I’ll divulge a filthy, disgusting little secret about myself.
I can’t stand reading screenplays. Other people’s, I mean. I’ve chiseled 26 of my own, feature-length, fully fleshed out, living breathing creations, which sit on harddrives. But when I open another script, from somewhere else, I feel this radioactive environment envelop me. I hardly ever finish one. Most perturb me by the end of the first page or sooner.
So, I’ve been winging it for a long time. I don’t study screenplays anymore. That’s tantamount to waterboarding as far as I’m concerned–excuse me: “drowning torture.”
The other day I posted a link for you guys to read all the new 2015 scripts. No one seems to have cared. Today, I went and had a stab at finding one that I could stomach all the way through. I much prefer the movie versions.
Top-rated films occupy that list, and even Trainwreck, which I rated highly. I would probably have read the Trainwreck script if I hadn’t already seen it on a big screen. The style is quick, dialogue rich, a breeze to inhale.
Most aren’t. Amy is a joke teller, and precise economy of language huddles at the core of modern comedy.
“brevity is the soul of wit…”
The one script that truly pulled me in was a film I decided not to rent earlier this week: Mississippi Grind. I ingested the first 13 pages, and I began to form ideas about what to tell you people. You people do haunt me so.
Before I lose myself in words and metaphors I need to smash you in your collective noggins with my first point. It’s not esoteric; I reverted back to fundamentals:
V E R B S
I don’t think there is a more important concern when rewriting. Forget the first draft aesthetics. The second draft is where you start substituting vanilla verbs with rainbow sherbet ones. Verbs perform the heavy lifting. They yank your reader to that next idea, and if they stop pulling their weight then the reader floats off into the blackness. This is not just the concern of screenwriters, but all writers (of course).
I don’t believe most screenwriters truly feel this in their bone marrow. Verbs correlate to action, not observations. You’re not just looking at it; you’re in it moving around. Action requires an actor, not a set. Describing props, sets, locations and the like is always secondary–ALWAYS SECONDARY–to having some character doing something. The character’s journey is the hook. The tip off, to you, is discovered when you examine all of those aforementioned verbs.
I should mention that Trumbo had an interesting intro, but I want to see the film, and so I stopped reading pretty quickly. Ex Machina I had already seen, and I wasn’t pulled in by its screenplay style. Some of them were dense with description and I clicked right out of there. There’s a Pixar script too, Inside Out, which reminded me exactly of what I strive for in my own style: staccato, dialogue, action, dialogue, action, bam, bam, bam, very … animated.
I learned long ago that the script and the film are so radically different from one another that often it’s hard to tell if I’ll even like a film from its script.
Thrown back into this maelstrom of competing styles and content I decided to just head straight over to the master. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is one of the greatest films of all time, and underrated to boot. I cannot overstate how this film towers over most others; it’s untouchable. Kubrick is such a visual grandmaster that one might assume the script would be bogged down by all the little details he includes. Not so. There is just enough to launch the scene, and show us the marital relationship between the two principal charactes.
(looking in mirror)
How do I look?
You look great.
It’s not action-heavy, but with a bare minimum of shots (4 lines) the world is established and so is their relationship. This is the beginning state, a snapshot of their marriage that will progress from here. A point to make about Kubrick’s script is that each sentence of action written is a single shot, which will translate into a brief few seconds of film.
After that minimal establishment of the living space the Eyes Wide Shut script becomes almost all dialogue. We lock onto these characters and follow along into their world. It helps that they’re both very attractive people (Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise) and dressed to the nines. The locations are also elite, exotic and beyond the pocketbooks of most people. Mesmerizing photography and lighting, the dreamy colorscape and every trick in the book dazzle in close to every scene. There is nothing ordinary, whatsoever, in any frame of Eyes Wide Shut.
Much detail is not included in the script, as the story focuses entirely on the characters. Everyone knows that wherever they go the world will go with them, and it will be fully realized in time. The important elements are the people.
Back to that other script, Mississippi Grind, a story of card sharks and chronic losers.
I was taken aback at the opening sentence, and I read it twice. “Outrageous” flashing lights? Someone’s having fun here. The guy is “slumped.” The point of the scene is that he’s listening to poker tells on a CD, which implies a hell of a lot about Gerry! Coupled with his pathetic demeanor, the picture of Gerry is both interesting and amusing. Admittedly, it didn’t all sink in from that first paragraph, as I was skimming.
As we arrive at the end of the scene it clicks:
That’s a good punchline to set up this loser and to bring us into his world in a unique fashion. This was all transmitted in under a page.
The End of the Tour script is also on that list, a film which I also reviewed. I absolutely hated that introductory scene and thought it launched the thing off a short cliff. Almost any other choice would have worked better. Name any other type of beginning, and I would go with that instead. One bad choice soured me on the entire film.
Here’s why: I usually reject openings that immediately go back to a flashback before establishing anything interesting in their initial time period. Why start the story there? You think it’s clever? (It’s not. It’s a terrible cliche). If there isn’t enough going on in that first timeframe for us to invest ourselves in, then it is a bad, bad choice. I cannot stress this enough, because I see it a lot in bad amateur screenplays. It’s one of those contributing factors why I hate to read scripts. Stories need to start with something worthy of our time and attention, substance, not a cheap gimmick. I guess that’s a sidetrack.
I know I had another point. If there’s a 1 there must be at least a 2, no? The first point was “VERBS” if you recall that far back. Love thy verbs. Nurture them. Grow them. Harvest them. Even kill them if you must.
How do you follow up “VERBS?” That’s a tough gig.
Mississippi Grind is an interesting read because it teleports us into a sub-culture. These poker players are colorful characters. Their banter keeps the mood quick witted, jovial, and even a bit ironic.
After Gerry, we cut to another character, and we don’t know who he is, what his name is, or what angle he will play:
INT. CASINO BATHROOM – SAME
We are behind the shaggy hair of a bearded man. He brushes his teeth…
Avoiding the face, good, it’s a very different introduction than watching Gerry desperately weeping for his many losses. Our view of him was obvious, and he’s openly vulnerable. We immediately get the idea that these two characters are diametrically opposed, and that their impending relationship will factor in. That’s all implied. No overt signalling is necessary. By deciding to vary the style of the character introductions we communicate via film’s language what remains unsaid.
We have subtext!
Subtext will be my point number two and I’ll move on. Think about how much you can say without coming out and saying it. When it comes to character inter-relationships this is a crucial factor, make or break.
This piece is becoming unwieldy, and I’ll probably want to revisit it for a series or some shit like that. Plenty of other scripts to drag into this mix.