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Monday, September 29, 2014

Fifteen Essential Movies Every Aspiring Screenwriter Must Watch

Pulp Fiction vincent jules
Even if you’re not an aspiring screenwriter and have general interest in extremely good screenplays, these are the basic films whose narrative construction, character development, solid yet mind-blowing plotlines, etc., make for terrific readings and life-changing experiences.
Any good screenwriter should keep in mind the work already done by masters of this craft throughout film history, taking notes of outstanding accomplishments in such works, underlining twists and turns and everything that makes these films so groundbreaking.
This list does exactly that with 15 mostly modern classics that have paved way for today’s market and what we can learn from them, while understanding in what particular aspects they mattered most and its relevance to film culture.
Links to the scripts are listed below each film commentary as an incentive to anyone who wishes to read the words behind some intriguingly brilliant films. Please note that these films are not ranked in any particular order, they are equally essential for those who want to learn something about great screenwriting.

1. Groundhog Day (wri. Danny Rubin & Harold Ramis)
groundhog-day
Storyline: “A weatherman finds himself living the same day over and over again.” – IMDb
This genius comedy owes a lot to its clever screenplay. The character development makes them instantly memorable, and its groundbreaking structure paved way for films about people reliving days. It does much more than that. The intriguing part of the story, its concept alone, covers for an even more interesting conclusion and moral.
The one liners, visual gags, smart puns and body humor are brought to life with a great cast, but they don’t make it a pure comedy – they give it the charm and wittiness so inherent to Ramis’ films and underline greater issues. As Phil lives February 2nd again and again, restarting every day at 6am, he has to find a way to break the cycle.
It becomes as exhausting to the audience as it’s, apparently, to the character, but that’s where the film leaves room for constant surprises – because it’s the same day so many times, the outcome is a world of possibilities, what the character chooses to do and how he works through it is distinct almost without trying. Besides, this film is proof that a laugh-provoking comedy can be intelligent and appeal to a broader audience.
Here’s the script for Groundhog Day:
http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/groundhogday.pdf

2. Casablanca (wri. Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein & Howard Koch)
casablanca
Storyline: “Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications.” – IMDb
This love story is, without doubt, one of the most popular ever made. The screenplay was adapted from an unproduced play called “Everybody Comes To Rick’s”, and the writers just kept going with the original story, not really knowing where to end it.
The writers had the characters very well defined, so they mostly worked the plot around them. We see their viewpoints and their conflicts, how they choose to deal with them and their own memories, in a most brilliant manner that asks them to confront each other in the same place – Casablanca.
There are endless lessons to withdraw from what the characters say, the dialogue is fundamental and the sense of loss, of not knowing where to go, works as something that keeps the film fresh (the last line of the film was added three weeks after shooting ended). The fact that these flawed characters make us so attached to them, is on its own a spectacle. And even though “Play it again, Sam” is not a real quote from this film, you can read the actual script and learn just how good it is without that line.
Here’s the script for Casablanca:
http://www.weeklyscript.com/Casablanca.txt

3. Citizen Kane (wri. Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles)
citizen-kane
Storyline: “Following the death of a publishing tycoon, news reporters scramble to discover the meaning of his final utterance.” – IMDb
Welle’s classic masterpiece follows the life of wealthy publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane. Known for its innovations in photography, editing and sound, its narrative techniques take over this perfect debut. The collaboration with Herman J. Mankiewicz and an uncredited John Houseman cause great controversy even before it premiered, for appearing to caricaturize people and actual events from the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
This first-time director and heavy drinker was, by that time, adored by the radio and stage, having been authorized by RKO Radio Pictures to make any picture he wished. The writing of the script evolved into what became an extremely complex structure that continuously gains depth, not caring about normal progression of time or ever allowing the audience to expect anything. Nevertheless, it is emotional and powerful and always notorious, with a script that is peculiar right until the end.
Here’s the script for Citizen Kane:
http://www.weeklyscript.com/Citizen%20Kane.txt

4. Annie Hall (wri. Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman)
Annie-Hall-1
Storyline: “Neurotic New York comedian Alvy Singer falls in love with the ditsy Annie Hall.” – IMDb
The tone is established with Woody Allen’s neurotic, Jewish, intellectual main character, a stand-up comic and writer who contains wit and cultural references enough to get the attention of goofy Annie Hall. Originally, there was a murder mystery subplot, but that would mark the beginning of a completely different career (although he did other work before, it wasn’t as flashy).
What would seem like a reasonably simple story about dating and philosophy in the 70’s turned into a whirlwind of insecurities brought up by people constantly talking. This became so important in films to follow – how someone could just spend an entire film babbling and exasperating. A lot of other Woody Allen films involved similar onscreen girlfriends, who grew tired of him in different ways.
The perfection of his speeches are undeniable, brilliantly accomplished in one take and always aiming towards a joke or a revelation. It’s the basic and ultimate proof that lack of action doesn’t mean lack of story or apparent development.
Here’s the script for Annie Hall:
http://www.weeklyscript.com/Annie%20Hall.txt

5. Pulp Fiction (wri. Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avary)
pulp_fiction
Storyline: “The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.” – IMDb
This one may seem as obvious as it gets for modern screenwriters, but it is in fact very often disregarded by more experienced writers, as it defies established methods and doesn’t really follow the rules to make a “good screenplay.” What it counts here is not just the writing, but what is brought to life and how successfully it is done based on a very intense script.
The rythmic dialogue cues, the satirical comedy involving blood, guns, drugs, cars, it’s all constructed in a nonlinear way very similar to “Citizen Kane”, alternating between characters and stories and worlds that are all somehow connected. As usual in Tarantino films, a character doesn’t speak because there’s something happening around him or her: they speak for the sake of words, of storytelling, of debate.
Conversations seem so normal yet are always so exciting and rapid, one doesn’t even notice they’re just as part as the picture as the real action. It’s fun and iconic and there’s a lot to learn from its writing.
Here’s the script for Pulp Fiction:
http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Pulp-Fiction.html

6. The Godfather Parts I and II (wri. Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola)
The Godfather (1972)
Storyline: (part I) “The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.”
(part II) “The early life and career of Vito Corleone in 1920s New York is portrayed while his son, Michael, expands and tightens his grip on his crime syndicate stretching from Lake Tahoe, Nevada to pre-revolution 1958 Cuba.” – IMDb
Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel turned into the onscreen paradigm of a particular ethnic group of first-generation and second-generation Italian-Americans. In both films, Francis Ford Coppola’s depiction of family is a gem, playing with sentimental and brutal aspects of life mixed together with drug crime and revenge.
It teaches us the unpredictability of a character that is in one second being sweet to his wife and, in the next, shooting someone’s head off over nothing. Both are very compelling narratives (the third is anything but worth mentioning), and Brando, DeNiro and Pacino did terrific work portraying these characters and making them eternal.
Both films essentially show how the Mafia code and lifestyle becomes a part of them, specifically Michael. It’s havoc in crime organization and family, that one sacred and above-everything-in-life purpose that slowly becomes clouded by betrayal and stained by secrets. It exceeds every notion of entertainment and screen-hooked. Certainly two of the only pictures I dare prefer to the original book, much thanks to such a shockingly good adaptation.
Here’s the script for The Godfather:
http://www.weeklyscript.com/Godfather,%20The.txt
Here’s the script for The Godfather Part II:
http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Godfather-Part-II.html

7. Taxi Driver (wri. Paul Schrader)
Taxi Driver
Storyline: “A mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran works as a night-time taxi driver in New York City where the perceived decadence and sleaze feeds his urge for violent action, attempting to save a preadolescent prostitute in the process.” – IMDb
Even though Scorsese gets a lot of credit for the groundbreaking experience that is “Taxi Driver”, screenwriter Paul Schrader turned this story about Travis into a complete character study, from his internal monologues to the meaning of his actions, with ambiguous morality that can’t quite define whether he’s good or evil or just messed up.
There’s the background presence of his past in the military, his violent outbursts and his even more violent plans for the future. There are layers to this character that don’t make it less subjective, but always more dense. This is a character so troubled he can’t sleep, so he drives a cab at night, which allows him to watch and criticize street culture and its obsession with sex and drugs.
It’s ironic, too, most of the times, and the angst he shows is almost nonsensical to the audience watching. This is even harder to do when he nearly doesn’t talk to anyone but himself – and how hard it is for a screenplay to work when there’s so much brutality going on around a character and it doesn’t talk much. It’s a film about injustice and overall hell on the streets, and one of the many masterpieces Paul Schrader created while collaborating with Scorsese.
Here’s the script for Taxi Driver:
http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Taxi-Driver.html


8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (wri. Charlie Kaufman & Michel Gondry & Pierre Bismuth)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Storyline: “A couple undergo a procedure to erase each other from their memories when their relationship turns sour, but it is only through the process of loss that they discover what they had to begin with.” – IMDb
Another much needed choice is, of course, one of the many films written by Charlie Kaufman. And here’s a film often compared to one big labyrinth, where the plot is constantly being torn apart and put back together, ignoring a chronological order. The concept is so strong to begin with, everything else has to constantly keep up with it.
The main characters are literally losing their minds, living through memories or dreams or friction of imagination, a constant deja vu, which the audience has to go through as well. There are a lot of contradictory emotions, and Gondry is great when dealing with them and directing them, especially when it comes to romance and companionship written by Kaufman.
The subtleties present in the script often become clues to understanding what is going on, as what happens when Joel stutters on the word “remember.” It’s got all the trademarks of a Kaufman script, including the most important one: a socially awkward protagonist and the complexities of the mind.
Here’s the script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:
http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Eternal-Sunshine-of-the-Spotless-Mind.html

9. The Big Lebowski (wri. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
the big lebowski
Storyline: “”Dude” Lebowski, mistaken for a millionaire Lebowski, seeks restitution for his ruined rug and enlists his bowling buddies to help get it.” – IMDb
The “Dude” was, as it is widely known, inspired by a real man named Jeff Dowd, a freelance publicist whose contribution mattered in the launching of the Coen brothers’ film debut “Blood Simple” (1984).
The plot is really as simple as the storyline says, and its details are not the film’s most interesting features. There’s an interesting quote that sums up “Dude”, which is: “He went to Woodstock and never left.” It’s about his lifestyle, his friends, how he lives his life under a bathrobe smoking pot, and his days spent in a bowling alley, when suddenly something different happens.
It’s great fun, with enough one-liners for this century, unforgettable comic characters and situations, making it one of the overall best written cult comedies ever and a must-see for anyone who enjoys smart, witty dialogues and filmmaking. And probably no one else could’ve written this plot and its lines but the Coen brothers.
Here’s the script for The Big Lebowki:
http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Big-Lebowski,-The.html

10. Forrest Gump (wri. Eric Roth & Winston Groom)
Forrest Gump (1994)
Storyline: “Forrest Gump, while not intelligent, has accidentally been present at many historic moments, but his true love, Jenny Curran, eludes him.” – IMDb
With an IQ of 75, Forrest Gump is a decent and honest man, living according to his mother’s values, and who manages to become involved in every great event in American history between the 1950s and the 1980s. There’s a heartwarming innocence attached to him, but this is not what the film’s about.
It’s mostly that he sees the world for what it is, subconsciously judging the cynicism of modern societies, their need to complicate love and relationships in general. He’s forever connected to his beliefs, to reality and hard work and loyalty above everything. His love story seems insane, but he doesn’t give up on it and, meanwhile and eventually, he finds happiness.
It is so wonderfully constructed and so comically and emotionally well-put and driven, it’s impossible not to think of how anyone could’ve created this character and his entire life story. One other major thing is that every relationship portrayed matters and is ultimately emotional, either it’s his mother, his best friend, his lover or his captain. It just catches you off guard.
Here’s the script for Forrest Gump:
http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Forrest-Gump.html

11. Lawrence of Arabia (wri. Robert Bolt & T.E. Lawrence)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Storyline: “A flamboyant and controversial British military figure and his conflicted loyalties during his World War I service in the Middle East.” – IMDb
Even though it contains both elements of biography and adventure, it is a film whose desert set is the main stage for a quirky character to grow. That said, it’s known that Lawrence – here listed as co-writer – was fundamental in enlisting desert tribes on the British side against the Turks between 1914-1917, but it appears to have had a more personal meaning to him than just the patriotic side of it.
The audience watches this man as he starts relating to a different and wilder society. There are not many plot details, but it’s always excellent when a film can be so dense for as long as 216 minutes without feeling like it’s wasting time. Lines are uncluttered, it is well-thought, clean and mostly frank, and its writing allows it to exist without doubt, making us believe the story as it is and never really leaving us.
Here’s the script for Lawrence of Arabia:
http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/Lawerence_of_Arabia.pdf

12. All About Eve (wri. Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
All about Eve
Storyline: “An ingenue insinuates herself in to the company of an established but aging stage actress and her circle of theater friends.” – IMDb
First off, Mankiewicz came from a family of writers; his brother wrote the aforementioned “Citizen Kane.” He won Academy Awards and others for writing and directing films particularly between the 1940s and the 1950s. Usually, he’d combine ironic, sophisticated scripts with a precise mise en scène – at the beginning, there’s a narration by a writer, a manipulative bemused theater critic, much like in “Sunset Boulevard.”
Through a character, Mankiewicz represented his relationship and opinion of show business, while also mentioning the fear of losing power and fame throughout the years. Based on the short story and radio play “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr, this denigration of theatrical characters is beyond cinematic masterpieces and, surely, a lot of it is thanks to an intelligent script and true, relatable and believable characters.
Here’s the script for All About Eve:
http://www.weeklyscript.com/All%20About%20Eve.txt

13. Some Like It Hot (wri. Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond)
some-like-it-hot
Storyline: “When two musicians witness a mob hit, they flee the state in an all female band disguised as women, but further complications set in.” – IMDb
Wilder brought us this comedy about sex and expected us to believe it was about crime. There’s obviously the illustrious performances of Marilyn and Tony Curtis, where one-liners are fed and insanely traded back and forth. The inherent cynicism takes over these characters’ lives, who actually think they want anything else but each other.
As a comedy, it’s a complete screwball, it certainly touches matters that one would not dare much write about in 1959. It’s well considered one of the best remakes – if not the best – in movie history: from finding the 1951 German comedy called “Fanfares of Love” (which had already been adapted from a 1935 French films written by the same people).
Wilder joined co-screenwriter and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond, turning it into an effortless concept, a near-perfect film – near, because as the last line reads, “Nobody’s perfect.”
Here’s the script for Some Like It Hot:
http://www.public.asu.edu/~srbeatty/394/SomeLikeItHot.pdf

14. Network (wri. Paddy Chayefsky)
Network (1976)
Storyline: “A television network cynically exploits a deranged former anchor’s ravings and revelations about the news media for its own profit.” – IMDb
This Oscar-winning screenwriter created in “Network” one of the best films known for its complex narrative and drama, and certainly one of the best of the ’70s. It’s often cited as one of the greatest screenplays and described as “outrageous satire” (Leonard Maltin), but it is the smooth passage between scenes – the so called gear shift – even when they move from revolutionary and chaotic to calm and tense.
The story centers around Diana Christiansen, the programming executive desperate for good ratings, and Max Schumacher, an old-fashioned middle-age news executive. Chayefsky shows a humorous and sad script, about important political, environmental and sociological events, from the date of the fall, rise and ultimate fall of Howard Beale and the general distaste and lunatic side of television.
Here’s the script for Network:
http://sfy.ru/sfy.html?script=network

15. Chinatown (wri. Robert Towne)
Chinatown (1974)
Storyline: “A private detective hired to expose an adulterer finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder.” – IMDb
Living up to a reputation as one of the most accomplished screenplays in Hollywood history – as often cited by experts – this seemingly perfect document has become more famous than the film itself. It’s a 1940s film that wasn’t made in that era, but still endures the genre it’s in, and whose central mystery is only solved in the very end. There’s an immediate sense of triumph and enjoyment that is as easily captured on the page and onscreen.
Towne’s screenplay creates a web of mystery at the very start, which is essential to how the audience feels about watching the picture, caring about characters and wanting to know their fates. It’s got every necessary and extraordinary ingredient to make for a successful film, but it’s now cited as a creative inspiration for how Towne handles every sub plot, characters and symbolism while keeping its element of surprise.
Here’s the script for Chinatown:
http://www.public.asu.edu/~srbeatty/394/Chinatown.pdf
Author Bio: Alex Gandra is a Portuguese writer and filmmaker.She graduated this year in New Communication Technologies from the University of Aveiro and is currently in a master’s degree in Digital Audiovisual. She spends too much time in cafés writing scripts and other kinds of texts you can find at medium.com/@gandra_le. She’s also writing a book she hopes to finish some day.

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