2017 was a year of great movies (and some terrible ones, but that’s a conversation for another time). And with the Academy Awards upon us, it’s the perfect time to explore a few of (in my opinion) the finest screenplays of 2017, and discover what made them great. In no particular order:
THE DISASTER ARTIST — Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
(Based on The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero)
One of the most anticipated movies of the year for film fans familiar with the… unforgettable The Room, this movie introduced the mainstream world to Tommy Wiseau. And, with it, brought a similarly enigmatic and compassionate view of how ‘the best worst movie ever made’ got made. Neustadter and Weber somehow manage to cover all of the most well-known details of the making of the film, only altering and dramatising a few key moments. While it’s not quite 99.9% accurate (as Tommy claims — his .1% dispute being about a football, naturally), it’s a warm-hearted tribute to the spirit of the dreamer.
What Made It Great? Neustadter and Weber give their characters a rounded, complex persona. Greg, our main character, is inherently flawed, but worthy of our empathy. And Tommy also is neither a hero nor a villain, but a passionate filmmaker with some questionable tendencies. That careful decision to showcase the unflattering sides of these characters is something I believe is sorely lacking in many modern ‘biopics’.
The Lesson: Your characters should be somewhat flawed. Otherwise, they’re not human.
I, TONYA — Craig Gillespie
A somewhat controversial story, given the nature of Tonya Harding’s legacy, Gillespie’s screenplay is a wild and radical exploration of the conflicting perspectives surrounding Tonya’s life. Not only does Gillespie address the most infamous moments with a startling precision and wit, but he crafts unforgettable characters (Tonya’s mother LaVona is on par with Three Billboards’s Mildred for most acerbic character of the year), sharp lines and inventive set pieces from the footnotes of Tonya’s life.
What Made It Great? The bold, inventive strokes. From showing multiple, conflicting perspectives of one moment to having characters openly state “this is not how I recall this moment”, the screenplay is not afraid to acknowledge that there is no way of knowing who is telling the truth and who isn’t — a radical step for a movie about a true event.
The Lesson: Be bold. Take those risks, even if you’re not sure about them.
LOGAN — Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green
(Based on the Marvel Comics character Wolverine)
2017 was a great year for reinventing existing comic book characters. From Thor to Spider-Man to Wonder Woman, superhero movies began taking risks like they rarely have before. But Logan is in a league of its own. A brutal, near-poetic meditation on getting older, Frank, Mangold and Green eschew the traditional superhero conventions, opting to pay homage to classic Westerns. The end result is a harsh, emotional goodbye to a beloved character; one that will surely be remembered for its complex, adult content.
What Made It Great? It’s fantasy, grounded in gritty reality. The biggest complaint about modern blockbusters centers around the CGI and bloodless violence, two problems that create an even bigger problem: weightlessness. If there are no consequences, no blood or death, why should an audience care? One of the greatest strengths of Logan is that it’s a superhero movie set in a realistic context. People bleed. They die. And they get older. That’s the key to this movie — the audience can actually relate. We cannot empathise entirely with a man that can turn into metal. But a man that hurts, that bleeds, that ages? It’s impossible for audiences to not relate to that.
The Lesson: Even when working with fantastical elements, ground the story with relatable themes.
GET OUT — Jordan Peele
To the surprise of nobody, the most profitable movie of 2017 has one of the most well-crafted, impressive screenplays of the last decade. Jordan Peele’s debut feature is a ‘woke’ social thriller about racism that turns horror conventions into metaphors. That doesn’t sound great, admittedly, but personally, I was thrilled that this turned out to be more than ‘another horror movie’. Peele isn’t interested in jump scares or easy answers. He has something better up his sleeve. Using satire, scares and twists, Get Outbecomes a dark exploration of race relations in modern day America.
What Made It Great? Peele used the horror movie conventions to make a point. How many other horror movies have a purpose or message? How many horror movies tackle racism? Again, for a debut feature, this is pretty incredible. I say it all the time, and I’ll say it again: your screenplays should not just be ‘cool’ or ‘fun’. They should have a purpose, something you have to say.
The Lesson: If you’re writing genre fare, make sure you say something. You’re going to stand out in a sea of generic screenplays.
THE SHAPE OF WATER — Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
An intricate melding of dark, gothic romance and fairy tale elements with the classic Del Toro spin of horror. It’s a story that could easily be ruined by a heavy hand or even one misjudged sequence. Instead, Del Toro manages to craft a love story very reminiscent of its Beauty and the Beast inspirations, while also marching to its own beat. Balancing some really well-drawn and likeable characters (Elisa is a wonderful lead, especially) with some much-needed darkness, the screenplay is nothing short of magical.
What Made It Great? The decision to make our main character completely silent. Not only does it provide a nice parallel to Elisa’s amphibian love interest and create a deeper connection between them, it also creates an opportunity for the writers to visually describe how she feels. That one character decision informs everything — from the way she communicates with people externally to the way we’re visually shown what she feels internally. She’s the center of this world, and the screenplay never, ever forgets that.
The Lesson: Your main character is the beating heart of your story. They, and their traits, should inform everything around them — and not the other way around.
FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL — Matt Greenhaigh
(Based on Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool by Peter Turner)
The true story of Peter Turner’s youthful romance with classic movie star Gloria Grahame, Matt Greenhaigh’s screenplay is a sweet, warm-hearted love story set against the backdrop of gritty 1970s Liverpool. Greenhaigh is able to tint the writing with just a hint of sadness, even in the lighter notes, reminding the audience that there’s a tragic element to the story lingering behind the beauty. It’s a welcome texture, and coupled with the magnificent transitions between scenes, creates an air of magical unpredictability for this unlikely love story.
What Made It Great? The ever-present feeling of Old Hollywood melodrama and romance. From their initial meeting through to the final moments of the story, the scenes between Gloria and Peter are very reminiscent of the 1950s movies in which she worked. From the sweeping romance to the turbulent arguments, there’s something very classic about it that I can’t really attribute to any other recent screenplay.
The Lesson: Your scene descriptions and action lines do a lot to define the mood and tone of your story, especially in period pieces.
THE BIG SICK — Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani
The most successful romantic comedy of 2017 was loosely based on the real-life romance of its writers, giving the screenplay a down-to-earth, realistic warmth absent from many of the fantastical rom-coms we get in a typical year. Gordon and Nanjiani knew from the outset that this wasn’t going to be a standard rom-com. For one, it’s about an interracial couple, where the focus is not on their culture clash. This kind of subversion is the strength of the screenplay, continually attempting to eschew the ‘predictable’ route.
What Made It Great? That subversion of the traditional romantic cliches. Namely, telling a love story in which one of the romantic leads is in a coma for most of the story (and not in a creepy While You Were Sleeping way). That absence forces a genius decision by our writers — they focus on the relationship between Kumail and Emily’s parents. With the main romantic story sidelined, we watch as Kumail gradually begins to charm Beth and Terry until they embrace him entirely. It’s a full relationship arc, but one completely unexpected from a ‘romantic comedy’.
The Lesson: Subvert expectations at all turns, especially in formulaic or well-trodden genres like the Romantic Comedy.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME - James Ivory
(Based on Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman)
A laid-back, decidedly unflashy romantic drama — the kind you come to expect from the man that produced classics like Remains of the Day and A Room with a View. Ivory prioritises the lingering silence over the devastating argument. There’s no melodrama, just quiet, sun-soaked admiration between our leads. And that, for me, is a more interesting thing to read than the occasionally graphic sex sequences (some of which are off-screen, but described as if they are not in a… strange… choice) that are peppered throughout.
What Made It Great? Those silences. Those moments of great longing, where our two leads are so close, but so distant. Ivory takes his time with the screenplay, building the connection rather than diving into a romance headfirst as so many romantic dramas do. With this screenplay, the silence is everything. Just holding back a little makes the whole thing feel more earned.
The Lesson: Don’t be afraid to slow down; it’s not always necessary to get to the ‘trailer moments’.
THREE BILLBOARDS — Martin McDonagh
The frontrunner for Best Original Screenplay at the time of writing this (according to the prediction sites), Martin McDonagh’s black comedy topped many ‘best of 2017’ lists. And while the movie has divided some crowds, I stand by my statement that this is one of the best screenplays of 2017. No question. McDonagh’s sharp wit, dark humour and complex character arcs are second to none.
What Made It Great? McDonagh’s abrasive, unforgettable lead character: Mildred Hayes. Mildred is an unapologetic woman with a mouth to match. But the audience loves her because we see that she’s consumed by not only grief and anger over her daughter’s rape and murder, but also by her guilt. Mildred is a woman failed not only by the system, but by herself. McDonagh gives her a lot of depth, and she’s the character of the year, as far as I’m concerned.
The Lesson: An interesting character is a complex character; make sure they’re more than two-dimensional.
THE BEST CONCLUSION
2017 had a lot of really great screenplays. There are, of course, more great screenplays that I could talk at length about, and there are some that I didn’t enjoy at all. But generally speaking, this was a truly phenomenal year for great writing. I’ll be breaking down some of these screenplays in future, no doubt. But I hope that this brief little rundown has provided some tips for you to improve your own story.
If there’s one overriding lesson from the 2017 screenplays listed above, it’s this:
Be bold in your writing. Do what you think nobody else would do. Be different.