The Dude With A Thousand Faces: A Screenplay Template

I recently broke down the Stumptown pilot to examine hyperfunctional formulaic writing. Yes, times have changed and templates can be outdated, but I argue a formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s how you execute – story, characters, themes, acting, direction, dialogue, every fleshy detail – which matters. So when some mates released this short, fun, feature film template, I was intrigued. Their guideline, along with its hyperlinks and simple Dude-inspired design, is handy especially for first drafts.

The three touchstone films are The Matrix, The Big Lebowski, and My Cousin Vinnie. One of the biggest sci-fi action blockbusters of all time, which set new standards for action sequences, and literalises an underworld. A stoner, noir-inspired black comedy by two masters who enjoy putting modern stories into Greco-Roman structures, or maybe the other way around. A roadtrip romp turned The Wrong Man turned legal dramedy with delightfully exaggerated romcom b-plot. All informing the same the DW1000F Template, which playfully uses specifics from the films alongside the Hero’s Journey.

In addition to being loudly and over-simply explained by drunk dudebros when you announce you work in film, and being used to excuse poor character/story development, the Hero’s Journey is often used explicitly referenced in supernatural and mythological stories. It’s quite helpful there, but is applicable to so much more. I’ve been thinking about how templates, formulaic structure, and the HJ’s basic framework functions a lot lately as I rework a drama/mystery TV pilot. Certain mythic terminology and tropes are fairly straightforward if you’re writing a scifi, fantasy, or more surrealist shows such as Hannibal. But how can you best utilise them if your story leans towards real-life stories such as Spotlight, noir such as The Long Goodbye, TV drama / mystery such as The Night Of, or family dramedy such as The Farewell?

With or without a template, surrealist, sci-fi, or other fantastical elements can be great tools to expand your imagination. One way to use them is to imagine settings and characters as mythological concretes; IE write your themes and archetypes and beats explicitly using the fantastic, literalise your monsters, and then modify accordingly. Write it ‘as if’ for the first pass, and see how the character interactions and plot come together.

A domestic abuser is a bridge-guarding troll, or the rich all-powerful handsome king whose knights serve his every whim. Then if your story is firmly grounded in reality, at some point you may want to ‘bring down’ the creatures to metaphors, or find real-world imagery or substitutes like O Brother Where Art Thou does – so for example on a second pass, the bridge or round table becomes the secluded cabin or high-rise board room, and voila! Maybe some of it stays as imagery, maybe it all shifts. Like a template itself, mythic or supernatural conceits can be a tool, in this case to help you break out of a mental rut.

Maybe the hero ‘just’ needs to go to the filing room. A lowly clerk descending into the deep dank basement of her law department to speak to the file keeper about yellowed folders holding the contents of misdeeds can feel like exploring an underworld and the souls of those she doesn’t know. What if you write the scene as if the Lowly Clerk is a mortal trying to find a spark of bravery, and the File Keeper is Charon. Use some template framework, and use mythological constructs. See what this approach does to the dialogue / power dynamic. Consider how the scene fits into the rhythms or dialogues or even physical positioning of Charon and a mortal. Even if a later pass takes some of those elements out, the angles can remain and help bring the right structure, rhythm, and subtle thematic elements.

When it comes to finalising and then filming, those elements can be more or less literalised. It comes from acting and design and directing, but starts with the writing. Three examples:

1. Monsters, Inc.‘s Roz. The comedic, platonic ideal.

2. Look at the file room in Homecoming and think about how writers, director Sam Esmail, and actor Shea Whigham approach these scenes. They use the stacks to make Whigham’s Agent Carrasco seem small and mortal and the flickering light bulb underlines the bureaucratic nightmare feel, reading potentially sinister. It adds to unease without coming across too literally supernatural.

3. I like The Night Of‘s morgue scene in isolation, but in context it veers too absurd/supernatural, sticking out poorly because the show as a whole is built on gritty realism with memory/horror sequences influenced by dreams and/or drugs. Same reason I didn’t care for Barry‘s break into surrealist fighting; it doesn’t fit everything around it, and external explanation (drugs, unreliable narrator, etc) is never given.

I love a movie which intentionally fucks with multiple genres, I love shows which take characters to surrealist places, but do feel if a scene leans hard into mythological aspects, the show around it should as well. If one scene goes counter to everything else, be sure you’re saying something with it lest it confuse your tone; a jarring tonal shift without seeming reason (drugs, dreams, flights of fancy, narrator/character telling a story, I’m not picky) can undermine what you’re trying to say in that scene as well as the show at large.

Some films such as Booksmart and First Reformed swing a major one-off style jump and the risk pays off. Yes, it’s arguably easier in film than TV, and in Booksmart in particular the dialogue etc. still stays within the tone, and there’s a loose narrative reason even if we don’t explicitly change POV, same as when Broad City does it.

But hell. They’re all just guidelines.

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Stray Observations

– I find it interesting the template calls for an ending to echo the story’s initial banality. Some may find it brings closure or better serves the themes, closing the loop in a feature. It makes me think of the Harmon Storytelling circle, where the hero “returns to their familiar situation, having changed.” But in a feature you have no need to ‘reset’ for the next episode, as it were, so consider also a ‘branch off’ to a possible ‘hero faces different world, having shed all banalities’ or ‘hero faces new [challenge / relationship / etc] having changed.’ Of course, the latter could feel too much like sequel setup, but as always, especially with templates, it’s not what you do. It’s how you do it.

– I asked Jen and Sam why those scripts (did they fit the template, or did you lean more towards basing the template around them?) how they came up with the rough estimation of page numbers; was it an average of some scripts, a gut feel, based on another script you came up with while working on this, etc. If they find time to give me an answer, I’ll update here. Meanwhile if you enjoy their template, check out Jen’s Twitter and other work.

 

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