Jeanne’s Tuesday Screenwriting Tips: You’re Dead to Me

Everyone has a favorite movie; that one that made them want to become a writer. For me, it’s Casablanca. Then there are those movies you stumble upon while flipping through channels that summon you to stop and watch, no matter if it’s the beginning, middle or end.

My must-watch films are Braveheart, Band of Brothers, Silence of the Lambs, Scarface, Castaway, When Harry Met Sally and a handful of others.

But the majority of movies don’t make me stop channel surfing.


Smart movies are few and far between, and nothing irritates me more than when a writer assumes the audience is full of idiots.

Patient, Dumb, or Just a Machine?

Last year, I watched 42 as research for my script. My assignment from my producers was to observe how Jackie Robinson handled the racism he was subjected to while trying to pursue his dreams. It was a character study. I’m all about characters, so I was excited to watch.

I rarely rant about movies or call out a screenwriter because we all know the words on the writer’s original pages aren’t necessarily what hits the big screen. But 42 was directed by the writer himself, Brian Helgeland, so I had to assume the final product was in his control.

I was so distracted, and irritated, by how dumbed down the film was, I couldn’t focus on why I was watching it in the first place. Instead, I turned to Twitter to rant about it.

I’ve tuned out the specifics of said rant, or perhaps drowned them out with tequila, but let me give you an example of what annoyed me: The writer/director successfully showed me a specific event, but then subsequently had a character TELL another character the very same event, as if I was too dumb to have caught it the first time. This happened time and time again. And don’t even get me started on the on-the-nose dialogue.

I was literally screaming at the screen, “I get it already!”

Believe me, if 42 hit my remote control, I’d pass it by faster than the Road Runner escaping Wile E. Coyote.

Another example is Avatar. Sure, the film was visually stunning. A masterpiece. But I dare you to watch it again, and this time, close your eyes and just listen to the dialogue. Cameron should have apologized to those actors for putting those dumbed-down words in their mouths. I’m surprised an alien didn’t burst from Sigourney Weaver’s stomach and run off the set. If it hadn’t been for the visuals, I would have run out of the theater myself.

While James Cameron and Brian Helgeland both have made incredible films in the past that I have very much enjoyed, these two specific films made me want to never watch another one of their movies again. I no longer trust them with my $10. Why would I pay for someone to treat me like I’m stupid?

So, today’s tip is simply, don’t do that to your audience. Respect them. Challenge them to connect the dots. Make them go, “Ahhhh… wow… I didn’t see that coming!” THAT is how you keep a reader’s attention. THAT is how you get a producer excited to read your next script. THAT is how you get people to buy tickets to your next film.

And I’m not talking about just drama either. Comedy can be smart too.  Look at Elf. I love that film! Totally fun and unexpected.

Write smart. Trust that your reader is smart. Don’t insult them. Honor their brains.

Because when someone insults me… they’re dead to me. Period. And in this business, people’s careers rarely come back from the dead.

Editor’s Note: Reading interviews of screenwriters is a great way to get more screenwriting tips. See our full list of interviews as well as read the most current one, an interview of David Webb Peoples, writer of Unforgiven, 12 Monkeys and Blade Runner.

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15 thoughts on “Jeanne’s Tuesday Screenwriting Tips: You’re Dead to Me

  1. Quelque Chose D Autre

    One of the most successful comedy TV series in British history was “One Foot In The Grave” PRECISELY because it did the opposite of 42. Audiences had to join the dots, the obvious was never stated. For instance, in one episode, a big snake escapes form the zoo and climbs unseen into the luggage of the main characters just before they are due to fly out to Spain on holidays – so the episode ENDS as they set out for the airport, there is no need to show the results of their luggage either being opened at the Customs or of the snake running lose on the aeroplane – our minds can do that without even being shown it. Every episode of “One Foot In The Grave” is a master-class on screenwriting and I would recommend any aspiring writer to watch the series end to end to see just how intelligent writing can be done and what it can achieve.

  2. Pingback: On The Nose Writing | Bob Miller

  3. jeffguenther

    There are exceptions to almost everything, and everything is relative. In thinking about lame flicks written/directed/starring the same person, a big exception is Garden State. Probably not everyone’s cup of tea, including me…until I found out that Zach Braff put this project in a big tin can for just $2.5 million. Suddenly, it became a highly impressive project. Very highly. The acting even seems better, and it wasn’t that bad in the first place. I hope he got paid…

  4. NealR

    I agree completely Jeanne! Especially about “Avatar” — glad someone else “feels my pain”!

    I’ve (thankfully) never seen “42”, but apparently it illustrates what can happen when a writer directs their own script.

    (By the way, I’m also a big fan of “Braveheart”.)

    1. jeffguenther

      Absolutely, Neal! The worst movies I’ve seen were “written by Joe Schronk, starring Joe Schronk, directed by Joe Schronk, produced by Joe Schronk,” or some similar dreadful combination. Yet often Joe Schronk is a big name, talented guy. The problem? There’s nobody attached to the project with the swot to say, “Uh, Joe, the ending? Where Bond J. Bond has a food fight in a tux with his co-star at the Ritz? It ain’t working, Joe. No, Joe, changing the wine to Merlot won’t help. It’s not the wine, it’s the stupid @$%@% idea!”

  5. Leona Heraty

    Thanks for another excellent article, Jeanne. I didn’t care for Avatar, because I just didn’t care about what happened to the characters, and despite all the razzle dazzle of the high tech effects, the movie bored me. Yes, good writing, like you said, is difficult to do, and we should always try to honor the reader’s intelligence so they don’t know what’s coming next, like in Hitchcock movies. One of my favorite modern movies with a great twist is The Village. The character develpment, dialoge and overall plot are great and I didn’t see the twist coming. 🙂

    1. jeffguenther

      Yes, The Village is very good story, though it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. I’ve seen it twice. Within its microcosm, it’s clever, it works. Best not to analyze it too closely, however. M. Night Shyamalan wrote it, directed, etc. He also was fully culpable for Signs, the movie where space aliens could travel light years to Earth, but couldn’t break down a cellar door.

      I skipped Avatar. It’s a remake of another project and the obvious propaganda content seemed sure to degrade other facets of the film.

  6. Kdiggs

    Hmm. i never watched Avatar before because it didn’t interest me. But, I’m sure that Jeanne was just giving her personal opinion about the film. But, I love the trick to watch a movie with your eyes closed and listen to the dialogue. I have to try that sometime.

    Thanks for posting!

  7. Davidkahane

    Wow, Jeanne – where do I start?

    I usually, sometimes, enjoy your thoughts on screenwriting but this one really threw me. To throw Helgeland and Cameron under the bus – I guess you can, I mean we can all prettymuch do what we want on the internet without retribution (except for hits on our reputation) – but those are two masters of cinema. I don’t want to be rude, but what have you done that would even put you in the same ballpark as these two, even close enough to lob these bombs?? And this is not to mention what the earlier poster had to say about studio involvement and Cameron’s goal of reaching the widest audience possible for it to make sense to spend 200+.

    Sorry – but, YOU’RE dead to me.

    1. RachelJ

      Look, David, you do realise “let’s see you do better” is one of those meaningless stock defences? Anyone can have an opinion on whether a movie, or the screenplay thereof, is good, bad or indifferent- the fact that a project happens to have a famous name attached makes no difference.

      I do think resolving never to watch anything by a director on the strength of one bad film (and yes, as far as its actual screenplay goes, I agree that “Avatar” is pretty bad) is a complete overreaction, though.

    2. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

      I’m just stating my opinion that these two filmmakers are excellent in their craft, but even ones who are can disappoint a viewer. I was disappointed when I watched these two films. Again, this is my OPINION. As for not seeing another one of their films, my point is, now that they have disappointed me, it’s harder for me to run to a theater and spend my hard-earned money if I’m fearful I will be disappointed yet again. I will think twice before purchasing a ticket.

      None of my opinion has anything to do with what I have accomplished personally. Watching other films and writers who I enjoy helps me set a bar for my own writing. Period. It’s not a personal attack on them. Just as when my own producers give me feedback, it’s not a personal attack on me either. It’s business… and taste. My taste draws me to intelligent films.

  8. Amos

    While I know the feeling you’re talking about, I think these are tricky examples. Hollywood, generally speaking, isn’t going to make a movie about race unless it’s baby-proofed. Twelve Years A Slave is an exception, and even that had Brad Pitt and meager box office returns. It’s no accident that a tame Jackie Robinson movie got made, while Spike Lee’s didn’t. And I think it’s unfair to say Helgeland had full control of the script just because he also directed. I have no doubt that there were plenty of studio mandates. (The real Branch Rickey was not the sort of person you put in a Hollywood version of the Robinson story.)

    As for Avatar, it’s the most expensive movie ever made that wasn’t based on a pre-existing property. Of course it’s going to be dumbed down for the largest possible audience.

    Again, I know the feeling you’re talking about, and I hate to see movies dumbed down, but studio-level business concerns are a factor here likely beyond the writer’s control. On a mega-budget movie or a studio movie about race and a historical figure, there’s a pretty good chance it’s the studio insulting your intelligence more than the writer.