So I just read a cool story the other day (I believe on Slash-Film) about how George Lucas was stressing out over the release of Star Wars. He visited buddy Spielberg on the set of his current production, “Close Encounters” and was so impressed by the grandiosity of it all and was so convinced Close Encounters would do better than his film, that he begged Spielberg to trade profit points with him on the two films. Spielberg figured, “Why not?” and he’s reportedly been collecting ever since, to the tune of more than 200 million dollars. Nice little trade there (though I’m sure Lucas isn’t losing any sleep over it. According to “Celebrity Net Worth,” he’s worth 7 billion dollars – Spielberg is at a paltry 3 billion). Close Encounters went through a lot of different iterations before it got made. Spielberg was originally going to shoot it before Jaws with only a 2.5 million dollar budget. He had UFOs landing on Robertson Boulevard, which nobody seemed to like (ironic since that’s all they want nowadays). After Jaws’s success, every studio was willing to let Spielberg make any film he wanted, but the script for “Close Encounters” still wasn’t there. The main character was a Project Blue Book agent, and then a police officer, but Spielberg said he couldn’t identify with those people. Hence, he eventually settled on an everyday normal blue collar worker for the protag. This is what finally allowed him to see the movie clearly. Though a ton of people worked on the screenplay, Spielberg ended up with sole credit.

1) If possible, the audience should identify with the hero – One of the keys to Spielberg’s mega-success is his penchant for building a story around a character everybody can identify with. Here, we have the everyday working man. And typically Spielberg uses a boy as the main character, as it’s instantly identifiable to the core audience, boys and men. I mean, who doesn’t remember the innocence and wonder associated with being a young boy?

2) Know the everyday man’s limitations – To be honest, you don’t find many movies today focusing on the everyday man in the extraordinary situation. Instead we have police officers and secret agents and former agents and former Navy Seals being placed in extraordinary situations. The reason for this is that when the action heats up, producers want your main character to be able to keep up. We have to believe that our hero can take down a military trained baddie or escape a building surrounded by the FBI. It’s hard to buy that a “normal guy” would be able to pull that off. Thus, we get “exceptional guys.” So, if you are going to write an “everyday man in an extraordinary situation,” make sure all the extraordinary stuff he does is believable and logical, which “Close Encounters” does a good job of.

3) The Teaser – The “teaser” is something that’s typically used in a TV pilot. It’s that first scene that creates a sense of mystery or wonder or suspense or shock or all of the above. “Teasers” are also often used in big splashy blockbuster-y type movies, such as Close Encounters, where we start with air traffic controllers tracking a strange blip on the radar that eventually disappears into thin air. A teaser is a great way to grab the reader’s attention immediately so it’s highly advisable if it fits your story (but please, avoid the cliché, “Cut to X weeks ago” after the teaser. It’s so overdone and should only be used if it’s absolutely essential to the story).

4) When writing a big set-piece scene, pretend that the producer nixed it because of budget. What would your replacement scene be? – The opening of Close Encounters has several planes coming in contact with a UFO. We could’ve seen this play out up in the air, but instead we see the scene exclusively through the eyes of air traffic controllers. The scene is tense and exciting for the very fact that we DON’T see what’s going on. It’s the difference between a 2 million dollar scene and a 20,000 dollar scene. And I’d argue the 20,000 dollar scene is better. You see, most big set piece scenes tend to be obvious. Cars chasing after another. Explosions. Shootouts. Space battles. We’ve seen all that stuff before. When you ask yourself to come up with the “low budget version” of a scene, you often have to be more creative, and that creativity results in something way better.

5) The second act is all about STRUGGLE – Remember that the second act boils down to your hero struggling. He should be struggling inside, outside, with the world, with the people in his life. Struggle struggle struggle. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), our hero, is struggling with this thing that he saw. He’s struggling with his wife, his kids, with what he should do. Every step of his life becomes a struggle. Struggle results in drama, and when done properly, anything dramatic will keep an audience interested.

6) Get those “marketing scenes” in there – Spielberg is a master at thinking of the marketing while writing his script. He looks for those 4-5 scenes that are going to look great in a trailer, that are going to make people HAVE TO leave their homes to drive to the theater and see his film on opening night. You get it here with the little boy being summoned by the big giant lit-up UFO outside the house. You get it with the headlights behind Roy’s truck going UP ABOVE instead of AROUND him. You see it, obviously, in Raiders of the Lost Ark with Indy running from the boulder. As “sell-out’ish” as it sounds, you need to be thinking of the marketing of your film as you’re writing it. Never let it dictate the story. But be aware of how important it is.

7) Explore your second act in your first few drafts, then streamline it for the final draft – Close Encounters actually has a very slow and wandering second act. This makes sense, as they rebooted the story several times during development. Spielberg likely threw his shooting script together with time running out. Hence this draft has a second act with a first draft feel. Tons of scenes with Roy driving around for his job, at home talking to his family, all mixed in amongst an unending amount of UFO sightings all over the world. I encourage you to use a few drafts to explore your second act. This is where you find those unexpected storylines and snazzy subplots. But at a certain point, you have to streamline: That means cutting out all the stuff that doesn’t relate directly to the protagonist’s goal – and that goal here is Roy trying to find an answer to these UFOs. If that’s not the focus of a scene, it should probably be cut.

8) A passionate main character – I believe that we, as people, are drawn to passion. Whether it be the butcher down the street who loves chopping meat for you, the musician who couldn’t imagine himself doing anything else with his life, or the blogger who wakes up every day excited to write about screenwriting. Movie characters are no different. We love to follow and root for passionate people, people who are driven by their goals and dreams. Roy becomes so passionate in his pursuit of these UFOs (who can ever forget the model mountain he builds in his own living room?) that we can’t help but root him on and hope that he achieves his goal.

9) Once the aliens show up, so what? – Another genius thing about Spielberg’s movies is he understands that once the cat’s out of the bag, the cat’s no longer interesting. He famously held the cat back with Jaws (despite it being by necessity), but does it even more so here, waiting until the very last scene to reveal the aliens. He knows that if he reveals the aliens early, that sense of mystery and intrigue and suspense is gone. It’s getting harder and harder to do this in a day and age where audiences require eye candy as soon as their butts hit the seats, but executed well, it can still work.

10) Close Encounters is a great reminder that you have to continually take chances to succeed in this business. Sci-fi was NOT popular at the time this movie was made. Hollywood thought a movie about UFOs would be stupid. People who claimed they saw UFOs in the 70s were considered to be loonies. Spielberg could’ve made anything he wanted after Jaws, but he took a chance on something he was really passionate about. I’m a firm believer that you have to take a big chance with every screenplay you write if you want to succeed. If you’re just following the latest trends, you’re not going to stand out.

  • Poe_Serling

    Another fun and informative Top Ten Tip List article. Thanks for the close encounter, Carson!!

    Not much else to add except…

    You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again by the late Julia Phillips is recommended reading for anyone interested in digging deeper into the making (blemishes and all) of Close Encounters and that general period in filmmaking history.

    Phillips, along with her husband at that time, produced in short order: The Sting, Taxi Driver, and Close Encounters of the Thrid Kind.

    And, of course, she goes into great detail about rubbing shoulders with heavyweight actors like Newman, Redford, etc. and Oscar-winning directors George Roy Hill, Scorsese, and Spielberg.

    A quick highlight from the book in regard to the screenwriting side of Close Encounters, which CR touched on briefly above:

    Even though Spielberg received a sole writing credit on the film, there were actually several writers used throughout the production of the pic.

    Just a few of the topnotch wordsmiths involved with the project included Paul Schrader, David ‘Alien(s)’ Giler, and comedy writer Jerry Belson.

    In fact, Belson was initially brought on to just punch up the domestic scenes in the film featuring the main character played by Richard Dreyfuss and his onscreen family, but ended up staying with the project longer than expected and working with Spileberg to complete the final shooting script.

  • Somersby

    Impressive article, Carson. Particularly like #4.

  • https://twitter.com/deanmaxbrooks deanb

    Number 4 is huge and probably merits its own article. There are tons of examples where budget and time constraints forced film makers to get creative, with the end result being far superior or more thematically powerful than some grand spectacle.

    The shark malfunctioning in Jaws was already mentioned. But you also have Halloween, which made good use of an old Captain Kirk mask and some clever POV shots.

    Aykroyd envisioned Ghostbusters as taking place in the future between alternate dimensions, but I think it was Reitman who opted for a working class business start-up story model. I’d say that idea worked out pretty well.

    Kubrick nixed the monstrous hedge animals in King’s novel in favor of a hedge maze in The Shining, something that was not only cheaper to produce but offered a better metaphor for Jack’s descent into insanity.

    • Poe_Serling

      Those are some great examples of where cost-cutting took the creativity up a notch or two.

      During the production of the orginal Mad Max film, I recall reading that director George Miller reduced the budget by having amateurs do their own stunts and then paying them in beer.

    • Malibo Jackk

      It’s possible that Reitman was just smarter than Aykroyd.
      (Who would the audience more identify with — a working class start-up or some futuristic/alternate universe Ghostbusters?)

      Did Kubrick ever make a movie decision based on money? Ever??
      This is a guy who would take four years developing a project. A guy who would shoot 100 takes of the same scene.

      • Poe_Serling

        “Did Kubrick ever make a movie decision based on money? Ever??”

        “Kubrick was supposed to direct Brando in ONE-EYED JACKS back in ’61… but they clashed big time at the beginning of the production.

        Kubrick told Brando, “I don’t know what this picture’s about.” Brando told him it was about ‘money.’ Kubrick left without shooting a frame and Brando took over as director.”

        • Malibo Jackk

          Kubrick always was his own man.

          When Kubrick went to make his first real picture, The Killing, he hired a well respected cinematographer and Kubrick would tell him how to set up the shots, including where to place a dolly and which lenses to use. Apparently the older man didn’t like this young kid telling him about lenses. So he set up a dolly shot using a different distance and a different lens. When Kubrick asked him, the man explained that it would give him the same result. But Kubrick knew lenses. This young kid told the old pro to set up the dolly where he told him and use the other lens — or get off the lot. He never had a problem after that.

          • Poe_Serling

            All of Kubrick’s films are quite watchable for a host of reasons… at least I think so. My top favs in no particular order: The Shining, Paths of Glory, The Killing, and Lolita.

          • ArabyChic

            Kubrick was a genius, no doubt, but he made two movies prior to making the killing: Killer’s Kiss & Fear And Desire, as well as numerous documentaries and short films.

            The Killing was just his first GOOD movie.

        • http://twitter.com/panostsapanidis Panos Tsapanidis

          Okay, go on. Try to become the next Kubrick then. Carson is trying to help us because – hello! – we are not all like Kubrick.

          I’m not trying to be spiteful. Maybe you are the next Kubrick, but I am not. And many others here aren’t too (whether they admit it or not).

          So I think that every trick/lesson/tip that increases the chances of having my not-up-to-Kubrick’s-standards work picked up by someone in the industry is more than welcome. It’s essential.

          • Malibo Jackk

            Tip #10
            Kubrick took chances.

          • http://twitter.com/panostsapanidis Panos Tsapanidis

            One of the things we must do to separate ourselves from the pack. :)

  • Jonathan Soens

    I’m not so sure about the relevance of #9 anymore.

    Back in the days of CGI not being up to snuff (before Jurassic Park, basically), I think audiences were more gung-ho about having visuals withheld from them because so often the effects would be terrible. So there was an unspoken understanding that things would be shot in a cutesy way to avoid actually showing things.

    Nowadays, since the CGI can do so much, people don’t put up with it.

    I remember seeing M. Night Shymalan’s “Signs” in the theater, and there was a good bit of groaning and ridiculing of the cutesy way the movie kept avoiding showing the aliens throughout the beginning of the film.

    • Cfrancis1

      Dramatically, it is usually far more interesting not to show something fantastical than to show it right away. Sometimes it has to do with budget. Buy look at Alien. They could have shown the guy in the suit. Cause the suit looked good. Far more terrifying to keep the creature in shadow and allow the audience to fill in the blanks with their imagination. I don’t remember anyone ridiculing Signs for not showing the alien right away. It created suspense.

      • wlubake

        The bigger problem with Signs is how underwhelming the alien was once it was shown. These things were jumping from the ground to the roof, running through the fields at record speed, and pounding on the walls and doors with great force.
        Then Joaquin Phoenix goes to fight one hand-to-bat, and it just stands there. There was no fight scene. That worthless alien just took a beating.

      • Jonathan Soens

        Well, it’s anecdotal evidence, but like I said, I remember the crowd in the theater kind of turning on that movie as a result of the cutesy way the film kept avoiding showing anything.

        Half the problem might have been that there were really only a couple of good shots that worked really well while only showing tiny glimpses of the aliens, and those shots were all burned in the trailer because everybody had already seen the stuff that worked the best before they sat down in the theater to watch the movie itself.

  • Finej

    I’m not sure I understand the tenth point, Carson. You kind of seem to contradict yourself in what you’re saying. For the past few months, many times you’ve said that Dramas don’t sell, and specifically, not to ever write a drama spec. But here you write that you have to take chances and write what you’re passionate about. Even if it doesn’t fit with the norms of what’s selling these days.

    Your point doesn’t make much sense with everything else you’ve written on your blog so far. I honestly mean no disrespect with that statement, just thought I’d mention it.

    • http://twitter.com/panostsapanidis Panos Tsapanidis

      Hi Finej,

      I understand what you’re saying but I think what Carson means is that if you really really want to write a drama and loath the thought of sitting down to write a comedy or a sci-fi, you have more chances of achieving something by writing something really good.

      Choosing a genre just because it sells but not because you’re good at it is worse than choosing a genre in which you can write a great story, even if scripts of this genre don’t sell easy. Because if your drama is brilliant but still won’t sell it might open some doors for you as a writer.

      BUT, if you can tackle a genre that sells (comedy) AND a genre that don’t sells (drama) and you can be good at BOTH then the wise choice is to choose the genre with the odds that favor you.

      That’s what I think he meant. Or, it’s how I perceive this. :)


    • TesseGreenview

      Ok, I’ve written a drama/suspense and I’m sending it out to a production company later this week… so I’d like some feedback from your readers (some of you are very critical and hopefully, you’ll be able to give some suggestions without me wanting to hang myself after reading your comments…)

      I can’t post the script online (I have an old computer and my OS isn’t new enough), so I can email it to you (.pdf)–I really want the script to be in the best possible shape before it goes out, so I’m literally begging for feedback. When I first visited SS, I thought it’d be a community where ideas are shared, suggestions offered and there was a sense on comradery between aspiring screenwriters, but it only seems like we’re discussing the 5 lucky AF scripts. And as many of you have pointed out, MONTHS go by and still their scripts are not picked. I don’t want to wait to see if Carson picks mine as this site has too many other people who can offer advice, so I appeal to you, Screenwriter, let me know if you think my script has commercial appeal, a role that can win an Academy Award (actually, I think the 2 male leads would both be nominated–casting would be Jack Nicholson and Terence Stamp), a unique story with a surprise twist, and an overall sense that I really care about telling a good story. I have labored over this for 2 years–granted, I was drinking at the time, so it flew by… well, not really, but I have spent HOURS fine tuning it… please tell me its ready to go!

      • RobertJ

        I’ll read it–I’m always looking for a good twist, like The Usual Suspects or Diabolique–great stories. So sick of Rom-Coms and crap like Twilight or the new incarnation of some zombie apocalypse… would like to be a fly on the wall when these projects get greenlit. How many can we possibly need?!?


        Do you want me to send comments via email or on SS?

    • http://propagandery.tumblr.com propagandery

      I had dinner with one of the guys who wrote 500 Days of Summer, and his advice on what to write next: “Write what you think you can write best.” That didn’t mean be ignorant of the industry, but focus on the project you can execute at the highest level. I’m not advocating for writing drama, given what we know about how those don’t sell, but if your passion lies in drama, find a way to make it work, and if you can’t get the money from someone else, make it yourself. Spielberg made movies before he got paid to make movies.

  • thunk24

    One of my favourite scenes in Close Encounters is when Roy attempts to get the kids to see Pinocchio instead of playing mini-golf. I’m a big fan of the everyday hero (did Dreyfuss have any muscles definition at all?) especially when mixed with UFO’s.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Not a big fan of #4.
    Would Raiders have been a better movie, if they hadn’t shown that huge rolling boulder?
    (I might need to think about that.)

    The screenwriter’s job is to find the best way to express his ideas. It shouldn’t take budget restraints. And when it does, it’s usually a lucky accident.

    If the lack of money were the engine of creativity — then all B movies would be classics.

    • witwoud

      Actually, I always thought that boulder looked totally phoney. Maybe points 4) and 9) could have been combined. Something is chasing Indie down the passage — it’s huge, it’s unstoppable, it roars — but we don’t know what it is until it bursts out of the mouth of the cave.

  • John Bradley

    Just wanted to stop in and say Thanks Carson! These Tuesday articles are always my favorite cause I don’t have to read a script or see a movie to get them. It’s late and I’m tired so this will be the first thing for me to read tomorrow……Side note, I’m kinda disappointed in the low amount of comments lately. This is still a great site to visit and learn from and am a bit perplexed at the dropoff since the format change?

    • wlubake

      My guess is that the low comments are driven by the timing of the posts. When I left work yesterday, this still wasn’t up. I don’t get at my computer again for internet purposes until the next morning. If Carson wants comments up, he should try to have tomorrow’s post ready when he goes to bed. That way it is waiting for folks on the East Coast when they wake up.

    • witwoud

      The hundreds of people who used to visit Scriptshadow have now sold their screenplays for $$$ and don’t need any more advice. It’s a victim of its own success, really.

    • RobertJ

      i think its because so many have visited hoping to exchange scripts to see what works and what doesn’t, but the only reading seems to be the AF scripts (which, based on comments, seem like crap). If there’s nothing worth reading, you’ve wasted another week until new AF scripts are presented. Who wants to waste another 7 days? Not me–I want feedback. I want to read–I want a GENIUS rating!!

      If people aren’t getting what they came to the site to get–they’ll go elsewhere. If you build it–they will come. But once there, if the game’s not played, they’ll leave…

  • DD

    I miss the days of the working class hero protagonist. Good point, Carson. It’s so much easier to connect with a regular guy than a kickass _____. Seems like that’s being lost these days.

  • http://twitter.com/JimDandyWriter Jim Dandy

    Another thing you can learn from Spielberg is how he creates a sense of intimacy by keeping the media out of things. Ever notice all the majorly weird stuff happening in his movies, but no-one from the mainstream media ever seems to turn up to cover it? This is a lot difficult to do nowadays given that everyone (except me!) has a mobile phone with a camera built in. I’m not sure how you go about creating that same sense of intimacy in this day and age. Any suggestions?

    • http://twitter.com/panostsapanidis Panos Tsapanidis

      Well, I’ll be really disappointed if I see someone replying with “Hey, why don’t you lead the characters that carry a cell phone to a place with no reception!”

  • http://twitter.com/panostsapanidis Panos Tsapanidis

    I think #2 and #4 serve the same purpose. Put you as a writer in the corner and find clever ways to get out of there. I think it’s what separate the pros from the amateurs. But I do have to say that, for me, in today’s world he comes out as REALLY cheesy. War Horse, the pretty girl and the shy boy in Super 8. They worked great in the 80s and 90s but they just don’t connect with me anymore.

    Regarding Lesson #6. I am disappointed at some writers who still refuse to see that. Yes, you’re not writing movies solely for the money. But as Walt Disney said, I make money in order to keep doing what I love doing.

    #7 “…cutting out all the stuff that doesn’t relate directly to the protagonist’s goal”. Brilliant, just brilliant.

  • http://twitter.com/panostsapanidis Panos Tsapanidis

    Is it okay if I abuse this thread by asking something that has nothing to do with the article?

    I am writing a character called THOMAS. He and some other characters pronounce his name with a french accent (ToMAH) but an other character pronounces it the American/English way. How do I write this in the script?

    Carson, feel free to delete this post if you think it’s ruining the discussion. I won’t hold a grudge. :)

    • wlubake

      I would explain that this will happen the first time another character speaks his name. Then, use the phonetic spelling each time in dialogue (while keeping his character heading the same). Thus:

      Thomas’ Mother

      Tomah, time for dinner.

      Thomas revels in hearing his mother’s French accent pronoucne his name “Tomah”.


      Tah-mus Doupont?
      Thomas rolls his eyes at the bastardized American pronunciation of his name.
      I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to do this, so long as it is clear to the reader without taking too much work for them to keep up with it. You don’t want it to become a distraction.

      • http://twitter.com/panostsapanidis Panos Tsapanidis

        One million thanks, wlubake. This helps a lot. :)

  • JWF

    To be fair at the time you can totally understand why George Lucas would have thought Close Encounters would have been the bigger film. Star Wars was a HUGE risk, the kind of risk Hollywood rarely takes ever especially these days.

  • DMCC

    #6’s “marketing scenes” comment made me remember Fincher’s director’s commentary for ‘The Game’. He makes some cynical remark like “obligatory adult-aimed thriller car-crash shot coming up in 3… 2… 1…” Ever since I heard that, I’ve noticed how the trailers for an adult-aimed thriller will always feature a car-crash. It’s like the producers of a thriller say “hey guys, can we fit a car-crash in here to help with marketing?” Completely ruined the genre for me!

    But yes, Spielberg’s a master at those “trailer shots.” The closer than it appears reflection of the T-Rex; the misfiring bazooka in Tin Tin; the Lincoln “clothed in immense power” quote; the nose-bubble in Minority Report, etc etc. Genius.

  • Ken

    It’s hard to imagine a modern summer blockbuster movie exploring alien contact the way this film did.

    • Jose

      I think CE3K is a masterpiece. Spielberg at his best. The domestic scenes. That powerful moment when the dad is crying and totally frenzied and hopeless because he doesn’t understand what’ s happening and his son telling him he’ s a crybaby… Uff

  • AJMockler

    “I mean, who doesn’t remember the innocence and wonder associated with being a young boy?”

    About 50% of the population?

    Good list though, C.

  • http://www.facebook.com/todd.walker.3597 Todd Walker

    4. So instead of showing a big UFO in midair you could say, “Whatever you do don’t open the big door with the orange behind it”,lol.

    What I find interesting about this movie over all is the simple fact that you had moments in it where you felt like you were watching a silent movie or something. I’d have to see it again, but as I recall he didn’t say a whole lot when he went to look for the alien mountain he sculpted.