Have you ever been fascinated by a scene in a movie, and wondered what makes it so captivating? I’m thinking of the coin-tossing scene from No Country for Old Men. What really helped me understand how the Coen brothers expertly crafted this scene was in a class on scene structure with Writers’ Program instructor Karl Iglesias. Attending a screenwriting course with an instructor who knows the key elements and illuminates why certain scenes are memorable and successful can help you better understand your own writing. Writers’ Program instructors frequently use movie clips as teaching tools and as ways to illustrate especially important craft issues such as Inciting Incidents, End-of-Act- Two low points, Moments of Epiphanies/Key Realizations, Completion of Emotional Arcs, Set-Pieces Exploring the Premise, etc.

So, for the benefit of our wonderful screenwriting students, and to satisfy our own insatiable curiosity, we asked some of our screenwriting instructors to weigh in on their favorite clips and why they’re useful tools for learning screenwriting craft. Here’s what they had to say:

Pat Verducci, who is teaching Introduction to Screenwriting I at our downtown Los Angeles location, says “A perfect example of a “mid point” is in The Graduate when Benjamin takes Elaine to the strip club. This scene happens 59 minutes into the story, and does everything a mid-point is supposed to do (it turns the story in a new direction, makes us wonder whether our main character will get what he wants, raises the stakes, and creates trajectory into the next sequence.).”

Instructor Marc Sedaka, who is teaching Introduction to Screenwriting I this fall, offered a good example of Plants/Payoffs in Back to the Future. He says, “According to my count, there are 24 plants in the first ten minutes… all of which are paid off throughout the film.”

Paula Cizmar, who will be teaching Advanced Feature Film Writing Workshop in Spring 2010, offers insight into a 20-minute clip of The Shipping News (toward the end of Act I, beginning of Act 2). “There’s a very interesting section of The Shipping News that gives an example of how to spin a non-dramatic situation into a dramatic “premise.” It does a number of fabulous things: introduces us to the flaws in the protagonist’s character—his passivity and shyness; shows us a step he takes toward solving this (he stands up for himself); shows us the atmosphere of the place (isolation, a sense of loss, a sense of the haunted); plus it also gives writing advice (one of the writers at the small-town newspaper which hires the protagonist gives him solid advice on how to make a story dramatic). The section starts where the Kevin Spacey character is in the car on his way to the interview. He gets the job; meets the romantic interest and they inadvertently insult each other; goes out on his first assignment anddoes poorly; gets advice on how to write a story; runs into the romantic interest and does better; writes a story and thinks he’s about to be fired because he gets called on the carpet; has success; and the section ends with Kevin Spacey in the car, creating his own “headline.”

Steve Mazur, instructor of several popular comedy writing workshops, gave us an example from The Pink Panther (the Steve Martin version): “One of the deleted scenes is a very expensive sequence involving Inspector Clouseau taking a terrible flight on an airplane. Though the scene was very funny and inventive, it had to be cut because it didn’t fit the comedic tone of the rest of the film. This demonstrates the importance of maintaining your base of reality in a comedy.”

And while we’re discussing comedy, instructor Chrys Balis, offers this suggestion about the popular Rom-Com, Something’s Gotta Give: “There is a good catalyst scene when Nicholson and Keaton meet for the first time in front of the refrigerator (Jack has no pants on).” Chrys points out that this scene is “a “cute meet” for the Romantic Comedy genre, putting Nicholson and Keaton instantly at odds with each other so that the tension ignites the romance thread (Script at joblo.com and clip here).” Chrys is teaching Advanced Scene Craft this upcoming quarter.

Check back with us in mid-October when instructors weigh in on their recommendations for Best DVD Commentary.

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Gabrielle Stephens is the Program Representative in Screenwriting (Onsite).

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