Examples of Cinematic Storytelling

Written by Mystery Man

During my two-week hiatus (and inspired by Billy’s –The Movie on the Page), I went through a few screenplays to find great examples of –writing the shots. And I have four to share.

First, the opening scene from Hampton Fancher’s Blade Runner. He never used “we see” or camera angles, but his writing clearly implies with the Secondary Heading of “THE EYE” that the scene opens with an extreme close-up of an eye, which is essential to the story. His descriptions help visualize (without taking you out of the story by using technical jargon) that the camera would pan back to reveal that the eye is just an image on a screen. As we pan, we’d learn an important detail by seeing the VOIGHT-KAMPFF words on the mechanism. The camera would keep panning back to reveal the desk and then pan around or perhaps cut to Leon. We’d first see his nametag and the folded, pudgy hands in his lap before we move up to his face. Then there’s a cut to Holden, the man facing him, which reads like a medium shot (or thereabouts). It’s not until after the cut to Holden that we’re even given a description of the room.

How many aspiring writers would start with just a general description of the room and try to use dialogue to get out the VOIGHT-KAMPFF information as well as the names of the two characters in the room? This is such a great, writing-the-shots example of cinematic storytelling. It’s the way Fancher is thinking like a filmmaker that’s impressive to me. [The result in the finished film (if you can ever call Blade Runner a “finished film”) is slightly different. The shots are all there, as described in the script, but Ridley Scott would open the film with a shot of the city and an approaching vehicle that’s flying toward the Tyrell building so that you could see Holden pacing in a window as he waits for Leon to show up. Then he cuts to the interior of the room. Leon walks in, and for some reason, Ridley uses a VOICE OVER to introduce him. A computerized female voice says something like: “Next subject: Kowalski, Leon.” Ugh, makes me cringe every time. Ridley should’ve listened to his screenwriter.]

Second, here’s a scene written by Alex Proyas (with the help of David S. Goyer and Lem Dobbs) from the Dark City screenplay. This is a four-star film, one of Ebert’s Great Movies. He once went through the movie shot-by-shot with film students in Hawaii. It took him four days. He wrote, “Proyas likes deep-focus compositions. Many interior spaces are long and narrow. Exteriors look down one street to the vanishing point, and then the camera pans to look down another street, equally long. The lighting is low-key and moody. The color scheme depends on blacks, browns, shadows and the pallor of the Strangers; warmer colors exist in human faces, in neon signs and on the billboard for Shell Beach. ‘I am simply grateful for this shot,’ I said in Hawaii more than once. ‘It is as well-done as it can possibly be.’ Many other great films give you the same feeling — that their makers were carried far beyond the actual requirements of their work into the passion of creating something wonderful.”

Alex Proyas is a writer-director so this scene has some camera angles in it, which we would not write. It’s just as easy to say “SLEEPING EYES – between waves of lightโ€ฆ” than “ANGLE ON SLEEPING EYES.” They both mean the same thing. Also, you could just as easily say “WALKER” instead of “TIGHT ON WALKER.” Instead of “P.O.V.”, you could write “He looks” and write “AROUND THE ROOM” as a Secondary Heading to imply a pan. In any case, I love the way he’s thinking visually here and begins this scene by moving the camera around the room, first with the glass syringe on the floor, over to the clothes on a chair, to the puddles of water, and up the tub to the sleeping eyes of Jonathan Walker. You can easily visualize the editing in this scene, too – where one shot ends and the next one begins.

Here’s a sequence from Robert Towne’s Chinatown, a script that really deserves no introduction. This is my favorite sequence in this script. Reading this for the first time years ago was such a revelation to me. I love the way Towne uses Secondary Headings to cut back and forth between Gittes and Mulwray. In the hands of lesser writers, this sequence could have been a bear to read and follow. With a pro like Robert Towne, it’s simple, seamless, and visual. As far as I’m concerned, there was no other way to write this sequence.

And finally, here’s the opening scene from The Long Kiss Goodnight by Shane Black. A number of elements I love about this scene. He has the camera panning from the windowpane over to the bed and to the eyes of the sleeping little girl who wakes up. It’s dark. The mother by the bed is just a vague shape. After a little dialogue, she turns on the nightlight, which brings a surprising visual revelation. And then we’re back to the mother by the bed and then back to same windowpane where we began. My man, Shane Black – I love his work.

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