Thursday, July 27, 2006

Subtext - Back to the Future

Please allow me to introduce you to Miriam Paschal, an active member of TriggerStreet, celebrated “Reviewer of the Month,” and consummate writing machine who, at the time of this posting, has 6 scripts on TriggerStreet including The Gates of Hell, Rapture of the Fallen (an epic vampire story), Out of Nowhere (a twist on Jack the Ripper), and my personal favorite, An Unnatural Soldier, which was nominated for “Screenplay of the Month.” Soldier is the story about Sarah Morris who “put away her apron and took up a musket” in the Civil War.

Miriam is a woman so passionate about screenwriting that she actually times the scenes when she watches movies. Hehehe… How can you not love that? Her subtext example? Something off the top of her head – a scene from Back to the Future. She writes:

Lorraine's line, "Marty, you seem so nervous. Is anything wrong?" is on-the-nose, but Marty's line, "Because you might regret it...later in life" has quite a bit of sub-text. We've already seen that Lorraine will drink later in life, but Marty can't tell her that. He has a moral dilemma. The next line, "Everybody who's anybody drinks" is a set-up for the last part of this exchange, which is wordless. With a look of resignation, Marty takes a drink. He doesn't have to say anything. We can see that he's defeated in both his argument and his attempt to save his mother from alcoholism.

Here’s the scene as you see it in the movie:


Marty pulls Doc’s car into a parking spot.


Marty turns off the car. He adjusts his neck in his collar as he fixes his tie.

Do you mind if we...park...for

That’s a great idea. I’d love to

Marty’s head whips around.


Lorraine giggles and bats her eyes.

Well, Marty, I’m almost eighteen
years old. It’s not like I’ve
never parked before.


Marty, you seem so nervous. Is
something wrong?

Marty looks around and grabs the steering wheel. He stares straight ahead, out the window.


Lorraine glances around, brings out a bottle, and takes a drink. Marty glances at Lorraine and sees the bottle.

Lorraine, Lorraine...

He grabs the bottle and pries it away from her mid-swig.

...what are you doing?

I swiped it from the old lady’s
liquor cabinet.

Yeah, shouldn’t drink.

Why not?

Because you might regret it...later
in life.

Marty, don’t be such a square.
Everybody who’s anybody drinks.

Marty, with a look of resignation, takes a drink himself. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Lorraine light up a cigarette and does a spit-take.

Jesus, you smoke too?

Marty, you’re beginning to sound
just like my mother.

Here’s a bonus, something to fry your mind. Here’s how the scene was originally written. Consider how the scene was shortened. Consider all the lines that were cut…


Brown’s Packard pulls into the lot and parks.


Marty, at the wheel, is very uneasy; Lorraine next to him looks beautiful in her best party dress. Marty glances at the clock on the dashboard. It’s 8 minutes before 9.

Uh, you don’t mind if we, uh, park
for a few minutes?

Why do you think I’d mind?

Well, I don’t know, some girls just
don’t like to...

Marty, I’m almost 18 years old.
It’s not like I’ve never parked

She scoots over, very close to him. Marty fidgets. Boy, is he nervous!

You seem nervous, Marty. Is
anything wrong?

Uh, no...

Have some of this - it’ll help you

She pulls a pint of gin out of her purse. Marty is shocked.

What are you doing with that?

I swiped it from the old man’s
liquor cabinet.

She takes a nip.

Lorraine, you shouldn’t drink!

Why not?

Well, it’s just not healthy.

Don’t be square, Marty. Everybody
who’s anybody does it.

She hands it to him.

Maybe I could use a hit...

Just as he takes a swig, she pulls out a pack of cigarettes and lights up. Marty spits out the gin in surprise.

Jesus - you smoke too?

Now, Marty, you’re not going to
tell me that smoking is unhealthy.
Everyone knows that it calms your
nerves and it’s good for the

It’ll give you cancer!

You know, you sound just like my
mother. When I have kids, I’m gonna
let them do anything they want.

I’d sure like to have that in

The comment goes right past Lorraine.

So what are your parents like? Are
they as square as mine?

Lorraine, lately I’ve come to the
conclusion that I don’t know
anything about them.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Subtext – Casablanca, Apollo 13, and Raiders of the Lost Ark

All right, gang, say hello to MaryAn Batchellor, creative screenwriter extraordinaire, all-around smart lady, and author of the fabulous blog, Fencing With the Fog.

Here's her insightful contribution to subtext:

Aspiring screenwriters have widely differing ideas, opinions and misconceptions of what subtext actually is. Many believe it's a simple matter of reading between the lines while others believe that speaking metaphorically is also subtext. Neither is categorically true. There is nothing simple about writing subtext and metaphors aren't subtext unless the metaphor is being used for one example but also means something else. And, there's a difference between story subtext with double entendres and story subtext that has a single entendre but says what it means without saying it. What is a good definition for subtext? I don't know but if I had to make up one, I'd say it was “saying what you mean without really saying it.”



RICK: I congratulate you.
RICK: Your work.
RICK: We all try. You succeed.

Rick means what he says, but he also means what he doesn't say. He's also talking about Victor's relationship with Else.

Apollo 13

JACK: Now the important thing
when you're penetrating
the lunar module... is your attitude
and your relative speed.

He demonstrates with a beer bottle and a drinking glass.

JACK: Now let's say this is me here in the command module, and this is you.
TRACEY: All right. Uh-huh.
JACK: In the LEM. This thing sticks out here in front, that's called the probe.

He inserts the neck of bottle into the glass.

TRACEY: Is that true?
JACK: Absolutely. And, Tracey,

I'll tell ya, when you feel that
thing slide in, everything's
clickin', it's like no other.

Yeah, he's demonstrating the probe all right.


Raiders of the Lost Ark

INDY: I never meant to hurt you.
MARION: I was a child! I was in love.
INDY: You knew what you were doing.
MARION: It was wrong. You knew it.
INDY: Look, I did what I did. I don't expect you to be happy about it. But maybe we can do each other some good.
MARION: Why start now?
INDY: Shut up and listen for a second. I want that piece your father had. I've got money.
MARION: How much?

The word “sex” isn't used here. But that's obviously what we're talking about. She's saying he used her. He's saying she wanted it.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Subtext - The Woodsman

I’d like to start this series with my own submission from a movie that’s superb but difficult to sit through – The Woodsman. (The script’s available here.) It’s written by the talented Steven Fechter with the help of director Nicole Kassell and based upon Steven’s play.

Kevin Bacon plays Walter, a pedophile who (after 12 years in prison) tries to reenter society. While working at a lumberyard, he meets and falls in love with Vicki, played by Kyra Sedgwick.

Consider the way these two characters circle each other as they both try to decide if they want to be together.

[To set this up, Vicki saw Walter walking along the road after work and she’s giving him a lift home…]


Vicki glances at Walter.

There’s something wrong with this

What picture?

I’m talking about you.


Yeah, you.

Walter looks out the window.

Here’s this nice, hard working guy
who suddenly appears out of the
blue and rides the bus to and from
work. I mean, who rides the bus

People without cars.

She gives him a look.

Very weird.

No weirder than a sharp, young,
good-looking woman working in a

What’s weird about that?

Most women wouldn’t choose it.

Guess I’m not like most women.

Vicki takes out a cigarette and presses the cigarette lighter in, revealing a tattoo on her wrist of a pair of breasts with angel wings.

Walter notices the tattoo. Vicki notices Walter notice. She smiles at him.

You’re quiet at work.

I’m just quiet.

You don’t hang out with the other

Neither do you.

They’re all assholes.

Walter shrugs.

You never spoke to me before.

I thought you were a dyke.

Vicki laughs and stops at a red light.

Are you?

What do you think?

She shoots him a look.


Vicki paces around the apartment.

Walter takes two beers from the fridge then turns and stands holding them, watching her.

Southern light.


Your windows face south. Northern
light is the purest. But southern
light is very good.

I’ll buy a plant.

You should buy several. I’ve got
shitty light in my place, but my
plants don’t seem to mind. Light’s
important, but it’s not everything.

She looks at Walter.

You plan to drink both those beers?


Walter hands her a beer.


She takes a swig then gazes back out the window.

Is that a school?

K through sixth.

Doesn’t it get noisy?

I like the noise.

My place faces a truck street. I’ve
got cracks in every window from the

You must hate it.

I go backpacking a lot. Lose myself
in the wilderness for a week or

Vicki wanders through the stark living room space, looking at what little there is to look at.

What about bears?

What about them?

They could eat you.

Yeah, they could.

She looks closely at the bus map taped to the wall, the only decoration in the place. She looks at Walter.

I thought you were just shy, but
now I think it’s something else.


You’re damaged.

Walter drinks his beer and sits down on the couch.

Something happened to you.


Vicki sits next to him.

I’m not easily shocked.

I get that impression.

So... what’s your dark secret?

Why do you want to know?

Don’t you think I should know
before we have sex?

Walter looks at her in surprise.

I don’t like to waste time.

Vicki leans in and kisses him.



Are you going to tell me your deep
dark secret before we have sex?

She kisses him again.


Vicki looks at him.


She kisses him. Hesitantly, he kisses her back.

Oh how hard it is on the road to redemption to open up about that which we are most ashamed, to face a woman who’s genuinely interested in you and admit the things you feel sure would ruin your chance to be loved. The undercurrent of Walter’s every word is, “I want you, but I’m ashamed. I don’t want to talk about it, and I need you to love me anyway.”

Vicki is, of course, his opportunity to experience a normal love affair for the first time, normal sex with a normal woman, feel normal feelings, whatever “normal” means. All he knows is that normalcy is going to be radically different from the habits of his past, and that’s scary. And the thing that impresses me about him (and I suspect might have impressed Vicki, too) is that even though he doesn’t talk about the past, he doesn’t bitch about the present either or stoop so low as to manipulate her into believing he was screwed in life. He is what he is. This is his life now, as pitiful as it is. One moment I love – she offhandedly gives him the chance to complain about the noise from the playground… but he refuses. “I like the noise,” he says. Here’s a man living in shit who doggedly refuses to complain about it.

And ya know, he doesn’t even have to talk about his shame. It’s engraved on his face. It’s written all over the shabby walls of his empty apartment, and Vicki most certainly reads the writing on the wall.

And thus, she asks him, “What is your dark secret?”

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Queen of Subtext in Comedy

Thanks to everyone who’s agreed to participate! Please keep the submissions coming (via email)! I’ve already received quite a few fantastic scenes, and I’m genuinely excited about the discussions we’ll be having on subtext over the next few weeks.

I know what a shock it must’ve been to get my email with the question, “Would you mind sharing with me your favorite example of subtext in a movie?” The answer is NOT EASY. It requires thought and concentration because nothing gives screenwriters more fits than subtext (although I think it is something we should embrace and love). SO… as many of you continue to think about scenes with subtext, I’d like to share a couple of non-cinematic examples (so as not to accidentally steal anyone’s thunder).

First, check out a short blog I posted earlier this month about a moment in time captured by the great screenwriter, William Goldman, where a few simple words conveyed volumes of subtext. It’s called
Subtext & Natalie Wood.

Second, let’s talk about the funniest and greatest break-up book in the history of mankind (and womankind) – Anita Liberty’s
How To Heal The Hurt By Hating.

On the cover, she writes:

My boyfriend, Mitchell, whom I dated for three and a half years, left me for a woman named Heather, and, to get even, I have devoted my entire career to humiliating him in public. Enjoy the book.

The book is a collection of (slightly) bitter journal entries. It’s amazing how much hilarious subtext can exist in one’s own private journal. You can read excerpts on
her website. Consider the subtext found in the following journal entries:

Not Thinking About You(Oh but of course she is!)

Guys Who Want to Sleep with Me…(Seduction is always about the art of subtext.)

Independence Day.” (She tries to convince herself how great it is to be dumped and alone and how she doesn’t really need anybody especially HIM.)

But back to the title of her book, which, in and of itself, has some subtext to it because we all know that healing hurt feelings by hating someone is not what her book is really about. She is not advocating hatred and bitterness in the world (although at times you might wonder). It is a funny expression of feelings at a very painful time in her life, and thus, her book is, in fact, about laughing through the pain. It is about the miserable business of going through all of those necessary emotions you have to go through after a bad break-up (and yes, you have to acknowledge anger and maybe even a little hatred… or A LOT of hatred in Anita’s case). And then you realize, after you finish her book, that it was downright cathartic to laugh through all of that pain with her. And by seeing how Anita clings to bitterness, how she cannot let go of humiliating Mitchell, how she cannot move on in her life, she actually inspires us to… do the opposite. What she cannot do, we MUST do.

I have to hand it to her. She’s sharp. She’s the reigning Queen of Subtext in Comedy. In fact, she just posted on her website a video clip from one of her recent shows called
Turn Off Your Cell Phones. What makes this improvisational moment funny is the subtext because she never says the words and tells the audience to “turn off your cell phones.”

If her clip were to be scripted, it might look something like this…



Audience laughs and applauds.

Thank you. My next poem is called...

A cell phone rings in the audience. A look of horror on Anita’s face.

(mock phone call)
Hello? Who's this? No... No, I'm
actually at the theatre... No...
Well, yeah, I guess I could take a
picture of her for you. Okay, hold

She poses. Everyone laughs.

Okay, I'll send it to you... Don't
call me. I told you not to call
me... All right, I'll talk to you
later... Really? Okay, all
right... Bye. No, seriously, BYE.

Everyone applauds.

I don't mean to humiliate anyone I
haven't slept with...

By the way, she has a new book out, too, called How to Stay Bitter Through The Happiest Times of Your Life.


Hope this proves helpful. Keep 'em coming!

Friday, July 21, 2006

The art of SUBTEXT!

Almost since the inception of this blog, we have been studying...


Of course, we screenwriters all know very well what subtext is.

According to Wikipedia:

Subtext is content of a book, play, film or television series which is not announced explicitly by the characters (or author) but is implicit or becomes something understood by the reader / viewer as the production unfolds. Subtext can also refer to the thoughts and motives of the characters which are only covered in an aside. Subtext can also be used to imply controversial subjects without specifically alienating people from the fiction, often through use of metaphor. H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, for example, use the Morlocks and Eloi as metaphors for exploitative capitalists and exploited workers respectively.

Examples of subtext often include the sexuality of the characters. For example the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle in
Xena: Warrior Princess, which was left ambiguous throughout the series although some fans believed them to be lovers, or the nature of the relationship between the teachers in the film version of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour which was based on an actual case in Scotland but toned down for film.

A scene in
Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall, in which subtitles explain the characters' inner thoughts during an apparently innocent conversation, is an example of the subtext of a scene being made explicit.

In the episode "My Best Friend's Bottom" of 'British TV comedy Coupling,
Captain Subtext is a tool used in the narrative to explicitly make the viewers aware of the subtextual message in the dialogue. Of course the dialogue and the subtext has been deliberately made humourous.

Listed below are all of the articles. Some were written by me and others were submissions from friends, bloggers, and fellow screenwriters.

We now have over 25 great posts on subtext in dialogue. We decoded wordless subtext, one-word subtext, single and double entendres, lines that have two or even three layers of meaning, subtext in seduction, poetry, evasion, and appeasement, the subtext of not saying what would normally be said, I could go on and on…

I want to officially and most sincerely thank from the bottom of my heart all of the contributors:

We will not EVER conclude our study on subtext. Whenever inspiration hits us, we will post new scenes to study & debate. If YOU discover a great scene with subtext and wish to submit it for our general edification, please feel free to email me.




Film Noir & the Subtext of Gilda



Annie Hall


The Shawshank Redemption


The Woodsman

From the Mouths of Filmmakers

Cinema is not the reflection of reality, but the reality of the reflection.
Jean-Luc Godard (pictured above)

I'm a visual stylist. I'm dealing with a white canvas up there and I may be one of the few practitioners doing that today.
Brian De Palma

Character and emotionality don't always have to be relegated to quieter, more simple constructs.
Kathryn Bigelow

This, I think, is the best thing a filmmaker can give to an audience--the possibility of many interpretations.
William Friedkin

I shoot my films from the point of view of neighbors, and as a neighbor there is always something you cannot see and have to guess at.
Wong Kar-Wai

A good philosophy is to take a chance when you shoot, and be creative at every stage.
Michel Gondry

I'd rather do an honest commercial than a dishonest film.
Orson Welles

To be honest with you, we artists do not contemplate that many theoretical issues. In art, creative impulse plays a bigger role than theory.
Zhang Yimou

If I fail, the industry writes me off as another statistic. If I succeed, they pay me a million bucks to fly out to Hollywood and fart.
George A. Romero

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.
Woody Allen

I demand that a film expresses either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between.
Francois Truffaut

Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.
Jean-Luc Godard

To me I think music video is the perfect medium to do kinetic or geometrical research and I use them for that.
Michel Gondry

I try to personalise everything I make. I can’t do it otherwise. I don’t tell the studios that, though...
Tim Burton

If anyone tells you the filmmaking process is fun, they’re liars. Rehearsals are fun, getting the costumes together, dressing the sets. When you get down to shooting all you’re doing is prioritising to minimise downside.
David Fincher

Some people's interpretations of our works overshadow the works themselves. It has been common for interpretations to impose themselves on art works.
Zhang Yimou

Rebellion is no longer a purpose, but a story or a theme.
Zhang Yimou

A lot of people think that youth or age is the total sum of your knowledge about anything, and it's absolutely untrue. I think I might have even known more five years ago than I do now.
Steven Spielberg

I just don't think they're much interested in directors anymore. It's all a celebrity business.
Brian De Palma

I've become wary of interviews in which you're forced to go back over the reasons why you made certain decisions. You tend to rationalize what you've done, to intellectually review a process that is often intuitive.
Peter Weir

Censors do what only psychotics do... they confuse reality with illusion.
David Cronenberg

All the films I'd like to make are art films, but that doesn't mean they're not commercial.
Richard Kelly

You have to believe in God before you can say there are things that man was not meant to know. I don't think there's anything man wasn't meant to know. There are just some stupid things that people shouldn't do.
David Cronenberg

When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, "No, I went to films."
Quentin Tarantino

I would not think of quarreling with your interpretation nor offering any other, as I have found it always the best policy to allow the film to speak for itself.
Stanley Kubrick

Cliché of the Day (7/21/06)

'Brains in vats' movie

Named for Wilder Penfields brain experiments in the mid-20th century, these are movies in which the reality of events is caused by some sort of device that makes the brain "think" it is experiencing those events. See "The Matrix" movies, "Existenz," "Total Recall," "Open Your Eyes," "Vanilla Sky" and others. Currently in vogue as a replacement for the dreaded "It Was All a Dream" movie.


Thanks to
Ebert’s Glossary.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Cliché of the Day (7/20/06)

"Tell Me Where You Are And I'll Come And Get You."

The telltale line that finally makes obvious to everyone (except the hero) that the hero’s trusted friend or supervisor has gone over to the bad guys.


Thanks to
Ebert’s Glossary.

"Nobody is Owed Work"

Tom Brevoort, Executive Editor for Marvel Comics, wrote a very sobering blog, which (if it had a title) would’ve been called “Nobody is Owed Work.”

“Just like movies, just like television, comics tend to be a young man's game. You can be cruising along, doing your thing and thinking everything's fine, and then suddenly, tastes change and you find yourself by the side of the road. And given history, it's likely to happen. It's very rare that any creator stays on the top of the heap for very many years. The ones that do have this type of cache tend to be the ones who leave the industry at the height of their career, and then pop back in every now and again in the years thereafter. Folks like Frank Miller and Alan Moore.”

Be sure to read the lively comments that followed.


Now that you’re totally depressed after reading Brevoort’s blog, how about some personal thoughts on how to win the game?

We have to become masters of the craft, and that makes us students for life. ‘Til death do we stop studying and staying current. Because quality is essential to staying alive. That means that we have to know more than our competitors. We have put in the time to push our talents to new heights so we will be more skilled at the craft than our competitors. As Hugh Macleod so beautifully pointed out on his
blog, “power is taken, not given.” We have to be able to walk into a room and work it and say to them, “Hi, I’m the best frickin’ screenwriter on the planet,” and somehow, they can tell you’re not lying.

I have long felt that there has been a terrible disconnect between amateur screenwriters and film scholars. Amateur screenwriters, like lost sheep, stay huddled together in their own little cliques with other amateur screenwriters and they only read screenwriting magazines and screenwriting books and they only care about the opinions of other screenwriters, preferably the ones who’ve had movies made.

And I certainly don’t mean to discredit the writers of screenwriting books and magazines, etc. They have a lot of great things to say, especially Robert McKee. But there’s also a whole world out there filled with film lovers and film scholars who likewise have many, many great things to teach us. We have to open our eyes and pay attention to the scholars as well if we truly aspire to write a great movie. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read an article by some geeky film scholar that turned out to be so insightful about characters and the visual language of film that I honestly walked away feeling totally edified by it.


Consider Jim Emerson’s
Opening Shots Project.

Consider everything
Girish has written.

Consider the articles of Robert Cumbow at
24 Lies a Second.

Consider the countless free insights over at
Images, Offscreen, the Bright Lights Film Journal, and GreenCine Daily.

Consider all the websites listed on the right, which barely even scratch the surface.

But please don’t forget me.


P.S. How does anyone find time for television when our dreams are constantly at risk?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Rules of Action

Kenji Fujishima, contributor to The House Next Door film blog, wrote a great piece on Die Hard and observed that it was actually three movies in one. And ya know, he may have unintentionally offered us screenwriters three very simple golden rules of great action movies:

Movie No. 1: Action spectacle

…the film manages to wring many convincing sequences out of such a claustrophobic setting, from one-on-one fights to an explosive last-act rooftop setpiece… In fact, the entire film is less about escalating bouts of violence than about seeing who outthinks the other.

Movie No. 2: Character drama

Screenwriters Jeb Stuart and Steven E. De Souza differentiate their hero from the other macho men of the era by making McClane fallible and vulnerable while being undeniably heroic.

Movie No. 3: Light Satire

—the entire movie has a mild satirical undercurrent that criticizes the very genre conventions it satisfies. McClane's “Yippee-kayyay, motherfucker!” is such a resonant, funny punchline because of its context: the conversation that leads up to McClane’s first utterance of that catchphrase, in which Gruber accuses McClane of being “another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne, Rambo, or Marshal Dillon.” McClane never directly engages this point—indeed, he seems to proudly affirm the truth of Gruber's taunts. But his response--that he was always partial to Roy Rogers--becomes a running gag throughout the film.

Cliché of the Day (7/19/06)

I’m going to post these fairly regularly…

"Miss Blanche?" Character

Any character in a film who is a false hero and exists only to get killed for shock value -- usually seconds after theyve found out the villain. Examples: Detective Arbogast in "Psycho," the cop in "Misery," the brother in "The Stepfather," the football player in the remake of "The Blob," and, of course, the maid in "What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?" (The title comes from her last words.)


Thanks to
Ebert’s Glossary.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Creative Inspiration

I gotta give it up to Hugh Macleod and his gapingvoid blog, which is full of cartoons that he has drawn on the backs of business cards (like the one pictured above). Not only that, his blog’s FULL of creative inspiration, and not only THAT, it has THE BEST article ON creative inspiration.

In it, he offers 31 personal tips that have helped him over the years, which are listed below, and he wrote simple, compelling examples for each tip. Just exceptional.
Read it. Go here.

1. Ignore everybody.
2. The idea doesn't have to be big. It just has to change the world.
3. Put the hours in.
4. If your biz plan depends on you suddenly being "discovered" by some big shot, your plan will probably fail.
5. You are responsible for your own experience.
6. Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten.
7. Keep your day job.
8. Companies that squelch creativity can no longer compete with companies that champion creativity.
9. Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb.
10. The more talented somebody is, the less they need the props.
11. Don't try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether.
12. If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you.
13. Never compare your inside with somebody else's outside.
14. Dying young is overrated.
15. The most important thing a creative person can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not.
16. The world is changing.
17. Merit can be bought. Passion can't.
18. Avoid the Watercooler Gang.
19. Sing in your own voice.
20. The choice of media is irrelevant.
21. Selling out is harder than it looks.
22. Nobody cares. Do it for yourself.
23. Worrying about "Commercial vs. Artistic" is a complete waste of time.
24. Don’t worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually.
25. You have to find your own schtick.
26. Write from the heart.
27. The best way to get approval is not to need it.
28. Power is never given. Power is taken.
29. Whatever choice you make, The Devil gets his due eventually.
30. The hardest part of being creative is getting used to it.
31. Remain frugal.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Movie Clichés

Ahh, yes, the always funny and yet very important subject for screenwriters today – movie clichés. Below are two links that contemporary screenwriters would do well to study:

Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary, which offers countless fan-submitted rules of movies like these gems:

Dead for Sure, No Doubt About It

In a movie, the absolute proof of the death of a character is when blood drips slowly from the corner of the mouth. This is in too many movies to document. An interesting variation was the dripping of liquid metal from the evil mutant's mouth in "X-Men 2." As a physician, I can tell you that blood coming from the mouth after a fight is either, 1) a sign of a communication of the esophagus with a major blood vessel, which would be fatal, or 2) a cut in the mouth, which would not be.

Don't Wait For Me

Whenever the hero in a movie says "If I'm not back in 5/10/15 minutes, get out of here/blow the whole thing up/call the cops," etc., he will be late. But his companions will ignore his instructions and wait until the hero (who is always wounded) returns. There is a 20 percent chance that they will go out to look for him and also get wounded.

Archivist Killer Syndrome

Many serial killers could also find employment as the authors of double-acrostics and conundrums. In searching for such killers, hero detectives invariably find an abandoned apartment with newspaper clippings and photos on the wall showing the killers a) victims b) pursuer c) next victim and d) a message to his pursuers. See In the Line Of Fire, Seven.

And here's the great Movie Clichés website, which is organized by topic.

On Villains:

* The bad guy is always a foreigner.

* The bad guy also has a side-kick muscleman, who has some sort of trademark gimmick that he/she uses to eliminate opponents. You must kill or decomission this muscleman by forcing a backfiring of this trademarked gimmick. If the muscleman dispatched by a different method, he/she is not dead. (For that matter, don't assume that anyone is dead unless their death was spectacular. Beware sequels.)

* No matter how dead you think you've killed a bad guy, he can still get up at least 3 more times. Therefore, always make sure to leave his gun in or near his hand after you've killed him and you turn away to comfort the girl.

* When a villain seems dead, he never is. He will always be allowed one, and sometimes two resurrections. The hero will frequently see him coming, even if his back is turned. If he doesn't, a friend will finish the villain off.

* The bad guy usually kills his henchman for failing, yet don't seem to run out of loyal henchmen.

* Bad guys lurk until their presence is revealed by a flash of lightning.

* You can kill the bad guy by taking careful note of any object that the camera has lingered on for an unnecessarily length of time; typically this is something like a meat-hook or a jagged bit of glass. You will be involved in a mighty struggle, and at the appropriate time you can become inspired (usually by either an insult from the bad guy or a look of faith from your love interest) with strength enough to force the bad guy into/onto/under/in front of the aforementioned object. Actor's Equity (Hollywood) requires that within 15 seconds either side of the bad guy's demise, you utter your trademark phrase.

* Whenever a villain has captured the hero, he will pause for 5 minutes to tell the hero _every_ detail of his plan to destroy and/or rule the earth, including times, dates, and addresses.

* The bad guy, having finally gotten the good guy into his clutches, will usually spend a few megalomaniac minutes gloating over his victory and his opponent's downfall. This increment of time will prove just enough to allow the good guy to figure a way out of his predicament, or just long enough to allow a rescue attempt.

* The bad guy, instead of simply offing the captured good guy on the spot, will devise some sort of drawn-out, fiendishly clever method of execution that will take enough time to allow the good guy to figure out his escape.

* When a villain seems dead, he never is. He will always be allowed one, and sometimes two resurrections. The hero will frequently see him coming, even if his back is turned. If he doesn't, a friend will finish the villain off.

* You can always tell which nationality the United States and the popular media are currently most unhappy with because that nation sends all their villains to star in Hollywood movies during those times (e.g. Germans in the late 40's and 50's, Asians in the 60's and 70's, Soviets in the 70's and 80's and Middle Easterners in the 90's).

Sunday, July 16, 2006

David Mamet's "Edmond"

David Mamet’s Edmond is opening to limited release in New York and Chicago this month. The plot? “A fortune-tellers teasing rumination sends Edmond Burke lurching into New York City's hellish underworld.”

Stephen Holden in the New York Times writes, “In Edmond, William H. Macy is perfectly cast as a prim Manhattan businessman who heeds his inner demons and plummets into free fall.

"It's hilarious, and contains some of Mamet's best dialogue," writes Salon's
Andrew O'Hehir. "Somehow, by making a racist, murderous, Everycreep his protagonist, Mamet is able to produce some of his most penetrating psychological and spiritual insights."

In celebration of Mamet’s flare for crackling American dialogue, how about we read a scene from Edmond and then watch it?
(There's always a difference in the way a scene sounds in your head when you first read it and the way it sounds when a pair of great actors pull it off.)



EDMOND and the MAN turn around to look at a BEAUTIFUL WOMAN who enters. She smiles at them and looks around the bar.

Her BOYFRIEND walks up to her.


He leads her away. They turn back around.

...because the pressure is too much.

What do you do?

What do you mean?

What do you do to get out?

What do I do?


What are the things to do? What
are the things anyone does? Pussy?
I don’t know. Pussy. Power.
Money. Adventure. I think that’s it...
(takes a drag)
Self destruction. I think that
that’s it. Don’t you?


Religion. Um, I suppose that’s
it... Release. Gratification.
You gotta get out. Get something
that opens your nose. Life is too

My wife and I are incompatible.

I’m sorry to hear that. In what way?

I don’t find her attractive.


And she hates my guts.


It’s a boring thing to talk about,
but that’s what’s on my mind.

I understand.

You do?


Thank you.

Believe me. It’s all right. I
know that we all need it. We don’t
know where to find it. I know what
it means, and I understand.

I feel --

I know, like your balls were cut off.

Yes. A long, long time ago. And I
don’t feel like a man.

Do you know what you need?


You need to get laid.

I do. I know I do.

Now watch the scene…

Downloadable Windows Media
Hi-res [3.72 MB] and Lo-res [838 KB]

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Insulting Stupid Movie Physics

Insulting Stupid Movie Physics is such a great website.

I particularly enjoyed the article on the classic movie cliché: cigarettes lighting gasoline.

"The explosive or flammable range for gasoline is about 1.4 to 7.6% gasoline vapor in air. Outside of these limits, gasoline cannot be ignited. A large amount of gasoline in an enclosed can usually will not form an ignitable mixture since the vapor concentration will be too high.

We lit a cigarette and tossed it into the pan. The cigarette paper wicked up gasoline and quenched the glowing tip without igniting anything (see Figure 4). We tossed in more lit cigarettes. We tried lighting gasoline soaked paper towels. We used long tongs for reaching far away objects to hold glowing cigarettes over the pan at various heights. More than once we placed several glowing cigarettes in the pan (see Figure 5). Our record was 40 glowing cigarettes at one time. In most cases, we allowed the glowing cigarettes to smolder until they went out.

Various experiments were conducted at different times of the day with different air temperatures and humidity
. A total of 223 cigarettes of 11 different types were eventually used all without ever igniting the gasoline. Yet, at the end of each experimental session the gasoline was successfully lit using a single match attached to a long pole (see figures 6 and 7). The gasoline would typically ignite just before the match touched it. This indicated that there was an ignitable mixture just above the surface of the gasoline. Numerous lit cigarettes were in this region for significant periods of time."

Friday, July 14, 2006

Early review of "Lady in the Water"

"Sir Lancelot" at Ain't It Cool News posted an early review of M. Night Shyamalan's upcoming Lady In the Water.

Hee hee hee...

"Lady In The Water is a diarrhea splat of storytelling so haphazard, ideas so undernourished, dialogue so banal, and characterization so criminally lifeless that if you'll be able to lift yourself out of your torpor you will be truly amazed.

You will be truly amazed because here is a young filmmaker who has, in one fell swoop, transformed himself from a flawed and fortuitous studio darling into an irritating film school geek with no right to advancement. I can only assume the Warner Bros suits were so stunned by the celluloid catastrophe that developed in front of their eyes day by day that they forgot that it was their job to rein in this monstrous piece of self-indulgent crap.

Howard's character has a duty to contact a human and pass along a Highly Significant Message, and in one of the most nauseating passages in this sea of puerile puke, she tells a writer that his unpublished book will influence the future President of America and shape a New World Order.

Guess who plays the writer? Night?!! It's by far the biggest role he's given himself, virtually the second male lead, and a clear indication of the delusions of grandeur that fester inside his creatively barren desert of a brain. I think I actually heard someone retch during one of his scenes. He tries to direct several comedy scenes too, and the results are indeed hilarious.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Flashbacks are Your Friend

So, the question – what is the point and purpose of a flashback?

A flashback is usually a revelation of character, is it not? It shows us something in the past that helps to explain a character’s current state. We see the character, we see a flashback, and then we feel differently about that character. It would be as if we were sitting in a therapy session with Sybil and Dr. Wilbur and we cut to flashbacks of Sybil’s abused childhood. We’re forced to see her being tied up and beaten by her schizophrenic mother, see her being locked in a box, see her endure those horrific enemas and then be tied to a piano by her mother and be told to “hold it in.” Those flashbacks would be absolutely essential to her story, would they not? We would never forget them. It would be far more effective to SEE her childhood than to HEAR Sybil talk about it in therapy, right? By watching those scenes, we would feel even more sympathy for that poor girl.

I’ve read books that argued against the famous flashback in Casablanca. Bogart drinks at night after having seen Bergman enter his gin joint, and we go to the flashback of their love affair. We see how much they were in love, how much he loved her, and of course, the “wow finish,” and Bogart's stunned disbelief at the train station. Then we’re back to the present. Bergman shows up. I love that flashback. I don’t remember the names of the books that argued against it, as I threw them out years ago. In any case, they argued that it was pointless and slowed the narrative. They’re all wrong. The flashback showed us a love affair that we wanted to see, and it made us feel some of Bogart’s pain. It earned him sympathy. Otherwise, we might’ve been put off by Bogart’s lashing out at Bergman.

By its very design, a flashback reveals. They are usually short, emotionally charged, and show us things that illuminate that character’s current state. They impress upon us something we would not have felt while we watched this character in the present.

I love flashbacks. But the question we’re asking ourselves is, “can a flashback be stretched to 120 minutes?” Can it be structure? By making it structure, you’re forced as a writer to show a character very briefly in the beginning, like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, who’s in a pickle, and then you're forced to jump right into two hours of revelation emphasizing all the hows and whys just to explain the reason MacMurray wound up in that pickle.

Wouldn’t you say that Shakespeare emphasized better the hows and whys of Romeo & Juliet’s tragedy without having a flashback structure?

Consider this:

Every play of Shakespeare contains elements of tragedy, some foretold, some not (“Antony & Cleopatra” comes to mind). We, of course, remember most his famous chorus that sang of “star-crost lovers” taking their lives at the beginning of “Romeo & Juliet.”

But he never EVER opened a play with his final scene.

Flashback Question

Let me pose this question - what is the point and purpose of a flashback?

Flashback Structure Comments

Ya know, the discussion about flashbacks became so lively, I think the fairest thing to do is to pubish the comments of those who disagree, particularly Lori's. She deserves to be heard.

wcdixon said...
Okay I hear you, and generally agree with you. But I think we can debate a bit more the flashback technique and 'where' you pull the flashback from. Take 'The Usual Suspects' (another Oscar winner) --- begins with explosion on boat and 'someone' approaches Keaton (Gabriel Bryne) and shoots him (with a little misdirect as it's shot as if someone else is watching them).Because the mystery was still intact (who is Keyser Sose?), the ending wasn't ruined. Could the story have still been told without the opening? Sure...I suppose - but it worked as it was.Now if the teaser opening had been Verbel leaving the copshop and transforming into Soze, that would have been a bad place to pull the flashback from... am I making any sense?And American Beauty could have been told without opening info, but as it was, the movie went from 'what will happen? will he die? ... what will happen? how will he die (does someone kill him?)? It still feels like an either/or scenario...Historical stories can also get away with it (like Titanic) since most of us know the ending already. The filmmakers are simply choosing to give that story a particuliar perspective.But I'm still with you as a general rule.
July 12, 2006

Mickey Lee said...
I had to think long and hard for a comment on this one. You bring up many good points. And it's very tough for me to defend flashbacks because I generally despise them and never use them in my own writing. However...Movies that start with the ending are essentially just asking a different question then movies that play from beginning to end. Instead of asking "what's going to happen?" they ask "How's this going to happen?", which I think is completely legitimate. Any biographical film (i.e. Titanic) asks this question regardless of whether they show the ending at the beginning or not, because we already know how it's going to end.Having the ending at the beginning, i.e., "American Beauty" and "Sunset Boulevard", does one more service to the filmmaker. It softens the blow of a "Down ending." The audience knows from the get-go they are watching a tragedy. No test audience can fill out their cards saying "the movie was great, just wish the good guy got away at the end." Shakespeare didn't call "Hamlet", "Hamlet". He called it "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark," essentially giving us the ending at the beginning. The Globe audience knew from the beginning that Hamlet was going to die, it was HOW he was going to die that mattered. But Shakespeare could pull it off.So the problem, I think, is not one of structure but of skill. "WHAT" is much simpler to pull off, because all you do is withhold information. It's the easiest kind of suspense. "HOW" is much tougher. When the audience knows the main character is going to die, they formulate thousands of stories in their head leading to that ending. The writer needs to surpass all those stories in order to be successful. Very few writers can pull that off.My two cents, and believe me, it was hard to do because I hate flashbacks generally.
July 12, 2006

wcdixon said...
Mickey:Nicely put - and I think we are saying more or less the same thing (how instead of what), no?
July 12, 2006

Mickey Lee said...
Yeah it looks like it! Sorry, I actually didn't read your comment until after I posted mine. Could've saved me some wear and tear on the old carpals.Cheers
July 12, 2006

Mystery Man said...
Hey, guys, I truly appreciate these comments. I'm going to blog more about this in a day or two, because, ya know, I thought of some great movies worthy of discussion.You guys made me think that not only could that type of structure place an emphasis on HOW but maybe even WHY?-MM
July 12, 2006

mickey lee said...
I was thinking the same thing when I wrote my initial comment. But I could not think of a movie with a good "WHY?" set up, except "Citizen Kane." "Rashomon" occurred to me, but that's really a "HOW" movie.
July 12, 2006

wcdixon said...
'Memento'...sort of
July 12, 2006

Lori Pieper said...
Hi, I'm immaginativa (writer of "The Marquise," and since my story has been the subject of some discussion here, I thought I'd join in. (I've already written Mystery Man some of what I've going to say). First I should correct a couple of things MM had to say about my screenplay, since some of his description of my story bears very little relationship to what I actually wrote. My screenplay may have some faults, but he’s making me out to be a much clumsier writer than I really am. Here’s what he said:“By showing us in the beginning that the Marquise lived to be old and was married to Larrieux who died, you gave away the whole ballgame.” The marquise does not marry Larrieux at the end. He is described at the beginning of the screenplay as being “her one lover of long ago,” not her husband. It’s clear that they broke up long ago. “Before we even get to see a seducer like Bretillac in action trying to win her over, we already know that his advances will amount to nothing because she ends up marrying Larrieux.” I think what MM means here is that if Bretillac’s plot to seduce the marquise had succeeded (it was actually an attempted rape that he was going to make look like seduction) and she was disgraced because of it, and Larrieux had learned of it, that would have made him decide not to marry her – and therefore we know already B’s advances have to fail. But Larrieux doesn’t learn of it and doesn’t marry her – for other reasons. Once again there’s no connection between this and the ending. “We already know, when she was ill toward the end and worried about dying, that she will not die.”What MM is referring to occurs in the third act, after the marquis experiences a mild fever and is bled by a surgeon. There is absolutely no question of her dying. It leads to her passing out and a later fainting spell - that’s all. The incident does lead to some suspense - of whether she will be able to make her rendezvous with the actor Lelio and confess her love or not. (I’ve been told by some readers that this is quite effective). So this gives away nothing.That said, it’s pretty obvious I’m a fan of flashback structure. I agree with a lot of what Mickey Lee and wcdixon are saying. The common thread seems to be that having a beginning where at least part of the ending is revealed leads to a lot of possibilities for the screenwriter to engage our interest in other ways than by mere suspense about the outcome. It allows the writer to focus our attention something he or she considers more important.When skilled screenwriters use the flashback /VO method, they are careful not to give "everything" away. They may reveal a few things, but not the answer to the major dramatic question of the movie. In fact’s what’s revealed (or not) will often reveal what that major question is. Here’s a terrificexample from one of my favorite films -- "Amadeus." The very first words of the film are Salieri telling us he killed Mozart and asking Mozart to forgive him. That certainly gives away a lot!BUT several major things are left unsaid: for one thing, Salieri’s motive, which is gradually and brilliantly revealed throughout the movie. But there’s more. To me, the major dramatic question - the answer to which we don't find out until the film's final moments -- is whether Salieri realizes that he himself needs forgiveness from God. All throughout the film, the forgiveness motif has been very strong - I don't think the audience can miss it. And Salieri continues to resist divine forgiveness (so beautifully expressed in the “Marriage of Figaro” music). But his remorse in regard to Mozart leads us to think he might actually go himself to the source of forgiveness. But at the very end he slips back into his madness and his sin - apparently forever. I thought this was utterly brilliant. I’m sure that Peter Schaeffer, the screenwriter of "Amadeus" chose this beginning and this method deliberately. (And then in regard to the "murder” he even has a surprise in store - Salieri doesn't physically kill Mozart, but he feels morally responsible for his death).Now, in regard to my screenplay, what I was reaching for was exactly what MM said: the marquise’s need to find a generous and noble man - and more than just that. What she needs most is not just to be with such a man, but to know that this kind of goodness exists. It’s bound up with another theme of the film, which is her loss of the presence of God in her life because of her traumatic experience with her husband, and her need to find it again. I was trying to make it clear that the two are connected: she needs to find the perfect ideal goodness that will satisfy her soul. Neither Lelio or any other man is going to wholly provide that. On one hand, as an actor playing ideal heroes, he is a representative of perfect goodness; on the other hand, if she tries to see the real man as perfect, she’ll be disappointed. She makes that mistake for quite a while, but does come to love the real man in the end, for his real, but imperfect goodness, and also gains an increased sense of God in her life, because of her experience of his ideal goodness on stage (I realize this is very confusing to those who haven’t read the story, but bear with me). So, in this story, which I adapted, by the way, from a novella by George Sand, I wanted to focus on this particular question very closely (so did Sand, evidently, because my structure more or less reproduces hers). So we DO learn early on that the marquise clearly didn’t end up with Lelio permanently. But what we don’t know is whether this is because she never stopped focusing on the ideal heroes and never saw the real man, or because he only saw her body, not her soul, like the other men, or because HE rejected her in the end because he thought she loved the heroes, not him -- or whether they loved each other, but society’s prejudice means that they can’t be together. But the dramatic tension is focused on the question of true love, not whether they stay together. After all, Romeo and Juliet found true love, but they didn’t get to grow old and enjoy their grandchildren together. And in fact, Shakespeare gave away the ending in practically the first words of the prologue of this play, so he must have wanted to focus on the true love question, or the question of fate, or the fact that the sacrifice of their lives would lead to peace, all which the prologue points to. I think the flashback technique actually helps to keep my major dramatic question clear - or should if I’ve used it right. Maybe that’s something we could discuss!Hope this has added something to the discussion.
July 12, 2006

Mickey Lee said...
LoriI personally have not yet read your script. So my comments were simply directed at the question MM posed at the bottom of his post. I actually skimmed over the stuff he posted about your screenplay because I haven't read it, so I never took his post as a discussion on your script, just a discussion on "framing" devices in general. I'm not a big fan of flashbacks -- I think they are vastly overused. While you are right to say that skilled writers can do great things with flashbacks (Amadeus is a great example), what I've mostly seen are weak writers using them as a crutch.I don't find enough people using flashbacks like you prescribe, as a way to underscore your themes. Rather, it's to give us unnecessary character development, exposition or just as a cheap way to create interest in a story that would otherwise not be interesting if told in order.A point that MM made which I strongly agree with is that the "Princess Bride" type framing devices create a distance between the audience and the characters, vesting more of our emotions in the storyteller rather than the characters which are supposed to delineate the theme. Not that any of this applies to you, because I haven't read you script! But there's my two cents. Hopefully I'll get assigned "The Marquise" soon!
July 12, 2006

wcdixon said...
Good example in 'Amadeus' - and I'm in same boat as Mickey Lee in that I haven't read Lori's screenplay, but was just commenting on the flashback script...but a good discussion.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

2 + 2 = PART 2!

(A continuation of a previous blog “2+2=”)

So is the point that if you start movie this way, one should pick a dramatic point just prior to conclusion so ending is still up in there air? Or just not start movies this way? Are there any examples of movies that start with ending (or thereabouts) and work (American Beauty)?

I’d like to blog about this. Hope you don't mind. I’m open to any thoughts from anyone who might disagree with me.

To answer the first question, NO. To answer the second question, YES. Stephen King railed against this structure in his book,
On Writing, and over time, I’ve grown to completely agree with him. I believe that the kind of story structure we saw in Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd should be avoided as much as possible by contemporary screenwriters. Audiences are more sophisticated about movies than they were in the 1940s and that kind of structure ruins a movie for an audience. Weak (and new) writers give up the game by showing the ending in the beginning because they lack the skills to give the audience crafty hints throughout the narrative.

Let me give another example. I recently reviewed a very intelligent first script called
The Marquise from a very intelligent girl with a Phd who went by the name “Immaginativa.” The story opened with the Old Marquise (a woman) who just lost her husband, Larrieux. We see her at the funeral crying. Afterwards, she tells her story to a young biographer. Then we dive right into a 125 page flashback…

When the Marquise was young, she was forced into a horrible marriage. The husband died. There was the issue about her dowry and her husband's estate, and thus, the Marquise found herself in the business of getting reacquainted with society and upper class gentlemen and hopefully, remarried. The catch to all of this was that this time around in marriage the Marquise wanted to actually be in love with a genuinely noble man, a man of decency and integrity, in a place where none could be found. All the men who tried to win her over consistently failed her, and it got so bad, that she eventually fell in love with an actor who PLAYS THE PART OF the kind of man she wants to love.

I honestly loved this story. A sensational concept.

However, in my review, I argued that her structure ruined the story. This is what I wrote:

Let's talk structure. I don't know why, but all the newbie screenwriters use this kind of structure when they write their first screenplays as if it's the bread and butter of story structure. An audience will RARELY feel any interest about an old person trying to tell a story nobody knows that takes place in the distant past. You care less simply because it IS taking place in the past. Forget about the flashbacks, send the audience back in time, and just tell the Marquise's story as if we're all living in 1756. You need to put the audience right in the middle of the action as if it's taking place right now. They will be far more emotionally invested in your story with that kind of setup. Not only that, you pulled the rug out from underneath all the rising tension we SHOULD be feeling throughout Act II by giving away the ending at the beginning of your story. By showing us in the beginning that the Marquise lived to be old and was married to Larrieux who died, you gave away the whole ballgame because we now know how her story will end before it ever gets started. And it's a long story, too, that goes from page 7 all the way to page 132. Before we even get to see a seducer like Bretillac in action trying to win her over, we already know that his advances will amount to nothing because she ends up marrying Larrieux. We know that she will not be with Lelio, the actor, because she ends up marrying Larrieux. We already know, when she was ill toward the end and worried about dying, that she will not die. I had to pretend I never read that beginning, that I didn't know she became old and married Larrieux, and only then did I really start to love your story, because I was rooting for her and wanted her to find a noble man who will really win her heart. So get rid of all the 1830 scenes. Get rid of the Old Marquise, get rid of Georges and Sophie, get rid of all those voice overs, which broke the cardinal rule of showing not telling, and just let Marquise's story unfold in front of us in very simple terms.

This isn’t a matter of what’s the right or wrong structure. It’s a matter of what makes for a better experience for the audience - to be shown the ending before they even see the story? Or to watch the story unfold and wonder how it’s going to end?

I would argue it’s the latter, because with the first you’re never fully invested emotionally in the character goals or the story – it’s just a matter of connect the dots.

The last time I saw American Beauty, I thought about its narrative structure. Was it the right decision to have Lester Burnham tell the audience in a voice over in the very beginning, “In less than a year, I'll be dead”? Yeah, I know Alan Ball got an Oscar for writing that script, but yet, I can’t help but question, “was that weak writing? Would it have been better if Alan Ball had shown subtle hints of what’s to come throughout the narrative and let the audience wonder and worry HOW it was going to end and perhaps even guess that Lester will die?

To answer the third question - I can’t think of any movie that opens with the ending and still works. If anyone can think of one, please tell me. Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd worked in the 1940s, but they don’t work today. It would be better today to wonder how the story will end than to be told upfront. The only exception to this rule might be the Titanic. In this particular case, we didn’t care about the flashback structure because a) by the time the movie was released, we already knew the story of the Titanic and we couldn’t wait to relive it, b) Cameron needed to give an explanation of how exactly the ship will sink so we’ll know what’s going on in Act III and could concentrate on the story, and c) we wanted to see the Titanic in its current form at the bottom of the ocean as well as in its pristine glory when it set sail.

In fact, this topic reminds me of something Stanley Kubrick said:

"The essence of dramatic form is to let an idea come over people without it being plainly stated. When you say something directly, it is simply not as potent as it is when you allow people to discover it for themselves."