2) we would maintain a caring and pleasant attitude such as Bobby’s, if we found ourselves in his situation.

Comedy – While there are humorous lines, I don’t really see the typical comic conventions in this film, so I think it’s a stretch to put it in this category. If I’m in the mood for a comedy, and someone recommends this movie, I’m not satisfied at the end. In fact, it seems a bit odd that we are supposed to take Craig’s situation as serious, but also be encouraged to laugh at his fellow patients.

Romance – While there are two key romantic sub-plots, I would hesitate to refer to this as a romance.  The thin-ness of the two connections may actually be good representation of teen love, however.

General Structure

The script is at 115 pages, for the copy that I have. The movie clocks in at 1:41.

  • The setup of the situation and scenario runs until Craig is resolved to spend the minimum 5 days in the hospital; this covers the first 22 pages.
  • The journey for Craig lasts most of the five days, until he gets the turning words of wisdom from Bobby, which is on page 93 (71 pages).
  • From here, it’s a quick run through tying up loose ends and getting Craig out (22 pages).

Because of the schema we are dealing with, I’m not forming an opinion on the ratio of the sections.

Notable Script Tidbits

Voice Overs – Given the storyline is in the psychology of Craig, it makes sense that there is a heavy dose of voice overs.  In reading, I have become concerned it will be too much.  It will be interesting to see how it plays out on the screen.

Dream sequence, Flashbacks and Fantasy – Again, because we are really going through the story with full access of Craig’s point of view, we also wander through his thoughts in these varying forms. Technically, even within the same variation type the directives are noted a bit inconsistently (leaving me to wonder if it is intentional or not). One of the markings isn’t clear to me, where each step is marked with a reverse order letter with an ID which seemed to correspond to nothing (Possibly scene? But the number seems high…see page 35).

Supers – These are used to help keep the user oriented to the timeline and what is real.

Insert – This was a shot directive, used a few times. It is not one I see used often.

Speaking of scenes, I’d be interested to see how the non-current-day pieces are included in the scene counting.

Dialogue

The characters do seem to have their own voices.  A few things stand out to me:

  • The interaction with the parents seems authentic.  The sort of obliviousness to the severity of the situation, the roles each parent plays, and the relation of the concern for the sister.
  • I think the writers do a nice job with the play between Craig and Noelle, mostly in the beginning.
  • The other is that the difference between Bobby, Craig and Noelle and the other patients in the way they speak demonstrated they were in different parts of the spectrum.

Review

The premise is understandable: Teens dealing with pressure and not wanting to fail, the stress one feels, falling for a best friend’s significant other.  While I can see the transitions and identify transformational scene, it feels a bit forced, and overall a bit shallow of a story.  There are all of these touch points with people with real problems, but we don’t get deep enough, really, with anyone to truly achieve empathy or understand how the triggers really come to have impact. Even with Craig, we understand the idea of what makes him decide to stop the track he’s on, but we don’t buy into it fully.  Same can be said with suddenly getting over Nia.  I am hoping that the acting and directing help elevate the script, but seeing how little there is to work with, I’m not optimistic that this will happen.

 

Script Review: Ocean’s Eleven

I chose Ted Griffin’s Ocean’s Eleven as my first script review because it was the first one I purchased in hard copy.  That purchase pushed me into trying my hand at screenwriting.  I know that the version of the script I have is not final because there are many differences between what I have and what you see in the final cut (it also has Steve Carpenter as the writer – Griffin is listed as revisions writer, and the credited writer on IMDB).

My intent with these script review posts will be to point out the things I thought were notable – unique aspects of the script or story based on my (albeit novice) experience and as seen from my eyes.

The main reason I thought it would be interesting to read this script is the timing aspect.  That much of the movie is the setup but it is only when the heist actually starts that we understand exactly how they are going to do it.  None come to mind but I seem to recall there are heist movies that let you in on the plan, and where the risks are, so you have to watch it play out and see if those risks become issues to bear.   The other reason I love this movie and script, is the dialogue.  So many efficient exchanges. Finally, I think they do a good job at making the film funny not cheesy.

General Structure

It’s a long script, at 143 pages.  To me, the story seems to be laid out like this:

  • The initial heist partnership setup and recruiting take place over the first 48 pages. I think this is Act I.
  • The heist preparation and setup with Tess cover the next 46 pages, concluding Act II.
  • The Third Act consists of the actual heist and aftermath are over pages 94-143.

I struggled to decide if the first part of the heist is in Act II. I think it neatly goes into Act III but that Act then takes half of the time.  Given the ratio of setup (94 pages) to heist (49) is about 2:1, you have to wonder if too much time is spent on the entire setup, or if all of that is needed for the audience to be rooting for the crew to succeed.

Heist Genre

It seems that with the heist, it is important to make sure the audience roots for the crew, or at least doesn’t mind the victim being robbed.  I think Ocean’s Eleven does both.

We get to know each character as humans doing a job, so we want them to succeed. We also don’t think they will be dangerous criminals. In fact, there is a point where Rusty and Danny talk about the rules:

“Rust, when we started in this business, we had three rules. We weren’t gonna hurt anybody. We weren’t gonna steal from anybody didn’t have it coming.”

“And we were gonna play the game list we had nothing to lose.”

For the second part – not minding that the victim gets robbed – well, we are talking about a casino. In fact, three casinos.  People like to gamble but don’t like losing money to the house. The audience won’t feel bad that the house gives some back here.

What’s is interesting in Ocean’s Eleven, is that while we come to respect the work ethic of Benedict and see that he does seem to care and try to be good to Tess, we also see his true colors as a casino owner and business man. Again, we don’t mind seeing him lose here.

Notable Script Tidbits

– Quick exposition – While Danny is waiting for Frank to join him, he’s looking at the newspaper, which also informs us about man we later learn is the target (Terry) and the disgruntled-man-turned-Ocean-partner (Reuben). Included but unnamed in the picture is Tess. The fact that this is in the newspaper means these are recent events, at least between Terry and Reuben.

– Flashbacks to failed casino robberies – I love that Reuben doesn’t just talk about the prior attempts, there are quick snippets of flashbacks to emphasize the point. The efforts are futile.

– Recruiting – As I mentioned, I do think how each person is convinced to join this crazy mission gets screen time because helps us understand more about that specific character and their role.  We become more invested in the success of the criminal crew.

– Setup makes you sweat – I love that just the setup of the heist poses a few moments of risk that keep you on edge – when Roscoe gets into the IT center, for example. When Saul first approaches Benedict about storing something important in the casino safe, for another.

Dialogue

Rusty and Danny

One of the best scenes has two people but only one of them speaks.

“Ten should do it, don’t you think?

You think we need one more?

You think we need one more.

Okay, we’ll get one more.”

There are also two scenes that I love and for which I’m grateful there are snips on YouTube.

Tess and Danny

The dialogue between these two, throughout the film, is fantastic. It’s reminiscent of older romance films in the efficiency and cleverness of the quips.

“You know what your problem is?”

“I only have one?”

Rusty and Linus

The second great exchange is when Rusty is coaching Linus. The completely unhelpful contradicting advice from Rusty which ends in a desperate Linus waiting for Rusty to tell him the most important thing.

“Be funny but don’t make him laugh.”

Comedy

One thing that Ocean’s Eleven does, that so many caper films don’t, is to be funny without seeming cheesy.  The one liners scattered throughout make it even more fun for audiences.

The story starts with Danny Ocean getting out of prison. On his way out he receives his divorce papers. When the mail prisoner asks him what the mail is about, Danny says “I’m a free man.”

When Danny crashes Rusty’s poker lesson, when asked about his line of work, Danny provides a vague answer and mentions that “Of late, I’ve been lucky to get an hour a day outside of the office.”

At the same game, Rusty’s student thinks he won the hand with “All reds!”

Reuben makes a cliche line funny – “Look, we all go way back, I owe you from the thing with the guy with the place.”

Describing casino security, Reuben says “They got enough armed personnel to occupy Paris. Okay, bad example…”

I could go on and on.

We also take joy in the goofy play between Virgil and Turk, the stress of neurotic Roscoe, watching old timer Saul deal with being back in the business and Linus moving into the big leagues.

Summary

I believe the characteristics of the Ocean’s Eleven rewritten script mentioned above are what make it a really enjoyable one. The facts that the movie was also directed well, scored well and had a host of recognizable, talented folks in the cast all came together to make a great movie.

A.

Unanswered Technical Questions

I suppose if I were to take an academic course on screenwriting, I might know the answers to these. Or, if I had read hundreds not dozens of scripts, I may, as well.

I thought on #scriptchat Sunday it might be fun to post these here and see if I can draw on the expertise of others to help the community with these questions on technical issues with the formatted script.

– Some scripts – as on the first page of the Ocean’s Eleven script – start with a single sentence in the middle of the page (“In any other town, they’d be bad guys.”)  Why is this here? It sets the tone, I suppose, but just for the script reader. Maybe it is just there for fun?

– I thought I had noted from reading scripts that the introduction of a character is done in all-caps in the scene description. That is not the case in this script. Perhaps it’s only important to be consistent?

– There also seems to be inconsistency, to me anyway, about when props or small part characters are in ALL CAPS or not. What is the guideline?

– There seem to be many parentheticals in some scripts I read – this was something I tried but got dinged for in coverage. I don’t seem to know the rule of thumb here.

– Changing locations within a room or building – what is the best way to communicate this? I assume it’s not through continued formal INTs. Can this be done informally with left justified text?

– Similarly when action moves from inside the building to outside – how to write and format this transition.

– How about if one character is in the building and the other is outside, or each are in different rooms while speaking to each other – how do you communicate this? Or is this the director’s job to figure out who should be where?

– When do you write simply that a character is doing something and when do you include that the shot is focused on that action – say, checking a wallet and finding a slip of paper with key information

– What is the right way to communicate passage of time? I mean days, weeks, years, holidays, etc.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

April

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.

Image

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.

Course Review: Kaplan Comedy Intensive

Last month, in a rare rainy weekend in Burbank, California, I attended the Steve Kaplan comedy intensive. The course was on a Saturday and Sunday from ~9-5. The website is http://kaplancomedy.com/

Comedy TragedyI thoroughly enjoyed the class and recommend it. Steve is a happy and warm instructor, which lends to the domain and also makes spending the weekend in a hotel conference room chair tolerable. I appreciated that he seems to keep the content relatively current while also using more classic material where appropriate. He provides handouts which is great because you can stress less about capturing all of the right notes. He kept it fairly interactive, with a few audience-participation bits and a group activity, which helped keep the room from feeling stuffy. He also tries to answer as many questions from students as possible.

As with the McKee class, I won’t give away all the key material, but lucky for you, even if you can’t make it to a class, you can pick up his book which comes out this summer. The class is well structured – going over the tools and concepts on Day 1, then looking at these things applied in material, on Day 2.

I actually wish I had this class before I ever wrote my first script. That’s because I had a romantic-comedy premise but didn’t have the tools to apply the genre constructs without feeling like it was cliché or overly-predictable. A future post will explain that I actually plan to tackle the premise from scratch again with the tools in mind, and see where it goes. The script that I wrote from the first, trying to work around what I conceived to be problems, will undergo a change to something new.

There are two nuggets I think I can safely share. First, Where McKee and Kaplan don’t see comedy in the same light, Kaplan did say that comedy tells the truth about people, and McKee says – write the truth. This really is what brings people to the theaters. We want to see people, like us, trying to make their days better, and dealing with what Life throws at them. Second, that all art is based upon death; as far as we know, man is the only animal with the working knowledge of our own eventual demise. This fact alone allows comedy and tragedy to have any meaning whatsoever.

Early in the course he helps clarify the difference between “funny” and “comedy” – he also provides a simple exercise to help explain how these relate to one another, and the differences between the types of comedies (comedy of manners, comedy of tragedy, satire, black comedy, sitcom, slapstick, etc.)

Kaplan spends a decent amount of time over the two days providing great tips about how to write and think about comedic characters, non-heros. Again, he provides lots of great examples, in both written and video form. And not just of things done well – he points out missed opportunities in material, as well.

One cool feature for students (which, I still need to take advantage of), is the opportunity to submit a small ‘homework’ exercise and get (*eventually*) feedback directly from Steve.

Steve also makes sure to cover the keys to a good joke, and when to use jokes, in general.

Early feedback on my first and second drafts of my romantic comedy were that it wasn’t “funny enough.” I’m confident that I now have the right tools to fix that and to write comedies much more effectively in the future.

Enrichment of the Cast of Characters

With regards to characters, I’ve been doing several things.  The two biggest are the cast mapping and the casting of the characters. Both have been challenging and quite revealing.

First, the cast map.  There are plenty of resources online and in books to help you develop deep characters.  But the characters must interact with other characters, and the attributes and values that the characters bring out in one another are just as important.  This is something McKee teaches.  In fact, earlier this week, my sister and I watched an older film – A Fish Called Wanda (1988) – so I could take a look at the sample cast map he provides on StoryLogue. As I put the two together, it made perfect sense.  Once I drew out my own cast map – the circles, the attributes, how the characters relate. I found some potential problems.  I found some holes in the map and relationships which might not be that interesting.

Second, casting the characters.  This was amazing fun, but far harder than I expected.  As I browsed through IMDB and entertainment sites, I found myself looking for people that had attribute requirements that I knew about in my mind but that I hadn’t written down, and probably didn’t expose anywhere, in the script.  Where characters might have been missing depth on the page, they may have had it in my head, and I just didn’t translate it well.  As I hunted down each actor, I noted the specific things that would rule OUT certain choices as well as rule IN. Once I found a match, I printed out a photo and taped it to a 5×7 index card and wrote all of the attributes that made them the perfect fit.  Then, for each, I went through their parts of my story and captured key details.  In some cases I discovered I had inconsistencies to address.

So far, I recommend these two activities. I think they are contributing to the richness of the story.