One of the biggest mistakes you can make with your script, once you get past the standard formatting concerns, is to have everything in your story be exactly as it seems. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m advocating for every script to have a Shyamalanesque (new word alert!) twist ending. What it really means is that your story themes should be about something more. There should be a layer beneath the plot. Something you’re trying to say. If there’s not; If everything in your script only goes skin deep, and if you have nothing to say about your characters, their position in the world, or the conflict you’re putting them through…then why bother to tell the story?
Call me “Kitty Cat”.
This also isn’t an argument for a Cineplex full of art-house films. Take a look at a film like Wedding Crashers. It’s raunchy and hilarious, but it’s also about that moment in your life where you realize it’s time to grow up. How a random occurrence can change your priorities. Sure, it’s wrapped up in debauchery and punctuated with a high enough BPM (boob-per-minute ratio) to rival a Marilyn Chambers soft-core porn, but it’s also about that other stuff too.
You need to know what your story is about, in order to steer your script in the right direction.
So how and when do you work a theme into your story? I’ve seen people argue for establishing your theme up front and working it into the story during the outline phase, and I’ve seen others claim to not even think about theme during their first draft. As with most things, I think the best path probably lies somewhere in between the two extremes. Personally, I think you do need to think about theme up front. When I’m deciding what my next script is going to be, I think about the themes that I’d like to touch on while I’m brainstorming, just like I think about great action sequences, blurbs of dialogue, or great quirks that I can give characters to make them unique.
But as I move through the outlining and first draft phases, I tend to put detailed thoughts on theme to the side. I won’t purposefully exclude it, but I spend that first draft getting down the basics of the plot. That “vomit draft” is, in turn, my guide during subsequent rewrites. I go back through to tighten plot, fix continuity issues, and yes, evaluate the script in terms of theme. This is when I work in additional scenes, or tweak existing ones, in order to explore the deeper meanings that I’m looking to address.
Remember though: while I think it’s sound advice not to get too bogged down in thoughts about theme during first drafts, ultimately it’s just one guy’s opinion. Everyone has their own process. In the end, all that really matters is that your process works for you.
Aside from the question of when to work thinking about it into your process, the biggest theme-related issue I’ve come across is actually a conceptual one. For some reason, I’ve seen a number of people get confused about the difference between theme and the concept of subtext. While the best script will employ both, they’re not the same thing. Here’s a quick run-down. Subtext will generally relate to your script in terms of dialogue and is the underlying or implicit meaning behind the words that are being spoken. When someone says “Would you like to come up for a nightcap”, but really means “Would you like to come up and have sex?” – that’s subtext.
Theme, on the other hand, relates more to a scene (or more than likely, several scenes) which tie in to a deeper meaning or larger statement than is being addressed by the plot. It’s the “point”, for lack of a better word, that the writer is trying to make by telling their story.
For a better idea of exactly what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at…
Theme and ‘Road To Perdition’
Best known as that depressing Sam Mendes movie with Tom Hanks, Road to Perdition is one of my favorite films. The plot is relatively straightforward. Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is a hit man who works hard to keep his kids from knowing what he does for a living, but that life is shattered when his son witnesses something he shouldn’t. Most of the film is spent with them on the run, dealing with each other, and the new realities of their strained relationship.
It could have been a simple, “by the books” gangster flick, but the script (based on a graphic novel of the same name) delves deeper. In Mendes’s own words, “[What’s] important, in this story, is what the violence does to the person who pulls the trigger, and what it has done to them over the years. How it has gradually corroded them. It has rotted their insides.” This idea of the consequences of violence is one of the two main themes in Perdition.
The script plays into the exploration of this theme in its choice of how to deal with the violence in that world. While there is a lot of violence on screen, the story focuses less on the victims and instead follows those who either perpetrate or witness the violence.
Perdition also explores the theme of father and son relationships. This theme is explored by having numerous different types of these relationships woven into the film, all of which have different dynamics and play out in different (but equally dramatic) fashion. The story not only contains the actual father/son relationships between Sullivan and his son, as well as mob boss John Rooney and his son Conner, but also explores the surrogate father-son relationship that Rooney has with Sullivan. By establishing multiple relationships that explore the same concept from different angles and sub-plots, the story deftly uses the core plot to explore this theme in great detail.
I think the bottom line is just this: while there’s no set way to develop or utilize theme in your screenplay, it’s something that you do need to think about and work to incorporate into your script. Without it, your script is just a shell, and no matter how beautiful that shell may be, readers (and ultimately, audiences) won’t be able to get past the fact that there’s nothing inside.
So get deep, grow that gangster mustache (even you ladies out there), and keep writing!
Tools to Help:
How to Write a Screenplay, Identifying Theme, Premise, Plot, Screenwriter Blogs, Screenwriting How-To Articles, Specs & The City by Brad Johnson
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FILM REVIEW: ‘In The Heart Of The Sea’
FILM REVIEW: ‘Creed’
SPECS & THE CITY: Character Introductions and ‘Silence of the Lambs’
SCRIPT INDUSTRY EXPERT Q&A: Meet Brad Johnson of ‘Specs & The City’
Any way you slice it, we’re all happy Sam Mendes got his crack at a James Bond film. The man has made compelling dramas using different styles and techniques in his storytelling. But it was probably his take on the American gangster movie that shines as his best work of motion picture art. Road to Perdition stands now, 10 years after its release – as if you didn’t feel old enough already – as one the most stellar father/son relationship movies in recent memory, and it’s a damn fine shoot-em-up, too.
So we couldn’t wait for this week, when Skyfall finally sees its release, and the wonderful information we would be gathering from Mendes’ commentary for Road to Perdition. He’s flying solo, which is usually a hit or miss on commentaries, but as with Mendes film career, we’re willing to give him all the benefit of the doubt in the world. He hasn’t let us down yet. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Road to Perdition (2002)
Commentators: Sam Mendes (director)
1. Mendes begins by saying that, like American Beauty, the opening to Road to Perdition was very difficult to cut, several different versions being considered before they finalized on the one used. It was late in the film’s production before they decided on using the shot of Michael Jr. standing on the beach. Mendes felt it was important to tell the story as a flashback wherein every character is already dead.
2. The theme of death had a hand in shaping the film’s soundtrack, which was composed by Mendes regular Thomas Newman. Mendes speaks on “the way we mixed the sound of the movie, which has a very ghostly, unreal sound and also meshed to some degree with the stylized, very elegiac compositional quality, opera-esque quality that we were going for.”
3. Early scenes of the film were reshot late in production to include more of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character being a nurturing mother to the boys. “I felt, if we were to miss her when she died, we needed to see there was a relationship there, and there was very little time to establish that,” the director says. He also notes some of these scenes got cut and are included on the DVD extras.
4. The first time we see Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan was another scene Mendes cut and recut time and time again to give it the right amount of impact. “I suppose if you look at the movie as a memory piece, this is the boy’s recollection of his father,” he says. Little known fact, but most boys recollect their father as Tom Hanks.
5. Mendes also notes this scene was very important in how it established how we would be viewing the film’s main character. “The boy has no access to his father, and therefore the movie must not grant any access to his father,” he explains. He makes mention that Sullivan is always seen in the first part of the film from a distance or in fragments, only seeing him closeup when Michael Jr. is very close to him.
6. The director notes the sound of water is present throughout the movie, and most deaths in the film – definitely all major deaths – are in or around water. “There’s something about water that is uncontrollable,” Mendes says, noting that like life and death, the characters think they can control it, but they’re wrong.
7. One of the many aspects that intrigued Mendes about directing Road to Perdition was the chance to explore the business side of organized crime in the 1920s. He felt the glamorous side of it had been shown enough in Hollywood and felt the image of a man going to his day job, picking up his briefcase only it was filled with a Tommy gun instead of papers, was a very powerful one. Although a Tommy gun would always make any day job that much more interesting.
8. Tom Hanks and Paul Newman practiced their piano duet all during pre-production, Mendes remembering them playing it over and over again “like two, errant schoolboys given their homework.” He made sure to show their hands in the same shot as their faces to prove to the audience the actors were really playing during the scene.
9. “Both in American Beauty and here, the garage is a strange place where adults do strange things,” says Mendes, vying for a spot in Best in Commentary. Don’t worry, Sam. You’ll get it.
10. The moment between Paul Newman and Daniel Craig’s characters where Newman as the father slams his hand down on the table in anger at his son was an improvisation from the actor during a read-through. Mendes also notes this scene was the longest shooting days during production, and Newman alone was on set for 19 hours.
11. The different colors of the speakeasy are representative of the different circles of hell and how far away from the surface – or entrance – Michael is getting.
12. Mendes notes Road to Perdition was a much more difficult shoot than American Beauty, the length of the pre-production and post-production having a strong hand in that difficulty. “One of the reasons for that is I felt I was holding the film in my head much more, because it’s not a film told so much through dialogue but told through image,” he explains.
13. The scene where Newman’s character beats on his son, played by Daniel Craig, came out of rehearsals with Newman wanting to show a moment where the character beats up then embraces his son. That and he also wanted to hug the future James Bond, but who can blame him for that?
14. Going back to showing the business side of the criminal underworld, Mendes made sure to depict Al Capone’s building in Chicago as a very standard business operation. He has Stanley Tucci play Frank Nitti, Capone’s business head, as a very focused foot soldier with a simple but strong-minded office. That office – an actual found office, not a built set – was designed to look like that of DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg. Mendes also wanted to capture the feel of someone trapped in the building and forced to work for Capone. A deleted scene on the DVD shows Anthony LaPaglia as Capone in one cut scene, and it’s a recommended watch.
15. The photographs hanging on Jude Law’s character’s walls, pictures of deceased bodies taken at crime scenes, were actual photographs taken by a Chicago police photographer. Mendes points out that in some cases, the photographer had moved the bodies to make the photographs more appealing. The director and Law used this man, unnamed here, as inspiration for the character.
16. Mendes notes the diner location was bought on the Internet for $20,000. “It’s amazing what you can find on the Internet,” the director notes. The location was an hour outside of Chicago and was refurbished by the film’s production designer crew. “The effect of it is truly opera-esque,” he says. “An image of bleak beauty was something we were trying to achieve, this sense of isolation, floating in the middle of nowhere.” Kind of like American Beauty, no?
17. The bead of sweat running down Hanks’ face during his first encounter scene with Jude Law’s character in the diner was real sweat from the actor. Tom Hanks is that good. He can sweat on command.
18. Mendes spends a lot of time on the commentary reflecting on the father/son relationship building at the center of the film. He notes the difficulty to articulate himself he and Hanks strove to put into Michael Sullivan and the strangeness he feels towards the older son. The director notes much of the downtime in Road to Perdition’s gangster story strives to build this strangeness and the characters overcoming it.
19. The scene where Michael confronts Rooney at the church originally also featured two bodyguards on either side of the aged gangster. Michael initially had a line of dialogue he said to these men. Mendes decided to make the scene only about the two, central characters, used a much closer shot that only featured Hank and Newman, and CGed Hank’s mouth to make it appear closed instead of delivering the dialogue to the bodyguards.
20. The moment where Michael puts his Tommy gun together to take on Rooney was at one point the sequence that started the film. Mendes also notes this sequence and the moment where Sullivan leaves his sleeping son a goodbye letter were originally reversed, the letter-giving scene coming before he puts his gun together. It was Hanks’ idea to switch these scenes to how they are now. The man can edit, too, ladies and gentlemen. Tom Hanks is the perfect person.
21. Mendes reflects on a quote from Alfred Hitchcock, “Shoot your murder scenes like love scene and your love scenes like murders.” The Road to Perdition director brings this up over Road to Perdition’s best sequence, where Rooney and his men are killed in the rainy street, no sound but Thomas Newman’s score heard. “Although it’s the biggest blood bath of the film, it’s a love scene between father and son,” Mendes says, although we’re pretty sure that’s not the “love” Hitchcock was referring to.
22. In the graphic novel and original screenplay, Rooney’s death takes place in a boxing ring in front of thousands of people. Mendes wanted to capture this same sense of voyeurism while making it more dreamlike, putting the viewers in a position where they can’t do anything to stop the murder. He also notes this moment is the most Road to Perdition delves into being an American Western.
23. Mendes direction to Jude Law when he is shot and killed was to have him die “like the Wicked Witch of the West,” almost slinking away from existence. Law’s dead drop to the floor was good enough for the director.
Best in Commentary
“I always got the feeling with Tom that he was relishing or allowing the darkness and the real rage and anger that he’s capable of allowing out, but, at the same time, he understood the character’s inarticulacy and his inability to express himself, and hate it, though he does, he’s good at killing.”
“It’s an amazing place. Chicago is built out of granite rising up out of the plains like an Oz.” -Mendes talking about Chicago, not exactly insightful, but I like the way he describes Chicago.
“One of the things that appealed to me early on was the fact that, in many ways, it’s about two fathers, Rooney and Sullivan, who are forced into protecting their least favorite son.”
As expected, the Sam Mendes commentary on Road to Perdition is intelligent and packed with bits of information and insight, but as with any commentary featuring the director flying solo, there’s so much more that could have been gleamed here. Too often, Mendes falls back to the play-by-play form of commentary, just describing the actions that are going on on the screen and giving a minimum amount of analysis on how it plays into the film’s story and themes.
Mendes certainly has a clear view on what his film says and the power in the father/son relationships at the center of it. Small details about working with the actors is interesting, but the commentary could have benefited tremendously from more of it. The director does note on several occasions deleted scene, often pointing out that they are available for viewing on this very DVD/Blu-Ray. However, this commentary could have been an experience as interesting as it is insightful just by having a second commentator for the director to bounce off of. Hell, Tom Hanks can do everything else. Why isn’t he on the track with Mendes?
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