From Script to Screen: Logan

By Jeff Legge · January 28, 2018

As far as the superhero genre is concerned, Logan belongs to a very special club. Sure, it’s not as fun as something like Guardians of the Galaxy, but not since The Dark Knight has a comic book movie taken as many risks with its source material, nor managed to transcend its own genre with quite as much panache.

A Fusion of Genres

Much of the reason for this is that Logan isn’t really much of a superhero movie at all. In fact, on just about every conceivable level imaginable – aesthetically, structurally, thematically – James Mangold’s film owes as much to westerns as it does its own source material. And much like The Dark Knight, which shared more in common with Heat than Spider-Man, Logan invites comparisons with films like No Country for Old Men and Shane.

Clearly, the Academy agrees. Logan’s best-adapted screenplay nomination marks an important first for a comic book movie: recognition in a non-technical category (though industry analysts point to The Dark Knight’s best picture snub as the reason the Academy doubled the number of potential nominees from five to ten).

The screenplay (available here) is about as brutal as one might expect given Logan’s hard R-rating, but, like Deadpool before it, the reasons for its success extend beyond blood, guts and the occasional f-bomb. Before we dig into those reasons, check out our video breakdown of the film’s climactic final action scene, courtesy of our friends over at Script to Screen.

Thematically Appropriate Brutality

For the majority of blockbusters, an R-rating is a difficult proposition. Even when appropriate (violence has always been a defining feature of Wolverine’s character), ballooning budgets and shrinking box office tends to leave studios with their hands tied.

Fortunately, Logan gets around this by focusing its efforts on telling a smaller story – at least in comparison to other films in the X-Men franchise. It’s a more personal affair, with less reliance on visual effects and a relatively modest budget for a film of its type.

This scaling back, along with the precedent-setting success of the Deadpool, allows the writers to up the brutality in a way that feels appropriate to this character and this particular story. And if this passage from page 2 is any indication, they certainly don’t mince words:

“Now might be a good time to talk about “fights” described in the next 100 or so pages. Basically, if you’re on the make for a hyper choreographed, gravity-defying, city-block destroying, CG fuckathon, this ain’t your movie.

In this flick, people will get hurt or killed when shit falls on them. They will get just as hurt or just as killed if they get hit with something big and heavy like, say, a car. Should anyone in our story have the misfortune to fall off a roof or out a window, they won’t bounce. They will die.”

Clearly Defined Stakes

Logan’s final action set piece puts everything on the line. With the finish line in sight (in this case, the Canadian border), and the future of mutant-kind at risk (represented here by a new group of gifted youngsters), every single action beat is given enormous weight. The result is that entire sequence feels like one big pay off.

It’s a make-or-break-it moment that represents not just the culmination of Logan’s arc within this particular film, but also his role within the entire X-Men franchise as a whole, starting with his first meeting with Charles Xavier in the 2000 original. Speaking at a recent ScreenCraft-sponsored episode of the QA podcast, James Mangold spoke to this razor-sharp character focus:

“If you’re making a character movie, write a character movie. And one of the aspects of a character movie is that it’s about relationships.”

Take away that focus on relationships, and the stakes that naturally come with them, and what you’re left with is a set piece that isn’t actually particularly impressive in its own right. Sure, the moment-to-moment action is thrilling, but without the tidal wave of emotion operating under the hood, the set piece is little more than a well-choreographed, occasionally bloody showdown in a brightly lit forest.

Much has been said about the effectiveness of Logan’s final act, but it’s the stakes, rather than the action itself, that sells us on the film’s cathartic final moments.

Breaking traditional screenwriting rules.

Read 6 Screenwriting Tips from Logan’s James Mangold.

Like many successful screenplays, Logan walks a fine line when it comes to the traditional formatting rules of the craft. Take the previously mentioned fourth-wall breaking passage from page 2, for example. An amateur screenwriter would no doubt be warned against this sort of boldness – and rightly so. Your screenplay’s tone should speak for itself rather than depend upon a statement of purpose.

On a similar note, our video breakdown features several moments in which the script goes out of its way to connect the dots for the reader. Inner thoughts of characters are routinely described, and prior events are referenced – all in an effort to increase the script’s readability and digestibility.

While the occasional overstep does make it exceedingly easy for a busy reader to keep track of a script’s nuances, bold choices and overwriting, in general, remains a grey area for swaths of studio readers. It’s something that Mangold himself warns against:

“Part of the reason you write too much is because you want to make the movie and you can’t make the movie. So you start making the movie on paper. You shouldn’t. You should be writing the recipe for making the movie.”

So, why does it work for Logan? In a word, clarity. Although the script is full of colorful language and bold, stylistic choices, it’s never edgy for the sake of edginess alone. For the most part, it remains an incredibly restrained piece of writing – especially considering its genre roots. And when the rules are broken, it’s only ever done to clarify in a meaningful way.

Whether it’s outright stating the film’s approach to violence, establishing Laura’s mindset in a climactic moment, or ensuring that the reader fully grasps the reason Logan is able to push himself beyond his limits in the film’s final set piece – the rules are always broken with the reading experience in mind.

Download the script for Logan for free here.

Frustrated by the dark, frozen winters of Canada, Jeff Legge spent his earliest years indoors nurturing a life-long obsession with the movies. Later, he moved to Los Angeles where he cut his teeth as a script reader while completing an MFA at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He does not recommend playing Scene-It with him, though he does appreciate a good ego boost.

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