If you want to become a screenwriter you must study history. I mean the history of film. You need to watch all types of films which include the old and new, the good and bad. You need to see comedies, tragedies, dramas, kid flicks and chick flicks. This is the easiest homework you’ve ever been assigned. Think of all of the movies you’ve loved. Analyze why you loved them. Look into their characters and the story line. Analyze why some movies stand the test of time and why some of them never make a penny. What separates the wheat from the chaff? Then you will have to analyze exactly why you don’t like some film. You will have to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. Are the characters well defined? Is the action appropriate? Does the music fit the individual scenes? Take a deep look at all aspects of each movie.
One of the best movies ever made was Rocky. Yes, the sequels were also great, but the original, 1976 release of Rocky is the quintessential great film. Every scene is perfectly shot. Every actor is perfectly cast in their role; the music is as important a factor in the emotional content of the movie as the quality of the direction. Everything came together to make this the brilliant film that it is.
What, why and how did this happen? What is it that makes Rocky appeal to men and women as well as international audiences? What makes this picture so likeable that people will watch it over and over again? Why did it make so much money? Why does it work so well? How did it all come together in a magically cohesive unit? The answer to all of the above is the one thing that the character of Rocky Balboa and the mind of Sylvester Stallone infused into it.
The answer is heart. Rocky’s love for Adrian is pure devotion and acceptance. Adrian’s love for Rocky is total adoration for a man with many faults and weaknesses. Rocky’s love for the neighborhood winos, the local kids and his friends feels honest and real.
My husband, Gregg, and I were just watching Rocky on TV and Gregg told me that when he saw the movie in the theater, when it first came out, it was the first time he had ever had the experience of seeing an entire audience stand up, applaud and cheer, at the end of a film. Now that’s a great memory.
The appeal of Rocky has to do with the fact that although it is described and thought of as a boxing movie, but it is also, and very importantly, a love story. Because Mr. Stallone brought both of these things together he managed to make a movie that appeals to all audiences. There’s plenty of action, fighting, training, grunting, anger and bad guys to please all ages of male audience members. There is also a wonderful love scene and many scenes of warmth, caring and great depth of human relationships which brought in a very large female audience. It’s actually a great “date” movie. Rocky is psychologically sound because the relationships ring true. Even the character of Paulie, who is a despicable man, has his moment of personal awareness which leads to his own personal growth.
When Paulie is screaming at his sister, Adrian, about the sacrifices he has made for her, he is telling us of his own life’s disappointments. Adrian, in turn, has a reaction to his ugly outburst that is a surprise by virtue of her yelling back at Paulie to tell him that she is not a loser. Her personal growth in the film is natural and amazing at the same time.
The beauty of this movie is its simplicity. It is not a complicated plot or love story. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl. Boy has a complication (the boxing match with Apollo Creed) and boy has people help him to attain a modicum of success with said complication. That’s it! The truth of good story telling is in this basic formula. This is all that audiences, producers and international and studio financiers really want. Just tell a basic story that is peopled with characters, about which we care, and care, and care. Can you do that?
Of course you can. You can do it in sci-fi, or rom-coms. You can do it in action, thrillers, or family dramas. You can even do it in horror films or raucous teen comedies.
Every single sequel to Rocky is exactly the same movie, but audiences don’t mind. They have come to love the characters and they always want Rocky Balboa to win and to succeed. Why mess with perfection?
When the film first arrived on local screens I heard the story that Sylvester Stallone was offered money from many studios to sell his screenplay. No one wanted Stallone to star in the movie. He was veritably unknown. They wanted a STAR. Stallone said: “No”. Now this is not a habit that I think most writer/actors should cultivate. It worked here, but it has failed a zillion times. If you lock yourself, as a newbie, into being the star or director of your own script, you will be sadly disappointed. It took Stallone a very long time to get to Chartoff-Winkler who said; “Yes”. They all won in the end, but please remember that this is very, very rare. You need to get known and liked and respected as a writer first. After all, that’s not so bad, is it?
Michele Wallerstein’s book: “MIND YOUR BUSINESS: A Hollywood Literary Agent’s Guide to Your Writing Success” may be purchased via The Writers Store, E-Bay, Amazon.com (in paperback and on Kindle), and local book stores.
- More Business of Screenwriting by Michele Wallerstein
- Specs & The City: Film Endings and 'Rocky'
- Screenwriting the Dan O'Bannon Way
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