Thursday, February 21, 2008

Thoughts on the script: No Country for Old Men

I've been trying to get in the habit of reading at least one screenplay each week. I'm going to try to set aside at least one day each week on the blog to talk about that screenplay and maybe share anything I may have learned from it. We'll see how long that lasts.

A few days ago I finished the first draft of Not Dead Yet, and since I'm waiting until Sunday to start my first revision just to give me a little distance, I quelled my zombie jones with a little World War Z. It's a really good script, scary and tragic in parts and with a clear sense of theme, but it doesn't beat you over the head with the point.

But what I really want to talk about is the screenplay for No Country for Old Men.

I have not seen the film, but I'm sure it's a fine piece of cinematic spectacle. The action is constantly pushing the story forward and the characters are interesting and there's plenty of cool dialogue.


For example, check out this scene with CHIGURH* (The Bad Guy) and some road side PROPRIETOR:

Chigurh is digging in his pocket. A quarter: he tosses it. He slaps it onto his forearm but keeps it covered.

Call it.

Call it?


For what?

Just call it.

Well -- we need to know what it is we're callin' for here.

You need to call it. I can't call it for you. It wouldn't be fair. It wouldn't even be right.

I didn't put nothin' up.

Yes you did. You been putting it up your whole life. You just didn't know it. You know what date is on this coin?


Nineteen fifty-eight. It's been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it's here. And it's either heads or tails, and you have to say. Call it. A long beat.

Look... I got to know what I stand to win.


How's that?

You stand to win everything. Call it.

All right. Heads then.

Chigurh takes his hand away from the coin and turns his arm to look at it.


Well done..

Here's the thing that's pretty brilliant about that scene. Chigurh is flipping the guy for his life. You know enough about this guy to know that he's letting this coin toss determine whether or not he comes back to the house later tonight and murders the Proprietor. But he never has to say a word about it. That's terrific characterization.


I have a major problem with this script. Half the time I have no idea what the hell is going on. I assume this is a Cohen thing - I've never read one of their scripts before - but the exposition tends to be a bit hard to follow at times. For one thing there are places where a character we've been introduced to is listed as MAN for a while for no real reason since I'm assuming we'll know it's the same guy when we see him on screen.

Speaking of which, there are a LOT of characters and dead bodies listed as "Man," which gets mighty confusing since half the time I thought two people were one person and vice versa.

But it's little stuff like this I had the hardest time with:

The truck stops and Moss opens the passenger door and swings the case in and climbs in after. The driver, an older man, gapes at him, frightened.

I'm not going to hurt you. I need you to-

The windshield stars.

A quick second round pushes part of the windshield in.

"The windshield stars"? As clever as that may sound, it's confusing. I had to stop a second and reread the line because I wasn't sure what it meant. So I was like, huh? Wha.... oooh.

Or this:

Wells looks at Chigurh, waiting for a decision.

The low chug of the shotgun.

Aside from his finger on the trigger, Chigurh hasn't moved. He sits staring at Wells's remains for a beat.

Again, very poetic and in the moment, but it took me a second to figure out what happened. I was like, did he just.... was that.... oh, okay. He's dead.

There are also scenes where I have a hell of a time trying to figure out where the characters are in relation to each other or the geography of a room in a scene where that information would be immensely useful.

Part of me wants to chalk that up to style points and get over it. But part of me does not like the way I had to constantly pay close attention to understand what the hell was going on in this script. The story should flow like a story, not feel like an assignment for my college English class.

Is it just me?

*Isn't Chigurh a great villain name? It's memorable, different and it reminds me of chiggers. And for those of you who didn't grow up wandering barefoot in backwoods North Carolina, chiggers are tiny little bugs that crawl in your skin and make you itch.


  1. Anonymous8:55 PM

    It's not just you.
    The abd thing is that I felt that the movie watched liek that, too.

    It was cool how the villain was going to kill the proprietor if he rolled the wrong side, but I was wondering the whole time - "Why do I care? Who IS this proprietor? Is there anything at stake in this scene other than a redshirt's life? What is this villain doing other than cut&paste 'cold stuff'."

    The movie didn't fool me.

  2. Uh...yeah, I think it's you. And some other yous. Because I got everything first time around.

    Maybe it's a matter of really feeling their style or thinking in a similar writing language.

  3. Is it just me?

    Well... It's a context thing.

    NCFOM a script ADAPTED from source material by the people who are going to direct it. It's not a spec, so the story may not be all spelled out for a reader unfamiliar with the novel. It's the script you get to write after you've written/directed 10 successful films.

    I stopped reading director scripts (except for enjoyment) last year when I realized they're a different breed than what I'm concerned with - original spec scripts written by relatively unknown/unproven writers that have sold in the last few years.

    If you're interested in adapting, it's probably worth your time to read the Cormac McCarthy novel and then the Coen bro's script to see what parts of the story they focused on for the film.

  4. "The movie didn't fool me."

    I can only shake my head in confusion and annoyance. But anyway...

    I read the script AFTER I saw the movie, so I don't know if it would have read well the other way around.

    I chalk this up to a simple fact, the Coen Bros. could write the damn thing in Greek, using crayon, and they'd still get the best actors and the best crew to show up. I know you understand this, but others might not. They don't have to impress anybody with what's on the page. They are so well prepared, so on the same page with each other, that how the script reads isn't what's important to them.

    And the reason why they don't have to care, they make movies like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Blood Simple, and Millers Crossing.

    You need to see the movie. It deserves every accolade it has received.

  5. Anonymous3:10 AM

    Are you kidding me Carlo? How could you not care for that store owner? Everyone in the theater was on the edge of their seat. People even clapped a little bit when the coin landed in favor for him.

  6. Anonymous8:40 AM

    I feel sad that I still can't figure out what "the windshield stars" means. Lens flare? Shot into little star-like fragments?

  7. I thought the movie was great. The acting was superb and the story was compeling.

    I did not like the ending but I don't hold that against the previous 90 minutes or so.

    If you have a chance head over to Creative Screenwriting Magazines blog and listen to the Cohen brothers pod cast. That might shed some light on to the script.


  8. Everybody's making good points.

    I should mention that Ice Cream Jihad is a short film I've been hired to write.

  9. I've also heard from others that this particular Coen script is someone confusing because of its lack of sluglines. Works poetically and engages, but tough to read. least from the examples you provided, what I liked about it was that it kept me engaged BECAUSE of the writing style. Like you, I was asking, "What just happened?" but instead of getting confused and annoyed, it made me want to read on to put the pieces together. And generally, it seems like the confusion lasts for a line and then they clear things up on the following line.

    Not something I'd recommend a newbie writer doing for fear of people getting frustrated and putting it down, but when you're the Coens, people are going to read all the way through. Me likes.

  10. Ice Cream Jihad?
    Out of curiousity, what genre is that?

    First note: I also haven't seen the movie yet.

    The proprietor scene is good to show what kind of guy Chigurh is, but it feels a little off, maybe a bit long.

    The scene with the windshield starring didn't confuse me, windshields star or spider, the other windows shatter.

    As for the low chug of a shotgun ... why did it chug? Does it have a sound suppressor on it? Is it an itty bitty shotgun? Is it rammed down the guys throat?

    Chugging isn't shotgun-like. It took me a couple reads to get that.

    Chigurh is a great name, the connotation is something, but as importantly is that it creates a unique character.

    Now I'm going to have to read some Cohen scripts to see how much they abuse the metaphorical language.

  11. This is why reading shooting scripts is not always the great teaching/learning experience that some folks like to promote it as being. Remember that a script is not the final product -- it's part of a puzzle of pieces intended to combine to create a larger whole which is intended for consumption by the audience. The Coens clearly write for their own use and understanding, so this script would almost surely violate some of the "rules" we specsters have to contend with.

    Think about it this way-- imagine that you were tasked with learning Shakespeare NOT be seeing the plays, but by studying the notes and comments of someone adept at DIRECTING Shakespearean plays. You'd like wind up at least as confused as you were before you started.

    I've always operated with the notion that a screenplay is kinda like a written recipe, and detail required in that recipe kinda sorta depends on if the recipe is being written for your OWN use or for use by someone who have never seen this dish and who might well have a very different taste in how such a dish is "supposed" to turn out.

    In that way, "stars" as a verb in that scene makes perfect sense once you understand what they meant -- it was a very specific little visual note to themselves for what they found visually interesting in that moment. When shot as a film, that moment is perfectly clear. When described to someone not already familiar with that note (you), it seems ambiguous and confusing. I find their writing very interesting as it very clearly already describes those specific visual beats which the Coens are known for. I love that they have such a clear visual sense from the get-go.

  12. As far as the reason for the bad dude's name, this is an interesting article.!82ABAB9A2E2856FD!4118.entry

  13. I get what you're saying, Brett, but remember this was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay this year. I was reading it in that capacity. I think if a script is going to win the academy award it needs to be able to stand on its own.

    And I think we can learn a ton from reading shooting scripts. It's what we plan to write one day and we can't always guarantee that we'll be able to hand pick our director.

  14. Emily,

    I think the script does stand on its own, but to be fair, nobody reads the actual scripts when deciding the Academy Awards. They go off of the final product. Not really fair, but true.

    If they did go off of the actual written script, no way in hell Juno gets nominated. It was merely an average script without the great acting, direction, and soundtrack.

  15. Wow, I felt exactly the opposite about Juno -- everything good about the movie is right there in the script. I actually felt like all Jason R. had to do was shoot what was on the page... or on the Page, as it were... yep, I'm going to stand by that pun.

  16. If the writing Oscars are going to be purely based on the scripts and not the films, then shouldn't the statues won for the scripts to MASH and THE FRENCH CONNECTION--two famous examples where the films veered wildly from what was on the page--be rescinded? The Coens are obviously in a position to write their scripts in the best way that works for them--the film that emerged from it is brilliant and since they knew what they were going to do when they wrote it on the page(full disclosure, I haven't read the script for NO COUNTRY), my take on it is that's what matters.

    All this reminds me of the introduction that was written for the published scripts of BARTON FINK and MILLER'S CROSSING by their editor, Roderick Jaynes. He wrote about how he considers all scripts to be worthless as literature and that his one condition whenever he cuts one of their films is that he never has to read the script. He simply looks at the footage and assembles it in the way he feels is appropriate. Of course, it's all a very, very dry joke. Roderick Jaynes doesn't exist and is their editorial pseudonym. I don't know what that means for the purposes of this discussion, but it seemed significant.

  17. I think it's a "guy" style thing.

    "I'm so poetic. I'm a guy. Here it is. Your problem if you don't get it."

  18. "I think it's a "guy" style thing."

    "I'm so poetic. I'm a guy. Here it is. Your problem if you don't get it."

    So is the poor writing in the Juno script merely a case of a "girl" style thing?

    "I'm so clever. I'm a girl. I can make meaningless and absurd references to Thundercats. Your problem if you don't get it."

    Okay, I can live with that. Guys have style.

  19. Christina--

    I find myself more interested in reading original screenplays-- and specs if I can find them. "Director scripts" have their own usefulness-- though I think Gilroy writes with the reader very much in mind.


    I agree that the written screenplay itself should factor in to the judging of it's quality and not just the completed film. I wonder if they send out copies of the screenplays to the Academy members the same way they do with DVD screeners?

  20. Anonymous7:28 AM

    I read the book. Then a couple months later, I read the book again.

    From a novelist's point of view, one of the most interesting things about the book is its demonstration of how little exposition today's reader needs.

    Emily's discussion is of a shooting script taken from a novel. Surely the Cohens expected those working on the film to have read the book. Certainly those in key positions (maybe not the Teamsters). If not, they would get a raised eyebrow and a "Oh, well maybe if you'd read the book you'd know what was going on. And don't expect to work for us next time."

    The absence of exposition in the book probably transferred to some extent over to the shooting script, which is not surprising. Perhaps that is at least partly the reason for some of Emily's problems with it.

    The scene with the proprietor is one of the few in the movie that gives the viewer any insight into Chigurah's -- shall we say -- philosophy of life. His foundations, his thinking, how he approaches things. Just a line or two more from him would have made this a little clearer for the viewer and may have strengthened this scene.

    Finally (Jesus, I'm long-winded today) every piece is, on purpose or by happenstance or by unconscious direction -- "right" for a certain audience. An audience that is sympatico on the feeling level (loves romance), on the educational level (in the 9th grade) or on the taste level (prefers current showing of "The Batchelor" on TV). Whatever it is you're making, or whatever it is your commenting on, keep in mind who it will work for and who it won't work for. As one of those German guys used to say, maybe it's "not for everybody."

    Yah, yah, yah, I know I got really annoyingly pretentious there, but it was kind of fun. Deal with it.

  21. Perhaps this will help everyone.

    You all are overthinking it a bit. And NO, the Coen's other scrips are no more and no less spare than this one.

    Way back, I purchased Faber and Faber's published Barton Fink and Miller's Crossing (both of which I prefer in their canon to NCFOM) because, as a young scribe, I HAD to see how these guys did it, y'know? Then Fargo came along and, again, I simply HAD to see what their secret was. How do these two yutz's from the Twin Cities make the GREATEST MOVIES EVER? (That's right, I said it, ya' wanna' fight me on it, bring it)

    Their scripts are just this: WYSIWYG. (for those of you who don't work in the auto industry, that's "What you see is what you get.")

    "The windshield stars." These guys write very purely in images. You or I would probably write, "A descending object strikes the car's windshield, shattering it into a million glistening bits." One is no better or worse than the other... well, mine is substantially worse but, for the sake of argument, the point is that both serve the same purpose. Get the image across to a reader (actor? DP? Producer? all the above)

    Also, I feel there is a lot of unspoken communication that goes on between these guys that we'll never comprehend, nor should we try. First, they've been doing this for over 20 years. Second, they're brothers.

    Ultimately, I think we, as fledgeling scribes, can glean nothing from their screenplays. If we aped their style, we'd be flushed very quickly by the readers who work for bean counters, i.e. studios, dig? Best to stick with the occasional Akiva Goldsman or Shane Black for bathroom parusal. Foot in the door, kids, am I right or am I right?

    Oh, and for the record, I felt There Will Be Blood was far better film than NCFOM and PT Anderson was friggin' robbed. (and, conversely, I think one can learn a LOT from reading his scripts.)

    But that's just me.

  22. I see the points you're making, but I'm actually doing the opposite of overthinking. I read the script and my immediate reaction was confusion to several things I read. I had to think to understand.

    I totally disagree with the idea that we can't learn from a Cohen script. Every script is an opportunity to learn something. That's why I posted my thoughts here. Hell, even discussing it in this forum is an opportunity to learn something about writing. Just look at how many people have differing opinions.


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