“Thanks in part to the plethora of new books and seminars on screenwriting, a new phenomenon is taking over Hollywood: Major scripts are skillfully, seductively shaped, yet they are soulless. They tend to be shiny but superficial.”
UCLA Screenwriting Professor
”Where do we go to solves life’s problems? We go to the movies… Stories are the language of the heart.”
In my post “Screenwriting by Numbers” I pointed out some basic numbers common to the majority of produced screenplays. But now we’re going to go beyond mere numbers and talk about what make movies work beyond the level of entertainment.
The only time I watch cable TV is when I’m on the road. And it seems like every trip I take The Shawshank Redemption is on some channel. Maybe they should just dedicate a channel to that movie. The Shawshank Channel. The simple reason that film is on so much is people love that film. It trades places with The Godfather on IMDB.com as fans’ favorite film.
It’s the highest rated film by Yahoo! Movies and by the 2006 the readers of Empire magazine.
The Shawshank Redepmtion is a movie people identify with. Not because they were once in a prison in Ohio back in the day, but because through all of life’s danger, toils and snares — we need hope. We can sympathize with Andy Dufresne and his predicament. An early Jimmy Buffett song comes to mind, “There’s nothing soft about hard times.”
For any writer looking for excuses don’t look to Stephen King. Long before he wrote the novella that would become The Shawshank Redemption he was an unpublished writer with a stack of rejections, teaching high school English in Hampden, Maine and living in a trailer with his wife and kid and having trouble making ends meet. He wrote his first novel (Carrie) in a laundry room balancing a typewriter on his knees. (Please read the February 12 post Screenwriters Head Back-to-Work (Tip #2) if you want to get rid of the “artist” monkey on your back.)
Once King had success then he had to deal with a drug and alcohol addiction as well as getting hit by a van while the driver was reaching for “one of those Mars bars.” A collapsed lung, a broken leg in nine places, a shattered hip and after who knows how much physical therapy and pain, he is still writing away.
Stephen King understands hard times.
We understand hard times. That’s a universal theme that doesn’t need explaining.
“Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”
Forrest Gump, (While Jenny throws rocks at the house she grew up in.)
“Are you going to be something else I have to survive?”
“I coulda been somebody.”
On the Waterfront
“You don’t throw a whole life away just cause it’s banged up a little.”
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
William Butler Yeats
poem, The Second Coming
“You’re breaking up with me?! I thought you were proposing.”
“I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight, and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that, but prison is no fairy-tale world.”
The Shawshank Redemption
I think Shawshank’s ongoing popularity is because the story simply transcends film. Director Frank Darabont talks about getting many letters from people thanking him for making that film because it helped them through a difficult time in their life.
It’s doubtful that when King wrote the Shawshank story or when Darabont wrote the script that either were thinking that this male dominated prison story would bring comfort to a woman going through a divorce. But good stories have a way of creeping into our lives in unexpected ways.
In seminars I’ve given it’s amazing to see how the same films pop up when I ask what films people watch over and over again:
The Wizard of Oz
When Harry Met Sally
Good Will Hunting
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Sound of Music
Something resonates in those films with large groups of people. I heard director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) recently say on a DVD commentary that his films were a mixture of spectacle and humanity. I think that would be true of most of the above films.
When we write we are writing about ourselves. A good part of writing is self-discovery. The odds are good that in the films you see over and over again you are identifying with a character or a situation.
This is where we tap into writing beyond the numbers. It’s the reason that films that don’t fit the typical Hollywood mold find an audience.
Have you ever walked into a show home and been impressed at first only to feel that it’s well decorated but impersonal? The house I grew up in had a place in our kitchen where we had a growth chart on a wall. It was fun to look back over the years and see how you had grown. I’ve never seen a growth chart in a show home. No worn out carpet, no stacks of paper, no drawings by the kids on the refrigerator. Nothing authentic. No sign of life.
Just as your home should be full of stories and memories- and life- so should your screenplays.
“There should be something in the writing that indicates that it was written by a person.”
On Writing Well
What sets your writing apart? The same thing that sets you apart from the crowd.
Your vision, your life experiences, and your worldview. It is why first time writers (like Diablo Cody) sometimes break in with an original story. (By the way, speaking of Cody, the Juno DVD is out this week.) This is also where Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside LA comes into play big time. Here is why I think writers from outside LA, or writers in LA that keep their hometown non-LA roots, have a better chance of showing audiences something new.
“If you try to write honestly about yourself, you’re writing about every single individual in the world.”
Walter Brown Newman
Oscar & Emmy nominated Screenwriter
I heard a speaker once say that basically we all grew up in the same neighborhood. I took that to mean we all long for the same basic things; Food, shelter, love, dignity, purpose.
Primal needs as Blake Snyder would say.
You don’t have to be a salesman to identify with Willy Loman’s need for significance in Death of a Salesman.
Sometimes as writers we jump through all kinds of strange hoops trying to guess what will sell. We err on one side by trying to write the sensational story that everyone will love and on the other side by writing the small personal story where nothing really happens.
“It’s all one story, really, the story of who we are and how we relate and how we get it wrong.”
“We spend much of our lives trying to reconcile these two halves of our spirit and soul — call it identity –as we struggle to figure out just what and who we genuinely are…The reason we go to movies is precisely to explore these perpetually unanswerable questions regarding our identity.”
Think how these films deal with the theme of identity (who am I?):
Stand By Me
An Officer and a Gentleman
Sense and Sensibility
They’re all about identity. Yes, we can identify with not only people, but pigs, orges, fish, and horses.
“Each film tells a story in which the central character seeks only to discover his own true identity.”
“We never know how high we are, until we are called to rise and then if we are true to form, our statues touch the skies.”
“I finally became the man I always wanted to be.”
Jerry Maguire, mission statement
written by Cameron Crowe
“Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.”
“Stories are equipment for living”
One of the female writers at a seminar I once gave said movies were cheap therapy. Perhaps you’ve seen the book Cinematherapy which develops with that concept. And cinematherapy is not just a chick thing. Once when I was at Blockbuster I saw a guy pick up Braveheart to rent and his girlfriend said, “You’ve watched that 100 times,” to which he said, “And I’ll watch it 100 more times.”
We want to be the hero of our story and we are inspired by heroes of stories we read and watch. We identify with them. We identify with William Wallace, Hans Solo, Erin Brockovich and Cinderella.
Not all films have identity themes but those that do tend to not only have a long following, but they tend to do well at award time as Linda Seger points out in her book Advanced Screenwriting, “If we look at some Academy Award winners of the 1980s and 1990s, we can see an identity theme shimmering though the philosophical, theological, and/or psychological ideas.”
That trend hasn’t stopped in the 2000s, nor is it likely to as longs as human beings roam the earth.
“Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
The Shawshank Redemption
Get busy writing, too.
Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith