Thursday, January 31, 2008

Seven Great Cinematic Satires

by Jason Davis

Ever since Aesop compiled his famous fables, satire has been art's way of criticizing the status quo or, on occasion, foretelling a dire future that will come to pass if mankind doesn't mend its ways. Whether it's Jonathan Swift suggesting that Irish babies could solve the dietary dilemma of the poor or Charles Dickens highlighting the iniquities of post-industrialization England, exaggeration points out subtleties too often obscured in everyday life.

With the advent of cinema, satirists found a new venue with which to wage a witty war against the ills of modern life. This week, CS Weekly points out seven great film satires and offers a little writing lesson to take from each. So hone your pen to razor sharpness and -- on the off chance that you didn't know that "Rosebud" was the sled, that Verbal was Keyser Soze, or that Darth Vader was a whiny little twit--be careful, there are some spoilers ahead.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern & Peter George (Kubrick directed)
Based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George
The Lesson: Global nuclear was is bad.
The Writing Lesson: Why go for subtlety when you can name a character "Jack D. Ripper" and really cut to the chase?

Peter George's Cold War thriller Red Alert got a radical makeover when director Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) and screenwriter Terry Southern (The Magic Christian) realized that the only way to reasonably face nuclear annihilation was to laugh. Dr. Strangelove could have been the direst depiction of world affairs ever committed to film, what with a sexually frustrated (not to mention barking mad) USAF general launching a nuclear assault on the USSR. The resulting debacle of spin-doctor diplomacy could induce a suicidal depression if not for the facts that General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is terrified of the Russian Ambassador (Peter Bull) seeing the threat board, that President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) is "really very sorry" that this has happened, and that his adviser, Dr. Strangelove (Sellers, again), thinks the best option is to embrace polygamy in underground bunkers to repopulate the species.

M.A.S.H. (1970)

Screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr. Based on the novel by Richard Hooker
The Lesson: In battlefield surgery, a martini does not constitute malpractice.
The Writing Lesson: If your characters, no matter how mad, make more sense than the situation they're in, your waging a winning satire.

Chaos reigns when Doctors Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Augustus "Duke" Forrest (Tom Skerritt) are drafted into the Korean War and assigned to the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, where the war mangles patients faster than the besieged medics can sew them up. Ring Lardner, Jr.'s (The Cincinnati Kid) adaptation of Richard Hooker's novel is supplemented by copious improvisation on behalf of the cast and amusing camp announcements added in post-production by director Robert Altman (The Player). The film finds disparate personalities forced into untenable circumstances that bring out the best in surgeons like Hawkeye and Duke while showcasing the worst in their immediate superior, Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). Though episodic in nature, the film's set pieces combine to create a chaotic gestalt that eventually erodes all the intellectual underpinnings of the war and leaves the human cost as the only figure worth considering as the screen goes dark.

Network (1976)

By Paddy Chayefsky
The Lesson: Reality TV signals the demise of Western civilization.
The Writing Lesson: Try to predict the future, and then regret it when you do.

The tale of news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), whose on-air descent into madness is exploited into ratings fodder, Network is a 20th-century satire that has become a 21st-century reality, resulting in an enduring classic of one medium and a scathing indictment of another. Paddy Chayefsky's (Marty) disturbingly prescient assault on the ratings war finds the UBS network, under the cutthroat guidance of Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), turning the evening news into an instrument of entertainment rather than education. Viewers tune in with the expectation that Beale's ravings will eventually lead to his suicide, a notion that subverts the whole point of television news and seems despicably similar to the worst of modern reality TV. A tragedy of Oedipal proportions, Network has the benefit of its author's experiences during TV's golden age and loses none of its power as each succeeding minute brings it closer to reality.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Written and performed by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin (Jones also directed)
The Lesson: Always know who you're following and why you're following them.
The Writing Lesson: In satire, nothing is sacred…especially if it normally is.

Born to a Jewish prostitute (Terry Jones) down the road from the Bethlehem stable where Jesus was soon to be be laid in a manger, Brian of Nazareth (Graham Chapman) longs to join in the rebellion against the Romans, but instead finds himself mistakenly labeled a messiah by a revolutionary sect bent on making a martyr. A follow-up to the Arthurian antics of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian showcases the dangers of faith not tempered by reason. Brian repeatedly refutes his supposed divinity, only to encourage his would-be followers and their belief that the real savior would deny his nature. When he loses a sandal while evading them, they interpret the mishap as an instruction from on high to discard one shoe. Less sketch oriented than previous Python offerings, Brian's message could just as easily be applied to government as it is to religion, and the narrative marvelously mines every joke the pompous Biblical epics of the past avoided like a plague of frogs.

Brazil (1985)

Screenplay by Terry Gilliam & Tom Stoppard & Charles McKeown
The Lesson: Bureaucracy is the root of all evil.
The Writing Lesson: If the world you imagine gives you nightmares, you're on the right track.

Originally titled 1984 ½, Brazil is filmmaker Terry Gilliam's ode to bureaucracy gone terribly wrong. After a typo at the Ministry of Information results in the torture and execution of an innocent man mistaken for a terrorist, mid-level functionary Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) sets out to correct the error with a check for the widow. One thing leads to another, and Lowry's life is soon strangled by red tape in a world where plastic surgery is as prevalent as brushing one's teeth, fashionable ducts are all the rage, and prisoners are billed for their own executions. Gilliam's story, as refined by the wit of playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and frequent Python collaborator Charles McKeown (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), leaves no exaggeration un-inflated as it combs through the banalities of everyday life searching for commonplace annoyances to hyperbolize.

L.A. Story (1991)

Written by Steve Martin
The Lesson: You don't have to be crazy to live in L.A., but it certainly improves the experience if you are.
The Writing Lesson: Observe like Sherlock Holmes and regurgitate like Steve Martin.

It takes a few years of living in Los Angeles to fully appreciate Steve Martin's (Shopgirl) astute observations about the peculiarities of the city. When weatherman Harris K. Telemacher's (Martin) life is derailed by a freak thunderstorm, the magic of the city comes to his rescue in a satirical script with a softer edge than most. Indeed, L.A. Story is more of a love letter to the eponymous metropolis and, like Brazil, its charm comes from the world in which it's set. Freeway shootings, cleansing colonics, and an absolute amazement at encountering natural breasts seem completely plausible in the setting Martin's script establishes, and the movie relies on the overall ambience of strangeness to convey its narrative rather than a nonstop barrage of gags. Martin pays attention to his surroundings and recalls them with a unique wit that imbues the movie with both charm and humor.

Thank You for Smoking (2005)

Screenplay by Jason Reitman (also directed)
Based on the novel by Christopher Buckley
The Lesson: Smoking is bad for you, but the choice to smoke is good…I think…
The Writing Lesson: Know what you're saying and why.

Thank You for Smoking inverts the traditional audience expectations by offering ostensibly evil tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Ekhart) as a protagonist who champions the right to smoke (and die of lung cancer) as being as American as apple pie. Conversely, the anti-smoking Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy) becomes the bad guy because his campaign doesn't care about America's lungs -- it's only a political position with which to pursue votes. Jason Reitman's (Juno) screenplay, based on the book by Christopher Buckley, expands Naylor's relationship with his similarly persuasive son (Cameron Bright) to blow off the haze of tobacco smoke and reveal that it's not what you sell, but how you sell it and why. With a character as strongly realized as Naylor riding a premise that makes even the most oblivious viewer take a beat to think about what's really being said, Thank You for Smoking establishes a satirical foothold in the new millennium and ensures that the movies will still cast a withering eye over society's seemingly boundless stupidities.

As South Park seems to prove with every new season, the human race has no paucity of shortcomings to serve as fodder, so there will always be room for a good satire or six on multiplex screens.

Jason Davis has been the DVD Manager for CS Weekly, a contributing editor for Creative Screenwriting Magazine, and has written for,, and created the TV series Studio 13, which ran on Lorne Michaels' Burly TV network. He lives in the small space left over by his ever-expanding library of books, movies, and music.

Everybody Drinks Water

"My works are like water. The works of the great masters are like wine. But everybody drinks water."
Mark Twain



Why should you submit your script to Scriptapalooza?

--Grand Prize: $10,000
--2 writers got their scripts made into movies by LifeTime
--2 writers this year got their scripts optioned
--All the reading is done by 80 production companies
--Entertainment Weekly Magazine calls us 'One of the Best'
--We promote the winners, runners-up, finalists and semifinalists for a full year
--We are considered one of the best screenplay competitions by agents, managers and producers

About Scriptapalooza:

The Scriptapalooza Screenwriting Competition, was founded in 1998, and has generated heat, publicity and a reputation that demands respect. Scriptapalooza, Inc., along with its various divisions was created to nurture talent and create opportunities. Storytellers come from all over the world and from all walks of life, because of the simple fact that everyone has a story. Scriptapalooza's goal: to seek out that storyteller and honor their script with a grand prize of $10,000. Each year dozens of production companies and literary representatives sign on as participants to read our winners, resulting in many scripts being optioned, sold or outright bought.

Questions? Comments? call the office 323.654.5809
or email us at

Call for Entries: The Accolade Competition

Deadline: February 15, 2008


Now in its sixth year, top-tier, international awards competition, The Accolade, announces its call for entries for moviemakers, television producers and videographers. The Accolade is a non-traditional, virtual venue. Awards go to those filmmakers, television producers and videographers who produce fresh, standout entertainment, short and feature films, television productions, animation and compelling documentaries.

The Accolade is a showcase for cinematic gems and unique voices. It receives entries from all over the world. Annually, a special award is given to a production that makes a significant contribution to social change or a humanitarian effort. The Accolade is an award recognized for its rigorous evaluation process by buyers and distributors; they are confident that winning productions are of high quality. The Accolade team works passionately to help worthy productions gain the publicity and distribution they deserve.

Go to for rules and entry form.

2008 Screenwriting Expo: Please Vote On Date/Location

Dear Friend of Creative Screenwriting and the Screenwriting Expo,

A few weeks ago, we surveyed both 2007 Screenwriting Expo registrants and potential 2008 attendees, asking for your preferred locations for the 2008 Expo.

We then went out and investigated numerous sites.

Now, we're asking for your final vote on two alternatives. It's quick-just click where it says below and respond to the few multiple-choice questions.

First, here are some of the key factors that went into this narrowing:

1. Los Angeles location.

Many respondents suggested other cities, especially New York City. We had to rule this out, we're sorry to say, due to practical realities. About half of Expo registrants come from the Los Angeles area, the other half from all over the world. We know that making half of you travel is an inconvenience. We apologize. But making 95% of all registrants, and most speakers, travel to a distant location would inconvenience everyone, reduce registrations, make it difficult to get great speakers, and raise our costs.

2. Prices of hotel rooms and food.

The way the meeting business works at hotels, we have to guarantee a certain number of guest room sales and a certain amount of food and beverage sales, or the hotel won't give us the meeting space. Some hotels with available space wanted guest room rates of $180/night and up, with commensurately higher food costs.

3. Size of venue.

The two Universal Citywalk hotels were suggested by many. Their combined meeting space is much too small. The same is true of a number of other choices.

So help us decide where to hold the 2008 Expo by voting here:

Thank you very much.

Bill Donovan
Executive Manager
The Screenwriting Expo

Show It...Don't Say It!

by Curtis Kessinger (and many others)

I’ll be the first to admit I’m guilty of using dialogue for all the wrong reasons, but I’m changing my ways and I hope you do too. Following are a few tips for better dialogue.

Most people think dialogue is the best way to deliver the action, message or emotion of a scene, but in fact it can be the worst. Use dialogue as a last resort. Find a way to use visuals to deliver scenes to your audience. Avoid explaining, telling, or discussing something that can be shown visually. Analyze every bit of dialogue to see if you can figure out a way to show it visually and if you can’t, then that dialogue is worth saying.

Scenes can be more powerful when characters don’t say anything versus when they do. Use your dialogue wisely. We are compressing a story into two hours so every word has to count. Say as much as you can with the fewest number of words and avoid long speeches if possible. A well-written speech can be very powerful, but a poorly-written speech will have your audience heading for a popcorn refill.

Dialogue should move the story forward, reveal character and entertain us.

Dialogue should be authentic, manipulating, conniving, lively, and metaphorical.

The last word of a sentence of dialogue is the most important word. The last word contains the punch…the meaning…the impact. Once you have delivered the punch then it’s on to the next scene.

Dialogue should not discuss action which has already been seen by the audience or something that is going to be seen by the audience. If characters are planning something then don’t have them explaining exactly what is going to happen on the screen. They can explain a plan if the plan is not going to go as planned. The audience will be expecting one thing and you give them another, because your characters told them what was supposed to happen.

Dialogue has to be unique for each character. No two people talk alike. Everyone has a different viewpoint, different perspective, different vocabulary, different rhythm, different intellect, different pacing to their speech.

What characters say and do are two different things. Characters say one thing, but mean and do something else. They rarely say how they are feeling. Usually characters say the opposite of what they mean or feel. As an example male characters in horror movies rarely admit to being scared? Their actions and expressions show the audience they are scared, but they rarely admit to it.

Characters rarely talk in full sentences.

Characters talk in subtext. What they are saying is actually about something else.

Characters that know each other should avoid telling each other things they already know.

Avoid using clichés…be original. You are unique and original so your script should be the same.

All characters have strengths and weaknesses so no single character knows everything. They may say they know something to hide their weakness, but their actions show the audience the real truth.

Avoid using the words “yes” and “no”, because they are too on the nose…too on the money. It is the same way in real life…very few people say what is on their mind and give you a straight answer. They usually dance around the truth.

Dialogue that starts with the words “well”, “you know” and “remember” can slow down a scene.

Try to skip the normal introductions. Find a way to prevent characters from introducing themselves or introducing someone else in a normal manner such as “Hello I’m so-and-so” or “this is so-and-so.” It can also slow the momentum of a scene…especially if the audience already knows the character’s name from an earlier scene. If characters meet for the first time find a unique way to introduce them and have their names come out in other dialogue.

Eliminate words such as “hello” and “good-bye” when characters enter and exit scenes. Start the scene later and end the scene earlier.

Try to avoid using the word “this” when a character is pointing something out…the audience will see what the character is pointing/referring to and the word “this” can be eliminated.

I hope this helps you write better dialogue and I can’t wait to see your film on the big screen!

Thank you for your time. Now get back to writing!

Best wishes,

Curtis Kessinger
Film School Now!

Feel free to email me your comments: