Many people believe that the 70s was the second Golden Era of film, but whether the decade created amazing cinema or not, the reality is there are a lot more forms of entertainment these days, the movie-going demographic has changed, and we’ve been programmed to have shorter attention spans. So no matter how you look at it, the way we tell stories in the medium is different than it used to be. Which makes me nervous about propping up a 70s film to learn screenwriting. With that said, a good story is a good story, and I’m certain that this script would get made today (who would play McMurphy though??). It has that “No. 1 Black List Spot” feel to it. Its secret ingredient is its characters. The film has one of the best collections of characters in history.  For those who haven’t seen it, “Nest” is about a convict, McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), who tries to play the system by pretending to be crazy, believing it’ll be a lot easier to do his time in a mental facility than in prison. Once there, he rouses the other patients into action, helping them realize that even if they’re crazy, they can still have fun. But when the floor manager, the deceptively evil Nurse Ratched (one of the best villains ever), sees that she’s losing a hold on the patients because of McMurphy, she finds a horrifying way to solve the problem. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

1) Starting as late into the story as possible – Yesterday we discussed how you want to start your script AS CLOSE TO the main action as possible. Here’s an example of that in action. In the script for “Cuckoo’s Nest,” we start off with McMurphy at prison, showing him causing trouble. Only then does he get sent off to the ward. In the movie, we don’t show that. We just show McMurphy showing up to the mental ward. It was a good decision. Why do you need to show McMurphy causing trouble at a prison when you can just show him causing trouble as soon as he gets to the mental ward? Additionally, we get to jump right into the story.

2) The “Institution Disruption” Flick – They used to do a lot more of these films (Cuckoo’s Nest, Cool Hand Luke, K-Pax, Shawshank) but you don’t see them as often these days. And I’m not sure why. They’re an excellent set-up for a story. You have an institution (prison, mental ward, school, army) that’s running smoothly, then you bring in a dangerous character who upsets the balance of the group. Conflict is built into the premise, since the establishment will want to regain control over the disrupting individual, which means that a lot of the scenes will write themselves (I’ve found that when you introduce natural conflict into a story, scenes write themselves).

3) How to name a villain – This is well-known device, but I’ll repeat it here anyway. To name your villain, find a negative and/or scary word, then move a few letters around until you get something that sounds similar. “Hatchet” is the operative word here, of course. The writers turned that into Nurse “Ratched.”

4) Ironic villains are typically the best villains – Nurse Ratched is one of the best villains in the history of cinema. But is it because she’s an outward bitch? Because she’s always mean? No. Nurse Ratched is actually quite logical. She’s also calm, and she genuinely wants to help everyone. Her motivation is noble. Had Nurse Ratched had a “Wicked Witch of the West” scowl the second we met her, the character would’ve been infinitely less interesting. This is yet another example of writing villains the OPPOSITE of what you’d expect a villain to be.

5) The dialogue before the storm – One of the things a lot of screenwriting books tell you to do (and I’ve said this too) is to start as late into a scene as possible. For example, if two partners are meeting to talk about their failing business, you’d cut to them in an office with the first line being, “How did we get here?” The thing is, you don’t always want to do that. If you do, your script will start to feel rigid and lifeless. Instead, write in some “dialogue before the storm” to give the illusion of “real” conversation. So when McMurphy is called in to the President’s office to discuss why he’s here at the ward, we don’t start with, “Why don’t you tell me why you’re here, Mr. McMurphy.” We start with McMurphy noticing a fishing photo on the president’s desk and asking him about it. It’s a slightly awkward conversation, since the president wasn’t prepared to talk about the photo, but more importantly, it felt natural. I wouldn’t use this approach in every scene. But you should do it every now and then to create the illusion of reality.

nurse ratched

6) Give us one scene that encapsulates the world the protagonist is now in – In the “Institution Disruption” flick, it’s vital that you write a scene that shows the audience exactly what kind of world we’re in. One of the first scenes in “Cuckoo’s Nest” is McMurphy taking part in his first “Group Therapy” session. In it, one of the characters starts yelling at another. Another one quickly breaks down. Another one starts rocking back and forth. Everybody else takes sides, until everyone’s either screaming or yelling or arguing or rocking or making noises. McMurphy looks around at all this chaos. It’s at that moment that we know exactly what kind of world we’re in.

7) Mid-point shift – Remember that the mid-point shift is the moment in your script (roughly the middle of the movie) where something happens that SHIFTS the story in a slightly different direction. Without it, your script will start to feel redundant. The mid-point shift in “Cuckoo’s Nest” happens subtly, when McMurhpy brags to one of the guards that he’s getting out in two months. The guard corrects him. His prison sentence may have had two months left on it. But here at the mental ward, they can keep you… forever. McMurphy’s world is rocked. He had no idea that was the case. Now his “goal” shifts from “act crazy” to “escape.”

8) How to build characters in an ensemble – When you have a bunch of characters in a group, you don’t have time to explore them all. But each of them must still be memorable. To achieve this, give each of them ONE DOMINANT MEMORABLE TRAIT and then keep hitting on that trait throughout the script. One of the patients believes he’s smarter than everyone and looks down on the other patients as a result. Another is the “village idiot” who just smiles all the time. Another just wants everybody to get along. Another has zero self-confidence and is afraid to speak up. When you don’t find that trait, the character will disappear. Christopher Lloyd is actually in “Cuckoo’s Nest,” but you don’t remember him because they didn’t give him a specific trait. You can find this approach in Cuckoo’s Nest, Toy Story, Cool Hand Luke, Shawshank and many other films.

9) The anti-hero method for saving the cat – Anti-heroes shouldn’t save the cat like traditional heroes. Their saving should be a little more complicated. In fact, they might even kick the cat a few times before saving it. If you write them doing something overly nice in a way that’s completely out of character, the story will ring false and the audience will turn on you. The “Save the Cat” moment in Cuckoo’s Nest is when McMurphy tries to befriend the deaf and dumb giant, “Chief.” It’s his support of the character when nobody else supports him, that earns him our sympathy. The amateur writer probably would’ve written this scene with somebody bullying Chief, and McMurphy stepping in to save him. FORCED! Instead, what does McMurphy do? He makes fun of Chief! He does an offensive “How” impression of an Indian. Then does an even more offensive Indian dance to get him to react. It isn’t until later, when he teaches Chief to play basketball, that he starts to help him.

10) Writing a friendship into a story – There’s something about writing a friendship into a story that is so powerful if done right. From McMurhpy and Chief here, to Ratso and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, to Red and Andy in Shawshank, to Vasquez and Drake in Aliens. When you do this, for whatever reason, it makes us like the characters twice as much. You guys are welcome to hypothesize on why this is, but all I know is that watching Chief and McMurhpy become friends made me like each of them that much more.

  • Kool-Aid Acid Test

    If they were to recast McMurphy today? I’d like to throw Michael Shannon’s hat into the ring…

    • Matty

      Wow, I thought the EXACT same thing before coming to the comments section.

      I absolutely love Michael Shannon. I think he’s one of the best lesser-known actors out there. In that I would guess a majority of the population doesn’t know who he is – he’s no Nicholson, Clooney, Brad Pitt, etc. But he is a goddamn phenomenal actor. I don’t know if there’s any other actor out there so impeccably capable of conveying an underlying anger, seemingly on the brink of explosion at any given moment. Every performance he gives there seems to be a seething rage behind his eyes – or at least something going on. Basically, he’s one of the best actors out there with the ability to convey so much more emotion beyond the surface with a simple facial expression or gesture. His performance in “Take Shelter” was a tour-de-force of acting.

  • Abdul Fataki

    Why aren’t there more prison movies coming out? I mean are they not relatively contained and cheap to make?

    Plus it doesn’t even have to be the generic – “guy enters prison, becomes boss” story. There’s loads of stuff you can do with a prison flick.

    Zombie epidemic.
    Alien invasion.

    All this from the prison’s POV, how prisoners and guards interact, tension, revenge, unite against the common foe. etc.

    Just leaving that there.

  • astranger2

    Carson’s right it’s a great name. Conjures up different images of evil. It always reminded me of grinding something down, or “ratcheting” something. As she did to the inmates daily with her rules and pill regimens.

    • Eddie Panta

      She is named Nurse Ratched because they are all NUTS!

  • Bifferspice

    nice article. be nice to say who wrote the screenplay though! lawrence hauben and bo goldman wrote it, based on the novel by ken kesey.

    as for the name “ratched” being based on hatchet, i would imagine it’s more likely based on “ratchet”, the definition being: a mechanical device that allows continuous linear or
    rotary motion in only one direction while preventing motion in the
    opposite direction.

    • Casper Chris

      hatchet, ratchet, wretched… it’s a great name for several reasons. But good point.

      • Citizen M

        My guess is it’s based on “rat shit”.

        • Casper Chris


  • brenkilco

    Anything? Not so sure. Can he play relaxed, charming, funny? Bluntly put, he doesn’t have the face for a romantic lead. But is he a good enough actor to make us forget that and play one anyway?

  • brenkilco

    Disagree with number 4. Nurse Ratched isn’t noble and nice. And couldn’t be a villain if she were. You can create a character with noble motives who does a great deal of harm and can serve as the antagonist of your story. But that doesn’t make them villainous. Ratched is first and foremost an authoritarian, a control freak. She is less interested in helping her patients than in maintaining power over them. Mcmurphy is the rebel who stands for freedom. If Ratched were as Carson describes Macmurphy would simply be the jerk disrupting their therapy. Have always thought that Fletcher played the character wrong. So quiet and self contained that you scarcely get a glimpse of what she’s actually thinking. But everybody seemed to love her in it, so what do I know. The point about villains is that nobody thinks he is one. Everyone believes his motives and objectives are reasonable. The best villains are the ones who can persuasively defend the most heinous behavior.

    • Buddy

      so true !
      in fact, i always thought the scene where she saying “I’ll take care of McMurphy” felt wrong or forced, because it’s the first and the last scene who’s not seen from McMurphy’s POV.

  • Jim

    “Once there, he rouses the other patients into action, helping them realize that even if they’re crazy, they can still have fun.”

    Really, R.P. Is doing just the opposite – trying to get these people, many who are there voluntarily, to realize they’re NOT crazy and shouldn’t be wasting their lives away in there in the first place – that they’re “normal”. One of the funniest, ironic moments in the movie is when they get stopped trying to go on a fishing excursion, R.P. passing them all off as “esteemed doctors” and don’t they all just look the part!

    I’m glad Carson mentioned Shawshank, though – there are a lot of similarities between the two films, particularly thematically with institutionalism, despair, and the big existential piece of the puzzle: freedom. Whereas Andy had hope and influenced one to change and earn their redemption/freedom, R.P. influences these patients to live outside the walls as well – Chief being the parallel to Red here, but in a bit of irony, escapes only after freeing R.P. from being stuck “in limbo” within his own body.

    While one may get the sense Nurse Ratched won in her battle to break R.P.’s spirit – thus bringing an end to the inequity in the patients rebellion – but really I would argue that spirit is carried on by Chief as he does the unthinkable, lifting the water fountain and smashing it through the window, escaping out into the world.

    That unthinkable is symbolic of what R.P. was trying to accomplish and what the patients themselves thought impossible – very much in line with Red’s attitude of hope being a dangerous thing in Shawshank Redemption and Andy’s influence on him to change.

  • Magga

    11 – Your protagonist doesn’t have to change. As long as someone changes in the story, you will satisfy an audience. Chief changes from a man who keeps his head down and accepts the insane rules of his enforced institution (America) and is inspired by McMurphy to return to a more natural way of living.

    12 – Be political, but not on the nose – The novel this film is based on was written by an LSD-taking warden who saw the institutions in American life reflected in the strict and counterproductive everyday life of the people society deemed different. If you find a metaphor for something you believe in strongly, it will feel more meaningful than simply telling a good story, even if people overlook the metaphor.

  • Magga

    I would like to say that the reason most critics and cineastes view the seventies as a golden age of cinema is because the institutions that imposed rules on the creatives broke down, and the bosses had no idea how to reach young people. They hadn’t “perfected” the art of finding out what non-creatives want and serving their needs and simply gambled on directors. As Steve Jobs said, everyone with a checkbook at Apple and elsewhere were trying to make faster CD-ROMs in the mid-nineties because that’s what people said they wanted, but he knew he had to focus on internet compatibility. Later, Apple bought him out and he became CEO again. After a lot of failures in the sixties, the execs in Hollywood threw up their hands and gave creative people more freedom, and the industry made a return.
    The reason the big hits of the seventies were immeasurably better than those of today was that wide releases were not normal, but considered a sign of weakness in the industry because they wanted to pull in as much money as possible before audiences had the chance to judge the quality of the films. The releases were slower, and allowed word of mouth to build.
    This is over.
    The B-movie release strategy is normal for any movie looking to hit it big, and judging the quality of a movie by the opening weekend grosses is like judging the quality of a concert by how many people showed up. All you can judge is expectations. TV is the place where people choose to come back week after week, and on television there is room for great entertainment like Breaking Bad and even genius-lever art like Mad Men and Louie, which means there is still room for thought in the lives of many viewers.
    So while studying a great movie might not be the best way to get a spec sale TODAY, it is probably the best way to write a great movie. And every sign in the industry points to another collapse in cinema – the FX companies are going bankrupt, the shooting and marketing budgets are so large that a movie is a miserable failure unless it’s a gigantic success, stars don’t carry movies anymore, the genre focus is more and more narrow, grosses are inflated by increased ticket prices, 3D fees and so forth, while the DVD-market that used to help gain added revenue for films is dying – which means that a re-thinking of how to reach audiences is probably imminent. I give this model three to six years before lowed-budget niche-pleasing films rise.
    Maybe that’s at bit optimistic, but my point is, we should write something good, because we’re slowly reaching a point where that might actually be of some relevance. And Cuckoo’s nest is damn good.

    • brenkilco

      Well said. The seventies were really one prolonged industry crisis. If the market for CGI/comic book movies could suddenly collapse as the one for epics and big budget musicals did in the late sixties we would all be better off. And I would love to see Hollywood completely lose faith in its ability to market. Who knows what might happen? But it should be noted that the target audience in the seventies was still the average American adult. Not the average world wide teenager. And outside Oscar season that is seldom the case now.

      How impressive a movie year was 1975? Well, Cuckoo’s Nest is great. But forty years on, I’d say the other four best picture nominees have stood the test of time even better.

      • Magga

        I feel like most quality work is the result of a crisis or a mistake. For example, AMC was in the business of running old movies, but when they faced being dropped by cable providers they greenlit two niche programs that were never expected to do huge numbers – Breaking Bad and Mad Men – because they wanted the few people who liked them to be vocal supporters of keeping the channel so that other viewers would accidentally check out their old movies.
        FX had such low numbers that they gave control to a couple of people with insane ideas, and struck gold with The Shield.
        Orange is the New Black would only be made by a provider trying to make a name for itself.
        Soderberg didn’t get money for Behind the Candelabra (which I haven’t seen yet) for a cinema release, but was financed by HBO, who also attracted major stars to True Detective.
        Independently wealthy movie fans helped finance The Master and Wolf of Wall Street.
        Steve Jobs financed Pixar at a loss for many years while the technology developed.
        The fact that many of these projects made it big is a sign that studios are underestimating viewers, and my hope is that Amazon, Netflix and other streaming services will finance mid-scale movies in exchange for an exclusive streaming library.
        And yes, as much as Jaws helped shift the focus to expensive B-movies I think it’s the best of those nominees.

  • Linkthis83

    OT: So last week I posted the first 5 pages of my Industry Insider Competition script. I got a TON of great, useful feedback. I took a lot of those suggestions and reworked those first pages to hopefully make it more accessible to the reader.

    The draft I have right now is NOT a draft I’d turn in, but time is running out. I truthfully don’t expect any reads or notes, I’m just posting for those who said they were interested in reading further. I will edit and modify up until the last moment.

    If you read, the thing I care about most right now is: Do you like the story? Are you intrigued or entertained.

    Formatting will be the death of me. And the last 5-6 pages are probably awful. My apologies for that.

    Thanks to all those who read those previous five pages. It helped A LOT.

    Industry Insider Competition logline by Sheldon Turner:

    A corrupt detective with one month left to live tries to make all the wrongs right in a wobbly road to redemption, becoming the cop – and the person – they always wanted to be in the process.

    • Jim

      Looking at the first several pages, here’s a few things to note:

      a) be wary of too much detail, especially early on. There’s so much to set up in the first several pages, you don’t want to bog the read down – rather, you want to jump into it as soon as possible and then fill in whatever details on a need-to-know basis.

      b) the opening dialogue line with the V.O. is kind of confusing. Is it meant to be a narration? We jump into O.S. and it adds to that feeling.

      c) write visually! Why say “Tommy comes around the corner” when Tommy could BOLT, STUMBLE, SKIP, etc.? Same thing with “goes”. Using stronger language will give a better sense of the character.

      d) the banter with Albert is good, but, going back to b – in the first five or so pages, somewhere early on at least, particularly of using a voice over, you want to set up what the goal is and a hint of what’s at stake. At this point, by page 5 – and granted, it’s early – I’m seeing events, but I’m not understanding the importance of them. There’s no emotional connection and I think setting up the V.O. to give a sense of that (what Tommy wants/what’s at stake – usually some form of death, whether it’s physical, emotional, professional, spiritual) that gives the reader a sense of direction and connectedness. THAT’S what really is meant by “grabbing the reader” early on, not having something interesting or unexpected happen (those help, but you want the reader to connect emotionally – that empathy factor – not just in caring, but understanding… and the earlier the better).

      I’d highly recommend reading the book “Wired For Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron. It goes into detail about, well, doing exactly what the title suggests!

      Good luck!


      • Linkthis83

        Thank you, Jim. The point about describing HOW he comes around the corner is great. And thank you for the book reference. I will check it out.

    • ChadStuart

      First, look at your logline. At one point you refer to the corrupt detective as a “they”, unless you are referring to the people in his life who want him to be a better person, in which case you’ll need to mention them. Also, is he a police detective? You begin be calling him a detective, but is that a private eye? It’s later said that he’s “becoming the cop”, but does that mean he’s trying to actually become a cop, or is he trying to be a better cop? The language here needs to be much more specific.

      I’m not a fan of the title. It screams of, “look at me! Look at me!” Get noticed by the quality of your writing, not the vulgarities you put in your title.

      You don’t need the opening establishing shot of the Middle School. It’s two unnecessary paragraphs. Besides, what do you think is a more striking first image? A fade in of a rather typical middle school? Or cut to a bright, antiseptic hallway lined with lockers?

      From that point forward, I’m a little confused as to what this has to do with the rest of the story. It’s 16 pages of a kid running around like he’s a cop, but where’s the diagnosis that gives him one month to live? For a cute set-up before the real set-up of a corrupt cop who gets a life altering diagnosis, this is just too long. If you need all this information for your story to work, you’ll need to find ways to break it up and pepper it throughout your script. You need to establish that he’s a corrupt cop first, then give him the diagnosis, then maybe he can ruminate how he started on the road to where he is now.

      • Linkthis83

        Hey Chad. Thanks for the read.

        -The title was just for fun. It’s not trying to be anything.

      • Casper Chris

        First, look at your logline. At one point you refer to the corrupt detective as a “they”, unless you are referring to the people in his life who want him to be a better person, in which case you’ll need to mention them.

        I pointed that out last time, but it’s not his logline. It’s the contest logline.

    • pmlove

      Hey, very minor fix – I’d change the (o.s) on page one – make him say it whilst on screen to distinguish between the v.o. (which is from later) and that dialogue, which is in the moment. Otherwise you assume it’s a typo or something and part of the same voiceover.

      Other major thing, as Chad pointed out – he doesn’t seem corrupt at all? Especially from what Katie was saying. Also, I’d not make Katie his sister, leave her open for a bit of a romantic angle.

      The dialogue with Albert takes too long and the action lines break it up so you lose the cadence and rhythm of the speech patters. I think you could tighten it up (and easily lose the page you need for the competition).

      • Linkthis83

        Thanks pm. There’s not much I can do with it now :) The deadline is tomorrow and real life has a stronghold on me. Lol. We’ll see what happens.

    • ximan

      I DIDN’T SEE THE FIRST POST!! And I was looking!

      Checking it out RIGHT. NOW! :)

  • Robin the Boy Wonder

    – who knew Mr. Cheswick would offer such great screenwriting advice?

    “Scenes write themselves.” On a screenwriting site? Good grief…

  • Matty

    CUCKOO’S NEST is also a great example – like many films of the 70s – of fantastic STRUCTURE. Because the entire structure of the story revolves around DECISIONS of the protagonist, rather than so many modern films where the structure is based on arbitrary events that are considered “turning points” but actually have nothing to do with an active decision of the protagonist.

    That’s what creates a great story, a great character arc, a great character, and ultimately a great journey.

    As Carson mentions, McMurphy has a short prison sentence. He wants to be in the hospital because he prefers that to prison to stay out the remainder of his term. His original plan? Fall in line (for the most part), and just ride it out. But then there’s that point where he realizes how fearful the patients are of Ratched. And then there’s the card game with the cigarettes, and Ratched confiscates all of the cigarettes. He calls for a vote to change ward policy. That fails. That’s a DECISION on his part. Rather than just staying quiet and riding it out. As he says at one point, “hey, I tried. At least I tried, goddamnit.”

    Then he steals a bus. Takes these guys out on a fishing boat. He wants these men to feel something beyond their every-day monotony. He wants them to feel alive, if only for a moment. He knows it could get him in trouble, but hey, at least he’s trying goddamnit.

    And then, as Carson mentions, he learns that they have the power to keep him indefinitely if he continues acting the way he is. So, like Carson said, now instead of riding it out, he wants to escape. DECISION.

    Then there’s a critical, pivotal decision of the film. The climactic character choice to which everything has been building…… it’s morning after the big party in the ward, Nurse Ratched arrives, finds everything…. McMurphy decides its time to go. He uses the keys he stole to unlock one of the windows, lets the girls out, and is about to escape himself when he hears a nurse scream. The girls urge him to come on…. this is his chance to escape….. and then he walks away, sealing his fate inside the institution, losing his chance to escape.

    DECISIONS. They are what drive the plot. They are what determine the structure. Because character is central. The characters are the plot, they are the structure. The protagonist makes character-defining decisions – decisions from which there is no going back…. and that’s his journey.

    Those are the best films.

    And that’s why the 70s was the golden era of film. Stories were driven by their characters, the characters weren’t driven by their stories.

    • Randy Williams

      Speaking of “driven” why do I always get a hint that a movie is from the 1970’s when the camera focuses so much time on cars? The sounds, the leisurely tracking of them as they turn on streets, the glint off their paint job, getting in and out of them. Often instead of the cliche waking up to the sound of an alarm clock, a 70’s movie will start with someone starting a car, relishing in the sound of the engine kicking in. “American Grafitti” was an early 70’s car mad hit. Maybe that had something to do with it.

      • Matty

        I have certainly noticed a lot more focus on automobiles during that time period – the 70s was the big boom of car chase flicks after all. Think of all the classic films with car chases, most of them were made in the 70s.

        Not sure why this was historically speaking…. as in what, during that decade, spurred a sudden interest in automobiles. Perhaps, though my knowledge in this area is lacking at best, the 70s was when cars started becoming more popular in general? It seems like in the 70s, teenagers started owning their own cars in many households in the US now, as opposed to earlier times when there may have only been one car per household. Not sure, but I’m willing to bet there was a proliferation of automobile ownership in America in the 70s.

        • klmn

          Ford started the muscle car craze in the mid sixties with the Mustang. When it sold like crazy, the other manufacturers brought out their own performance cars. Gas was cheap and it’s fun to drive fast.

          There was nothing to derail the trend until the Arab Oil Embargo led to gas rationing.

          • Poe_Serling

            Burt Reynolds once said, ‘I’d have ten Oscars by now if they were handed out by the people over at AAA.’

          • klmn

            Unfortunately, most of the Reynolds car movies were directed by Hal Needham who made the same movie too many times.

            Needham’s best work was as a stuntman, as when he invented the cannon roll in McQ.

          • astranger2

            You see so many obligatory car chases in action movies they become yawners. But done well, and uniquely, like this one on the beach with the scattering seagulls… or other classic chases like Bullitt’s on the SF hills — still pretty cool. Enjoyed seeing Mr. Majestyk’s antagonist Frank Renda at the end of this clip…

          • astranger2

            Boss 302/429s – Shelby Cobras – Camaro Z-28s – Dodge Chargers – Hemi Cudas – Superbees – L-88s – a time when pure straight line power was embraced. Of course, a Karmann Ghia could easily outmaneuver any of them… but it wasn’t about that… Classic cars…

      • brenkilco

        I think the one two punch of Bullit and The French Connection made cars stars. The list of seventies movies featuring elaborate car chases and stunts is endless: The Seven Ups, The Stone Killer, Smokey and the Bandit, White Lightning, Charlie Varrick, Mcq, Convoy, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and on and on. There’s even a wild car scene in Hitchcock’s final picture Family Plot.

        • Poe_Serling

          Plus, the chases were the old school variety (not the over-the-top
          action of some of today’s CGI car flicks) and still had the
          ability to keep you entertained within the context of the story.

          The three that stand out during that time period for me were Vanishing Point, Duel, and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry – what a stunning ending!!

          • Eddie Panta

            BULLITT steve mcqueen and THE DRIVER – 1978 Ryan O’Neal

          • brenkilco

            Agree. Tough to get excited about those chases in The Matrix sequels when you can’t be sure how many of the cars are really there. How could I forget Vanishing Point?

          • astranger2

            That was an era where tragic endings were in vogue. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry had a shocker. Peter Fonda had a similar down ending, though not the same adrenaline pumper, with Race With the Devil. And of course, Easy Rider didn’t end well for them…

          • Poe_Serling

            Yeah, Race With the Devil is still a lot fun to watch – part chase film/part occult thriller.

          • klmn

            TCM showed The Candy Snatchers over the weekend. Another tragic ending.

        • Wes Mantooth

          Good call on The Seven-Ups. Thought the movie was okay but that chase scene was unbelievable. Also Two-Lane Blacktop.

          • brenkilco

            Yeah, as a whole, Seven Ups isn’t much. The chase with the same principal driver Bill Hickman from Bullit and French Connection is great. But I think SF beats Manhattan as a chase location.

    • Midnight Luck

      “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”- Henry James

      • astranger2

        The Beast in the Jungle is one of my all time favorite novellas. Always loved a critic’s description of his writing style, “like a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea.”

      • Citizen M

        “In plain English, what is Henry James saying?” — Citizen M

  • Matty

    On #3 – this is one I kinda/sorta disagree with, TO AN EXTENT. Simply because this won’t work 99% of the time. It works in this one example. I’m sure there are a few other examples in film history, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

    Ultimately it just comes down to the way a name “feels,” but I think one of the best tools when it comes to naming characters (villains or otherwise – but memorable characters) is to use alliteration (and you don’t want to overdo this in a script, it can get annoying). Just look at all these character names with alliteration. They’re some of my favorite character names ever:

    Walter White
    Ratso Rizzo
    Calvin Candie
    Merkin Muffley
    Sam Spade
    Gordon Gekko
    Michael Myers
    Donnie Darko
    Marty McFly
    Pepper Potts
    Ethan Edwards
    Steve Stifler
    Peter Parker
    Willy Wonka
    Donny Donowitz
    Dirk Diggler
    Reed Rothchild
    Becky Barnett
    Stanley Spector
    Phil Parma (clearly PT is a fan)

    Anyway, I’m sure there are a ton more, but that’s off the top of my head.

    Obviously not the only way to approach it – just look at AFI’s Top 100 Heroes and Villains…. most of them are not alliterated names. BUT, it is one way to craft some names that are at least more memorable than “Bob Jones” or something. And sometimes the names can have a great subtext to them, like Walter White, Ratso Rizzo, Calvin Candie – they immediately zing and give us an impression of the character (whether that’s a straightforward impression or an ironically antithetical one. And you can play those names off to the other characters – one of the best examples being Walter White and Jesse Pinkman.

    Just thought I’d share this little technique :-)

    • Cuesta

      Stan Lee agrees with ya.

    • Linkthis83

      Hopefully you’ll be adding Tommy Tucker to that list :)

      • Franchise Blueprints

        You might have a chance, 95% of the entries are most likely going to be an actual cop drama. On the other hand they might say what does have to do with the logline. Good luck either way.

        • Linkthis83

          Thank you. It was all about the challenge and coming up with something they could argue for. No matter what happens, I’m a better writer than I was a month ago :) Thank you.

    • Linkthis83

      Oh, and any time we talk character names I always love:

      Saul Goodman — the name actually says “It’s all good, man” and his character serves that exact purpose.


      • Matty

        I always liked – and it’s a good example of an ironically antithetical name – Daniel Plainview. As Roger Ebert put it, “His name is Daniel Plainview, and he must have given the name to himself
        as a private joke, for little that he does is as it seems.”

    • Magga

      Bob Benson!

      • Magga

        Oh, and Don Draper

        • Magga

          Both of which, like the Boogie Nights ones, are (SPOILER) fake names.

        • Matty

          Good ones!

          Bruce Banner as well.

          • astranger2

            Benjamin Braddock.

        • Wes Mantooth

          Spalding Smales.

    • Magga

      Sorry for carpetbombing this comment with comments, but shouldn’t we do a “lessons from Boogie Nights”-article? More people I know have that as a favorite movie than any movie I can think of, and yet it breaks almost all screenwriting rules imaginable. It introduces a HUGE amount of characters at once without allowing us much context, it starts in a night club and doesn’t reveal that it concerns porn until a CONVERSATION ten minutes into the story, it presents meta jokes with the force of a sledgehammer (a guy blows his brains out and we see “the 80’s” superimposed, signifying the death of artistic ambition) and it spends most of it’s third act watching our two main characters observe a supporting character confronting a newly introduced character in a scene with no connection to porn whatsoever. I think it’s great because of this, not despite it, and we see similar disregard for conventions in Apocalypse Now and even The Godfather (that trip to Italy wold have been deleted immediately by most editors).

      • Matty

        Totally agreed! I’ve actually offered (since I’ve written two articles for Carson before) to write a guest article with ten tips from PT Anderson Films (since his films tend to reject a lot of “rules” in general). I also offered to write a ten tips from Alexander Payne films guest article (Payne films are the epitome of GSU, every single one). Carson never bit, though ;-)

        • Magga

          That’s certainly never occurred to me about Payne, so I’d love to read something like that

  • Eddie Panta

    It’s a pun. She’s nurse RATCHED and they are all NUTS.

  • ximan

    “Another is the “village idiot” who just smiles all the time.”
    MARTINI!!! (As played by Danny DeVito) XD My FAVORITE character btw!

    • Eddie Panta


  • fragglewriter

    I watched the movie for the first time last year and was impressed.

    I think Institutionalized story telling has been replaced with antics and “acting for the back row.” I was surprised at the McMurphy’s lobotomy and also the ending. I enjoyed the film because of the roller coaster of emotions and you weren’t sure where the story was going to go, at least for me.

    • astranger2

      Ken Kesey, who wrote the novel, actually worked in a mental institution for a while. Obviously lent the film great authenticity.

      • fragglewriter

        I guess that’s why it’s authentic. I think when a writer has insight into a certain topic, the characters are natural as opposed to being forced.

  • Eddie Panta

    To me what the article illustrates just how much we really like extreme characters.

    Too often I read scripts ( my own included ) that are about Joe White Guy. who is upset he didn’t get the girl, or that his parents don’t understand him. It’s either that or I see a lot of writer’s attempt a strong silent Clint Eastwood type, whose lack of personality is supposed to mean he’s cool, mysterious, and silent.

    Just having a character with a minor flaw is not enough, maybe if it’s an action movie, but in a riveting screenplay the characters have an affliction and an internal and external struggle going on at the same time. Stories about how Mr. Regular Nice-Guy gets caught up in a bizarre situation may not be enough. I think audiences want to see characters with serious afflictions.

    In Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy wants something, he has overall wants and desires, and he has smaller wants like watching the game on TV. But the characters around him, the other patients, don’t seem to want anything. This infuriates McMurphy. He can’t believe they are so docile.

    It also infuriates the reader when your main character is being aloof and doesn’t seem to want anything. There have been great stories with leads that don’t seem to know what they want, or are unable to express it. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or even Full Metal Jacket. But at least we witness their frustration.

    Sometimes I read scripts where the writer doesn’t want to expose who the character really is or what the character wants because they think it is suspenseful to wait and see.

    We want to know the character up front, there should always be another layer to peel back later.

    • astranger2

      I agree. It’s hard to write that Clint Eastwood cool with sparse dialogue — especially without the poncho… Leads to a vanilla character if you’re not very careful…

  • Midnight Luck

    The reason adding a friendship to the story is so powerful, is because no matter how BAD the character is, it humanizes them. That in turn allows the reader/viewer to trust, like, empathize with them.

  • James Lion

    I think Nurse Ratched also comes from the word “wretched”.

    • Midnight Luck

      I always imagined it came from “Ratchet”, as in: to ratchet down.

      Maybe it was all of them.

    • Citizen M

      Maybe “batshit” as in, “They’re all batshit crazy.”

  • Bifferspice

    i’d love to get your feedback on my script, grendl, but carson won’t ever add it to the shortlist!

    • Nate

      You could always post it on here. I think Carson said he was fine with people posting their scripts in the comments if it doesn’t interfere with AF and AOW.

      • MaliboJackk

        I missed that part about “if it doesn’t interfere with AF and AOW.”
        Are you sure Carson said that?
        Or are you stating what someone else thought?

  • Eddie Panta

    Start your script AS CLOSE TO the main action as possible… Jump right into the “story”

    So question, does this mean the movie TAKEN would of been better if it started with the daughter leaving to the airport to go to Paris, perhaps being driven by her father.

    Does that make the movie better? Does it jump right into the PLOT, the ACTION, or the STORY? If the “story” is the kidnapping, what do you call what is happening prior to that?

    BTW: Nurse Ratched is a pun because they’re all NUTS.

    • Midnight Luck

      Once again,

      -there are no rules.

    • Casper Chris

      Carson actually praised Taken for establishing the father-daughter relationship prior to the daughter leaving for Paris so yea… like Midnight Luck says, lol…

    • Citizen M

      Nurse Ratched is a pun because they’re all NUTS.

      Could someone please explain this to me. I don’t see the connection between ratched and nuts.

      • Eddie Panta

        Ratchet like the tool.

        • Citizen M

          Silly me. I was thinking of nuts like the pistachio.

  • Midnight Luck

    Great post Carson.

  • Matty

    Agreed. He was very much snubbed for even a nomination. He did receive recognition for his great turn in Revolutionary Road, though.

    He was also brilliant recently in THE ICEMAN. Good film, GREAT performance.

    Do you remember him in his first film role ever? Fred in Groundhog Day?

  • pmlove

    When’s your next script coming out grendl?

    (note: this is genuine interest, note some snarky comment)

  • astranger2

    In Cool Hand Luke, there’s a phenomenal scene where his dying mother speaks to him from a rickety pick up truck bed. After Luke learns of her death, Strother Martin decides to throw him in “the box” as prisoners in that situation get “rabbit” in their blood.

    From that point on Luke’s entire GSU centers on escaping the injustice of the chain gang, and the Bosses. Interesting Christ analogy, as when the Bosses finally break him by making him repeatedly dig up and fill in a hole with dirt — he crawls back into the prison barracks begging for help. But getting none, abandoned by his flock…

  • witwoud

    I totally agree with this mad rant. The only qualification I’d make is that movies like Aliens are PRIMARILY about heroism. Always. That’s their raison d’être. Jaws, Star Wars, Harry Potter — they’re all about what it means to be a hero. The other themes, like corporate greed, are secondary. You could remove that storyline from Aliens without doing too much damage to the film, but you couldn’t remove the hero theme, because you’d be left with no film at all.

    • Casper Chris

      I think grendl (and myself) is looking for movies that say MORE than that. So many movies have a hero doing something “heroic”.

      • witwoud

        “Almost all movies have a hero doing something “heroic”.”

        Okay … but you say that in such an offhand way that it kind of confirms my point. We’re not talking about having a hero doing heroic stuff, we’re talking about centering your movie around this one fundamental theme: what does it mean to become a hero? Those are quite different things.

        I can’t answer for Grendl, but I got the impression that he wasn’t demanding more or better themes, necessarily, but was urging writers to dig deep and uncover the themes inherent in their chosen genre.

        • Casper Chris

          And you would say that the central theme of Jaws, Harry Potter and Star Wars is “what it means to be a hero”?

          Without giving it too much thought, I’d argue the theme of…
          …Jaws is “facing your fears and overcoming them”
          …Harry Potter is “death” (according to Rowling)
          …Star Wars is “finding/realizing one’s true potential”

          Maybe if you had said Spiderman…

          • Magga

            The first Raimi Spiderman is about puberty. The web is the first accidental morning ejaculation. Seriously. It’s consistently about how your body changes, and how Peter Parker must find it in himself to become an adult. The reaction from fans at the time was “WHAT!? He’s supposed to make the web-slingers himself!”

    • Franchise Blueprints

      Alien(s,III) is essentially about xenophobia. Humans designated them as insect-hive mentality/weaponizable species. So essentially since they didn’t look like us or behave like us everything humans did to them was justified. Although the Alien franchise didn’t portray itself like that the themes explored in District 9 has its roots in the literal and figurative word of alien. Also in the first Alien and Aliens it was shown several times they weren’t animals behaving instinctively but thinking creatures.

  • Citizen M

    11) Write what you know.

    “The novel is a direct product of Kesey’s time working the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California.Not only did he speak to the patients and witness the workings of the institution, but he voluntarily took psychoactive drugs, including Mescaline and LSD, as part of Project MKUltra” — Wikipedia

  • Gregory Mandarano

    Ugh. On a writing forum on facebook for novelists someone asked about screenwriting. I decided to help the new person out by linking carson’s 3-5 year plan, and explained that you don’t want to distribute your first screenplay to agents because chances are, unless you’re Eddie O’keefe, you’re not hitting the blacklist and doing yourself any favors by distributing your first attempt. Instead I got chewed out, because they got offended that I called them ‘amateur screenwriters.’

    Had responses like this:

    “. However, one thing I did learn in Scott’s workshop is, don’t let anyone tell you you’re an amateur. All it takes is “one great idea, at the right page count, at the right time.””

    ” You seem to just be nerd raging here, so you should also stop looking down on others. Only amateurs call others amateurs.”

    I actually had to explain that amateur screenwriters are those without a produced credit, and that it is not a stigma, and not something that is an insult, but simply a differentiation between someone who hasn’t yet sold a screenplay.

    They totally dissed scriptshadow because I dared link the article outlining the ‘levels’ of screenwriting as a helpful indicator for someone to know where they might stack up. Called carson an ass and judgmental, though the sum total of their exposure was a glance at the article.

    I really don’t know why I bothered.

  • kenglo

    [xxx] Worth the read !!

    Even a mad rant like this makes complete sense.


  • pmlove

    Definitely give it a read. lovepeterm at gmail dot com.