A great scene is a beautiful thing. A place where intent and execution meet, fall madly in love, move to the suburbs, and live happily ever after. In other words – learning how to construct an individual scene is just as important (if not more so) than the structure of the script as a whole for a professional screenwriter. And nowhere is it more important than your opening scene.
Think of it this way - the first scene in your script is your business card. It tells the reader who you are as a writer and what they can expect from your story. A great one can make them so excited they can’t stop turning pages. A bad one will get you an immediate “pass”. Think of all the truly amazing scenes out there that never got read because the writer botched their opening and the reader never made it that far. Don’t be that writer.
There’s a quote from Billy Wilder that I write on a post-it note and stick to my laptop every time I sit down to write.
“Grab ‘em by the throat, and never let ‘em go.” This is the writer you want to be.
Whenever I’m stuck on my script, whenever I have a decision to make on which path to take - especially with my opening scenes - I let this quote guide me. But here’s a caveat – A great scene is different from a great opening scene. Opening scenes serve a very special purpose and need to be selected with the utmost care.
Here’s how I know…
Opening Scenes and Goodfellas
Goodfellas, otherwise known as the film that was robbed of a Best Picture Oscar by Dances With Wolves, is, to me, Scorsese’s most complete film. It’s visually arresting, full of colorful characters, extremely efficient in its direction, and it takes Wilder’s advice to heart.
The shooting script, co-written by Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, opens with the confrontation between Billy Batts and Tommy at the bar. Batts gets beaten down and loaded in the trunk of Henry’s car. The trio if Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy the stops by for a late night snack for with Tommy’s mother before heading off to bury Batts’ body.
It’s a good scene. Let me correct that. It’s a GREAT scene. You’ve got a bloody confrontation, some spectacular acting, and the tension playing from the casualness of the dinner going on while a dead body sits out in the driveway.
It’s laid out exactly as it is in the film, just at the beginning instead of Act Two. But Scorsese knew it wasn’t a strong enough open. He needed to “grab ‘em by the throat”. And so instead we get this…
INT. HENRY'S CAR - NIGHT
Finally on their way, HENRY is driving. JIMMY, in thepassenger's seat, and TOMMY, in the rear seat, embracingthe shovel, are dozing off. The sleepy humming of the wheelsis suddenly interrupted by a thumping sound. At first,HENRY thinks he has a flat, but the thumping is tooirregular. JIMMY awakens. His eyes are on HENRY. TOMMYleans forward from the rear seat. Silence. Thump. Silence.
EXT. MERRITT PARKWAY - NIGHT
Car pulls off the road onto the grass. HENRY, JIMMY and TOMMY, still holding the shovel, get out of the car.
Jesus Christ! Miserable bastard!
HENRY opens the trunk and steps back. In the trunk light. WE SEE the mattress cover squirming around. We hear muffled groans.
(raising the shovel)
Can you believe this no-good fuck?
The prick! He's still alive.
TOMMY suddenly smashes the shovel into the moving, bloody mattress cover. He smashes it again and again and again. Cursing BATTS with every swing.
(he swings shovel)
No-good, low-life fuck.
TOMMY swings shovel again and again. Soon the mattress cover stops squirming and TOMMY stops swinging the shovel. He is exhausted. TOMMY and JIMMY get back in the car. HENRY is facing the open trunk.
TILT UP and FREEZE ON HENRY'S face slamming the trunk shut.
As far back as I can remember, I
always wanted to be a gangster.
UNFREEZE and DISSOLVE TO:
HENRY - AS A CHILD
We still get the violence, and the casual nature with which it’s dealt with, but we get it in a much more compact form than the other scene.
With this film, Scorsese was attempting to breath life back into a genre that, at the time of Goodfellas’ release in 1990, hadn’t been seen as viable since The Godfather: Part II. He was also attempting to say something new about the gangster world by telling his story from a bottom-up perspective.
It was a huge risk, but he pulled it off. And a big part of it is how effective and evocative that opening scene is.
Billy Wilder would have been proud (maybe he would have liked a little fewer F-Bombs, but you get the point).
- The First Ten Pages of a Screenplay
- Balls of Steel: Therapy for Your Character
- Meet the Reader: Revisiting Raiders
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