The joy of reading movie scripts

News Ryan Lambie 6 Mar 2012 - 12:02

They’re the foundation of any movie, but they’re often a great read in their own right. Here, Ryan explains why movie scripts can be so fascinating…

To the casual eye, a film or television script might look like a somewhat dry jumble of dialogue snippets, arcane abbreviations, and brief scene descriptions. Some might even argue that reading a script for pleasure is a bit like staring at the blueprint for a classic building instead of visiting the real thing.

Once the conventions of scriptwriting are understood, however, the hundred-or-so pages of an average script are often fascinating to read, for several reasons.

Some scripts are simply entertaining in their own right. Screenwriter Shane Black, for example, who’s famous for his sharp dialogue and creative insults, injects just as much humour and personality into his scene descriptions. In his first screenplay, Lethal Weapon, Black described an expensive Beverly Hills home as “The kind of house that I'll buy if this movie is a huge hit.”

Black’s script for The Last Boy Scout contains the aside: “Remember Jimmy's friend, Henry, who we met briefly near the opening of the film? Of course you do, you’re a highly-paid reader or development person.”

Obviously, these little nuggets never made into the movies, so discovering these – and, of course, reading them in the context of Black’s lightning-fast dialogue and action – is almost as much fun as watching the resulting films.

Aliens

Reading scripts will sometimes throw up other surprises – snippets of dialogue or, occasionally, entire scenes that were written but never shot, or at least snipped out of the finished movie. Remember the bit where Burke opens a door with a xenomorph behind it in Aliens, and is never seen again? In James Cameron’s first draft screenplay from 1985, there’s a sequence in the final act, where Ripley heads back into the alien nest to rescue Newt, where she also finds Burke, cocooned yet still alive. Taking pity on him, Ripley hands him a grenade, pulls out the pin and marches off on her search.

Whether the scene above was cut out in a later draft or at the shooting stage isn’t clear, but again, stumbling on such things is quite exciting, especially if you’re already a fan of the film in question.

It’s interesting, too, to discover just how much a film can change between the screenwriting and filming stage. In Aliens, the alterations were quite subtle – Cameron’s first draft is actually very close to the version of events now sitting on our shelves. The biggest change, perhaps, is Ripley’s transformation from haunted survivor to hardened warrior. In the finished film, Ripley takes command quickly, demonstrating her courage and also her desire to learn how to protect herself with a pulse rifle.

In the script, Ripley’s less comfortable with a firearm, and in her first encounter with an alien (which takes place after Burke’s scuttled off elsewhere), she can barely shoot straight: “Ripley's hands, slick with sweat, are trembling so much she almost drops the rifle.  Panic screams in her brain.”

Later, when Ripley heads into the nest after Newt, Cameron describes how frightened and unprepared she is: “She drops an unprimed grenade, trembling, forcing herself to be strong […] This is the most terrifying thing she has ever done. She begins to hyperventilate, soaking with sweat.”

The version of Ripley in the screen version of Aliens, while still human and vulnerable, is much more stoic and less jittery than the one in Cameron’s script. This was due, perhaps, to Sigourney Weaver’s interpretation of the character, whose path from victim to warrior is more rapid and complete than it is in the screenplay.

Behind the scenes

Other scripts can reveal some interesting behind-the-scenes insight into how a film was made. The various drafts of George Lucas’ Star Wars reveal some huge changes, as the story is streamlined, and some of the universe’s mythology excised. The fourth draft, written in January 1976, still shows some differences between the words on the page and the finished film.

Tonally, the script is much more violent (“Laserbolts hit several Rebel soldiers who scream and stagger through the smoke, holding shattered arms and faces”), and it takes much longer for Darth Vader to make his grand entrance, since the script repeatedly cuts from the Rebel Blockade Runner to Luke’s dull life on Tatooine – something that was wisely tightened up, I suspect, at the editing stage.

Noticing all these different scenes and tonal shifts is like an Easter egg hunt for anyone interested in the way films are made. But it’s also important to point out that some of the most interesting screenplays haven’t been made into movies at all.

Unproduced screenplays

Perhaps the most compelling and well known of these is Clair Noto’s The Tourist. Originally written in 1980, it was a surreal sci-fi horror story about alien refugees living among ordinary people in contemporary America. Sexy, strange, and wildly original, The Tourist provoked considerable interest in Hollywood, and was eventually purchased by Universal. Brian Gibson was signed up to direct, and HR Giger had created some quite remarkable creature designs – some of them among the best work he ever produced.

A series of disagreements saw the project trapped in development hell; drawn though they were by The Tourist’s originality, Universal executives were nervous about its atypical structure and graphic sex. Arguments broke out over rewrites, and the film was never made (though ideas from it were borrowed for other films – including, bizarrely, Men In Black).

The Tourist, it seems, is doomed to remain on a printed page. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s likely that the screenplay would have been altered, trimmed, watered down and standardised to such a degree that the bizarreness of the original would have been lost in translation in any case. At the very least, The Tourist makes for a fascinating read, and it's a pity Noto never had the opportunity to adapt her screenplay into a novel or comic book.

And then there are all the other unproduced drafts and scripts that never made it to the screen. Many, of course, are awful. But some are fascinating – William Gibson’s curious Alien 3 script, with faster aliens and an airborne virus that turns those who inhale it into another form of xenomorph warrior.

Or what about Ronnie Rocket, David Lynch’s typically strange script about a little homunculus (the titular Ronnie) who sings when he’s plugged into the mains, and has an entire city living inside his head. A surreal, special effect laden fantasy that reads like a continuation of Eraserhead, it’s another fascinating read, if only to wonder how it could have looked when it was finished.

There are, of course, hundreds of other screenplays floating around that are equally worth reading, but the ones mentioned here are, I hope, good examples how enlightening and entertaining they can be. Reading scripts can provide a great insight into the way films are made, and in the case of unproduced screenplays, also give us a taste of what might have been.

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