The 1992 script of As Good As It Gets is remarkably different from the movie released in theaters in 1997.
Comparing the two makes for a very thorough screenwriting education!
Here’s part two of the screenplay writing tips I learned by examining the differences between the script and the movie. (Click here for part one of the screenwriting tips.)
Screenwriting Tip #7: It takes two to tango
For the most part, romantic comedies star two characters, traditionally a man and a woman. Even if the story is told primarily through the viewpoint of one of these characters, we still need to get a feel for the other person in the duo. Otherwise, we won’t understand the attraction–or why it’s so important for the two lovers to find each other.
In the 1992 screenplay draft of As Good As It Gets, there were so many scenes dedicated to Simon and his storyline, that Carol’s became neglected. For one thing, she didn’t make an appearance until page 19…and then she disappeared until page 35.
For another, it’s never clear why Carol, a rational, down-to-earth person would get involved with the ball of crazy which is Melvin Udall, even if he did pay for her son’s medical expenses.
The movie expanded Carol’s lines quite a bit, giving us more insight into her character. In particular, the movie showed her interactions with the other restaurant waitresses and how she’s overwhelmingly compassionate.
These moments subtly communicate that Carol has the capability of sussing out Melvin’s goodness–and more importantly–the inclination to do so.
The movie also included a scene at the very beginning where Carol brings a date back to her apartment. He’s intent on seduction (in a very inept, comical way), but his amorous attentions are interrupted by Carol’s son, who starts to cough.
When Carol returns to her date in the living room, he discovers vomit on her dress, and well, that’s the end of that. This scene is critical because it shows the audience how bleak Carol’s existence is before Melvin’s kindness, helping us to better understand its impact.
Two key points of Carol’s emotional journey occur when a) she finally goes out with her mother for the first time in years and b) when she tells Melvin, “I will never ever sleep with you.” Both of these moments were in the original script, but they underwent radical changes by the time the movie was filmed.
Here’s the description of Carol and her mom going out:
Beverly [Carol’s mother] closes the book as Carol plops down beside her.
I haven’t been to a movie in years.
Beverly stuffs the book in her ample handbag and stands, holding out her hand to Carol.
You should have told me you were dating someone rich.
Carol stands on her own.
He orders fatty food from me three days a week. I’m not dating him! I barely know him!
She huffs over to the door and opens it, waiting for Beverly.
Just, please God, don’t get pregnant.
I serve him food! That’s it!
Beverly and George give each other a knowing look; Carol sees it and storms off down the hall.
EXT. STREET — AFTERNOON
Beverly and Carol are walking down the street, passing store windows, which they glance at. Just a mother and daughter walking along, until suddenly, Carol looks up to stare at the sky as she twists in a full circle. She has a huge smile on her face. Beverly wraps her arm around Carol as they continue to walk and gives her a hug.
Here’s Carol delivering her vow to Melvin:
Are you out of your mind?
(with hardly a glance)
Carol, the waitress, this is Simon. He was attacked by some fag bashers.
Simon just closes his eyes and lowers his head. Carol is taken aback for a moment as she glances at Simon.
Two sausages, two bacon, two eggs over easy.
He’s not hungry.
Carol sits down opposite Melvin in the booth.
What gives you the right to hire anyone to look at my son?!
I talked to your mother about it.
My mother was dying to get out for a change! Enjoy herself. Have a day off.
I was the one that would have said no.
I didn’t ask you.
Simon seems to have found reason to open his eyes.
I will never, ever sleep with you. Never. Not ever.
Simon’s mouth drops open as he turns to Melvin.
I’d settle for food.
These are moments, well-written moments, but they just hint at Carol’s deeply conflicted emotions.
To really do those emotions justice, full-fledged scenes are required–like the scenes in the movie.
Screenwriting Tip #8: Minimize phone calls
Take a look:
INT. ART GALLERY — AFTERNOON
Frank is at his dek in the corner of the gallery, on the phone. Sally and another MAN are hanging another show.
I still don’t see why you’re calling me. Talk to his business manager or accountant.
Sally and the man walk to the last two of Simon’s paintings as Frank cups his hand over the phone.
We’ll leave those up. Work around them.
(instantly, back to the phone)
So you’ll toss him to the county if he doesn’t come up with a payment?
How much does he owe?
We’re not talking about his release date, we’re talking about up to today. How much?
Okay. That’s how much I owe him. You’ll get your money.
He slams the phone down as Sally takes a few steps toward him. She looks concerned.
How could he not have insurance?
Frank leans back in his chair as he stares at Sally, expecting an answer. She doesn’t have one.
The point of this scene is that Simon is seriously low on funds, a situation which will later force him to seek help from his parents, a critical event in the plot.
But this plot point can be set up in a better way which doesn’t involve a phone call, the way it was in the movie.
In the movie, Simon’s accountant, Jackie, has to deliver the news to Simon that he’s broke. Only she’s so affected by Simon’s plight herself, she weeps her way through the index cards she’s using as a reference.
This scene is so much more dynamic than a phone call, especially since the person with the financial problems (Simon) is IN THE SCENE.
That’s not to say that ALL phone calls have to be eliminated. One of the best scenes in Mean Girls is the four-way call between Cady, Regina, Gretchen, and Amanda Seyfried’s character. But this phone call drove the plot forward (and was the perfect example of Mean Girl bitchiness).
Frank’s phone call to some unknown entity doesn’t have similar impact. However, Simon’s phone call to his parents is whole different story. After years of no communication, he finally makes contact. Only, his parents won’t pick up the phone.
He’s forced to leave a message. It’s a scene which packs quite the emotional punch, which is why it works. Later on, Simon does manage to speak to his mother, but she whispers her entire conversation because she doesn’t want Simon’s dad to know she’s talking to their son.
Again, this phone scene works because it accomplishes so much: it shows us that Simon’s dad still doesn’t want to reconcile with his son, that Simon accepts his parents’ rejection and is going to move forward with or without them (and their financial help), and, because of Melvin’s conversation with Carol in the background, we see that Melvin still hasn’t given up his pursuit.
If your phone call scene can accomplish all that, then go ahead. Keep it!
Screenwriting Tip #9: Identify the stakes
Identifying the stakes in an action movie or a thriller like Casino Royale and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is infinitely much easier than creating stakes in a romantic comedy like As Good As It Gets. And yet, it can be done, as the movie so aptly proves.
In the film version of As Good As It Gets, two scenes take place at Carol’s restaurant which involve the manager (who didn’t have a speaking role in the script).
In the first scene, the manager tells Carol that Melvin’s going to get booted from the restaurant if he doesn’t tame his abrasive ways. Carol conveys the message to Melvin with sass, and we get the sense that Melvin has been tolerated so long solely because of Carol.
To an obsessive-compulsive person like Melvin, who is extraordinarily picky and wary of new places, getting banned from the restaurant is one of the worst things that could happen to him. Remember, stakes in a character-driven screenplay like As Good As It Gets are personality-driven.
Later on, Carol calls in sick. Another waitress, who can’t handle Melvin’s acidity, complains to the manager. Without Carol to act as buffer, the manager kicks Melvin out for good, symbolically representing why Melvin needs to win Carol’s heart.
Without her, he’ll lose all chance of becoming part of the human race. Adding the manager character to the movie not only made it more realistic (you’d think that Melvin would’ve been ejected from the place already), it also hinted at the stakes in an effective and visual manner.
(Plus, it made for a great Shane Black cameo!)
Screenwriting Tip #10: Put some skin in the game
It’s always better if your main character has to make a personal sacrifice in order to get what he wants (as opposed to just forking over a wad of cash, for example).
By having your hero give up something of value to secure something else, you clearly and efficiently show an audience just how much achieving this goal matters to him.
In the As Good As It Gets 1992 script, Melvin paid for a doctor to make a house-call to Carol’s apartment. (Incidentally, her son had autism in the screenplay, not asthma). We never saw how Melvin secured the good doctor’s services. We’re only told that all expenses will be billed to Melvin.
Sure, Melvin’s act of kindness is a radical departure from his normal behavior, but it only involved an exchange of cash.
As a hugely successful romance novelist, Melvin’s loaded.
In the movie, securing the doctor involved more than Melvin’s money: it involved his groveling. In the movie, the doctor character isn’t a random medical professional; he’s married to Melvin’s publisher.
In a completely uncharacteristic move, Melvin begs his publisher to ask her husband to see Carol’s son. “I need this,” he tells his publisher. “Just say, ‘Melvin, I’ll try, k?'”
By begging his publisher for help, Melvin put some skin in the game, which makes us appreciate his sacrifice even more. It makes us root for him to succeed, even when he follows his groveling with his typical rudeness.
If your character has to obtain an item of value, it’s usually much more interesting if he has to sacrifice something besides money. It’s also much more interesting if the recipient of your hero’s hard-won largesse isn’t very receptive or grateful…at least not at first.
Screenwriting Tip #11: Showing character change
The best way to show how your hero undergoes a radical transformation depends on the needs of your story. In the raunchy comedy The Hangover, all that’s needed to show Phil’s change of heart is a brief moment at the end where we see he’s come to value the family he once scorned.
In As Good As It Gets, showing Melvin’s character transformation requires a more complex scene. In the original screenplay, Melvin’s change was revealed by the way he reacted to Simon’s parents:
EXT. STREET — DAY
Melvin is walking to vent his anger, military-like, as the car pulls up beside him.
Town’s the other way.
Carol speeds ahead and squeals into a U-turn as Melvin stops walking. The car speeds past; Simon and Carol are laughing and waving.
Melvin turns around and starts walking again, slowly at first, building up speed, until he’s in front of Simon’s house again — it stops him. He walks across the grass, up the porch and BANGS on the door.
You’re pathetic! You’re pathetic!
He BANGS on the door a few more times, but Simon’s parents are not about to answer. He turns around and stares up and down the street of pretty houses. His anger has dissipated. He steps off the porch and walks back across the grass as the front door to Simon’s house opens. Grace holds onto the door as Melvin faces her.
What happened to him?
He was robbed.
Will he be okay?
He has no choice.
Suddenly, from behind Grace, Simon’s FATHER appears. He pulls her back and steps forward.
Don’t bring him back.
He steps back and closes the door. Melvin takes a few steps forward, but for no reason. His emotions range from rage to pity, but they all barely show in his face. The most he can do is kill them both and burn the house down, but Simon would still be without parents. Finally, with no good option, he turns and walks away.
Later, Melvin is goaded into telling Simon the truth:
They were home, okay?
Why do you make me say that?
Simon is silent as he begins to understand what Melvin has been doing.
I’m tired of hurting you…Your mother saw you, they both saw you!
They don’t want you here.
Carol stands up and begins to cry as she walks out of the restaurant.
Did they say that?
I used to love to hurt you.
Did they say that?
Where has all the fun gone from my life?
Did they say that?
They said that.
While this scene accomplished its goal, it still seems too focused on Simon’s trajectory to do justice to Melvin’s. Furthermore, it was completely unnecessary because it’s followed by Melvin inviting Simon to share his apartment, at least until Simon gets his feet back on the ground.
The film opted to remove the scene at Simon’s house altogether, focusing instead on Melvin’s offer of co-habitation. In gratitude, Simon tells Melvin, “I love you.” Melvin’s response: “I tell ya, buddy, I’d be the luckiest guy alive, if that did it to me.”
Melvin’s words and actions both elegantly communicate how much he’s changed. This may be subjective, but I feel it was the better way to show Melvin’s transformation.
If your hero significantly changes his character, the way Melvin has, you may come up with a thousand different ways to show that change. Instead of using several of them, choose the best way, and build a scene around that.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but using fewer examples to demonstrate a point in a script usually yields a much stronger result.
More screenwriting tips from As Good As It Gets
As Good As It Gets is a gift which just keeps on giving because there’s more to learn from the script and movie:
- 11 Screenwriting Tips from As Good As It Gets (Part 1)
- Plot Points from As Good As It Gets
- Sacrificing Character for the Sake of Plot: Lessons from As Good As It Gets
Writing a Spec Script Which Gets Attention
Despite my critique of the 1992 script, it’d be remiss of me not to mention what a strong screenplay it was. We’d all be lucky to write as well as Mark Andrus.
In fact, according to Wikipedia, this 1992 draft generated quite a buzz in Hollywood, eventually garnering the interest of Kevin Kline, Ralph Fiennes, and Holly Hunter. Only, the project fell apart until James L Brooks became involved.
Moral of the story: if your scripts are like the 1992 screenplay, you can definitely secure your entrée into the business. If your scripts are like the 1997 movie, you’re on the fast track to production!
Watching a blank screen (with modifications) by Kenneth Lu