Screenplay by: Christopher Nolan
Quite often, the first ten minutes of a screenplay are the slowest, bogged down with so much information that we need to pile through before we get to all the action and the car chases and the explosions. There are exceptions to the rule, like Up, with it’s early tear jerking 4-minute silent-film mini-movie retrospective of Carl and Ellie’s married life, or the opening to Inglorious Basterds with its awesomely sinister table conversation between Col. Hans Landa and Perrier LaPadite.
But regardless of movie genre and award-winning accolades, those first ten minutes are vitally important to any film’s story. It introduces our character and the world he lives in. We learn his problems, and the world’s problems. We plant seeds in those early moments that will sprout into memorable and exciting scenes later on, and there will be revelations that link to those early moments in the film. This article will examine how Inception’s first ten pages are designed to draw us in.
DAWN. CRASHING SURF.
The waves TOSS a BEARDED MAN onto wet sand. He lies there.
This isn’t just any bearded man. He’s a bearded man that opens Inception, so he must be somebody important. In fact, we’ll find out soon enough that it’s COBB (Leonardo DiCaprio), the main character and the emotional heart of the story. He is found by some military types, dragged into a Japanese castle and sat in front of an ‘Elderly Japanese Man’, who will be revealed to be SAITO (Ken Watanabe).
INT. ELEGANT DINING ROOM, JAPANESE CASTLE – LATER
The Elderly Japanese Man STARES at the top mesmerized.
ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN: It belonged to a man I met in a half-remembered dream…
MOVE IN on the GRACEFULLY SPINNING TOP…
ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN: A man possessed of some radical notions…
The Elderly Japanese Man STARES, remembering…
COBB (V.O.): What’s the most resilient parasite?
INT. SAME ELEGANT DINING ROOM – NIGHT (YEARS EARLIER)
The speaker, COBB, is 35, handsome, tailored. A young Japanese man, SAITO, eats as he listens.
Starting with the end (or near the end) of the story and then zooming back to the start is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it works incredibly well here for a number of reasons. It puts the audience on the back foot with a scene that is deliberately vague except for a tiny nugget of information: A haggard man who is carrying nothing but a handgun has washed up on the shores of a wealthy Japanese man’s castle, whom he may be looking to kill. The film then shifts to an entirely different period of time and a business pitch between two characters, which the script heavily hints are the same two people we were reading about in the previous scene.
Why does this bearded man want to kill this Japanese man? What has turned this handsome and tailored man into a wreck, collapsing on a shore? How did they get from this scene to that one? If we don’t find the answers, we will most certainly feel cheated. Also, a man washing up on a shore with a gun is more dramatic and visually striking than the stuffy exposition pitch between Cobb, Arthur, and Saito that takes place on page 2, which is where the story really begins.
Cobb is introduced in just a few words. No rambling description, just a few choice words: 35, handsome, tailored. We expect a professional, perhaps even a success story; if you hate people in suits, you might even dislike him. Note that Saito has just ‘young’ to describe him, a nod to the previous scene, but actually giving us nothing to go on as far as to his character. This is not uncommon: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has zero description and Nash (Lukas Haas) is only ‘sweating’ on page 4. This would give other screenwriters heart attacks, but the introduction of Mal (Marion Cotillard) on reveals just why:
Arthur nods. Then spots someone over Cobb’s shoulder.
ARTHUR: What's she doinghere, Cobb?
Cobb turns to see a beautiful woman, elegantly dressed, staring out at the sea. This is MAL. Cobb watches her.
COBB: You just get to your room. I’ll take care of the rest
ARTHUR: Se that you do. We’re here to work.
For the first sequence of the film, we are hoodwinked into thinking Saito is the villain, until he unexpectedly gives Cobb a job. But Mal is the real villain (or antagonist) of Inception, and Nolan establishes who the two main characters are by giving them the biggest descriptions, and ensuring that our focus is mainly on the bitter love story between Cobb and Mal. Her entrance is effective and Nolan creates a picture of her instantly:
Page 5 (continued):
Arthur brushes past Mal, shaking his head. She nears Cobb.
Looks out at the DROP. The WIND WHIPS HER HAIR
MAL: If I jumped, would I survive?
COBB: With a clean dive, perhaps. Mal, why are you here?
She turns to look at him. Amused.
MAL: I thought you might be missing me…
She smiles. He leans in, mesmerized.
COBB: I am. But I can't trust you anymore.
She stares up at him, inviting.
MAL: So what?
Note Mal mentioning her fate in the very first line of the movie. This is a regular gambit for Nolan, in which characters mention their fate or let slip their secret in the early moments of a movie. Harvey Dent (Aaaron Eckhart) spookily predicts his fall from grace during dinner in the Dark Knight, and during the early moments of The Prestige, Borden (Christian Bale) hints at the secret of his magic to his rival without the guy realizing. Mal is not just prophetic; she is a troublemaker who ‘mesmerizes’ Cobb with her ‘inviting’ stare.
WORLD OF THE STORY
The world of the story is complicated. We have an invented technology called dream sharing, in which people connected by tubes can fall asleep and share the same lucid dream, able to run and jump, bend gravity, walk on ceilings and crucially, enter into the mind of the person who is doing the actual dreaming, or the host.
FILTHY BATHROOM – DAY (FEELS LIKE DIFFERENT TIME)
Cobb, ASLEEP, SITTING IN A CHAIR AT THE END OF A STEAMING BATH. The chair is up on a cabinet- the bottom of the legs level with the rim of the tub.
A sweating man (40's) watches over Cobb. This is NASH. A distant EXPLOSION rumbles through the room. Nash moves to the window, parts the curtains. Outside: a CHAOTIC DEVELOPING-WORLD CITY- the street filled with RIOTERS- SMASHING, BURNING.
Nash checks Cobb's left wrist: above his watch, tape holds TWO THIN YELLOW TUBES in place. Nash looks at Cobb's watch- THE SECOND HAND CRAWLS UNNATURALLY SLOWLY.
Nash follows the tubes to a SILVER BRIEFCASE at Arthur's feet: ARTHUR IS ASLEEP in an armchair. Tubes connect the briefcase to Arthur's wrist.
Nash follows another set of tubes from the briefcase to where they pass under the door to the bedroom. Through the crack of the door, Nash sees SAITO ASLEEP on the bed, tubes running to his wrist. BOOM- a closer EXPLOSION, and we-
And if there is one thing that Inception does more than any other film out there in the last couple of years, it’s explaining this world and how it works. Whole scenes are devoted to explaining the physics of the dream, the time structure, the weaknesses, and yet it is still considered an action film. This is because Nolan stalls on telling about the detail as much as he can, carefully choosing when to give particular details about the plot.
But crucially, as clearly illustrated in the scene above, he tries to show it as much as he can. He shows time moving more slowly in the dreams with shots of watches, he shows the tubes that are connected to all the dreamers, and later (on page 9) he shows the death of Arthur and how this will awaken someone from a dream. Capital letters get a bad rep if overused in a script, but Nolan uses them to emphasize each important detail, and each word stands out on the page and is more likely to stick in the reader’s mind. If the reader loses track of too many details, Inception is toast.
But wait, Christopher Nolan does explain things via dialogue (a.k.a. exposition):
Mal COCKS the gun at Arthur's temple.
COBB: No point threatening him in a dream.
MAL: That depends on what you're threatening. Killing him would just wake him up… but pain? Pain is in the mind…
Mal LOWERS the gun and SHOOTS Arthur in the leg- Arthur drops, SCREAMING- Mal looks at Cobb, cold.
MAL: And, judging by the decor, we're in yourmind, aren't we, Arthur?
Nothing spectacular here, right? This is actually the easiest place for a screenplay to drop the ball and lose reader interest, by breaking one of the golden rules of screenwriting: do not use on-the-nose dialogue, shoehorning in a character’s feelings, emotions or plot details in a boring, implausible and obvious way. We don’t know how pain and death work in dream sharing, and this is crucially important information if we are to suspend our disbelief. Cobb, Mal, and Arthur do know how pain and death work, so they can’t reel out and give us a lecture. So Nolan writes the dialogue accordingly, Cobb and Mal stating the rules without directly telling the audience.
Inception isn’t perfect, but it manages to handle the key points of its universe well. You should always look to show the world of the story, but dialogue used in the right way can be your cavalry when you find yourself in a dead end.
The first ten pages of any script are the most vital in introducing the protagonist, establishing the world of the story and the status quo, but it is also essential to set up the dramatic situation, that is what the story is going to be about. And any good story is always about an interesting character or characters in an interesting world, who face(s) obstacles (conflict) while trying to achieve an objective (goal). The late Blake Snyder states that during those first ten pages, we must show the problems in the main character’s life that need fixing if he/she is to have a happy ending. Mal is only the first of Cobb’s problems; he is also missing his children, although the first ten minutes doesn’t make that entirely clear. The film gives us a mirage like image as the bearded man hits the beach:
A CHILD’S SHOUT makes him LIFT his head to see: a LITTLE BLONDE BOY crouching, back towards us, watching the tide eat a SANDCASTLE. A LITTLE BLONDE GIRL joins the boy. The Bearded Man tries to call them, but they RUN OFF, FACES UNSEEN. He COLLAPSES.
The two children in the mirage are out of reach, and we will learn soon that these are his actual children and that Cobb must get back to them, but at the moment this does not mean anything yet – the screenplay lays more hints down as the heist progresses:
MAL: Do the children miss me? Cobb pauses. He lets his gloved fingers lightly touch Mal's ankle. He looks up at her.
COBB: You can't imagine.
Mal looks away, uncomfortable. Cobb gets to his feet, letting out the rope as he moves back to the window.
We don’t actually find out until page 18 that Cobb is estranged from his children, the reason being two fold: (1) in the action genre, films start with an action sequence that is the end of the character’s last adventure, and (2) the sheer amount of explanation that has to go into dream sharing and extraction, giving a limited amount of room to explain Cobb. However, the breadcrumbs dropped in those ten pages give us an excellent summary and plant the seeds for his second problem: His children are estranged in a country he cannot enter without going to jail.
The third problem is the most direct: the heist isn’t going very well.
SAITO: Gentlemen. Enjoy your evening as I consider your proposal.
They watch Saito leave. Arthur turns to Cobb, worried-
ARTHUR: He knows.
Cobb motions silence. A TREMOR starts, they steady their glasses, and Cobb glances at his watch- THE SECOND HAND IS FROZEN.
ARTHUR: What’s going on up there?
The attempt to steal an unnamed Macguffin from Saito’s mind is a great opportunity to show how dream sharing causes multiple problems for Cobb: his inability to filter his own thoughts from sabotaging his dream, the fragile physics, and a ‘mark’ that has had training to prevent his thoughts from being stolen. These are all problems that are revisited later in the movie on a much grander scale, and Cobb’s team will have to invent some out-of-the-box ideas to get over them.
COBB: Did she tell you, or have you known all along?
SAITO: That you're here to steal from me? (beat) Or that we're actually asleep?
Arthur gives Cobb an I-told-you-so look.
This failure of the task is the catalyst that leads Cobb back to his children. (Saito later hires the pair on page 24.) And at that point, the means for Cobb to work towards his main objective begins.
Man (Cobb) vs. Man (Mal)
This is a bit tricky to spot in the first ten pages, especially since Nolan plants the seed that Saito is the villain to Cobb in the opening sequence, yet we soon find out that Mal is the main antagonist. This is clear later in the script when Saito becomes Cobb’s alley for Inception, but Cobb’s ability to achieve success with Inception is intimately tied to his main objective (to get back to his children), and it is Mal who is the true antagonist of the film. And this is planted early on in the film.
Very few genres start with an action sequence; however, when it comes to the Action and Adventure Genres, this is an essential part of the formula. Now some might include Inception into the Sci-Fi and Thriller genres as well, and it would be hard to disagree with all the time spent in the dream sharing worlds (Sci-Fi) and the plethora of puzzles within puzzles in the three layer dream state (Thriller), but first and foremost Inception is an Action/Adventure film. And this is clear in the first ten pages because the standard for all Action/Adventure films is to begin the story at the end of the last adventure. Nolan doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, as clearly the dream within a dream of the Cobb vs. Saito showdown in the opening pages is the end of Cobb’s last job (adventure) – moreover, a failed job (adventure) that is critical to locking these two men together and propelling the story forward when Saito eventually hires Cobb and Arthur for Inception.