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By Anthony Faust · April 11, 2017
Screenplay by: Ernest Lehman
Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer star in this classic musical about a nun named Maria who is sent to care for the Von Trapp children in Salzburg, Austria. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman seamlessly weaves the 5 major rules for a screenplay into the first 10 pages. Let’s break them down.
A good screenplay will introduce the main character with flair, which helps to augment the importance that character holds over supporting ones in the reader’s mind. It gives us a reference point, a human context to discern the world the screenplay describes. Consider Lehman’s style as he introduces us to a girl named Maria.
EXT. THE AUSTRIAN ALPS – DAY – HELICOPTER SHOTS
The screen glows an eerie blue, then fills with swirling white mists. We fly through the misty cloud and emerge over a craggy, snow-draped mountain range.
The massive, forbidding peaks stretch to the horizon, then disappear behind more dense mist. The white fog gives way to silky sheets of snow covering a mountainside.We fly over a sheer rock face. Hundreds of feet below a river runs through a grassy valley like a glistening white ribbon. The snow-covered Alps give way to gently rolling hills and lush forests. Birds whistle. We fly out from behind a hillside and over a broad lake, glittering in the brightening sunshine. MUSIC sneaks in.
We fly over a clear glassy lake that mirrors a huge mountain beside it and the blue sky above. Then over a magnificent green valley nestled among the hills. In the valley below, the roofs of a small town lie clustered together around a church and its steeple. Now, we glide over elegant, lakeside castles and mansions with acres of emerald green farmland.
We fly toward a sunny alpine meadow where a young woman with short blonde hair strolls through the grass, swinging her arms in a carefree stride. She wears black shoes and stockings and a gray smocked apron over a black dress.
Her name is Maria. As we close in on her rapidly, she spreads her arms and twirls in a joyful spin.
The hills are alive with the sound of music. With songs they have sung for a thousand years. The hills fill my heart with the sound of music. My heart wants to sing every song it hears. My heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds that rise from the lake to the trees. My heart wants to sigh like a chime that flies from a church on a breeze. She runs to a brook and skips stones in it.
This is a tracking shot on steroids. We start in the clouds, immersed in “swirling white mists”, a sign that this will be a whimsical, light, and airy film. Since the mountains play a pivotal role in the conclusion of the film (on the last page of the screenplay, the Von Trapp family escapes through the mountains to elude capture from the Nazis), Lehman describes them to us on the first page as we swoop down on the central character.
Her name is Maria and the first words out of her mouth are words of song. She is blissfully happy and free as a bird. As she stretches her arms and fills the air with her music, we understand this is a woman who is independent and carefree. In the pages that follow this wonderful opening, we discover she is a nun, something that completely contradicts our first impression.
Contrast in film is critical. It helps sharpen a reader’s interest and accentuate a character’s disposition. A woman like Maria wouldn’t necessarily thrive in a convent, an observation that hasn’t escaped the watchful eyes of Maria’s fellow nuns. Consider the following exchange the Reverend Mother Abbess has with Sisters Berthe, Bernice, Sophia, Catherine and Margaretta on page 3.
I simply cannot find her.
She’s missing from the Abbey again.
Perhaps we should have put a cowbell around her neck.
Have you tried the barn? You know how much she adores the animals.
I have looked everywhere, in all of the usual places.
Sister Bernice, considering that it’s Maria, I suggest you look in someplace unusual.
Sister Bernice nods and walks away. The three nuns cross the courtyard.
Well, Reverend Mother, I hope this new infraction ends whatever doubts you may still have about Maria’s future here.
I always try to keep faith in my doubts, Sister Berthe.
After all, the wool of a black sheep is just as warm.
We are not talking about sheep, black or white, Sister Margaretta. Of all the candidates for the novitiate I would say that Maria is the least likely–
Mother Abbess sees several nuns gathered, staring at them, puzzled.
(to the other nuns)
… er, we were speculating about the qualifications of some of our postulants. The Mistress of Novices and the Mistress of Postulants were trying to help me by expressing opposite points of view. Tell me, Sister Catherine, what do you think of … Maria?
She’s a wonderful girl … some of the time.
It’s very easy to like Maria … except when it’s, uh, difficult.
And you, Sister Sophia?
Oh, I love her very dearly. But she always seems to be in trouble, doesn’t she?
Exactly what I say! She climbs a tree and scrapes her knee. Her dress has got a tear.
SISTER SOPHIA (sings)
She waltzes on her way to Mass. And whistles on the stair.
SISTER BERTHE (sings)
And underneath her wimple. She has curlers in her hair.
Lehman masterfully accomplishes two things in this scene. By contrasting Maria’s joyful singing on the hills with a serious discussion by Maria’s superiors about her absence, Lehman helps us to understand the dramatic situation that will soon follow. Sister Bernice’s line, “She’s missing from the Abbey again”, clearly informs us that this has happened before. Maria is a caged bird. Something must give.
Secondly, as the nuns express their frustration with Maria by singing, Lehman reinforces that we are reading a musical. Maria will not be the only one in this screenplay who will sing. Music will be the language all characters in this screenplay will share.
From the very first word spoken, rather sung, we know this is a musical. It will be a film where the characters will express their feelings, their problems, their thoughts in songs. This is a screenplay dripping with nostalgia as it fondly describes the golden age of the thirties in a light, airy style.
WORLD OF THE STORY
After the first page describes the majestic green valleys of the Alps in breezy fashion, the second page clarifies the world we have descended upon. ___________________________________________________________
MAIN TITLE SEQUENCE – VIEWS OF SALZBURG, AUSTRIA
A title reads: “Salzburg, Austria in the last Golden Days of the Thirties”
INT. THE ABBEY – DAY
Nuns in black habits and novices wearing smocked gray aprons walk calmly across a cobblestone courtyard. Carrying Bibles, they file into a chapel decorated with richly colored stained glass windows and stone sculptures. The women chant in Latin: “Dixit dominus” — followed by a “Morning Hymn” and “Alleluia.”
This will be a period piece in a world defined by authority and strictness. This is a world that has imprisoned our heroine. The story will be about her escape from this world. Music will be her saving grace.
On page 9 and 10, we see Mother Abbess and Maria talk about her “problem”. The simmering discussion comes to a boil…
Maria … when you saw us over the Abbey wall and longed to be one of us, that didn’t necessarily mean that you were prepared for the way we live here, did it?
No, Mother, but I, I pray and I try. And I am learning. I really am.
And what is the most important lesson you have learned here, my child?
To find out what is the will of God and … to do it wholeheartedly.
The Reverend Mother stands up decisively.
Maria, it seems to be the will of God that you leave us.
Here we see Maria’s call to adventure, given to her by none other than her superior, Mother Abbess. In the pages that follow, we learn that Maria is tasked with the job of governess to the Von Trapp children, who are trapped in a prison of their own. They are a perfect challenge for Maria, and she uses her musical talents to first survive, and later thrive, in her new home.
The theme of this screenplay is music and the roles it plays as it spins an unconventional tale about a girl named Maria. We learn that music serves several functions in this story. In the first Act, music will liberate, first Maria from the convent and later, the Von Trapp children from their domineering father.
In the second Act, music will bond, first, Captain Von Trapp with his children, and then, the Captain with Maria. Finally, in the third Act, music will save the Von Trapp family as they win top honors at the Salzburg Festival, buying them enough time to slip away and avoid capture.
In conclusion, the screenplay for The Sound of Music expertly delivers the 5 major rules for a screenplay into the first 10 pages. The character introduction of Maria is one of the best in Hollywood history.
Written by Anthony Faust