Elements of Great Movie Scripts

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WHAT MAKES FILMS GREAT Scriptwriter Matthew Friday studies the scripts of some all-time 'great' films to see if they have anything in common and how that can help his writing.

Overdosed on scriptwriting advice I'm a 27 years old with a degree in scriptwriting. Over the last couple of years I've written several episodes of Hollyoaks, won a BBC award for a short radio play and had a number of articles published in this magazine, which is all very encouraging for me but I haven't had any success with my feature film script. It was written three years ago and has been circulating in the industry since then but almost everyone who reads it comes to the same conclusion: it's not bad but it's not good enough to be considered for further development. I'm now eager to start a new script feature script: one that hopefully reflects the advances I have made in my craft and the better knowledge I now have of the industry. The trouble is, my head is spinning with all the information I've gathered from 'How To' scriptwriting books, scriptwriting courses and college lecturers. I feel overdosed on advice, techniques and tips, and I fear the Cold Turkey is going to get in the way of my writing my next feature length script. Why study the ‘great' films? I've decided to return to that which originally inspired me to become a scriptwriter: the great films. I don't want to present a list of what I consider to be the greatest films ever made; there are enough television programmes and tabloid papers doing that. Instead, I want to look at the scripts of some of the films universally regarded as being among the best in order to find what they have in common and see how this could be applied to my own writing. I shall avoid examining all those areas that scriptwriters have little or no control over, i.e. acting, directing, music scores, lighting, visual effects, etc. They are all vitally important, winning Oscars and BAFTA's in their own right, but they are skills that belong to other professionals. Who decides what a ‘great’ film is? Because the word ‘great’ is a subjective reference, there will always be arguments over what makes a ‘great’ film script. In my own reckoning a ‘great’ film script is any script, regardless of genre, cultural origins and political persuasion which produces a film that meets all the following criteria. 1. Critically successfully – it is a work of art 2. Commercially successful – it is a film that made money. 3. Historically successful – it is a film that lasts the test of time, social change and hindsight. This is not to say that all ‘great’ films possess these qualities at the point of creation or release. It’s A Wonderful Life (Goodrich, Hackett, Kapra, 1947) was


commercially disappointing on its release, and it was only when it became a staple part of the American Christmas movie diet in the 1960s that it was reevaluated and properly appreciated. What’s the point of a great script? The best film scripts are about the most important themes in our lives and they tend to be the same in all the best scripts regardless of who the scriptwriter is. The themes are usually: 1. Love – hate, sex, desire, etc 2. Death - permanent changes, etc 3. Justice – morality, rules, etc 4. Family – fatherhood, motherhood, childhood 5. Fear – escape, jeopardy, terror, etc. These themes transgress cultural divides and different film-making traditions and can be found in films as diverse as Man Bites Dog (Belvaux, Bonzel, Poelvoorder, Tavier, 1992) and No Man's Land (Tanovic, 2001). Ineffective film scripts do not have unifying themes, or do not use their themes, or they use too many, or they dramatise their themes in clichéd, dated ways. Some writers will insist that ‘not everything has to have a deep meaning’ and will point, most commonly, to successful comedy and action films which seem to exist only for entertainment purposes. However, the best comedy and action films are underpinned with themes and meaning. The Oscar nominated script of When Harry Met Sally (Nora Ephron, 1989) is critically and commercially successful because it tackles the themes of love, sex and friendship in a deep, fulfilling and witty manner. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Kasdan, 1981) is considered one of the best action-adventure films because its action set-pieces are features of an emotionally driven, universally appreciated battle between Good and Evil. Film scripts as works of art As well as being superb examples of the craft of scriptwriting, the best film scripts are also lasting works of art. They contain moments of brilliance, elegance and emotional truth that make us want to return to them time and time again. Despite the continuation of the outrageous convention that the director is the sole-author of a film, a director does not make a great film artistic by themself. They do it because they are working with a beautiful, artistic script. When you first watch any of David Lean's films, especially Dr Zhivago (Bolt, 1965) and Laurence of Arabia (Bolt, 1962), you would be mistaken for thinking that the poetical manner in which he films the landscape is something he has created. But all of the legendary visual components were in a screenplay which, in the case of Dr Zhivago, won an Oscar. It was Alan Ball, the writer of American Beauty (1999), not Sam Mendes the director, who filled the film with the symbolism of red roses and made an otherwise ordinary family melodrama evolve into something extraordinary and beautiful. Do something new


Every great film script does something different, however small, that marks it out from its predecessors. Most of the scripts Alfred Hitchcock directed surprised and shocked the audience. Pulp Fiction (Tarrantino, 1994) broke the rules about structure and dialogue. There are a few scripts which create new trends and inspire a new generation of writers. This was the case after Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Ritchie, 1998), when the industry was flooded with poorer copies, some of which resulted in the death of the trend that the original film had created. There are among the great film scripts a select few which actually reinvent their genres or stand out as accomplishments far beyond the normal expectation. Both Metropolis (Lang, 1927) and Citizen Kane (Mankiewicz, Welles. 1941) are often referred to as films which were so revolutionary that they created the modern method of film-making. It must be remembered that all of Citizen Kane's inventive brilliance was contained in the script which Orson Welles used to secure the high budget for the film. Emotionally satisfying storytelling Why is it that we return to our favourite films time and time again despite knowing the ending of the story; what happens to the characters and all the carefully plotted surprises? Robert McKee enjoys telling people how many times he’s watched Casablanca (Julius, Epstein, Koch, 1943) and found something new each time (it’s over 200 in case you don’t know). Clearly, the emotional satisfaction gained from watching certain films more than once is more important than the intellectual satisfaction of ‘knowing' what happens. Basic emotional satisfaction is often determined by the genre in which the film has been written. For example, an emotionally satisfying horror film is achieved when the audience is genuinely scared, or a romantic comedy is emotionally satisfying when the comic interactions of the lead characters result in a romantically uplifting conclusion. However, the very best film scripts do this and much more, so that in the script of a horror movie of the quality of, for example, The Omen (Seltzer, 1976), the emotional experience is heightened by the terrible fact that a father has to kill his son to save the world. Equally, a romantic comedy of the class of Four Weddings and a Funeral (Curtis, 1993) contains as much tragedy and drama as there is comedy and romance. Make 'em cheer, laugh and cry The best films make your heart race with excitement and your heart swell with pride, as is the case at the end of Dead Poets Society (Schulman, T., 1988) when all the boys stand on the table to show their allegiance to their inspirational but dismissed teacher. You want to cheer them on. Then there are the classic comedies like This is Spinal Tap (Guest, McKean, Reiner, Shearer, 1984) which make you laugh every time you watch them even though you know the punch lines. The ultimate expression of emotional interaction is when the audience cries. There can be no coincidence that it is only the great films that make us reach for the tissue box. I bet everyone who has ever watched E.T. had a tear in their eye


when E.T. appears to die (and the plant wilts) and then comes back to life (and the plant recovers). A shiver goes down my spine just thinking about it. We are emotionally moved by a story about a small, brown, ugly alien being not because we can relate to an alien, but because the alien being is effectively a lost child in a strange world and we all know how that feels. The protagonist you want to be We often go to films hoping that the characters will be so good that they will live with us for the rest of our lives, acting as friends, mentors, surrogate lovers or parents. We carry them around in our hearts, wishing we were them, turning to them when we feel vulnerable and in need of inspiration. Who among us has not dreamt of being with or even being James Bond or Indiana Jones or Scarlet O'Hara or Ric Blain or Thelma or Louise? Though the morality and social conventions of cinema vary from country to country, it is surprising to see how similar the great protagonists are. Alex Kerner in Goodbye Lenin! (Becker, Lichtenberg, 2003) loves his mother so much he attempts to turn back time and it is the same desire to protect one’s family that is at the heart of the classic American film To Kill A Mockingbird (Foote, 1962). It can be no coincidence that Atticus Finch, the protagonist, was recently voted the greatest hero in the American Academy's poll of Top 100. The hero you are glad you are not Not every protagonist is a person we would want to be. There are numerous examples of anti-heroes or heroes so flawed we actively enjoy not being them. The skill of the writing in The Elephant Man (De Vore, Bergen, Lynch, 1980) is shown in the portrayal of the character of John Merrick in such a way that the audience can empathise with such a horribly disfigured man. Then there are those great films in which the lead protagonist is overshadowed by a supporting character. One the best example is Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) in which it is clear from the moment we meet him in the bar that for many the best character is Han Solo. He's cool, devious and charming; he has the best spaceship ever built, a best friend who will always stick up for him, and he ends up with fame, fortune and the love of the Princess. There isn't a man alive who doesn't dream of that. The other side of the mirror For every effective protagonist there is an equally effective, sometimes superior, antagonist. The characters like Don Vito Carleone in The Godfather (Puzo, Coppola, 1972) make us wish we were like them, enjoying the hedonistic lives they lead and taking the rewards from life without any work. Antagonists are best when they act as mirrors to the protagonist, reflecting all their worst qualities. In The Magnificent Seven (Roberts, 1960) the antagonist Calvero is a gunslinging drifter just like the seven heroes, but the difference is that when faced by a challenge, Calvero will lie, cheat and steal. The character of Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (Goldman, Hauben, Kesey, 1975) is a convicted sex offender and you have the impression he borders


on insanity like his fellow inmates. The brilliance of that script is how we share in such a man's struggle to escape the punishment that ultimately destroys him. I wish I had said that Great film scripts are filled with lines that we remember and use, sometimes in private looking at the mirror, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (Schrader, 976) when he says, 'You looking at me?' Some films, like Casablanca, possess too many great lines to choose from and some, like Die Hard (Stuart, de Souza, 1988), have lines which become catchphrases for the actor in subsequent films. In musicals of the calibre of West Side Story (Lehmen, 1961) the currency of great lines becomes converted into great songs which we sing to ourselves for years afterwards. Of course, memorable lines, songs and moments in film scripts do not come in the first or even fifteenth draft. They take months of hard graft, criticism and rewriting. But the mark of a great film script is as much about the work the writer has put in it as it is the skill of the people who have created a film from the script. There was never a great film made by the writer rushing, being lazy, avoiding changes and making-do. Making the setting a character In the hands of the best scriptwriters, the setting takes on a life of its own with a personality that complements that of the human characters. When this happens it becomes irrelevant where the setting actually is for it has taken on an emotional, thematic quality that will allow it to be translated into any language. This was why in The Full Monty (Beaufoy, 1997) the setting of Sheffield – depicted as a run-down, working-class town filled with unemployed men – could be recognised as a symbol for every such town in the world. The writers behind the best children's movies understand this as they often animate the setting, giving it a voice and a point of view to heighten the emotions for the younger audience. Such is the case of the labyrinth in Labyrinth (Jones, 1986) or the stylised London in Mary Poppins (Walsh, DaGradi, 1964). Behind every great story there stands great structure Structure is one of those serious craft issues which is argued over incessantly by scriptwriters, teachers and commentators. Without wishing to embark on a debate about the subject, I would point out that every great film script I have looked at possesses the same basic, highly effective structural patterns. They are essentially a means of expressing a journey that a character undergoes in pursuit of whatever it is they want: love, fame, to kill the monster, etc. A great film is like Life itself: it possesses a sense of its characters being born new, young and naive, and then over the course of the ‘life' of the film, the characters grow up, face decisions and responsibilities, learn hard lessons and then confront death. Some defeat it for a temporary period, others become a victim but not before they save other people. This is why with the great films we derive a sense of a circle being completed, of the journey mirroring life in a satisfying manner.


Happy ending or the ‘right’ ending? There is a reason most films end happily: people want to walk away from a cinematic experience feeling better about themselves, the world and their future. Reality is hard and depressing enough as it is, so why make hard and depressing films? Yet clearly not every film has a happy ending. This is because the best film script has the ending which is appropriate for that story, which best encapsulates the themes, drama, characters and emotions. For both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Goldman, 1969) and Thelma and Louise (Khouri, 1991) we can accept that the heroes die must although their heroism and nobility is preserved. Lesser scriptwriters would perhaps have contrived a way to make them survive. Next thing: write a great film Of course, I can't just sit down at the computer and set out to write a great film script. But I can try to write a good script taking time to craft the characters and to create an emotionally satisfying story that is filled with memorable, apposite lines, exciting action, comic and tearful moments, and a suitable ending. The rest you have to leave to other people, to luck and to good timing. I hope that my observations ring true with you and that they are worth considering when you write your next feature length script. Matthew Friday has recently completed a degree in Scriptwriting at Bournemouth University and is now busy establishing a career as a writer and script reader in London. www.scriptwritermagazine.com

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