Posts Tagged ‘Cast Away’

“[W]henever a plot demonstrates some angle of truth it will be very likely to have wide appeal. These sayings are adaptable to expression in the terms of modern life. They never would have become proverbs if they had not been of general and lasting interest. 

. . . The theme ought to be broad enough to allow the building up of sufficient situations and an interesting climax, and, as one object of the story is to prove the theme, it should be discernible before the story reaches the climax. Let the principle characters exemplify it.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 110

Here are a list of themes that Marion included in her book. Themes that for the most part don’t need updating despite the book being published over 80 years ago. As Marion said, they are adaptable to modern life (including reality TV).


“He who makes himself a sheep will be devoured by the wolves.”

“Marry in haste and repent at leisure.”

“No fine clothes can hide a clown.”

“Put a beggar on horseback and he will ride with the devil.”

“When the cat’s away the mice will play.”

“Honey catches more flies than vinegar.”

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”


“The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”

“He who is a fool at Christmas will not be wise by the first of May.”

“Better poor with honor than rich with shame.”

“A gem is not polished without rubbing, nor man perfected without trials.”

“The laughter, the tears and song of a woman may be equally deceptive.”

“The best friend often becomes the worst enemy.”

“Pride sought flight in heaven but fell to hell.”


“Fortune smiles upon the brave.”

“Perseverance brings success.”

“Content lodges oftener in cottage than in palace.”

“God sends thread to those who begin to weave.”

Note: There are many disagreements among writers, directors, and producers about the use of theme in filmmaking. Some that write from theme say that the theme should never be stated verbally, and others say it can be but it’s best if it’s not spoken by the main character/hero of the story. But it wouldn’t be hard to come up with examples of fine films that show every different aspect of how theme is handled (or not handled).

One example of a main character stating the theme of the film is Cast Away when the Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) says, “Time. We live by it, ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t live by us.” What’s great about that line is it’s spoken near the beginning of the story and it’s buried in a FedEx training situation. It’s like a seed planted.

The filmmakers do use the motif of time throughout the film, but I believe that short exchange written by screenwriter William Broyles Jr. states the theme.  It’s not important that that line is not as memorable as “W-I-L-S-O-N-!”—and you could argue that they could have edited that line and the movie still works—and that  would still be the theme of the movie.

Where it would have seemed a heavy-handed use of that theme is if the director  (Robert Zemeckis) and his team decided that that line needed to be at the end of the movie. Imagine Nolan standing at the crossroads of Texas (and his life) and we hear his voice-over,  “Time. We live by it, ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t live by us.”

And there were other thematic questions at play in Cast Away (“Perseverance brings success” and “A gem is not polished without rubbing, nor man perfected without trials” come to mind)), but in Broyles’ words he kept the themes “beneath the surface [because] they weren’t the story, and that’s what a movie has to be.”

Frances Marion on Theme (Part 1) 
Frances Marion on Theme (Part 2) 
Frances Marion on Theme (Part 3) 

Related post:
Theme vs. Story 

Scott W. Smith

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“What Sandy [Alexander] Mackendrick did for myself and my classmates was he was the first cold water we were hit with and he prepared us how to face the business.”
CalArts film student

“Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling.”
Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E)
(And CalArts Grad)

“One of the tasks of the director as he transfers a screenplay to the medium of the moving-image-with-sound is almost to forget what the characters are saying and reimagine their behavior as being mute, so that all thoughts, feelings and impulses are conveyed to the audience through sound and vision—without speech. There is a curious paradox here, for when a scene has been reconstituted in this fashion the director is often able to reincorporate elements of the original dialogue in ways that make it vastly more effective. Moreover, when a script has been conceived in genuinely cinematic terms, its sparse dialogue is likely to be free of the task of exposition and will consequently be much more expressive.”
Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making
page 6

A great example of feelings and emotions conveyed without dialogue is in Cast Away (2000) written by William Broyles Jr. and directed by Robert Zemeckis. At a big holiday family dinner, Chuck (Tom Hanks) looks down at his pager and then glances across the table at his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) and her expression says it all, like—”You’re not going out of town on Christmas?”

It’s a quick moment and a simple one, but one that is so core to the story. Of course, Hanks is later cast away on an island following a plane crash, but there’s a sense that he is casting away the relationship with his girlfriend for his job commitments. The moment is captured in six quick shots without a single spoken word. I couldn’t find the scene online, but it’s a great example of what Mackendrick said about conveying “thoughts, feelings and impulses” without dialogue.

Related posts:
Show, Don’t Tell (Tip #46)
Show, Don’t Tell (Part 2)
“Storytelling without Dialogue” (Tip #82) 

Scott W. Smith

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“I did have a dream once that Alan Hale, the skipper of Gilligan’s Island, chased me through the streets of Hollywood.
Johnny Depp

“The creators of Lost must have watched and dissected every episode of good ole Gilligan’s isle and took the craziest parts from it to use in their new show.”
Shawny Nevill
Six Original and Creative Conicidences Between Lost and Gilligans Island

There is no question that Gilligan’s Island has had its shared of critics.  Rick DuBrow of UPI once summoned up a lot of people’s view of the show by writing, “It is impossible that a more inept, moronic or humorless show has ever appeared on the home tube.” But there is also no question that the same show has more than its share of fans—even though the TV show was cancelled over forty years ago. (Of course, it’s never really gone off the air.)

And from a writer’s perspective you have to realize that the concept of being stranded on an island is fertile ground. Long before Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) there have been stories of living on deserted island. Hayy ibn Yaqzan (Alive, Son of Awake) by a Spanish Muslim in the 12th century is said to be one of the first known deserted island stories.

I imagine the Greeks and Romans had deserted island plays and there is the shipwrecked story of the Apostle Paul in the Bible, Shakespeare  touched on the concept in The Tempest, there have been true stories of related events like the one that inspired the original Robinson Crusoe story. And there have been several film versions of Robinson Crusoe including Luis Buñuel’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954) and the more recent version Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. There’s the long-lasting reality TV program Survivor, and of course, LOST—well, you get the picture. The whole idea of being stranded on an island brings up so many primal themes to explore; life & death, time, food, economy, community, sociology, psychology, theology, purpose & meaning, etc.

But let’s not forget we are talking about Gilligan’s Island here. To bring things a little more down to earth it was Dawn Wells (who played the wholesome girl from Kansas, Mary Ann) who said about the lasting affinity for Gilligan’s Island; “It’s really kind of fun how it holds up – nonsensical silly slapstick humor is what it was. Escapism is all it was, but it was one of the best there was.”

I thought it would be fun to dig a little deeper into the cast of Gilligan’s Island knowing there would be a quirky surprise or two.

Gilligan—Bob Denver was actually a political science major at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and before getting turned on to acting had thoughts of becoming a lawyer.

Mrs. Lovey HowellNatalie Schafer was 63 years-old before she shot her first scene for Gilligan’s Island. She was a Broadway actress from New Jersey and didn’t do a film until after she was 40-years-old. Because of wise real-estate investments she was a multimillionaire. Because most of the cast did not get paid residuals for all those re-runs I imagine Schafer ended up the wealthiest of the entire cast.  (Well, of the regular cast. Kurt Russell had a cameo as Jungle Boy in one episode and he’s had some $10-12 million dollar paydays on films, so unless he invested with Bernie Madoff he’s probably the wealthiest of all cast members.)

The Professor—Russell Johnson was born and raised in Pennsylvania and flew 44 combat missions for the Air Force during World War II and was awarded the Purple Heart for being shot down in the Philippines. He used the GI bill to study acting and was in the Sci-Fi classic It Came from Outer Space.

Mary Ann—Dawn Wells was from Reno, Nevada where she became Miss Nevada and competed in the Miss America pageant in 1960. She attended Stephens College in Missouri where she studied chemistry and transferred to the University of Washington where she graduated with a degree in theater. Wells once said in an interview,”One of the hardest things starting the acting was eliminating the chemistry side of me and just concentrating on the emotional, artistic side of me.” For the past 50 years she has been a working actress is film, TV, and theater.  She has a website DawnWells.com.

Ginger—Tina Louise who attended Miami University in Ohio, studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio in New York.  (She studied with Lee Strasberg who also taught James Dean, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino.)  She also was a Broadway actress, a model and a night club singer before Gilligan’s Island.

Thurston Howell IIIJim Backus was born and raised in Cleveland where IMDB reported that one of his grade school teachers was Margaret Hamilton who went on to play the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Backus once had a top 40 song on the pop charts, was the voice of Mr. Magoo in cartoons, and in Rebel without a Cause was James Dean’s father.

The Skipper—Alan Hale’s father was an actor so he started acting in roles as a baby and had his last credit just two years before he died in 1990. He racked up over 200 Tv credits in his lifetime.

Wow, it’s like I won a bet to get Johnny Depp,  Luis Buñuel, Shakespeare, the Apostle Paul and Mary Ann all into one post. Now if I could just find a version of the Gilligan’s Island theme sung by Jimmy Buffett I would know all is right in the world.

P.S. If you’re stuck between stories—or between scenes—just remember these magical worlds;”The weather started getting rough…”

Related post: The Serious Side to “Gilligan’s Island”

Scott W. Smith

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“Subtext is what the character is really saying beneath and between the lines. Often characters don’t understand themselves. They’re often not direct and don’t say what they mean. We might say that subtext is all about underlying drives and meanings that are not apparent to the character, but that are apparent to the audience or reader.”
Linda Seger
Creating Unforgettable Characters
page 148

“If two characters say  ‘I love you’ and mean it, the scene is over. In other words, a story must have a subtext. Subtext is what lies beneath the text. It can be the underlying meaning of a story, the subconscious motives of a character, or what is really going on moment by moment in the scene.”
Linda Stuart
Getting Your Script Through the Hollywood Maze
Page 90

By adding the prefix sub (under, below) to a word changes the meaning of the root word.  A submarine is able to go under the water—sometimes deep under water. Writing good subtext in a screenplay is writing dialogue and scenes that are beneath the surface. Sometimes deep below the surface. Sometimes it takes multiple viewings of a film for you to catch the subtext.

I first heard the term subtext in an acting class years ago. Actors love to play the subtext of a scene. You can give an actor a line like, “I’m going to miss you,” and they can play it ten different ways.

A very simple example of subtext is in the movie Juno when Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) are contemplating what color they’re going to paint their nursery for the baby they are adopting. At the end of the page and a half scene Mark says, “I think it’s too early to paint. That’s what I think.” On the surface he seems to me saying, “Let’s wait until we know if it’s a boy or a girl and then decide on the color.”

But it’s really two short sentences packed with subtext. And as you read the Diablo Cody script. or watch the movie, the story unfolds a little more and you know exactly what was really going through Mark’s mind.

Sometimes, like in that case from Juno, the subtext isn’t recognized until later in the film. And sometimes the subtext is instantly recognized by the audience like the 70s guilty pleasure Smokey and the Bandit when Burt Reynolds says, “I only take my hat off for one thing….”

One of my favorite scene of subtext is in Cast Away, written by William Broyles, Jr. (Technically it’s two or three scenes, but one just spills over from the house to the garage to the jeep.) It’s toward the end of the movie when Tom Hanks has returned after years of being stranded on an island and is going to meet his old love (Helen Hunt).  Like most people she believed he was killed in the plane crash and is now married with children.

It’s a tender scene that in the script goes on for six pages as they talk about everything but their relationship; The weather, her kids, the Tennessee Titans almost winning the Super Bowl, where the search parties looked for him—everything but their relationship. Finally Hank’s says, “I should have never got on that plane.” That revelation is too powerful for Hunt to deal with so she changes the subject to take him to the garage where she still has his old jeep.

He says, “You kept the car? She says, “I kept everything.” The scene plays on and no one is talking about the elephant in the room; they still love each other. At one point they pause and look into each other’s eyes and it’s subtext without any text. Finally, Hunt says “Right back. You said you’d be right back.” They open up and proclaim their love for each other which is all the more agonizing because she has another family she is committed to. Great writing full of conflict, and full of subtext.

Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play.
Now I need a place to hide away.
Yesterday (Written by Lennon/McCartney, performed by The Beatles)

So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been
It’s all been a pack of lies
In the Air Tonight
Phil Collins

This week I’ve been touching on Oscar-nominated screenwriters leading up to the Academy Awards Sunday. And while (500) Days of Summer didn’t get an Oscar nomination I wanted to give it a special mention. Last night it did win the best screenplay at Independent Spirit Awards. (Only films made for $20 million or less are eligible.) Congrats to screenwriter Scott Neustader and Michael Weber for the win.

I wasn’t one of the people who saw (500) Days of Summer multiple times, but I did enjoy the fresh angle on the romantic comedy genre. I remember someone telling me when I was a teenager that when some people break up with someone they’re dating they turn to drinking and waste away, and some people write a hit song about the break up. No one told me I could write a screenplay about it.

That would have come in handy when I was a senior in college and my girlfriend of a several years told me (after three margaritas) that she had been seeing someone else. But when Scott Nuestader was frustrated with the dating relationships in his life he did write a screenplay about it. Less as a calling card and more as therapy. And Michael Weber was there as his friend to help him through that time–and to help him write what would become their first produced screenplay, (500) Days of Summer.

“The truth is this: the script wasn’t written to be made. It was barely written to be read. We wrote this thing because I was downhearted and needed somewhere to channel my exasperation with relationships. Months later, when I finally decided to let it be seen, I expected to be mocked, jeered, taken by the shoulders and violently shook while someone screamed ‘snap out of it, man’ in my face. I never thought people would relate to it. I never thought someone would buy it, and I certainly never thought it would be filmed. so, yeah, I’m pretty darn surprised.
Scott Nuestader
Interview with A.D. Amorsi

“At the time I was trying to be there for him as a friend, first and foremost, but then soon after I was like, ‘You know, we should be writing that down. I think that’s happened to a lot of people.’ It’s interesting for me in that I feel like I felt for him, what he was going through at the time and have since personally gone through some of that afterwards. So my relationship to it has changed in that way which has been interesting. We always like when people come up to us and they can sort of relate to it or some girl messed them up. We feel for them but it’s also kind of awesome because we know that they’re going to get it.”
Michael Weber
Interview with Dave Gonzales

You may not write a hit song or an award-winning screenplay if you write about your big break-up…but it doesn’t hurt to try. I think the message at the end of the movie (500) Days of Summer is these things have a way of working themselves out in time. That’s certainly true in my case. Three months after my big college break-up I met the women who would become my wife.

But love relationships in general are ripe for screenwriters because they have built-in conflict. Perhaps down the road I’ll look at great break-up scenes. That scene between Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt near the end of Cast Away jumps to mind. What are some of your favorite movie break-up scenes?

Scott W. Smith

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A couple weeks ago two young guys appoached me for some help on a commercial they were producing and when they pitched me the idea it sounded more like a mini-series than a :30 spot. I gave them a much simpler idea and they shot it the next day and all was right in the world.

Screenwriters often fall into the same trap that these guys did. Their stories get too complicated. They want to have too many characters. Their characters speak too much.  I like simplicity, and I think audiences do too. That’s why I like this simple quote:

“A good movie is almost always a very simple story.”
Alex Epstein
Crafty Screenwriting
Page 36

Yes, there are exceptions. But think about these movies; Rain Man, North by Northwest, Rocky, Jaws, Juno, Cast Away, Sunset Blvd., Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz.  The kind of movies that people return to again and again. One thing they have in common is they are simple stories that tap into basic human needs and desires; survival, significance, understanding, solving a problem, and connecting with others in the human race.

So if your story is lost in your screenplay it may be because you’ve gotten lost in making the story too complicated. You are either trying to say too much, go in too many directions, or simply haven’t connected the beginning of your story with the end. Look at what sets your story in motion (your inciting incident or hook) and then look at how your story ends and see if there is a connection.

I now declare the new KISS principle: Keep it simple screenwriter. (Though I should add Paul Lucey’s quote on the subject; “Write simple stories and complex characters.”)

By the way, Alex Epstein has a blog called Complications Ensure: The Craftt TV and Screenwriting Blog.

Related post: Simplicity in Screenwriting (tip 27)

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“The pivotal character knows what he wants…Without him the story flounders…in fact, there is no story.”

                                       Lajos Egri

One of the hang-ups that some people have with the classic writing book The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri is that its focus in on theater. And while some of the references are more well known plays, others are more obscure in today’s terms.

So I’ve decided to give the fifty three year old book a little contemporary injection by connecting his thought to a more recent film. Egri starts his book discussing premise (which we cover in parts 1 & 2) and follows it talking about character.

What some people call the protagonist, hero or main character, Egri also calls the pivotal character.

“A pivotal character must not merely desire something. He must want it so badly that he will destroy or be destroyed in the effort to attain his goal…A good character must have something very vital at stake.”
                               Lajos Egri
                               The Art of Dramatic Writing
                               page 108

The character Chuck Nolan comes to mind. He is the pilot played by Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. has given Hanks plenty at stake. First there is just the survival issue of living on a deserted island, and then there is the issue of his fiancé back home. Toward the end of the movie he is even willing to risk his life to attain his goal of returning home.

Hanks’ character also fits well another aspect that Egri writes about;

“A pivotal character is a driving force, not because he decided to be one. He becomes what he is for the simple reason that some inner or outer necessity forces him to act; there is something at stake for him, honor, health, money, protection, vengeance, or a mighty passion.”

Later in the chapter Egri carries this point over to those who have a desire to write, act, sing or paint by saying that with 99% of those people it is a caprice or a whim. Egri writes, “Ninety-nine per cent usually give up before they have a chance to achieve anything. They have no perseverance, no stamina, no physical or mental strength, the inner urge to create is not strong enough.”

So write strong, willful pivotal characters. And be one yourself.


Related screenwriting post: What’s at Stake? (Tip #9) 


Scott W. Smith

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Cast Away is designed to be entertainment, but one that is making a sincere attempt to get to something deeper.”
                                          Bill Broyals
                                          screenwriter, Cast Away , Apollo 13, Flags of Our Father

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