How Are Famous Movie Scripts Created?

“To make a good film, you just need three things: the script, the script, and the script.”
-Alfred Hitchcock

Scripts or screenplays are where all movies begin—without a script there is no film.  Yet, when asked, the average movie goer would be hard pressed to name more than a handful of screenwriters, and those they can name are usually because they know of them as directors or producers.  Screenwriters are truly the unsung heroes of Hollywood.

Screenplays start with an idea.  Screenwriter Nora Ephron and director Rob Reiner had a conversation where they wondered “can a man and a woman ever remain just platonic friends?”  Nora answered this question with the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally. As fellow screenwriter Andrea Berloff put it “With dry wit and pithy dialogue, no one had more humorous insight into the foibles of men and women stumbling their way through messy yet relatable lives.”  Who can forget the classic “orgasm” dining scene and the perfect line “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Screenplays consist of plot, dialogue and characters.  The art of screenwriting is to use these elements to transform their idea into something riveting, fresh and novel.  How the screenwriter does this is what separates the good from the also-ran.

There’s also a “little thing” called formatting.  Movie scripts have their own format that is unlike writing a book or an article.  If you come across a screenplay for the first time it can be confusing.  However, the format is designed to make it clear to directors, producers, actors and script readers what is taking place on the screen.

Scene Heading:  Where and when the scene takes place.

Action:  What action transpires in the scene.

Character Names:  Which role is speaking or involved in an action.

Parenthetical:  How dialogue is to be delivered (to be used sparingly.)

Dialogue:  The words that are spoken.

Transitions:  How the scene ends.

In the beginning, these formatting rules may slow down your writing, but as you begin to understand why they are there you will realize that they can help you greatly in visualizing your story.

So, what makes a famous movie script?  Is it the dialogue?  Here are ten famous lines from ten famous films.

“You talking to me?”  from Taxi Driver.

“I’m walking here!  I’m walking here” from Midnight Cowboy.

“Here’s Johnny!” from The Shining.

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Jaws.

“Here’s looking at you, kid.” Casablanca.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Gone With the Wind.

“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” The Godfather.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore.” The Wizard of Oz.

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” from Cool Hand Luke.

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  from Network.

These memorable lines are instantly recognizable, but if you thought this was the work of a great screenwriter you’d be only half right.  The first five quotes were actually ad-libs created by the actor in the moment, the remaining five quotes were written by the screenwriter.

The point here is that screenplays for movies are not etched in stone.  Many a great movie has gone through multiple rewrites, even during production.  There’s even a name for this kind of last-minute screenwriter: the script doctor.  Robert Towne was the uncredited script contributor for The Godfather.  Carrie Fisher was the script doctor for Lethal Weapon 3, Hook and The Wedding Singer among others.  Aaron Sorkin was the uncredited dialogue rewriter in Shindler’s List.  Unlike theatre, where the screenplay may not be changed, the movie that ends up on the screen may or may not resemble the screenplay it began from.   Producers, directors and actors all weigh in on the process at various times with varying degrees of success.  Sometimes, the screenplay, as written, is gold.  David Webb Peoples came up for the idea for Unforgiven in the mid-1970s.  Clint Eastwood secured the final script in the early 80s but waited ten years to make the movie because he felt he was too young for the role.  The movie was released in 1992 and won 1993 Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Film Editing.  Although nominated for Best Screenplay, the award went to Neil Jordan for The Crying Game.

To answer our original question, “How Are Famous Movie Scripts Created?” is to try and define a mercurial process akin to capturing lightning in a bottle.  There is no formula which is one reason you see so many high budget CGI movies these days where on-screen stunts substitute for well written scripts.  But there is one ingredient common to famous movie scripts—they are timeless.  If your goal is to create the next great masterpiece of cinematography history, then concentrate on ideas that will stand the test of time.

Here are two great resources if you decide you want pursue an interest in screenwriting.

ScriptReader.com allows you to download 50 of the best screenplays.  These include scripts for drama, comedy, action/adventure, thriller and horror genres along with an introductory paragraph on what to look for in each script.

William Goldman was a prolific novelist and screenwriter.  His books on the movie business offer insights into the trade.  Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting, and its sequel Which Lie Did I Tell? offers an insider’s look at the movie business.  His books Four Screenplays and Five Screenplays together include nine of his screenplays with an essay on each.   The nine included screenplays are: Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, Misery, All the President’s Men, Magic, Harper, Maverick and the Great Waldo Pepper.

 

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