The first fifteen pages are the most important of any screenplay. To which Paul Newman adds: “Yes. And the final fifteen minutes are the most important of any movie.”…
–William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade
In Hollywood, anyone you talk to, whether highest-caste screenwriter or lowly freelancer, will tell you one thing: make the first fifteen pages of your screenplay perfect. Producers have short attention spans and contest judges are easily distracted so they need something good to keep going. They need to be brought into the world of the screenplay quickly, and need to be introduced to characters interesting enough to force them to stay there.
Yet as a movie watcher, I care about the last fifteen minutes much more than I do the first ten. I want to reach the end of a wild ride, to feel like I have returned from the last expedition to Mars, and I want there to be fireworks when I land. In other words:
1. I want it to feel like the end.
For me, classic albums come to mind. “A Day in the Life” caps The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. John Lennon’s heart wrenching ballad to boredom, interspersed with the McCartney “dream sequence,” along with the orchestral ending is the loud, classical ending to easily the best album of all time. Likewise, Brian Wilson’s “Good Vibrations,” another breezy, beautifully arranged four-minute pop classic ends perhaps the magnum opus of the hippy generation: SMiLE.
These classic album-enders are albums within themselves. If they were scenes, they would add new twists, reveal different dimensions, but be self-contained within a couple of minutes of action (and not explanation). They are the hardest scenes to write—but also those that determine whether one’s film is classic or forgettable. I won’t spoil Vertigo, but if you are looking for an example of a classically climactic ending, then you should check out this 1958 Hitchcock classic.
2. The loose ends must be tied up.
I guess I think about P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights and its final character montage of all the hapless adult film stars who find lives (or prison in the case of the Colonel) after the death of disco. Of course, maybe I’m just partial to this ending because it comes backed with another Beach Boys classic “God Only Knows.” I am not one to insist on a “Where Are They Now” series of title cards in the credits, but it does help to leave us with a clue. If the director cares enough about the characters, then she or he will find a way to give closure to their pretend lives.
3. Wrap it up, but quickly.
Let’s face it, a good movie’s ending is short, sweet, and to the point. Peter Jackson, I don’t care how much fun the hobbits have in the third Lord of the Rings after they destroy the ring, I want the movie to be over. I don’t want another village scene. There’s an important difference between tying up loose ends and making the story overlong. One leaves a couple of questions, the other gives you only one: “What the heck am I still doing here?”
What are your thoughts on finales? What are some of your favorite—and least favorite? What do directors and writers do right, and what do they do wrong, to their movies’ endings?
The ending that will not end…Lord of the Rings.