Where have all the big movie moments gone? Ray Morton shares insights into the missing elements in the spec scripts he reads for screenwriting contests.
As I do every year, I spent the summer reading for a major screenwriting contest. In addition to the chance of discovering a great new script or a great new writer, one of the reasons I enjoy doing this is it gives me a chance to take the pulse and see what’s going on out there in the screenwriting zeitgeist.
One of the things I’ve observed this year is a particular trend in subject matter – there are a lot of scripts out there right now about democracies slipping into fascism and about regular folks fighting back against increasingly totalitarian regimes. Hmmm, I wonder why…
Something else I’ve noticed is an uptick in the use of certain screenwriting terminology. I’m assuming some screenwriting book or guru out there is advocating the use of the terms “chyron” and “pre-lap,” because I have seen these terms go from being used never or only very little a few years ago to popping up in approximately eighty percent of the scripts I’ve read this year. Interestingly, “chyron” is always used incorrectly: a chyron is an electronically-generated text title super-imposed on a video or television image (the name comes from the machine that generates the title), so the term should never be used in a screenplay, where a superimposed text title is simply called a “title” or a “supered (for “superimposed”) title.” “Pre-lap” is a term that indicates that the sound (dialogue, music, or a sound effect) of the following scene should begin over the end of the current scene to create an aural bridge between the scenes. Pre-lap is a sound editing term and really shouldn’t be used in a screenplay (it’s the editor’s and director’s job to determine scene transitions, not the writer’s) unless the pre-lap is absolutely vital to the dramatic construction of the story (hint: it usually isn’t). If it is used, it should be used sparingly (I read one script this summer in which the term was used for every scene transition, which is more than a bit much).
Sometimes when you read a large volume of scripts at (roughly) the same time, you notice things that aren’t there too. And something that I have been noticing less and less of in many of the spec scripts I’ve read in recent years are great movie moments.
When we think about our favorite movies, the first thing that comes to mind are the great bits and pieces:
- The memorable lines of dialogue: “Here’s looking at you, kid;” “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse;” “You’re gonna need a bigger boat;” and so on.
- The powerful imagery: Scarlett O’Hara defiantly facing the coming dawn; Luke Skywalker staring at twin setting suns; King Kong standing atop the Empire State Building; etc.
- The unforgettable bits of business: Michael Corleone closing the door in Kay’s face in The Godfather; Richard Gere snapping the jewelry box shut on Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman; Matt Hooper crushing a beer can in Jaws; and the like.
- The great scenes: the shower scene in Psycho; Tom Cruise confronting Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men; King Arthur facing off against the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Andrew Lincoln using cue cards to declare his love for Kiera Knightly in Love, Actually; etc.
- The great set pieces: the car chase in The French Connection; Hannibal Lecter’s escape in The Silence of the Lambs; the Deltas’ wrecking of the parade in National Lampoon’s Animal House; the final duel between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Robin Hood; and so on and so on.
Obviously, this is but a small sample of the many thousands of exciting dramatic, suspenseful, thrilling, romantic, comedic, and frightening moments from a century-plus of cinema. And, of course, these memorable bits are the end product of many contributors – actors, directors, cinematographers, editors, and so on. But all of them began with something written in the screenplay.
It’s these bits that I’m missing. Many of the specs I read this summer – and that I read these days – are solidly conceived and competently executed. There’s nothing particularly wrong with them, but there’s nothing particularly right with them either. They’re flat; they lack the big, attention-grabbing moments that elevate a decent-enough script piece into a must-read, must-buy, must-make, must-see motion picture.
This isn’t particularly surprising, since most screenwriting these days is in a very minor key. And that’s because most movies these days are in a very minor key. The big blockbusters (which at this point in time have to be considered an entirely different type of movie than those made from spec scripts) aside, movies are now usually watched in places other than theaters – they are viewed in homes, cars, hotel rooms, airplanes, subway cars on TVs, computer screens, tablets, and cell phones. These are all wonderful devices, but they are all smaller-than-life and I think the material has adapted accordingly. The scope of non-blockbuster movies has become much smaller in recent years. Most modern comedies and dramas – both studio and indie – tend to be about small-scale subject matter: family and relationships struggles, finding oneself, struggling with illness and addictions, and so on. Period pictures – traditionally a category that welcomed lavish expansiveness – have become minor affairs; focusing on a small group of characters in limited locations, many of them interiors. I think this change has occurred in large part because such material and approaches lend themselves better to smaller screens. And it’s also a reality that the studios and financiers are more reluctant to spend money on any picture that doesn’t have blockbuster potential and so budgets are now tighter as well. Whatever the cause, the overall scope of motion pictures has shrunk and screenwriters have adapted their material and their ambitions accordingly.
The problem is that movies were never meant to be smaller than life; they’re supposed to be larger than life. For most of the medium’s history, all movies – not just blockbusters – were shown on giant screens. And I think the large size of the screens inspired the filmmakers to go big – not just with action and scope, but also with subject matter and emotions and intensity (the physical scope of Double Indemnity isn’t big at all and most of the scenes take place indoors, but its suspense and emotions are gigantic; likewise, Bringing Up Baby is basically just two characters running around a country estate, but the laughs are enormous).
Bringing this all around, I think screenwriters have to go big in order to create the kind of memorable bits contained in our favorite films. By big, I don’t mean broad or loud or cartoonish. I mean give it all you’ve got: if you’re writing a drama, make sure the emotions are powerful and palpable (if you want us to cry, then really make us cry. If you want us to be outraged, then really piss us off). If you’re writing a comedy, make it as funny as you can in whatever style of humor you’re writing in (if you’re going for pratfalls, then have sticks slapping all over the place; if you’re going for witty, then make sure each line is a bon mot). If you’re writing a thriller, make sure the suspense is intense and unrelenting. If you’re writing a horror film, don’t rely on cheap jump-scares – instead devise truly terrifying concepts and then exploit them for all they are worth. If you’re writing an action picture, don’t just include a lot of non-stop car chases and shootouts and fistfights (every action spec does that); instead come up with action set-pieces that are exciting, but also clever and ingenious (something the recent Mission: Impossible movies have been doing splendidly). If you’re writing a fantasy, don’t just reshuffle the same old fantasy tropes – instead, use your imagination to come up with ideas that are truly imaginative. When you’re creating characters, craft people who are colorful, complex, and unique. Give them things to do that are specific and off-beat. When you’re writing their dialogue, don’t settle for the functional delivery of information and exposition. Instead, devise speeches that are full of character, insight, humor, and a touch of poetry.
In other words, don’t be afraid to go big – as big as the screens of yore. For that is the only way to create work that is truly memorable.
Copyright © 2018 by Ray Morton
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