The opening sequence and the introduction of lead characters are inextricably entwined in the Oscar nominated screenplays for this year, and it is worth examining these scenes and sequences in detail to see why they are considered nomination worthy.
THE FIRST FEW PAGES ARE CRUCIAL
We’ve all heard that the first ten pages of a script are crucial in terms of persuading the reader to keep reading. Each one of these screenplays achieve that in different ways, but they all have a very important point in common; they introduce us to the main character and they set up the world (and genre) in which that character lives. Each one also manages to introduce additional information that will be important going forward.
To gain the best value from this exercise I suggest that you watch each film, and then return to the script and read the opening few pages. This will allow you to easily recognise the brilliance that is displayed in the choices made by the writer.
Let’s look first at the opening of THE IRISHMAN by Steven Zaillian and examine how much he is able to achieve in little more than the first page of his script.
POINT OF VIEW
The first tool the writer uses is to open with a Point of View of the “home” of Frank Sheeran. The use of the POV draws us in, making us feel like we are familiar with the world, clearly setting up the present circumstances of the character before we even see (or meet) him.
Interestingly this world is in no way a threatening environment and lulls us into a false sense of being in a safe sanctuary, the last place that we would expect to find hostility and aggression. This contrast is the kind of subtle craftsmanship that often goes unnoticed, but adds depth to the emotion emanating from the story.
Another tool used by good writers is that they use the first words of the dialogue that their characters speak to good effect. First impressions do count, and a characters’ first words are an opportunity not to be missed. They must not only be filled with interesting information that stirs our interest, but they must express the very soul of who the character is and the world in which he lives.
“When I was young, I thought house painters painted houses.”
In this script the Voice Over can be considered one sided dialogue, a soliloquy where the character is talking directly to us as he takes us into his confidence. And along with the images that we are seeing, the opening words immediately indicate that the narrator belongs in this environment and is elderly. We will also come to understand later that it is an accurate reflection on a life lived and maybe a nostalgic longing for a long lost time of innocence. But more importantly it also immediately introduces us to the world in which the film is set, and forms a very simple and rather innocent image that will be twisted shortly with macabre effect, indicating that all is not what it seems, and importantly revealing loads about who this character is.
Another thing worth noting in this opening scene is the way in which the writer makes the character stand out from his surroundings.
When we finally do see and meet him he is “sitting apart from the others”, he is “in a wheelchair” and “better dressed than everyone else”. Each one of these phrases have been carefully selected and crafted to tell us not only about his appearance but they reveal a clue to his character and who he is.
The description of his jewellery not only speaks to his class and social standing, but is crucial to us understanding the outrageous action in the scene to come which reveals so much about the character and past of this innocent looking 80 year old.
SET-UP and PAY-OFF
Cleverly the writer has used a set-up and unexpected pay-off in the first sequence of the script to hook our interest. By contrasting and comparing the usual and obvious method and image of someone painting a house using a brush and paint, with the bloody result of the gunshot; “the blood begins to slowly ooze down the wall covering it with red streaks.” we are introduced to the real Frank Sheeran as he delivers the pay-off to his first line of dialogue when he says: “ … and started painting houses myself.”
FROM PAGE TO SCREEN
Now watch the film, and you will see that there is a difference between the script and the final film. It’s close… but the execution is not as precise as the writing. Did director Martin Scorsese improve the scene, or did he miss an opportunity? You decide.
You can view the opening scene here…