Notes on project 1, exercise 1

I’ve been writing in my notebook recently because it’s easier to lug around the office than my computer and so the next few posts will be my notes on exercises for part two.

I’m mindful of the number of films that one has to watch whilst doing this course and sometimes I get anxious that I’m not going to have time to watch them all with everything else that’s going on in life. Rather than watching four or five further films in the first exercise of Conflict and Dialogue, I started on the list that is referenced in the beginning of Scriptwriting. So far I have watched, Winter’s Bone (2010, dir. Debra Granik, screenplay Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini), Sense and Sensibility (1995, dir. Ang Lee, screenplay Emma Thompson), American Beauty (1999, dir. Sam Mendes, screenplay Alan Ball), Cold Mountain (dir. Anthony Minghella, screenplay Anthony Minghella) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006, dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, screenplay Michael Arndt)

My chosen film for this first exercise is American Beauty (1999, dir. Sam Mendes, screenplay Alan Ball). The main conflict in this movie is between two characters or more, primarily, Lester Burnham, his wife Carolyn and their daughter, Jane. From the first instance, we focus on Jane who is being videotaped by her friend and neighbour Ricky. Jane discusses her need for a father to be a role model, not some geek-boy letching over her girlfriends from school. She calls him a lame-o then says someone should put him out of his misery. Off camera, we hear Ricky: Want me to kill him for you? Then Jane responds: Yeah, would you?

Immediately we know that Lester is the main focus of American Beauty, most knowingly in the voiceover that follows, he is telling us that within the year he will be dead. As the film journeys towards the final act, we see a secondary source of conflict in Lester as he struggles with his identity in the form of a mid-life crisis and this, in turn, proves a struggle for his wife Carolyn, already fighting her corner for want of a better, more dynamic husband. Seemingly a well, put-together woman who is also the main breadwinner, she holds all the power in their household though her aggression and vitriol push her further away from Lester.

For Lester there are many obstacles he faces throughout the movie:

  • his wife regards him with contempt
  • his lack of sex life
  • the marriage is in meltdown
  • his daughter thinks he’s a loser
  • his job is going nowhere
  • his boss is positioning him for the axe

Whilst, in the beginning, we view his mid-life crisis through his infatuation with Jane’s sultry friend Angela, he gradually starts to reclaim his life whilst those around him start to unravel.  For while Lester is enjoying his newfound freedom, he ends up paying the ultimate price.

Now I understand how vital conflict is when writing a screenplay. For it keeps the story moving towards a successful conclusion and it needs an audience to feel involved and satisfied in the process.

My biggest task right now is making sure that there are enough obstacles between my main character and their end goal in order for an audience to be satisfied. So, I guess I should add two more post-it notes to my ever increasing mind map: Conflict and Obstacles…



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