Here are 10 movies I walked into and came out of a more knowledgeable screenwriter.
Matrix: Reloaded – I’ll never forget how excited I was going in to this movie, and how devastated I was walking out of it. Matrix: Reloaded taught me one of the most valuable screenwriting lessons there is. You can’t rush a script. Good scripts need time to breathe.
Deadpool – Deadpool reminded me that one of the best ways to write a hit movie is to locate the end of a trend and then write the opposite. A series of superhero movies that take themselves too seriously? Write a superhero movie that makes fun of itself. A bunch of serious horror movies are dominating the market? Write one that’s not so serious. And make no mistake. When all these Deadpool clones take over the airwaves, the first guy who writes a comic book movie that takes itself seriously again will have a mega-hit on his hands.
American Sniper – I had as much confidence in American Sniper doing killer box office as I did Chris Kyle making an appearance at the premiere. But American Sniper (and more recently, Sully) taught me the value of a real-life hero. America fucking loves their heroes. Find a real life hero in America’s history (don’t bother trying to find a current one – Hollywood’s got’em all locked up) and tell their story. If you do an even halfway decent job, you’ll get a sale. We just saw this with the spec sale, Mayday 109, about a little known heroic deed from JFK. MURICA!
Forest Gump – I still watch Forest Gump today and marvel at how a movie with no structure and a main character who succeeds through the entire film works so well. Wanna know its secret? The disadvantaged protagonist who keeps fighting no matter what is a bulletproof hero. Let me say that again. A disadvantaged hero who never gives up is IMPOSSIBLE TO DISLIKE. An audience will always root for that character. And by “disadvantaged,” I don’t mean retarded. Just that life’s cards didn’t fall in his favor.
Elysium – Remember how excited everybody was for Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9? Holy shit. I thought this was going to be the bee’s knees. Then I started hearing whispers: “The script’s thin.” I refused to believe them. Maybe they were looking at an early draft. Nope. Elysium was terrible, and it taught us what a half-baked idea looks like. Elysium’s mythology was barely explored. As a result, it felt like a mansion with only half its rooms furnished. Know every inch of your world, guys. It doesn’t all have to appear on the page. But as the writer, you need to know how it all connects.
The Phantom Menace – The Phantom Menace taught me one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned. That just because you build your story around deep things, it doesn’t make your script deep. Lucas believed that because The Phantom Menace was covering politics, it would somehow make this Star Wars adventure more intellectual and thoughtful. The only thoughts anyone had, however, occurred during their REM cycle once the second act rolled around. The Phantom Menace also reminded us how valuable urgency is to a story. If you look at the four best Star Wars movies (4, 5, 6, 7) they all have urgency. You look at the worst 3 (1, 2, 3), they have no urgency. And no, Episode 3 is not better than 4-7. Stop promoting that overblown pointless film with one of the worst climaxes (“I HAVE THE HIGH GROUND, ANAKIN!”) in sequel history.
Hancock – Hancock had one of the best setups for a superhero movie ever. A drunk superhero? Talk about a conceptual goldmine. The finished product, however, was a disaster, and it taught us a valuable lesson: AVOID OVERDEVELOPING AN IDEA. A lot of times, we’re with our scripts for so long, we become numb to them, and feel like we need to add bells and whistles to keep them exciting, instead of staying true to what was great about the idea in the first place. Hancock felt that pressure and added the ridiculous twist where a local housewife had the same mythological powers as Hancock did, and the movie never recovered after that. When you have a good idea, trust it. Don’t overdevelop it with a bunch of stupid add-ons just because you’re bored.
Cast Away – Cast Away was one of the riskiest movies of the decade. Sure it had Tom Hanks, but he was all by himself! How do you keep that interesting for two hours? Cast Away taught me the power of the mini-goal. The mini-goal is the tool that keeps your character active for 10 minute chunks at a time. Tom Hanks must make fire to survive. There’s a ten minute chunk. Tom Hanks must learn how to fish. There’s a ten minute chunk. Tom Hanks must figure out how to utilize all the Fed Ex packages. That’s a chunk. Mini-goals keep the movie moving 10 minutes at a time. If Tom Hanks doesn’t have anything he has to do RIGHT NOW, that narrative stops and we get bored.
World War Z – World War Z famously filmed a giant war climax between humans and zombies that wasn’t working. They had to stop production, bring a new writer in, and write a new ending. That ending had humans avoiding zombies in a lab-like maze while they looked for a cure. It was a solid sequence that ended up saving the film. The lesson? When you’re writing a big movie, sometimes the answers aren’t big. Sometimes they’re intimate. So make sure you consider both.
Pearl Harbor – Pearl Harbor was trying to be the next Titanic. It succeeded. If you mean it quickly sunk to the bottom of the box office. Pearl Harbor taught us that you should never prioritize an idea over characters. The movie was an obvious excuse to film a set-piece (the Pearl Harbor bombing) with the characters being an afterthought. The reason Titanic was so successful was because James Cameron wanted to explore the depths of his two main characters first, and the depths of the Titanic second. Nobody knows that about Cameron – how much he values character. But it’s precisely why he’s the king of the box office.
Mini-Lessons – The Dark Knight taught me the value of grounding extraordinary characters. The Hangover taught me the importance of finding new ways to explore stale ideas. The Sixth Sense taught me that an audience will be patient as long as your heroes’ objective is compelling enough. Silver Linings Playbook and 500 Days of Summer taught me that the traditional romantic comedy is dead, and that you need some quirky take on the genre to get Hollywood interested. And Ghostbusters taught me that audiences aren’t stupid. If they feel that you’re pushing something other than entertainment (in this case – a social agenda), they won’t show up.