Continuing on our theme of festival success, this week we’ll be exploring how and why three very different films won the biggest awards at three very different festivals in three very different countries (kind of, the last part might be a little misleading). The screenplays explore entirely different subject matter in different genres, and the chosen festivals do not focus on the same kind of films. And because the trends of the industry change so frequently and because I’m a stickler for a challenge, I’m focusing on three films from the past ten years: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and I, Daniel Blake.
Beasts of the Southern Wild — BFI London Sutherland Prize 2012
The BFI London Film Festival is the biggest and most prestigious festival in the UK. And while there are many awards that would be worthy of exploration here, the Sutherland Prize is, for my money, the most intriguing from a screenwriting perspective. The Sutherland Award is given to the ‘most original and imaginative feature debut’. Previous winners include Robert Eggers’ The Witch; Steve Kloves’ The Fabulous Baker Boys and Lynne Ramsey’s Ratcatcher. To me, this is an award celebrating the screenwriter as much as the director. It’s an award that celebrates risk and ingenuity.
Beasts of the Southern Wild fits into that description perfectly. This is not your average coming-of-age tale. This is a story set in modern-day Louisiana, involving prehistoric creatures, melting ice caps, intricate family dynamics, floods, and a six-year-old girl. Ordinarily, just the idea of a modern coming-of-age story involving prehistoric dinosaurs would make some audiences recoil in confusion. But it works. And it works for one reason: confidence. Those winners I mentioned above won for originality and, frankly, ballsiness. I mean, Ratcatcher is a grounded, realistic drama with a scene that sees a mouse floating up to the moon!
Beasts of the Southern Wild is unbelievably bold in its storytelling. Make no mistake: this is not a fantasy film. This is a story about humans. But the sheer presence of those creatures, of the melting ice caps, of all those things that seem ‘too much’ for a drama, that presence is what makes the human elements ‘pop’. We don’t know anything about prehistoric Aurochs, and some of us have thankfully never experienced a drastic flood. But the human aspect of the story — its human relationships — draws us in, and the boldness of the storytelling enraptures us an audience. We’re gripped and awed by the unpredictable choices the story makes, but we’re moved by the heart behind it.
The lesson for this one is simple: be bold. If you think something won’t work, write it anyway. Do a draft where you just try things! Beasts combines things that, on paper, sound so disparate they could never work together. But it works, and it feels like nothing else you’ve ever seen. It’s that confidence, that uniqueness, that will mark your writing as interesting and original. It says that you’re not following formula, or trying to impress. You’re crafting your own path. Embrace that. Mix and match your plot points. As long as you have enough human elements to ground the story, you can get away with anything.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — Sundance U.S. Grand Jury Prize 2015
Everyone knows the Sundance Film Festival. I think it’s the greatest festival in the world for showcasing independent film. I’ve selected the U.S. Grand Jury Prize mostly because it focuses on English-language fare, but also just because the track record of previous winners is impressive: Whiplash;Fruitvale Station; Primer; Blood Simple. These are films that don’t fit into traditional ‘boxes’. They may not take extravagant risks like the Sutherland Prize, but they tell original, powerful stories in an interesting, and subversive, way.
I love Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It’s beautiful, funny, and bittersweet. But, for me, the success of all of the movies I mentioned above hinges on the concept. Independent cinema especially relies on concept. Since there are no big names and there’s not a lot of money, the concept is what draws an audience. And how does Me and Earl separate itself from other cancer-comedy-dramas with similar concepts? Well, for one, it’s not about the person with cancer. Other movies, like 50/50 and The Fault in Our Stars, are told from that perspective. But Rachel is not the focus here. This is a coming-of-age tale from Greg’s point-of-view. And in doing that, the writer deftly avoids falling into the many clichés of the genre.
But the concept of Me and Earl is even richer: this is a story told by a film-lover. Two of the main characters make short parody movies throughout, including Eyes Wide Butt, My Dinner with Andre the Giant and Rosemary Baby Carrots. This not only allows for the quirky comedy that is so beloved in Sundance comedies, it allows the writer to showcase the growth of the character in an unexpected way. The final film Greg makes is abstract, moving and deeply emotional. It’s not a parody. Without spoiling too much, the scene avoids every cliché I had anticipated. It was an unexpected jolt of emotion, subverting my expectations and, honestly, made me cry for a solid 45 minutes.
The screenwriting lesson here is that not only is concept key, it’s a challenge. Your concept is ripe with potential for clichés and predictability. As a writer, how are you going to subvert those? How will you surprise the audience? Whiplash surprised audiences by subverting the traditionally inspiring teacher-student mentorship cliche. It made that dynamic violent and intense. Your concept is an open door. Don’t go down the well-trodden path. Take every left turn you can conceivably find.
I, Daniel Blake — Cannes Palme d’Or 2016
Cannes is, arguably, the most famous (or infamous, depending on your opinion) festival in the world. Celebrating primarily international and arthouse cinema, the Palme d’Or is the most prestigious award in the entire festival. I’m not sure there’s a ‘type’ of film for this award, given the, shall we say, “volatility” of the Cannes festival. Movies can be vehemently booed, and others overwhelmingly cheered, for seemingly no reason at all. But there is a lesson to be learned here for screenwriters.
I live in the UK, and I specifically remember I, Daniel Blake creating a huge stir upon release. A politically-charged attack against our current government and the inhumane way it treats its least well-off citizens, it’s no surprise that Cannes embraced the film. And, in fact, the biggest way the movie succeeds is in its spirit: it deals with that inhumanity in a humane and compassionate way. This is a story about humans trying to survive against a faceless government that does not care for them. Paul Laverty’s screenplay is full of rage, but voiced so beautifully.
And that’s it’s biggest strength, as far as I’m concerned. Laverty has a point to make with his screenplay. The debate the film caused was no doubt music to his ears; a sign that his work resonated deeply. People came forward with their own horror stories, and Daniel Blake’s message was even projected on the Houses of Parliament: “My name is Daniel Blake, I am a man, not a dog. As such I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect.” Laverty’s screenplay is effective not just because of its empathy, but because of its truth and simmering rage.
For screenwriters, the lesson is: have something to say. Every article I write seems to come down to this, but it’s so crucial to being a great writer: say something! In conversation, you don’t open your mouth unless you have something important to say. It’s the same with writing; you shouldn’t be writing unless there is something burning inside of you. Whether that’s anger, pride, envy. Or if it’s political, moral, social, whatever. But you must say something, otherwise, what’s the point? This is your story. People want to hear your thoughts. Tell the truth!
Ultimately, the advice in this article boils down to just that: success is largely down to you. You are a unique human being. There has never been a you, and there will never be another. So the screenplays you write should reflect that. They should be bold, they should be subversive in a way that reflects you, they should have a great concept you love, and they should say something you seriously feel. Success comes from a great many factors, but I think that’s the biggest. These movies didn’t try and copy what came before. Their writers embraced the uniqueness of the story, and of themselves.
Be bold and prosper.
— James T. Kirk (probably)