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By Kevin Nelson · July 25, 2022
Art often imitates life…
Or is it the other way around?
They say there are no new stories under the sun. We often trod the same ground, whether journeying off as a hero or stuck spinning in Dan Harmon’s sadistic story wheel.
There’s a certain level of awareness in our endeavors as writers, and a subgenre of films aims to dismantle the conventions upheld by these timeless story constructs.
Metacinema is a style of filmmaking that is self-aware — in form and function. Whether a character breaks the fourth wall or walks through a movie screen into a fictional world, metacinema aims to use the filmmaker’s self-awareness of conventions through parody — often blurring the lines of reality and fiction.
Let’s take a look at some scripts that are extra meta.
You often hear advice to write your “f**k it” script — something so unique and bombastic that you’d likely never get made. Screenwriter Kevin Etten and writer/director Tom Gormican didn’t worry about that after working together on the short-lived series Ghosted.
So they wrote the script they always wanted to write, full of meta commentary about a real-life movie star (who turned the film down 3-4 times until finally relenting). The script landed the scribes on 2019’s Black List and despite all odds was actually made.
Co-writer & director Tom Gormican told The Hollywood Reporter:
“I think deep down in the core of our being we felt that there was no fucking way to do this project. But we were having such a good time writing it that we were like, “If all that happens is we give this to our friends and maybe they laugh” — that was the baseline: Maybe it makes a few people happy.”
Write the script that makes you happy.Download a script from the show!
Writer Kevin Williamson was inspired to write an 18-page treatment called Scary Movie about a woman who is alone and taunted over the phone by a killer after finding a window in his home open. The Gainesville Ripper was fresh in his mind and fear consumed him. He put the treatment aside and continued working on Teaching Mrs. Tingle, which was being dragged through development hell.
Struggling financially, Williamson took a trip to Palm Springs to clear his mind but ended up writing a feature-length version of Scary Movie within three days. He was inspired by all of the great horror films he grew up watching as a kid and filled the pages with references and homages to films such as Black Christmas, Halloween, Friday the 13th, When a Stranger Calls, and Nightmare on Elm Street.
Once the master of horror Wes Craven signed on to direct, Scream would become a franchise that stabs at the heart of our fears to this day.Download a script from the show!
Ben Stiller first had the idea for Tropic Thunder while filming a small roll on Empire of the Sun. He found it hilarious that the actors in the film attended boot camp and came away like they actually saw combat.
Co-written by Ethan Cohen, Ben Stiller, and Justin Theroux — Tropic Thunder lampoons the entertainment industry and pushes the boundaries of comedy in the process.Download a script from the show!
The late great John Hughes conceived of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off under the ticking clock of a writer’s strike. Urged by his agent to write something, anything, before the picket lines halted development, Hughes plucked a single sentence from the ether, “I am 17 years old and I know exactly where my life is going.”
Then he thought, “I am 17 years old and I have no idea where my life is going.”
That was it. He based the wise talking, fourth wall breaking Ferris off of a kid he knew in high school who skipped school a total of 27 times and was hounded by their principal. He called the head of Paramount, pitched his idea, and was given the go-ahead. He pumped out the script in the week before the strike.
Hughes would go through days-long writing marathons where he’d sit at his computer for 20 hours straight. He’d know the beginning and the end…and he’d simply try to surprise himself with everything in between.Download a script from the show!
If you want to read a script that will completely free you from what you thought was possible, this is the one to read. A superhero film that breaks the fourth wall, and all notions of decency. Which is why it is so damn fun to both read and watch.
Ryan Reynolds pushed the project for years. It took some time for the cautious Marvel Studios to welcome such a crass mutant into their universe. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick delivered one of the superhero screenplays ever written. Check it out!Download a script from the show!
Screenwriter Andrew Berman wrote an outline for a satirical western called Tex-X, with James Earl Jones as the Malcolm X-inspired sheriff. The film never came to be but Mel Brooks read the outline and liked the idea of the 1974 style set in the 1874 wild west. Brooks hired a team of writers, including Berman, who worked together to develop the outline.
Blazing Saddles’ takes the movie-within-a-movie convention and ramps up the comedy, spoofing the western genre in the same way Scream spoofed horror — just with a lot less blood.Download a script from the show!
Adam McKay’s The Big Short did something remarkable — it made the housing mortgage bubble crisis of the late aughts entertaining. After Paramount acquired the rights to Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, screenwriter Charles Randolph was hired to deliver a draft.
The difficult part for Randolph was finding the right tone. Once he settled on a comedic swing, it really landed with director Adam McKay — who went on to rewrite Randolph’s script. McKay added the celebrity cameos to describe the technicalities behind the scheme, creating weirdly satisfying meta moments that felt like the filmmakers were talking directly to the audience (via Margot Robbie sipping champaigne in a bathtub).Download a script from the show!
Written and directed by David Lynch, Mulholland Drive is self-aware in its depiction of the perils of Hollywood. Lynch uses transitions to take the audience out of the film and remind them that they’re watching a movie.
Many elements reference the traditional trappings of the aspiring filmmaker, told through unconventional narrative techniques. Its craft is just as self-aware as the substance found on the screen.Download a script from the show!
Like most screenwriters chasing the dream of making it in the industry, screenwriters Zak Penn and Adam Leff headed to Los Angeles after graduating college. They were working as script readers but were having a difficult time making waves. They had the idea after watching The Purple Rose of Cairo, where Mia Farrow’s idol walks off-screen and into her world. They flipped the idea on its head and studied as many action films as they could.
Their friends didn’t see the appeal of their parody script until they secured an agent with a little finesse. Their friends, low level in the industry still, pretended to make calls hyping up the script to agent Chris Moore who found out the ruse after signing them.
They ultimately sold the script to Columbia Studios, where, in a twist of irony, Shane Black and David Arnott were hired to rewrite the script — two writers known for the types of film they sought to parody. This film made me want to enter the world of these larger-than-life characters — and I truly believe was an influence in pushing me towards becoming a screenwriter.Download a script from the show!
If there’s a more meta reflection of what it’s like to be a screenwriter, point me to it. Charlie Kaufman’s out-of-the-box mind delivered the ultimate ode to the craft of screenwriting.
His protagonist fights against writing a conventional adaptation of a book until he’s absorbed into the characters’ real world and lives out the very conventions he wished to avoid. Ultimately killing his darling brother in the process.Download a script from the show!
Metacinema allows filmmakers to have a little fun between the lines and not take their subjects so seriously. Whether your characters actually know what zombies are (and how to dispense of them) because they grew up on Romero, or they can change a sad ending to a happy one by wiggling their fingers — sometimes you’re tired of the same old same old and want to get a little meta to add a little oomph to your script.
And in the spirit of breaking the fourth wall and getting all Meta on you. This will be my final Script Collection article. I learned so much over the past year analyzing so many great screenplays and learning the backstories behind their productions. I hope your writing is better because of a script you found in one of these collections. I encourage you to read a new screenplay as often as you can. It’ll only make you a better writer.
Happy writing, y’all.