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“Is there a thematic narrative question that’s being asked? And is it answered? Because without that it’s not very fulfilling storytelling.”
Director Ron Howard
(On one of the questions he asks when considering a screenplay.)

The screenplay for the 1984 film Splash received an Acadamy Award nomination (Bruce Jay Friedman, Lowell Ganz, Brian Grazer, Babaloo Mandel).  Splash director Ron Howard, fresh off directing Solo: A Star Wars Story, explains an angle he brought to the fish out of water story that he directed early in his career.

Splash is an example of basically a 30s romantic comedy. It makes all the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, all the obstacles—they’re right out of the screwball comedies. Which I always adored. Even in the 80s when we made Splash it was already too tired to do it in a literal way, yet adding the fantasy element of her being a mermaid it made all of that okay. So sort of the traditional idea, the sort of quaint idea, was suddenly fresh, visual, funnier, and more interesting. Along the way, I also came up with this other theme that love is not perfect. I actually got the John Candy character to say that line. And it became really important to me. It was the idea that you’re going to have that initial rush of romance and excitement and then may discover there’s some complications, there’s some problems—yet what are you going to do with that love? Is that going to be the thing that chases you away or are you going to accept it?”
Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind)
Masterclass

It’s hard to hear John Candy say, “Nobody said love’s perfect” and miss the echo of the line “Well, nobody’s perfect” from the end of the 1959 movie Some Like It Hot. And to show what’s old is new again, check out the video below to show the connection between Splash and the 2018 Best Picture Oscar-winner The Shape of Water. 

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of literal fish out of water stories. A couple of years ago there was a reboot of Splash in development with Channing Tatum and Jillian Bell attached with this twist—Tatum as the mermaid.

Related posts:

Writing from Theme 
More Thoughts on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme

 

Scott W. Smith

 

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Below is an excerpt from a Go Into The Story interview that screenwriters Bryan Woods & Scott Beck did with Scott Myers. This exchange is from part 6 of the interview.

Bryan Woods: With A Quiet Place, we weren’t comfortable writing the script until we knew that the theme was going to be about communication. We liked how that paralleled the idea of a world and a story that’s scary because the characters can’t talk and they can’t make noise.

We didn’t feel good about the story until we were like, “OK, we are comfortable with this theme.” One of the interesting things about theme is that you can start off with one thing in your head, and then the ultimate movie teaches you what it’s really about.

While I think that theme of communication that we started with is very much prevalent in the finished film, I think another theme emerged, which is the theme of, what would you do to protect your children and how hard is it to protect your children?

I think that theme is maybe an obvious one that we didn’t intellectualize but comes through very boldly in the finished film. I think that’s the best way to do it. I think you should be thinking about making sure your story has layers and that it can resonate on a deeper level.

At the same time, you’ve got to let it teach you what it wants to be and not be so constricted that you’re forcing it into a certain box.

Scott Beck: I will say like any time that we’ve gone off and written things where we haven’t really honed in on any theme whatsoever, that’s where you start getting into the weeds and you start losing your sight. It’s always important to hone in on some certain ideas that can at least be the starting point.

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Writing from Theme 
More Thoughts on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
Lyrics by Bob Dylan

On my top shelf of storytellers sits Bob Dylan.

His songs written and/or performed over the last 50 year have appeared in movies or Tv shows more than a staggering 550 times. Along with his creative influence he’s won many awards including an Oscar for his Things Have Changed which he performed on the movie Wonder Boys (2000).

Ever since seeing St. Vincent (2014) a week ago I’ve been listening to Dylan’s Shelter From The Storm over and over again. It hit me that Shelter From The Storm could sum up what most movies are really about:

I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes an’ blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Many great movie characters seek shelter from the storm;  Rocky, Terry Malloy (On the Waterfront),Norma Desmond (Sunset Blvd.) , Rick (Casablanca), Erin Brockovich, George Bailey (It’s a Wonderful Life), Tom Joad (The Grapes of Wrath), Norma Rae, Oskar Schindler, Maximus (Gladiator), Karen Silkwood, Tyler Durban (Fight Club), Indiana Jones, Ellen Ripley (Aliens), Chuck Noland (Cast Away), Joan of Arc, Sophie (Sophie’s Choice), C.C. Baxter (The Apartment), Andy Dufresne (The Shawshank Redemption), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, and Bogart and Hepburn’s characters in The African Queen.

If you’re looking for a standard and proven theme/desire to hang your story on take a tip from Dylan and write about characters who are seeking shelter from the storm. It emotionally resonates with movie audiences —people who are also seeking shelter from the storm.

P.S. Couldn’t find a good version of Dylan singing Shelter From The Storm, but I did find a version with Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris.

Related posts:

Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan’s Brain
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisited” (2.0)
‘Against the Wind’ Bob Seger’s version of “Shelter From The Storm”)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 1) Buffett’s version (written with Bobby Holcomb):
And there’s that one particular harbour
Sheltered from the wind
Where the children play on the shore each day
And all are safe within
Highway 61 Meets A1A
Protagonist=Conflict
Neil Simon on Conflict (Conflict and more conflict.)
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)

Scott W. Smith

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“Here’s the beautiful thing about theme, it’s the underlying message that kind of unifies the story…Even if you don’t write from theme I know the reason why a lot of you are sitting down and putting the time into [screenwriting] is you have a way of looking at the world that you want to communicate to people…Just like dialogue needs to have subtext and not be on the nose, you never want to be on the nose thematically. You don’t want to be didactic, you don’t want to be preachy, it’ll put people to sleep. It’s not what people expect from drama. Drama is about emotion…In Star Wars Luke has to shoot the Death Star, he has to shoot something down a little hole—blow up the Death Star. And he’s got a chose in front of him, he’s got the force—’Use the force, Luke’—or he has a computer. Now the computer technology isn’t just like [basic] computer technology, it’s the technology that built the Death Star—which is pretty powerful stuff. So when he chooses the force and he’s successful, you get this theme; ‘Humans, intuition is more important than technology.'”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

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Writing from Theme
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Obligatory Scene=Story’s Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
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Michael Arndt on Theme
Sideny Lumet on Theme
More Thoughts on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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Citizen Kane is the film that made me want to become a filmmaker.”
Oscar-winning director William Friedkin (The French Connection)

No Trespassing

“I think the opening image is usually about theme. And the question you might ask is what comes next? Character? Setting? Tone? Genre? Well, I don’t think that’s the right question to ask because there’s no perfect answer. I want you to think about your images and your sounds in your opening in order that you’re doing two or three things at once. In Citizen Kane we immediately get the castle, we get Xanadu. But is it just location? No way. We see the animals so it’s like a zoo, and a cage to suggest some kind of prison—and it’s dark. And there’s a NO TRESSPASSING sign at the gate and the camera’s going over that as we come in to discover the rosebud moment. So we know this movie thematically and storywise is going to be about trespassing on someone’s life and kind of digging in. So you see it’s not just about location. A great movie can never spend three minutes on this and three minutes on that, it’s got to being doing all of this at the same time.”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

P.S. I’m sure someone has written a nice article about opening movie shots (or at least opening scenes) and how they tie into the theme of the film. If you know of one put it in the comments or shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com . And if you have a favorite opening image that ties into the meaning of the film let me know as well. The open images of the movie Witness being about community has been well documented. One could even say there are two communities at odds in that movie. The crooked, violent police community and the pious, anti-violent Amish community. The goal of one community is to kill the Harrison Ford character while the goal of the other community to preserve his life.

Related Post:
‘The Greatest Film Ever Made’
‘Study the Old Masters’—Martin Scorsese
Stagecoach (2.0) The John Ford film that Orson Welles watched 40 times before and/or during the making of Citizen Kane.
Screenwriting Quote #166 (Joseph McBride) McBride manually typed an entire copy of the Citizen Kane script while a student in college.
Screenwriting Quote #38 (Orson Welles) “I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that…”
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)

Scott W. Smith

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Mike De Luca: How many screenplays did you write before the first one got produced?
Sheldon Turner: A good 15 probably. You have to be resilient.
The Dialogue: Sheldon Turner Interview Part 2
(Sheldon also mentions on The Dialogue that as he was finding his voice he wrote 11 scripts before he even showed one to anybody.)

“I think all too often now we as a society train ourselves to not have time to think. You get home—you turn the TV on. You get in the car—you turn the radio on. I think those moments [of inspiration] come in solitude. It’s themes—you don’t want to put somebody in a position to go down the hall and tell Amy Pascal (Co-Chairman of Sony Pictures) that Sheldon Turner has some wonderful themes he wants to explore in this movie— but I think that’s what makes for really good [movies]. Even something like The Longest Yard which is pabulum and a fun movie and all that, at least for me I’ve gotta know what the themes are.  Something like redemption or whatever it is, that’s what makes interesting movies.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sheldon Turner  (credits on Up In the Air, X-Men, First Class)

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Kelly Marcel on Theme
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Lawrence Konner on Theme
Theme= What Your Movie is Really About
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Scott W. Smith

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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 scene 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. It could argued that the climax of the obligatory scene in Rocky is when he goes the distance with the champ. He’s proven to himself that he’s not a bum. He’s the flip side of Brando in On the Waterfront—he’s a somebody, a contender.

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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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