Decoding the Screenplays of The Shining, Moonrise Kingdom & The Dark Knight: Watch Lessons from the Screenplay

“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 GirlInde­pen­dence Day, Ghost­bustersand 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.

via The Over­look Hotel

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Aki­ra Kurosawa’s Advice to Aspir­ing Film­mak­ers: Write, Write, Write and Read

10 Tips From Bil­ly Wilder on How to Write a Good Screen­play

Woody Allen’s Type­writer, Scis­sors and Sta­pler: The Great Film­mak­er Shows Us How He Writes

How Ray Brad­bury Wrote the Script for John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956)

Ray­mond Chan­dler: There’s No Art of the Screen­play in Hol­ly­wood

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.

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  • Thomas McIntyre says:

    Excel­lent insight into the pow­er of film and the work­ings of the human psy­che when fac­ing the ambigu­ous, uncer­tain­ty and the unknown.
    As a young man, I worked as a movie ush­er and saw many films and the audi­ence’s reac­tions.
    I could stand in the lob­by and by the silence, laugh­ter or shock of the audi­ence know what scene they were wit­ness­ing.
    I learned how emo­tions are a process that can be craft­ed.
    I majored in the­ater and am now a licensed psy­chother­a­pist. Was a fine insight­ful review of the for­ma­tion of fear.

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