The Best Screenplays written in the 90's for Kids Who Can’t Write Screenplays that Well and/or Don't Know Shit About Screenwriting (But Really Wanna Learn Based on MY Personal Opinion, Which Happens to be the ONLY Opinion That Matters.)
Let's hit it:
THE INDIE GEM: Kids, by Harmony Korine (1995)
I love starting with a bang. So, why this one? Well... Have you read it? This shit is raw, and I know that word is thrown in a lot in film criticism (especially looking like this: "RAW!" ), but I really mean it. This shit is raw. It was written by then 18 year-old Harmony Korine. Larry Clark asked him (yeah, he's a guy, and his name is Harmony, HA!) to write the screenplay because he wanted the story to come from a true spectator of the way kids behaved back then. There's an amateurish feel to it, especially when it comes to character description. The story is shocking to read but refreshing at the same time, because there's not an ounce of self-consciousness in Korine's writing. Now, I've read a lot of screenplays, but there's a very fine line between pretentiousness and personal style. No-style is this screenplay's style, and it's that technical ignorance what makes it unique.
When I say 'technical ignorance' I'm not saying it lacks structure. The film has three acts, and the rest of the paradigm is there, but the descriptions and dialogue come so naturally that for a moment you think you're reading a short story. I wish my first script was as "RAW!!" as this one, but unfortunately, my teens weren't as eventful as Telly's. (Sidenote: doesn't Telly look JUST like Michael Phelps?)
THE ONE FULL OF HUMANITY: Almost Famous, by Cameron Crowe.
Crowe has a style of his own. I'm trying to say that when you read one of his scripts, you immediately know who the author is. He has those great afterthoughts to actions, like this one found in Jerry Maguire right after Dorothy asks him to come in and leaves him outside to settle things with the sitter.
Crowe's scripts have BILLIONS of those, and they're incredibly helpful to his actors. It's easy understand where the character is coming from, and it makes it pretty obvious why so many actors praise his writing. He makes their job easier. So, why am I going with Almost Famous instead of Jerry Maguire? Because the former is insanely entertaining and full of nostalgia and you can hear the riffs when you read about the backstage scenes. And on a personal note, I was about the main character's age when this movie came out, and I was into real rock & roll (something my friends NEVER understood) and wrote on just about anything I found, so it has sentimental value. It also has the Tiny Dancer scene. This is what it looked like on paper:She exits, as shot lingers on Jerry. That odd moment
when you've crossed the line.
92 INT. TOUR BUS -- MORNING - 5 AM
"Tiny Dancer" continues on the bus stereo. Russell sits up
front, swathed in a large robe, alone and silent. The
others have given him a wide berth. He feels silly, and
they know it, and he hates that they know it, which makes
him feel foolish. He sits silently. William watches him
from four rows back, next to Penny. She kisses the top of
his forehead, a hero's welcome. He yawns. The song's vocal
begins. There is only more silence. Then, after a beat, we
hear a voice or two, fighting the quiet and singing along.
Then others... waking up... joining in. Then Jeff. Russell
hears them and starts to sing along too, louder now,
without turning around. It's a voice everyone wants to
hear. Like it or not, this is his family.
Whenever I read Crowe's scripts I get the feeling that he was smiling
while hitting the keys. I mean, how can you put that much heart into
something, all that humanity, and keep a straight face? This is a guy
who's not afraid to show you his "uncool" side, and that makes him all
the cooler, because I'm so sick and tired of people saying showing
vulnerability is a bad thing. Crowe makes the vulnerable guy the hero
in all of his movies, and you can't dislike them because they're so
damn likeable. So thank you, Mr. Crowe, for setting the record
straight. The princess of uncoolness salutes you.
THE ONE FOR SUCKERS LIKE US: High Fidelity, adapted from the novel by Nick Hornby, written by D.V. DeVicentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack and Scott Rosenberg (2000)*
Let’s face it, not too many scripts penned by half a dozen people turn into good movies. But this one is different. It's not just because of John Cusack or the kick-ass soundtrack, or the fact that Jack Black gives a GREAT performance. The story feels real. It gives you the impression that the writers sat for hours, drinking and smoking, talking about old flames and how miserable and stupid they left them.
This script had a big challenge: the main character breaks the fourth wall, meaning, he speaks to camera. ALL THE FUCKING TIME. And it's not annoying. You know how hard that is? Voice overs are looked down upon, and talking to camera will make every self-righteous sreenwriting teacher throw you to the lions. Somehow it worked here but it sucked on Alfie. And it's not because it's John Cusack (thought it certainly helped the story to have a regular Joe talking to you), it's because it was handled correctly. They didn't use the method to fill screen time, but to help the progress of the plot.
TOP-NOTCH BANTER: Chasing Amy, by Kevin Smith (1997)
First of all, isn't the tagline great? It's not who you love. It's how. Reading that, I don't understand why so many people in the gay community (especially lesbians) were offended by this movie. In one of Kevin Smith's many college "lectures", a young lesbian dubbed this film as "dumb, but harmless" (which Smith loved) and argued that the movie's message was that all lesbians need is some serious deep-dicking. Smith responded by saying that he put those exact words in the mouth of one of the dumbest characters: Banky. Just to show everyone that that wasn't the point of the movie at all. This is a movie about relationships in your twenties; an interesting time to fall in love, because you know more than you did when you were deep in the claws of puberty, but you still don't know yourself well enough to know what will make you truly happy.
Smith is known for his dialogue, and I believe he did his best on this one. He can make his characters hilarious and painfully honest; vulnerable and infuriating, but he keeps them real. He doesn't cheat on his audience by making them say what we would like to hear from this people; he's honest about them from beginning to end. Holden is and always will be Holden, and Alyssa is always Alyssa, which is mainly the reason for the film's ending.
Also, there's some pretty awesome talk about Catholic upbringing and Star Wars and sex. Sex isn't perfect in real life, and it certainly isn't perfect here. Watching the characters talk about it on screen you're reminded of very similar conversations you've had with your friends. Sure, the banter in Knocked Up and 40 Year-Old Virgin was cool, but a lot of it came from improvisation, both from the actors and Apatow himself. Smith banter is just that: banter from the man himself. If you read his scripts and later watch his films you'll find that every single thing that comes out of his characters' mouths was first on the script, and in Smith's mind before that. One-liners in Apatow movies are born from hanging out on set, having beer and smoking pot with your buddies. Smith quotes come from Smith talking to himself in a dark room while trying to finish his first draft. And you know what? The female lead is a pretty decent character, too. I usually don't like to go all-Amazon on certain movies, but I just want to say that I really appreciated Alyssa, and the effort Kevin Smith put to creating her and making her an intelligent human being with flaws, doubts, and a bag full of lessons over her shoulder. She is without a doubt one of the best female characters created by a male writer. She's not gimmicky or full of cute little tics (fuck you, Braff). She doesn't need to have them, either, because guess what? Ordinary women can also be extraordinary. It's all in the eyes of the beholder.
PERFECTION: As Good As It Gets, by James L. Brooks and Marcus Andrus (1997)
Spanglish I realized the man's style is always the same: perfection. You may not like his films, but you can't possibly read one of his scripts and don't feel something. That's why I value his talent and why I consider him my idol in this crazy screenwriting business. The point of films in general is (or used to be) creating a bond with your audience, while providing some entertainment at the same time. At least that's what I love about films. Brooks is a master at making you care. And caring about Melvin Udall, that pain in the ass everyone tries to avoid, makes you realize that if we all bothered to see the good side on those we loathe, then perhaps we'd all be friends, and we'd have lunch by lakes with noodle salad.
One of the wonderful things about As Good As It Gets is that every character has their moment; like the therapist we only see in one scene has a voice of his own, as do the people in the waiting room. It doesn't matter if they don't have any lines, they're still relevant to the story because James L. Brooks makes sure they're people and not just extras to fill the frame. Even the dog plays a major role, and not only because he helps the plot, but because they gave the dog a personality.
Whenever I watch this film I catch myself wishing I was an insufferable bitch just so I can use Melvin’s lines. But it's not all about the "sell crazy some place else -- we're all stocked up here" stuff. It's the story, and the characters' evolution, and the fact that each of them has a voice of their own. Do Melvin and Carol stand a chance? Fuck if I know. But it was wonderful while it lasted.
Stay tuned for Part II
*The film was released in 2000, but the script was written before that. Duh.