Swingers is a fascinating pastiche of a movie. Its well-chronicled history includes the actors doing years of table reads to drum up interest and funding for the movie. It was eventually shot on the tip of a shoestring with Doug Liman (The Bourne Identify) directing the film. It was a box-office dud, but word-of-mouth made it a DVD sensation. It started Vince Vaughn’s career and eventually led to John Favreau becoming one of the top directors in Hollywood. Script-wise, it’s basically a laundry list of things I tell you NOT to do. You know I hate scripts with “guys talking in rooms.” Well, this script is basically one revolving room with characters talking in it. Goal-wise, there isn’t much there. I guess you could say the goal is for Mike (Favreau) to get over his ex-girlfriend. The script sends its characters off to Vegas, where we assume the remainder of the story will take place, only to send them back to LA twenty minutes later – leaving us confused and disoriented. You know how I hate Woe-Is-Me characters? Well Mikey is the quintessential woe-is-me protag. On top of this, the script is one long string of dialogue. It’s a non-stop talkfest. So why does it all work? Well, that’s hard to say. I have a saying: “Funny trumps everything.” Even if you break every rule in the book, if the audience is laughing, they’ll stick with you. And the dialogue in Swingers is realllllyyyyy funny. Still, this is one of the trickiest scripts I’ve ever broken down. It shouldn’t work. It has no business working. And yet it does. Let’s see if we can’t find out why.
1) The Sympathy Card – One of the reasons we love Mike despite how pathetic and depressed he is (Woe-is-me!), is because he’s earned his “sympathy card.” Give your protag a sympathy card by having something bad happen to him. Two of the most popular ways to do this are through the death of a loved one or getting dumped by your significant other. If you show how devastated your protag is, we’ll have sympathy for him and follow him through anything. Mike’s obsessive yet honest depression resulting from his girlfriend leaving him ensures we’ll be Team Mikey all the way.
2) For good dialogue, give each character a directive in the scene – When bad writers try to ape a movie like Swingers, they focus their scenes on “humorous” observations about life with no real focus or structure (i.e. they’ll have their characters discuss for seven minutes why they believe Dr. Seuss was gay). For dialogue to work, the scene needs to have direction. You achieve this by giving each character a directive they’re trying to achieve. You then look for humor within the evolution of that discussion, as opposed to trying to find the comedy first and building a scene on top of that. Look no further than the very first scene in Swingers to see this in action. Mike is talking to his friend Rob. His directive is to figure out if it’s okay to call his ex. Rob’s directive is get Mike to stop thinking about his ex. It’s a simple and humorous discussion, anchored by both characters having clear directives in the conversation.
3) CONFLICT ALERT – Remember guys, movies rarely work unless there’s some element of conflict between the two leads. If the characters are always on the same page, we’re going to be bored! Mike is all about respecting girls and being honest. Trent is about telling girls whatever he needs to to get them in bed. He has no respect for them. This is the basis for 75% of their conversations. They always butt heads on this issue. That push and pull is what makes their dialogue so fun.
4) Disagreement Is A Comedy’s Best Friend – There isn’t a single scene in Swingers where characters agree. Every scene is two people disagreeing about something. It’s that simple. The intensity of these disagreements varies. But it’s always there. The first scene has Mike and Rob disagreeing about whether he should call his ex. The second scene has Trent and Mike disagreeing on whether to go to Vegas. The blackjack scene has Trent and Mike disagreeing on whether to double down. Then Mike and Trent disagree on how to treat a waitress. In the girls’ trailer, Trent wants to hook up with a girl while Mike wants to check his voicemail to see if his ex called. It’s one of the simplest ways to create comedy people. Just have people disagree.
5) If your plot is all over the place, make sure your protag’s throughline is strong – Like I mentioned in the setup, this plot (when there is one) is all over the place. We start in LA, then Trent convinces Mike to come to Vegas, then we come back to LA, then we start randomly going to clubs and parties, then there’s a weird showdown with a group of gangbangers, then we go back to the bar scene. There’s virtually no plot here! However, the reason the movie’s able to stay together is because Mikey’s throughline is so strong. He is OBSESSED with his ex. He’s obsessed with if she called. He’s obsessed with whether he should call her. The first two scenes (the first with Rob and the second checking his answering machine) barrel home the issue that Mike is not over his girlfriend. This issue is a part of every single scene, which saves this script from wandering aimlessly into the Nevada desert.
6) STAKES ALERT – Remember guys, heighten scenes by setting up the stakes AHEAD OF TIME. One of the reasons the classic blackjack scene works so well is because we establish beforehand (in the car ride) that Mike only has $300 bucks to his name. Therefore, when he accidentally gets stuck at the high roller table (100 dollar minimum), and has to double down (so the bet is $200), we know this is 2/3 of all the money he has. The stakes for winning this hand are now HUGE. Had we not established this beforehand, this scene wouldn’t have played nearly as well.
7) SMASH CUT TO – The “Smash Cut To” has sort of been forgotten but is still a viable alternative to “Cut To” that can be used for comedic effect. Use it any time you’re cutting to another scene that’s the payoff of a joke. For example, when Mike and Trent are arguing on the phone about going to Vegas and Mike keeps saying, “I’m not going to Vegas.” “We’re going to Vegas.” “I’m not going to Vegas.” “We’re going to Vegas.” “I’m not going to Vegas.” “SMASH CUT TO: Mike and Trent in car going to Vegas.” Or after Mike’s been wiped out at the high stakes blackjack table. “SMASH CUT TO: Mike and Trent are wedged between the BLUEHAIR and the BIKER at the FIVE DOLLAR TABLE.”
8) Use friendship to make an asshole character likable – Trent is a huge asshole. He’s selfish. He’s a dick. He has zero respect for women. He makes jokes at others’ expense. So why do we like him? Because Trent would take a bullet for Mike, our protag. You have no doubt, in any scene, how much Trent loves Mike. It’s that love, that friendship, that helps us overlook all those negative traits. If Trent was as much of a jerk to Mikey as he was to everyone else? We’d hate him.
9) Milk your characters’ dominant traits for better dialogue – Whoever your characters are, particularly in comedy, look for any way to milk their dominant traits within the dialogue. Mike’s dominant traits are his lack of confidence, his nervousness, his indecisiveness. So whenever Mike talks, he’s always stuttering, repeating things, overcompensating (He bumbles to the dealer at the high stakes table. He bumbles to the girls they meet at the Vegas bar). Trent, on the other hand, loves himself. So a lot of his dialogue is in the third person (“Daddy’s going to get the Rainman suite.” “Now listen to Tee. We’ll stop at a gas station right away.”). So many writers write friends who sound the same. This is one of the easiest ways to make them sound different.
10) The Choice – Remember, the most emotionally gripping scripts have “The Choice” at the end. That’s when your main character has a choice he must make near the end which is directly related to his flaw. Swingers does a great job of this. Mike’s flaw is that he can’t move on from his girlfriend. So in the end, his ex-girlfriend calls, and then on the other line, the girl he met the previous night calls. He literally has the choice of a) talking to the new girl (and therefore overcoming his flaw), or b) talking to his ex (failing to overcome his flaw). He of course chooses A and we’re happy because Mike has finally changed!
These are 10 tips from the movie “Swingers.” To get 500 more tips from movies as varied as “Aliens,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and “The Hangover,” check out my book, Scriptshadow Secrets, on Amazon!