Thursday, June 9, 2011

Is The Princess Bride The Perfect Movie?

Remember going to the video store with your friends back in the old days and trying to find a movie that EVERYBODY wanted to watch? Impossible right? And that was just for 4-5 people. Imagine trying to find a movie that EVERYBODY IN THE WORLD wanted to watch. That’s like trying to find the chupacabra. Or Bigfoot. Or evidence of UFOS. But believe it or not, there are a few movies out there that EVERYBODY likes. And The Princess Bride is one of them. Now I don’t know about you. But when I see a movie that everybody likes, I think to myself “screenwriting goldmine.” I mean this is the Holy Grail we’re talking about. A screenplay which has somehow managed to rope in every single person who’s seen it. If we’re not mining that puppy for secrets, then why the hell even bother with screenwriting? So, here are ten screenwriting not-so-secrets I learned from watching The Princess Bride.

We talk often about trying to create “likable” characters. Well look no further than these three. You will not find a more lovable group than Westley, Fezzik and Inigo Montoya. Why are they so lovable? Well, let’s take a look. The Man In Black (Westley) is loyal (will not stop until he saves his true love) respectful (will defeat but never hurt his enemy, as long as they respect back) great at everything he does (swordsman, fighter, thinker), he’s active (he pursues a goal throughout the entire movie) and funny (has a ton of hilarious one-liners – “Sleep well and dream of large women”). We love Inigo and Fezzik because they’re enslaved by a lunatic who constantly berates and reminds them how pathetic they are (creates sympathy). Fezzik is slow, giving us one more reason to root for him (underdog). We love Inigo because he not only lost his father (another sympathy vote), but he will not stop until he finds the man’s killer and avenge his death (active). If you want to learn how to build likable characters that rock the shit out of a screenplay, look no further than this movie.

Remember, almost every great script breaks some of the rules. The main thing breaking the rules does is it gives your movie a level of unpredictability. If you’re deviating from the formula, then we can’t possibly predict what’s going to happen next. The two major deviations here are that the main goal (“save Princess Buttercup from her captors”) is achieved by page 35. That’s when Westley defeats the bad guys and saves his true love. This early achievement then forces The Princess Bride to reboot its story and become something else (a movie where he’s now being chased as opposed to doing the chasing). In fact, the cool thing about The Princess Bride is that the story continues to reboot itself throughout its running time. First he’s chasing, then he’s being chased, then he loses the princess, then he must get her back again. The constantly changing goals keeps Princess Bride fresh. Next, there’s no true main character. “Bride” starts out with Westley and Buttercup being the main characters, then it becomes Vizzini, Inigo, and Fezzik, then it becomes Westley again, then it becomes Inigo and Fezzik again. One thing they tell you to ALWAYS do in your screenplay is have a clear cut hero. They don’t do that here in The Princess Bride, and it ends up paying off in a big way. Now it’s important to remember that William Goldman is a master screenwriter and knows how to make this unorthodox choice work, so tread carefully if you plan to do it yourself. But still, it’s always nice to see someone deviate from the norm and have it pay off.

One of the greatest things about this movie is how difficult the writer makes each task for his heroes. Think about it. Fezzik and Inigo need to get into the castle so Inigo can kill the six-fingered man. Their only hope is to use The Man In Black to formulate a plan. So they get to the Man in Black, AND HE’S DEAD! Talk about making things difficult. And how do you storm a castle with a man who’s speaking gibberish and can’t stand on his own? Talk about difficult. Westley must defeat our villain while comatose in a bed! Talk about difficult. Each goal is made out to be so impossible, that we’re perpetually on the edge of our seats racking our brains trying to figure out how they’re going to pull it off.

The second your heroes are happy and content and satisfied is the second your movie is over. There should always be problems, always be conflict, always be obstacles. Westley must battle three titans to get to Buttercup. But when he finally gets to her, he’s only allowed a quick moment of happiness. Seconds later they’re being chased by Humperdink, pushed into the Fire Swamp, dodging fire spouts, quicksand, and Rodents Of Unusual Size. When they get out of the forest, they’re immediately captured, and Westley is strapped onto the deadly “Machine.” Watch this movie and you’ll find there isn’t a single minute that goes by where the heroes are okay. That’s why the movie keeps us involved. There’s danger in every moment.

Goldman utilizes every trick in the book to keep the pace of this story moving. In every sequence, someone is either being chased, doing the chasing, looking for someone, or needing to do something by a certain amount of time. Chasing is one of the best ways to add urgency to your story, and what makes it work so well here is that the “chaser” keeps changing. First it’s Westley, then it’s Humperdink, then it’s Fezzik and Inigo. I think if it was one person the whole time, this movie wouldn’t have been as good as it is. Also, note that when we finally get off the road, and there’s no more official “chasing,” Goldman immediately institutes a ticking time bomb to keep the urgency going, that of the wedding.

Love seems to be at the center of a lot of popular movies. It’s one of the few things that every single person on earth can relate to. And I think it’s a big reason for The Princess Bride’s success. Now don’t mistake a “love story” for only being about a man and a woman. Morgan Freeman often talks about how The Shawshank Redemption was a love story, and I’d agree with him. Look at a few of the highest grossing films of all time. Avatar. Titanic. E.T. Casablanca. Gone With The Wind. Love is the central theme in all of those films. The Princess Bride is one of the best love stories ever made. And I don’t think it’s an accident that so many people gravitate towards it.

What I love most about The Princess Bride is that it’s packed with unexpected moments. If a reader can predict your story, you’re dead, cause that means they’re ahead of you. And if they’re ahead of you, they’re bored. Look at all the unexpected things that happen in The Princess Bride. Our hero dies! Twice! When the Man In Black and Inigo battle, Inigo tells him he’s right handed…only to have the Man In Black tell him that he’s right handed too! Inigo spends his whole life looking for the man who killed his father, and when he finally finds him, THE GUY RUNS AWAY! Our bad guys eventually become our good guys. Our hero doesn’t fight the villain in the end. Princess Bride is one of the most surprise-packed movies ever made, which is a huge reason for why it’s so satisfying.

Remember, wishy-washy motivations lead to wishy-washy characters. Usually when I read a script, one or two characters will have strong motivations, and everyone else is window dressing. Every character’s motivation in Princess Bride is rock solid. Westley wants to save Buttercup. Humperdink wants to catch and kill Westley. Vizzini wants his money for kidnapping Buttercup. Inigo wants to kill the Six-Fingered Man. Even Fezzik, who you could argue has the weakest motivation, is dedicated to helping and saving his friends. When everybody wants something? Then every scene in your movie is strong because those wants clash up against one another, creating conflict.

If you’re writing a drama that’s deftly plotted with compelling characters, you can get away with “okay” dialogue. But if you’re writing a comedy, your dialogue has to be great. Dialogue is what separates the great comedies from the average comedies. And the dialogue here is just amazing. I don’t know if there’s a more quotable movie than The Princess Bride. And it’s hard to pinpoint why the dialogue is so good, but my guess it it’s because of the characters. Goldman knew each of these characters so well, that the dialogue wrote itself. I’m not sure the dialogue is as perfect had Goldman not written the novel for The Princess Bride first, as I think that’s where he got to know these characters so well.

The biggest thing I took from this is the “Impossible Comeback” device that Goldman institutes again and again in The Princess Bride. Almost every character in this movie experiences a setback so severe, so crippling, that we believe there’s no chance they can ever recover from it. That way when they do, our emotional reaction is a billion times more intense than it would normally be. I mean, take Westley for example. Early in the story, he dies. And we’re devastated. Because we know that he and Buttercup can never be together again. Then we find out Westley is alive again! We’re overcome with emotion. But then Westley REALLY dies. Like we see him die. Now we REALLY know there’s no hope for him. And somehow, still, he manages to defeat the villain and save the princess. When Inigo finally finds the Six-Fingered Man, he gets a knife to his gut, and looks up to the heavens and says, “I’m sorry I failed you father.” NO! This can’t be! Inigo has failed???? After all this???? But then he overcomes his injury and wills himself to victory. It happens when Buttercup gets married (what?? She’s married?? But our hero was supposed to save her!!). It happens when Grandpa tells us that Humperdink lives (the villain LIVES?? No way! That’s not possible!). This “impossible comeback” scenario is freaking genius. I mean, sure, winning a basketball game feels great. But winning a basketball game after you’re down 20 points with 5 minutes to go is the greatest feeling in the world. To me, that’s the golden tip I take away from The Princess Bride.