Screenplay Advice from the Old Masters

Here Marty Looks for Something to Do

Here Marty Looks for Something to Do

The best way to learn screenwriting is to watch the great films and read the best scripts and see what works. So, I rented Marty last night and really enjoyed it. I really laughed during Network, and I guess I never realized how prolific a writer Paddy Chayefsky was. And I never realized that there were specific ways Chayefsky writes a convincing, interesting, and good script. Basically, his good movies are made up of good elements. Let’s talk about them.

Place. During the first scene in the café, Marty and his buddy Angie talk about different parts of Manhattan they could pick up girls. It’s a simple but an evocative scene that not only gives us a glimpse into Marty’s difficulties with women, but also an entire geography of New York. I believe Marty because it sounds like he lives somewhere—a gritty postwar New York, one equally intent on pleasure as work; this same city appears in flashes during the later date scenes. Later directors would delve deeper into this nighttime New York world, including Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, but Chayefsky paves the way. Marty, and the city, both come alive for me in this scene.

Stakes. There are very few “stakes” in this movie, nor does there need to be. At the Starlight Ballroom, a cad asks Marty to take his date, Clara, home because she is a “dog.” He offers him five bucks. He refuses. The cad asks someone else to do it, this someone agrees, but Clara refuses to be taken home. End scene. Now, a modern screenplay coach would write all over this scene, “Raise the stakes!” but guess what, simplicity works. Screenplays need not depict life, but I care more about the movies that give me believable characters and plot; I don’t need an angry brawl, a ripped dress, or a public scene to make me believe that both Marty and Clara are unhappy. Stakes are for situational comedies and idiots. Make the scene intrinsic to the characters and their behavior, not how you would want them to behave.

Character. Marty is ultimately the reason this movie works for me. He is lovable, kind, and hilarious. In one scene, again in the Starlight Ballroom, Clara and Marty dance. They talk, yet it becomes clear to the audience that Marty is dominating the conversation. When he finally takes Clara home, they have a five minute conversation on butchering or rather Marty delivers a monologue on the right way to cut a loin. He is eccentric and he is clueless.

If this were today, Marty would be focus-grouped into becoming some Gap wearing hipster that middle America could “understand.” Yet losers, huge losers, are the life-blood of the movies, and Chayefsky knew this. You can identify with any number of coffee-swilling white-bread male, but it’s the Rockies, the Forrest Gumps, the underdogs that you root for.

So, let’s make movies that emphasize these three things: believable place, believable characters, and reasonable stakes. Movies require no more and ask for no less.

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