Since The Hangover 2 will be released in a couple of weeks, it seemed timely to select the 2009 summer sensation The Hangover as this week’s Screenplay vs Film selection. From the movie trailer, I don’t think The Hangover 2 will be any good, but that’s just me. Mel Gibson was supposed to make a cameo appearance in the sequel, but that plan was scrapped due to objections by one of the lead actors, who apparently had no issue working with Mike Tyson. I think Mel’s cameo would’ve been HILARIOUS, just the way Tyson’s cameo was in the original.
I have to admit, The Hangover isn’t really my type of movie. The humor is too raunchy. I, for one, am glad that Judd Apatow R-rated male-dominated romantic comedies seem to be on the decline. Still The Hangover grossed $277 million dollars (just in the US) and it was only made on a $35 million dollar budget. Clearly, this is a screenwriting success story and I thought it would have some screenplay writing tips to learn from. Surprise, surprise–it did.
For those of you who didn’t see the movie, the plot revolves around three groomsmen (Phil, Stu, and Alan) who lose the soon-to-be wed groom (Doug) in Las Vegas and must retrace their steps in order to find him before the wedding starts–in 48 hours. The screenplay draft I found had some big, and some minor, differences from the movie version that was eventually released.
Bradley Cooper’s character’s name was changed from Vick to Phil. Alan was an uptight tax attorney who had been friends with Vick, Stu & Doug since childhood–not the bride’s weird little brother. He, not Stu, was also the one who was under serious pressure to get married by his equally uptight girlfriend. Stu was in fact married with two daughters, while Vick was still a carefree bachelor. These changes don’t really yield any screenwriting tips to learn from; I just thought hard core Hangover fans would be interested in the original dynamic of the foursome.
But there are other differences that you can use to improve your screenwriting skills. Some of these differences specifically related to the comedy set-pieces, so I divided the tips into two groups. Today’s screenwriting tips will help will your overall screenplay technique while tomorrow’s tips will focus only on humor and writing comedy screenplays.
So, let’s see how you can create your own screenplay payday with the following tips:
Screenwriting Tip #1: Borrow from a VIP
Remember that awesome 1969 Mercedes-Benz convertible that itself was a side character in the movie? In the original screenplay draft, that car belonged to Phil (who as I mentioned was named Vick) NOT to Tracy’s dad. Making that switch was pure genius and here’s why:
When the car gets destroyed, it doesn’t really matter if it belongs to Phil. He’s sort of a jerk and the audience might even think he deserves the loss. But when the car belongs to the father of the bride–that takes the stakes to a whole new level because it puts our characters in jeopardy. Tracy’s dad entrusted his prized automobile to his future son-in-law–who indirectly allowed it to get wrecked. We never see Tracy’s dad’s reaction to his destroyed Mercedes, and while he brushed off Doug’s tardiness to “antics in Vegas,” I’m not sure he’ll have such a cavalier attitude when he sees his car.
If something getting lost is a key plot point in your screenplay, try to make sure it belongs to a VIP–your hero’s boss or his mother-in-law. Basically, the kinds of people who have the ability to get him in deep trouble if he doesn’t recover the item.
Screenwriting Tip #2: Make your Act One break strong
In the screenplay version of The Hangover, we were in Vegas by page 14. The first act ended with our crew of clueless groomsmen realizing that Doug was truly lost–it took them way too long to discover this very simple fact. As I noted in How to Write a Script Outline: the 8 Major Plot Points, the first act break usually (though not always) involves a location change.
In the movie version of The Hangover, we don’t have a location change per se–the boys have already arrived in the City of Sin. They’ve arrived, done their celebrating, and the first act closes with the sun setting on the Strip. The second act starts with them waking up in their super luxurious suite to find it completely wrecked (as well as a tiger in the bathroom!).
While the boys haven’t changed their location (we’re still in Vegas), this is still quite a shift because we’ve gone from your typical night of Las Vegas debauchery into a whole different realm. Because the act one break coincides with this change in worlds and mental states–pre-hangover and post-hangover–it’s much stronger than the act one break in the original screenplay. Try to aim for such a strong act one break in your screenplay drafts.
Screenwriting Tip #3: Show, don’t tell
Okay, so this screenwriting tip is a no-brainer, and I’m sure you’ve encountered it several times already. But this is how it specifically applies to your act one setup. In your first act, you gotta cover a lot of ground. You have to introduce your hero as well as his goal and the stakes involved. But the hero’s not the only one: we also should meet your hero’s sidekicks, confidants, romantic interest…as well as the villain. (Here is a tip on how to create original characters in your supporting cast.) By the end of the first act, the reader should have a clear understanding of what your hero’s world is like before your hook kicks in.
The screenwriters of The Hangover, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, knew these rules and gave the reader introductions to each of our protagonists: Phil, Stu, Alan & Doug. The only problem is that they did this by having the boys talk about their lives as they’re driving to Vegas. While there were some good jokes in there–the scenes didn’t have enough energy because they came across as telling.
Here’s an excerpt (remember Vick=Phil):
Asking Alan if he’s still with Becky is like asking the sun if it still rises in the east.
The guys try not to laugh; Alan scowls.
She still pressuring you to get married?
Enh, we’ve moved past the pressure stage…it’s more like aggravated assault stage now? Like at the last wedding we went to, she threw a camera at my head, called me a closet fag, then ran out crying.
The guys wince, oooo.
But we talked, and everything’s cool now.
Maybe you could wear a helmet to Doug’s wedding.
Great idea, Stu. Thanks.
Contrast this with the movie in which we SEE Stu tormented by his bitchy girlfriend. We experience how whipped he is instead of hearing about it secondhand.
As much as possible, try to SHOW who your characters are. You’ve got the space–roughly 25-30 pages in your first act–so why not use it?
Screenwriting Tip # 4: You don’t have to explain everything
In both the screenplay and movie versions of The Hangover, when the boys woke up to discover their luxury suite is completely wrecked, they made several discoveries. A strutting rooster was one only one of their surprises. To his dismay, Stu discovered he was missing his tooth, while Alan discovered a Bengal tiger in the bathroom. All were perplexed by the baby in the closet, and none could ascertain what happened to Doug’s mattress.
As Act Two progresses, these random occurrences are each explained: the tooth, the tiger, the baby and the missing mattress. But we never learn about the rooster.
And this screenwriting choice works because it fits in with the whole “you’ll never believe what happened to us last night” ethos of the story. Sometimes it’s good to leave a little intrigue, something left for the imagination. In 13 Screenwriting Tips from Sherlock Holmes (Part 2), I said that you should leave nothing unexplained. That still holds true–but for mysteries. All the supposed inexplicable elements of your mystery should be explained by the end of your screenplay, otherwise your audience will leave dissatisfied.
But in a comedy, you have more leeway, so you don’t have to explain everything–and sometimes, like in The Hangover, that little bit of intrigue creates an even more memorable experience because the audience can make up their own reasons for what happened. But use this technique sparingly–remember that Jon Lucas and Scott Moore still explained everything else.
Screenwriting Tip #5: A little explanation goes a long way
If your character has a problem that he’s been trying to solve for most of your screenplay, and he suddenly solves it, you should provide an explanation for his good fortune. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Something simple will work, as long as it fits within the context of your story and the rules of the world you’ve created in your screenplay. You just need something that explains why the hero has the solution now and not before–and it can’t be because it’s approaching Act Three and you’re running out of screenplay pages.
It seemed like the screenwriters of The Hangover tried to do that in their early draft of the movie. In that version, Alan suddenly remembers that they left Doug on the roof of the hotel. It’s totally out of the blue…and made me think, “it’s very convenient that it took the entire second act for Alan’s memory to recover.”
In the movie, the screenwriters played it out a little differently: Alan drugs Stu and Phil with what he thinks is ecstasy, but what is, in fact, roofies. When the guys end up rescuing a black Doug (not their Doug) who happens to have sold Alan the drugs, they have a little conversation about roofies etymology. Why isn’t it called “floories” since you end up passed out on the floor? Talking about the roof so earnestly starts to jog Stu’s memory, and he remembers that they played a prank on Doug and left him on the roof.
The conversation about the etymology of roofies was a simple, yet effective explanation. Something to strive for when you’re writing your own comedy.
Screenwriting Tip #6: Sometimes character transformations can be subtle
A lot of screenwriting gurus advise that your hero should undergo some sort of character transformation: in Act One you show what your hero is currently like, ie the six things that need fixing; in Act Two, your hero overcomes a series of obstacles and in the process transform himself; and in Act Three, you show how your character has changed.
In the screenplay draft of The Hangover, the screenwriters followed that advice and made Phil undergo a character transformation. He lured his friends to Las Vegas in order to con them out of $200,000 he owed to a Chinese crime lord.
Here’s the speech (remember Vick=Phil):
INT. THE DEAN MARTIN SUITE — MOMENTS LATER
Alan and Stu pace about the suite, beyond stressed. Vick stands, looking out the window. Chastity gets them all water.
How the hell could you blow that kind of money?!
Was it for the custard store?
Jesus, Stu, wake up! There is no custard store! Vick was just trying to rip us off to pay back Jimmy Lang!
Is that true, Vick?
Vick just stares out at the city, not denying it.
Were any of your deals…real?
Stu drops onto the couch, deeply disillusioned…
Dude, I manage an Applebee’s, that money meant something to me…
Vick spins around, furious:
Do you really think I wanted my life to turn out like this, Stu?! Do you really think I don’t know that I’m a massive loser?! Jesus, you guys got out of high school and you just knew what to do, you went to college and got good jobs and found cool wives and made beautiful children — what do I have to show for the last decade of my life?! Nothing!
Vick swats a lamp off a nearby end-table — it SMASHES against the wall!
The guys freeze. Tense silence. Vick grows emotional.
Jesus, I’m almost 30, and the only thing I really have…the only thing I really have is you guys.
Come on, Vick–
No, man, it’s true! I put on a good show, but my life is so goddamn hollow and vapid and lonely, it scares me, man. I-I don’t know how much longer I can keep this scam going. And now I’ve gone and ruined the one good thing I had…
Tears threaten in his eyes. He wipes at them, angry.
Just…please don’t give up on me, okay? I-I don’t know what I’d do without you guys. I really don’t…
Alan and Stu exchange a look. They’ve never seen brash, cocky Vick this vulnerable before. Stu can’t help but give in.
Come on, man, we’ve been bro’s since third grade, it’s gonna take a lot more than money to ruin our friendship.
Vick looks down, deeply touched…
What I don’t understand is why you didn’t just ask me for the money. I would’ve given you every last cent I had, man…
It’s a sentimental goo of a speech. The funny thing is that even though it felt like something I had seen a hundred times before, it still worked, probably because it a) tied into the plot of the story, b) fit in with the way Phil’s character had been set up, and c) contrasted with the raunchy hijinks of the previous 83 pages. CAUTION: If you’re writing a drama, this is just the type of overly sentimental writing you want to avoid.
In the movie however, the borrowing money plot line was dropped and consequently so was this speech. Phil, however still underwent a character transformation: in the beginning of the movie, he was ranting about marriage and he talked about his wife and son like they were the worst thing that ever happened to him. But in the end of the movie, at Doug’s wedding, he lounges with the rest of the guys, his son asleep on his lap–the picture of a truly contented dad.
I think it was a far better transformation than the character arc they had originally intended because it was more subtle, and the subtlety was refreshing. Plus, having all the crazy hijinks of their trip occur…well, because it’s Vegas…instead of because of Phil’s debt to a gangster fit in better with the movie’s overall tone. It made the second act seem like a crazy adventure instead of the really bad consequences of borrowing money from a shark.
When you combine Phil’s transformation with Stu’s (the dumping of his uptight girlfriend instead of proposing to her), it’s enough change in our characters to satisfy the transformation quota, while still keeping within the tone of the story.
When you’re writing your own comedy, keep in mind that while screenwriting rules do provide good guidance, you’ll have to bend some of them in order to do justice to the story you’re trying to tell.
Final thoughts on The Hangover
I hope that you enjoyed these screenwriting tips from The Hangover. Remember tomorrow’s tips will focus particularly on how to write a comedy script while Thursday’s post will describe plot beats from The Hangover. As always, I’d love to hear your suggestions for screenplays/films to analyze in this Screenplay vs. Film series.
Watching a blank screen (with modifications) by Kenneth Lu