Script To Screen: “Airplane”

December 5th, 2012 by

A scene from the 1980 comedy Airplane [written by Jim Abrahams & David Zucker & Jerry Zucker].

Setup: The flight crew has been taken down by food poisoning. Fortunately there is ex-pilot Ted Striker on board. Unfortunately he is psychologically scarred as a pilot from an event in the past…


Striker is sitting next to a MAN FROM INDIA in a business
suit and turban.

         You see, the day we left the village it
         was raining, so we had to take a special
         jeep to the main road...

The Indian is dousing himself with a can of gasoline. In
b.g. Randy is talking to passengers.

         In fact, we were lucky to even get a jeep
         since just the day before the only one we
         had broke down -- it had a bad axle...

The Indian lights a match to immolate himself. Randy

         Excuse me, sir. There's been a little
         problem in the cockpit and I was

         The cockpit? What is it?

         It's the little room at the front of the
         plane where the pilots sit. But that's not
         important right now. The first officer is
         ill and the Captain would like someone
         with flying experience to help him with
         the radio. Do you know anything about

The Indian holds the match, awaiting the outcome.

         Well, I flew in the war, but that was a
         long time ago. I wouldn't know anything
         about it.

         Would you go up, please?

He has a moment of indecision. The Indian encourages Striker
with an adamant nod. Striker gets up to leave. The Indian,
relieved, blows out the match.


Jack is sitting across the aisle from a 65-year-old
con­servatively dressed SPINSTER. He pulls a flask from his
coat pocket and takes a swig. She eyes him dis­approvingly.

         Would ya like a little whiskey, ma'am?

         Certainly not.

She inserts a two inch straw in her nose and snorts a couple
lines of cocaine off a piece of glass.


Striker enters.

              (to Rumack and Randy)
         The stewardess said...


Empty pilot's seat and inflated automatic pilot.

         Both pilots!

                        DR. RUMACK
         Can you fly this airplane and land it?

         Surely you can't be serious.

                        DR. RUMACK
         I am serious, and don't call me Shirley!
         What flying experience have you had?

         Well, I flew single-engine fighters in the
         Air Force, but this plane has four
         engines. It's an entirely different kind
         of flying...all together!!!

              (all together)
         It's an entirely different kind of flying.

         Besides, I haven't touched any ­kind of
         plane in six years.

                        DR. RUMACK
         Mister Striker. I know nothing about
         flying. All I know is this: you're the
         only person on this plane who can possibly
         fly it. You're the only chance we've got.

DRAMATIC MUSIC as Striker turns to face the controls.


SEE more and more controls ad absurdum.

Questions to ask to analyze the scene:

* What elements in the movie scene are the same as the script?

* What elements in the movie scene are different than the script?

* Regarding the differences, put yourself in the mindset of the filmmakers and speculate: Why did they make the changes they did?

* How did the changes improve the scene?

* Alternatively are there elements in the script, not present in the movie, that are better than the final version of the scene?

* Note each camera shot in the movie version. Which of them does the script suggest via sluglines or scene description?

* How does the script convey a sense of the scene’s tone, feel, and pace through scene description and dialogue?

* What ‘magic’ exists in the movie that is not indicated in the words of the script? How do you suppose that magic emerged?

I’ll see you in comments for a discussion of this scene from Airplane.

One of the single best things you can do to learn the craft of screenwriting is to read the script while watching the movie. After all a screenplay is a blueprint to make a movie and it’s that magic of what happens between printed page and final print that can inform how you approach writing scenes. That is the purpose of Script to Screen, a weekly series on GITS where we analyze a memorable movie scene and the script pages that inspired it.

Comment Archive

One thought on “Script To Screen: “Airplane”

  1. A great scene from one of the great movies. Two big things struck me. The first was the explosion of the Indian guy. The second was the cocaine scene was removed. (It comes up in a later part of the film).

    Removing the cocaine scene was a smart. This is a big moment in the story and inserting this random (though hilarious) scene in the middle takes away the momentum. The reason why Airplane is such a great movie is not just the sight gags, pop culture references and funny dialogue. The movie also has the same rhythm as a real thriller.

    Inserting the cocaine scene at that point might have led viewers to forget what Stryker was going up there for. It would have taken away from the sense that this was an important moment. It is worth remembering that all stories even parodies need to have interesting conflict.

    The main selling point of the movie was the jokes but there was enough plot to hold everything together. Consider how bad movies like “Meet the Spartans” are.

    I didn’t like the addition of the explosion. It actually hurt my suspension of disbelief. I have always thought that the plane should explode if something like that happens. Even knowing that I am watching a silly parody that moment bugged me.

    If they wanted the Indian to die they should have killed him off in a different way. Herre are a few possibilities.

    He takes a drink and chokes to death on it.

    He reads a magazine, gets a paper cut and bleeds out.

    A piece of luggage falls on his head.

    He has a heart attack.

    None of these ideas are that good but I think that Zucker and Co. could have come up with something better.

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