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How to Read a Movie

March 4th, 2010


Ever read a movie? Hopefully you’ve read a movie script, but how does that equate to reading and analyzing the ‘finished’ movie lurking in each hardcopy movie script? As a story analyst, I have read thousands of movie scripts, along with treatments, teleplays, manuscripts and even simple ‘pitches.’ But, despite their formats, analyzing each of these works requires an open mind, a broad perspective, and a knowledge of what precedents have helped define the form. In other words, when you read a movie script (or any of the other examples I’ve mentioned), you are NOT, to paraphrase a hyperbolic expression, reading just ONE script: you are reading EVERY script the author has ever read, or ANY movie they’ve ever seen. In some cases, this is a good thing. In many other cases, it’s a liability.

As writers, we are the sum total of our experiences. That means that every book, every movie, every story we’ve ever heard floats around in our consciousnesses, whether or not we realize it. In most cases, this simply gives us a deeper understanding of life (and the drama it entails), but in the instance of screenwriting, this can be a prickly dilemma. Films are filled with ‘tributes’ or ‘homages‘ to their predecessors: a perfect example in classic cinema is Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” which borrows from ‘honors’ Jean Vigo’s “Zero de Conduite” with a sequence in which schoolkids, on a field trip, peel off from their main group to goof off. Truffaut’s intentions were pure, no doubt (filmmaker Jean Vigo was something of a hero in French cinema, having died at a young age after making only 3 feature films), but one homme’s  homage is another’s rip-off. This is especially common in screenplays, where screenwriters, often without realizing it, ‘co-opt’ plot, dialogue, and even major story elements from films they have respected or enjoyed. As a result, when one reads a movie (script), it’s often necessary to identify aspects that have seemingly found their way from other sources. Granted, great scenes from the past might get integrated into a new script, but it doesn’t mean the new script won’t end up feeling derivative, redundant or extremely ‘familiar.’

So ‘reading’ a movie is a fun job – sometimes. Actually, it’s fun most of the time, but occasionally someone tries to pull a fast one and duplicates, or, even worse, ‘quotes’ a movie scene in its entirety. Whether it’s intentional or unconscious, this is one of the biggest red flags in terms of assessing an ‘original’ script. As a story analyst, it’s important to have a broad knowledge or what has gone before, or, as quoted in Ecclesiastes in the Bible, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” So watch your movies, absorb what you can, but write ‘something new’ when you put pen to paper or begin to tap upon your keyboard. Unless you’re Francois Truffaut, of course. It seems like that guy could do no wrong…

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