Screenwriting 101 and 200 CigarettesComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Screenwriters sometimes toss around the term "Screenwriting 101." Lisa was getting a little miffed every time I brought it up in an argument about a script, as in, "Screenwriting 101 says you want that to be more of an argument." But it's not a put-down. It means, "Unless there's a good reason to violate the rule, here's the rule." Scenes should be conflicts. It's better to have someone realize something onscreen than offscreen. Etc.

Sometimes people break the Screenwriting 101 rules because they think they're being clever. Usually, they're wrong. (That's why they're called "rules.")

We watched 200 CIGARETTES last night, a rambling ensemble movie from 1999 about a bunch of people running around the Village on New Year's Eve 1981.

An amazing casting job by Deborah Aquila, bringing in Ben Affleck, Christina Ricci, Paul Rudd, Dave Chapelle, Janeane Garofalo, Jay Mohr, Kate Hudson and Elvis Costello. And Courtney love, who absolutely lit up the screen. Hell, I did not know she can act, though I suppose the Golden Globe should have given me a heads-up. She was the most watchable person there.

So, first of all: awesome set decoration. Fabulous and dead-on clothes. They really recreated the feel of New York in 1981. And you know when I mention that first, the story didn't work.

Actually, there were barely stories. A couple of girls from Ronkonkoma are looking for a party. Paul Rudd and Courtney Love fight because he thinks she's his best friend and she's really in love with him. Adorable, sweet Kate Hudson is in love with self-centered Jay Mohr who's not really interested now that they've slept together. A bunch of hipsters are looking for dates. That kind of movie. It all winds up at a New Year's Eve party where everyone who's been running around with the wrong person winds up with the right person...

... offscreen. That's right. All the stories are resolved offscreen. As if the screenplay ran out of gas. Or the production ran out of budget. Or the screenwriter thought, "I have no real idea how to get myself out of the corner I've painted myeslf into, let's just cut to the aftermath and let the audience fill in the blanks."

No no no. Cut to the chase. Not the aftermath.

Screenwriting 101 says you do not resolve the story off screen.

Sure, you can flashforward, provided the rest of the story is the mystery of "what happened in there," and that is resolved at the end, onscreen. But you can't resolve the whole thing with, say, a series of polaroids and Dave Chapelle narrating what happened. We've been waiting all movie to see it.

Sometimes directors and writers don't give you a real resolution, because "I wanted the audience to decide for themselves." My feeling is: no, buddy. You are the story teller. If I wanted to tell myself a story, I could do that. I hired you to tell me a story. The ending is the whole payoff to the story.

I'm sure you can come up with examples of really cool, unresolved-jazz-chord endings. The Lady or the Tiger? But I ask you: wouldn't it be more interesting to pursue the hero in the consequences of his choice than to stop at the point where he has to make a choice. (E.g. SOPHIE'S CHOICE.)

But, you know, harder to write.

Anyway, those costumes sure were great. And what a great job casting.



The director is, I believe, a former casting director (casting for Oliver Stone, among others, if I remember right).

By Blogger Joshua James, at 12:17 PM  

But I love 200 Cigarettes! It's one of my favorite movies. I think that there should be different rules for a particular type of movie that you watch while stoned, or just vegging out with friends. Sometimes (usually) I am in the mood for a pleasant, fun, interesting movie that won't stress me out. Like the film version of an elliptical machine - low impact. And 200 Cigarettes is great, in that regard.

By Blogger Caitlin, at 12:41 PM  

@Joshua Ahhhhhh... that makes sense.

@Caitlin: take a look at NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST if you want to see this done right.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 12:44 PM  

I also like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, and it's definitely stronger in terms of story structure...I don't think it has enough memorable lines to become a true favorite, though. But any rambling, wandering, chill, thoughtful, fun movie is pretty much guaranteed to win me over.

By Blogger Caitlin, at 1:43 PM  

I agree about the importance of not skipping pivotal points in a story, but what the hell is Courtney Love doing in a movie? She does not belong on celluloid!

By Blogger Unknown, at 9:26 PM  

@Will: Are you kidding? Courtney Love was the best thing in the movie!

Oh, and she does have that Golden Globe. Among her other awards.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:07 PM  

I can see your point, and I would like to see an alternate ending in order to see which I ended up liking better. But in this case, I sort of liked the (admittedly gimmicky) use of photos at the end. It put the audience in the same position the characters were in New Year's Day, when they woke up with no memory of the party whatsoever. Then again, I think I don't think I could find anything wrong with this one. I just love it too much.

By Blogger Super Milk-Chan, at 8:11 PM  

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