Monday, March 24, 2008

Screenwriting 101: Theme is the Thing

This is a question you should be asking yourself every day when you sit down to write, when you’re outlining, when you’re writing scenes, and when you’re editing:

What exactly are you getting at?

The earliest screenplays I’ve read by people, and the first feature I wrote shares this as well, typically have a weakness in thematic strength. They’re all over the place. Every scene and every theme doesn’t necessarily strongly support your theme.

What is a theme? The theme is like the topic sentence of an essay: it is what your script is arguing, what it is about. It’s different from loglines (we’ll get into those next week,) in that while a logline describes the major narrative arc of the story for a reader in a concise manner, the theme is more complex. The theme should be weaved throughout the narrative that the logline describes. Every scene should contain the theme in one way or another.

You, as the writer, are trying to communicate a meaning to the audience, and the theme is that meaning. If you want to say “true love conquers all” (like in The Princess Bride [Reiner, 84] or any many other romances,) you should have that meaning explicit in the scenes, possibly even in the dialogue if you can help it. Consider it an exercise in rhetoric: regardless of the theme, every scene you write, every line of dialogue, every single element of your script should contribute to that theme. Your script is essentially an extended argument for and against that theme. To continue with the past example, does true love conquer all? When won’t it? Will it always? If you, as a screenwriter, are doing your job, you should ask many such questions, and they should be answered in such a way that if the audience were asked afterwards, they should know what the answers to those type of questions would be.

That isn’t to say films are purely pedantic. If movies were that way, when people left a movie they’d see things like: “Gee, I really learned a lot in that movie,” or “I really liked the way he proved his argument.” Movies are not like this, and people do not go to movies to learn things. People go to movies for action, excitement, romance, comedy or any number of things (if you believe Aristotle in his Poetics, we’re watching “incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.”) So, it’s up to you to hide the theme in action, comedy, or whatever, to entertain in addition to educate. The theme is like the delicious coating that contains the medicine (which can be equally delicious, but is often meant to help you more than please you.)

Don’t be afraid to spell it out clearly. You don’t need to be subtle when discussing your theme. Many films include their films very explicitly spelled out.


Death to Smoochy

I’m going to be examining the script to Death to Smoochy (De Vito, 2003.) Before I do though, this is the best advice I can give to anyone: read screenplays. The more screenplays you read, the more you’ll form an innate sense of the forms and conventions thereof. A lot of places online will post drafts of screenplays for free.

Read a lot of screenplays. I can’t stress that enough. The more screenplays you read, the better you understand the forms and functions of screenwriting. Pick up screenplays from movies you like, and pick up ones you hate, and figure out what it is about them that you like and that you hate.

Death to Smoochy, for those who haven’t seen it, involves a look into the dark and seedy underbelly of children’s programming. Sheldon Mopes (played by Edward Norton) is an optimistic bright-eyed performer as Smoochy the Rhino, whose clean-cut and amiable ways are threatened by his disposed rival Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) and the corrupt underworld of kid’s show executives. It’s a dark comedy to be sure. The draft I found is an early one and definitely not the shooting script (you can spot a bunch of minor differences, including Smoochy being orange.) However, you can still catch a lot of the same elements of theme.

A first thing to look at is the length here, almost 120 pages. Most comedy scripts shouldn’t push too far past 100. But this is a draft and things are cut or changed.

The big theme is about integrity, about living up to expectations (or failing to.) So, how is that theme expressed? Let’s look at the first act (the first 30 pages or so) and see how that is.

Page 1: We begin with the scene of a man in a foam rhino suit beaten to death and shot (we’re believed to this point that it’s Smoochy until the beginning of the third act.) This gives us that juxtaposition of innocent material (the children’s TV show) and the corruption (mob violence.)

Page 1-2: Rainbow Randolph’s “Friend Comes in All Sizes” number. It catches the right mix of filth and innocence (“one might says ‘grasp’ while the other says ‘snatch.’)

Page 2-3: Immediately we have a scene of Rainbow Randolph taking a bribe. Remember that theme?

Page 4: “Corruption in Krinkleland.” Remember what I said about it being spelled out?

Page 5-7: Here’s our set-up. We, the audience, are joining the executive Stokes (played by Jon Stewart in the film) for a kid’s show host who’s clean. We then get a list of hosts who are less than clean (abusers, illegal immigrants, mail fraud… no integrity in the whole bunch.) We are then introduced to Sheldon Mopes, who is presented as their only option with ethics.

Page 9: This isn’t a theme device as a personal problem. Never say “We see” anything, or describe camera movements unless you plan on directing the script yourself.

Page 10: Sheldon “I tell 'em, it's not about the old handshake and back slap game. It's not about adding fuel to the
shlock machine. It's about doing good work. Having integrity.” Remember what I said about spelling it out?

Page 11: “This is concrete! This is integrity!” Speaking of spelling it out…

Page 12: Sheldon’s story about his grandfather is about integrity, Nora says Sheldon has integrity.

Page 14-17: Randolph’s meeting with Stokes talks about how much Randolph’s corruption has cost him. Why must we keep our integrity? Those with integrity prosper (Mopes,) those who don’t suffer (Randolph.)

Page 18: Sheldon argues against commercialism in children’s programming. His integrity is the point that it disrupts the goings-on at the studio. Good for dramatic tension. “Can you have too much integrity for a situation? Is this character too good for his own good?” The answer appears to be yes.

Pages 21-23: Seeing the Burke character interact with both Mopes and Randolph shows their levels of integrity (because, of course, being an agent, he has none.)

Pages 23-28: The phallic-shaped cookie sequence, besides being entertaining and hilarious, shows theme and character. Randolph, as a character with no integrity, tries to ruin Smoochy by surprising him with these cookies, and Smoochy is arguing with Nora about changing his lyrics in favor of shilling out sugar and plastic, and singing a song favoring his ideology relating to organic food (remember: integrity.) The final film shows Smoochy being slightly more away of the phallic nature of the cookie than the script shows (“Smoochy gets a big grin” doesn’t capture the nervousness Edward Norton gets in that moment.)

Bottom of Page 30-Halfway Down Page 32: Burke gives Sheldon a gun (morally shady,) and has given him greater power and control in his show. He also gives him access to the corporate penthouse, which Rainbow Randolph has been complaining about losing sine Page 17. So with that transfer, we begin to ask, can someone as integrity-ridden as Sheldon remain uncorrupted by the forces that exercise control in his life?

So, in about 30 pages, we have 13 references to a theme of integrity. Almost every scene touches on this theme (one scene isn’t as strongly about integrity, the scene between Nora and Sheldon where he tries to discuss the future of his show with her and is shot down.) In any script I could look at (I chose Death to Smoochy arbitrarily) you will find a theme waiting to come out. All you have to do is look. And all you have to do as a writer is to decide what your theme is and to write to that theme.

Next week I’ll talk about writing a good logline. Good writing!

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