So, a dozen years ago, I said to myself, “If I’m really going to understand this industry, if I’m to be as knowledgeable in cinema-speak as everyone I run into, I’m going to have to watch every good movie ever made, even the ones I have no interest in seeing.” Which was a big problem for me because I didn’t like black and white films. They were all so over-acted and the lack of color instantly dated them, making it hard to fully immerse myself in the experience. People knock me on this, but movies are about suspension of disbelief. If at any point that suspension is broken, so is the magical movie spell. And black and white breaks the spell for someone who grew up in color. But I felt I owed it to myself to see all these movies, so I did. Outside of Hitchcock’s films and a few others, Sunset Boulevard is the only black and white movie where I forgot the black and white. There was something about the film, despite it being 50 years old, that felt so current. I’d never seen that with these old movies before. I’ve been aching to revisit it forever and “Ten Tips” seemed the perfect motivation. For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s about a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who accidentally befriends a washed-up silent film actress. I highly recommend seeing it if you haven’t yet.
1) Myth: You can’t write a movie about Hollywood – I used to believe this myth. But the truth is, you just can’t write a BAD movie about Hollywood. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. If you have great characters, a unique concept, a compelling plot, nice twists and turns, nobody’s going to say to you, “I thought your script was the best I’ve read all year. But I have no interest in it because it’s about Hollywood.” If something is good, people WILL WANT IT. I think the key to the “about Hollywood” script is the concept. Focus on something less obvious than your basic “screenwriter/actor trying to make it” storyline. Sunset Boulevard is about a struggling screenwriter who gets kidnaped into a fading actress’s house of horrors. It dealt with Hollywood from a different perspective. If this is had been about our hero, Joe Gillis, trying to get his movie made, Sunset Boulevard would have been forgotten two weeks after it came out.
2) Timeless movies are driven by characters with universal problems – The question I’ve constantly asked myself about this film is, “How come this 60 year old film still feels relevant today?” What is it that makes any movie stand the test of time? And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s timeless characters – characters with universal problems that people are going to have today as well as have a hundred years from now. Norma Desmond is terrified of being alone. Joe Gillis is struggling to make ends meet. Betty Schaefer doesn’t know if she should be with the “right” man or the man she’s in love with. Give your characters relatable universal problems and they’ll last for ages.
3) Don’t expect a great movie unless you have a great character – The more I read, the more I realize that you shouldn’t even bother writing a movie unless you have a REALLY INTERESTING, UNIQUE, MEMORABLE character SOMEWHERE in your script. Those are always the scripts that actors are most interested in. Those are always the scripts that get made into movies first. Those always turn into the films you remember most. Sunset Boulevard is Sunset Boulevard because of the wacky crazy antics of Norma Desmond. The woman has a chimpanzee buried when we first meet her! What interesting shit does your character do?
4) Interesting characters tend to be supporting characters – Although I’ve seen movies with really wacky main characters, most of the time, the memorable characters are not the hero. Why? Because the hero has to be the straight man. He has to be the one to keep the story on track. He must be grounded. If he’s too wacky, the story becomes unfocused and messy. Jack Sparrow, Han Solo, Quint, Doc from Back To The Future, Norma Desmond. Supporting characters tend to work best in those secondary roles because they can be wacky without upsetting the balance of the story.
5) The intruding storyline – Remember that whatever your story is about, you want to have an “intruding” storyline, something that’s trying to make its way into your character’s life independent of the main plot. At first, in Sunset Boulevard, it’s the repo men. They’re constantly on Joe’s trail. They’re coming to Norma’s house. You need this intruding storyline because if all you have is your main plot, the script’s going to feel thin.
6) If an intruding storyline ends, replace it with another – This is where the real writers show their mettle. They know that certain subplots are going to conclude in the middle of the script, and when that happens, they need to replace them. So here, the intruding storyline of the repo men ends. What’s going to replace it? Wilder and his crew write in the Betty Schaefer screenwriting plotline, which intrudes bigtime on the main plot (and ultimately ends up in Joe’s demise!). You always want at least one story element intruding on the main plot, and probably more.
7) Great lines of dialogue tend to stem from character – “I am big. It was the pictures that got small,” is one of the most famous lines of dialogue in history. I spend entire nights, sometimes, trying to figure out what makes a great movie line. I still haven’t figured out any definitive formula, but Sunset Boulevard reinforced one of my beliefs: The best lines of dialogue stem from character. Norma Desmond is a narcissistic, delusional fame-whore who erroneously believes she’s still a star. Naturally then, when someone says “You used to be big,” she’s going to give a narcissistic, delusional fame-whore-like response: “I am big. It was the pictures that got small.” So when looking for that amazing line, start by asking who your character is.
8) CONFLICT ALERT – Remember that nearly every scene you write should have some element of conflict in it. Take a very simple dance scene in Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond has a “party” which she of course invites Joe to. When he gets there, there are no other guests. Just him. She then wants to dance. Joe does so, but reluctantly. The scene then revolves around this simple setup: She wants to dance, he doesn’t. You can see this dynamic extrapolated over the entire movie. Almost everything in Sunset Boulevard is about Norma wanting something and Joe not wanting it. This is the conflict that drives every scene, and by extension, the film.
9) Contrast the surrounding elements with the moment at hand – In that same scene, Joe and Norma get into a fight. The ugly battle is contrasted against the beautiful music from the live band. Contrasting the surroundings with what’s going on with the characters is always good for a scene or two in your script.
10) The Anti-Love Story – I’ve found that these “anti-love” stories are almost always interesting. By “anti” I mean a love story where one or both of the characters doesn’t want the relationship, but are stuck in it anyway. Movies like 500 Days of Summer, The Break-Up, War of the Roses, Sunset Boulevard. We’ve seen every love story in the book, which is why they all feel so cliché. Anti-love stories are much rarer, which is why they tend to be so fascinating when done well.