“A screenplay isn’t meant to be read,” said no less a directing-screenwriting auteur than Stanley Kubrick. “It’s to be realized on film.” The quote comes up in “The Shining — Quietly Going Insane Together,” an episode of the video essay series Lessons from the Screenplay. Creator Michael Tucker uses it to explain his lack of access to the actual “shooting script” of the film, meaning the sort of script typically written before production and then more or less adhered to on set. But Kubrick worked differently. On his projects “the words of the script and the design of the film were created together.” (Or as star Jack Nicholson says in a bit of archival footage, “I quit usin’ my script. I just take the ones they type up each day.”)
Tucker goes on to break down The Shining‘s writing process in a way that will fascinate not just screenwriters but anyone with an interest in artistic structure, beginning with the segmentation implied by the film’s memorably stark title cards: “THE INTERVIEW,” “THURSDAY,” “8am,” and so on. He does this in service of one important overarching question: “What, exactly is so creepy about The Shining?” (I’ve been asking it myself ever since watching it at a Halloween party nearly twenty years ago.) In “Moonrise Kingdom: Where Story Meets Style” he gets into the question of what storytelling functions Anderson’s signature abundance of vivid, whimsical, or askew details perform, and how they do it effectively.
As far as what makes Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie The Dark Knight work so well, Tucker has the answer in two words: the Joker. Different actors have portrayed Batman’s most famous rival with different levels of effectiveness, with Heath Ledger’s Joker generally acknowledged as the Joker, or at least one of the Jokers, to beat. But like any character, this Joker began on the page, and in “The Dark Knight — Creating the Ultimate Antagonist,” we learn which screenwriting guru-approved qualities instilled there give him so much power: his exceptional skill at attacking Batman’s weaknesses, how he pressures Batman into difficult choices, and how he and Batman ultimately compete for the same goal, the soul of Gotham, and become two sides of the same coin.
You can learn other lessons that Tucker draws from the screenplays of movies like Nightcrawler, Gone Girl, Independence Day, Ghostbusters, and a two–parter on American Beauty. While elements of cinema like the directing, the acting, the editing, and even the music might capture our attention more aggressively, we shouldn’t forget that every narrative film, large or small, traditional or unconventional, grows from words someone wrote down. “It’s not what a movie is about,” declared Roger Ebert, “it’s how it is about it” — and the decisions of how to be about it happen in the screenplay.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.