Like most professional script readers, I’ve learned a lot by watching great films, and then reading the scripts they are based on. But what about bad movies and their screenplays? Can you or I learn anything from them - other than what not to do?
Absolutely. But it’s important to choose your bad movies well. By that I mean that you need to know what you hope to learn by studying the movie you have in mind.
This week, I finally got around to seeing Secretariat. And it’s now at the top of my list of not-so-good films that have enormous value as learning tools for aspiring screenwriters. Now, don’t get me wrong. Secretariat is not a terrible movie. And its heart is certainly in the right place. But at every turn, the writer was whipping the audience with exposition. Every plot point and dramatic beat was driven home with another sharp crack of the whip. And just in case we didn’t get it the first time, he whipped us again.
The movie is about a housewife in the late '60s who inherits a horse farm from her father, and instead of selling it breeds a new colt and, against all the odds and naysayers, eventually turns him into the most remarkable racehorse of all time.
If you had a checklist while watching Secretariat, you could tick off each dramatic beat, one by one (Warning: spoiler alert!):
--A feisty heroine in a sexist, male-dominated business? Check.
--She’s “dissed” by the men—but she refuses to back down and asserts her authority? Check.
--A horse that nobody wants and that doesn’t stand a chance? Check.
--A pugnacious trainer, who is reluctant to take the job but eventually grows to respect her? Check.
--Literally betting the farm on Secretariat’s chances of winning the Triple Crown, a seemingly impossible task? Check.
I could go down the list.
This is the kind of movie that keeps reminding the audience that no horse has won the Triple Crown in 25 years. They even define what the Triple Crown is, presumably for kids in the audience.
So, why is Secretariat a great movie for aspiring screenwriters to study? Precisely because it conks you on the head with every dramatic beat. The story armature is there for you to see in bold relief. You don’t have to go hunting for the plot points. It’s like looking at a building with x-ray vision, and seeing the structure underneath.
Make no mistake: knowing what plot points you have to hit for the kind of movie you plan to write is vital. In fact, it’s what separates the pros from the amateurs. You can write great dialogue and still never sell your script. But even if your dialogue stinks, if you know which emotional beats and plot points are needed for the kind of movie you are writing, and where, your script will burst from the starting gate like… well, like Secretariat. And you’ll have a winner. Your film audience will be crying at the end of your movie, even while lamenting how corny it all is.
Few aspiring screenwriters know which beats to hit for the genre they are writing. They make the mistake of thinking that writing to a formula is the same as “formulaic” writing. But following the formula of your genre is simply good storytelling. The gifted writer is simply more subtle, perceptive, and original in how he approaches the template, than the hack. He does not create an entirely new template. You cannot succeed as a screenwriter unless you make friends with the conventions of dramatic storytelling.
Have you ever looked at Picasso’s early paintings? He learned to paint in a conventional way before he started experimenting.
The screenwriter of Secretariat knows how to paint. Yes, he is more Norman Rockwell than Rembrandt. Yes, he sometimes even paints by the numbers. But he knows how to paint, and that’s why Secretariat was enjoyed by audiences and made money.
Anyway, study Secretariat (see it again, if you’ve already seen it). Get the script too, if you can. Here’s what to look for:
1.) How does the script establish that the heroine is “feisty”? How does it set up that she’s working in a sexist profession? What does the writer do early in the movie to make us like and empathize with her?
2.) How does he establish quickly that the deck is “stacked against her”?
3.) Every time she encounters an obstacle in her path, write it down. How many items are on your list by the end?
4.) What are the high stakes for the heroine?
5.) How many dialogue scenes have characters arguing with each other?
6.) Every time somebody in the movie tells Diane Lane’s character how difficult or “impossible” her goal is, write it down. How many items are on your list by the end?
7.) Who are the antagonists? Is there more than one? Do her antagonists stay her antagonists for the whole movie?
8.) What is the climax of the movie? Why does the inevitable outcome seem uncertain? How and why is it “darkest before the dawn”?
9.) What are the personal, emotional stakes for the heroine? What does victory symbolize for her?
Almost everything in this movie will apply to nearly any movie you write. Usually, your goal is to write a movie about a sympathetic hero striving to achieve a nearly-impossible goal, with high stakes, overcoming obstacles - till the climax of the movie, when he either wins or loses.
Secretariat hoped to recreate the success of Seabiscuit (a much better film), by desperately trying to create drama out of a true story that had very little drama in it except during races. It succeeded fairly well.
After Secretariat died, they found out his heart was literally two-and-a-half times larger than the heart of the average horse. It weighed 22 pounds. That explains a lot.
If you’ve got enough heart, talent, and determination, maybe you too can win the Triple Crown (Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe).
Keep pitching. See you next month.