Hell or High Water – First Ten Minutes

8E9A3025.CR2att Bird over at the Cockeyed Caravan, Cockeyed Caravan: Best of 2016 #8: Hell or High Water, has this on his top ten of 2016. I would agree with him on the sound quality of the dialogue; if there was a DSP Mumbling Filter for VLC player available I would have used it here.

‘Come in late, leave early’, typically advice given about scene writing but has been applied here to the whole script. The story starts in the middle of the action, robbing banks, not when the Bank decides to close on the Mother’s house and take back the land.

John Truby uses Vertigo as an example to define the term he calls ‘Compression’ which is delivering the setup of the story in the least amount of time.

So, what do we know in the now infamous first 10 minutes?

  • 1:07 – Opening shot of the Texas Street is of tires by the roadside and rundown buildings. This is not going to be a story about wealthy Texans living in beautiful apartments. “3 Tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us” is setting the tone for a story about victims of the system and society.
  • 1:56 – We track the large sign of the ‘Texas Midlands Bank’, soon to be a major character in this story.
  • 3:00 – ‘You’re all new at this I’m guessing ‘in?’, we now know that they are not professional bank robbers who do this for a living.
  • 3:30 – We get our first insight into the brother’s characters here, ones cool headed and the others touchy and irrational. Technically these character types are a massive cliché that we’ve seen a hundred times (Clooney and Tarantino in From Dusk Till Dawn). But we get a nice reversal just when we expect the Bank Teller’s head is about to be blown off. He doesn’t shoot her and instead makes the joke, ‘You’re stupid’. This is a critical choice for the script at its early stages as if he shoots the Bank Teller then they are murderers now, no matter how much back story we lay on later. We still get an outburst of unwarranted violence anyway when the Bank Manager gets it in the nose.
  • 4:53 – ‘See little brother, not a worry in the world’
  • Shots of suburban Texas show us how poverty and debt have a stranglehold on the community.
  • 5:55 – The old man in the second bank asks, ‘You boys robbing the bank?’, And then says ‘That’s crazy you all ain’t even Mexicans’. The racism theme of the film has now started.
  • 6:25 – ‘You got a gun on you old man?’ – ‘You’re damn right I’ve got a gun on me’. We get an insight into the views and attitudes of Texans and their right the carry weapons. We also get a setup for later when the bank robbery finally goes wrong, and they get shot at by the locals.
  • 6:36 – ‘We ain’t stealing from you, we’re stealing from the Bank’. We now know why they are doing it and have a hint at the heart and motivation of the main story line.
  • 8:30 – ‘I could do this all week’, and that’s what they are going to do.
  • 8:40 – We get shots of the oil fields and wells which is another major plot point of the script.
  • 8:50 – Dollar Bill Blues – does this country song portray the hardship of the working man?
  • 9:00 – I haven’t seen a getaway car been being buried after the robbery before, have you?
Hell or High Water – First Ten Minutes

Juno, Scene by Scene – 3

One of the things you really want to do early on in your script is establish the genre. Juno shouting this line at the dog, Banana, does exactly this and the audience now knows they are rooted in a comedy – “Jeez Banana shut your frickin gob okay?”.

“This is the most magnificent discarded living room set I’ve ever seen” – another witty and funny line, foreshadowing Juno’s personality which is going to be revealed to us in the next few scenes.

Juno remembers the night with Bleeker as magnificent and nothing to regret. This is a very important and subtle setting of story tone, hinting to us that we are going to be given a lighter positive look at the potentially heavy subject of teenage pregnancy.

Juno, Scene by Scene – 3

Juno, Scene by Scene – 2

Scene transitions really add to the unity, rhythm and flow of your script and we get a nice visual one here with the old sofa chair.

When Juno drops her underwear on the floor, we don’t see expensive silk laced panties, we see normal teenage ones which continues the teenage/adolescence line.

The choice of camera shot is interesting (including the ones after it) because we don’t see Bleeker’s face and therefore don’t know his identity. This is not a mystery, thriller or suspense genre so Bleeker’s identity and concealing it are not related to the plot. So why do it? Maybe because Act 1 is about establishing context and delivering exposition to set up the story, so leveraging any opportunity to increase the audiences interest should always be used? (We don’t find out Bleeker is the father until ten minutes into the story).

Bleeker – “I’ve wanted this for a really long time”, we now know that this is not a one night stand.

Juno – “I know”, Juno’s response is that of an adult and not a teenager. We would expect her to say ‘I wanted it too’, but she’s confused about relationships and from the first moments of the story we get an idea of how she operates within them.

Bleeker – “Wizard”, this is the kind of dialogue we expect from a carefree teenager.

Later in the script there is a scene in the science lab and two teenagers have a domestic just like adults would. Maturity, adults wanting to be teenagers again and teenagers behaving like adults is the central theme of this movie. Bleeker and Juno are playing this theme out in a very subtle form even in the first few minutes of the script.

The fear on Juno’s face portrays the feelings of a teenager losing their virginity for the first time. Is this scene designed to invoke memories of how we felt during our first time so we can connect with Juno and understand what she’s feeling?


Juno, Scene by Scene – 2

Juno, Scene by Scene – 1

If you are writing a story that isn’t linear and compact in time then you are going to need visual, verbal and audible cues to the audience when you want to move from one point in time to another.

In Juno, Autumn, is written on the screen in the opening scene and the time frame is now established. We can now easily skip, as this story does, forward several months into the future without disorientating the viewer. Do you notice the font and style of the writing ‘Autumn’? it’s written like a child or teenager, crayon style. Diablo Cody is establishing (although this was probably done by Reitman or a production designer)  that this is a youth/teenage story from the opening frame.

The environment is established very quickly by the opening shot of suburban American houses. This is not a fantasy movie or story about rich people in Beverly Hills, it’s a story of a middle class teenager, just like me or you, in a normal neighbourhood.

Can teenage youth be more summed up than hoodies, jeans and a gallon of Sunny D?

Juno, Scene by Scene – 1

The power of dialogue

I’ve wanted this for a really long time… I know…. Wizard

Dialogue from the scene where Juno and Bleeker have sex for the first time…(You don’t know this though, as you’ve never met the characters, you can’t see his face and you have no concept of their relationship).

You could be thinking that this is really cute.. or Diablo Cody is in touch with the youth slang of the day… or … who really knows… or who really cares for this matter…

The point is this that it’s a girl taking her panties off and mounting a guy on a chair to have sex. The whole point of cinema is not the images in front of you but the images and story you create in your head. Done right, this can be extremely powerful, but maybe not in this case.

The 11 words of dialogue above, and the subtext, take this scene and render it as an encounter of two people who care about each other.  Turn the sound down and watch the scene again and you realise that it’s open for interpretation.

Every word of dialogue, whether consumed consciously or subconsciously, impacts the scene you write and the context of the story you tell.

The power of dialogue

Juno – Premise, Theme and Supporting Characters

What will happen to a young teenage girl when she gets pregnant?

Diablo Cody gives us two outcomes:

  1. Give the child up for adoption and let her teenage years develop naturally.
  2. Raise the child herself and get forced into adulthood.

The theme here is represented by both points of view, the author will give us both, and then gives her conclusion.

Juno is a young girl who needs to adopt her baby so she can return to the natural progression of her teenage life.

Bleeker represents this side of the theme, he runs track, goes to the prom and plays his guitar just like every other teenager does. And so do the two kids hanging outside the drugstore, as this is what you do when you are a teenager, along with drinking gallons of Sunny D and owning a Hamburger phone.

But this is then contrasted with Juno smoking a pipe and behaving like an adult while she gives Bleeker the news that’s she pregnant. We then move to the science class scene with two teenagers having an adult domestic type argument.

Both sides of the theme and possible outcome are equally represented here.

At the end of Act 1 Juno tells her parents about the pregnancy and says that she is not sure what kind of girl she is.

Juno is confused and her confusion is represent by a character called ‘Steve the Jock’.

Why? Because Steve thinks he wants Cheerleaders but really wants girls like Juno.

And Juno is the same as she thinks she wants older guys who play in bands, but she really wants geeky guys her same age who run track.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that Juno’s friend Leah is into the older teacher and thinks he’s hot?

This is foreshadowing exactly when Juno is going to have feelings for the older guy.

And then there’s Mark.

He, like Juno, wants to return to his childhood again, play his guitar and live in his bachelor pad.

He doesn’t want the baby so he can be a teenager and Juno wants him to adopt the baby so she can be a teenager.

The most interesting character from a screenwriting perspective though is Vanessa.

Does she not represent Juno’s mother who left to raise a new family somewhere else?

Is this not why Juno is confused and doesn’t have faith in relationships? Is this not the one thing that is stopping her from returning to teenage life?

Once Juno can regain her faith in relationships, she can rebuild things with Bleeker, forgive her mother and give Vanessa the baby.

Need a ticking clock in your script? Juno having a baby works quite well to keep the tension in a slow paced 2nd act.

One thought did occur to me though.

There is only a one line reference to Juno’s mother in the script (in the voiceover in Act one when the rest of her family are being introduced). Is this deliberately down played?

If it was more central (or on the surface) to the story, is there a possibility that it would send out the wrong message, that troubled teenagers whose mothers leave are more likely to get pregnant?

Juno – Premise, Theme and Supporting Characters

Endings.. Wall Street and Michael Clayton

Our main character, the little man, must fight the corporate power and greed who think they are above the law, and bring them to justice by doing the morally right thing, even if it costs him everything. He will confront the enemy, while secretly recording them, and get them to incriminate themselves.

Are we talking about Bud Fox confronting Gordon Gecko here or Micheal Clayton and Karen Crowder?

It’s the same ending… Michael sits in a taxi and Bud drives to the courthouse both reflecting on where the morally right choice has taken them.

This made me think about using scenes from famous films…

If you have an idea, want to turn it into a story and then finally a script, finding the story spine and completing it from start to end is the key. Structure, Acts, midpoints etc at this stage don’t mean anything and should be put to the side as they hinder more than help.

If you can’t link story part A to B to C to D to an ending that makes sense to a listener then you just have some randoms ideas with no connections.

Having trouble linking the parts and coming up with an ending? Then take pieces from scripts that have already been written. You are not going to steal them, they are just temporary placeholders, and will be removed or re-written at a later stage.

Something changes when you can take a story from start to finish in a logical manner. It doesn’t have to be perfect, be of any particular length, or even be original at this stage.

So you have a story about a woman hunting a murderer but you don’t know the ending? Borrow the ending from the Silence of the Lambs and complete your story.

The whole idea is to move you forward and hopefully spark some ideas. You can’t keep this ending, as it belongs to Ted Tally/Harris, but you have made some subtle decisions here. You’ve decided that your hero will live, and succeed, and the murderer will die. Whether you keep this or not is really up to you.

Ideas don’t just come out of a vacuum they need seeds to grow.


Endings.. Wall Street and Michael Clayton