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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Should writer's study movies? by Terry Burns


Today I'm taking my agent hat (the really nice silver beaver stetson) off and I'm putting on my writing hat ( the battered sweat-stained Stetson). Yes, I'm thinking more as a writer. You see, I collect movies that I think have a particular lesson to teach to writers or that I think contain some good examples for writers. Today I'm going to give you a top ten list in my mind of such movies.


My personal favorite writer movie is "Sixth Sense" with Bruce Willis. It made the list when I was so thoroughly fooled by the plot resolution and had to immediately watch it again to see if I had been fooled all along or if they had simply lied to me. Going back the clues are all there, they simply push me gently to make false assumptions, which I did. This would be an important skill for a writer.

I guess I would give second place to "Deathtrap" with Michael Cain and Christopher Reeves. I got to see it off Broadway and a road show version as well as the movie. In it, an old experienced writer (Cain) is undergoing writers block and is attempting to steal the work of Reeves (and kill him) as he mentors him. The mentoring is great for writers watching, but the  amazing constant plot reversals is the real lesson. 

3. If we are studying plot reversals and gently misleading the reader or viewer I would submit that the next things to study are virtually any movie by Alfred Hitchcock. He was an absolute master at giving us a minimum of visual clues and engaging our own imaginations. He scared an entire generation to death with a shadow on a shower curtain and a little cake coloring in a bathtub drain in "Psycho"  with Janet Leigh.

4. Perhaps his best in my mind is "North by Northwest" with Cary Grant and Eve St Marie. This one has witty dialogue and maintains an absolute breakneck pace. A great study in how to keep the reader/viewer into the story without respite.

5. A close one to that would be "Vertico" with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. This one is the exact opposite of the above with slow, surreal scenes that nonetheless that shows how to keep the reader/viewer glued to the storyline

6. "Murder 101" with Pierce Brosnen. He was a college professor lecturing on how to write a murder mystery even as the steps he was lecturing on was happening to him in real life. It's an excellent writer's movie as it actually shows story structure plot point by plot point.

7. "Adaptation" with Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep is a story of a writer hired to adapt a bestselling book to the screen only to find it is absolutely un-filmable. The insights of the writer in the movie is terrific for those struggling with the craft. [storyline]

8, "Delirious" with John Candy is a study in rewrites. It's kind of a goofy thing but it is a good study in plot development. 

9. "Stranger than Fiction" with Will Ferrell is a study in narration (that only he can hear) and really shows us what the text we write (as opposed to dialogue and action) really is to the reader. [narration] 

10. "Funny Farm" with Chevy Chase shows a writer dealing with writers block (a favorite topic for writers) and how easy he was to distract from his task [writers block]. 

There are a dozen other Hitchcock movies such as "Rear Window" or "The Birds" that could have just as easily made the list. Some other movies that make various top ten lists for movies for writers include "Finding Neverland," where Johnny Depp plays playwright J.M.Barrie and is a fascinating look how storylines are developed as he comes up with his play Peter Pan. [storyline] "All the Presidents Men," "Almost Famous," "Capote," "Factotum," "Frida," "The Hours," (Saundra and I hosted the author of that bestseller at a conference although we didn't really care for the book and haven't seen the movie) and "Stone Reader". Some of these I have seen (or read the book) and some I haven't.

I spend my day immersed in writing or writing-related tasks. To "turn it off" I have to watch something that can get my mind off it. If I can do that and still learn something about my craft, more the better. I do collect these DVD's and I'm always on the lookout for more. Is there anything you would recommend for the list?

15 comments:

Pen Dancing said...

I've been watching episodes of the TV show "House" because the characters stand out and make you react. It also shows two story lines. The patient story line and the behind the scenes doctors/co-workers story lines are nicely woven together.

I have some of the movies above. I think I will watch them from the angle you have mentioned. Thanks.

Shawn Lamb said...

Actually, I was curious what the screenwriters would do for "Fellowship of The Ring" since Tolkien ended the book during the middle of the battle and started the "Two Towers" with Borhamir's death. A good screenwriter would see the flaw in that choice and place it at the end of Fellowship - which they did.

I actually began my writing career doing scripts for animation. So yes, I pattern my writing style on 'cinematic' story telling.

Diana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen Anna Vogel said...

Terry,
What are the clues in Sixth Sense? My brother-in-law told me to watch the movie, but added, "You'll never believe Bruce Willis is dead the whole time..." So no clues were looked for ;) I've been watching Monarch of the Glen...BBC Scotland. Getting ideas for characters and plot twists. Thanks for the post. Now I have a reason to go to B&N and continue my DVD library ;)

Raquel Byrnes said...

I love this post, Terry! The more I learned about the writing craft the more I see the elements at work in movies. I will have to check out Murder 101...sounds like an interesting lesson.

Davalyn Spencer said...

The Fugitive is a good film for writer-viewing. Harrison Ford, 1993. Another one that intrigued me for clues and foreshadowing was The Tourist with Johnny Depp. I've been watching old Bogart movies and now with your recommendations, my summer movie list is complete! Thanks for the tips, though it will be a matter of the will to watch Will Ferrell do anything.

Steve said...

Writers should study punctuation. Writer's editors often do.

Jeanette Levellie said...

I've seen several of these movies, and will have to look into the others. I'm a little surprised you didn't list "Good Will Hunting." So many authors like that movie, although the language is very profane.

Have you seen "Babette's Feast," a foreign film set in Jutland? The story is not about writers per se, but the plot and characterization are sterling.

Terry Burns said...

That would be why, I don't suffer bad language well, but no, I haven't seen Babette's feast.

Jeanette Levellie said...

Another one I highly recommend is "Mrs. Minerva" with Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon. Superb plot twists and screenwriting.

The Ellery Queen TV show was excellent, too. It ran only one season, but was very well done. It starred Jim Hutton as Ellery Queen, a murder mystery writer whose father is a homicide detective. He helps his dad solve all his cases, even though it interrrupts his writing. You can get it on DVD.

Diana likes "What About Bob?" because of the concept of baby steps. I was encouraged when she told me that, because I knew she wouldn't expect me to get published overnight. Huge sigh of releif.

Jeanette Levellie said...

I mean relief.

Jeanette Levellie said...

I cannot stand profanity, either, Terry, esp. taking the Lord's name in vain. This is why my husband told me I shouldn't see it; I'd probably get mad!

Terry Burns said...

I haven't tried to branch out into collecting TV shows

Most of the time when I say I won't represent profanity I get responses from people who want to explain how out of touch I am or some other reason that I am stupid for taking such a position. I'm not interested in discussing it. With my writing hat on I have people swearing in most books I have written. Villians tend to do that, but while I have shown them doing it and shown the emotions involved I've never used a single profane word. I don't believe a good writer has to. But that's something people have to decide for themselves. They should not waste their time by sending it to me to represent for them however.

Jeanette Levellie said...

Jesus said "The poor you will always have with you." I would add, "And those who think it's their mission in life to change your mind."

You stick to your guns, Terry!

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