What’s the best thing you can do when crafting a screenplay? Read other screenplays and learn from their mistakes (or successes). The latest film from Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight, is a perfect example to learn from. In studying both the first and final drafts of the script, I have identified three main things to discuss.
If you have not seen the film, beware, because there are spoilers. This blog is to help identify the structure of existing and produced screenplays so we, as writers and filmmakers, can study and observe.
Today, I will discuss the following things “wrong” with The Hateful Eight screenplay:
- Camera Directions Inside Screen Action
- Death by Exposition
- Breaking Structure Rules
Now, still in big super CINEMASCOPE 70MM filmed gloriousness, we follow along with the lone STAGECOACH DRIVER fighting and guiding these horses to shelter.
We follow alongside the HORSES, working out way from the back horse in mid-stride, to the tip of the lead horse’s nose.
We follow along the twelve horse hooves as they rear up and spit out snow and dirt.
We take the DRIVER’S POV down the hurtling six horse team.
Unless you plan on directing the film yourself, the camera directions or notes of how each frame will be shot is not up to you. The writer is never in charge of which shot will be the “point-of-view” (POV) of a character or how the horses may be filmed.
In your own script, you can expect to write something like this:
EXT. – STAGECOACH (MOVING) – SNOWY DAY
The STAGECOACH with its SIX HORSES continue down the snow-covered mountain in haste. The horses struggle against the deep snow with each gallop. The DRIVER clicks his tongue and whips the reigns to spur them on their path.
I have left the visuals there to get an image in your head while reading. If the writer dictates every single shot and angle, the cinematographer can feel like they have no creative freedom and are not allowed to bring forth any ideas they may have.
The Coen Brothers (Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men) are well-known for not allowing outside ideas into their films. While planning Raising Arizona, they storyboarded each scene, so when Nicolas Cage came forward with suggestions, he was shot down (and to this day, is still peeved) on every one except for his hair style. Cage’s creative process was stunted because he could not develop the story with the writers/directors.
Along the same lines, a writer should not write character thoughts. You run the risk of turning your actors into robots who merely deliver the lines as dictated rather than becoming the character as they would play it, or even more basically, it could alter the continuity of the character.
For example, in The Hateful Eight on page 18 of the final draft, the screen action says:
Daisy Domergue spits some blood from her mouth into the snow. She touches her freed wrist. She watches John Ruth walk off the pain in his shoulder. “Aww, he hurt his arm, ain’t that too bad”, she thinks to herself.
Telling your character what to think is not the writer’s responsibility. It is up to the director and the actor. Here, Tarantino is writing with the intention of directing, so in his script, it can be forgiven. However, he has not given Jennifer Jason Leigh the chance to think her own thoughts as the character, Daisy.
2) Show, don’t tell. This is one of the biggest rules broken by screenwriters, and my biggest pet peeve. When you’re sitting in a movie theater, you expect to be shown the action rather than being talked to. After all, this is not a radio play.
In The Hateful Eight, whether or not for nostalgic or throwback reasons to 1970s B-movies, there were many times where I was told backstories. I call this “death by exposition.”
In the second “chapter” when four characters are getting to know each other in the carriage to Red Rock, the camera sits facing Major Marquis Warren and Chris Mannix in a static two-shot. Chris turns to Daisy Domergue and says:
Do you know who he is?
Do I know about the thirty thousand dollar reward
the Confederacy put on the head of Major Marquis?
I had kin at Wellenbeck. Yeah, I know about Major
Marquis and his head.
Then we go into a long block of dialogue of Chris explaining exactly who Major Marquis Warren is and why he is so important.
For hillbillies, the head of Major Marquis was a new farm,
or a ranch, or a business. Or twelve good horses, the
kind you could start a proper stable with. A herd of long
horns and a prize bull.
(to Maj. Warren)
Them hillbillies went [expletive] head hunting but they
never did get ’em the right [expletive] head, did they?
What have we learned here? We know that Major Warren is a man with a price on his head. We were told that rather than shown. Being told this information adds nothing new to the scene. We are watching a static shot of Chris and Major Warren not moving–just talking. Visually, this is not dynamic and can quickly slow any scene.
About a quarter of a page down, it continues:
You ain’t never heard of Wellenbeck prisoner of war
camp, West Virginia?
No Reb, I ain’t never heard of it!
(to Maj. Warren)
You bust out?
Maj. Warren nods his head, Yes.
Oh, Major Marquis did more than bust out.
And then Chris tells us the story, still in that static two-shot, of how Major Warren broke out of the prisoner of war camp. This is the extent of the action in this scene, and again, we were just told the action rather than having experienced it.
3) Know the rules before you break them. This point is not so much something wrong in the film but rather something unconventional that if not done skillfully can end in disaster.
Most films follow a basic three-act structure: a beginning, middle, and end.
In The Hateful Eight, Tarantino has employed a more thematic approach by employing a five-act structure over the course of five (actually six) chapters in the film. This style of writing dates back to Horace, a Roman lyric poet from about 32 BC. He said, “A play should should not be shorter or longer than five acts.” This structure is now known as “dramatic structure” under Freytag’s Pyramid.
If Tarantino has/had designs on making The Hateful Eight a stage play, his structure is calculated and absolutely correct. [And for the record, the film absolutely feels like a stage play with its long takes and fluid camera keeping the action alive in the back- and foreground.]
For example, here are the act breaks for the full film:
- Major Warren gets on the carriage with John Ruth and Daisy Domergue.
- The carriage arrives at Minnie’s Haberdashery.
- John Ruth dies.
- The plot is revealed.
- Daisy Domergue is hung.
Everything changes when John Ruth dies making this the climax even though this is the midpoint of the film. Plenty of action occurred before and will continue to happen after this point, but the film is never the same.
But, the complexity doesn’t stop there. Tarantino has not abandoned the three act structure by employing the basic beginning, middle, and end to each chapter creating a mini-story within the story.
To break down the first “chapter,” it looks like this:
- Getting Major Warren on the carriage with Daisy and John.
- Major Warren punching Daisy in the face hurtling her and John out of the carriage.
- Seeing a man (Chris) running toward them in the distance.
Tarantino changes the structural dynamic by creating rising action and mini-climaxes every 30-45 minutes. For a film that is nearly three hours long, keeping the rise and fall of emotion and action is key to keeping your audience engaged.
But if Tarantino didn’t know the rules before he broke them, the film could easily fall flat for a whole 45 minutes (or more) creating a lag in the action and boring your audience.
There is a lot to learn by reading this script, and I hope this has helped you with your writing. Leave a comment below and let me know what you thought of the film!