“Did you hear the one about the blonde so dumb she slept with the scriptwriter?” Outside of the film industry this joke isn’t much of a howler. Inside, however, it exemplifies how studios see their scribes. Unless of course you’re Aaron Sorkin.
Sorkin is a ‘name’ in screenwriting terms. Now The West Wing creator’s script for The Social Network is gaining as much praise as David Fincher’s direction – according to one review it “boasts enough great dialogue to fuel a half dozen Oscar-bait movies”. Sorkin is the closest thing to a screenwriter as celebrity.
Inspired by The Social Network, then, here are five more scripts that every aspiring writer should study.
By Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch
Any wannabe screenwriter will have at least one (probably unthumbed) copy of Robert McKee’s Story. Despite never having written a successful film of his own McKee is seen as the Godfather of the principles of screenwriting. The two key examples that he cites are Chinatown and Casablanca.
While you won’t find a bad word written by me about the former, it’s the latter that I believe deserves inclusion. My reason: it’s every genre ever made (save sci-fi) rolled into one. It’s got drama, romance, comedy. It’s got action, politics, music. It’s got great structure, characters and plot. It is, in a carefully chosen word, perfect.
Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.
By Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman Jr.
If you were still wondering how low the screenwriter is regarded just take a look at how they see themselves. Adaptation; racked with self doubt, Barton Fink; whiny and mean, The Player; sleazy and murdered. In Sunset Boulevard, lead hack Joe Gillis is all of the above and more.
Luckily for him he has death to give him subjectivity. The intricate script uses a wonderfully inventive narrative of ‘Dead Man Talking’ that still gets used today in everything from American Beauty to Desperate Housewives.
Norma Desmond: “You are… writing words, words, more words! Well, you’ll make a rope of words and strangle this business! But there’ll be a microphone there to catch the last gurgles, and Technicolor to photograph the red, swollen tongues!”
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid
By William Goldman
“Nobody Knows Anything”. That is except the man whose words I just quoted. Writer of such scripts as All The President’s Men, The Princess Bride and Marathon Man, Goldman become infamous with his memoirs on life as a film writer, Adventures In The Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?
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That anybody gave a crap what he thought was mainly thanks to him putting out material like the Butch and Sundance script. Witty, clever and brave enough to give a fun film ‘that ending’, Mr. Goldman we salute you.
Butch Cassidy: Alright. I’ll jump first.
Sundance Kid: No.
Butch Cassidy: Then you jump first.
Sundance Kid: No, I said.
Butch Cassidy: What’s the matter with you?
Sundance Kid: I can’t swim.
Butch Cassidy: Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.
Sundance Kid: Oh, shit…
By Andrew Kevin Walker
As pitches go, “Retiring cop tracks serial killer” is as cliche as they come, but Se7en was anything but. Way back in 1995, Andrew Kevin Walker whilst working at Tower Records, wrote a script on those lines so good that he’d never have to alphabetise CD’s again. The reason the film has lasted so long is the dynamic it draws up between Detectives Mills and Somerset. Add to that a gut-punch of an ending that would floor Kimbo Slice and you have easily one of the best, darkest scripts ever written.
William Somerset: This guy’s methodical, exacting, and worst of all, patient.
David Mills: He’s a nut-bag! Just because the fucker’s got a library card doesn’t make him Yoda!
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
By Charlie Kaufman
Every once in a while someone original, fresh and more than a little batshit crazy makes Hollywood sit up and take note. In the late 90’s, with Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman was that man. Yet it wasn’t until 2004’s Eternal Sunshine… that Kaufman wrote a truly great screenplay. A meditation on life, love and memory he finally (even after admitting so much with Adaptation) managed to nail an ending.
Joel: I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you.
Clementine: But you will! But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.
Clementine: [pauses] Okay.
Then there’s A Matter Of Life And Death, Network, The Usual Suspects, Memento, Chinatown, The Godfather, to name but a few. As the saying goes, “You can make a bad film out of a good script but you can’t make a good film out of a bad one”.
What say you?