Screenwriting 101: Storytelling in the Age of Trump

By November 2, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

By: Christopher Osterndorf

Politics is everywhere these days. It’s impossible to turn on our phones, computers, and televisions without being inundated with what are often unbelievable stories about the current presidential administration. In the age of Trump, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by a seemingly endless barrage of breaking news– even when we do something as simple as go to the movies.  

This begs the question, how should artists engage with politics in these divisive times? Between the heightened state of alarm, the constant threat of the unknown, and the overall polarization of our discourse, it can feel nearly impossible to have a take which doesn’t in some way come off as shortsighted. In the past, social satire and political commentary felt more black and white; you were either for or against something, championing or admonishing. But by 2017, we’ve learned that nothing is ever too black or white. Even within your take, there’s probably another take to be had.

That hasn’t stopped Hollywood writers from tackling the current political climate. In movies and on television, you don’t have to look that closely to find undertones or even overtones of Trumpism. Again, there’s not necessarily a wrong way to do this, but it is useful for upcoming writers to look at how those who’ve come before them have done it before cranking out that uber-political script themselves.

It’s impossible to find a show which has approached the modern political landscape more boldly than Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story. Airing less than a year after the election, it’s fascinating and surreal to see the show’s take on such recent history. While Murphy is definitely committed to engaging with politics, it’s been hard to figure out what this season of American Horror Story is trying to say.

Obviously, the theme of “Cult” can be tied back to cults of personality, and to the extreme devotion many Trump fans felt and feel towards the former candidate, now President. But there’s something disparate between the show’s shocks and scares and it’s messy criticism. One has to applaud Murphy for making something so intentionally commemoratory, so determined to hold a mirror to what this country is going through right now. But like many of his shows, it has trouble holding tone and honing in on a central theme.

Horror is often a great way to engage in political discourse. Just look at the many classic horror films throughout the years which have done so: Godzilla, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, Videodrome, They Live, The Purge series. So it was no surprise that Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a searing satire about contemporary racial politics and the longstanding effects of racism on this country, proved to be such a phenomenon. And yet the irony of Get Out is that while it feels perfect for Trump’s America, it was also made without the knowledge that he was going to President. Perhaps in a way, Get Out proves that the best political commentary is also personal, stemming from ideas which germinate less from specific events and more from reflection on a kind of mindset. Peele himself has said that the movie was inspired by the “post-racial lie” of the Obama era, rather than the rise of Trump.

Get Out isn’t the only film to stumble into a timely political moment this year. As I’ve already talked about, many of the big Oscar contenders are likely to split that line of political and personal. But no movie got as lucky as Steven Spielberg’s The Post, a film which no one has even seen yet. Focusing on The Washington Post’s fight against the Nixon administration, this story of journalists battling a corrupt administration is almost sure to resonate with left-leaning moviegoers.

Spielberg is not the first guy that comes to mind for anyone when they think “political filmmaker,” however, as the recent HBO documentary about his life and career recently attested to, he’s become more socially-conscious in recent years. Consider 2005’s Munich, another movie that reframed current events (the war on terror) through the lens of historical ones (the 1972 Olympics.) Written by newcomer Liz Hannah and Spotlight scribe Josh Singer, The Post could end up being the best of both worlds in terms of political movies. Yes, it has something important to say about what our country is going through in 2017, but it’s also just a good story, which deserves to be told regardless of the year.

Not every film coming out this year is going after Trump in an indirect way. One film that is clearly trying to leave behind a record of the Trump era is Miguel Arteta and Mike White’s Beatriz at Dinner, about a holistic medicine practitioner who clashes with a wealthy client after getting stuck at a dinner party. White, who previously worked with Arteta on Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl, deserves credit for having the guts to go after Trump’s immigration policies so directly. Like Murphy’s Cult, Beatriz at Dinner is an unambiguous reaction to the 2016 presidential race. Unlike Cult, Beatriz at Dinner is also consistent in tone and pacing (it probably helps that a) it’s not a TV show, and b) it’s not a horror movie, and is therefore free from the restraints of a genre piece.) If Beatriz at Dinner has one fault, it’s that it hits the nail too hard on the head. Everything it has to say is valid, but it’s also glaringly obvious.

A more unexpected piece of Trump commentary recently came in the form of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, in which a maniacal, tough on crime president conspires to get rid of all the world’s drug users in one fell swoop. Apparently, specific jokes about Trump were edited out of the movie altogether, but his presence is still felt in an undeniable way. What director Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman are trying to say with these undertones is unclear. Keep in mind, this is the same franchise that’s been accused of having a sneaky right-leaning bent in the past. What is most interesting about The Golden Circle though is the fact that any blockbuster would include Trump references at all. In a time when most people are looking to popular entertainment as an escape, it’s worth considering that even in a script for a traditional popcorn movie, there are still sly ways to get a political message across.

Don’t expect to see less Trump on your screens any time soon. While escapist entertainment is certain to thrive in the next few years, so is art with a political conscience. Whether you should include references to Trump in your own screenplay is up to you to decide. The point is you can do it; it’s already being done. And you might as well do it now, before Trump starts tweeting about how Hollywood is going after him too.

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