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By Alex Edge · February 4, 2022
One of the best ways screenwriters can learn the craft is by watching lots of films and reading scripts. Naturally, we want to learn from the best of the best — Chinatown, Casablanca, The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, Before Sunrise, Parasite, Get Out, The Farewell — but what can we learn from the not-so-great films?
Now, we’re not trying to just drag these films through the mud because they’re “bad” — in fact, most of these titles have reached astronomical cult status and have their own devoted fanbases. The point here is to understand that we can learn from all films, even the ones that are critically panned, fail at the box office, or don’t adhere to the norms of “good writing.” So, let’s break down a few problematic films and find out what we can learn from their mistakes so we can avoid making them ourselves.
Written and directed by Tommy Wiseau, The Room has solidified itself as one of the greatest bad movies in history due to its unnatural dialogue and acting, as well as its unconventional, confusing storytelling. This film is so infamously bad that James Franco made a film about it in 2017 (The Disaster Artist) and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
There are many lessons you can learn from this film but let’s go over the missteps made with the dialogue and plot.
Every scene in The Room contains unneeded dialogue that doesn’t relate to the story or push the plot forward. Including unnecessary and random dialogue in your script is one very quick way to bore your audience to the point of disengagement. Keep conversations between your characters sharp, purposeful, and in service to the story. Understanding how to use dialogue effectively can really put your script into another league, so use subtext, find the rhythm, and trim the fat.
A film with a weak or unstructured plot can leave an audience feeling lost within the story, which is exactly what happens when watching The Room. The plot often wanders aimlessly and has no solid direction or theme, leaving you subsequently confused during the majority of this film.
To avoid making that mistake, have your structure and plot worked out before writing your script. Complete an outline. Work through the plot points to make sure you’re hitting crucial beats. It’s a great idea to study the plot point breakdowns if you are unclear on how these should go, as it can be something that is learned by observing other great films and scripts.
Written and directed by Claudio Fragasso and co-written by his wife Rossella Drudi, this comedy horror classic has problems weaving through every aspect of its production. Not only does it have poor visual effects, acting, and storytelling, but it was marketed as a sequel to Troll (1986) despite the two films having zero connection whatsoever.
We could talk about a number of issues with this film, but one huge mistake Fragasso made was not being open to making changes to his script.
Both born in Rome, Italy, Fragasso and Drudi attempted to write Troll 2 for an American audience despite neither of them being able to speak fluent English. Because of this, the cast had a hard time understanding their dialogue and tried to make suggestions to Fragasso that would make it sound more natural.
The director refused and demanded that the actors stick to the script as it was written, which lead to the following gems:
The lesson here is to not be so precious with your work that you ignore helpful, constructive feedback. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with every note, but you should be open to other people’s opinions and takeaways, especially if they’re all seeing the same issues in your script.
Taking a Broadway classic and turning it into a film is always a big risk, but doing one about humanoid cats? This was a very audacious move! This film has very mild jokes and punchlines that don’t seem to have much of an impact, along with being stuck in the uncanny valley for an hour and fifty minutes — the whole ordeal is a bit bizarre.
Want to know something interesting? Both screenwriters that adapted this Andrew Lloyd Webber classic are two of the top filmmakers in the world. Including the writer of Billy Elliot, Lee Hall, and filmmaker of The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper — so what went wrong?
Cats was originally adapted from a collection of poems — a collection that wasn’t supposed to form a plot of any kind, and the stageplay, and subsequently the screenplay, doesn’t do much to construct a narrative. And maybe the lack of a plot matters less when you’re in the thrilling environment of a live theater where the spectacle is unfolding right in front of you, but in a movie theater — the sticky floors and 2D screen — you need a plot to keep you engaged.
Any time you sit down to write a screenplay, you should ask yourself, “Should this be a movie or would it work better in a different format?” Maybe your story should be a book instead, or a play, a TV show, or a miniseries. Again, Cats works as a play — the dancing and singing and the spectacle of it all makes sense on a stage where action appears bigger and more open. On a screen, though, these things feel smaller and much of the energy of a live performance is lost.
The unfortunate sequel to a brilliant film, The Mask, seemed to miss the mark completely when furthering the storyline. What was initially very subtle, humorous, and heartfelt, became obscure, strange, and corny.
Not only do the bad visual effects play a role in this film’s downfall, but also its non-existent theme and story. Relying too much on visual comedy and neglecting the script, this film went down in history as one of the worst sequels ever!
Other than the fact that this script was very poorly written, it’s important to note that this sequel failed so miserably because it lost everything that made The Mask brilliant. Although Jim Carrey wasn’t there to bring his iconic physical humor to life, the writing had the opportunity to employ other forms of comedy — maybe the kind of comedy its star excelled at — but it failed to do so.
The main point of this movie’s downfall is the lack of a theme, which was so topical and relatable to audiences in the original. In The Mask, the mask was a metaphor for the ego that Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey) had to put on in order to have any self-worth, and subsequently get the girl. The eventual realization when he throws the mask into the water is such a wholesome and complete character arc of a protagonist accepting who he is and loving himself without the mask (his ego).
This theme, paired with great writing and plot, is what makes The Mask such a classic. Unfortunately, Son of the Mask missed the mark and didn’t focus on a theme that not only guided the plot but also captured the hearts of the audience.
Learning from bad films is just as useful as learning from great films. A great exercise for you to do as a writer would be to watch all of these titles, analyze them, and understand what went wrong. Once you have this understanding it’s easier to avoid these mistakes at no cost. And besides, these films are so bad they’re entertaining. I’m sure you will get a few laughs out of them too!
Alex Edge has worked for companies such as MTV, Nickelodeon, and Comedy Central. His roles and specialties in these companies lie in production and script consultancy. He currently works at Screenwriters Network as a director, reading and writing scripts whenever he can!