Me And You And Memento And Fargo
Anybody who’s ever written or attempted to write a screenplay has run into the dreaded “Hollywood formula.” There’s even an entire industry of seminars, books and videos built of experts who explain all the rules one needs to follow in order to write a winning, successful screenplay, such as specific plot points that need to fall on specific pages, proper character arcs, etc.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that formula. (Full disclosure: I love formulaic Hollywood movies.) Plus, guidelines are actually a good idea for the beginning writer who’s not quite sure how to begin. (More disclosure: I’ve written my own share of “guideline”-based screenplays that never sold.) However, resistance to these guidelines start to build up thanks to the overly aggressive nature that each expert tries to instruct writers to follow them. What should be helpful guidelines become absolutely unbreakable “rules” enforced by each expert who in effect becomes the metaphorical Catholic school nun ready to whack the knuckles of wanna-be screenwriters who stray outside of the winning formula.
It wouldn’t be accurate to call J.J. Murphy‘s Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work as an anti-rules screenwriting book, even though Murphy posits that what made independent films in the ’90s unique from studio movies is that the structures of their screenplays specifically didn’t follow the rules. (“Bad, Catholic school independent filmmakers, bad!”)
The most famous and popular screenplay writing “rule” is the three-act structure, which is a mathematical principal applied to the basic concept that all films need to have a distinct and concrete beginning, middle and end. The rule comes about by the general idea that one page of a screenplay equals one minute of screen time. Therefore, a script’s first act should run for the first 30 pages of a screenplay, which would be the first 30 minutes of the final film. Then, the second act runs for 60 pages and the third act is the last 30 pages. (30 + 60 + 30 = 120 minutes of a film’s runtime.)
Different experts may use different terms to describe the three-act structure, but basically any screenwriting book written since Syd Field first promoted the concept in his seminal 1979 handbook Screenplay will agree that each script absolutely needs three concrete acts. (Although, a new mathematical theory is gaining ground that splits up the middle 60-page act into two shorter middle acts of 30 pages apiece.)
Murphy analyzes twelve different independent screenplays, all of which were made into produced films and achieved a significant degree of success — financially, critically or typically both. These screenplays also, one could argue, specifically have defined the entire independent film movement since the mid-’80s. They are: Stranger Than Paradise, Safe, Fargo, Trust, Gas Food Lodging, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Reservoir Dogs, Elephant, Memento, Mulholland Dr., Gummo and Slacker.
While the three-act structure is the main component of teaching “proper” screenplay writing, there are of course lots of other elements that go into the experts’ proselytizing, such as having a likable main character, one singular storyline, et. al.
After a lengthy introduction that details the history of the three-act structure proselytized by a selection of the more popular experts, Murphy organizes his own individual screenplay analyses by thematic similarities of different rule breakers. Murphy’s screenwriters defy the so-called “rules” by featuring: Problematic Protagonists, Multiple Plot Films, Temporal Structures and Noncausal Structures — all of which “winning” screenplays are supposed to avoid at all costs.
Murphy goes into in-depth detail on how each screenplay is structured, focusing very specifically on how each flaunts, but doesn’t outright deny, the rules. For most of the screenplays, Murphy is still able to pick out their three-act structure, even if those acts don’t follow the exact page counts outlined by the experts.
Even for a script like David Lynch‘s completely loopy Mulholland Dr., Murphy is still able to clearly define Lynch’s fairly well-hidden structure. However, in this case, Murphy proves that the film has four acts rather than the traditional three and follows a clear trajectory for the dual character Betty/Diane played by Naomi Watts. And with as much detail that Murphy is able to go into the script’s individual scenes and overall structure, he’s able to keep the analysis very straightforward and conversational so that it’s all quite clear and engaging, especially for scripts that have such challenging structures.
Plus, Me and You and Memento and Fargo is absolutely appealing far beyond just being a typical screenwriting “manual” such as those written by Syd Field and his ilk. Murphy is clearly zeroing in on the way these films are written, but even those not interested in writing their own screenplays should find this book totally engrossing.
Although, it probably does help if one is already familiar with all or most of the films being discussed. (I’ve seen 11 of the 12 films Murphy covers, but some not in many years.) These are all just generally overall fascinating analyses that examine multiple issues per screenplay, such as “Who is the central character of Fargo, Marge Gunderson or Jerry Lundegaard;” “Would Memento work if it was all just told in a straight linear fashion;” and “What the hell do you mean that Slacker, which clearly takes place in one 24-hour period, doesn’t have a temporal structure?”
For underground film fans, Murphy — who has made films himself — does briefly mention classic avant-garde cinema. First, he points out how David Lynch, who frequently uses dream-like structure for his screenplays, does appear to reference the legendary 1943 underground dream film Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid in Mulholland Dr.
Then, when discussing Gummo‘s free association screenplay structure, Murphy recalls Jonas Mekas‘ championing “the idea of a plotless cinema as an antidote to what he perceived to be the stagnation of classic Hollywood.” And that was in 1961, years before the three-act industry was born! While Mekas wrote at the time that Jean Renoir‘s 1939 The Rules of the Game was the true masterpiece of plotless cinema, Murphy instead writes about Christopher Maclaine‘s The End and Ron Rice‘s The Flower Thief, both of which were, coincidentally or not, made in San Francisco in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
The two most recent films that Murphy covers in the book are Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and Elephant (2003), so for the most part Me and You and Memento and Fargo is a look back at what can be considered a certain “glory days” era for independent filmmaking. Since the days of Safe and Trust and Gas Food Lodging, the indie filmmaking world got taken over by studio “specialty arm” divisions to churn out faux “independent” crowd-pleasers like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno.
Perhaps that’s just personal grousing on my part, a middle-aged fart waxing nostalgic for missed moviegoing experiences. But, even though I said above that Me and You and Memento and Fargo isn’t a screenwriting manual per se, hopefully it’ll give food for thought to a new generation of screenwriters who truly want to push the storytelling envelope again. Not every indie film needs to be a risky, challenging, intellectual endeavor. But, it’d be nice to have more of them again.
(You can also read analyses of more modern indie screenplays at J.J. Murphy’s official blog.)