In preparing for school this fall, I’ve undertaken self-directed film study. One of the films I’ve been studying is The Godfather. If you haven’t seen it, you should stop reading this post and go watch it. There is a basic breakdown of the plot in this post, so you’ve been warned.
One of my theories about screenwriting is that films have roles outside of the actors. The director has his part to play, the camera people, the other crew members, etc. And I’ve seen this in theatre. One of the suggestions people have said to me is to read scripts to learn about writing them, but I think you only get a part of the picture that way and here’s why:
1. You might forget things that would be helpful to the actors and director. Example, the cat in the opening scene never leaves the scene in the screenplay.
2. You might not account for things like an actor who likes to misbehave. Example, Marlon Brando hated following rules or even reading screenplays.
3. You might put things in that are impossible. Imagine if someone wrote the screenplays for Lord of the Rings 30 years ago and how the battle scenes would’ve looked had a studio even been able to be convinced that the money out was worth taking a chance on. If you’re starting out, this really matters. You’re a long way from being Peter Jackson in skill and reputation.
One of the things I’m preoccupied with in terms of learning to write screenplays is knowing what I should and shouldn’t put in them. To help figure this out and to learn a little before school starts, I’m watching movies, reading their screenplays, and reading what others have written about them.
In the opening scene of The Godfather, there is a man in a room that is mostly dark. He’s wearing dark clothes. His face is what we see and it’s a close up. As he talks, the camera slowly zooms out. This camera change isn’t in the screenplay, but the effect on the scene and the story set up is dramatic. We get a little closer and see a little more of the story as it zooms out. It’s awhile before we see Vito “Don” Corleone aka The Godfather. I don’t yet know what the technical term would be, but I think it’s reasonable to assume people include this style of zoom out in screenplays now because of this film.
We move from that dark scene to a bright one as Vito’s daughter is celebrating her wedding outside. The movie moves between light and dark many times throughout and this has great impact on how the audience responds to the film. When it’s a dark scene, we become conditioned to know some heavy, bloody stuff is going to happen.
It’s outside in the light that we meet the main character Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) during his sister’s wedding. He is different than his family and keeps his distance, preferring to stay in the light and be “good”. And his father seems to want Michael to stay out of the family business too. It’s not that Michael hasn’t killed anyone. He’s a soldier. But killing for your country is good while killing for your mob family is not.
The family comes under attack as other families want to dethrone them because Vito has declared drug dealing to be a dirty business and they should stick to gambling and sex-related ventures. The others see how much money there is in drugs and begin killing off members of the Corleone family. Michael is sent away for safety and his wife is blown up in a car bomb that was meant for him. Eventually, Vito dies while playing with his grandson and Michael is the only one strong enough to become head of the family. He swears vengeance and has his men take retribution all over the city at the same time, so there’s no possible way for the others to strike back. He’s at a baptism while this is happening so he can deny knowledge of what was happening.
So much can be learned from this film in terms of story, film making, acting, simplicity in special effects, and more.
This movie truly is a masterpiece that ages well.
And it’s because of Marlon Brando that Al Pacino was cast as Michael. Early on, he wasn’t cutting it. It wasn’t until the restaurant scene, when Michael truly becomes part of the family that Al showed he had what it took to be Michael Corleone. It’s fascinating to me to think about this. Like he needed the character’s transformation in order to make his own transformation as an actor.
As a budding screenwriter, what I’ve learned from the Godfather is to make use of things like Day and Night deliberately in my horror script. Maybe my creatures sleep during the day, so everything seems safe in the daylight. Maybe once they’ve eaten, they get sleepy and find a place to rest. Maybe really emotional scenes also only happen at night, like the deep honesty that comes out at 3AM when people feel extra vulnerable.
I feel like you have to be a lot more open to changes as a screenwriter. It’s much harder to go and produce a movie yourself than it is to self-publish a novel. Movies require a lot of teamwork.
And I wonder how much direction of the scene is reasonable to include as directors like their artistic freedom. Perhaps it’s a case of how much something matters to the overall story. Maybe you need a closeup of an eyeball for instilling a creepy feeling, but the rest of the directions really don’t matter.
I’m looking forward to learning more in the fall. In the meantime, I’m reading books, specs, and plugging away at my first screenplay. Oh, a spec is the screenplay that gets bought, but usually is changed quite a bit for production. Not all screenplays that get purchased get produced.
Anyway, back to my screenplay.