Sunday, May 1, 2011

Which screenplays should aspiring screenwriters read?

Screenwriters are filmmakers. So, in the same way that aspiring architects study buildings, aspiring screenwriters should study, first and foremost, the films themselves. A book like Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach, by Paul Gulino, has beat by beat analysis of well known movies that illustrate story structure, sequencing, plant and payoff and other techniques.

That said, there are a number of scripts that beautifully illustrate how screenwriters use the written word to indicate visuals, tone, style, pacing, structure, character, tension and action: words that define the finished movie like the lines of an architect's blueprint.

It is also very instructive to look at early drafts of screenplays to discover how the film was changed and revised during production. Sometimes brilliant scripts were made into mediocre movies. Sometimes problematic scripts were solved in the process of shooting and editing.

Here is a list of feature scripts that agents, executives, film school professors, and screenwriters themselves often cite as influential and instructive to aspiring screenwriters.

Five mainstream Hollywood scripts often cited as perfect in style, structure, content, and execution are: 
  • Chinatown 
  • Die Hard 
  • Unforgiven 
  • Groundhog Day 
  • American Beauty 
Since so many movies are adaptations, it is instructive for screenwriters to read the underlying material (usually a novel), and then read the screenplay adaptation. Five scripts often recommended are:
  • Adaptation 
  • Cider House Rules 
  • Silence of The Lambs 
  • The Shawshank Redemption 
  • The English Patient 
Classic Scripts most often recommended: 
  • Treasure of The Sierra Madre 
  • The Sweet Smell of Success 
  • Some Like It Hot 
  • Casablanca 
  • His Girl Friday 
Taste in indie film is more eccentric and subjective. But I would list these independent voices as instructive to ALL screenwriters:
  • Ronnie Rocket (unproduced script by David Lynch 
  • Memento 
  • Mystery Train 
  • Lone Star 
  • The Spanish Prisoner 
There are certain celebrity screenwriters who are able to write in such a way that reading the script is an enjoyable and enlightening experience, separate from the experience of watching the film. Love them or hate them, it’s instructive to read scripts by: 

Paul Shrader
William Goldman
Charlie Kaufman
Shane Black
The Coen Brothers

Female scribes are often neglected in these lists, but men and women alike can learn from the unique voices of: 

Norah Ephron
Sophia Copola
Callie Khouri
Allison Anders
Diablo Cody

Here is the WGA’s list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays with links to read them:

(However, you’ll need tomake friends with an agent, manager or film executive to get your hands on copies of the above.)

Every year “The Blacklist” is compiled by hundreds of film executives, each of whom contribute the names of up to ten of their favorite unproduced scripts of the year. 2010’s list can be found HERE:

In general, in order to getcopies of screenplays on the net, go to:

My pdf scripts
Simply Scripts
The Internet Script Database

(Also see answers to the related question: Screenwriting: Where can I download screenplays of films to read / study?)

The key is to look for EARLY DRAFTS OF THE SCREENPLAY, not just the official “shooting script” which is often a simple transcription of the finished film.

Even maverick writer-directors working outside the Hollywood system and writers who want to challenge mainstream formulas of three-act-structure, conflict-centered storytelling, and concept-driven subject matter would do well to study these scripts. A screenplay is ultimately a communication tool, like a blueprint, to be given to actors, cinematographers, production designers and editors. Even if you aspire to make movies like Tarkovsky and HATED Lethal Weapon, you can still learn from the way successful screenwriters clearly and competently convey style and cinematic action to their collaborators.

As a final note, perhaps the best place to start is to read the screenplays for a couple of your favorite films. Reading them will feel like play rather than work. And there is no faster way to learn the format and tools of the screenwriter's craft.

Enhanced by Zemanta


Neil Sarver said...

Great suggestions. I agree that reading a lot of screenplays is important for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that it's easy to get caught up in reading books and such that provide you with a lot of rules, and it's good to get a good sense that it's possible - and even preferable - to find your own voice within those rules.

Chase Gordon said...

I share your recommendation of Paul Gulino's book and generally agree with your whole post. I just want to add a note about American Beauty. If you get the early draft that includes the murder trial scenes in court, you will see it is definitely an example of a problematic script that was saved in editing. So I agree with your recommendation to read it, but disagree with your characterization of it being "perfect in style, structure, content, and execution" and I've never heard it cited as such. Rather I've heard more in the line of debates over how to describe its structure and whether or not it fits into the traditional film structure model. So I would replace it on the "5 perfect" list with The Godfather (part 1).

Sean Hood said...

That's a good point Chase. I too have read the earlier version. I may end up replacing it on the list (although not with Godfather, as that would go on the adaptation list).

Thanks for the comment!

Chase Gordon said...

I say that being an adaptation doesn't disqualify The Godfather from being an example of the highest quality script. It just took a different path to get there.

Sean Hood said...

Well, you won't find me arguing against "Godfather," ha ha. There are just so many good ones. I also got a lot out of studying Witness, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Annie Hall, The Graduate, North By Northwest. It's hard to pick only five, and I was trying to find the best example of a drama from the last decade.

Jason said...

I think you may have forgotten one script in particular that all aspiring scribblers should take a gander at: "Alien" by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett.

Especially when it comes to clean and concise action lines/descriptors, haven't heard of many others that are as often cited.

Kike said...

You include Charlie Kauffman's "Adaptation" in the list??? But, Sean, that is the OPPOSITE that any HUMAN BEING should do!!!

Sean Hood said...

Ha ha. Remember, that I'm trying to list movie scripts that are instructive to read. You may hate Charlie Kaufman, but reading "The Orchid Thief" and "Adaptation" together is instructive.

Since I list Kaufman in the celebrity screenwriter list, perhaps I should replace Adaptation with Godfather.

Sean Hood said...

A lot of people recommend "Alien." I've seen and studied the film 100 times, but I have not yet read the screenplay. I may add it to the list.

Kike said...

I actually liked most of Kauffman's screenplays.

But, you know, making a movie about HIMSELF when he was hired to write "The orchid thief"... is unprofessional, to say at least.