I’ve been reading a lot of screenplays this summer as a part of my graduate research. Because my project is a kids adventure story, it means I’ve spent the last few months revisiting some the truly great films of all time – at least if nostalgia is any factor. The Goonies, E.T., The Sandlot, The Iron Giant…
After I read the screenplays, I’m supposed to write a critical essay on a different literary element or tool of the craft that was exemplary in each. It’s been interesting to see what stands out in any particular screenplay, when you strip away the actors and the music and just read the words that once suggested everything you now know that movie to be.
The essay on E.T. had to be about subtext. I forgot how silent and small that movie is, and it’s even quieter on the page. I wrote about romantic tension in young characters for Super 8. I wrote about characterization as setup and payoff in Goonies.
I thought that Jaws was pretty much the perfect movie. Perfectly structured, perfectly characterized, perfectly executed. It was that way on the page too, but what stood out to me in the reading was the sound. Anyone in the world – having seen the movie or not – would associate that famous “ba-dum ba-dum” musical score with the movie. But the script uses sound cues, silence, and even turn of phrase to make the reader hear the movie as well as see it. Sometimes I’m so focused on my visuals and dialogue, I forget how much can be communicated through meaningful sounds.
What I’m learning from each script is usually fun and unexpected, and that’s the part that has been the real treat. I already loved the artwork, but now that I see the brush strokes, the whole piece is even more amazing. It’s like driving a car that looks great and performs well, and then opening the hood to have the engine wink, sparkle, and sing to you.
When I first got interested in screenwriting, I devoured craft books. Syd Field and Linda Segher and – okay, I never actually made it through McKee. I still can’t. But I wish that for every craft book I had read 10 great screenplays. (I’ve read a LOT of not-great scripts because of doing coverage and script critiques, and there is something to be learned there, but not as much.) Now there are scads of truly great scripts available at the search of a Google, so there’s no excuse.
If you’re a writer (or even if you’re not!), read a movie. You’ll see it differently. You’ll see what they meant to do, what they cut, what they added, what kind of words it took to create that classic moment on the page. You’ll see the brush strokes that make the whole piece beautiful. It just might sing to you. Ba-dum, ba-dum…