With the enormous success this past weekend of THE AVENGERS, written and directed by Joss Whedon of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER fame, I started thinking about my favorite screenplays. I enjoyed the witty quips of the superhero rag-tag Avengers crew, but is it this ah-mah-zing film everyone is making it out to be? With lines like, “Clench up, Legolas!” you can see why people loved the film. It’s witty and there is a huge directorial task to manage so many characters and story lines. But is THE AVENGERS an all time classic? I’m not so sure. The ultimate combination of witty dialogue, solid structure and memorable characters – seems to be the elusive triumvirate of filmmaking. Some of the scripts that articulate these qualities with their memorable writing are listed below – no offense to Thor or anything because after all he does sound like ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ (oh Robert Downey Jr., we do love you so).
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin, dir. Darren Aronofsky
Right from the start, the opening pages of Black Swan suck you into an off kilter world of ballet and twisted familial relationships. Within those first few pages, the reader is filled with dread, expectation and intrigue. This is exactly what any screenwriting book – or any professional screenwriter or teacher will always tell you – “Grab your audience’s attention in the first ten pages.” The script for BLACK SWAN does this brilliantly – and is echoed onscreen by the visually disorientating cinematic style, creating a haunting and memorable film.
Except fromBLACK SWAN:
INT. SUBWAY TRAIN – DAY
Nina rides inside a crowded subway, staring absentmindedly at her faint reflection in the train’s window.
Suddenly, another train roars by on the opposite track, snapping her awake.
In the next train car, she sees the back of a BALLERINA standing in the midst of the crowd. Her head bops to music playing through iPod earphones.
Nina moves a strand of hair out of her eyes, and at that exact moment, the girl in the next car moves in the same way. Mirroring her.
Unnerved, Nina slowly lowers her arm. So does the other girl. Although Nina can’t quite see her face, the girl seems IDENTICAL from Nina’s vantage point.
THE ICE STORM written by James Schamus, dir. Ang Lee
This brilliant script (adapted from Rick Moody’s best-selling novel of the same name) about the ennui of life in the suburbs and a search for meaning in 1970s America is still relevant today. James Schamus does a convincing job of articulating characters that have a comfortable existence, but are incredibly uncomfortable in their day-to-day lives. Schamus’ characters are complex and flawed – in all the ways we know ourselves to be – but don’t readily like to admit. We may not be throwing our keys into the punch bowl to ‘swing,’ but we’ve all had our moments of foolish mistakes and searching for meaning in our relationships.
Excerpt from THE ICE STORM:
INT. WILLIAMS LIVING ROOM. NIGHT
The party progresses. Mikey and Sandy are lying on their
stomachs at the top of the stairs, out of sight.
And to think — they met at a key
party of all things.
A key party?
You know, it’s a California thing.
That scuzzy husband of hers dragged
her kicking and screaming to one
when they were out in L.A. you
know, the men put their car keys in
a bowl, and then at the end of the
evening the women line up and fish
them out and go home with whoever’s
keys they’ve got. Anyhow that’s how
she met this Rod person or whatever
his name is and he’s left his wife
and she’s packing for California.
Irwin is devastated. It’s so
ANNIE HALL written and directed by Woody Allen
This classic Woody Allen film, exploring the relationships of fraught New Yorkers, is written in his imitable neurotic style. His characters waning expectations regarding romance and life in general, mirror the equally vacillating environs of the place they call home, New York City. Woody Allen’s gift for memorable characters is only bested by his sharp, observational, often times biting description of people, places and philosophies. Diane Keaton set the world ablaze with her relaxed, Charlie Chaplin-esque fashion and Woody Allen inked himself on the minds of a million pretenders who wish they could articulate their life experience with the same kind of witty quips and asides. He broke down the forth wall, bringing the audience even closer to the character’s existential angst.
Excerpt from ANNIE HALL:
EXT. MANHATTAN STREET-DAY
…Alvy and his best friend, Rob, deep in conversation. They eventually move
past the camera and off screen. Traffic noise is heard in the background.
Let’s get the hell outta this crazy city.
Forget it, Max.
-we move to sunny L.A. All of show business
is out there, Max.
No, I cannot. You keep bringing it up, but
I don’t wanna live in a city where the only
cultural advantage is that you can make a
right turn on a red light.
There are of course, many more brilliant scripts out there, too many to list in a few short paragraphs. Film writing that resonates with audiences is usually filled with characters that speak to our flaws, hopes, insecurities and triumphs. Yes, we love watching Mark Ruffalo turn into the Hulk and kick some butt in THE AVENGERS, but sometimes it’s great to see characters less green in their quest to find what ever it is they’re looking for. Maybe we’ll find what we’re looking for too in the shared humanity of great screenplays and writing. If not, there’s always IRON MAN 3.