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Lessons Learned From 2011



Screenwriting expert Danny Munso explains why examining the year’s best films can lead to future script successes.

This past year could easily be seen as one of transition for cinema. While 2011 didn’t feature the instant classics of recent years, like The Dark Knight (2008), The Hurt Locker (2008), Avatar (2009), Up (2009) or The Social Network (2010), it did see the release of several films that can be beneficial to aspiring screenwriters.

Lessons in writing can be gleaned from almost every film of course—at least ones that aren’t titled Alvin & the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. But I want to focus on a few of 2011’s brightest spots, ones that fellow writers can take a closer look at and hopefully gain some inspiration from, for a fresh new year of writing in 2012!

Adapt To Your Surroundings
Any conversation about screenwriting in recent years needs to address the elephant in the room: Hollywood has become obsessed—and possibly crippled—by adaptations. They are everywhere; some are brilliant, others less so. Yet the reality remains that original material is hard to sell.

Adaptations have such a distinct advantage in the market that you can’t be blamed for trying

There was a film in 2011, however, that represents everything that is good about adapting stories for the big screen: Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. Co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, Payne’s film is a touching and comedic look at a family on the brink. If you saw the trailer, or even the film, and assumed The Descendants was an original story, you probably weren’t alone. It was, in fact, adapted from a great novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Hemmings’ novel was well reviewed but was certainly not an ‘international best-seller’, that famous tagline that has become commonplace in movie trailers.

The Descendants feels fresh to an audience because the majority of us don’t know this story and these characters. We come to the film with virgin eyes, and appreciate it all the more. Contrast that with another great 2011 film: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Both films succeed, but Dragon Tattoo’s source material is so much better known that some audience members are bound to be disappointed by some of the choices made by screenwriter Steven Zaillian and director David Fincher. Payne, Faxon and Rash have no such burden.

So what does this tell you, as a screenwriter? Well, to be clichéd, if you can’t beat them, join them. Adaptations have such a distinct advantage in the market that you can’t be blamed for trying. Obviously finding a story that moves you as an artist is the first priority, but having that story be off the beaten path will serve you well in the end. If you need to adapt to break in, you might as well make it as original as possible.

Risks (Sometimes) Pay Off 
At the time of writing it was too early to tell, but there’s a strong chance that 2011 could come to be defined by The Artist, the story of a washed-up silent film star. Oh, the film was also shot in black and white, and has barely any dialogue. Yes, in 2011, the film that took everyone by surprise was, in fact, a silent movie.

I had two initial thoughts when I first heard about the film as it broke out at Cannes: what a brilliant idea, and how in the world did this get made? As I’m sure you can imagine, it was not easy. Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius had a tough time convincing investors to believe in his story. But he stuck with it and is now responsible for one of the best films of the year.

The point is not to inspire you to go out and pen a silent movie for yourself; the point is that Hazanavicius had faith in his idea. He knew it was as unconventional a project as you will encounter in this day and age of cinema, but it didn’t deter him.

These are the same convictions you will need in your own screenplays. If you are thinking about taking a major risk in your story—in the way it’s told, in the way a type of character is portrayed, etc.—and you don’t do it because you think it will derail your chances of getting your script sold, then you are in the wrong business.

Writing is inherently personal. And when you write something personal it often comes with unconventional storytelling. Stick to your guns and it could pay off handsomely.

Take The Conventional And Flip It 
If you are hell-bent on working in a conventional genre, you simply cannot write a retread of the same film that you saw in the theatres a few months ago. The past several years have seen a glut of original comedy scripts that featured the following hallmarks: a group of men behaving like children; raunchy humour; and said men learning life lessons and growing up. The reason the market was flooded with scripts like this is no coincidence. The success of the films produced, written and directed by the great Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad) led to a renaissance of the ‘raunchy comedy’. Screenwriters sought to take advantage and, while some succeeded (like Jon Lucas and Scott Moore with The Hangover), most failed.

Rather than pen a clone of an Apatow film, the better move would be to do what Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo did: write the same type of comedy, only focusing on a group of women. The result, Bridesmaids, was the funniest film of the year. Heck, it was even produced by—you guessed it—Judd Apatow.

Obviously Wiig, a great performer for years on Saturday Night Live, had an inherent advantage in terms of connections to the industry, but she and Mumolo worked on their screenplay for years before cracking it. They had a great idea and saw it through to the end. Audiences responded so well that the spec market is only a few weeks away from being flooded with Bridesmaids clones. Some will be good, most will not.

As artists, it’s natural for us to be inspired by others’ works. The lessons learned from the films of 2011 can help lead you down the path to your own Hollywood success story.