Film is a dramatic medium. So as screenwriters, we should always be looking for dramatic moments because movies are about people ... people with problems. Explore those problems with drama.
Every once in a while, I’ll be watching a movie where two characters should have a conflict that explodes into a big dramatic scene. But, instead of that meaty scene, one party pulls the other into an office with a big picture window and closes the door (so that we can’t hear). They have a brief conversation that ends with a handshake or a hug and all is better. That conflict is just gone for the rest of the story—never mentioned again. One of my favorite movies, Bullitt (screenplay by Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner), has a scene where the relationship issues between Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) and his girlfriend Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset) boil over, and he pulls the car to the side of a busy freeway. Cathy scrambles out to the side of the road, Bullitt goes and talks to her—we hear nothing because of the traffic noise—and then they hug. Problem solved ... in the least dramatic way possible.
Talk about an easy out! The film doesn’t even give us the argument, let alone the resolution of the argument. It’s all a big cheat. Who is being cheated? The audience. They don’t get that big juicy scene, they don’t get any drama, they don’t get any character information from the scene. I’m sure they decided to do it this way to keep McQueen’s character super-cool, but that approach completely undercuts the scene. Cathy’s problem with Bullitt is that he seems cold and unemotional. So we need the dramatic payoff in this scene to humanize him. Except we can’t hear anything either character says. Imagine if the famous car chase scene from the film had been heard over a police radio but not seen? In Dirty Harry, there’s a great scene where Harry talks about the death of his wife and the emotional toll of being a cop ... and he’s still cool!
Film is a dramatic medium so we need to show the drama, not try to avoid it. We want to see those scenes and allow the audience to hear what is said. In real life, I can’t just drag someone into another room, talk for a minute, and have that person hug me and forgive me for whatever the heck I did. That’s just fake.
Every genre is a drama at its core because film is a dramatic medium. A good action film will have dramatic scenes, same principle for a good thriller or horror or romantic comedy or science fiction or comedy. A “genre film” is drama plus the genre elements—so a good comedy script is a drama at its core and a comedy. Or a thriller. Or an action movie. Or a Western. Or some other genre, in addition to being a drama. Even if we have a great car chase and shootout, we need to make sure we don’t avoid the drama, the people conflict.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (screenplay by Jason Segel) is a funny comedy but also a really great drama. It never pulls punches, never avoids a big dramatic scene, and does a great job of making sure that every conflict is met head-on, instead of finding some way to sweep it under the rug. Just as a silly comedy like Airplane! becomes funnier when we have a serious emotional conflict at its core—Ted Striker dealing with his guilt over causing the death of George Zip—a more reality-based comedy also becomes funnier when there is real drama underneath the laughs.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall opens with TV music composer Peter (Jason Segel) being brutally dumped by his TV star girlfriend Sarah (Kristen Bell) ... while he’s naked. The break-up is not a bunch of zany dialogue, it is a serious break-up scene made funny because Peter is sans clothing. When she begs him to put something on, he asks if she wants to pick out the clothes he’ll wear when she dumps him. That’s a great argument line! You can imagine a real person saying that; and because it is real, it is funny ... because he is naked.
On the advice of Peter’s pediatrician (Steve Landesberg), he has a string of one-night stands which all end badly. Instead of ending the scenes when things start to go wrong, we stick around for every awful moment. This is a “cringe comedy” where the humor comes from embarrassing and awkward situations. The bad dates, with all of their drama, are the fuel for the comedy. Each one is worse than the one before it, and we get to experience every awful moment.
Adding to the drama: Sarah is the star of a hot TV show, so Peter can’t turn on the television without seeing her. Her face is on billboards everywhere! Those one-night stands make Peter even more depressed, so he decides to get away from it all by going on vacation to a Hawaiian resort hundreds of miles away to forget about Sarah.
Milking the Drama
What could be more awkward than going all the way to Hawaii to escape your ex-girlfriend ... only to discover that she and her new boyfriend Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) are staying at the same resort as you? Hanging all over each other? This is a dramatic situation, full of both emotional and physical conflict. The same situation could be used in a straight drama but that would remove the comedy element and diminish our story.
It’s important to look at each scene in your script for potential drama, then squeeze as much drama as you can from that scene. That doesn’t mean making a mountain out of a molehill and turning your script into silly melodrama—bigger doesn’t mean better—but make sure you don’t avoid the personal conflicts and emotions. Dig for the dramatic gold in every scene!
There’s a great scene early in the film that milks both the humor and emotions from Peter’s loneliness. He goes to a restaurant at the resort alone, and the host asks, “Table for two?” When Peter says no, the host continues, “No wife? No girlfriend? No business associates? No buddies?” This milks the situation for the most juice ... and it keeps going! The host asks if he’d like a magazine or newspaper because just sitting alone is going to be boring. Once he sits alone at his table, a big deal is made of taking away the other place setting.
This is Hawaii: Lonely Peter is surrounded by couples on honeymoons and guys proposing marriage to their girlfriends. How could things get any worse?
Sarah and her new boyfriend enter the restaurant and are seated at the table directly in front of Peter’s, so he has to watch them kiss while he eats. No pulled punches. No easy outs. No escape from the conflict or drama. We begin with a situation designed to create the kind of cringe comedy that is the juice for this film, then, to keep it juicy, small things within the scene keep happening and escalating until we reach the breaking point. No potential for drama is ignored. You want to make sure that you find every nugget of dramatic gold in every scene.
That Was Painful
The story also explores every possible real human reaction to constantly bumping into the person you love with her new paramour: Peter gets drunk at breakfast, cries frequently, and tries to pretend that he’s fine whenever Sarah is around. But, in reality, it’s absolute torture. He confides in the hotel desk clerk Rachel (Mila Kunis) about why he came to Hawaii in a very honest conversation on the beach. Instead of a surface scene, Peter reveals his true, damaged self to her. It’s easy to think of a comedy script as just being funny, but we still need a serious dramatic core and emotional honesty for the story to resonate. Surface problems are not dramatic. Instead of “protecting” your protagonist by making him flawless, dig into the character’s failings to find drama.
Peter’s confession prompts Rachel to open up: She followed a guy to Hawaii, they broke up, but she decided to stay. Rachel’s ex-boyfriend? He’s friends with the waiter who smuggles in Peter’s breakfast booze every morning! Instead of some offscreen romantic rival that Peter will never have to deal with, this is someone he’ll see and who once beat up a guy with a starfish! Peter and Rachel continue hanging out together, sort of a Broken Hearts Club. Eventually, in a great visual scene, they dare each other to jump off a cliff into the ocean to break with the past ... and then they kiss.
From here, the story could have concentrated on Peter’s new romance with Rachel and pushed Sarah and Aldous to the background but in real life, broken hearts are messy things and the film keeps coming back to the Sarah-Peter relationship. Sarah sees Rachel and Peter laughing together, which leads to a scene where the two women have a conversation about Peter. Rachel asks if Sarah still has feelings for him and Sarah says she doesn’t, but it’s obvious that she does. Just as the two women are brought together, so are the two men: Peter and Aldous end up surfing at the same time, and have a conversation about music (both are professional musicians). The person he most hates, the guy who stole the woman he loves ... is okay. Not a villain at all. Just when you think this conflict has dissipated, Aldous lets slip that he and Sarah have been sleeping together for over a year—while Peter and Sarah were a couple! How will Peter deal with this news? Before Peter can challenge him to a duel or something, Aldous gets into a surfing accident and Peter must save his life. Never make it easy on your characters; find the most difficult situations and decisions and force them to deal with them.
I’m the Villain?
This new situation leads to that big scene where Peter asks Sarah what went wrong in their relationship. Hey, he has a new girlfriend and she has a new boyfriend, why do we even need this scene? Some other script might try to avoid this conversation, but the story is about Peter’s break-up with Sarah, so we must have this scene. He goes into the conversation knowing that she cheated on him a year before they split, so she is obviously the villain. But then she tells him why she cheated and why she broke up with him, and it was all his fault. Not what he wanted to hear, not what the audience expected to hear. She takes him on a tour of his flaws, and he recognizes every single one of them. “Don’t you dare tell me I didn’t try,” she tells him. “I did. And you were too stupid to notice.” No punches pulled. No attempt to make it easy on the characters by avoiding the conflict and drama. It’s brutal. And this is a comedy.
Peter has to deal with being the reason his relationship fell apart.
After this, Peter could spend the rest of the story hanging out with Rachel and avoiding Sarah, but where’s the drama in that? Instead, we get a dinner with both couples and lots of alcohol and many things that should never be said as part of the conversation. The film gets its comedy from awkward situations, and those situations are dramatic as well. What is more awkward than the two couples having dinner together? Whenever you have a situation with enemies and allies, it’s more dramatic to have people switch sides. So Peter and Aldous agree that Sarah’s movie was awful, but Rachel helps Sarah defend it. Instead of one couple against the other, it’s boys against girls.
That night, Peter and Rachel finally sleep together ... while in the next room, Aldous and Sarah do not. One relationship is progressing, the other is in trouble. Sarah and Aldous have a big argument over his belief that it’s okay to cheat while on tour, and he’s about to go on tour!
Meanwhile, Peter is feeling great about his relationship with Rachel and forgoes his breakfast drinking. He bumps into Aldous in the hotel lobby, about to ship out, and they have a great conversation about Sarah. One of the great things this film does is to have dramatic scenes between all of the various combinations of characters. If there is a possibility for drama between any two characters, they get paired up for a scene to explore that conflict. There are no villains in the story; if we see the bad side of Aldous, we also see his good side. They are two men who have had their hearts broken by the same woman, and they discuss this fact and make peace with each other.
How can we show that Peter has forgotten Sarah Marshall? Test him—another dramatic scene that usually gets left out of films like this because it’s messy. Peter bumps into Sarah, who is an emotional mess after breaking up with Aldous. He consoles her, one thing leads to another ... and they end up in bed together. The thing he most wanted at the beginning of the story—to get back with Sarah—is happening. Will he sleep with her or not? He almost does! But realizes (while naked) that he is over Sarah and really in love with Rachel. He grabs his clothes and gets out of there.
And that might lead to a “Happily Ever After” in some other movie, but he wants to be honest with Rachel and tells her what happened ... leading to even more drama. There is a big messy emotional scene that does not end well for Peter. Rachel breaks up with him. But Peter has matured enough to accept this (though he still loves her) and move on with his life. He understands and acknowledges his flaws and is working through them.
Even though Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a comedy, it is still a drama at its core. No matter what genre you are working in: Don’t avoid dramatic scenes, don’t make things easy for your characters, make sure all dramatic possibilities are explored, and dig below the surface of your characters to find the real dramatic gold. Movies are about people ... people with problems. Explore those problems with drama.