Dispatch From The Quest: Sandy Leviton

September 3rd, 2013 by

Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.

Today: Sandy goes deep into the subject of theme:

I love themes. Not the “here’s the moral of the story” themes, but the talismans, the motifs, the dialogue.  The moments that stand out, lines and props that have repeated callbacks.  These are what makes good movies into great films. There is no greater joy than spending extended periods of time analyzing them. Sometimes they are on the nose, sometimes subtle. They are little bits of trivia scattered in that give us film nerds something to talk about at parties that make us sound smart.

So in honor of my love of good theming,  Here is a list some of my favorites themes in films and why (not to be confused with favorite films).

Indiana Jones Series:

 – Snakes! It had to be snakes. His outfit – hat, jacket, satchel, whip. – These define who Indiana is as a character – adventurous, prepared, focused, strong, and yet, can he can still be vulnerable.

Empire Records:

 – “Empire Records. Open ‘til midnight.” Alternative rock music. – Like many movies of this era, music and the attitude that came with it were important. The tagline and music represents that attitude.

– Rex Manning.  – Rex Manning represents change in the world of this film. Change for business: mom and pop shops being pushed out by the box retailers. Empire Records is in threat as Music Town is trying to buy them out. For the characters personally: growing up, heading to college, admitting and cleansing their demons in order to move on. (And yes, Rex Manning is a demon.) For the general social attitudes: People still wants to hold onto nostalgia. Rex Manning. Empire Records. Hair metal.

American Psycho:

– Business cards. – For Patrick, it is more than fancy fonts or cardstock. The superiority in other’s business cards represented his own perceived failure and inferiority.

500 Days of Summer:

– The use of the color blue whenever Summer is in a scene.  – Blue is the color of her eyes. She is always wearing at least one blue item and props/ sets are always blue around her.The color reminds Tom of Summer whenever he sees it.

– The names of the ladies – Summer and Autumn. – While a bit on the nose, they are to reference the passage of time and change in Tom’s life. Summer is more carefree and fleeting, but Autumn is about the preparation of change and a sense of more stability.

Good Will Hunting:

– “I had to go see about a girl.” – Repeated in the film, it makes the theme of the film very clear. You get to decide your own fate. Take a risk, you’ll be happier for it.

Dark Crystal:

– Mirror imagery between the Skeksis and the Mystics. – Everything has two sides – nature, people, objects, money – duality is essential to existence. Can’t have one without the other.  Yin and Yang.

Pan’s Labyrinth:

– Fairytales. – Fairytales teach lessons as well as provide escapism from the horrors that can be real life. Fairytales also have their own horrors as experienced by Ofelia.

– Faun references (entrance of the labyrinth, shape of the toad tree) – Fauns as mythical creatures are often depicted as guides to humans in need. The Greek god Pan was a faun. Pan is guiding Ofelia through this time in her life. He is her coping mechanism. Hence the name and imagery of the film.

 – The Number 3. – Three is a traditional number in fairytales and storytelling. Life is in three stages, nature has an abundant use of threes, superstitions, expressions, religion – three is always a significant number. In Pan’s Labyrinth – Ofelia goes through three tasks, she has three fairy guides, etc. Interestingly, the film also won three Academy Awards, and three BAFTAs.


– The use of Caribbean music. – Outside of the score by Danny Elfman, the two songs used in the film were “Day-Oand “Jump In The Line” – both having a Caribbean/ Calypso feel. They were both used in moment of celebration (dinner party and scoring well on a math test).  They are fun and show just how harmless the Maitlands really are. If you went to the Tim Burton MOMA/ LACMA exhibits, there had on display some handwritten notes by Burton regarding the Beetlejuice character. He actually wrote about Beetlejuice’s love for the Caribbean and that he plays the steel drums. While these were never discussed or seen in the film, these songs represent that part of him. It is no surprise that the still unmade sequel has Beetlejuice going to the Caribbean.

– The number 3 – Just like above in Pan’s Labyrinth, three is important in mythology and storytelling. In this film, the characters must say Beetlejuice three times to summon him and they must knock three times to enter the other side.

– Death by irony – When the Maitlands visit Juno, their case worker, they see a number of other deaths – a surfer bitten by a shark, a headhunter with a shrunken head, a smoker that is a burn victim, among others. Early on, Otho mentions that those who commit suicide are doomed to an afterlife of civil service, which is then seen in these same scenes – a guy that hung himself delivers messages/ mail and the beauty pageant receptionist slit her wrists. Nothing is worse than a life doomed to civil service. Point being, death is not always gruesome, tidy, or peaceful. Sometimes, it’s funny. And sometimes, how you live your life will very accurately dictate your death.

Themes come in many forms. If our script has even one talisman as good as American Pyscho’s business cards or music as defining as Empire Records or Beetlejuice, or the smallest bits of imagery that represent age old questions, I will feel like (as I duck and cover while saying) “King of the World!”

What can I say? Sandy gets it. One of chief complaints with the typical conversation about theme in a screenplay is people tend to talk about one theme, when in my view good stories have multiple themes: central theme, sub-themes, motifs, talismans, etc.

In a really good story, all of the various themes tie into and reflect on the central theme, but still there ought to be lots thematic dynamics in play.

If that sounds confusing, it needn’t be. Just identify each subplot and almost invariably, you will find a theme at work there, reflective of what each different character brings to the narrative. Plus if there are objects that have a recurring place in the story, chances are they have some thematic relevance as well.

Need proof? Read Sandy’s analysis one more time!

Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.

About Sandy: Bostonian that learned how to pronounce “R’s” upon moving to LA. A lefty that loves the unusual. Dreams of owning a taxidermy dodo bird. @scriptchix & @lil_sjl.

3 thoughts on “Dispatch From The Quest: Sandy Leviton

  1. […] week, Sandy addresses theme in some of her favorite films! Feel free to chime in with favorite motifs/recurring thematic […]

  2. […] week, Sandy addresses theme in some of her favorite films! Feel free to chime in with favorite motifs/recurring thematic […]

  3. blknwite says:

    Masks. So many. A quick google came up with this article:

    In addition there is Dr. Jonathan Crane in Batman Begins. Which is the real mask?

Leave a Reply