Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Examples of Cinematic Storytelling

Hey guys,

During my two-week hiatus (and inspired by Billy’s
The Movie on the Page), I went through a few screenplays to find great examples of writing the shots. And I have four to share.

Hope you enjoy them.



First, the opening scene from Hampton Fancher’s
Blade Runner. He never used “we see” or camera angles, but his writing clearly implies with the Secondary Heading of “THE EYE” that the scene opens with an extreme close-up of an eye, which is essential to the story. His descriptions help visualize (without taking you out of the story by using technical jargon) that the camera would pan back to reveal that the eye is just an image on a screen. As we pan and see more of the mechanism, we’d learn an important detail by seeing the VOIGHT-KAMPFF words. The camera would keep panning back to reveal the desk and then pan around or perhaps cut to Leon. We’d first see his nametag and the folded, pudgy hands in his lap before we move up to his face. I love the way he carefully leads your mind's eye around the room through his simple descriptions. He goes from the extreme close-up of the eye to the mechanism on the table and over to Leon. Then there’s a cut to Holden, the man facing him, which reads like a medium shot. It’s not until after that cut that we’re even given a description of the room.

How many aspiring writers would start with just a general description of the room and try to use dialogue to get out the VOIGHT-KAMPFF information as well as the names of the two characters in the room? This is such a great, writing-the-shots example of cinematic storytelling. It’s the way Fancher is thinking like a filmmaker that’s impressive to me. [The result in the finished film (if you can ever call Blade Runner a “finished film”) is slightly different. The shots are all there, as described in the script, but Ridley Scott would open the film with a shot of the city and an approaching vehicle that’s flying toward the Tyrell building so that you could see Holden pacing in a window as he waits for Leon to show up. Then he cuts to the interior of the room. Leon walks in, and for some reason, Ridley uses a VOICE OVER to introduce him. A computerized female voice says something like: “Next subject: Kowalski, Leon.” Ugh, makes me cringe every time. Ridley should’ve listened to his screenwriter. It was far better on the page.]



It's magnified and deeply revealed. Flecks of green and yellow in a field of milky blue. Icy filaments surround the undulating center.

The eye is brown in a tiny screen. On the metallic surface below, the words VOIGHT-KAMPFF are finely etched. There's a touch-light panel across the top and on the side of the screen, a dial that registers fluctuations of the iris.

The instrument is no bigger than a music box and sits on a table between two men. The man talking is big, looks like an over-stuffed kid. "LEON" it says on his breast pocket. He's dressed in a warehouseman's uniform and his pudgy hands are folded expectantly in his lap. Despite the obvious heat, he looks very cool.

The man facing him is lean, hollow cheeked and dressed in gray. Detached and efficient, he looks like a cop or an accountant. His name is HOLDEN and he's all business, except for the sweat on his face.

The room is large and humid. Rows of salvaged junk are stacked neatly against the walls. Two large fans whir above their heads.

Okay if I talk?


Second, here’s a scene written by Alex Proyas (with the help of David S. Goyer and Lem Dobbs) from their
Dark City screenplay, which became a four-star film, one of Ebert’s Great Movies. In fact, he once went through the movie shot-by-shot with film students in Hawaii. It took him four days. He wrote, “Proyas likes deep-focus compositions. Many interior spaces are long and narrow. Exteriors look down one street to the vanishing point, and then the camera pans to look down another street, equally long. The lighting is low-key and moody. The color scheme depends on blacks, browns, shadows and the pallor of the Strangers; warmer colors exist in human faces, in neon signs and on the billboard for Shell Beach. ‘I am simply grateful for this shot,’ I said in Hawaii more than once. ‘It is as well-done as it can possibly be.’ Many other great films give you the same feeling -- that their makers were carried far beyond the actual requirements of their work into the passion of creating something wonderful.”

Alex Proyas is a writer-director so this scene has some camera angles in it, which we would not write. It’s just as easy to say “SLEEPING EYES – between waves of light…” than “ANGLE ON SLEEPING EYES.” They both mean the same thing. Also, you could just as easily say “WALKER” instead of “TIGHT ON WALKER.” Instead of “P.O.V.”, you could write “He looks” and write “AROUND THE ROOM” as a
Secondary Heading to imply a pan. In any case, I love the way he’s thinking visually here and begins this scene by moving the camera around the room, first with the glass syringe on the floor, over to the clothes on a chair, to the puddles of water, and up the tub to the sleeping eyes of Jonathan Walker. You can easily visualize the editing in this scene, too - where one shot ends and the next one begins.


SHADOWS DANCE - in and out of darkness. A hooded light-bulb swings IN SLOW MOTION from the ceiling, its dim light REVEALS:

A GLASS SYRINGE - broken on the floor.

Clothes on a chair...

Puddles of water on the floor...

ANGLE ON SLEEPING EYES - Between waves of light they snap open and dart about in confusion.

ON JONATHAN WALKER as he sits up. Water splashes. He's in a tub of long-cold water. His neck aches like he's been sleeping forever.

TIGHT ON WALKER - he's in his early thirties, dark featured.

HIS P.O.V. - looking around the room. Everything's strange, unfamiliar.

He stands, steps from the tub.

ANGLE - THE SWINGING LIGHT BULB. Walker's hand ENTERS FRAME, stops the bulb mid swing.

ON HIS REFLECTION in a cracked wall mirror. He moves to the mirror and looks at himself. A line of blood runs across his face, from a point between his eyes. He wipes it away, and notices a tiny pin-prick wound on his forehead.

WALKER'S P.O.V. PUSHES TOWARDS a circular window. The glass is cracked, covered in grime. His hand wipes it, this only smears the dirt, but the window is unlatched and swings open with a creak.

It's dark out there.


Here’s a sequence from Robert Towne’s
Chinatown, a script that really deserves no introduction. This is my favorite sequence in this script in terms of screenwriting techniques. Reading this for the first time was such a revelation to me. I love the way Towne uses Secondary Headings to cut back and forth between Gittes and Mulwray. In the hands of lesser writers, this sequence could have been a bear to read and follow. With a pro like Robert Towne, it’s simple, seamless, and visual. As far as I’m concerned, there was no other way to write this sequence.


It's virtually empty. Sun blazes off it's ugly concrete banks. Where the banks are earthen, they are parched and choked with weeds.

After a moment, Mulwray's car pulls INTO VIEW on a flood control road about fifteen feet above the riverbed. Mulwray gets out of the car. He looks around.


holding a pair of binoculars, downstream and just above the flood control road -- using some dried mustard weeds for cover. he watches while Mulwray makes his way down to the center of the riverbed.

There Mulwray stops, tuns slowly, appears to be looking at the bottom of the riverbed, or -- at nothing at all.


trains the binoculars on him. Sun glints off Mulwray's glasses.


There's the SOUND of something like champagne corks popping. Then a small Mexican boy atop a swayback horse rides it into the riverbed, and into Gitte's view.


himself stops, stands still when he hears the sound. Power lines and the sun are overhead, the trickle of brackish water at his feet.

He moves swiftly downstream in the direction of the sound, toward Gittes.


moves a little further back as Mulwray rounds the bend in the river and comes face to face with the Mexican boy on the muddy banks. Mulwray says something to the boy.

The boy doesn't answer at first. Mulwray points to the ground. The boy gestures. Mulwray frowns. He kneels down in the mud and stares at it. He seems to be concentrating on it.

After a moment, he rises, thanks the boy and heads swiftly back upstream -- scrambling up the bank to his car.

There he reaches through the window and pulls out a roll of blueprints or something like them - he spreads them on the hood of his car and begins to scribble some notes, looking downstream from time to time.

The power lines overhead HUM.

He stops, listens to them -- then rolls up the plans and gets back in the car. He drives off.


Hurries to get back to his car. He gets in and gets right back out. The steamy leather burns him. He takes a towel from the back seat and carefully places it on the front one. He gets in and takes off.


And finally, here’s the opening scene from
The Long Kiss Goodnight by Shane Black. A number of elements I love about this scene. He has the camera panning from the windowpane over to the bed and to the eyes of the sleeping little girl who wakes up. It’s dark. The mother by the bed is just a vague shape. After a little dialogue, she turns on the nightlight, which brings a surprising visual revelation. And then we’re back to the mother by the bed and then back to same windowpane where we began. Perfect.

My man, Shane Black - I love his work.


Assaulted from without by SNOWFLAKES. Wind tossed.

INSIDE, a bed, dappled with moon shadow. A LITTLE GIRL, fast asleep. The wind whistles and sighs outside. She DREAMS... Eyelids closed, eyes roving beneath... then suddenly they SNAP open. A stifled cry. She thrashes for her STUFFED BEAR, as a soft voice says:


And there's MOM, kneeling beside her. Vague shape in the dimness. The full moon throws light across one sparkling eye.

Mommy, the men on the mountain...!

Shhhh. Gone, all gone now.
(strokes her hair)
I'm here. Mommy's always here and no
one can ever hurt you. Safe now...
safe and warm... snug as a bug in a
I'll sit with you, think you can

Turn on the nightlight.

The mother nods. Passes her left hand gently over the girl's forehead.

Close your eyes now. I love you.

The child subsides, breathing steady. Eyes closed. The mother rises. Regards her through the dimness. Slowly turns, heads for the door. Flicks on a Winnie the Pooh NIGHTLIGHT --

Her entire right forearm is slicked with blood. More blood on her Czech-made MP-5 machine gun.

She staggers just a little... barely noticeable. Passes out on the light. Into darkness. Sits beside her daughter's bed. The child sleeps peacefully. Outside snow slithers at the glass.


Laura Deerfield said...

ah, four *amazing* movies - and wonderful, practical examples... in fact, the Shane Black example helps me with how to do something in the SP I was working on. I didn't want to write several lines, going into and out of a Flashback sequence, for a flash that only lasts a moment. Might have been "correct" but didn't flow right.

Mystery Man said...

Yeah, they really stood out as I was going through a bunch of scripts. I'm going to post more as I come across them. I really loved the "Blade Runner" script. I could have done an entire article on that script alone. And I can't help but wonder if I should've. Fancher did such a great professional job all around - never once wrote a camera angle or "we see," never once took me out of the story with technical jargon, and his imagery was consistently rich scene-by-scene. I loved it. It was perfect writing for a guy like Ridley Scott. It's a shame Fancher didn't write more screenplays. I wonder what his story is.


Christian M. Howell said...

Those were all good examples. I agree about Dark City. It wasn't distracting per se, but "his face reflects grimly in the cracked wall mirror" would have been better.

The first thing to notice about each is that they all use simple, brief sentences with simple words.

I hate "dictionary scripts."

I myself have come to love secondary headings. They work as standalone - "HALLWAY" or even as a part of a line - "He walks into the "


GFS3 said...

Good writing on "Blade Runner." Too bad it translated into a mediocre movie: http://tiny.cc/9JjaX

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, Christian. Sometimes little used words are just the right words for certain moments.

gfs3 - Thanks. And thanks for the link. Of the four scripts, Fancher's writing in "Blade Runner" really stood out the most to me. You could SO clearly see the movie on the page as you read it. I may post more examples. Really loved his work there.


Laura Deerfield said...

I'd be interested to compare the Blade Runner screenplay to the screenplays for Minus Man and for something by Peoples like Ladyhawke or Unforgiven...see if it's possible to distinguish the influence of the two authors.

I know Fancher was passionate about bringing to life the Philip Dick story. And made the best comment in all the commentaries, when talking about whether or not Deckard is human. "It's not the answer that's interesting, it's the question."

On the other hand, Peoples is a pro who has written several strong scripts.

Mystery Man said...

That sounds like a superb blog article for you. I can't wait to read it! Hehehe...


Christian M. Howell said...

Yes, sometimes the pedantic is the pedestrian, depending upon the particular usage, but the best scripts I've seen read like high school term papers.

Kevin Lehane said...

What I like is that the A/D is written just as poetically as the dialogue -- and thus proves that every word counts in a script and not just the ones the audience will hear.

Mystery Man said...

Christian - I don't know what to make of that.

Kevin - I couldn't agree more. My mantra, which I'll take to the grave - make every single word count. So true.

"Here Lies Mystery Man
He made every word count."


Christian M. Howell said...

What I meant was that a SciFi piece will employ little used words, just as a medical drama would.
If the topic is one that demands it, it becomes pedestrian.
But, for the most part, poetry works better than specialty vocab.
You can see it in Dark City vs. Long Kiss Goodnight.

Dark City seems very "mechanical" while Kiss seems more poetic.

"Snow slithers outside the window"

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