The following is an article from the collection I published Off Script (available for free on Kindle Unlimited and for £1.99 in regular Kindle format). As well as four original screenplays and some short stories, the book contains some suggestions for further reading if you’re a film fan or interested in writing yourself.
These are not necessarily the best films ever made (although I think they’re all pretty fantastic). These are some of the books and scripts that happen to be on my bookshelf. All of them, I think, have valuable lessons to learn in terms of the way they are written, structured, or what they say.
The Baltimore trilogy: Barry Levinson. This collection, published by Faber and Faber covers Tin Men, Avalon, and Diner. For my money Diner, the 1982 sleeper hit starring a very young Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg and Ellen Barkin (among others), is one of the finest written movies of all time. There’s improvisation, to be sure, but there are also a lot of lines written by Levinson that just ring so true. The screenplay, for Diner in particular, is a masterclass in how to write script dialogue.
Chinatown: Robert Towne. An obvious choice perhaps, but there’s a reason Robert Towne, along with William Goldman, is/ was one of the most sought-after script doctors in Hollywood. At the time of writing Towne has 35 movies credited to him on IMDB, even if a number of them are bracketed with (uncredited). He’s also supposed to have done the rewrite on The Godfather and is supposedly responsible for some of the most iconic scenes/ lines from it. What is not supposition is his creation of Chinatown – a script which combines classic film noir with the unmistakable feel of ‘70’s Hollywood. Chinatown isn’t necessarily a script to keep by your side as a reference when writing your first screenplay in terms of convention: it doesn’t follow the ‘rules’ a new writer might be given in terms of direction/ description and layout, but in terms of the material and the writing it’s pretty hard to beat.
Donnie Darko: Richard Kelly. I’m not one in the ‘love it or hate it’ camp as far as Donnie Darko goes. I thought it was pretty good. I didn’t understand it. But I thought it was pretty good. So, it’s interesting to read the Faber and Faber issue of ‘The Donnie Darko Book’. It’s got a lot in it – a lengthy interview with Kelly talking about his influences and his processes. The screenplay itself of course, and then some oddities like pages from The Philosophy of Time Travel, movie stills, sketches and a retrospective art exhibition based on some of the themes the movie presented. Will it help you understand the film any more than you did when you watched it? I’ll leave that up to you.
The Exorcist: William Peter Blatty. Not only did it do the unthinkable as a horror film and win an Academy Award (Nominated for 10, and winning two, including best adapted screenplay), The Exorcist screenplay published by Faber and Faber offers the ‘lost scenes’, unused dialogue, and more. It’s also a really well written script and shows well how to write action scenes and ‘difficult’ material.
Get Carter: Mike Hodges’ adaptation of the novel Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis is a thin piece. The incredibly broad ‘as a rule’ guide suggests one page of script equals one minute of screen time (using industry standard of 12-point courier) – of course, that’s very broad: an action scene will likely take a lot more screen time than its description. (writing “x climbs up the mountain” takes up a lot less space than seeing x do it – even if it’s a pretty small mountain). In the case of Get Carter, the screenplay runs to 58 pages. The finished film runs to one hour and fifty-two minutes. It’s a fascinating one to sit with while watching the finished piece. Oh, and it’s really well written too. That goes without saying…
Out of Sight: Scott Frank. Frank has written a lot of great scripts – ranging in tone and genre. Malice, Get Shorty, Minority Report, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and Logan amongst them. Out of Sight, like A Walk Among the Tombstones is based on source novels by a favourite author of mine (the former – Elmore Leonard, the latter, Lawrence Block) and shows the skill of taking source material and making it work for the screen. Is it easier or harder to base something on such strong source material? It’s a luxury I’ll likely never get the opportunity to experience – although I can say it’s not easy. I took one of my favourite novels and tried to turn it into a screenplay just for practice (a novel which later actually did get turned into a screenplay – although for a six-part TV series rather than a single film). I found it a fascinating experiment: and incredibly difficult to leave out anything when it’s material you love so much. (The resulting TV series writer didn’t have such qualms and, while certainly keeping the main elements and tone of the piece, made some quite significant changes with it: not saying they were right or wrong, better or worse, but it was different). I think Frank does a great job of keeping the essence of the pieces and at the same time making something very cinematic.
Taxi Driver: Paul Schrader: another classic, and another one that ‘breaks the rules’ in the strict sense of layout and ‘script convention’. Some of Schrader’s writing is more like prose in the level of description it provides: it is said by some that you shouldn’t write character thinking if an audience can’t ‘see it’, but should express it in a more visual way (so not ‘x sits at the table, his mind a turmoil because of the bills he can’t pay’ but rather x sits at the table, and reads the bill that he has received, and pulls a face…’ as a broad and over simplistic example). Schrader doesn’t appear to care about this too much. Or about being overly descriptive of characters because casting isn’t the screenwriter’s decision. Or a lot of other things that you ‘shouldn’t do’. He doesn’t care, because he’s Paul frickin’ Schrader, any more than Glenn Gould shouldn’t really hum when he’s playing the piano…rules don’t apply to you when you get to a certain level. It’s a fascinating read…and over 40 years later he’d write and direct something equally divisive and challenging in First Reformed. The Faber and Faber screenplay also includes a fascinating conversation between Schrader and Scorsese.
True Romance: of course, it could have been easy to choose any of Quentin Tarantino’s scripts: they are as idiosyncratic in structuring and description as many of his directed films themselves. But True Romance is, I think, particularly interesting for several reasons: firstly, it’s the movie he didn’t direct and was written and made at a time when he wasn’t perhaps given as much free reign as he has enjoyed in his later works. To this end, the ending he writes in the screenplay was not used in the final film (for better or worse). Secondly, True Romance contains probably my favourite scene in cinema history. (It’s the scene where Dennis Hopper is interrogated by Christopher Walken and his goons) Watching it, I wondered how much of it was improvised – it just seemed ‘too good’. Reading the script, you realise the answer is, none of it. That’s not a slight on the actors involved: if anything, it’s a positive. To be able to take words off the page and make them sing in such a foul, depraved and yet poetic way is an incredible testament to their craft. But the words themselves…that’s some special material to get to work with.
The Usual Suspects: Christopher McQuarrie. The Faber and Faber edition of this screenplay includes a Q & A with McQuarrie which, as well as discussing his background and entry into the movie business, has some very interesting insights into the structure, rhythm, characterisation and plays around narrative techniques within the film. It’s not a bad story either…