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July 17, 2008


Patented Two-Minute Film School
Want to write a screenplay? All you've got to know is the structure.

Remember, movies are just a formula, and if you were to cut away the dialogue from "Wayne's World," "Citizen Kane," and "Star Wars," they would all look alike.

We here at the Parson's Institute of Design have learned all the tricks. Get ready to quit your job, because after you read this, you're going to be in Hollywood very soon, snorting coke off Maggie Trudeau's breasts. Even if you're a girl. All you need is these simple ingredients:

subject: the protagonist (an anti-hero lead character played by Jack Nicholson / a virginal saint played by Emily Watson / an angel played by Bruno Ganz)

action: goes through a profound life change by (quitting his or her job as a cattle husband / burying his dead foster parents / taking in an alien creature / getting a job as a taxi driver)    

reason: because s/he's got a guilty conscience about (his wife's death / his dying father / his pregnant girlfriend / her daughter's sexual precocity / his wounds from the Vietnam War / not cooking the best meal she, Babette, could for the mayor)

object: and s/he desperately wants (sex with Cybill Shepherd / his or her own little coffee shop / a decent public school system / money to drive to Canada / a reunion with her husband, an oil driller named Sven.)

complication: but the powers that be (Cybill's boyfriend / a scheming mayor / an unregenerate id on two legs named Dolph / two security guards / mad cow disease / the hero's own social ineptness)

vehicle: keeps the hero from getting (the money for a shop / entry into Cybill's room / a boat out to the oil derrick / a decent hamburger).

the plan: so the protagonist employs the help of (a gimp named Ratso / a nail file / all his friends in the Rat Pack / Peggy's Lee's dress and a wig / his own social charm / the liquid heating ointment that his or her mother uses for her legs / an arsenal of weapons, including a .44, which could destroy a woman's face)

transference: but, meanwhile, the hero is sublimating those feelings of guilt by (consorting with a teenage hooker / contriving an ill-advised face-off with Darth Vader / having sex with his mother / resisting Babette's attempts to cook a grand feast / hurting the feelings of his new lover, Susan Anspach / sleeping with everybody in town)

catastrophe: and the character's lack of self-knowledge drives him or her to the brink of ruin when (s/he contracts Herpes Simplex 10 / his or her close friend dies of a heroin overdose / The Gods begin to destroy Thebes / Lady Macbeth commits suicide / the hero knocks his television over and breaks it while watching "American Bandstand" / he gets sent away to a French boys' home / Ophelia loses her mind / Darth Vader cuts off his or her hand.)

redemption: But then, the hero sees the light when (he decides to go on the methadone program / he decides to go back and finish his lessons with Yoda / he lets two guys who raped a nun go free because he is no better / she realizes that she could have gone back to Kansas all along / he decides to kill the president / she realizes that Babette's cooking is pretty good / he jumps off a cliff after having sex with his mother, but doesn't die / he throws a fight with a biker / he realizes that he's made his pet elephant cry / he gouges out his eyes with needles.)

empowerment: After achieving self-awareness, the hero is finally able to (play the piano again / destroy the Death Star / get a job as a lathe operator / avoid having sex with his mother in the future / catch the real thief / make love to his girlfriend, the gun moll named Bonnie Parker / kill the heads of the Five Families / turn down Cybill Shepherd's advances, since she was no good for him in the first place / believe in God and kill the vampires / avoid indictment for murdering a screenwriter).

the irony of bitter existence: But in the end, fate has its way, and we are all diminished, because it's quite obvious that the hero is going to (abandon his pregnant girlfriend by the side of the road / get shot by accident in a scuffle with a low-level mob functionary / die in a car wreck in Czechoslovakia / continue producing Hollywood crap / become a prophet even though nobody will listen to him or her / always continue to think about having sex with his mother / never call his new French lover again.)

There you go. The mythic structure. All events taken from real movies. OK, mostly. Just mix and match these, and you can probably be finished with your script within an hour. And then it's time to move to go West, young man!

From Eric Rasmussen's blog: