A tip from the Coen brothers

June 13th, 2013 by

In my most recent Screenwriting Master Class offering, we did a deep immersion into the movies of Joel and Ethan Coen analyzing narrative dynamics and themes such as the Dynamism of Violence, Unresolved Endings, Fate, and Misunderstanding.

Here is the final tip I offered per the Coens with an assist from another outstanding screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter and Michael Webber:

This may seem an odd point to make: Follow the story. Of course, follow the story. That’s what writers do, right?

Well, there are writers who follow the story. Then there are the Coens who really FOLLOW the story.

What I mean by that is this: They aren’t afraid to break any rules. This reflects their non-traditional approach to screenwriting. Here are some examples:

In Raising Arizona, there is a 19 page introduction complete with Hi’s voiceover narration to set the stage for the kidnapping. Absolutely unheard of in the conventional scheme of things, but the Coens followed their story and let it dictate what to do.

In Fargo, they don’t introduce Marge until P. 31. If that script were in development at a movie studio today, I can guarantee you that would be a note: Get Marge in sooner. But the Coens followed their story and let it dictate what to do.

In The Big Lebowski, the story — which is set in contemporary Southern California — is narrated by The Stranger, a cowboy from somewhere out of the Old West. In other words, he has no good reason to be sitting in the bowling alley telling the story. When the Dude finally meets the Stranger at the very end, it is clear the former doesn’t know the latter… but for some mysterious reason, the Stranger knows all about the Dude. It just makes no logical sense. And the Coens confessed to Sam Elliott, they had no idea why the character was in the story. But they followed the story and let it dictate what to do.

I will grant that you and I aren’t the Coens, and that we may feel as if we don’t have the clout or cache to pull off something totally weird and unconventional like these examples noted above. But I would argue we must be willing to consider and even follow those creative impulses because that can be where our voice shines through, where we break out of formula and write something unique and fresh.

When I interviewed screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, Scott shared with me the actual email he sent Michael on August 8, 2003 that was the very first note about what became (500) Days of Summer:

“i’ve hit upon a possible way to do a relationship comedy a la annie hall and make it not suck. a bit like 32 short films about glenn gould, here we have what i’m calling 308 DAYS OF APRIL, april being the name of the girl. the movie is an out of sequence collection of incidents and events or whatever, like, 1 would be the scene of their meeting and 308 would be the scene of their break up. 8 would be the time in the elevator when he didn’t ask her out, 36 would be the first time they have sex etc. etc. all about relationships and romance and the craziness involved until we have a full length funny feature that people can laugh at and possible relate to that is as interesting character-wise as it is structurally. with enough bits and pieces from our own experiences and stories from people we know, this thing could write itself.”

From the very beginning, Neutstadter and Weber set out to write a non-traditional script, in this case a major feature that it would be told in a nonlinear fashion. But that’s not all. They featured characters breaking the 4th wall. They had a fantasy dance sequence the morning after Tom first slept with Summer. They even began embracing a non-traditional approach before FADE IN with this:

Title page: (500) DAYS OF SUMMER by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, First Draft 2006

Next page: NOTE: THE FOLLOWING IS A WORK OF FICTION. ANY RESEMBLANCE TO PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD IS PURELY COINCIDENTAL.

Next page: ESPECIALLY YOU JENNY BECKMAN.

Next page: BITCH.

So the final tip I want to share with you is this: Follow the story. Immerse yourself in your characters, in that universe, and make sure you listen to what gets communicated to you. Be willing to do whatever you need to tell that story the best way possible.

Neustadter and Weber’s next movie is The Spectacular Now which has been getting spectacular reviews. It comes out in August.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s next movie is Inside Llewyn David. It comes out in December.

Both are must-sees.

5 thoughts on “A tip from the Coen brothers

  1. TheAlphaCo says:

    Hi Scott, longtime reader, first time commenter. Thanks for this blog entry. It’s on my wall as a reminder, next to the Ira Glass quote to keep on writing.

    Going through my first go-round of managers’ and agents’ notes. Lots of second-guessing and feeling gun-shy with my voice. Some of their notes are valid; I want to please and display proper reverence to the Industry, but my inner voice often nags me to “follow my story.” I need to stick to that.

    Thank you. V

    1. Scott says:

      V, I wish there was a clear path to success in terms of screenwriting. There just isn’t [other than writing a great script].

      Recognizing one’s creative voice and responding to it, both are incredibly important. And yet, it’s important to know what the acquisition market is like.

      Thus a conundrum. Write what they’re buying or sell them your dream?

      At the end of the day, what you have is YOUR voice, YOUR vision, YOUR talent.

      So push comes to shove, go with THAT.

      Besides that’s where your PASSION will most likely emerge onto the page.

      Thanks for stepping from the sidelines. Welcome to the GITS community!

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