Scene Description Spotlight: “Cast Away”

August 27th, 2013 by

The screenplay for the 2000 movie Cast Away was written by William Broyles Jr. One of the big challenges he faced once the story transitioned to the island was creating a specific sense of place, not only the actual topography, but its atmosphere. Here are some scenes just after Chuck has crash landed and is now taking stock of the island:

Chuck emerges onto a ridge that leads to a summit.  He climbs
across a rocky lava field covered with scrub lichen and low
ferns, soil dark as coffee beans, his way crossed by steep
gullies that cut like dark fingers into the lava.

The lava field narrows, forcing Chuck closer to the sea.  He
passes a series of CAVES, their mouths dark and mysterious
and scary. He gives them a wide berth.

EXT.  ISLAND - CLIFF - MOMENTS LATER

The land narrows to a ledge that stretches across a high
cliff perched over the ocean.  Beyond this rock bridge the
path smoothes out to a summit.

Chuck stares at the narrow bridge, then down at the waves
breaking on the rocks far below.  To get any view, he will
have to cross the bridge.  He's thirsty.  The late afternoon
sun is hot.

                     CHUCK
          Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did
          you enjoy the play?

Hugging the wall of the cliff, taking each step with great
caution, he sets out across the bridge.

EXT.  ISLAND - CLIFF

Step by step, Chuck negotiates the narrow bridge.  He reaches
a flume of polished basalt which cuts across the ledge like a
slide in a water park -- except this flume ends high above
the waves.  Chuck tries to step across it, can't quite, tries
one foot first, then the other.

                     CHUCK
          Shit!

He looks back, but that seems even scarier.

                     CHUCK
          Got to get there.  Got to see.  C'mon...
          c'mon.  Don't be such a wuss.  Be bold.

He looks down at the ocean beneath him, closes his eyes, and
jumps.  It's only a few feet, but he's breathing hard when he
lands on the other side.  He hugs the rocks, getting his
breath.

EXT.  ISLAND SUMMIT - SUNSET - MOMENTS LATER

Chuck looks to each point on the compass.  He is on an
ISLAND, small, inhospitable, without sign of habitation or
anything human.  On three sides the waves break against
steep, hostile cliffs.  A reef encloses the cove where he
came from.

                     CHUCK
          No way on.  No way off.

Chuck stares out to sea in every direction.  Nothing.

                     CHUCK
          This is bad.  Really, really bad.

The last rays of sun hit his face.  The ocean turns a deep
reddish gold.

EXT.  CLIFF - MOMENTS LATER

Going down is even scarier.  It's dusk and the light is flat
and gray.  Chuck stares at the ledge.

                     CHUCK
          Come on.  Crawl if you have to.

Chuck crawls on his hands and knees across the rock bridge.

EXT.  ROCKY SLOPE - MOMENTS LATER

Chuck stumbles over the rocks.  The caves look ominous and
primal.

EXT.  EDGE OF JUNGLE - NIGHT

It's getting dark now.  The jungle seems impenetrable, the
dark wood of fable.  Chuck hesitates, then plunges into it.

EXT.  JUNGLE - NIGHT MINUTES LATER

The moon has just begun to rise, casting eerie light into the
jungle.  The shadows reach out to grab Chuck, then real
branches and vines tug at him.  He heads into thick
blackness.

Notice these lines:

* his way crossed by steep gullies that cut like dark fingers into the lava

* The lava field narrows, forcing Chuck closer to the sea

* CAVES, their mouths dark and mysterious and scary

* Chuck negotiates the narrow bridge

* polished basalt which cuts across the ledge

* an ISLAND, small, inhospitable, without sign of habitation or anything human

* waves break against steep, hostile cliffs

* The caves look ominous and primal

* The jungle seems impenetrable, the dark wood of fable

All wrapped up by this paragraph:

The moon has just begun to rise, casting eerie light into the
jungle.  The shadows reach out to grab Chuck, then real
branches and vines tug at him.  He heads into thick
blackness.

Notice those descriptors, cumulatively creating a foreboding sense of danger. It’s what I call psychological writing in this case projecting Chuck’s feelings onto the physical surroundings. Much more effective writing than mere scene description.

Takeaway: Use psychological writing in your scene description.

[Originally posted March 24, 2012]

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