It’s Unconventional Week here at Scriptshadow, and here’s a reminder of what that’s about.
Every script, like a figure skating routine, has a degree of difficulty to it. The closer you stay to basic dramatic structure, the lower the degree of difficulty is. So the most basic dramatic story, the easiest degree of difficulty, is the standard: Character wants something badly and he tries to get it. “Taken” is the ideal example. Liam Neeson wants to save his daughter. Or if you want to go classic, Indiana Jones wants to find the Ark of The Covenant. Rocky wants to fight Apollo Creed. Simple, but still powerful.
Each element you add or variable you change increases the degree of difficulty and requires the requisite amount of skill to pull off. If a character does not have a clear cut goal, such as Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate, that increases the degree of difficulty. If there are three protagonists instead of one, such as in L.A. Confidential, that increases the degree of difficulty. If you’re telling a story in reverse such as Memento or jumping backwards and forwards in time such as in Slumdog Millionaire, these things increase the degree of difficulty.
The movies/scripts I’m reviewing this week all have high degrees of difficulty. I’m going to break down how these stories deviate from the basic formula yet still manage to work. Monday, Roger reviewed Kick-Ass. Tuesday, I reviewed Star Wars. Wednesday was The Shawshank Redemption. Yesterday was Forrest Gump. And today is American Beauty.
Genre: Drama – Coming-of-Age
Premise: Lester Burnham experiences a mid-life crisis after he’s fired from his job, which ends up triggering chaos in his suburban neighborhood.
About: Was widely considered one of the best spec screenplays of the last 20 years. But the movie was always going to be a hard sell due to its non-high concept nature. American Beauty went on to become a surprise hit, winning a Best Picture Oscar, as well as 4 other Oscars, including one for Kevin Spacey.
Writer: Alan Ball
Degree of difficulty – 4.5 out of 5
Some of you have suggested that I ditch this mainstream trash and take on movies that are REALLY unconventional. For example, explain why a film like Mulholland Drive works. Well, it’s pretty simple. I *don’t* think Mulholland Drive works. So I’d do a pretty lousy job convincing others of it. I’ve always struggled with Lynch's appeal. The randomness of his stories always confuses me. So I ask you Lynch-ians, what is the appeal of Lynch’s films? I ask that in all sincerity. I want to know.
Today I’ll be hitching a ride on Kevin Spacey’s train – whatever that means – and reviewing one of the great movies of the last decade – American Beauty. Recently, I watched this movie with a friend who’d never seen it before. I was like, “How could you not have seen American Beauty? It’s awesome.” And she was like, “I don’t know. I just haven’t.” So I forced her to sit down and watch it, and halfway through she turned to me with this frustrated expression and said, “This is just like Desperate Housewives.”
At first I was angry that she wasn’t appreciating the genius of this movie. But I was also trying to figure out if she knew American Beauty came out a decade before Desperate Housewives, and how this would affect our friendship if she didn’t. But after stepping back and thinking about her comment, I realized just how much American Beauty influenced movies and television. It really inspired a lot of copycats, and for that reason, it can never play as original as it did back in 1999. But it’s still awesome, and it still had no business being as good as it was. You want to talk about degree of difficulty, let’s talk about American Beauty.
American Beauty does something I tell new writers never to do: Follow a bunch of characters instead of following just one. It’s okay to follow other characters when they’re around your character, but to jump back and forth between numerous characters and their individual storylines is basically the same as having multiple protagonists. So instead of having to create only one character compelling enough to carry a movie, you have to create six. In addition to that, multiple characters screw up your act breaks and overall structure. You’re essentially having to create multiple three-act stories within a three-act story, and I’m not even going to get in to how hard that is. So yeah, you’re kinda screwed right off the bat.
Also, like a lot of movies this week, American Beauty doesn’t have a very compelling story. In fact, if I described it to you beforehand, you’d probably get bored within 20 seconds. “Well see it’s about this guy. And he like, gets fired. And then he decides to live his life to the fullest. But see, we also watch his family too. And his daughter wants new breasts. And his wife totally hates him. Oh, and the next door neighbors are this military dad and his pot-smoking son…” It just sounds like a slightly exaggerated version of what goes on in everybody’s neighborhood. Why would anyone want to watch that for two hours?
Finally, Lester is an unsympathetic character. He basically says “fuck off” to anyone who doesn’t want to live by his new rules. On top of that, he tries to fuck his high school daughter’s best friend! Let me repeat that. Our 45 year old protagonist is trying to have sex with a 17 year old High School girl. Conrad Hall, the cinematographer on the film, was so concerned about this that he almost didn’t take the job.
Too many characters: check. Weak story: Check. Despicable protagonist: Check. Why the hell did this work?
Why it works:
Ball was smart. He knew that if he followed a bunch of different characters for an extended period of time without a point, we’d get bored. He needed a connective thread – something to bring all these storylines together. He created it in Lester’s death. Ball tells us in the beginning of the movie that in one year, Lester Burnham will be dead. You don’t think much of it at the time, but later you realize that that one sentence turns the movie into a Whodunnit. It’s by no means the dominant focus of the movie, but it gives the movie purpose. I read a lot of these screenplays where writers don’t use that device and they’re almost always bad. In fact, Mark Forster has one of these movies in development called “Disconnect,” (about how we're all disconnected because of technology). He doesn’t use this device and as a result, the script wanders all over the place.
Next, Ball adds humor. American Beauty deals with some serious ass subject matter. Stalking, death, murder, physical abuse. But the movie is fucking FUNNY. And we’re only able to feel the pain because we’re allowed to laugh. The 7th line of the movie is “Look at me, jerking off in the shower.” Contrast this with another Mendes movie, Revolutionary Road, which had a lot of similarities to American Beauty, but didn’t have a single joke in it. Despite having two of the biggest stars in the world to sell the movie, it bombed. Coincidence? Not thinking so. American Beauty understands that if you ratchet up the melodrama 100% of the time, the audience will turn on you. Make’em laugh and they’ll go as deep as you dare to take them.
Scandalous. A little scandal goes a long way. Old guy with an underage girl? That’s controversial. Controversy intrigues people. It gets people talking. But what Ball managed to do with this storyline was make you understand why our hero did it. This wasn’t about nailing an underage girl. This was about Lester trying to reconnect with his youth. By getting the young girl, it was the physical manifestation of that goal. Also, Ball did a really smart thing by having Mena Suarvi engage in the pursuit. If she would have been some innocent doe-eyed teenager, Lester would’ve looked like a predator. Because she eggs him on, the relationship doesn’t seem nearly as dirty as it could’ve been.
Finally, what I loved most about American Beauty is that I never knew what was coming next. As a writer, it’s your job to surprise the unsurprisable. The audience has seen everything. The readers have read everything. So safe boring choices aren’t going to cut it. Yet, safe boring choices is what I see 99% of the time. American Beauty has its 40 year old protag befriending his 17 year old pot-selling neighbor who’s dating his daughter. It has his wife fucking her real estate rival. It has 5 minute scenes with bags blowing in the wind. It has military closet homosexuals who collect Nazi dinnerware. I can’t remember a movie that consistently surprised me as much as this one. I just never knew where it was going to go. It shows what can happen when you test yourself as a writer and never go with the obvious choice. That's something we all need to do more of.
Let me finish with this. I'm of the belief that what you have in the script is what you get in the movie. I don't believe you can do that much to make a script better than it is. Sure you can do a few flashy things here and there, but in the end, it's about the emotion, and that comes way before a frame of film is ever shot . However, I will concede this belief in one area: the score. A great score can elevate a movie beyond the script. And American Beauty did that. I don't think without that score that the movie is as good as it is.
Anyway, great movie. Why do you think it worked?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
What I learned: The power of a framing device. If your screenplay has little to no plot, look to build a framing device around it. For example, Cameron easily could’ve made Titanic about two people falling in love on a boat, but he knew there wasn’t enough story to that. So he framed that love story inside a present-day search for a jewel. Now the entire movie had purpose, as there was a point to telling this love story. The same thing happens here. We aren’t just jumping in and out of people’s lives randomly. We’re trying to figure out who’s going to kill Lester.