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“Is there a confrontation scene? In a well-constructed story the audience is held in expectation of what is called an obligatory scene brought about by a reversal (or indeed, a series of reversals). Note that the obligatory scene, usually the denouement of a story, classically expresses the theme. It is an expression of the story’s central moral, the point expressed as a generalisation as seen in character-in-action. (A good way of defining this moment, in fact many moments in a dramatic narrative, is to ask: ‘Who does what with which to whom and why?’)”
Writer/director Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making
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age 21

P.S. Rocky’s a movie that has a natural confrontation scene with the fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed. It may be the longest obligatory scenes in cinema since it lasts basically the entire third act. The reversal scene of Rocky realizing he can’t beat the champ is one of the key things that separates Rocky from most films about sports. Robert McKee says that, “Rocky redefined winning.” Rocky decides that if he can just go the distance with the champ—be on his feet when the fight is over—that he will have an internal victory.

“All I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”

Rocky written by Sylvester Stallone

And that personal victory, that personal redemption is the theme of Rocky. A theme by the way that never gets old.

Related Posts:

Writing from Theme (tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Writing “Rocky”  “I was obsessed with the idea of personal redemption…” Stallone
Insanely Great Endings

Scott W. Smith

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“I always look for amazing characters who I find are fascinating, charming, flawed, romantic and in trouble. Those are the key elements I look for. And they have to have a very specific world they’re in, as in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. They’re a sort of community and they’re having to reinvent themselves. So they’re in trouble of some kind, but their world also has some enchantment in it that they love. There’s love and passion and compassion in it. And then there must be a sizable theme, and in [American Hustle] it’s not just about conning people, but reinvention.
Oscar-winning writer/director David O. Russell
Post magazine Interview with Iain Blair/ January 2014

P.S. American Hustle tied Gravity for the most Oscar nominations (10) and shows the important of execution. I can’t imagine too many screenwriters pitching a film based on the ’70s scandal Abscam getting a request for the script. Now, David O. Russell wanting to do a film on Abscam—that’s an easier sell.  By the way, Oscar-nominated Best Picture Nebraska, would be a hard pitch as well. No matter how you dressed it up it’s still a story about a son who drives his elderly dad from Montana to Omaha. But say that Oscar-winner Alexander Payne wants to make that film and it’s an easier sell to investors and audiences.  Execution trumps concept in those cases. Though it still took Nebraska 10 years to get made after Bob Nelson’s script was first optioned. Here’s how that script got early traction:

“I was working at a Seattle show called The Eyes of Nye. Producer Julie Thompson came up. I had written a screenplay to try and get a TV job. Julie got the script to Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who have a company called Bona Fide Productions.  They decided to send it to Alexander [Payne], not with the intention to direct it but just to produce it and raise money. I was very fortunate, very lucky, and it doesn’t happen a lot. The one take-away is that even though I was in Seattle, I was still working in the business.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Bob Nelson
Indiewire Interview with Meredith Alloway

Especially if you live outside of LA you have to be creative in finding find alternative ways of getting people excited about your screenplay. And while not the norm, Nelson—and Diablo Cody— show that you can not only capture the magic while living in Seattle or Minnespolis, but that it can even lead to an Oscar trip.  In fact, there are film people living in LA that say you have to have to live in LA to be taken seriously yet will never see the critical success of Nelson or Cody.

Related posts:
Broken Wings and Silver Linings
Screenwriting Quote #177 (David O. Russell)
Screenwriting from Nebraska
The 20 Year Journey of Craig Borten The Dallas Buyers Club took two decades to make it to theaters,  but joins American Hustle and Nebraska in the Oscar race for Best Picture.
Writing from Theme (tip#20)
Jailbait, Rejection & Screenwriter Mark Boal’s Start Another Oscar-winning screenwriter (The Hurt Locker) who was living outside of LA when his journalist writing opened doors.
Screenwriting Quote #145 (Mike Rich) Rich (The Rookie) launched his screenwriting from Portland by being awarded a Nicholl Fellowship.

Scott W. Smith

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Over the weekend I saw Saving Mr. Banks and enjoyed it immensely. And there is a line in the film—that I don’t think is a spoiler—that seems to be what the film was about.

“In every movie house, all over the world, in the eyes and the hearts of my kids, and other kids and their mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in Saving Mr. Banks

That sounds like a pretty strong theme. And I’m fascinated by the topic of theme because I’ve read successful screenwriters and directors say these contradictory things:

A) I never think in terms of theme
B) I usually start with theme
C) The theme reveals itself somewhere in the writing
D) Theme is something the audience sees when the film hits the theaters
E) I avoid writing from theme to avoid the story being message driven
F) I have no clue what the word theme means

So one thing we can learn from Rod Serling, Alexander Payne, Francis Ford Coppola, and others is the process of screenwriting varies from writer to writer.  Which is why you have visually strong writers and dialogue driven writers.

Now I don’t think that Disney line is a direct quote from the Mickey Mouse creator, but from the imagination of the Saving Mr. Banks screenwriter Kelly Marcel.  I don’t know at what point she wrote Disney’s monologue—or if she even thinks that was the theme of the movie—but I do know she in facts does think in terms of theme.

“I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along. It allows for much more intricate storytelling, ways of speaking to the theme and letting your theme to speak to you, even unconsciously. I said ‘theme’ four times in that last paragraph. I shouldn’t be allowed to be a writer.”
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey)
Go Into the Story Interview with Scott Myers

Related Posts (and a ping pong of views on theme):

Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Theme=Story’s Heart & Soul
Diablo Cody on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Wes Anderson on Theme
Lawrence Konner on Theme
Eric Roth on Theme & Loneliness
William Froug on Theme
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Diane Frolov & The Theme Zone
Theme vs. Story
“Network” Notes by Paddy Chayefsky
Writing and Directing “Out of Africa”
Serling vs. Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m saying you are stuck in Wichita.”
Del Griffith (John Candy)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles

On Thanksgiving Day 2013 I decided to challenge myself to a movie mash-up. Could I take a classic 26 year old Thanksgiving story (Planes, Trains and Automobiles) and somehow connect it with a movie that is currently number one in the box office this Thanksgiving (Hunger Games: Catching Fire). According to Box Office Mojo Planes had a total gross of just under $50 million—Catching Fire made more than that its opening day and has gone on to make more than $300 million worldwide in the first six days of its theatrical release. 

Granted Planes was released in 1987 so you’d have to adjust those numbers to be an equal comparison, but the truth is that John Hughes written and directed film starring Steve Martin and John Candy was far below the box office winner (Three Men and a Baby) the year it was release. But when was the last time you heard anybody talking about Three Men and a Baby or quoting lines from that movie?

Like every year, 1987 had its share of memorable films that have endured. Some did well at the box office (Fatal Attraction) and others didn’t find their audience until later (The Princess Bride). But what makes Planes, Trains and Automobiles continue to entertain and please audiences today?

“Some movies are obviously great. Others gradually thrust their greatness upon us. When ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ was released in 1987, I enjoyed it immensely, gave it a favorable review and moved on. But the movie continued to live in my memory. Like certain other popular entertainments (‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,’ ‘Casablanca’) it not only contained a universal theme, but also matched it with the right actors and story, so that it shrugged off the other movies of its kind and stood above them in a kind of perfection. This is the only movie our family watches as a custom, most every Thanksgiving….The buried story engine of ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ is not slowly growing friendship or odd-couple hostility (devices a lesser film might have employed), but empathy. It is about understanding how the other guy feels.”
Roger Ebert
Review for Planes, Trains and Automobiles

What Ebert called a “buried story engine” I would call theme and emotion. Here are two of my favorite questions on those subjects:

“I think what makes a film stick to the brain is the theme.”
Screenwriter Bill Martell

“The goal of every screenplay, every movie, every novel, every story of any kind (and ultimately, every work of art) is identical: to elicit emotion.
Michael Hague
Selling Your Story in 60 seconds

Call it “an understanding how the other guy feels” or “empathy,” but 26 years from now people will still be watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I’m not sure the same can be said for Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The studios don’t care about that now, they’re making money. The reviews are good. They’ve done their jobMe? I’ll watch anything with Jennifer Lawrence in it (she had me at Winters Bone), but Catching Fire didn’t warm my bones. I felt like I was watching a middle program in an episodic TV show that was a cross between Survivor, LOST, and The Truman Show. (Please don’t tell me I need to read the books to appreciate the movie. That was never said of The Godfather—or The Wizard of Oz.) 

At first I thought maybe it was just me coming off a long road trip before I saw Catching Fire until I read ScriptShadow’s review of the film.

“The Hunger Games, and movies like it, represents one of the most thankless screenwriting jobs in Hollywood. Sure, you get to write one of the biggest movies of the year, but all the credit will go to the two people who sandwiched you in the process – the author of the original book, and the director who put the movie on the big screen.

To that end, that middle cog, the screenwriter who adapts these huge books, is allowed little to no creativity. His job amounts to that of a translator. Maybe that’s why Catching Fire feels so empty inside. Its two talented screenwriters, Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, weren’t allowed to do anything but translate. And it’s left this movie without a soul.”
Carson Reeves/ScriptShadow
Movie Review—Catching Fire

Even if you really enjoyed the film (which many of its intended audience did) you have to admit it didn’t have what Arndt calls an “insanely great ending”—the credits just come up and you go, “I guess it’s over.” Just one of the problem of sequels.

BTW—Scriptshadow also had a good post this week on 10 Screenwriting Tips from Thanksgiving favorite: Plane Trains and Automobiles! 

P.S. Films released in 1987 worth going back and watching or re-watching include Empire of the Sun (Christian Bale’s first major film), Wall St. (Michael Douglas won an Oscar for his role created by Oliver Stone and Stanley Weiser), Moonstruck, the third Coen Brother film—Raising Arizona, and my personal favorite of that year Broadcast News written and directed by James L. Brooks.

Related Posts:
40 Days of Emotions
Theme: What Your Movie is Really About
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
“The Artists” 3— “Hunger Games” 0
Before John Hughes Became John Hughes (And how Planes was inspired by his day job.)

Scott W. Smith

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From the book Script Tease by Dylan Callaghan:

Question: What guides you through a story if you don’t outline? is it character or a certain voice?

Diablo Cody: “I like to pick a theme. I know that sounds stupid. It’s not a super advanced technique. They pick a theme on Laverne and Shirley. I think about what the emotional core of the story is, what’s something I can play on across multiple story lines, and I go from there.”

P.S. There are many less accomplished screenwriters who would never reference the ’70s TV show Laverne & Shirley, but that’s part of why I call the Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter the Woman of Steel. And for what it’s worth, Laverne & Shirley was co-created by Garry Marshall. In the five years plus years of writing this blog, Marshall is the only person I have writing a single month of posts about. (And that just happened to be the most viewed month of posts I’ve ever had.)

Related posts:
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Theme=Story’s Heart & Soul
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sidney Lumet on There
Garry Marshall—Survivor
“Emotional Catharsis”—Diablo Cody


Writing from Theme (Tip #20)

Scott W. Smith

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Shane Black on Theme

“What I do is I try to figure out what the piece is about and link that to the story arc or the character arc.  I always think there’s two things going on in any script—there’s the story and then there’s the plot.  The plot is the events.  If it’s a heist film, it’s how they get in and out.  But the story is why we’re there, why we’re watching the events.  It’s what’s going on with the characters.  And theme above that.  Once I get those things, once I know what the theme is and what it’s about, I can start trying on story beats and plot beats to see if they feel like they’re moving, but they have to relate to the overall theme.”
Writer/director Shane Black
Creative Screenwriting interview by Peter Clines 

P.S. I can’t find the exact quote but I saw an interview where Black said that no matter how much you’ve been knocked down you can always come back. Seems that would be the theme of Iron Man 3, of its star Robert Downey Jr., and of Black himself.

Related posts:

Theme: What Your Movie is Really About
Theme=Story’s Heart & Soul
Writing from Theme (tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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Since I’ve written the last few posts (and many over the years) about screenwriters and filmmakers who either start with theme, or how theme plays an important part of the stories they tell, here’s a Wes Anderson quote showing how creative people often take a 180 degree approach to what other people are doing:

“If somebody asks me about the themes of something I’m working on, I never have any idea what the themes are…. Somebody tells me the themes later. I sort of try to avoid developing themes. I want to just keep it a little bit more abstract. But then, what ends up happening is, they say, ‘Well, I see a lot here that you did before, and it’s connected to this other movie you did,’ and…that almost seems like something I don’t quite choose. It chooses me.”
Writer/director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom)
Elvis Mitchell interview on KCRW’s The Treatment (H/T nofilmschool)

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“The more you can find a theme that unites the plot and the character and think about that theme as you’re writing, the better off you’ll be determining the story’s structure.

Taxi Driver, is a brilliant example of this. A theme to that movie would be alienation leading to violence. You pick a character who you want to be alienated. Well, what better place to put somebody alienated than New York City? And then what better job to give them than taxi cab driver, sort of interacting with people all day and yet not?

There’s no rule as to whether a character comes before the theme, but they both have to be there. Setting should support the theme, character should support the theme, and the story should support the theme. And the theme should be an active one. Generally, you think of a story first, something that interests you. Then, you have to think about what theme you want to support because otherwise, I think you get lost.”
Screenwriter Lawrence Konner (Boardwalk Empire, Mona Lisa Smile, Planet of the Apes—2001)
On Screenwriting

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“Theme is the most important element of a good screenplay. It’s the driving intention behind the film. It’s the message that the writer is trying to get across to the audience which, when effectively communicated, satisfies them, emotionally and analytically, and makes them feel they’ve just watched a good film. It is, in a single sentence, what the movie is really all about.”
Three-time Emmy award-winning writer/producer Jeffrey Scott
The Importance of Theme in Screenwriting

Related Post: Writing from Theme (Tip #20)

P.S. I never seem to get tired of finding these quotes about theme and emotions. If you have some favorite quotes on those subjects please send them my way.

Scott W. Smith

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“Winning takes care of everything.”
Tiger Woods quote and now controversial Nike ad

“It took me time to realize plot, characters and all that were important, but it really had to be about something.”
Carl Foreman

“I read a lot of comedy screenplays and the disappointing thing—the reason most of them don’t work is because they’re not about anything. If your story isn’t about anything—or your character just wants a pretty girl and a bag of money then it’s not going to add up to anything. It may be funny—but most comedies are funny in the first act, they’re funny in the second act, and then they either get sappy and sentimental in the third act or they just fall apart. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted Little Miss Sunshine to have a climax at the end. One of thing things that was an impetus to write the script is I remember reading this interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger where he was talking to a group of high school students—high school students—and he said, ‘If there’s one thing in this world that I hate it’s losers. I despise them.’ And I thought there is just something so wrong with that attitude. That there is something so demeaning and insulting about referring about anyone as a loser. I wanted to attack that idea that in life you’re either going up or you’re going down, you know, it’s all about status and impressing other people… It’s this winner take all society where one person is going to get the million dollars and everyone else is a loser, and I just despise that mentality. And so I wanted to just totally attack it….And to a degree a child’s beauty pageant is the epitome of the ultimate, meaningless competition that people put themselves through.”
Screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3)
2007 talk at Cody’s Books 

Related posts:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
Sidney Lumet on Theme
Eric Roth on Theme and Loneliness
William Froug on Theme
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Diane Frolov & The Theme Zone
Coppola Vs. Serling

Scott W. Smith

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