Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Memorable movies, memorable visuals - writing for imagery

Sometimes when writing a screenplay you can get so caught up in telling the story through words and dialogue that you can completely forget to craft the movie with interesting visuals. This occurred to me when I was watching Paranormal Activity a few days ago and realized that the moment of the film that left the most indelible impression on me was the final shot. (If you saw it, you know what I'm talking about.) In fact, I'd be willing to be that if you polled a hundred audience members and asked them to boil the movie down to a single shot, it would be that one.

For an older example of the same thing, you could look at The Blair Witch Project - another horror film with an unforgettable final shot - the POV of Heather's camera as she comes into the basement and sees Mike standing in the corner...

Think about it - how many films have iconic single shots? When you hear the title of a movie, what's the first image that pops into your head?

Raiders of the Lost Ark - Indiana Jones running away from the giant rolling rock.

Psycho - Janet Leigh getting stabbed in the shower.

Star Wars - tons of them, but I'd probably pick the opening shot of the Star Destroyer and the explosion of the Death Star.

The Wizard of Oz - Dorothy and her friends skipping up the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City.

E.T. - Elliott and E.T. flying in front of the moon on the bicycle.

Titanic - The boat goes down; Honorable mention - "King of the World!"

Yes, I cherry-picked all the easy classic so as to make my point with much less effort. The point still stands - think visually.


  1. Bitter script reader,

    Great examples of striking visuals. Haven't seen "The Blair Witch Project" or "Paranormal Activity" but you made a good case for seeing them.

    Dude, you should be in marketing.

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  2. THE SHINING -- Blood coming out of the elevator.

    THE DEER HUNTER -- Russian roulette.

    AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN -- Richard Gere in his dress whites carries Debra Winger from the factory.

    PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT -- The bus cruising through the desert with the great billowing cloth train.

  3. The Shining - Here's Johnny!..blood in the elevator was awesome, but Jack looking through the hole chopped in the door is iconic.

    I wonder how often you can craft an iconic shot while writing the screenplay though. Often an actor will craft a brilliant performance during a part of the movie that is not necessarily the climax or conclusion.

  4. The Searchers -- John Wayne in the door frame
    2001 -- The flyint waltz of astronefs
    Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the... -- Jones in front of the nuclear explosion
    Aliens -- Ripley facing the alien's queen, inside her exo-suit

    I really like your blog by the way.
    Great advices about scriptwriting.

  5. Visual thinking is incredibly discouraged these days for beginning writers and those who are visual by nature are even more heavily pressed against for one simple reason: people reading scripts are rarely people directing productions. Reading and getting the basic gist and making a snap decision is different than reading and reading into it the visual extravaganza what it could be.

    I think readers need to think more of what Scorsese, Boorman, Scott, etc. might do with it and less about whether they are being taken out of the story by petty things. The point of the story isn't to be spellbinding. Look at a novel. Does it look as idiosyncratic as a script? The point of a script is to tell actors what to say and how to look and directors what to shoot and all the rest, not thrill someone wanting a great story.

    When I consider what I myself would plunk my own money down on producing, visuals are in the top three with scoring and situation pacing. The number of lines in an action paragraph is not as high on my list as giving a director something to do with his camera that makes him happy.

  6. I should clarify that the story should be great, but the point of a script isn't to keep a reader spellbound, but to convey what is needed for movie people to render the story on the screen, because a movie is a visual novel. A script is just a framework for conveying it as a novel's draft and page and type setting instructions are for it when finished.

  7. I agree that visuals are important. However, there are some instances where memorable dialogue is equally or more important. For instance, I read too many buddy comedies that don't have any quotable lines. But half of what makes for a successful comedy is one guy in the audience repeating a line, getting his friends to laugh, and the friends lining up to see the movie so they don't lag behind on the latest pop culture trend. Examples include "I'm Ron Burgundy?" from Anchorman, " I'm pretty sure there's a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking" from Zoolander, etc. And even in dramas -- who doesn't think of "Here's looking at you kid" when they think of Casablanca?

    A truly great script will have phenomenal dialogue in between phenomenal visuals. And hopefully a really memorable scene that utilizes one or the other or both strongly.

  8. One of my favorites - Forrest Gump, him and Jenny reuniting in the reflection pond in front of the Washington Monument

  9. For Titanic, the image that always sticks out in my mind is of the man hitting the propeller blade and spinning end-over-end into the water. Brilliant!