Monday, October 5, 2009

Pros can break the rules - Zombieland

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."


  1. The Arrested Development narrator is another good example of a narrator with their own voice.

    I've always felt that if the characters do something stupid, it requires a sacrifice to even the scales. I was surprised that there wasn't one in Zombieland. But I enjoyed it, it had a lot of heart.

  2. Actually, I think it was RUSHMORE that started the non-character narration trend as of late ... I know Kubrick used it, too ... and it was featured in WAR OF THE WORLDS, too ...

    I like narration when done well, myself, but it's one of those things that has to be done very well for it to work ...

  3. Great review, bitter script reader,

    I went and saw "Whip It" and "The Invention of Lying" over the weekend, and wasn't too impressed with either. Both had some pretty good acting in it (Ellen Page, Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner), but also had some pratfalls: like everytime Drew Barrymore is on screen in "Whip It" the show sprirals, and the who mockery of God as the way Ricky Gervais obtains wealth to win his love interest SUCKS!

    Based on your comments it sounds as though "Zombieland" would have been a better choice. And you're SO RIGHT, sometimes a show does enough right that you forgive the ending, "No Country for Old Men" comes to mind.

    Anyway, great insight. Thanks for the post.

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  4. How do you feel about the use of the anonymous narrator in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD? I'm a big fan of that screenplay and the resulting film, and I'd say it does far better with narration than, say, SIN CITY or KISS KISS BANG BANG, even though the narrator isn't much of a character (or even speaks like one).

    And for that matter, how do you feel about the use of narration in Kubrick's BARRY LYNDON?

  5. Yeah, the original script pretty much violated the said, and unsaid rules of screenwriting.

    Page starts off with:

    "The following is shot gritty. Kinetic. Fast. Scary. Very "28 days later," "Saving Private Ryan," "Children of Men."

    A male voice, belonging to FLAGSTAFF, a witty, anxiety-ridden EVERYMAN, late-twenties (THINK SETH GREEN), narrates:"

    Pretty much the entire script was amateur hour. Oh, and yes, the original cameo was going to be Patrick Swayze.

  6. Yeah I came to say that about Patrick Swayze. Guess he didn't want his last role to be as a zombie, which he was. They changed that too.

    I didn't mind the voice over, but I felt there were times when it could have been trimmed way back. And I could forgive everything except not locking the gate behind them. Nobody who lives the way they do would forget that.

    That said, I still thought it was one of the most awesome films ever. The badass quotient overrules all else.

  7. Wow, lots I actually want to respond to:

    Joshua - I seem to remember thinking WotW's narration was hokey, but I haven't actually watched it since its release so maybe I'd feel differently now.

    E.C. - Different strokes, I guess... No Country is one of those films that didn't work for me specifically because of the ending. Once Josh Brolin was killed, I completely ejected from the film.

    Ryan - haven't seen the two films you've mentioned, though your remark did remind me that Kubrick used narration in THE KILLING. I think it worked there, but in a way that would feel very dated if used in a contemporary film.

    Purpletrex and Emily - Really? Swayze? Interesting... I assume the script is available easily then? I googled and succeeded only in finding some reviews. Is there a URL that someone can kick my way? If a PDF landed in my inbox, I'd be equally grateful.

  8. There's a copy of Zombieland to be found here amongst the many many other screenplays. The listings are alphabetical but the links numbered so head for the higher numbers and keep at it till you reach the Zs.

  9. Well, yeah, THE KILLING couldn't be made "as is" today. But BARRY LYNDON's a bit more contemporary in feel, and even if it breaks the rules, I think it works (but obviously Kubrick operates on a level of excellence that enables him to do things most screenwriters can't).

    But I daresay you really should check out THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES, which I find to be one of the very best-written films of the last decade. The closing narration is breathtaking (and even better in the context of the film):

    "There would be no eulogies for Bob, no photographs of his body would be sold in sundries stores, no people would crowd the streets in the rain to see his funeral cortege, no biographies would be written about him, no children named after him, no one would ever pay twenty-five cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in. The shotgun would ignite, and Ella May would scream, but Robert Ford would only lay on the floor and look at the ceiling, the light going out of his eyes before he could find the right words."

    Another thing came to mind by way of BARRY LYNDON: one of the very, very best uses of narration by a character was in Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. It provides an essential intimacy and familiarity with the protagonist that wouldn't be present otherwise.

  10. The one good thing about the Zombieland script is that I am emboldened by the fact that the script was not only purchased, but produced, despite the massive amounts of faux pas in the script. AND that it read like it was written by "Scott" from this sketch.


  11. I think the narration in WoTW was hokey, but it wasn't to set the tone, but really to explain what defeated the aliens at the end (since no humans did) ... nor do i think it was necessary, but it was Morgan Freeman, heheh.

    Really, though, I think it was ROYAL TENEBAUMS (I said RUSHMORE earlier, I whiffed on that big time) which had Alec Baldwin narrating, which influenced many a script afterwards ...

  12. I loved the Zombieland script. Honestly, I couldn't stop laughing. I thought I'd read or seen every kind of zombie idea imaginable and this was incredibly inventive. It USED a LOT of ALL-CAPS for EVERYTHING which bugged, but the narration made it funnier and more enjoyable than it had been if there was no narration at all. Somebody once wrote that there's a 2:1 ratio to cheating, and that is that if the cheat allows for something which is twice as enjoyable as it is illogical, it's okay. Look at Dark Knight, that movie was brilliant but none of the plot twists made a lick of sense.

  13. I think a better use of narration is to completely overdo it and break the fourth wall pointedly, but the comedy material has to be just right and that sort of thing rarely happens. I'd trust the Zuckers to do it, maybe the elder Wayans Keenan and Damon, few others.

    One exception to that would be an ensemble farce along the lines of Burn After Reading.

    Casual voice over to express something from the character done once and not as a matter of a continuing style to the production should be avoided though. Unless the style is round robin to do a Rashomon like story and cut down on the scenes in favor of exposition. But it needs to come from quirky characters that fit and have wit.

  14. I watched the invention of lying and whip it but zombieland movie was tight me as it provides amount of humor. I thought invention of lying movie will hit and funnier. But zombieland movie passed all other movies and became hit and provides more fun.


  15. I can't help but chuckle a little; you start by telling everyone the less they know the more they'll enjoy...then proceed on with 2500 words!

    Good write up.

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  17. Worst ending I can think of by a great is North by Northwest. Even though it's Hitchcock, I still feel cheated by its abruptness. The saving grace is Cary Grant and the fun ride throughout the film.