Many of you know the wonderful Ross Mahler, a guy with two Top Ten Screenplay Favorites on TriggerStreet: the Art of Deception and Erased.
I’ve read both stories. You are immediately impressed by his great grammar, superb formatting, and overall economical writing, particularly with the action lines. However, the thing I like most about Mahler's writings is that he always writes with a good ending in mind. If you are a finalist in a contest and you're going up against Mahler, you'd have good reason to be nervous, because whatever failings he MIGHT have in the telling of his story, he'll make up for it with a great ending that'll likely have a well-planned twist. It's as if he constructs his stories with the ending first and works his way back, which is exactly the way it should be done, because the most important element in a story is the ending. People will forgive a lot of faults if you deliver a great ending. We must not forget that revered Hollywood axiom: "Movies are about their last twenty minutes." Thou shalt save the best for last. In fact, I think it was McKee who wrote that 75% of your creative labor should go into the final climax. But I always wondered, "why SO MUCH creative labor?" Of course, once you start writing your own stories, you quickly understand why because, as William Goldman wrote in Adventures in the Screen Trade, "Endings, frankly, are a bitch." Oh how true it is…
In any case, when I invited Ross to submit a scene for our study, he sent a a couple. “Just a few off the top of my head,” he said. And then he sent another list of examples. And then another list. The man is a frickin’ subtext-machine. Hehehe…
And so I give to you Ross Mahler’s explosion of subtext examples.
Thanks so much, Ross.
Sam: How are the twins?
Sam: My, how time flies!
I love how the subtext is used in jokes in this film. We immediately know that we are dealing with a society in which everyone pretends to care about each other, but they really only care about themselves.
When Harry Met Sally
I love at the end when Sally is telling Harry, "I hate you," but we know she means the opposite.
The Princess Bride
Although this was actually explained much earlier in the movie (so it might not count as subtext), I love when the grandfather says "As you wish" to his grandson and we know that it means "I love you."
When Inigo throws the Man in Black a rope to help him climb the Cliffs of Insanity AND when he lets him rest before fighting, we know that he wants to fight fairly, that the victory would be meaningless if it were won without some sense of honor. The fact that he fights left-handed and then switches to right-handed says that he has only been toying with him. When The Man in Black also switches to his right hand, we know that Inigo has met his match.
Luca: "Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your daughter... 's wedding... on the day of your daughter's wedding." I love the way such a massive man fumbles his speech. We immediately know that Vito is a respected and feared man.
The Godfather, Part 2
When Michael says to his sister Connie, "But if you disobey me, and marry this pimp...it would disappoint me." Great subtext. The fact that he uses the word disobey, means that he has the power to command her. And when Michael says "you'll disappoint me," we know that he is making a tremendous understatement.
When Michael says to the Senator: "My offer is this. Nothing...not even the thousand dollars for the Gaming Commission, which I'd appreciate if you would put up personally." We know who has the real power in the room.
Amon’s "I pardon you." When Amon Goeth stands in front of the mirror practicing saying this phrase, he is trying to believe it, and he is also trying to pardon himself.
Schindler: “What if I got here five minutes later? Then where would I be?”
When Schindler says this to Stern after saving him from being accidentally taken to a concentration camp, we realize that it was for selfish reasons (didn't want to lose his accountant) rather than for philanthropic reasons.
I love the subtext of the 2nd lobster scene in Annie Hall where it becomes obvious that Alvy is trying to recreate the chemistry he had with Annie in an earlier lobster scene, but there's no chemistry at all with the new date.
This is really a combination of subtext and great characterization when Robert Duvall's character (Kilgore) doesn't even flinch when a large explosion goes off behind him. That speaks volumes.
When Brody (Roy Scheider) eats breakfast with his son and the little boy emulates every move he makes, you just know he admires his dad and wants to be just like him. What's great about that scene is that it wasn't in the script at all. Roy Scheider noticed the little boy mimicking him and asked the cameraman to film it.
In the first Batman when Michael Keaton says "I'm Batman" to himself as practice, we understand that he wants to tell Kim Basinger his real identity but can't.
When Kane says, "You're right. We did lose a million dollars last year. We expect to lose a million next year, too. You know, Mr. Thatcher - at the rate of a million a year - we'll have to close this place ... in sixty years." What a great way to illustrate both Kane's attitude and his wealth all in one speech.
A Clockwork Orange
When Alex sings "Singing in the Rain" while beating someone senseless, it speaks volumes about his attitude and that he takes nothing seriously, gives no thought to the consequences of his actions.
When Larry (Bill Murray) says "He will not be missed," about the death of his comrade, Piedmont, we know that this is his way of digesting the man's death and in some strange way honoring Piedmont who used to use that exact expression whenever anyone died.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
When Indy's father tells his young son to count to twenty in Greek, we understand that Indy is impetuous, but we also understand that his father has been teaching him for many years and that Indy has been bred to be a person who has an appreciation for the past.
When Gennaro, the lawyer, says "We're going to make a fortune," and abandons all his talk of caution, we understand that greed for money or discovery will be the downfall of this project.
I also, like the subtleties of subtext in Jurassic Park. When the automated car doesn't work, and when Henry (in the lab) erases some notes he's making, it all underlines the theme, "Humans are fallible."
There are also those great instances when the humans don't act as the engineers of the attractions predicted (leaving the car, forcing their way off the automated ride, Nedry leaving), which underlines the other theme of unpredictability and chaos theory.
Pirates of the Caribbean
When Will accuses Jack of cheating and Jack just says "Pirate," we know that it means "What did you expect?"
The Empire Strikes Back
When Princess Laia tells Han Solo she loves him and he says "I know," we understand that he needs to have the upper hand, even in his moment of what seems like certain death.
When Mal (Danny Glover) says "I don't want to kill you, and you don't want to be dead." The subtext is, "There's no chance of you killing me. It's not even remotely possible, so give up."
When Aaron (Albert Brooks) says to Jane (Holly Hunter), "Ok, I'll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time." We immediately understand that they have such a history together, have worked so closely together, that they can speak in this shorthand and understand each other exactly.