By Ron Estrada
This was a daunting assignment. I wouldn’t call myself a movie buff. Maybe a Redbox or Netflix buff. But I do have some favorites, those flicks that I will think upon several times a week as if they were fond memories of my childhood.
At the top, me thinks, has to be Casablanca. I mean, seriously, let there be no argument that Bogey was the coolest character in cinema history. The beauty of Casablanca is in that it relied completely on the story and acting abilities of its cast. Most of it was shot inside one location. For the writer, the pacing was perfect. A good movie to study. Especially the midpoint moment when Bogey essentially calls Ingrid Bergman a loose woman and realizes what a self-centered oaf he’d become. Yes, take note, fellow authors. That’s how to do a character arc.
Next on my list is Star Wars. Yes, it’s much too common a selection and, some would say, too shoot ‘em up cowboy to be taken as serious art. I beg to differ. It has stood the test of time now, and still remains the most watched film in history. A ten-year-old in 1977 could recite the lines by heart (and I did). A ten-year-old in 2015 can do the same. Name another movie with that kind of staying power.
For the writer, Star Wars is a perfect study of story structure. The opening, inciting incident, point of no return, midpoint…all are in classic alignment. So much so that I am not the only teacher of writing to use it as an example of structure. Besides that…blasters and droids? Yeah, baby! It’s okay for art to be fun. So chill.
Believe it or not, I have a fondness for a good romance. To me, When Harry Met Sally set the standard. For the writer of a genre that contains the largest number of entries, When Harry Met Sally should be a good resource to show how one can take the same old story and make it their own. Same initial they-hate-each-other first scene. Same three kiss structure. Same break-up. But oh so different. Once again proving that a writer can follow the rules of her genre and create something completely unique and memorable.
For my greatest comedy entry, I’m going to have to go with Young Frankenstein. Mel Brooks has had moments of insane genius (interspersed with moments of audiences demanding a refund). But Young Frankenstein is everything a comedy should be. Funny. No message. No touchy-feely nonsense. Just as goofy as you can stand it. And when you put people like Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, and Madeline Kahn on screen together? My friends, a mistake cannot be made (and did we not lose 2 of the 3 funniest women ever when we lost Madeline and Gilda? Carol is the 3rd, let’s keep her healthy, shall we?).
Horror. Oh my, where to begin. So many to choose from. But I’ll have to with Poltergeist. This is probably due to Spielberg’s mastery. But great writing went into this film as well. Did it not hit every childhood fear squarely on the coffin nail? When every other horror film portrayed a guy in a hockey mask or some variation of that theme, Spielberg saw a winner. Take a happy family in a happy California home and make them the center of the paranormal universe. Did you notice the complete lack of blood or gore? Spielberg played on our childhood nightmares. And did so brilliantly. What can the writer take away from Poltergeist? That fear need not come from slashing knife or walking corpse. It comes from inside us. “It knows what scares you. It knows too much already.” Put a stamp on that one and mail it.
So what movies made you leap sit stunned in your seat at the end? Leap up and cheer for the good guys? Cry when they finally, finally got together? Laugh so hard that you still had a full bucket of popcorn at the end? Or pull the sheets over your head when you got home?
How about some writing prompts…
(1) Pick two of my films, or two of yours from different genres, and write a one-line summary combining the two (a young couple keep missing their destiny in New York while evil spirits invade their upper west-side apartment).
(2) Write a scene under the direction of 2 or 3 great directors. How would Mel Brooks write it? Stanley Kubrick? Stephen Spielberg?
(3) Pick one of my movies and write a scene with your protagonist getting a key role. How will she react to Bogey’s defensive wall? Harry’s offensive remarks? Dr. Frankenstein’s quirky workaholic tendencies?
Films have much to teach us as writers. But great films are worth studying over and over again.
Ron Estrada is the author of Young Adult novels NOW I KNEW YOU and ANGEL ‘N ME, the first two books in his Cherry Hill series. He is also co-host of the Teen Writers Publish! podcast, teaching teens, young and old, how to write, publish, and market their novels. He’s a regular contributor to the Novel Rocket and My Book Therapy websites, as well as a regular columnist for Women2Women Michigan, a print magazine for which he is the only male columnist.