Welcome to June and the series: 30 Days of Screenplays.
Why 30 screenplays in 30 days?
Because whether you are a novice just starting to learn the craft of screenwriting or someone who has been writing for many years, you should be reading scripts.
There is a certain type of knowledge and understanding about screenwriting you can only get from reading scripts, giving you an innate sense of pace, feel, tone, style, how to approach writing scenes, how create flow, and so forth.
So each day this month, I will provide background on and access to a notable movie script.
Today is Day 17 and the featured screenplay is for the movie The Usual Suspects. You may download a PDF the script here.
Background: Original screenplay written by Christopher McQuarrie.
Plot summary: A boat has been destroyed, criminals are dead, and the key to this mystery lies with the only survivor and his twisted, convoluted story beginning with five career crooks in a seemingly random police lineup.
Tagline: The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist.
Awards: Won an Academy Award in 1995 for Best Original Screenplay
Trivia: Christopher McQuarrie’s inspiration for the character of Keyser Soze was a real-life murderer by the name of John List, who murdered his family and then disappeared for 17 years.
We reviewed this script several years ago and two GITS readers made insightful comments. The first was from The Hakk:
McQuarrie once stated in an interview that he developed the ‘Usual Suspects’ only from that one image in his head of five guys standing in a line-up. Then he had one cop interrogating a man, who talked a lot throughout that conversation to cheat the gallows. So he started to refer to him as ‘Verbal’. In the coffe room of the law firm where McQuarry worked and developed that scene was a bulletin board that had a name plate that said ‘Quartet’. And one of the lawyers in this firm had the name ‘Keyser Sume’…
I’m just writing all this because I think it is a great example of how you can compile ideas or even just bits and pieces of story fragments and cobble them together and weave them into your original mental image to create a great story.
To me, this falls under the category of brainstorming and it’s one of the single most important things we can do as writers — just let our minds go! In about a week, I’ll be citing screenwriter Alvin Sargent on this very topic in a Screenwriting 101 post. Here’s a taste where Sargent talks about the “goop” he ends up with from brainstorming:
People talking to themselves or with each other, without necessarily any connection to the story. I do a great deal of free-associating. Talk, for pages and pages, I don’t know what’s going on. Several months go by, suddenly you’ve got a big pile of stuff as if it were a basket of material, pieces ready for the quilt. I find something alive—I hope. I think too many people are too organised; they’ve got it all worked out, instead of hearing their characters.
North by Northwest evolved from a scene in Hitchcock’s mind: Protagonist being chased in a cornfield by an airplane. Miller’s Crossing began with a single image: a hat being tossed across a creek.
When you let your mind go, you tap into your subconsciousness and the more mystical aspects of the human experience, what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.” When something unusual pops into your head, write it down! Scribble it into a notebook, type it into a “Miscellaneous” Word doc, whatever. That “goop” can be gold.
The second comment came from Mike:
What I like about this script is that it teaches one of the ways that a specific rule can be broken. Look at the length of some of Verbal’s lines, like his dissertation on page 92 (of the 1994-6-11 screentalk draft) about Keyser Soze’s characteristics. That dialogue element is probably six times longer than anything a screenwriter is taught to write. It’s more than half a page!
And yet it works, and we are hanging on Verbal’s every word. The story has built up the drama over Soze so that the reader/viewer needs, wants, HAS to know more, and our audience surrogate, Kujan, elicits the story on our behalf. Then again on page 94, Verbal has some more thick, meaty blocks of text and yet they are so compelling the reader is practically salivating to devour them.
So one lesson from The Usual Suspects is… if you want to have your characters speak lengthy monologues, the story has to earn them and they have to serve the story in return, and they have to do it so well the reader doesn’t even care that he’s plowing through a five-inch-tall plank of text.
As Mike points out, if what is being said in dialogue is interesting as hell, then you can write long monologues. Now granted in the movie, they visualize Keyser Soze in action, killing his own family and all that, but the key is McQuarrie came up with some truly fascinating stuff.
Think of other notable monologues: The “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” diatribe from Network. Quint’s description in Jaws of that night from hell after the U.S.S. Indianapolis sank in the Pacific. Fascinating stuff!
But watch out. Fascinating does not mean sort of interesting or pretty cool. No, fascinating means kick-ass amazing laced with extremely powerful emotions and visuals that sock us in our psychic solar plexus. Wham!
Finally how about that twist ending in The Usual Suspects? Stop by comments and post your thoughts.
To see all of the posts in the 30 Days of Screenplays series, go here.
This series and use of screenplays is for educational purposes only!