Saturday, December 31, 2011

Screenwriting lessons from my favorite movies of 2011

Instead of crafting one of those dreaded top-10 lists, I've decided to write what I learned about screenwriting from some of my favorites of 2011 (in no particular order). What have you learned?

Mild spoiler alerts below!

I loved a million things about this movie, but I especially liked that it was equal parts funny, sad and heartfelt. Comedy CAN be found in traditionally unfunny things, especially if you know a lot about a world or experience and feel it's your story to tell.
Download the 50/50 script PDF

Crazy Stupid Love
Never underestimate the power of a good twist! Genius Dan Fogelman laid the foundation of Emma Stone's real identity so that it was surprising but still made perfect sense. Sometimes in comedies and romances I think we forget about plot twists, which can be created by manipulating the audience's assumptions.
Download the Crazy Stupid Love script PDF

Like Crazy
I blogged about this before, so forgive me if you already read it...but this movie really got me thinking about the ever-discussed character arc. I had boxed myself in by thinking, "The character must learn a lesson" when perhaps it's more helpful to think, "the character must transform." The difference between Felicity Jones in the first scene and Felicity Jones in the last scene is absolutely heartbreaking - and a testament to her performance.

Young Adult
Perhaps society is ready for an unlikable female protagonist after all. I think this movie worked because it was ever-so-obvious that you're not supposed to like Mavis. But more than that, Young Adult may be a lesson in theme: everything in this movie emulated Mavis' ongoing adolescence, from her E! TV habits to her food choices to her Hello Kitty shirts. Also: nebulous, dark endings can work. Moving on doesn't always mean happily ever after.

The Descendants
Setting is so important! I am constantly telling people to be specific and actually USE the setting they've chosen. When I finish your script, I should be able to see where it is and understand why it's set there. In The Descendants, the Hawaii landscapes provided beautiful shots as well as a rich thematic discussion of what "paradise" is like on the inside versus the outside. How does your setting exemplify your theme? This movie was also an interesting exploration of grief, which can be a terribly inactive and boring emotion to watch onscreen. Instead of a story about a man losing his wife, this movie was a story about a man coming to terms with his dying wife's affair. It was complicated and different, and gave him active things to do.
Download The Descendants script PDF


Also, sometimes a big movie can spring from a small, emotional idea. At its core, this movie was about losing your best friend to her future husband. Growing up. Accepting that things can't always stay the same. Pairing this emotional journey with the ticking clock of the upcoming wedding gave us big comedy set pieces. Interestingly, Bridemaids wasn't the movie many of us expected; they never did make it to Vegas. I think the big "female Hangover"-esque romp that this movie was marketed as could have been fun too...but maybe the fact that this was a fairly small, bittersweet friendship story is why we all liked it so much.
Download the Bridesmaids script PDF

Cedar Rapids
This is another example of the importance of specific settings. The mundane Midwesternness of the location informed every single scene. Also, John C. Reilly's character was beyond entertaining...please write a Dean Ziegler into your script! Now that I'm thinking about it, this movie also demonstrates that conflict doesn't just come from the antagonist. Ed Helms' pals got him in just as much trouble as the evil Kurtwood Smith did. Lastly, stakes come from how much something means to your character. Maybe the Two Diamonds award isn't a big deal to you, but it was a big deal to Ed Helms.

No Strings Attached
Make your B-plots visually entertaining! I loved the Glee-like sets where Ashton worked. This movie also had great character details; Natalie's job as a doctor softened her otherwise tough exterior, and all the supporting characters were funny and specific. Also I want to be Liz Meriwether and create hit shows and call bitches pumpkins.
Download the No Strings Attached script PDF

Horrible Bosses
Uncertainty is your pal. What uncertainty is pulling us through your story, making us wonder what will happen by the end? In addition to the hilarious dialogue, Horrible Bosses offered up a number of questions that made the story unpredictable: Will they go through with this plan to kill the bosses? Will all three of them go through with it? Maybe just one or two? Will any of them get caught? What complications will they encounter on the way?
Download the Horrible Bosses script PDF

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Want to craft an exciting role for an actor? Give your character an unsettling truth or trauma hidden underneath layers and layers of tension. In this movie, every scene peeled back another layer - but Elizabeth Olsen could never quite communicate her complicated feelings.
Download the Martha Marcy May Marlene script PDF

Midnight in Paris
This movie was just fun. Magical. Wouldn't it be exciting if you could meet Hemingway? Movies aren't real life; they're better. Do something you can't do in real life.

I have zero interest in sports or baseball and I loved this movie. It wasn't about baseball, it was about a guy who had to do the impossible. Give your character an absolutely impossible task and see how he or she tries to accomplish it. Also, isn't Peter Brand the coolest supporting character ever?
Download the Moneyball script PDF

The Muppets
Self-reflexivity is hard to pull off - but when it works, it's delightful. Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh.
Download The Muppets script PDF

Source Code
This was one of the most underrated movies of the year. Study it for its clever structure! I loved that Jake Gyllenhaal had competing goals and couldn't really try to accomplish them both simultaneously. This movie was also impressive in that we saw the same scenes over and over without getting bored.
Download the Source Code script PDF


Angela Entzminger said...

Hey Amanda - great blogpost and thanks for posting the link for Source Code. It's a terrific movie.

Eltram said...

Thanks for posting those. I was looking for the Moneyball script. Now if you'd only do the same thing for your favorite TV episodes of the year.


Stephen said...

Oh bummer theyve taken down the boss's script.