Movies, ‘Memento,’ and Me

I recently submitted the following essay to Regent University’s film school as part of the admission requirements of their MFA in Screenwriting. The task was to provide an academic writing sample in regards to my three favorite screenwriters and how their works will influence my own style, as well as what three genres I would like to pursue within Regent’s program.

In perfecting one’s craft, one must not only learn and practice it, but also study those who have accomplished great works. I have come to admire three accomplished screenwriters in particular and have studied their works in order to sharpen my own screenwriting skills.

The first of these screenwriters is John Logan, because he is so prolific and accomplished. Like me, his love for movies and writing began when he was very young when he watched old movies with his father. His first great success was Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Gladiator, a period action picture. However, he is also credited with authoring or co-authoring science-fiction films like The Time Machine and Star Trek: Nemesis, other period films like The Aviator and The Last Samurai, animated movies such as Rango and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, as well as the musical Sweeney Todd and many more. Steven Spielberg is set to direct his Lincoln script, while Darren Affronsky has been contracted to direct his Noah, and he also penned the new James Bond movie. Three of his screenplays have been nominated for Oscars: Gladiator, The Aviator, and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (Masters).

Logan has an impressive resume of critically acclaimed movies, often partnering with the very best acting and directing talent in the motion picture business. The diversity is something that I value in his work, because it mirrors my own interest in differing genres. My favorite script from Logan has to be The Aviator. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio give Oscar-worthy performances, but it’s only by Logan’s superb vision that the movie could be so entertaining. The character development of Howard Hughes, the brisk pace at which it follows the historical events of the protagonist, while staying true to theme and storyline, is a momentous accomplishment.

Though Howard Hughes was historically regarded as eccentric and unsociable, The Aviator connected the audience to this enigmatic figure in a very honest and personal way. The dialogue is among the best of any movie I’ve seen. Hughes’ lines, often going on for several paragraphs, reveal a genius but erratic mind. Although Hughes is mostly remembered for the madness that consumed him at the end of his life, The Aviator focuses instead on his life’s greatest achievements, climaxing with a sense of triumph over Hughes’ enemies: government, media, rival airlines, and his own madness, although temporarily.

I can’t imagine not mentioning the screenplays of Christopher Nolan, who is also an accomplished director. Every one of Nolan’s movies has received a glowing consensus from both critics and viewers alike. He has written or co-written each of the nine films he has also directed. His student film Following encapsulates his strengths as a screenwriter. In it, he uses voiceovers as a way to get into the protagonist’s head while providing a sort of narration. The voice-over is something Nolan also uses to perfection in his first Hollywood film Memento, as well as The Prestige, Inception, and even parts of Batman Begins. The plot twist might be his signature forte as a screenwriter. Following had a few plot twists, all revealed in the last third of the film. It was discovered that the protagonist had been in the dark about the true nature of the two other main characters, making the events of the film that much more consequential and ironic. Likewise, Memento’s plot twists also had to do with the character not having a firm grasp on reality.

The struggle with the nature of truth seems to be a theme in all of Nolan’s original movies. It’s also true of Insomnia and Inception. Likewise, and in Following and Memento in particular, the protagonists do not possess a firm grip on reality, and thus cannot be trusted by the audience. They are usually unscrupulous and shady: In Following and Inception, the protagonist is a thief. In Memento, the protagonist is a murderer. In Insomnia, the hero is a detective who has been accused of corruption. I believe Nolan uses these themes of questionable reality and depravity of man to encourage the viewer to reflect on his or her own views of reality and self. This contrasts sharply with his Dark Knight trilogy which seems to emphasize that people are inherently good, but can become corrupted by selfish ambition and power.

My favorite script of Nolan’s has to be Memento, because it is so unique. The script flows backwards in its narrative sequence, with each scene set directly after the one shown next. In between these scenes, there are short flashbacks of a phone conversation that continues through the movie. This brilliant technique of telling the story in reverse is used in order to disorient the viewer, mirroring the protagonist’s reality. Like the protagonist Leonard Shelby, (who has lost his short term memory and can only remember events that happened prior to a specific accident), the viewer is denied the knowledge of what comes before, having to work very hard to piece together the movie as it continues. Also like Leonard, the viewer is unsure of what characters can be trusted, if any. Soon, the viewer wonders if he can even trust Leonard himself, because the choices he makes are often based on emotion and not fact, which he claims to adhere to out of necessity. The script is a fascinating study of a disabled but dangerous person in a world that he struggles to rectify with his own goals.

Christopher Nolan’s movies range from the period piece The Prestige to the sci-fi action Inception and his comic book The Dark Knight trilogy. However, I think Nolan works the psychological thriller genre into each of his movies. Even in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne has to conquer his phobia of bats, a psychological struggle induced by a childhood trauma. “When it’s well done, a film noir or a psychological thriller speaks to things inside you very clearly,” Nolan once said. “It speaks to your own fears, your own neuroses. It speaks to your way of looking at the world” (Quinn). 

As mentioned previously, most all of Nolan’s movies contain a protagonist who struggles with grasping reality. In The Prestige, the viewer assumes that the protagonist has a split personality. In Inception, Dom Cobb cannot tell his dreams from reality and is haunted by apparitions of his wife. In Insomnia, Detective Dormer starts seeing things when he can’t sleep in the bright nights of Alaska; Dormer also struggles with extreme guilt and paranoia. By featuring characters whose internal struggles are profoundly psychological and personal, Nolan succeeds at deeply engaging the viewer in his films. They are meant to provoke conscious and unconscious thought such that the viewer cannot simply consume the material—it must be digested. His employment of the plot twist, his expertise at building tension through rising action, as well as the psychological and spiritual themes he utilizes, have earned him status as my favorite screenwriter.

Finally, Randall Wallace is someone I admire as a person as well as a professional. His primary claim to fame is as the screenwriter for the classic Braveheart. Wallace authored this brilliant masterpiece of epic proportions that continues to be a favorite. Unlike many Christian filmmakers, he doesn’t shy away from violence: “I resist and even resent the notion that a film with faith-based values has to be placid, soft, un-masculine and un-muscular” (David). He went on to direct his screenplay The Man in the Iron Mask and also wrote Pearl Harbor and We Were Soldiers, films that involved such Hollywood icons as Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Bay, and Mel Gibson. He seems to specialize in period pieces that involve war and violent conflict, during times ranging from the Middle Ages and Renaissance period to World War II and the Vietnam War. In the future, he wants to produce a new script involving Vikings with Mel Gibson.

My favorite work of his is probably We Were Soldiers. The main characters are portrayed with the appropriate amount of honor. Although I have great admiration for Wallace as a professional, I have an equal amount of respect for him as a person. Wallace started writing when he was only seven years old, and his journey to success was long and difficult. He had to work his way through college by working odd jobs. He is not shy about professing his faith in Jesus Christ, and he even founded Hollywood for Habitat for Humanity. Hard work, character, and excellence are all qualities I hope to display in my own life, pointing people to humanity’s Savior.

My vision for my ideas is one of unlimited possibilities and potential. I have compiled a file of unique ideas, along with corresponding research, character descriptions, and plot outlines. Although I am currently working on a romantic drama piece, the three genres I am interested in exploring at Regent University are psychological thriller, fantasy, and biopic/historical fiction. For the psychological thriller genre, I could channel Christopher Nolan with my idea for a small-town detective who struggles with an addiction to the drug Speed. When he discovers an “invisible” serial killer is employing stolen military technology to wreak havoc on his town, the detective must figure out how to confront his past as a military black-ops agent, and the killer. This particular story also employs science-fiction and action thriller elements. I would also like to develop smaller stories, like “The Watcher.” It’s about a strange young man who records people at night with his camcorder, exploring who people really are when no one is watching and exposing them on the internet. The script would follow what happens when his accidental encounter with a young prostitute provokes him to feelings of love. Before long, he is questioning her true identity, as well as his own.

A second genre I want to explore is that of Fantasy. Elements of Wallace’s work would be present in a saga I’m currently calling “Chronicles of the Nephilim,” which is a fictional spin on Biblical and extra-Biblical passages that allude to giants and demons in human form. Set during the pre-Noahic period recorded only in Scripture as a set of genealogies, the Nephilim saga would explore what happens when demons take human form as superhuman “Watchers,” who possess special powers and knowledge, spawning demon-human hybrids known as Nephilim. What follows are epic tales of love and war as a band of God-fearing humans seek to confront the Satan-serving Watchers and the havoc-wrecking Nephilim, all set in a “prehistoric” world with dinosaurs and wild landscapes.

The final genre I currently want to develop is that of historical fiction and alternate reality. I’ve compiled files on biopics of historical figures like King David and Audrey Hepburn, but I also have developed an unnamed saga that features an alternate reality in which the Soviet Union invades and establishes a government in America. Themes of freedom, love, and self-sacrifice would be ever-present in this story that would echo epic tales of rebellion like the original Star Wars, The Matrix, and even The American Revolution.

Like Logan, I prefer not to limit myself to a particular niche, but rather my scripts fall into differing categories like fantasy, biopic, supernatural thriller, action suspense, psychological thriller, romantic drama, alternate reality, and science-fiction. I have developed an appreciation for a broad spectrum of genres that can appeal to a variety of demographics. At the same time, I want to model my work after Christopher Nolan, with his uncanny knack for connecting with the audience by employing psychological themes and styles. As with Randall Wallace, I want to entertain while employing themes that point people to the truth of the Gospel. More than anything, I hope to cause people to think long after they have viewed my scripts brought to life. As Wallace once said, I want to walk out of a theater and think, Because of what I just experienced, my life will never be the same. I think everybody wants that” (David). 

Works Cited

David, Eric. “Hero Maker.” Christianity Today Movies. Christianity Today International, 2006. Web. 10 Jun 2012. 

King, Susan. “John Logan writes his own success story.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 2012. Web. 10 Jun 2012. 

Masters, Tim. “Oscars 2012: John Logan talks Hugo, Rango and 007.” BBC News: Entertainment & Arts. BBC, 2012. Web. 10 Jun 2012. <Oscars 2012: John Logan talks Hugo, Rango and 007>.

Quinn, Karl. “Can’t get him out of our heads.” The Age. Fairfax Digital, 2002. Web. 8 Jun 2012. <http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/09/07/1031115958092.html&gt;.

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