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We have now come to the last entry on my series of essays concerning alternative structures for screenplays.
So, Happy New Year, I say.
In this final installment, I will gather together the last few remaining alternative structures for screenplays that I can think of, ones that I didn’t really find a place for in any of the earlier entries. There won’t be that many, and you may find it all a bit anti-climactic, but I didn’t think the series would be complete without including these last remaining few.
But I do want to remind the readers as to the purpose of these essays. They have grown out of a feeling that over the past few years that I am not finding those screenplays that arise out of a vision, a uniqueness, a strong reason for existence, stories that show originality.
I feel that all art forms, screenwriting included, needs to grow, to experiment, to try new forms and techniques. Otherwise, it will simply implode out of its own lack of originality.
So I encourage screenwriters to seek out the unusual, the different, the screenplays that showed a vision and that made a difference and changed the ways movies were made.
And as a final note before I begin, I will, par usual, repeat something I have said in each of the previous essays:
“Now, I know that many of you will find a way to take each example and demonstrate how it really fits into the traditional structure that is often taught, if not enforced, by many in today’s writing environment.
Well, here I’m going to be perfectly frank, or speak the truth and shame the devil as they say where I am from.
To quote Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, “I don’t care”.
I don’t. I don’t really care whether in the end you come to the conclusion that there are alternative structures to be used in creating films that go against prevailing wisdom in the literature, or whether you come to the conclusion that the traditional structure outlined above is really much more malleable that one might have thought at first and that there are numerous variations to the original.
Either way is fine. I’m not going to argue it.
My point is that I think it’s time for writers to start thinking outside the box. And however you have to justify it to yourself in order to do it is fine….as long as, for god’s sakes, you do it.”
Also a caveat. You will probably recognize some of these films as being included in earlier essays. But sometimes the structure applies to more than one category, so I thought it was better to include them and give an additional way to look at the film, rather than ignore them altogether.
So with all that being finally said, following are a selection of films
VERTIGO/BOOGIE NIGHTS: These are screenplays that have what I call before and after plots. In stories like this, something happens halfway through the film that seems to, if not end the story, to at least bring it to a full stop. Because of this, the story almost needs to restart, as if from scratch.
In Alec Coppel and Samuel L. Taylor’s Vertigo (directed by Alfred Hitchcock), half way through a woman that the central character, an ex-police officer suffering from the title affliction, is following falls from a mission steeple. At this point, the story seems over. But in the second half, the ex-officer sees a woman that looks exactly like the one who died and the story starts up again.
In writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s investigation of the adult film industry in the 1970’s, the first half shows the rise of a new male star with a rather, let us say, blessed advantage over many of his peers. It reaches an almost idyllic lifestyle in which everything seems as happily after ever as any fairy tale, until tragedy strikes at New Year’s. At this point, the movie has to start again as it traces what happens to everyone in the wake of the awful events.
Other movies with similar structures include Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Double Indemnity and many Broadway musicals like Carousel, Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story and Into the Woods (the movie version of which was seriously impaired by not sticking to the before and after structure).
L’AVVENTTURA/BLOW-UP: In these films, a question is asked somewhere early on. The various characters try to find an answer, but at the end, never have the question answered. These are films that many people feel lack resolution, which is the resolution: that sometimes life is nothing but a question and there aren’t always answers to things that happen.
Both L’Avventura and Blow-up were directed by Michelangelo Antonioni (he sort of started this whole thing). In the first, written by Antonioni, Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra, a group of friends visit an island and stay overnight. Sometime before the next morning, the fiancé of the central character disappears. The remaining characters search for her, but never find out what happened.
In Blow-Up, written by Antonioni, Tonino Guerra and Edward Bond, a photographer takes photos in a park. But among the pictures he took, did he accidentally capture a murder being committed? He tries to find the answer, but never does.
Other films that use similar ideas include La moustache, Children of Men, Last Night, Borgman and Cache. One could even make an argument that Citizen Kane follows this formula. The question presented by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles is what does “rosebud”, the dying word of the reclusive Charles Foster Kane, mean? It turns out to be his sled, but does that really explain anything or is the message of Citizen Kane that we can never really know what makes a person who he is.
In Joseph Stefano’s Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, the central character is at first Marion Crane, a secretary who absconds with her boss’s money. About a third of the way through something happens to her (I think we all know what that is) and the central character or characters become either or both her sister Lila and/or the motel owner Norman Bates.
In Barry Gifford and David Lynch’s Lost Highway, the central character, a trumpeter played by Bill Pullman ends up in jail and overnight just turns into a garage mechanic played by Balthazar Getty. The movie then follows Getty’s character until the end when he just as abruptly switches back to Bill Pullman. The two have nothing to do with each other and each have different story lines.
Other movies that are similar to this include Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique, in which the central character dies, and the story is then take up by her doppelganger (the characters are played by the same actress, but they are completely different people who have never met); and perhaps even Mulholland Drive, in which the first part is a dream and the second part reality (here the characters are the same and played by the same actresses, but their personalities are totally different).
Again, I want to reiterate that the reason I wrote these essays is to try to open up possibilities for screenwriters, to write outside the box, to help them see that the world of screenwriting is a wide one and that it’s amazing what sorts of unusual and visionary stories can be told.
So I encourage you to try to become as large a writer as you can, to reach for the stars, to try create stories that have a personal uniqueness and vision to them. Startle people, scare them, wake them up, challenge them, make them thing—do anything, but write according to formula and to preconceived notions of what a screenplay has to be.
It’s a New Year writers. Make your writing new as well.