I saw Zombieland this weekend without knowing much more than was revealed in the commercials, and if at all possible, I urge all of my readers to see the film in the same fashion. This is a movie that's greatly enhanced by not knowing about certain surprises along the way. Trust me.
The cast of Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin were all fantastic in their roles as the last few humans left to fend for themselves in a zombie apocalypse. It was a rare time I didn't think of Eisenberg as a poor man's Michael Cera. However, as I was watching it, I couldn't help but chuckle at the fact that the filmmakers did several things that are usually on the list of "DON'Ts" offered up to aspiring screenwriters. Now, the difference between those filmmakers and the aspiring writers is that they used these indulgences carefully enough that they didn't (usually) feel like hack-writer gimmicks. Like they say, you have to know the rules before you can break them.
So what are the "screenwriting sins" in Zombieland?
1) voiceover narration. I have to admit, I rolled my eyes a little when the film started with a long expository voiceover from Jesse Eisenberg's character Columbus. It's basically a major exposition dump about how the status quo of "Zombieland" came to be, complete with the "rules" for surviving ZOMBIELAND. It's the sort of thing that works better in the film than it probaby did on the page, and the filmmakers managed to avoid the traps that first-timers usually fall into with this.
For starters, the narration is that of a main character and it immediately establishes not only backstory, but that character's particular voice. I've read a lot of spec scripts where the writer clearly had no idea how to set up his complicated world and its backstory, so he resorted to an anonymous narrator. If your narrator isn't a character in the story, and he speaks in a dry voice, my HACK ALARM is going to go off by page 2. While first-time writers are often advised not to use narration, there are several films in recent years that have used narration well - such as Sin City and Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang. Notice what they have in common - they're narrated by characters and not anonymous narrators. (They also happen to be in genres where narration doesn't stand out - pulply, noirish type stories.)
I suppose someone might throw the TV series Pushing Daisies as a counterexample of narration by a non-character. To that, I'd say it' s the exception that proves the rule and I'd point out that that narrator is a character in his own right with a voice as distinct as any of the flesh-and-blood players.
But getting back to Zombieland, it helps that the narration is genuinely funny. People will forgive a lot if you can make them laugh, and the voiceover is complimented well by the visuals. It's Filmmaking 101 - don't just have us listening to some guy prattle on - engage all the senses.
In spite of those virtues, the use of voiceover isn't flawless. For one thing, there's a major imbalance. Columbus gasses on a lot at the start of the film, especially in the first ten minutes and then the narration becomes a lot sparser. This is usually something that trips a HACK ALERT because it becomes apparent the VO was just there to get the exposition in. In scripts that badly use narration, you'll often notice that the voiceover will disappear for much of the second act. My solution might have been to tighten up some of the exposition at the start so that the lesser VO later wouldn't be as noticeable.
2) Gratuitous celebrity cameo - First, fear not. I shall not reveal the name of the actor or actress who make an appearance as himself or herself. I had no idea this cameo was coming when I saw the film and it made the joke much, MUCH funnier.
The celebrity cameo is something that usually makes my eyes roll in a spec script, mostly because my first thought is "What happens to this scene if Alan Thicke says 'no?'" This sort of gimmick got popular after Neil Patrick Harris popped up as himself in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and stole the movie. Now, you could say that if NPH had turned down the cameo, they just would have offered it to Fred Savage or Jaleel White. As true as that is, I think it's a risk when you put something like this in your spec.
The way I see it, throwing in a celebrity is a lot like specifically naming an expensive song for your musical montage. Suddenly, you're mandating elements that could back the producers into a corner. If your joke is crucial to the second act climax, and it only works if Dean Cain shows up in Superman tights and reveals he really can fly... well, you might be setting up a difficult problem to solve if Dean decides he doesn't want to play ball - or he will, but only if he gets paid through the nose.
On top of that, a lot of celebrity cameos usually feel like weak attempts to just get a laugh out of how out of context the appearance is. I'll admit, I enjoyed when William Shatner played himself (or at least a version of himself) in Free Enterprise, but Bruce Willis' cameo in Ocean's Twelve was just painful to watch. You could literally feel the filmmakers elbowing the audience in the ribs saying, "Well? Well? Aren't we clever?"
Zombieland pulls their cameo off well. In part because the tone of the movie is so heightened that this departure doesn't feel like too much of a tangent. Plus, it's not a star who does a lot of these cameos, so the appearance felt fresh. On top of that, this character's final line might be the best one in the movie - and like I said, a lot can be forgiven if it's funny.
3) Characters do stupid things solely to advance the plot. Watch out, I'm gonna have to blow some of the ending here, folks.
It's been established that our merry band of survivors has managed to last about three or four weeks, I believe. That suggests these people have been generally smart about how they operate in this world - which is why I cannot believe the idiocy that happens when two characters end up in a theme park.
I refuse to believe that they'd not realize that turning on all the lights would be like a beacon to the zombies.
I refuse to believe that they wouldn't even at least try to block the gates to impede zombie entry.
I refuse to believe that once they realized the zombies were coming, that their brilliant escape involves getting onto one of those Tower Power rides from which there is no escape. They shoot into the air - but all that can happen after that is they come down after the zombies have had an even greater chance to increase their numbers.
I refuse to believe that another character has enough ammo to take out the zombies who descend on his (much better fortified) position.
Yet as each of these details popped up and those moments caused me to (inwardly) say "Oh come on!" I found it in my heart to forgive the plot turns. In part, this is because the movie is goofy enough fun that it's the rare case where "It's just a movie" doesn't feel like a huge band-aid to a very good logistical question.
Maybe I could rationalize them turning on all the lights as them getting caught up in the moment after weeks under siege. I might even excuse the second mistake for the same reasons. The next bad choice could be written off as panic, even though that's hard to believe at this point. However, the thing that really convinced me to let this go is that I really felt like this was the kind of movie where it could have ended with one or all of the characters getting killed. I didn't immediately see an implausible survival as the only option, so I remained emotionally engaged in the characters' fates right up until the end. Had the movie not been so gruesome in other places, I would have known that there's no way any of the characters were in any real danger, and thus, I probably would have called bullshit from the start of that sequence.
Characters are human - they're just as capable of making bad choices as real people are. If it can be helped, either don't have too many of these contrivances in succession - or have a character make a really dumb choice that throws them off their game and show them making reckless mistakes as they attempt to fix that first mistake. That's part of the reason I didn't come down too hard on the movie.
But the real reason I didn't let it ruin the movie for me was this - the rest of the film was so well done that I was thoroughly engaged with the story at that point. Had something pulled me out of the movie sooner, had there been some ridiculous contrivance that could not be ignored, I probably would have seen the amusement park scene as the last straw. So take this as a lesson - if your logic gets sloppy in the third act, make sure the first two acts are near-airtight.
There's a famous story about Jaws novelist Peter Benchley telling Steven Spielberg that the ending of Jaws was ridiculous - that it was impossible to blow up a shark in that fashion. Spielberg supposedly said, "If I have them in the palm of my hand for two hours, I'll be able to do whatever I want in the last five minutes." And he was right. Audiences still cheer today when the shark meets its fate.
However, the key to that is... you have to have the audience firmly for the entire film up to that point. Never forget that if you sense you're cheating in your own writing. If you're gonna blow up a shark with a scuba tank, make damn sure I'm invested in the characters and heard them sing "Show me the way to go home."