I love a good hell raiser and I’ll attempt to highlight a few here. By doing so I’ll likely be contradicting a ton of rules that I’ve thrown at you before. Not to try to be an asshole, but the only absolute in screenwriting is that there are no absolutes.
You need to learn the rules so you can forget the rules. That’s why, ultimately, I’m not a hater of film schools. There’s a place for this knowledge. It’s a no-brainer that doing a thing beats talking about doing a thing. So, while it’s all well and good for me to peel off 15 or 20 posts about Format or Structure, it’s far better to watch a master break most, if not all the traditional rules of screenwriting, and not just get away with it, but have an entire style associated with his writing.
Shane Black worship. I admit, just looking at the dude’s movies, I never quite understood it: Lethal Weapon, Last Action Hero, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang…any of them Top 100 for you? Not even in sniffing range here. But–and I’m still not sure by what magic this happens–when you read Shane Black’s scripts, you can help but love the guy. There is truly nobody who writes like him.
Let’s look at a few passages from his work to try to figure it out. I tried to cut and paste an action sequence from Last Action Hero, but it’s not taking, so I’ll just link it here. Read pages 3-6, here:
Do you think Producers would bust Shane Black’s balls about that obscure reference to Bugsy Siegel? How about his endless use of (beat) and (pause) parenthetical’s or his CAPPING DIALOGUE, thus giving the actors line readings? That’s not the screenwriters job, as about a thousand screenplay consultants with zero screen credits will tell you. How about the WE SEE’S, and the freakin’ CAMERA DIRECTION! Even a freshman film student knows you never do that. Guess Shane Black missed the memo…
More like he took it to the smallest room in the house, and flushed ’em right down the toilet.
If you’re good enough, you can break the rules and get away with it. That’s a terrific action sequence that screams of style–defined as writer’s voice.
Let’s look at how a million dollar script opens, from Lethal Weapon:
CITY OF ANGELS
lies spread out beneath us in all its splendor, like a
bargain basement Promised Land.
CAMERA SOARS, DIPS, WINDS its way SLOWLY DOWN, DOWN,
bringing us IN OVER the city as we:
SUPER MAIN TITLES.
TITLES END, as we --
SPIRAL DOWN TOWARD a lush, high-rise apartment complex.
The moon reflected in glass.
CAMERA CONTINUES TO MOVE IN THROUGH billowing curtains,
INTO the inner sanctum of a penthouse apartment, and
here, boys and girls, is where we lose our breath,
spread-eagled on a sumptuous designer sofa lies the
single most beautiful GIRL in the city.
Blonde hair. A satin nightgown that positively glows.
Sam Cooke MUSIC, crooning from five hundred dollar
PASTEL colors. Window walls. New wave furniture tor-
tured into weird shapes. It looks like robots live here.
On the table next to the sleeping Venus lies an open
bottle of pills ... next to that, a mirror dusted with
She rouses herself to smear some powder on her gums.
As she does, we see from her eyes that she is thoroughly,
completely whacked out of her mind...
She stands, stumbles across the room, pausing to glance
at a photograph on the wall:
Two men. Soldiers. Young, rough-hewn, arms around each
The Girl throws open the glass doors ... steps out onto a
balcony, and there, beneath her, lies all of nighttime
L.A. Panoramic splendor. Her hair flies, her expression.
rapt, as she stands against this sea of technology. She
On the balcony railing beside her stand three potted
The Girl sees them, picks one up. Looks over the balcony
railing ... It is ten stories down to the parking lot.
she squints, holds the plant over the edge.
Drops the plant. Down it goes, spiralling end over end
-- until, finally ... BAM -- ! SHATTERS. Dirt flies. A
red Chevy is now minus a WINDSHIELD. The Girl takes
She drops it. Green Dodge. Ten stories below, BAM
Impact city. Scratch one paint job. Grabs the final
plant and holds it out, saying:
POW. GLASS SHATTERS. Dirt sprays. A blue BMW this
time. The Girl loves this game ... her expression is
slightly crazed. She reaches for another plant --
There aren't any. Her smile fades -- And for a moment,
just a moment, the dullness leaves her eyes and she is
suddenly, incredibly sober. And tears fill her eyes as
she looks over the edge --
And jumps the railing. Plummets, head over heels like a
rag doll. Hits the yellow car spot on. She lies, dead,
like an extinguished dream. Still beautiful.
Love his use of -- within the descriptive paragraph. His style is jagged, zero fat, in your face.
Again, I'm more a fan of the script than the movie, but it shows that you've got to come out guns
blazing on page 1. Grab the reader by the throat and never let go.
One more from LETHAL WEAPON…notice how fast you read this, how your eye is forced down the page:
86 MURTAUGH'S POV 86
reveals a crowd of people, milling back and forth, he
has no idea where the sniper is, and suddenly BAM -- !
The wood blows out not two inches from his head and he
ducks, and meanwhile -- back outside ...
87 MARTIN RIGGS 87
He's on the move. He jogs ... trots ... runs ... Noticing a
lone man in black, striding quickly across the lawn,
striding into the crowd ... toward the edge of the bluff ...
Things happen fast now, pay attention, as -- The man
turns, sees Riggs ... Riggs sees him... and the man is
none other than Mr. Joshua. Crew cut. Sunglasses.
88 MURTAUGH 88
diving out the window. Hits. Rolls, comes up. Scream-
ing, waving at Riggs ...
89 RIGGS 89
Gun out ... moving fast, shoving through the crowd, people
screaming now, "Jesus, he's got a gun -- !" Running
across the lawn, Murtaugh thirty yards behind, moving,
hard and fast, both guns drawn, pushing/shoving, knock-
ing people ass over teacups and meanwhile let us not
90 JOSHUA 90
moving at a dead run, now, gun out ... at the edge of the
cliff. People all around him, confused, I mean Jesus,
what the hell is all this shooting about, and Riggs can't
get a clear shot ... He's sweeping the gun, back and forth,
bodies crossing in front of him... all the wrong bodies,
Goddammit...! Moving forward, shouting:
Lie down!!! Down!!!
Murtaugh, springing hell bent for leather -- and folks,
grab your hats ... because just then, a BELL COBPA HELI-
COPTER crests the edge of the bluff.
An explosion of sound...
As it rises like an avenging angel ...
Hovers, shattering the air with turbo-throb, sandblasting
the hillside with a roto-wash of loose dirt, tables,
chairs, everything that's not nailed down ...
Screaming, chaos, frenzy.
Three words that apply to this scene.
And in the midst of all this -- Joshua steps onto the
chopper and is hauled inside.
The total professional.
And then, my friends, it's bye-bye time. The CHOPPER
ROARS like a behemoth, tilts --
slips over the side and plummets away ...
Slick. Very slick.
Except Martin Riggs it not impressed.
He's still running, you see ...
Dives flat at the edge of the cliff, nearly flings
himself over the damn edge ...
GUN extended like it's part of his arm...
Finger flat on the trigger ...
Blowing SHOT after SHOT at the retreating chopper ...
BAM-BAM-BAM His face contorted in a rictus of
And he wings the chopper, even. POP
spray of fiberglass, but nossir, no cigar...
cause the damn chopper flies away.
And Riggs dumps his magazine, stuffs in a new one ...
and Jesus Christ he keeps FIRING.
As Murtaugh walks up beside him. Stares down.
Gun held loose at his side.
Riggs still FIRES, BAM-BAM-BAM
doesn't know it yet ...
Until his MAGAZINE CLICKS empty.
He lies flat.
People screaming, running away.
Murtaugh standing over him, staring down at this animal
with a gun, who even now refuses to look away from the
retreating chopper, whose gun even now continues to
follow its course out over the sea.
Hands, clutching tlie barrel.
Finally, they relax.
Riggs shuts his eyes.
“It rises like an avenging angel …Hovers, shattering the air with turbo-throb,
sandblasting the hillside with a roto-wash of loose dirt, tables, chairs,
everything that’s not nailed down …”
Your action sequences can be functional, they can be who is in the shot and what’s happening, what is the camera seeing now
like all the screenwriting books tell you–or they can be edgy, risky, pure poetry like this.
Nobody like him.