“I’ve overcome the blow, I’ve learned to take it well…”
“Rainy day people all know there’s no sorrow they can’t rise above…”
Gordon Lightfoot/ Rainy Day People
Perhaps the reason I decided to start a post about the movie Silver Linings Playbook with a couple of lines from seventies songs is the movie has a seventies feel. Not disco 70s—Annie Hall 70s.
You know, the kind of movie that centers on great writing and great acting. Movies that transcend entertainment and are about something human. I’m not a tentpole/vampire/contrived comedy kind of guy, so I relish when a film like Silver Linings Playbook comes along. This isn’t a movie review, but a look at the movie from the perspective of the script written by the film’s director David O. Russell. (As of this writing the script can be found at this link by The Weinstein Company.)
The story of Silver Linings Playbook is actually pretty simple. Pat (Bradley Cooper) wants to get back together with his wife. And that happens on page 1 with Pat talking to himself in a psychiatric facility:
PAT: “I blew it. But you also blew it. We can get it back. It’s all gonna be better now. I’m better now and I hope you are, too.”
No big set up of where we are or what happened to Pat, the reader/audience is engaged and playing catch-up. And we also know that Pat is part of the “end-of-the-rope club” which is often a key ingredient in a lead character. So there is a stated goal on page one—get back together with Nikki (who we learn is his estranged wife). Of course, just one of Pat’s problems is he has a court order that prohibits him from coming within 500 feet of his estranged wife.
There are two central characters; Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). This is not one of those scripts you read where you’re flipping back and forth trying to keep track of the characters. And keeping with the idea that you should have a really good reason from cutting away from the central character, I believe Pat in the script and in the movie is in every single scene. But there is meat in the supporting roles which is why Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver were attracted to the roles and why both were nominated for Academy Awards (as Bradley and Lawrence were).
There’s no real need for an antagonist role (Officer Keogh may be as close as we get), because both protagonists Pat and Tiffany do a pretty good job of being their own antagonists.
There are a handful of other roles, but essentially the story fits the idea that the audience/reader really can’t get involved in more than seven characters.
Silver Linings Playbook is full of not only conflict from beginning to end, but the best kind of conflict—meaningful conflict. Pat has inner-conflict with self and his illness, interpersonal with mom, dad, brother ex-wife, friends and Tiffany, and extrapersonal conflcit with neighbors, police, his doctor and people at football game.
What’s always at stake for Pat is being sent back to psychiatric facility. But the worst part about that for Pat is that would mean he failed at his goal of getting back together with his wife. And the stakes are even greater than if he has to go back to the hospital losing his freedom and maybe his mind.
Screenplays are often difficult to read, probably because they are a blueprint to make a movie. But Silver Linings Playbook was a fun and easy read. That was in part due to the pacing. Scene descriptions were kept between 1-3 lines and dialogue was usually kept between one and three sentences.
The script came in at 152 pages which is longer than most tend to be these days, but it is a verbal rather than a visual story so the running time was 2 hours.
There have been four films made with the title The Silver Lining (1915, 1921, 1927, 1932) and the expression “every cloud has a silver lining” has been around forever. So the title Silver Linings Playbook takes something familiar and gives it a fresh twist.
The movie largely takes place in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania—a small working class suburb of Philadelphia.
SETUPS & PAYOFFS
Another writer’s tool used throughout the script/movie to bring a conhesivness to the story.
You don’t have to ever been in a psychiatric facility like Pat, or have the emotional relationship baggage Tiffany has to have an emotional connection to these characters. Everyone has their own emotional baggage and relationship issues and this film taps into what is called the laughter of recognition. What’s happening on screen is a reflection of our friends and family—and ourselevs.
Last year I pulled a quote where writer/director Garry Marshall talked about himself and audiences being drawn to Cinderella stories, and another quote by writer/director Frank Darabont talking about having an “uplift” at the end of movies. Of course, not all stories are Cinderella stories nor have an uplift, but if you are writing stories for an audience it is important to know that everyone is looking for a silver lining. I didn’t say a “happy ending,” but a silver lining is a plus.
“I’m gonna take all this negativity and use it for fuel, and I’m going to find a silver lining, that’s what I’m gonna do.”—Pat (Bradley Cooper), Page 14
“This is what I believe to be true. This is what I learned in the hospital. You have to do everything you can, you have to work your hardest, and if you do, if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining.”—Pat, Page 35
There is a handwritten sign “EXCELSIOR” on Pat’s wall at his room at the psychiatric facility that we first read about on page three of the script and becomes a running motifs throughout the script—a rally cry of sorts for Pat. Excelsior is Latin for “ever upward.”
Silver Linings Playbook is not the kind of movie that you would think that would have a long box office run. But despite a limited release in November and a wide release at the end of December it’s still in theaters as we approach the first week of February. Heck, in the traditional Hollywood cycle this movie should already be available on DVD. Instead it was actually third at the box office this weekend. Glad this film is getting good word of mouth reviews. And while it wouldn’t seem the most international movie this little $20 million dollar movie is on its way to breaking $100 million at the global box office.
The film has been nominated for a total of eighth Oscars.
Silver Linings Playbook originated as a novel by Matthew Quick and his real life story of quitting his teaching job and taking off three years to focus on his writing is a post for another day. The date on the screenplay says 2008, the year the book was released. If that’s when the script was written (or even just purchased) that means that it was a four/five-year journey to bring that story to the screen. (And I don’t know how many years it took Quick to write the novel.)
For those of you who haven’t seen the film I won’t tell you how it ends, just that the film is really about taking a step on the road to redemption believing that broken wings can be mended and silver linings found.
P.S. Didn’t make this connection until after I wrote this post, but singer Jim Croce was born in South Philadelphia and played in many tough bars in Philadelphia before heading to New York City and greater fame. Unfortunately he died at only age 30. His wife Ingrid owns Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar in San Diego. I had a memorable meal there a few years ago while sitting in their outside area and enjoyed watching the people in the historic Gaslamp Quarter walk by.
Average Length of a Movie Scene (Tip #21)
Writing Actor Bait (Tip #64)
What’s at Stake? (Tip #9)
“Goal. Stakes. Urgency.” (Tip #60)
40 Days of Emotions
Screenwriting by Numbers (Tip #4)
Writing Beyond the Numbers (Tip #8)
Setups & Payoffs (Tip #57)