Monday, October 26, 2009

Screenplays I love: Four Weddings and a Funeral

I don't know if this will become a regular feature or not, but I find myself wanting to say a few things about Four Weddings and a Funeral, one of my favorite movies/screenplays of all time. Paradoxically, Richard Curtis's script breaks many conventions of cinematic storytelling while, at the same time, exemplifying a story that could only be told as a movie. (It was beaten at the Oscars by a screenplay to which similar praise could be ascribed: Pulp Fiction.) The strict limitations it imposes on itself work so perfectly that they end up seeming like advantages, and the result is a highly accurate, endlessly satisfying portrayal of the hazards of love and romance.

Charles (Hugh Grant) is one of the most memorable protagonists in the history of romantic comedies. Much like John Cusack's portrayal of Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, the role came to define not only what we expect from a Hugh Grant movie, but what we expect from Hugh Grant as a human being. And yet for the most part, the screenplay tells us shockingly little about this character. We don't know what his job is, what his typical day is like, or even his last name. Up until the final minutes of the film, we only see him in the context of -- more to the point, in the shadow of -- other people's formal social events. (The one sequence in the movie that isn't a wedding or a funeral centers around shopping for one.)

To many writers, this kind of structure would be an uphill battle in terms of effectively setting up a character, but they'd deal with it as best they could -- seizing upon every possible opportunity to smoothly inject some exposition into the proceedings. Weddings, they might reason, are occasions where people are always introducing themselves and discussing their outside lives with strangers and rarely-seen acquaintances. But Curtis refuses to take advantage of any such loophole; Charles practically never talks about himself, and steers most conversations away from personal details. The few tidbits he drops here and there (saying that he could never get married, or that "[m]ost of the time I don't think at all. I just potter along" in relationships) are telling but vague.

So how does it work? How does Richard Curtis get away with all this? How does a vaguely defined protagonist walking through the same situation over and over add up to a great movie?

Well, first of all, it's a situation we all understand: not merely the experience of going to a wedding, but the period in our lives where it seems like everyone we know is getting married left and right. (Curtis himself apparently went to 72 weddings in ten years, so he knew whereof he spoke.) And as much as we might trivialize them as boring, useless social obligations, all weddings are powerful events that heighten our emotions. Even the wedding of someone we barely know (or wish we barely knew) is bound to serve as an occasion for some serious pondering of our life choices to that point. Attending multiple weddings in a short span amplifies those feelings. The writer knows this, the movie knows it, and the audience knows it -- without needing to be told. The same universal relevance applies when Charles falls in love with Carrie (quite literally at first sight) and deals with the difficulties, many of them hilarious, that their short-term romance entails.

Second, the structure of the screenplay gives it the kind of temporal scope that isn't typically feasible in a romantic comedy. Profound changes in characters' lives -- engagement, divorce -- happen offscreen between chapters, continually altering Charles's experience and perspective as time goes on. Months go by between Charles's first and second encounters with Carrie, though only minutes have passed on screen. He's still in love with her, but now she's engaged to a wealthy old Scot. Hope and joy immediately turns to heartbreak and painful rumination: a classic dramatic reversal made possible, again, by the film's atypical structure. By the third sequence, wherein Charles runs into Carrie while shopping for a wedding gift, enough time has passed that he's ready to let his feelings burst forth in a famously awkward confession... but it's both too late and too early for anything to come of it. Juxtaposing these scenes in a conventional script would never work; the drama would feel arbitrary and manufactured. But the film earns these compelling transitions by pinning its structure to the events that surround life changes, rather than the changes themselves.

Finally, the incredible cast of supporting characters serves to take some of the pressure off Charles without turning the film into an outright ensemble piece. (Curtis did attempt the latter in Love Actually, and the result, like many multistory ensemble films, was thinner and less memorable.) Even if we never completely know who Charles is, we're constantly presented with examples of who he isn't; thus, we form an impression based on the visible differences between him and his friends (and acquaintances, and strangers he bumps into, and so forth) and his reactions to their behavior. We also get occasional commentary from them on Charles's personality and life choices. Yet, they never seem to exist simply to fill these needs in the script; Curtis draws each one so vividly and specifically that they all feel like protagonists of their own individual movies -- an object lesson in writing secondary roles.

Four Weddings and a Funeral has aged well in the 15 years since its release, especially compared with the swath of wedding-porn embarrassments that the studios have churned out of late. It's clever, insightful, funny, and touching without trying too hard to achieve any of those characteristics. And best of all, it proves that screenwriting rules were made to be broken.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Useful scripts to read

When I started learning screenwriting in the late 90s, copies of screenplays weren't easy to find. There was the bookstore (for mostly older scripts in that annoying book-sized format), there were movie memorabilia stores and conventions, and there was the Internet, but the online pickings were slim (especially since PDFs weren't widely used yet). In 2009, however, screenplays are all over the place. Where once I tried to read pretty much every script I could find (since I couldn't find that many), these days I have the luxury of being selective. I try to read scripts that interest me, of course, but I also want them to enrich my knowledge of both the craft of writing and the current spectrum of work being done by professionals.

That said, here's a list of all the different types of screenplays that are out there, in ascending order from least useful to most useful (in my opinion/experience).

1. Commercially available screenplays of already-released films. The biggest problem with many of these: they're not really screenplays. They're transcripts of the finished movies, written (arbitrarily) in screenplay format. They describe what was on the screen, not what was in a writer's head. Most other scripts of this type are at least shooting scripts, which, again, often have little to do with the work of the original screenwriter. Instead, they probably reflect months or years of doctoring by other writers; preparatory revisions by the director/producers; and overly specific instructions to various departments (camera, sound, etc.). Meanwhile, that great screenplay that one person (or team) actually sat down and wrote -- the one that led to the movie getting made in the first place -- is nowhere to be found.

2. Screenplays for movies I've seen (often coincides with #1). A screenplay needs to create a vivid, compelling movie in the reader's mind. If the movie is already in my mind, then I can't gauge how well the screenplay accomplishes that goal. The language of the script can only serve to trigger existing memories, which isn't the same as creating new ones. On the other hand, reading earlier drafts can be both interesting and useful, as it enables me to see what changes were made along the way. I've done this with the recent movies Whip It and An Education, and it's clear that a lot of adjustments were made to both prior to (or possibly during) filming. In the case of An Education, many scenes were re-ordered or cut out entirely, all for the better (although Nick Hornby's ever-impeccable dialogue remained untouched).

3. Screenplays for not-yet-released (or unproduced) movies that were written on assignment. These days, this is most of them; spec scripts rarely get bought and even more rarely get made. But assigned scripts are less useful to me, because I don't know all the behind-the-scenes. With some of them, the writer is simply given a title and premise and then sent off on her own; with others, the writer may have 50 pages of outlines and sketches and notes to which he absolutely must adhere. The bottom line is that there are bound to be a lot of decisions in that script that weren't up to the writer; and the flipside of that is that there's no way to know how that script would have been received as a spec. Still, they can be good lessons on the art of working within someone else's framework, which is pretty much what professional screenwriting is all about. And they can showcase some pretty great writing regardless of the circumstances.

4. Spec screenplays that either sold or got the writer an assignment. The Holy Grail. These are the scripts that took aspiring writers from the sidelines to the big game -- that forced some executive somewhere to open her checkbook and give a chance to someone new. They're the best examples of what Hollywood is looking for in new writers... and they're becoming harder and harder to find as the studio system contracts and 90% of all movies appear to be written by the same four or five guys. Nonetheless, they're out there, and many of them are pretty thrilling reads from exciting new voices. These people made it; now it's up to me to work my ass off enough to follow in their footsteps.

Monday, October 19, 2009


When I was starting out as a screenwriter, I tended to write movies as if they were plays: a scene would begin when two characters entered a room, continue through their entire conversation, and then end when they were finished. I wrote them that way because I wasn't thinking like an editor.

Generally speaking, editors try to use the minimum amount of footage possible to tell the story. They're not likely to keep an unnecessary shot simply because it's beautiful, or to leave in a lengthy monologue for the sole purpose of enhancing the actor's chances of an Oscar. Their goal is efficiency, not indulgence. "Efficiency" isn't a sexy word. It might well sound anathema to the whole idea of artistic expression -- but it isn't. In fact, it can make for some truly beautiful and effective scenes.

Example #1:

FADE IN: On a college lecture hall. The PROFESSOR, a balding man in his sixties, walks up to the podium. He sighs and introduces himself to the class. As he goes over his plan for the semester, we can hear in his voice that his heart is no longer in this. Students eagerly raise their hands to ask questions but are dismissed with brief, vague answers. CUT TO next scene.

Example #2:

FADE IN: On a college lecture hall. The PROFESSOR, a balding man in his sixties, walks up to the podium. He sighs. CUT TO next scene.

Example #2, of course, is more efficient. There's very little that the longer version tells us about the Professor's state of mind that isn't fully encapsulated in that single sigh. (Plus, ending on the sigh makes it more noticeable than it might be otherwise.) But there's another reason that the shorter version is so much better.

Here's a professor going in to teach his class. This is his job, his livelihood, presumably his life's work. And we're not bothering to show more than a second of it. Implicitly, we're telling the audience that there's nothing in that lecture worth seeing. We're establishing the fact that this guy teaches, yet simultaneously establishing that this movie is not about his teaching. And on top of that, we're hammering home the emptiness of his experience. Guy goes in to teach a class. Whatever. Let's move on.

Example #2 actually comes from the movie The Visitor (written and directed by Thomas McCarthy), which is a model of efficiency throughout. While people often assume that small, character-driven films like this one will be ponderous and boring, it's quite the opposite; a great deal of information gets conveyed in the first ten minutes, and the plot takes several interesting turns before the thirty-minute mark. All of this is made possible by the relentless devotion on the part of McCarthy (and, of course, his editor Tom McArdle) to making sure that no scene is longer than it absolutely needs to be to move the story along and tell us what we need to know about the characters. There are very few "complete" scenes in the movie, but there are a great many beginnings or endings of scenes.

Most of the time, the beginning or ending is all we need. At heart, every scene in a movie needs to convey exposition and emotion: This happened, and this is how the character felt about it. The Visitor example above does both those things in about five seconds of screentime. Seeing the beginning of the scene, the audience is smart enough to hypothesize the middle and ending. Conversely, if we show just the end of the scene -- but that ending contains the necessary elements -- the audience will infer the beginning and middle. This is a good thing, because the job of the filmmaker is to make the audience think, not to do all the thinking for them. By engaging their imagination, we make the movie a deeper and more personal experience.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


We hear the same basic principle about screenwriting all the time -- the protagonist needs to want something and it needs to be hard for him or her to get. If you're not sick to death of this axiom, you probably haven't been writing for long. (And yet it's never a bad thing to hear, because it really is true and a script that ignores it can go off the rails very quickly.)

But that's not the only way to look at a script. That's just the narrative perspective: creating a difficult quest for a character to succeed or fail at. Simultaneously, we're doing something else. We're challenging an idea. It might be a fairly simple idea ("Good triumphs over evil," "The truth will out," "Crime doesn't pay"), but it needs to permeate the story and it needs to be tested every bit as rigorously as the protagonist is. That means stacking the deck against it whenever possible, just like we do with our characters. At every turn, we want it to be easier to embrace the opposite of our idea rather than the idea itself.

An example. Let's see. How about Die Hard? (I know, I always go to that one. One of these days I'll see another movie, I promise.) Like many action movies, this one deals primarily in the principles of "Good triumphs over evil," and "Crime doesn't pay." And it does a great job of testing them. Look at those villains: a crack team of expert thieves with an arsenal of firepower and demolition equipment at their disposal. They're smart, they're ruthless and they've done their homework. Then there's the FBI unit sent to take them down: a bunch of overconfident, shoot-first lunkheads who seem bound and determined to blow the mission at every turn. Halfway through the movie, we have to be thinking... this is going to be the story that teaches us that good heroes triumph over evil criminals? And that's perfect. Like the protagonist, the principle at the heart of the film must always be in jeopardy. Both audience and protagonist must always be tempted to accept the opposite of that idea.

But then -- right in the end, when it counts the most -- the central idea proves its worth, exposing the fatal weaknesses in any arguments against it. And it is stronger for all the challenges it has faced to its validity -- even if we could have accepted it at face value from the beginning.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The first act, and rewriting

This month I've been doing my second page-one rewrite of a script that I started over a year ago. I had considered just giving it up, but the concept and characters still intrigue me enough to take another crack at it. Am I beating a dead horse? Maybe. But it's also a chance to experiment... with the plot, with my writing style, even with my approach to screenwriting in general.

Ordinarily, once I'm writing a draft, I try to plow through and get to the end as quickly as possible. I thought I was going to do that this time. But then something interesting happened: I didn't. Instead, 30 pages into it I've taken a step back to re-examine everything I've done, solicit feedback, and tinker with it at will. The danger in doing something like this is obvious: I'm writing a script, not a 30-page chunk of a script. The longer I spend messing with that section, the harder it could be to get the other 70-odd pages churned out.

I'm aware of all that, though; and right now, this seems like the way to go. The first act of a script is really incredibly important, and very hard to pull off well. It's setup. It's build-up. It's establishing characters and situations. In other words, it's not very sexy -- and yet it has to be if you want anyone to read it. So maybe it's not so crazy to think about spending more time on this part than on any other section of the script. The first page, the first several pages... they might be skimmed impatiently in hopes of getting to the exciting stuff, but if you write them with that in mind, you've lost the game from the beginning.

Another thing: it's a lot easier to rewrite this way, I'm finding. Rewriting discrete chunks of a 100+ page script can be a nightmare. Okay, I changed that. Does this still make sense? Hmm, it doesn't. Better change it. OK, now that doesn't make sense. Let's see. Skip ahead a little... ooh, just realized this is going to completely screw up that monologue on page 20. And so on. But working on 30 pages in a vacuum removes all those issues. It doesn't matter if what I change here affects stuff later on, because I haven't written any of that yet. I have a plot and a basic outline, but I'm flexible. It's pretty liberating.

We'll see how well this works when I'm done. Have I screwed myself over and killed my momentum? Or will polishing off the perfect first act energize me to crank out a great rest of the script?